The physical and mental effects of surviving in the wilderness for weeks without any human contact are, in many ways, the focus of History Channel’s Alone, which is now in its 10th season. Some people tap out after a few days; others last for months.
The actual experience is just the start, though, as the effects of the experience can linger.
That’s true of all shows with a survival element, of course. Survivor contestants, who receive some food supplies and rewards, can be really affected by the experience mentally and physically. Two-time contestant Eliza Orlins, for example, said that it took her “years to fully recover” from losing one-fifth of her body weight.
What happens after Alone’s cameras turn off? Only its contestants can really understand or answer what they go through, of course. (Woniya Thibeault wrote a book about her experience during season six.)
But the History Channel show, which is produced by Leftfield Pictures, has, over its life, modified their approach to helping participants recover.
Shawn Witt, Leftfield’s president and an executive with its parent company ITV America, recently told me that Alone’s “aftercare is something that we’ve really heightened over the years.”
That, he said, is a direct result of both conversations and collaboration with Alone’s cast members. “We’re hearing from them, we’re listening to them, we want to know what they need,” he said.
Witt told me that showrunner Ryan Pender “has been amazing at not making them feel like contestants of a game show, but really part of a family, and they help us evolve all of our processes from season to season.”
Alone executive producer Pender told me that those who participate “are putting their mind and the body through serious paces,” so care for contestants’ well-being begins before filming.
During casting, through both medical and psychological check-ups, Pender said, the producers try to determine: “Are these folks equipped to be out there?”
Answering that question involves “doing our own medical checks, we’re weighing them in, we’re figuring out their diet. We brought in a nutritionist who gets a vibe of what their diet traditionally is, what they did to possibly bulk up.”
Each season starts with the cast spending about nine days in orientation. A special episode of season 10, “Before the Drop,” showed some of the behind-the-scenes of what the participants go through.
That’s about nine days of preparation. During that time, participants “practice with their bear bangers and bear spray, we go through medical training and safety. We teach them, of course, camera usage and what we need [in terms of] storytelling: How do you tell a good story with a beginning, middle and an end?”
The team of producers known as Survival “takes [participants] out and they see what the animals are,” Pender added. “It’s very, very thorough.”
In addition, they learn “what happens if and when they tap out, how do they go about it, what are their their communications resources.”
But “when the cameras turn off, the aftercare does not end,” he added.
Food and nutrition
Contestants don’t immediately fly home after they win, tap out, or are removed from the competition for medical reasons.
Alone has “a whole re-feeding program,” Pender told me. “You don’t want [to be] just giving them a burger and a beer after they come out after 60 days. You can’t do that.”
Instead, they’re first provided with food similar to whatever they were catching or eating in the wilderness.
“You have to keep them in starvation and slowly pull them out of that, based on a diet mimicking what they were eating out there,” he said. “You bring them out of starvation slowly.”
“We count calories [and monitor] down to how much water you’re drinking,” he added, “because that can throw your electrolytes off.”
Whether someone is pulled from the competition by medics or just taps out, they are first given any medical care they need, whether that means visiting an on-site doctor or being transported to a hospital.
Contestants don’t leave the general location area “until they’re physically strong enough to pick up their bags, get onto a plane, [and] they feel mentally comfortable,” Pender said.
That process usually takes about two weeks.
During that time, “they’re provided journals to write down their thoughts,” Pender told me. “They speak to a psychologist.”
After they get home, he said, the production arranges for “follow-up doctor appointments, if they decide to use them.” (That’s similar to A&E’s Hoarders, which paid for aftercare in the form of both therapy and additional organizing work, though not all participants took advantage.)
“For a few weeks and months afterwards, they’re speaking to a psychologist to just kind of empty their heads,” Pender told me.
Community with other Alone contestants
What I thought was most interesting about Alone’s aftercare is that it now includes connection with other people who’ve been on the show—and not just those from their season.
“They speak to past participants that have been through before,” Ryan Pender told me.
Of course, many reality TV show alum have formed their own friendships and networks, whether they’re podcasting together or on The Challenge, never mind casts that stay in touch after their season.
But this is a formal process. Shawn Witt said that “one of the one of the best things we decided to do was allow it to become almost like a fraternity.”
That starts before the show. “We have some past participants come to the annual bootcamp to speak to the participants about what to expect in the process, not only in the wilderness, but working with a TV production company like us, what the what the pitfalls can be, how to speak up with if you’re feeling like you’re not being heard.”
Those contestants also share “the aftercare part of it, knowing that they can pick up any phone and call any one of a number of past participants and just talk to them,” he said. “I feel like everyone feels very supported, and you don’t see that often in competition series—even wilderness series, when it’s like, Last frame! Budget is spent. Later, guys—good luck! That’s not worth it to us. The people are important.”
Witt was clear that this network of support with other participants was not something Alone’s producers originally planned or created.
“We didn’t always do that,” he told me, “but it was something we learned based on listening, and it’s made a world of difference.”