What Survival Shows Get Right and What They Get Horribly Wrong

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In recent years survival shows have exploded in popularity. I can’t turn on my television or computer without seeing ads or streaming options for the endless amount of titles about the apocalypse, doomsday, zombies, viruses, or someone traversing across yet another barren landscape. 

To be fair, I am a fan of some of these movies or television shows. They are also works of fiction, intended for entertainment purposes only. But what about reality-based survival shows? Shows like Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, Man Woman Wild, Dual Survival, ALONE, and other similar programs

The main purpose of these, supposedly, is to educate us on how to survive in different types of environments with very few resources.

Again, I was a fan of some of these shows for a brief time. That is until their cartoonish behavior, poor advice, and outright dangerous actions made me nauseous, not only for myself but for the people that bought into it.

Let me be clear; I am not saying this about all survival programs (as I have not seen all of them), but I feel that I have seen enough to comment on what survival shows do right and what they do horribly wrong.

The Good

Let’s start on a positive note and discuss what most of these survival shows did right.

These shows do a great job teaching the basics 

No matter how bad a survival show is, almost all of them do a decent job of teaching the basics. In my mind, some of the basics include the Rule of 3 and how to fulfill those needs. If you need a reminder of the Rule of 3, it states that you can survive:

  • 3 minutes without air
  • Three hours without shelter (maintaining core body temperature)
  • 3 days without water
  • Three weeks without food

And yes, I know that the numbers involved in the above rules are not concrete as many variables will dictate how long a person can survive. The order of the list is what is important to take away from it. 

Building a shelter or fire to maintain core body temperature, finding and cleaning water, and figuring out where their next meal was coming from, are things that most shows covered. Speaking of food… 

What’s for lunch?

Even though we can survive much longer without food than water, the calorie game becomes important faster than one would think. When calories are not being consumed as physical activity is increased, a person is going to become tired as hell, both physically and mentally. 

In most of the shows I have seen, the characters don’t eat only appetizing food. They show many different edible options, some of which you may have never thought or heard of. A variety of insects, grubs, plant life, tree bark, and marine life have all been shown as sources for replacing calories and nutrients in the body.

Improvisation

Probably one of my favorite aspects of most of these shows is how they demonstrate the versatility of tools and materials and the importance of thinking outside the box. 

Many of objects that we think of as only having a singular purpose (or even as trash) have far more potential when we allow our creative juices to flow. These are sometimes referred to as MacGyverisms. Examples would include:

  • A metal can and some tubing on a beach can be turned into an apparatus for distilling water.
  • A battery and some steel wool can be used to create a fire.
  • Don’t leave a broken-down vehicle in the middle of nowhere without first piecing it out, because there may be a lot of useful materials on it. 

Being able to adapt and utilize limited resources to their fullest potential is a key ability during a survival situation.

The Bad

If you have watched some of the survival shows I mentioned at the beginning of the article (or others I didn’t mention), then you probably have heard some of the following complaints, but there may be a few you haven’t heard.

Drinking urine is disgusting (and probably doesn’t work).

Unfortunately, I have seen this promoted on more than one show. Now, I am not a doctor, but I know that when we urinate, it is the body’s way of getting rid of waste products. When urine is consumed, it puts waste products back into the body. It makes our bodies work harder, and it’s probably not good for the kidneys. 

However, even if you have a positive argument about drinking urine, I would seriously avoid doing so for one simple reason: to keep from vomiting. Succumbing to the idea of drinking one’s urine means you’re desperate for water, and there is a good chance you won’t be able to keep that warm, salty, smelly liquid down. Vomiting will result in you losing even more water. In the case of drinking urine, do the opposite of Nike’s slogan, just don’t do it.

Water from feces, aka how to die from cholera.

Just ugh. The only show that I know of that did this was Man vs. Wild. Bear picked up a huge handful of, what I believe, was elephant dung, hovered it over his head, and then squeezed brown-yellowish liquid into his mouth.

Feces contains a lot of waste products, and can be home to some not-so-friendly bacteria. Why would you want to put that back into the body or get it into your eyes and risk an infection?

And since feces smells worse than urine and I imagine tastes worse, the risk for vomiting and losing more water is even higher. 

Using a knife in dumb ways

A knife is one of the most popular and important survival tools to have because they are so versatile. Having said that, there are two extremely stupid ways to use a knife that have become popular and are promoted on survival shows time and time again. I will most likely run into some heavy disagreements about these, and if you have a good argument for them then please sound off in the comment section below.

The first is using a knife to baton cut wood. A knife, at least an outdoor “survival” knife, is basically used for three things, cutting, slicing, and stabbing. 

They are not meant for chopping purposes. If you want to chop up some wild onions or meat for your stew, then that’s okay. It’s not okay to use a piece of wood, or some other object, to bash a knife into another piece of wood.

Doing this greatly increases the risk of damaging the most important tool you have. You might be able to get by with doing this on a very small scale, say with tool making. But on survival shows, this technique always seems to be shown on a larger, more aggressive scale, such as cutting down a tree or processing firewood. 

The second dumb way to use a knife that seems to be everyone’s favorite is to tie a knife to the end of a wood pole to create a spear. 

A spear is a good hunting and fishing tool, and it helps to create distance between a person and threat. Often, these impromptu spears are crafted as a means of protecting against/ hunting for larger animals such as deer, boar, lions, tigers, and bears. 

Here’s the problem: there is a good chance that when the spear is inserted into one of these animals, it will become stuck, and instead of staying in the fight, the animal will run off with your knife. 

Why on earth would you want to risk losing your knife, especially when you don’t need to?

A knife does a great job of whittling the end of a wood pole into a fine point that makes a darn good spear. Doesn’t it make more sense to do this than risk losing or damaging the most important tool you have?

 Dramatization

Being that these are shows, they dramatize everything for our entertainment. This is probably my biggest issue with survival shows because it promotes unsafe practices and fear. 

In my opinion, drinking urine and getting water from feces is purely done to get a reaction from the viewer rather than to show a viable means of obtaining water. 

Running and taking unnecessary risks is also promoted way more than it should be. Now, I’m not talking about briefly running a few feet to grab a fish that has been brought to shore or to finish off an injured game animal.

I’m talking about running and sliding down hillsides and jumping from boulder to boulder as though you are enjoying some outdoor adventure race. This is a fantastic recipe for turning an ankle, which can be deadly if you are alone in a survival situation. Unless there is an imminent threat or a quickly diminishing time frame for rescue, running around in the wilderness like this should be avoided.

While many of the shows have shown a variety of wild edibles that can be consumed, they all too often make a huge deal at how awful it is, or they go out of their way to make the experience excessively gross.

I have not eaten all the things that were in these shows, but I have eaten some unusual options.

(If you’re seeking to avoid eating weird stuff post-disaster, you need to prep food! Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on food preparation to learn how to do this.)

By making such a production out of these “gross” experiences, they are only causing people to fear trying it for themselves. When you want a kid or someone to try something new, do you make a big deal of how awful it is and then coax them into trying it? No. You show them that it’s not that bad and allow them to try for themselves.

 Ego is often promoted over proper gear.

Some of these shows depict scenarios in which a person suddenly finds themselves in a survival situation and what they have for supplies is circumstantial. 

Other shows are set up so that a person can choose certain items ahead of time before they go and try to survive in some location. 

The latter is where I have heard the dangerous phrase, “I’m an expert, so I’m not going to take such and such tool.”

 For example, someone thinks they are an expert in primitive fire-making skills, so they don’t take a tool such as a lighter or ferro rod to make a fire. This is fine and dandy when you are doing a show where there are safety nets all around you or as a way of life when you are back home on your property. 

I’m all for learning about and using primitive methods, but to promote the idea that a person can think they are so good at carrying out a critical survival skill that they shouldn’t pack an important tool, is downright dangerous.

Final thoughts of mine on survival shows…

While you may find a few good nuggets of information in these types of shows, it’s my opinion that the bad outweighs the good. For anyone wanting to learn about survival, I would seriously caution using these programs as your main resource for learning, except for one show: Survivorman by Les Stroud. 

To this day, I think Survivorman is one of the best shows that can be watched on this topic. Its approach is educational, realistic, and even twenty years after it debuted, it appears to still be the most honest show that has aired. 

Many of these survival shows dramatize so much and do rather unsafe things because they aren’t really out there surviving by themselves. And in some cases, it appears that some of the people on these shows aren’t eating what you are led to believe they are, they aren’t making the survival tools or projects, and they may not even be spending the night on the hard ground after that last night vision scene is shot.

I would like my final word to be this. I have absolutely nothing against anyone who likes some or all of these types of shows. After all, they are shows, and the purpose of a show is to entertain. However, survival skills and knowledge of the outdoors are incredibly important issues, so it’s a good idea to keep your critical thinking hat on at all times.

Thanks for reading, and stay prepared.

What do you think?

What are your favorite survival shows? What shows do you love to hate? What’s the best piece of advice you ever got from a survival show? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

About Bryan

Bryan Lynch is the author of two books, Swiss Army Knife Camping And Outdoor Survival Guide, and Paracord Projects For Camping And Outdoor Survival. He has also written hundreds of articles about prepping, emergency preparedness, self-reliance, and gear reviews. Through his writing, his hope to help educate people and get them interested in these topics so that they are better prepared for an emergency.

 

What Survival Shows Get Right and What They Get Horribly Wrong
Bryan Lynch

Bryan Lynch

About Bryan Lynch Bryan Lynch is the author of two books, Swiss Army Knife Camping And Outdoor Survival Guide, and Paracord Projects For Camping And Outdoor Survival. He has also written hundreds of articles about prepping, emergency preparedness, self-reliance, and gear reviews. Through his writing, his hope to help educate people and get them interested in these topics so that they are better prepared for an emergency.

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  • What these shows get right is exposing 95% of the so-called “survival experts” for the frauds they are. From the supposed soldiers that lie about their service to the ones that actually spend the nights in luxury hotels while pretending to survive in the wild. Even everyone’s favorite author, A. American, aka Chris Weatherman, who is best known for the Going Home series, failed to survive for even 48 hours on the hit survival reality show “Alone”. Most would benefit from ignoring most of what these charlatans have to say or write, about survival

    • I know Chris. He’s a neighbor (sort of, lives a few miles from me). Saying he failed to survive is painting with a broad brush in his case. He tapped out for very personal reasons. Not because he couldn’t or didn’t know how to survive. There’s nobody I’d rather have on my team in a survival situation than Chris. Except maybe Alan Kay. Having said that I do agree with the authors opinion on these survival shows.

  • Bryan Lynch,
    Your article re-affirmed my decision to “cut the cord” (i.e. cable TV) over a decade ago.
    Although I did watch a low-budget movie called “Man vs . . . ” that was some what parody on those survival TV shows.
    I gravitate towards books, training, and then real world experience when I can.

  • Funny thought, what if they did a reality (I hate that term as it is anything but real) TV show called, Homesteaders!
    Here is 1stMarineJarHead getting up before the sun even peeks over the Eastern hills. He lets the dogs out, starts the coffee, check the fires.
    After a cup of joe, he suits up (i.e. figuring single digit temps), and does morning chores of feeding and watering the livestock.
    Then, he makes breakfast . . .

    Bloody hell would that be BORING! Heck, I would turn off my own show and read a book!

    • Exactly the same opinion here. The Firefox series of books emphasize Appalachian lifestyle and culture. You can learn a lot of useful information that can come in handy when you want a degree of self sufficiency (I did).

      • Bingo! I have read Fox Fire Series twice. I’d rather read and practice. Not to say I haven’t watched those shows but my wife and I sit there and critique them.

    • “Then, he makes breakfast . . .”

      Marine,

      If you Add in “ …, while eating his wife asks , “ if none of the animals are close to freshening or lambing or farrowing, I’m going to go get more thread, pasta, flour and stop into Martin’s to see if your insulators are in yet. And shave, please. You look like crap.” and you and I live very similar lives. Lol!

  • Who watches TV?

    That statement by itself should be enough, but I’ll add one more. I never watched a complete episode of any of these “reality” shows (scare quotes on purpose, they’re not reality as you pointed out). I did see the end of one episode of “Survivor” many years ago, when they were evacuating out someone who broke an ankle or something like that. In a real survival situation, there is no evacuating you out, so it’s put on a makeshift brace to stabilize it and go on. That turned me off permanently to that show.

  • For the most part, I agree with your objections. The one I question is urine to drink. I read about some Vietnamese stranded in a boat in the ocean, and they collected their urine to drink and saved most of it for the children. Starvation, I think, takes the bad smell out, so urine from starving people may be more drinkable, and children who may not understand where it comes from may not have a problem with it. Worse case, it gives you raw water you can filter through the various water filters and filtered canteens you can buy for camping to provide you with drinking water. When you’re thirsty enough, it may taste just fine, filtered or not!

  • Haven’t really watched a slew of survival shows…a lot of them strike me to be about as real as The Housewives of (insert city/town). But the one with Cody Lundin, I have watched a few times. I have a couple of his survival books and they seem pretty level headed.

  • To be honest, I haven’t watched any of the shows the author mentions. I don’t watch a lot of TV for one (I’d rather read). I think I might have watched part of a Bear Grylls episode once, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me since the possibility that I’d need to survive a barren Irish moor is not very likely (as I neither live on nor have plans to visit Ireland). So I’d rather devote the time to what the edible said and Flora & Fauna in my area is.
    It just seemed like those shows look for the most grotesque potential edibles are in the area they “choose.”

  • Thank you for a well thought out and well written article . That being said I want to tell you what I was taught having been a Naval air crewman …. never …REPEAT never
    … REPEAT N.E.V.E.R. drink urine , by the time you run out of water and your urine is more yellow than a lemon , it is too toxic with uric acid to drink . How ever you can distill it in a solar still ( that’s right creek you need to put something in the still).
    I have used this method in the driest Texas desert … it does work.
    I have been keeping prepared for emergecies since the Cuban missle crisis and glad to hear that some think like I do.

  • Always make sure at least 2 responsible people know your EXACT route and ETA. Call every 2 hours to check in. If you get in trouble people will know and organise to help. THAT IS NEVERMENTIONED.
    FERRO-RODS are for the cameras , just because a director wanted to see “the pretty sparks” everyone thinks you are not a true bushcrafter unless you have a ferro rod on your knife sheath Forget it!. Take 2 lighters and some storm matches; cheaper and lighter to carry and no fancy tinder needed as ferro rods need .
    I was taught to light fires with dry grass by my father , he never needed a knife to light a fire, again this view is down to a director wanting a dramatic image. Not so good for the camera to grab some grass and dry twigs broken off a bush and light with a lighter— BORING!!

  • Probably the worst that a TV reality show did was the one and only time Survivor went to Africa.

    Damn near killed the entire gang – contestants and behind the scenes people.

    As usual back then – no potable water was supplied to the contestants – in this African show the contestants had to walk into the wilds with their show supplied spears against lions, rhinos and rampaging elephants – What could go wrong there?

    the only available water was at a “spring” – it was dribbling out among all the huge mounds of elephant dung – the contestants had to purify from there >>> the show hide the constant long line at the encampment privy when dysentery hit the entire group ….

    buried and barely mentioned as a show appendix – the entire bunch and some of staff got inflicted with intestinal parasites – the two contestants that visited a local village and ate the mystery meat were hospitalized with parasites that wouldn’t die …..

  • Howdy Sir, good post!
    Now, my favotite movies include “Groundhog Day” and “Uncle Buck”… and “Neighbors” and “The Blues Brothers”. And maybe even the first “Welcome to Zombieland”.

    Having wrecked my reputation with the above, I only watched 2 Bear shows and thought… um… NOPE.
    Nopenopenope.
    Same goes with them (in)famous Doomsday preppers. Watched like 5 at most.
    Hello? Showing what you have, location, names? Jeez.

    Then again, I do not watch much TV at all, but the hype about some programs had me peekin’ in.

    I completely agree with you on Les Stroud, tho.

    Stay safe, huh?

  • I think your article is spot on. Too much entertainment and “Wow” value engineered into most of these programs and very little common sense KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities). Survivorman is by far the cream of these type shows.

  • Totally agree!
    Watched a few episodes of some of those you mentioned and didn’t find it very much believable. Some of the shows are literal horse Sh*t to say the least. I rather read books and get experience myself through trial and error. I did however like the weather channel’s show, Could You Survive or something like that but haven’t seen but a few episodes and I think they took it off already which sucks. I love Creek Stewards books and this show with him was great.

  • I find that ferro rods work fine. Proper technique didn’t take long to learn when I got my first one over 50 years ago. Regular tinder is adequate. First scrape a small pile of shavings (about the volume of the chemical part of a match head) off the rod on to the tinder and make sure it is concentrated into a pile. Then shoot a spark to light the pile. It will flare like a match head and light your tinder. Works much better than going direct from spark to tinder. Practice with newspaper til you get it down.

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