Planning & Tips

The 50 best books about Antarctica

For writers, Antarctica has proved an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration. This means that finding the best books on Antarctica can be a challenge. With that in mind, we’ve produced a reading list to help you navigate your way through the bookshelves, by setting out our 50 favourite Antarctic books. 

From biographies of the early explorers to modern memoirs and travelogues, and from wildlife guides to illustrated coffee table books, you’ll find the best of Antarctica in print here. 

The best books about Shackleton & the Endurance

More than a century after his death, the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton has inspired an entire library of books, due to the endless fascination over his Endurance expedition.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is the classic account of his ill-fated voyage, written 50 years after the event but bolstered by the author’s interviews with many of the expedition members. 

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander is a fantastic recent retelling of the epic, and is richly illustrated throughout by the work of the expedition photographer Frank Hurley. 

South by Ernest Shackleton is the great man’s own account of the Endurance expedition, and though it’s never less than gripping, polar aficionados have long known that Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain (and navigator extraordinaire on the voyage of the James Caird), is the more compelling read. Both will have you incredulous that the story is fact and not fiction.

For biography, Shackleton by Roland Huntford remains the standard life of ‘the Boss’, though it’s a bit of a door-stopper. As a good alternative, we’d suggest the more readable Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer by Michael Smith.

To look beyond Endurance, Nimrod: The Extraordinary Story of Shackleton’s First Expedition by Beau Riffenburgh is a fantastic account of Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition that got within touching distance of the South Pole before he turned back to save the lives of his men. Pair it with The Heart of the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton himself to read the story in the Boss’s own words.

The best books on Scott, Amundsen & the South Pole

The race between Scott and Amundsen for the South Pole continues to fascinate, with many vocal critics and supporters of Scott in particular eager to continue the fatal competition in print. 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is a truly essential read. More than just an account of the expedition, it’s a lyrical attempt by one of Scott’s party to deal with his own survivor’s guilt over the death of his friends. If you read nothing else, read ‘The Winter Journey’ chapter about the impossible sledging trip to find emperor penguin eggs in the dead of the Antarctic winter: it’s one of the greatest pieces of travel writing ever produced. 

Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford was a runaway bestseller when it first came out and still remains many people’s touchstone for the race to the South Pole. Extreme caution is advised however: while it’s undoubtedly a cracking yarn, the author’s caricature of Scott as a bumbling fool is so radioactive you virtually need to handle the book with protective gloves.

Snow Widows: The Untold History of Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Through the Eyes of the Women They Left Behind by Katherine MacInnes is a much more refreshing addition to the canon. Gorgeously written, it broadens out the lives of the main protagonists to retell a well-known story through a new lens. One of our favourite new books on polar history in recent years.

Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes is a highly readable biography of Scott, with strong research added to by rich insights from the author’s extensive experience in polar expeditions. Fiennes also wrote a companion biography Shackleton, that rattles along in a popular style, if occasionally lapsing into self-absorption.

The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen by Stephen Bown is an excellent biography of the Norwegian explorer who made everything look easy, and a useful reminder of his fascinating life beyond the South Pole. Alternatively, try My Life As An Explorer: A Memoir by Roald Amundsen, which has stood the test of time as one of the classic polar autobiographies.

The best books about Antarctic history & exploration

The ‘Heroic Era’ of Antarctic exploration was about a lot more than just the quest for the South Pole. Here are more tales to read while somewhere warm and comfortable. 

Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton reads like an outrageous thriller in its accounting of the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica. Led by the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache, it has walk-on parts by Roald Amundsen and Frederick Cook.

Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written by Leonard Bickel is the incredible tale of Australian national hero Douglas Mawson and his frankly unbelievable 1912 march when his two companions and all his sledge dogs died during his expedition. A classic of polar writing. 

The Lost Men: The Harrowing Story of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis resurrects the story of the polar party on the other side of Antarctica when Endurance sank – an expedition too often forgotten, yet one equally shot through with heroism and tragedy.

Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine by Jason C. Anthony is a curious mix of history and cookbook, offering a wildly entertaining tour through the annals of Antarctic exploration courtesy of the medium of food. Be thankful you’ll never get to try some of the included recipes.

Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica by John Harrison is a brilliant compendium of the polar explorers who never made the headlines. Written by a former guide, this concentrates on the discovery and exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula, making it a great book to dip into on a polar cruise.

The best books about modern Antarctic expeditions

Every year seems to bring more stories of people testing themselves against the White Continent. These are our favourite books from more recent generations of polar adventurers. 

Alone in Antarctica by Felicity Aston is the story of the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, pulling all her supplies behind her on two sledges. Aston is an incredible and inspiring figure who makes struggle read like poetry: if you want to keep reading, follow up with Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole about her leading the first all-female expedition to the South Pole.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox is the book to read if you’re considering or have completed the polar plunge. Ranging across the globe, it culminates in an astonishing one mile swim in Antarctica. We couldn’t get out of the water fast enough but were more than happy to read this wrapped up in a cosy chair. 

Icebird by David Lewis is about the sea rather than the snow, as it gives an account of the author’s solo circumnavigation of Antarctica by yacht in 1972. If you think you experience big seas on a comfy modern expedition cruise ship, you might reconsider after reading about this tiny boat on the Southern Ocean far from radio contact.

Race to the Pole: Conquering Antarctica in the World’s Toughest Endurance Race by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell. When six teams compete to recreate Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions, it’s almost inevitable that the resulting book would be flavoured with a mix of fortitude, self-punishment and bravado – but the wry storytelling that bounces between the two participants makes this a worthwhile read. 

The best modern Antarctic travelogues & memoirs

Accounts of Antarctica don’t have to be just about expeditions. These travelogues and memoirs take their time to let Antarctica truly sink into their pages. 

Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler spends a year travelling around Antarctica while the author was a writer in residence at an American research station. It’s a brilliantly observed travelogue as well as being a great antidote to an often very masculine genre of books about doomed explorers with frozen beards.

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker is a great primer on the whole continent by a scientist-turned-travel writer. A very accessible and well-rounded book that reads like a biography of Antarctica itself. 

Empire Antarctica Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis is written by a doctor who spent a season overwintering at the British Antarctic Survey’s remote Halley research station. Full of vivid descriptions, the author draws interesting parallels between the isolation of life on the base with a nearby emperor penguin colony.

End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica by Peter Matthiessen blends two separate trips made by the author into a single work. Matthiessen is a sublime observer of the natural world and writes with a pen so austere it could have been chipped from an iceberg.

Skating To Antarctica by Jenny Diski is as far from a traditional travelogue as you can get, using an Antarctic cruise to unpack a troubled childhood and struggles with mental health. Strange and lyrical but with some of the most finely observed writing on the pull of Antarctica for travellers that you’ll find anywhere.

The best wildlife guides to Antarctica

There are several excellent wildlife guides on the market for Antarctica, whether you need a quick primer on penguins and whales or want to dive deeper into the rich biodiversity of the region.

Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife by Tony Soper is our favourite wildlife guide, as it’s an easily accessible book for the casual enthusiast while giving ample information for the serious spotter.

James Lowen’s Antarctic Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide to the Wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage and Beagle Channel goes into far more detail and has the best photography, but suffers from a slightly confusing layout that can make it tricky to use in the field.

The most comprehensive volume (and a mighty volume it is) is A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife: The Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean by Hadoram Shirihai, though its great weight and size make it more for reference than practical field use.

If you’re heading to South Georgia, then A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia by Robert Burton & John Croxall should definitely find its way into your luggage.

We tested out all of these books out on the ice to see how they performed in real world conditions: read our blog What is the best wildlife guide for your Antarctica cruise? for more.

The best books about South Georgia

South Georgia hasn’t been written about as extensively as Antarctica, but enthusiasts will still find a small but fascinating list of titles. 

Our favourite recent book about South Georgia has to be The Two Headed Whale: Life and Loss in the Deepest Oceans by Sandy Winterbottom. In parallel strands, she recreates the life of a Scottish whaler on the island in the 1950s while offering an environmentally sensitive travelogue of sailing to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Island at the Edge of the World: A South Georgia Odyssey by Stephen Venables is a mountaineer’s account of his time on the island in the 1980s and more recently, including a recreation of the infamous Shackleton Crossing across South Georgia. 

Antarctic Housewife by Nan Brown is by the wife of the radio operator at the Grytviken whaling station in the 1950s. It’s an incredible time capsule and piece of social history, going beyond the whaling industry with stories covering everything from pet penguins to the local ‘Winter Olympics’.

Shackleton at South Georgia by Robert Burton is a slim volume produced by the South Georgia Heritage Trust that covers everything you need to know about the Boss’s time on the island. It’s rich in detail and illustrated with many rare photographs.

For a more in-depth look at books on this Subantarctic island, see our blog that covers the best books about South Georgia

The best books about Antarctica for children

Want to get the little ones interested in Antarctica? Penguins are always an easy sell, but start here for more inspiration.

Antarctica Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems by Judy Sierra, Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey is a charming and humorous collection of poems that celebrate the lives and personalities of penguins. It’s illustrated with colourful and whimsical drawings and is aimed at readers aged 4–7 years. 

Ernest Shackleton (Little People, BIG DREAMS) by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara & Olivia Holden is also aimed at children aged 4–7 years, and is a charming illustrated life of the great explorer. 

Antarctica: A Continent of Wonder by Mario Cuesta Hernando follows a group of researchers around the continent to teach children about the wonders of science and nature, through some gorgeous full-page illustrations. It’s aimed at kids aged 5–8 years.

With its clever fold-out illustrations, Around Antarctica: Exploring the Frozen South by Tania Medvedeva & Maria Vyshinskaya is one of the most beautiful books we know about Antarctica – and one that’s packed with smart facts alongside the brilliant art. For children aged 7–10 years.

24 Hours in Antarctica by Andy Prentice & Laurent Kling uses a great comic book format to spend the day on a research base in Antarctica and discover the science being done at the South Pole. For children aged 7–11. 

Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill is a multiple prize-winning retelling of Shackleton’s Endurance epic. A mix of perfectly matched illustrations and clear storytelling, it’s no surprise that this has found its way into many classrooms (adults may love it too). For children aged 8–12.

The best illustrated books about Antarctica

We don’t believe that beautiful picture books should just be the preserve of children, so here are our favourite illustrated books about Antarctica.

Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects by Jean de Pomereu & Daniella McCahey offers a brilliantly eclectic take on the continent, touring Antarctica through both famous and obscure items. It’s endlessly fascinating: you might expect the sledges, but how about a wedding dress or a decommissioned nuclear reactor?

Antarctic Atlas: New Maps and Graphics That Tell the Story of A Continent by Peter Fretwell, a cartographer at the British Antarctic Survey, offers a beautiful pictorial guide to everything you might want to know about Antarctica’s past and future, from the travels of the early explorers to its changing ice sheets.

Unsurprisingly, Antarctica has more than its share of amazing photography books. Antarctica: Life on the Frozen Continent by Conor Kilgallon is one of our favourites, covering the whole continent from the Peninsula to the Ross Sea. 

Antarctica: The Waking Giant by Sebastian Copeland is the gorgeous photographic product of two seasons spent on board an Antarctic icebreaker, plus hundreds of miles of overland travel on skis. 

Southern Light: Photography of Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands by Dave Brosha casts its net a little wider to remind us that the Subantarctic islands are equally spectacular photography destinations.

Swoop’s 5 favourite books about Antarctica

We’ve given you a very long list, so if you’ve read to the end: congratulations! But if we had to save just five books to take with us to read if we were stranded on an ice floe, which ones would we grab? After much debate, these are the five we think sum up the best of the Antarctica we know and love:

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sarah Wheeler

Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night by Julian Sancton

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker

Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects by Jean de Pomereu & Daniella McCahey

And finally, if there was only room for one in our survival kit? We’d reach for The Antarctic: An Anthology edited by Frances Spufford, which contains extended extracts from many of the titles we’ve listed here. It’s the perfect book for browsing – or to slip quietly into your luggage when you’re heading south on a polar cruise of your own…


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Paul Clammer

Guidebook Editor

Paul came to Swoop after spending nearly 20 years researching and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. On his most recent trip for Swoop, he fell in love with the epic landscapes and uncountable wildlife of South Georgia.