There is no camera crew. There are no producers, no medics on standby. There is not hotel to go to at night. There is just one man in the middle of the wilderness, talking to cameras that he set up and operates.
That is Survivorman, and its star, executive producer, and camera operator, Les Stroud, has been doing what he does for 10 years now.
While his Science Channel/Outdoor Life Network series is entertaining, it has also had incredible real-world impact. Recently, on Good Morning America, a 16-year-old who survived a plane crash that killed her grandparents—and then survived by herself for two days—told Les, “I really have looked up to you since I was super little.” He told her, “now I look up to you. You’ve had to do for real what I’ve only been able to practice.”
Others are paying attention, too, as reality TV shows have started to follow in his survival footprints and to see the value in what he does: raw, stripped down, unfiltered—still edited and produced, of course. In these new survival shows, some of which are filmed by their own participants, there are echoes of Survivorman.
But Les doesn’t think imitators have any value. In fact, he calls them dangerous.
Televised stunts, not survival
Les told me that he rejects the idea that there are similar shows. “First of all, I don’t think any of them have caught up to where I am. The problem is that shows like that need to follow a schedule. They need to complete their 13 episodes or their 26 episodes, and to do that, you have to script things,” he said.
“All of the new shows, and all the shows that came along, and all of the copycats that came along after me. They’re producing numbers, and to do that, you’ve gotta to set it all up. You’ve gotta stage it, you’ve gotta script it, and you’ve gotta go home and eat at night. It’s not even the same thing,” he said. “A lot of that is extremely misleading. I don’t blame the networks one bit; it’s usually the production companies. The production companies say what they need to to keep the show rolling.”
“It’s not survival,” Les added. “It’s a bunch of stunts thrown on television and nothing more.”
Les suggested viewers know the difference, but then backtracked. “We’ve all seen enough television to understand when—well, maybe we haven’t. Maybe that’s the problem. For the longest time they thought Grylls was the real deal, and he was never the real deal. As a pure survival instructor, it’s frustrating to watch them. But hey man, they’re entertaining people and God bless them. I’m sure they’re laughing all the way to the bank, and it’s good entertainment, but it’s not survival.”
“Terrible” films, “a pile of crap” TV that inspired Survivorman
The idea of Survivorman came from Les’ 15 years of teaching survival, and finding that both film and television was failing to capture it well. “When I first got into to survival, the reason why I wanted to make films in the first place was because the survival films that were out there that were made by survival guys were horrifyingly boring. They were terrible. The survival films that were out there that were made by television producers had no bearing on reality and were all a pile of crap. I live in both worlds: I’m both a TV producer and a filmmaker, and I’m a survival instructor. I can show real survival as it really happens, and I can film it in a way that’s viewable, that’s watchable for your 46 minutes of television,” he said.
Those shows that have multiple camera operators, sound mixers, producers, and others around changes the survival game, he insists. “The reason why I don’t have a camera crew follow me around is because I know I’m human, and after three days, when there’s a camera crew there—and believe me, everybody’s human—they say, Hey, man, I’ve got a Mars bar, do you want a bite? And you’re not going to say no.”
I asked him if he found any survival show, such as Naked and Afraid, to be valuable. Without mentioning specific series, he said, “Do I think there’s valuable pulled from those shows from a survival perspective? You’re talking to a guy who taught survival from a guy for 15 years before I put it on television. Do I think there’s anything valuable in any of those other shows? Maybe? By accident, and by chance? But by design, no. In fact, most of them are very dangerous and misleading in the way they do things. It’s not pure survival; it’s not real survival at all.”
Survivorman and fan, and what else is ahead this season
However, he also admitted, “I don’t watch these shows—I’ve given a few moments in a hotel room here or there. I’ve caught snippets enough to change the channel to go off and watch The Walking Dead instead.”
Producing, filming, and starring in his own show means that Les Stroud does not have a typical production schedule. “I don’t have a season because I actually go through all this stuff,” he told me. “To go through it is to require some down time. You can’t go out and not eat food for seven days at a time, 13 times in a year while you’re out surviving and filming. It’s suicide.”
His process is casual: “it is always a matter of chatting with the networks, and seeing who wants what and when they want it.”
This season, which airs Sundays at 10 on Science, started with an episode featuring a contest-winning fan who went out with Les—and quickly learned that Les planned to leave him on his own for two nights.
Casting that episode was challenging. “A heavy majority of people were people who’d done a lot of survival, and that was actually the opposite of what I wanted,” Les told me. “It could have ended up like a camping trip that way. So I wanted somebody who had fairly minimal experience. But what was more important to me was that they had the ability to do that extra thing that I do that no one else does, and that is to be able to film themselves and tell a good story.”
“Could they express themselves on a little camera in the middle of the night when their teeth were chattering? That was important to me, and that was how I made my judgement call about who to take,” he said. “It is, after all, a TV show. Even though it’s real, it still needs to be covered well.”
While the winning fan, Joe, had filmmaking experience, he was trained by Survivorman‘s crew about what the show does and how to do it. “Before we headed out, I actually had some of my guys who do all of the beauty filming—like time lapses, and sunrises, and sunsets—give him a bit of a tutoring lesson, and then I myself talked to him as well and showed him a few things,” Les said.
Survivorman season seven
For the rest of this season, Les said, “I went back to the core of Survivorman and I did a lot of take-home stuff that you’re not going to see [elsewhere], like a knot—here’s a really cool knot. That sounds very Boy Scoutish, doesn’t it? Yeah, it does, but it’s damn useful; it makes a lot of sense.”
Filming for this current season of Survivorman started after his son left the hospital. “I was in a great mood, and I started challenging myself a lot more,” Les said.
Among the episodes ahead is a two-part when local search and rescue teams try to find Les. “It was such an amazing experience that it turned into two full episodes. In a situation like that, I was pushing myself hard going down the mountains,” he said. “I pushed myself a little too far and I found myself exhausted, sliding my bum downhill, and then coming to a cliff. I was stuck. The only way back was another six hours climbing straight back up again. And none of the technology I had worked; I couldn’t call anybody to come save my butt.”
Going where satellite phones and GPS devices fail
Les is dropped off by a crew that films b-roll shots, but is actually alone during each episode’s events. I asked what safety precautions he has, or if that changed for the fan episode. Les said that nothing changed, and that it usually doesn’t matter what he has with him.
“I pushed the edge on it a little bit,” he said of the season premiere with contest-winner Joe. “I don’t think we had much of anything with us. I like to remove the net on a lot of occasions. That’s how you get the reality of what I’m going through out there.”
As to his usual episodes, Les said, “It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes I’ve had sat phones; sometimes I haven’t. Sometimes I’ve had GPS; sometimes I haven’t. The reality is that you get into the middle of the jungle or down in the Canyonlands, and the gear doesn’t work anyway.”
To make that point, he told me that, “in an upcoming episode, I took five technical gadgets and I stood there. Not one of them can get a signal right now. So I showed that we can have these things but that doesn’t mean that they’re guarantees.”
Even if it did work, it might not make any difference. “If I’m in topography like a jungle, even I have a satellite phone, if I’ve been bitten a fer-de-lance, it’s going to be body retrieval, not rescue,” Les said.
While Les chooses where to go, there are harrowing moments. On the search-and-rescue mission he discussed earlier, Les said that, when he found himself on a cliff, “I was a lot more concerned with my own survival, getting away from that cliff, than I was about making my TV show. Oh shit, I’m in it now. I’ll run the camera, I’ll keep the GoPro going on my chest, but damn, I’ve got to get out of this or I’ll be in serious trouble.”
How cameras help and hinder Les Stroud
I asked how much of his time is spent on the mechanics of filming versus his actual survival. “It’s probably averages out to about 50/50, sometimes the advantage goes in the way of filmmaking,” he said. “Now I’m a little more adventurous with the filming.”
While having camera equipment and filming the entire series is a lot of responsibility, if not a burden, Les pointed out that the cameras actually help with survival. “Filmmaking has sometimes been the one psychological advantage I have,” he said. “It sucks to be alone out there. You’re by yourself for four, five, six, seven, even 10 days—it just sucks. Now I’ve got something to do at least because I’m lonely as hell.”
Those days of loneliness are over, for now, as the current season of Survivorman has finished filming and there have been no discussions about future episodes, though Les said he’s open to more.
Now, though, he’s focused on his music—and combining his music with his TV show.
In February, he’s starting a concert tour in Florida. He explained that it’s “a very large stage production where I perform all my music, show big images of wilderness, and I break it down and do a lot of Survivorman Q&A, where I tell stories about filming Survivorman.”
Those are the stories of one man—or one man and his son, or one man and a fan—demonstrating how to survive, and how to produce a show with a lot of reality.