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The Shocking Truth About Survival TV Shows

Being someone who has dabbled in survival TV and had a lot of experience in dealing with Hollywood producers, I feel more than enlightened to the ways of the Reality TV world. And since I’m not under
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contract, like so many people on TV, I can actually tell you how it is behind the scenes. No confidentiality contracts here! So many people watch TV and see these so called survival shows and think they are learning realistic skills. When in reality almost everything on reality TV is faked and the people producers pick for the show are based on character content and not for their actual survival skills. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but not many! Producers couldn’t give two shits if you have real survival skills and experience. Their vetting process is ridiculous! For instance, a recent show that I was picked for had a recognized survival expert call me and ask me about 10 questions over the phone to determine if I could survive. None of those questions related to any technical skills, just really broad questions that wouldn’t really determine anything about what I could do at all. And then from those questions I would be touted as a top tier survival expert that you should listen too. Well, maybe they are right that I’m the best of the best, but they sure as hell don’t know that from proper vetting. They see me on camera and say “this guy will make good TV, lets pick him and pair him with his total opposite so that there is controversy.” That is how it works folks! Really, the only thing they care about is how you’re going to interact with other members and if are you going to do something crazy from time to time. Because if you do that, they are going to get the ratings no matter what your skills are. So that is why I tell people that there are only a few real deal guys on TV and they are few and far between. I am personal friends with a lot of the TV personalities that you have seen out there, and even many of them will admit openly that they don’t know a ton about survival. Just the broad strokes, their claim to fame is TV personality and not a survival expert.

Survivorman

Probably the most popular show among survival enthusiasts is Survivorman. While I consider Les Stroud to be one bad-ass mofo, I don’t think that even he would say he is a bushcraft expert. He has trouble with even the most basic of skills such as primitive bow drill fire. I have beginner students that are more proficient than he is at bow drill. But do you know what? Les Stroud has an amazing mental survival game and sometimes that is all you need. That guy can just about endure anything and many times that is all it takes, especially if you combine it with some very basic skills. But you won’t learn much in the way of bushcraft from his program, so I recommend that everyone take everything they learn on TV with a grain of salt. It might be good stuff, but it also might get you killed! So Caveat Emptor or buyer beware!

Man vs Wild

Man vs Wild is a great example of a show that is entertaining but will probably get you killed if you take it seriously. Just look at the name of the show and you will know that this isn’t about true survival. Hell, I’m not even sure that Bear would call it a survival training show if he wasn’t under confidentiality agreements. The show is about doing stunts related to survival skills to get awesome ratings and showcase Bear’s amazing physical skills that he demonstrates over and over. That is more the basis of the show; doing exciting stunts and not real world survival. That is why Discovery Channel is always looking for the next Bear Grylls, because his show lasted the longest and smashed the ratings. It is stunt based TV that gets viewers excited and keeps them entertained, while showing very little real world skills for survival. And its all done under the guise of being a documentary, when its really not. That’s a perfect blend in most Hollywood yuppy producer’s minds. Honestly, Bear is a bad-ass and one of the strongest guys on TV but even he will admit that he isn’t a bushcraft expert. He is a great TV personality with a skill for presenting things in a fashion that everyone wants to watch him. Remember the talent controls no aspects of how the show looks or really what is done. As a TV personality  you are a subcontractor of your production company and are required to perform the tasks asked of you.

Naked and Afraid

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I’d say the only real deal survival show out there right now is Naked and Afraid. It’s about the most hardcore show that has ever been on TV and there was no faking anything with the exception of some serious medical emergencies. You know you got a real survival show when the producer almost dies from a snake bite, another guy almost dies of dengue fever, one got extremely sick from food poisoning, and another almost most bites the bullet from infection. But even Naked and Afraid has its limitations on skill demonstration and many of the people on the show aren’t true experts. Or maybe they thought they were experts and found out differently under stressful survival conditions. Then again, some people on the show are amazing and you wouldn’t even know it because of editing. Many of the shows like this one actually down-play the success of the survivalists to make it look like they struggled a lot more than they did. Because suffering and problems is more interesting than winning and kicking ass in the bush. They pick and choose the winners based on how presentable they are on TV. You have to remember that every show has a story line and that the producers need to tell you a story filled with drama and then show a couple of skills on the side. That is the winning business model for survival TV. Drama, stunts, entertainment, and then education in that order of priority. Also, remember that even the best survivalist can get a bad edit. Many times when doing these shows I am asked what is my biggest fear. Every time I tell the producer my biggest fear for survival TV is getting a bad edit. I could literally go out there and live like a king and they can edit you to make you look like a total jackass! So when watching these shows you need to remember that some of the people that looked bad on the show actually did good, and some of the people that look fantastic actually sucked at the skills.

I have found a few exceptions to the rule about TV personalities, because I know some instructors on TV that are the best of the best. And guess what; I hired them! Laura Zerra and Eugene Runkis are the real deal and have the legitimate experience to tout their resume and what they have done. Not only on TV but their entire lives has been a journey of self reliance and testing yourself against the wild. That is the way real survivalists are forged! Laura completed 21 days naked in Panama under some of the worst conditions ever with the worst bug bites I have ever seen, and they didn’t even show the worst of it. Not only did she have amazing mental fortitude, she had the bushcraft skills to eat well while there on the island. They don’t show it, but the team actually ate really well and Laura only lost 12 lbs because she was eating crab/lobster, coconuts, and various other wild foods most of the time she was surviving! That is how you separate the winners from the losers on the show. I always tell my students what separates the men from the boys is the ability to eat well while in the bush and Laura lost the least weight of anyone of the show under some of the worst conditions. That is how you know she kicked ass!

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Now, I’ve been on more than one survival TV try-out and I was the only real survival expert there on the final cut. You get all types, but rarely do you get the true sage bushmen on a TV show. Most beginners don’t know how to tell the difference because you will only see it in the minor details of the skills demonstration because editing really is a magical art. I’m just telling you this from the perspective of a full time survival instructor; take what you see and hear on TV with a grain of salt because most of it is faked. The number one rule to remember when watching these shows is that they are for entertainment only! The only way to get real survival training is to get some instruction and then get out in the woods and get some dirt time. Dirt time is the only thing that will lead to a truly well rounded survivalist that can live off the land indefinitely. And that is our ultimate goal as instructors, to pass on the old school tribal knowledge that will enable you to live like a king in the bush. So if you want to learn survival, don’t do it on TV. Get training, get dirt time, and get in the woods!

7 replies
  1. Bill
    Bill says:

    Thoughts on Dual Survival? I’ve actually picked up a few tips of worth from this show (but I’m more a “skilled outdoorsman” than a “survivalist”)…

    Reply
    • Nathan
      Nathan says:

      Really late to the conversation but Dual Survival is 100% fake. Notice they never show the guys at night. From the many episode I’ve seen. In the beginning of the episode it tells you that the guys are never in a life threatening situation and receive support from a team. Yet, they kill would animals even though they have no chance of starving. And they manage to get a kill every time. They put down spirit fall.. they get an animal. The guy goes to hunt and spear a deer.. he gets one. Watch DS for entertainment only.

      Reply
  2. chris
    chris says:

    Great article and on piont but i’m curious because nobody seems to comment on Man, woman, wild with mykel hawke i know it was only two seasons but i learned alot from it and he seems to be a real rational individual. Just wondered what your take on it was, thanks!

    Reply
  3. Michael Raymond
    Michael Raymond says:

    Robert, thank you for your “straight talk”! It’s so refreshing to have excellent intel and high quality insights from a true professional and master of his craft! Keep up the great work that your doing at Sigma 3 Survival!

    Reply
  4. MIke Moore
    MIke Moore says:

    Hooooah!

    I have to admit I love to watch those shows. You are absolutely correct that they are far more valuable as entertainment than anything else. But I also view them as a conceptual motivator rather than being instructional in nature. I take the concepts I see there (and on Sigma 3 webpage) then go out into the woods of the Pacific NW and try to figure out for myself how I could/would accomplish the tasks required to survive. So far in the last 2 years, I have or would have “died” about 30 times because I failed to get fire without using something I brought with me. What I learned was to ALWAYS carry something on my body that I can make fire with, because I simply cannot find anything in the pacific northwest that is dry enough to ignite. I was close once, but no “cigar” or fire either… I spent the night in the car (again)… Another “lesson” I have learned from watching those shows is that most of those folks have no common sense. I think plain ol’ common sense could go a long way toward improving chances for survival.

    I grew up in South central Kansas, and SE Missouri. If I were still in that area I would be visiting you folks for some trainin’ even though I’m on the back side of 55, I still have a desire to learn REAL skills. Do you know any REAL bushcrafters out here in the Great NW? like perhaps in the Seattle area? I’d really like to learn how to prepare a tinder bundle out of the wet mush up here, and figure out how to ignite it without matches or firesteel…

    Keep up the good work I wish you well and maybe some day I’ll have the time and cash to come see you!

    Best regards,
    Mike Moore

    Reply
  5. Wolf Cross
    Wolf Cross says:

    Glad to see someone finally understands how survival shows work and isn’t just bashing the hosts for “the wrong things” they teach people. I’ll admit I have bashed Les Stroud but mostly for his arrogant attitude outside his show. Good article and hoping to take a Sigma Course soon.

    Reply

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