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The untold truth of Survivorman

Ah, wilderness survival. There's nothing quite like doing some back handsprings through the jungle and punching a shark in the mouth to get your blood flowing, is there? Not that many of us would know: in reality, most of us are hilariously under-qualified to survive in the wild. To get the real scoop on the subject, we interviewed Les Stroud from Survivorman, and he's here to set the record straight about what it actually takes to survive.

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It's real

Stroud comes from a background of teaching wilderness survival, but he was always bothered by the quality of the available material. As he puts it, "You either had survival films created by survival instructors, and they didn't know how to tell a story or shoot a proper film, so it was terrible. If it was put on by a television crew, they were also terrible because they knew how to produce film but nothing about survival."

Stroud quickly came to the realization that the best way to find great wilderness survival footage was to go out and make it himself. And he remains uniquely qualified: other survival shows have come after Survivorman, but they're all done by crews he describes as "TV people." They care about doing things that look cool on camera and get ratings, but they aren't interested in teaching actual skills.

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Being lazy is the name of the game

Stroud stresses that every decision you make in the wild needs to be weighed against its energy cost. See a possible food source a mile away? It better be enough food that it's worth the hike. And how do you even know that's a mile away? It can take a long time to develop enough of a sense of distance that you can accurately gauge something like that. This leads to situations where that ridge you thought was a little ways away just hangs on the horizon and never gets any closer, while you waste your entire day hiking. Now darkness is setting in, and you don't have any food or shelter.

Making sure you get sleep is more important than most people think. You aren't in your bed. It might be freezing, and you might be sleeping on a slab of rock. Sleep deprivation can become such a huge issue in survival situations that even Les considers 20 minutes of rest a "good night.".

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Except for when it isn't

"The one time you may need to run or jump is when you're being chased by a lion or something like that," says Stroud. "Other than that, I would never prescribe running or jumping." He's been chased out of the jungle by a wild panther and in situations like that, running suddenly becomes acceptable: because your energy levels don't much matter if you don't survive the next five minutes.

But even that suggestion to run comes with an aside: Stroud runs in the bush to train so he's extremely comfortable running over logs and other obstacles. That's not an experience the average person has.

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Man vs. Wild could get you killed

"People keep talking about survival like it's a recreational activity. It isn't," Stroud argues. "There's nothing about survival that doesn't suck. What's the one place you're trying to get when you're in a survival situation? Home. That's it."

What a lot of people don't realize is that Stroud has trained for years to be able to do the things he does on his show, much less before he was willing to try them alone. The other shows do it with luxuries like film crews, breaks, lunches, and hotels. "The thing you have to remember," he adds, "is that when Bear Grylls says 'Here's my shelter that I've built for the night,' the man has never slept in one of those shelters." Watching Man vs. Wild might leave you with the impression that you could build a raft in a single afternoon, for example, but that kind of project would take you a week in the wild.

For some reason that baffles Stroud, people see these shows and then think "I'm going to go out and do that next weekend." And if that same person has just watched an episode of Man vs. Wild showing Grylls jumping from boulder to boulder like he's king of the jungle, they might wind up getting themselves hurt. Running and jumping is almost never a good decision because you expend so much energy all at once, could turn an ankle, or worse, break one, and then a bad situation is ten times worse.

There was also an episode of Man vs. Wild that showed Grylls squeezing drinkable water out of elephant dung, which Stroud assures us is not possible in the real world. He's convinced they had to pour a bottle of water or something over it, because there's just not that much water in elephant dung. And it may sound gross, but if you've gone without water for days, you might do anything for a drink, and if you think you can rely on this as a backup plan because you've seen Man vs. Wild, that's dangerous. The same goes for the episode in which Grylls drinks his own urine: first, Stroud is pretty sure that's apple juice. But ignoring that, drinking your own urine just re-toxifies your system and is counterproductive.

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Hollywood survival myths can get you killed

Hollywood is notorious for showing us things that look great on the big screen but work completely differently in real life. If you ever thought that drinking the water out of a cactus was a handy survival tip for the desert, you couldn't be more wrong. The barrel cactus that you're thinking of is actually filled with a vile liquid that will make you puke and cost you precious hydration in an arid environment. And then there's that urine myth, which is extremely common in Hollywood.

And starting your own fire? Stroud's favorite method is to always carry matches and a torch. If the wilderness expert is doing that, it should send you a powerful message about how difficult friction-based fires are to start. Les's concern is that common false knowledge like that is what gets people killed. That's his whole mission, really—to educate others about wilderness survival. Movies are neat and look cool, but no one should be watching them for tips on how to survive a real worst case scenario.

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Boredom is everywhere

People underestimate how incredibly and intensely boring it can be out in the wilderness. According to Stroud, being bored and lonely is the hardest thing about trying to survive. And this is something that can become incredibly dangerous: you combine extreme boredom and loneliness with hunger and a lack of sleep, and you get a recipe for terrible depression. In real-life survival situations, people have taken their own lives. This is why getting a fire going is one of the biggest boons toward your survival. Even if you don't need it for warmth or food, a fire is the biggest morale booster you're going to find in the wilderness. It provides a sense of accomplishment: you did something. You're surviving. And that goes a long way.

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Sometimes you see Stroud try stuff for the first time

When Stroud hears about an interesting way to start a fire or some other neat little survival trick, he doesn't try it out at home: he tries it for the first time in the wild, and films it. His reason for this? "Well I mean, that's what the average person does, right? They find themselves in an unexpected survival situation, and they say 'Hey, I heard you could start a fire with a battery, a stick of gum, and a paperclip' and then they try it."

What this means is that sometimes—often, even—the viewers witness him fail spectacularly, but when one of these tricks works, the surprise is real. Stroud describes it best: "If I blow it, and I fail, you get to see that reality, and to me, that's real survival. You try it, and it doesn't work, whatever. But you try it and it does work? That's magic."

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Stroud performs experiments on the show

Every now and then, Stroud throws himself a curveball to simulate real situations. For example, he's bound one of his hands to simulate it being broken or lame. The exceedingly unsurprising result of that experiment? It makes things a lot harder.

He's taken out a second person to see if that made the survival situation easier or worse. The answer? Both. Manual labor like building a shelter and other tasks become far more manageable; however, this is offset quite a bit by the need to divide all your food sources in half. It also helps with morale: you have someone there to talk to and keep your spirits up, and that can go a long way. Stroud has taken his son out on the show several times, and describes it as a wonderful and educational experience.