The Myths & Mistakes Of Survival TV

Don’t believe everything you see on TV

With the explosion of the survival industry, a plethora of books and TV series became available pretty much everywhere (and overnight). Many “skills” are taught and/or shown on numerous survival shows, like Man vs Wild and Dual Survival, as well as the short-lived Man, Woman, Wild and the very unfortunate premised show Five Fat Guys In The Woods (yes, that was the actual title). I’ll save Naked and Afraid and Alone for later. Are the skills taught on these shows to be trusted and employed in survival situations? In short, no. In some cases, they might even be more dangerous than is necessary for survival – for example, scaling cliffs and jumping into unknown river rapids. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

When I launched Survivorman in Canada in 2001, and shortly after in the US, there was nothing on TV about survival. You could argue about the CBS series Survivor, but that was really just Outward Bound meshed with a game show format and scripted to make cool stories. It wasn’t real and it certainly wasn’t survival. Survivorman was started as a way for me, a survival instructor, to teach survival skills and share my love of adventure in the wilderness. This was my sole motivation. Once it became a hit, all that followed, the aforementioned shows amongst them, were shows motivated by TV ratings, making money, selling merchandise and, for the hosts, becoming a TV star. But far and away the most important reason was that when the shows that came along simply faked the survival and made up stories, they could then produce high numbers of episodes per year, something I couldn’t do. They could make a ton of fake episodes and a ton of money.

The "skills" taught on survival shows are not always accurate or safe to attempt. Illustration by Keith Milne and Gord Coulthart.
The “skills” taught on survival shows are not always accurate or safe to attempt. Illustration by Keith Milne and Gord Coulthart.

The behind-the-scenes reason that there are so many bad skills “taught” or shown on survival TV is that these shows are produced by TV people, not survival teachers. TV people who sit around in board rooms hashing out how they can make the show more dramatic and, most importantly of all, raise the ratings. In doing so, they create an extremely inaccurate depiction of what it takes to survive in the wilderness.

So why are these overly dramatic and sensationalized skills shown on these shows to be considered dangerous? Does it even matter? Well, if you are the minority that watches these shows and knows very well they are all faked and staged, and yet just loves the entertainment, then I say view on and enjoy! But the sad truth is that there are kids out there watching, and learning, wrong and dangerous survival skills.

Movies are not immune either. Castaway with Tom Hanks and Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford got a lot right, in part due to the consultants, “Desert” Dave Halladay for Castaway and the legendary Larry Dean Olson as consultant for Jeremiah Johnson, two survival experts if there ever were any. The Revenant (Leonardo Di Caprio) and The Edge (Anthony Hopkins) took unrealistic, sensationalized and inaccurate survival to a ridiculous level.

But what about the skills? They’re good, aren’t they? To be fair, sometimes yes. But on far too many occasions they are bogus skills and often downright life threatening to pull off. The problem too is that the really bad (and often just silly) skills that may appear more exciting on screen are seamlessly blended in with a few real skills (because the real skills aren’t “dramatic” enough on their own) and so the line between how to survive and how to perish gets blurry.

It’s difficult to recognize what is good survival and what isn’t on films and TV, because often the difference is subtle. Take for example a simple scene in The Revenant. At some point the surviving character sets up shelter in the windiest and most open spot in the terrain, completely avoiding the sheltered and wood-filled forest a few hundred yards away that would’ve offered so much more protection from the elements. Whatever actual skills shown in that scene were destroyed by the fact that the only reason for him to be way out in the open was for the look the filmmaker was going for. The drama. None of which I’m against – it is a beautifully shot film ­– but like so many of the TV shows there was a not-so-subtle pitch to the public about the survival elements in the story. No skilled wilderness adventurer in their right mind would’ve set up shelter just a 60-second walk from protective woods. And this I find dangerously misleading. I’ve often said you wouldn’t watch a ski jumper on TV one day and, having never skied before, slap on a pair of skis and go to the top of the jump the next day. Yet for some reason people feel they can watch a survival TV show and then head out into the wilderness the next weekend with nothing more than a knife and good intentions.

In the beginning, which of course started with the show Man vs Wild, created because I refused to cheat Survivorman, I had, probably too much, righteous indignation about what was going down because I was, after all, a survival instructor first and an entertainer second. What I saw these new TV producers create for the sake of ratings disgusted me. I had to stop watching. For example, from Man vs Wild came the squeezing of water out of elephant dung to get a drink. Can you? No, the crew soaked it with water bottles off camera and got the host to do that along with eating and drinking as many other gross things they could get him to do for the sake of ratings. The fish he caught by hand in the stream? They dumped hundreds of fish just off camera so he could grab one and come up victorious. Finding a fresh, uneaten carcass of zebra in Africa, this happens right? Yeah, a freshly killed animal in lion territory is just laying around without being eaten. Right.

Even when the host might have actual survival skills, as in the case of my friend Matt Graham, the scenarios set up for Dual Survival are set up by producers trying to make things dramatic and exciting. Then everyone goes back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep so they can get up early and pretend to be bleary-eyed coming out of the shelter for the next scene.

Just because a character seems to be struggling on screen doesn't mean they didn't just have a good night's sleep in the hotel the night before. Illustration by Keith Milne and Gord Coulthart.
Just because a character seems to be struggling on screen doesn’t mean they didn’t just have a good night’s sleep in the hotel the night before. Illustration by Keith Milne and Gord Coulthart.

As a tangent comment, it is the same reason I stopped making Shark Week productions and the more recent Alaska’s Grizzly Gauntlet. The networks were quite happy and complicit in producing shows with pretend science and very wrong information about wildlife. I’m a closet naturalist and I have never been able to get out of my head the image of some 12-year-old doing a project for school about survival or sharks or bears and quoting the very wrong information scripted and written by TV producers. When it comes to survival skills, people can die.

Enter Naked and Afraid and Alone. I don’t want to suggest that the people on these shows are not suffering. In fact, that’s exactly what these new shows are: suffer-fests. The “contestants” are placed in so many unrealistic and overly dramatic, made-up survival situations that would just not happen in real life. There’s nothing about these shows that are there to teach survival, so you can’t trust the “skills” that are presented in this format. And so the people on these new sensationalized shows are suffering for the sake of entertainment, not to teach real skills. Even if they do happen to carry out an excellent skill, the producers are likely to cut it from the show as it isn’t dramatic enough for their story.

There are some bright spots on TV, however, where good and real survival instruction can be seen. Anything by Ray Mears is going to be real and authentic because he, like me, started out doing this to teach the skills he loved. An old TV series called Bush Tucker Man also showed good and well-informed survival skills.

This is why I am so grateful for the Scouts and for outers clubs and real-life survival teachers, because these organizations and these teachers have always been about the real deal: the teaching of realistic and life-improving survival skills. They’re not after ratings, they want people to get out in nature and survive, armed with the right set of skills.

Let’s end with a quote from one of the most prominent naturalists to ever live. “There is no use in having a book (TV show) scientific in its accuracy if no one will read it (watch it), and it is worse than no use to have a book (TV show) that is readable (watchable) and at the same time false.” Theodore Roosevelt.