One of the joys of car camping is having down time. When you’re hanging around a campfire or trying to kill a few hours before hitting the sack, there’s nothing more satisfying than nuzzling into your blanket and getting lost in a good story. And as far as stories go, we have plenty to recommend.
In case you didn’t have a reading list lined up for your adventures, here are 8 of our favorite road reads. We’ve got rugged classics, psychedelic joyrides, and even a few slightly sappy romance novels (we love those too!). Find your book in the list and let it stoke your appetite for exploration!
1. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
This one is most definitely part of the car-camper’s starter kit. If you’re down with spur-of-the-moment hooliganism AND you dig poetry, this is your novel.
Kerouac, through the voice of jazz-hungry vagabond Sal Paradise, catalogues his freewheeling adventures from the East Coast to the Midwest, over to the West Coast, down to Mexico, and back. I know, you’ll feel out of breath just reading the darn thing! “On The Road” might’ve been written on a typewriter, but the dizzying, bebop-counterculture adventure is as fresh as ever and guaranteed to get you itching for adventure.
2. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
While we’re on the topic of 1960s counterculture, we can’t leave out Tom Wolfe’s 1968 nonfiction classic. If psychedelia and mind expansion is your thing then this will definitely be your book.
The novel follows psychedelic granddaddy Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they romp around California on LSD-fueled adventures. With “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Wolfe helped define a wildly popular style of writing called “New Journalism.” Basically, reporters risked their jobs and their behinds as they hopped along for off-the-rail adventures. Now those adventures can inspire our own!
3. Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour, Morgan Matson
Morgan Matson’s road novel opens with the tragedy of a father’s death, but it’s really all about growth, discovery, and — you guessed it! — an unexpected romance! High-school senior Amy Curry embarks on a cross-country road trip from California to Connecticut, where her mom decided they will move. Roger, an obscure family friend, tags along and Amy discovers that there’s a little special something between them.
Inspired by Matson’s own 3 cross-country road trips, this novel is light-hearted, but hits you hard with bigger themes of loss and change. Plus, it’s sort of a scrapbook on its own, including playlists, food receipts, and hiking itineraries for you to follow up on!
4. In Honor, Jessi Kirby
Jessi Kirby’s “In Honor” also begins with tragedy, but what drives the story (you just can’t avoid these puns) is a letter and a pair of tickets to a cheesy pop concert. Honor, the story’s protagonist, gets a delayed letter from her brother Finn who died serving in Iraq, and inside the letter is a pair of tickets to see Kyra Kelly, aka Honor’s favorite pop star and Finn’s celebrity crush.
Honor partners up with Finn’s old (and very obnoxious) friend Rusty to go to California and tell the pop star that Finn was in love with her, something Finn joked about in his letter. Driving from Texas to California, things get steamy between Honor and Rusty (Rusty is supposedly the real-life Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights) as they learn more about each other and grapple with the grief of loss.
“In Honor” is yet another road romance, but with a poignant spin. It’s bitter and sweet and everything in between — just how we like it.
5. The Wangs vs. The World, Jade Chang
“The Wangs vs. The World” is Jade Chang’s debut novel about Charles Wang, a wealthy immigrant businessman whose cosmetics empire comes crumbling amid the 2008 financial crisis. As Wang’s Bel-Air home is about to be foreclosed, his lifestyle is forced to take a U-turn (more road puns!). He pulls his kids out of expensive schools and takes a cross-country road trip with them to upstate New York, where his family plans to move in with the eldest daughter.
Chang’s novel puts a comic twist on both the immigrant experience and traditional family road trips. If you loved “Crazy Rich Asians,” then you’ll find loads of laughs following the Wang family as they zoom across the country in a 1980-vintage Mercedes Benz station.
6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
Chances are you’ll think of the movie version, but Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” was a nonfiction book way before it became the cult classic we know it as today.
The 1996 book — a bible to scores of vanlifers — tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate who gives away all of his money and abandons his possessions to rough it across North America and the Alaskan wilderness.
Whether you think McCandless was noble or reckless in pursuing his mission of total self-reliance, one thing’s for sure: he pursued a radical alternative to modern life that’ll get you to stop and think about what matters in life.
7. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
Pirsig’s novel is another story set on wheels, except this time we’re riding motorcycles. The 1967 book tracks a 17-day, father-son journey from Minnesota to California.
The book is a healthy mix of motorcycle know-how, descriptions of cherished American landscapes, and general philosophizing. If you’re looking to scratch your head once or twice on your car-camping adventure, this is the book for you. If you’re riding on two wheels, even better.
8. Wilderness Essays, John Muir
John Muir: here’s another bearded 19th-century badass. Sometimes called “the patron saint of the American wilderness,” Muir was a naturalist, writer, inventor, and conservationist. He also co-founded the Sierra Club. Let’s just say he was a busy dude!
In the “Wilderness Essays,” Muir writes about his trips across North America, from the Alaskan wilderness to Yellowstone, and of course his favorite area, the High Sierras, which he nicknamed “the Range of Light.” Though a bit on the sepia side of the spectrum, this book is a classic that’ll remind you that people have always been stoked on nature, and on beards!
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Now that you’ve got your next trip’s reading material, you can head out on the road to clear your head AND fill it with great ideas. A good book is good food for thought. Now you can have a mouthful.