What Survival Shows Get Right and What They Get Horribly Wrong

Survival Shows

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. 

Read more of Bryan’s articles at The Organic Prepper.

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 SurvivormanMan 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.

Image by happysurvival from Pixabay.

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3 comments
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  2. Great article. As a graduate of USAF Combat Survival training your points are spot on. If you want an entertaining survival show that won’t get you killed, Survivorman is the only one I ever recommend.

  3. Hi Brian,
    I actually use your site for learning and, I have recommended you to others too.

    I think there are a couple of factors that need to be addressed more fully, so that the public at large realizes these factors are just as important as all the great points that you point out.

    First and foremost, Survival is just supposed to be a “temporary situation”, not a way of life. Most people, including the so-called experts, know this, or they should. One needs to plan for the worst, and hope for the best outcome.
    The more that you have to help in survival situations, is in my humble opinion, the best option to have.

    Secondly, Everyone needs to remember and account for their physical and mental limitations. Survival depends a lot on our ability to keep a positive outlook on a negative situation.

    With this in mind, I tell people all the time, that if they want to test their skills and abilities without taking the risk of harming or killing themselves or others, go and turn off all your power and water and practice doing all the things that you would do in a “real situation” in the worst of conditions, for as long as you can handle it. Not only are you going to see how hard it really is to find a good way to collect water, food, shelter, and materials that you will need.

    You won’t have to go far when you think you can’t make it anymore. They will find out that’s why it is called survival, not camping out. If they cheat, they are only learning that they don’t have the skill set to survive yet.

    I recommend that anyone that wants to do well in a survival situation, “MUST” practice survival in a controlled environment first, so that they can hone their skills. Taking a survival course where you are in a controlled and safe environment, is the best way in my opinion, to learn the basics.

    You were also right about the rule of threes. I would like to add the rule of P’s. Proper precautions, prevent potential problems. For the most part! My rule of thumb is to be prepared at all times for the conditions that I might face.

    We are never going to like the fact, that “survival” always happens when it is least expected or wanted. But, being prepared as best as you can, can never hurt you. Your survival depends on it.

    I also think that anyone that tells you that you should be a minimalist when it comes to planning a BOB (bug out bag), is asking for trouble, unless they have extensively trained and, have had to fend for themselves in a survival situation. In my opinion, more is always better than not enough or none. Having two knives is always better than one. Having two lighters and a ferro rod and, some fire starter is always better than rubbing sticks together to start a fire with damp wood.

    I am not going to bore nor, am I trying to impress anyone here. I like you Brian, only want others to learn to be self sufficient and, to build REAL confidence, based upon real facts and, proper training based systems, that are proven to work for MOST people, most of the time. You may not succeed at a certain task, is a real truth, not told often enough.

    Having a survival ability means that I need to practice it to the point of becoming proficient in most situations. Not watching an entertaining video program on the boob tube or internet and thinking I can do it too. That only shows you that you have an interest in the subject.

    I only have one gripe about Les Stroud, but it is so true. He shows you how depressing it can be when things don’t turn out the way he wanted it to turn out. That’s a real world problem, that he honestly approaches with his audiences. I applaud him for that and much more.

    I really enjoy listening to your sound words of wisdom. As you know, the more we know, the better equipped we are.

    I wish you well Brian,

    Rob

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