As the superfit daredevil host of the Discovery Channel's hit show 'Man vs. Wild,' Bear Grylls has run Class V rapids in the lower Zambezi (without a raft); plunged naked beneath the ice of a frozen lake in Siberia; twisted and shimmied out of quicksand in Utah; evaded alligators on a slog through the Everglades; and, most famously, eaten a vast array of utterly repulsive vermin he has dug out of rotting trees, caught slithering underfoot, or squeezed from animal scat. Yet if there's one thing that distinguishes 'Man vs. Wild' from the burgeoning field of shows featuring manly and slightly deranged prime-time adventurers, it's that even when he is throttled by the most difficult terrain or choking down rhino beetle larvae, Grylls appears, against all reason, to be having a blast. The 34-year-old exudes so much enthusiasm, in fact, that it's easy to discount the very real danger he puts himself in, or to forget that he earned his bona fides as an adventurer long before becoming a TV personality.
Taught to climb and sail at an early age by his father, Grylls earned a black belt in karate as a teenager (he now favors yoga and ninjitsu), then joined the British Special Air Service right out of Eton College, the elite British prep school. In 1996, he came "within a whisker," as his surgeon put it, of being paralyzed for life when his parachute failed him on a training exercise in Africa. During an agonizing 18-month recovery, he vowed that if he walked again – an open question at first – he'd climb Mount Everest. Two years later, at 23, he became the youngest Englishman (at the time) to reach the Earth's highest point. He has since flown a motorized parasail as high as Everest's summit, crossed the North Atlantic by rigid inflatable boat, and completed the notoriously brutal French legionnaires desert course for one of his first significant TV documentaries in the U.K..
On the strength of that show, Discovery approached him with the concept of dropping him into a wilderness survival situation and filming him as he effects a self-rescue. "I said no three times," Grylls recalls. "I really didn't want to have any part of being slick and smiley. But Discovery assured me they wanted it rough, raw, a mess. We'd show what didn't work as well as what did. Finally my wife said, 'Do one, so you know what you're saying no to.' "
The 2006 pilot, set in the Rockies, did surprisingly well in the ratings. Thirty-nine episodes later, the program now reaches a million viewers in the United States, and Grylls has signed on for a fourth season: 13 more episodes, set all around the world. It seems the reluctant host has found his calling. "I love the wild. I love all the stuff we do," Grylls says. "It's like letting a chef loose in the kitchen. There might be a bit of a mess afterward, but basically he's going to get on and cook something good."
The episodes take about a week to shoot, and prior to each, the crew does a week of reconnaissance, then Grylls himself does a fly-over of the terrain and undergoes two days of intensive briefings before parachuting in. He's tailed in the bush by a cameraman and sound engineer. Some encounters are staged: If they've gone several days without, say, a hoped-for cobra, a member of the crew might place one in Grylls's path so he can deal with it. Still, when it comes to the physical stunts, Grylls says, "If you see it, I've done it."
If he seems a bit insistent about the authenticity, it's no wonder: The series nearly derailed because of some tabloid-fodder faux pas. Among other things, Grylls was busted for staying at a comfy mountain inn when viewers thought he was roughing it, having a raft built by an unseen consultant, and trying to mount a "wild" mustang trucked in from a local riding stable – disclosures that led the Discovery Channel to add disclaimers to the show. Some critics point out, correctly, that Grylls departs from textbook survival tactics that encourage those lost in the wild to stay put; Grylls keeps moving, in part because it makes for better TV. Others question his choice of stunts, many of which would get a less alpha castaway killed.
But all this clouds an important point: What's truly remarkable about Grylls isn't his "bushcraft," but the way he has used the series as a vehicle to take all these amazing trips. He has improvised an insanely great life for himself.
"When I hear people say he's a fake, I just see red," says Lara Fawcett, Grylls's protective older sister, who gave him the name Bear (as in Teddy) as an infant because she hated the one his parents gave him (Edward). "He is exactly the guy in life that he is on the show. He's a bit of a nutter. An eccentric. It's funny, but I can't even imagine him having a job, and yet we always knew he'd be successful. He was really very naughty as a little guy, and our mum always said he was going to be 'Hitler the second' or prime minister, but he was never going to do the expected. He works it all out in life the way he works it out on the show."
And so it is in that spirit that we offer, in his own words, the Bear Grylls Survival Manual…to Life.