Are TV Survival Shows Worth Watching?
Is the state of reality for survival shows really that dangerous?
After watching the survival shows on TV, people may think (or dream) they could survive for days or weeks while stranded in the rain forest of the Amazon, the Sahara Desert or the Rocky Mountains. In order to survive in such places - with little or no equipment or supplies - you need two things: (1) mental and physical ability, and (2) knowledge of the area in which you’re stranded.
Of course, even if you have ability and knowledge, it helps to have a least some basic equipment to assure your survival when marooned. At the very least, you’ll need a camping knife (some might prefer a multi-tool), a way to make fire and a water bottle or canteen. Some people might like to carry a compass too, but if you know how to read the sun, stars and terrain, you won’t need one.
As for food and water, both are heavy to carry, especially water, so living off the land is a better option – as long as you can gather, hunt and/or fish. Otherwise, having lots of body fat to sustain you for days or weeks could save your tail!
Bearing these tips in mind, let’s explore the survival shows on TV and then ask ourselves the question: which ones truly reflect reality or are nothing more than entertainment or BS?
Appearing on the History channel, Alone is a survival show that debuted in June 2015. The format is simple. Ten men and women are dropped separately into a wilderness area and the last person to leave the area wins $500,000. Curiously, contestants are told they might spend as long as a year in this remote location.
Before these ordinary folks are dropped into the wild, each gets to pick 10 survival or camping items from an approved list of 40. They’re also given a satellite phone so they can call for medical help, or "tap out" when they cannot continue, and cameras so they can record their adventures and thoughtful asides. There are no film crews on this show.
For season three, which takes place in a forested area of the Andes mountain range in the Patagonia region of Argentina (picture southern South America), the contestants are taken by boat to various spots surrounding a chilly lake. These hardy folks have to build shelter and feed themselves by fishing, hunting or foraging. They also may have to fend off wild animals such as foxes, mountain lions or wild boar. Of course, what they fend off could become dinner!
In addition, there are other dangers the contestants could face. Some of the wild animals, particularly the foxes, could be carrying rabies; or the mice and rats that scurry about could be infected with the Hantavirus, a potentially fatal pulmonary disease; and bites by the Chilean recluse, a spider with an infectious bite, must be avoided as much as possible.
Of course, these hardy people must be completely alone for weeks or months, without a cell phone, computer or video game. Who could do that? But the reward is real – half a million bucks.
After spending days, weeks or months in one of these remote locales, many contestants lose tens of pounds and, when seen in the raw, resemble walking skeletons. It’s hard to imagine a survival show that taxes one’s physical and mental ability more than this program.
Diehard fans of survivalist fare will not want to miss this naturalistic drama!
Narrated by outdoorsman extraordinaire Bear Grylls, this program shows the adventures of ordinary British men and women (not survivalists) who try to live for 30 days on a desert island in the South Pacific. In its first season beginning in 2014, The Island follows 14 men as they try to find shelter, water and food while carrying only a few tools and the clothes on their backs. By the second season, 14 women are added to the fun, though on another nearby island.
Then in the third season, eight men and eight women, each sex on different parts of the same island, try to carry on while enduring various hardships. But the men and women soon find each other and then it becomes a multi-gender survivalist event. When the sexes mix, conflict and sexual politics ramp up, because, after all, men and women always act differently when the opposite sex is around!
In season four, two groups of people, one comprised of old people, the other of young people, try to survive on the same island. But they soon discover each other and join forces.
Throughout the episodes for each season, Bear Grylls provides insightful commentary, stressing repeatedly that these islands provide enough food and water for people to live on them for at least 30 days, and perhaps even begin to thrive at some point. But this will probably only happen if everyone works together for a common goal.
A celebrity version of The Island, comprising four episodes, was shown in 2016, and another season of this version of The Island will be shown in 2017.
The danger and hardships on this show certainly appear real and daunting, even scary, especially when tropical storms rip through the island. And along the way many people have to leave the island before the 30 days is up, some of them with injuries. This is very good survivalist fare!
In this survivalist show produced by the Discovery Channel, the big wheel in the sky keeps on turning – in a way anyhow. As the phases of the moon wax and wane, six people – just common folks, not survivalists it appears - are dropped one at a time into six different isolated places in South America. Each location could be a desert, frozen wasteland, rain forest, snow-capped mountain range or steamy swamp. These six participants must live off the land in these various places, utilizing minimal camping gear to secure shelter, water and food. To win this contest, a contestant must spend ten days in each of six grueling eco-zones for a total of 60 days.
By the way, each person carries a video camera, recording their activities and movements, as well as an SOS device so he or she can signal someone to come to the rescue as soon as needed.
Compared by some to the Hunger Games movies and characters, the degree of difficulty for these intrepid folks on The Wheel appears to be very high and many of them suffer greatly, getting sick on bad food or water, not to mention starving at times, and almost all are bug-ridden and/or in fear of being attacked by wild animals. Let’s hope the prize for winning this arduous competition is great – a million bucks seems about right!
Naked and Afraid
In spite of this show’s silly title, its level of authenticity and danger appears high. Couples comprising a man and woman face the challenge of surviving in the wild for 21 days before being airlifted out by helicopter. This task is difficult enough, since these brave folks start with very little survival gear – a machete, knife or metal cooking pot – they must also cope while wearing no clothes. (If at some point they want clothes, they must make such things themselves.)
Of course, many native peoples across the planet, particularly in tropical areas, live most of their lives naked as wild boars. But is this trial au naturel designed to get these couples in the mood for survival strategies, or do the producers have titillation in mind? After all, some of the men are hunks and some of the women pretty. Many adult movies have started with less plot. At any rate, these young, hardy folks seem to have good, if not excellent, survival skills, and some get very dirty while trying to cope with nasty wilderness conditions. Bear Grylls rarely looks so filthy as these tough men and women!
Since Naked and Afraid has received good ratings, more scantily clad folks will probably venture into the wilderness with video crews recording it all, for better or worse. Have you been watching? Maybe you should.
The Marooned Series
Naked and Marooned
This variation of the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid stars Ed Stafford, certainly a survivalist and explorer of note, as he walked the entire length of the Amazon River, the only person ever to perform such an amazing feat. Left alone – and butt naked - on a small, uninhabited South Pacific island, Stafford must fend for himself for 60 days. He also carries no tools, weapons, food or water but is allowed to bring a camera, satellite phone and medical kit. In case of an emergency, survivalists need a way out!
One of the first things Stafford does is make a grass skirt to cover at least some of his nakedness – and perhaps we should thank him for that.
Since Stafford carries a video camera, he records his adventures all by his lonesome self, which greatly heightens the authenticity of the show. Of course, Stafford does a very good job of finding shelter, food and water. He also takes advantage of the junk that washes up along the shoreline. But after days of eating what he could find – coconuts, snails, bugs and lizards, Stafford began to wonder if he could finish this job. Quoting from his book, Naked and Marooned (2014), he wrote:
Then it hit me, "I think I’m actually ill.” I feel horrendous and I have 50 days left. I was burping a lot – bad trapped air inside me. Illness instantly became the next thing to use for an excuse for my inability. It wasn’t my fault if I was ill. That was outside of my control. Deep down I knew that two months on an island was nothing compared to walking the Amazon but in this isolated, stripped-bare existence it seemed an eternity. I felt very sorry for myself and was scrabbling for a justified escape route from the next 50 days.
Perhaps Stafford’s greatest challenge on this adventure is the solitude he must endure for two long months. This modern rendering of the classic Robinson Crusoe story is definitely high-grade survivalist entertainment.
Series Two and Three
No longer stranded on an uninhabited island, Ed Stafford tests his survivalist mettle in various wilderness locations around the globe – but for these challenges he must only survive for 10 days at a time. However, most of these remote locations seem tougher places to survive than a small tropical island, only miles from civilization. Once more Stafford is dropped by helicopter or springs from a boat into dangerous areas where fearsome animals lurk, water is often hard to find, and death from exposure is a distinct possibility.
For these awesome treks, Stafford is sometimes naked, though not always. He is given no food, water, tools, weapons or a sleeping bag, only his camera kit. Of course he needs a video camera so he can record his adventures, which seems de rigueur for the current band of TV survivalists.
Judging from Stafford’s impressive exploits in these three series, he appears to be one of the best survivalists in the world, only the likes of Bear Grylls or Les Stroud can approach his level of physical and mental toughness, inventiveness and vast experience. Stafford himself admits he has only one weakness: “I’m a terrible swimmer.”
Dual Survival utilizes the buddy movie format. Two survival experts are dropped into dire scenarios, such as that of lost hikers or plane crash victims, at which point they have only what equipment or supplies they could reasonably expect to possess when stuck in the wilderness. Of course, a film crew comes along to record the action.
The best part about the show is that these two guys differ in temperament and wilderness theory. Cody Lundin is a “living with nature” minimalist who sports Indian-style pigtails and nearly always walks barefoot. In contrast, Dave Canterbury is a hard-ass survivalist who’ll do just about anything to prove how tough and capable he is. Their differences obvious, they often banter with each other, adding humor to the show.
In a winter alpine episode, the duo is stranded with little more then a flintlock rifle and some black power. Unfortunately, they have no shot for the rifle, so Canterbury, apparently needing something to do with the fire stick, opens a two-inch cut on his forearm. Then he pours black power into the wound and, using the flint striking mechanism in the rifle, sets the powder aflame – poof! - demonstrating the technique of cauterizing a wound. Amazingly, the wound doesn’t get infected.
For the third season of the program beginning in early 2013, Joe Teti replaced Dave Canterbury. Teti, a former special forces operative from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems as tough as any desert nomad. While trekking through the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet, Teti proves his mettle by drinking his own urine – just for the psychological effect!
While filming season four in 2013, Cody Lundin left the show. Perhaps he was fired, who can know for sure? Anyway, Lundin was replaced by Matt Graham, a hunter/gatherer survivalist, who once spent six months living solo in the Utah desert. If anybody can truly live off the land, it’s probably Matt Graham. Graham is somewhat like Lundin, both whom are spiritual, tree-hugger, shamanistic types; and, while Lundin always goes barefoot, Graham simply wears sandals he made himself.
The Cast Changes Again and Again
Now that Joe Teti was fired and Matt Graham left the show, Dual Survival has two new survival studs: former U.S. Army Green Beret Grady Powell, and off-the-grid expert Bill McConnell. In episode one of season seven, McConnell swears to Powell that he can make fire whenever he wants, yet he fails. Then Powell fails to make fire too! Can these two guys crawl to episode two?
In season eight, Grady Powell and Josh James and later - Powell and Bo McGlone - unite for more survivalist adventures.
In season nine, Jeff Zausch and E.J. Snyder, both of whom veterans of 40 days of rigorous trials on Naked and Afraid XL, team up for more hair-raising experiences as the latest daring duo on Dual Survival. Zausch and Snyder seem as capable and cautious as any of the burly guys appearing on the show; nevertheless, in episode one, they drink water from two different sources, not bothering to sterilize the H2O, something one’s never supposed to do, unless dying of thirst, yet they drink away, apparently not thinking twice about possible infection from bacteria, amoebae or parasites!
Among the first of the TV survival shows is Survivorman, but this program’s precursor was a program entitled Stranded, shown on the Canadian Discovery Channel in 2001. Originally aired from 2004 to 2008, Survivorman presents the adventures of Les Stroud, who places himself in survival situations where he must manage with few supplies and equipment for a period of seven days. Surviving in remote locations is hard enough, of course, but Stroud videotapes his adventures by himself. Videotaping oneself would be hard enough but, keep in mind, he must carry these cameras from place to place!
Since Stroud has no film crew with him, there is an element of danger on the show, though, bear in mind, he carries a satellite phone with him at all times. However, he emphasizes that the phone doesn’t always work. Stroud is often entertaining as well, as he always plays his harmonica and, at least one time, also brings a guitar, one of the strings of which he eventually scavenges to make a squirrel snare!
On many shows, Stroud genuinely appears to suffer from lack of food and drinkable water and often copes with uncomfortable weather conditions. Dangerous wild animals and pestiferous bugs are often a concern as well. And consuming water that may not have been purified properly has made him sick at least once. Stroud contracted an intestinal parasite that took him a year to get rid of!
However, Stroud’s major difficulty is carrying and setting up the cameras, and that’s why, he says, he discontinued the program. Otherwise, it would almost certainly still be in production - it’s really good!
Interestingly, in Les Stroud’s book, Will to Live (2011), he stresses that survival is not about how tough you are - it's mostly mental, particularly having a strong will to survive.
Man vs. Wild
In comparison to Survivorman, the next show, Man vs. Wild, seems painted with the Hollywood brush, as it appears more like the typical TV action-adventure. Starring Bear Grylls, alumnus of the United Kingdom Special Forces, each program begins with him airdropping into some of the remotest regions of the planet. But Grylls, who appears capable of surviving on Mars – without a spacesuit – treks with a two-man film crew, to whom he speaks on occasion and/or helps over rough terrain.
Just exactly what danger Grylls really encounters on this program is debatable, but he really dangles from hovering helicopters and parachutes from planes, a mishap of which broke his back in the middle 1990s (18 months later he climbed Everest at 23). Perhaps Grylls most impressive skill is climbing – with climbing gear, sometimes without – various cliffs, towering trees and escarpments. You hold your breath watching this guy scale just about anything. On these survival shows, nobody seems to risk more than Bear Grylls!
Amusingly, people joke about Grylls willingness to drink his own urine. Urine is smelly and salty but, Grylls insists, when you’ve got nothing else to drink, you partake! As for eating, Grylls, when hungry, will consume just about anything available, including insects, arachnids and worms – sometimes cooked, but often not. In one episode, he snatches a palm-sized spider from the floor of a cave in Belize and pops it into his mouth. Would Survivorman do that?
Man, Woman, Wild
Of the three aforementioned programs, Man, Woman, Wild may be the least authentic. Reportedly, this married couple has on occasion needed help from the film crew, so the BS level may be high on this program. The man is Mykel Hawke, retired from the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the woman is Hawke’s wife, Ruth England, a TV journalist.
Both man and woman seem capable survivalists, finding shelter, and then drinkable water and food in the order of the survivalist’s priority, so you believe they’re up to the task. It’s a refreshing change to have a comely woman along for one of these survivalist scenarios. As pretty women often seem to be, England is squeamish about killing animals for food and won’t eat just anything. Nothing squishy or gooey – yuck! Anyway, one wonders if they have “conjugal visits” when the crew isn’t looking!
On a much more serious note, Mykel and Ruth sometimes encounter situations they simply can’t endure. In the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, the rescue crew had to bring bottled water to Ruth or she could have died of dehydration and sunstroke. Nevertheless, after re-hydrating, Ruth continued the four-day adventure. But while struggling in the wintry pine forest of Alaska, in an area known as the Alaskan Bermuda Triangle, both Mykel and Ruth had to be rescued or they almost certainly would have starved to death!
Get Out Alive
This time survivalist supreme Bear Grylls supervises, mentors and critiques various couples as they attempt to survive arduous conditions in the wilds of the South Island in New Zealand. These couples, who range in age from young to old, vie for a grand prize of $500,000, which will be given to the couple that shows the greatest potential for survival - as judged by Bear Grylls, of course.
Grylls not only makes the couples travel over, under and around rough terrain, he also makes them compete against each other by exhibiting endurance, capability and determination. On one show, Grylls makes one person in each couple drink a concoction of their own urine and some muddy water, presumably taken from the nearby environment. The couples’ must make this cloudy brew drinkable by boiling and then cooling it, and then one of them must drink it to the last drop. The couple that does this first then survives to the next round, while the others must fret about their chances going forward.
Get Out Alive is similar to Survivor, though perhaps a little more realistic and, of course, the addition of the incomparable Grylls gives the show added cachet and much greater potential for suspense and entertainment.
Out of the Wild
Out of the Wild shows the survivalist adventures of nine ordinary people who aren’t stranded in remote locations; instead, they choose to cope with inhospitable conditions for days or weeks at a time. Beginning in 2008, the first two seasons showed urbanites facing the Alaskan wilderness.
During the third season, nine volunteers travel to South America, where a helicopter leaves them atop Mt.Roraima, an isolated plateau or “lost world,” from which the intrepid folks must descend and then trek 70 miles through the surrounding jungle and savanna, eventually rejoining civilization. Each person has some food and supplies, but they must carry all of it in their backpacks!
Each person is also given a GPS device to call a rescue chopper. Well, because of exhaustion and/or injuries, several push their buttons and leave the show, while the others survive an arduous journey, starving at times, assailed by numerous creepy-crawlies, sleeping in rain-soaked bogs and arguing among themselves. You feel great compassion for these incredibly resilient people, and when the remaining five finally make it back to city life, you want to cheer for them.
Having left the Discovery Channel, Bear Grylls now works for NBC, and this show, Running Wild as it’s called, may be the most commercial of all the survival shows. In each episode, Grylls treks from one wild place to another, and tagging along is a celebrity such as President Barrack Obama, Marshawn Lynch, Shaquille O’Neal, Lindsey Vonn or Courteney Cox. Some celebs act terrified at times, while others not so much. They make lots of wisecracks too, of course, giving the show some comedic input.
But there is a degree of danger in these trips, because Grylls and his famous sidekick trudge to remote places and, along the way, may climb up or rappel down treacherous cliffs, or jump from a height into a body of water. Of course, there must be emergency folks hanging around, keeping Grylls and the celebrity as safe as possible. A nasty lawsuit could ensue otherwise.
These shows are entertaining but diehard fans of survival programming will probably not be satisfied with this prime time fluff - even when Bear Grylls stars.
Each one of the shows on this list exhibits a level of danger and authenticity that may be hard if not impossible to ascertain. Simply put, you either buy into it or you don’t.
But at the very least, these programs have a much higher level of believability and taste than a program such as Survivor, a so-called reality show in which contestants - not volunteers or experts - try to win a huge cash prize (and maybe a book or movie contract, who knows?) Programs such as Survivor are pure entertainment and BS – that’s all.
Perhaps the best of the authentic shows are Survivorman and Marooned, because they show just one person against the deprivation, danger, remoteness and solitude of wilderness conditions. However, if you prefer pathos and camaraderie, then Out of the Wild and The Island are hard to beat. As for Bear Grylls and his many shows, you never know what he might pop into his mouth!
So, are survival shows on TV worth watching? Most of them definitely are! Would you rather watch sports?
Please leave a comment.
© 2011 Kelley Marks