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.How to Survive…a life-threatening injury
A few of us were in Antarctica right before Christmas – just for ourselves, no cameras around – and we were kite-skiing, and we were flying, doing about 50 kilometers an hour. It was really blowing a proper hoolie. I’d just put a helmet on, more to keep my hat and goggles on, and about 10 minutes later I was in the front, and a massive gust came along and just ripped me out of the skis, and I flew through the air and smashed down really hard on this blue ice. I landed with my head and my shoulders and shattered the helmet completely. If I hadn’t had that on, my head would have been proper jam. And I broke my shoulder. My first thought was, Bloody hell.
You never want to be injured, but I find it helps you to be focused. Now I’ve got this one goal, which is to get my shoulder better. I’m doing something for it, training, every day. I’ve learned that great things come from difficult times, and if I’m limited in some respect, how am I going to make use of the time?
Right before we left on the trip, I finished my last book, and I started it with this quote: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, covered in scars, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming, ‘Yahoo, what a ride!’ ” That was a bit prophetic, wasn’t it? You take the rough with the smooth.
How to Survive…success
I don’t feel very famous. That’s probably a good starting point. A few times a year I come out with Discovery and we tour around America, and sometimes people in the street recognize you, and there’s no one more surprised than me. I’m always amazed anyone watches the show, to be honest. I really look at it like it’s just me and Simon and a couple of others in these jungles, and we mess around and say loads of stupid things to the camera, and most of it hits the cutting-room floor.
I’ve been asked to be in this film, ‘Clash of the Titans.’ Warner Bros. is doing a remake of it. I’ve got to think, Do I want to do that? There are so many cool things. We’ve been asked to do a Man vs. Wild urban disaster 3-D feature film, which would be brilliant. I’d really like to do that, showing cool ways to get out of burning buildings or what to do when you’re mugged or your car goes off the bridge under the ice, your window-cleaning basket breaks. The truth is, I need 10 lifetimes to scratch the surface of the things I’d love to do.
At the end of the day, my focus is on one thing, which is getting to our place in Wales. We spend six weeks of every year up there. It’s heaven. It’s just us five and literally no electricity, no telephones or computers, and we collect rainwater off the roof. For me, it becomes the focus of my whole year, and the rest is just fluff.
How to Survive…a scandal
I’m neither the superman nor the super-baddie I’m made out to be, but I am human, and it was hard to hear all the criticism, because I’d worked really hard and had risked a lot. Right in the middle of it, Sir Ran Fiennes rung me up and he said, “You think you’ve got it bad, that is nothing! You should have seen how they came after me in the ’80s!”
He said, “Don’t listen to them,” and “Keep your pecker up,” and I’m sure he’s right. If I read half the stuff that is written or went on the forums, I’m not sure my confidence could take it. But at the same time, I’d been doing all this adventure stuff long before the TV cameras, and I’ll be doing it long after, too, and so my interest in it isn’t based on what others are writing. There’s always going to be the odd missile, especially if you achieve some success, but it’ll only take you out if you’re basing your identity on what they’re saying about you.
Since the controversy, if I ever have any safety protection, I now have to acknowledge it. I think it’s crap always having to say it, so I am actually doing more free climbs. But I keep in mind that trying to prove yourself is dangerous. You can’t live someone else’s expectations in life. It’s a recipe for disaster. Accidents on big mountains happen when people’s ambitions cloud their good judgment. Good climbing is about climbing with heart and with instinct, not ambition and pride. So is living.
How to Survive…the home birth of your child
My wife Shara and I both love home, and I have a pretty healthy hatred of hospitals, having had a few bad experiences with my back, so we thought, Let’s just try doing a home birth, and it was absolutely brilliant. The cons are that you have quite a lot of blood and gore, and you don’t have the emergency help if it all starts to go pear-shaped. But then again, she feels safe and secure, and she’s got me hovering over her with a toolbox. What more can an expecting mother want?
All I was there for, really, was reassurance. I had a homeopathic kit, and I thought, I’ll just work on diversionary tactics – so the more pain she was in, the more I was going, “What are your symptoms?” and I’d list all these wacky things that homeopathic pills work for.
Shara was amazing. Girls are so great in a big crisis. I’ve seen it in the mountains, too. Men are all great when it’s quite comfy and there’s lots of bravado, but when the shit really hits the fan, it’s the women who often come through.
How to Survive…a truly “raw food” diet
If I had to make a short list of the most disgusting things I’ve tried, it would be bear shit, camel stomach juice, raw goat’s testicles, yak eyeballs. I’ve learned what just tastes disgusting but is okay, and what tastes disgusting for a reason. Sometimes you make mistakes. If something’s rancid, you don’t really know until it’s in your mouth. Things like sting beetles, they’re quite difficult to tell apart from other stuff. I’ve put those in my mouth before, and suddenly they squirted this acid, and you know that is not a good thing to eat, that this is a defense mechanism of the animal – get it out.
There is a purpose to these disgusting foods. If you’re going to self-rescue, you’ve got to move. If you’re going to move, you need energy, and if you need energy, you’ve got to find food. The people who survive in all the great stories of survival are people who leave their prejudices behind and do whatever it takes, no matter how unpleasant it is. I’m not like this at home. My kids always want me to go outside and eat worms, and I say to them, “No, you’ve got to have a sensible job, not like your papa.”
How to Survive…strains on your marriage
It’s funny: So many men come up to me and say, “I’ve recently taken up climbing, and my wife is getting really annoyed because suddenly I’m going off every weekend. What do I do?” I sympathize, but I think Shara understands it is my work, and I don’t tell her a huge amount about the danger or what I’ve been eating or what I’ve been doing. It tends to be, “Hi, honey, how was it?” “It was cold, it was hot,” “You look a mess.” Then we’re back into life. And I like that separation where my work is my work, and when I’m home, I try to focus on really being home.
If you haven’t got work as a trump card, the point to make may be that you will bring more to your life together through these activities. You want to be around people who are enthusiastic, and this is how you keep excited about life.
How to Survive…fear of failure
If, in your life, you wait for everything to be perfect, you’ll never do anything. When I was 20, people came to me, “Oh, you’ll never climb Everest. You have to be in your 30s for your endurance and climatization abilities,” and all this. If I’d listened, I’d have missed my opportunity.
Failure can be scary – especially when failure can mean death. It’s not that I’m never scared. I’m nervous every time I start filming a ‘Man vs. Wild,’ sitting in that chopper, going to a proper hellhole. But the fear is not there to say, Don’t do it; it’s there just to sharpen you and make your instincts really good about whether you should do it, how you do it, what you do, and make all your senses really fire at the same time to work so you can do it.
How to Survive…losing your dad
My father died when I was 26. He was such a rock in my life and such a best friend. He’s the guy who taught me to climb when I was very young, and that was a very intimate thing for me – my way of being close to him.
Life, to him, he used to say, was about following your dreams and looking after your friends. It was a great thing for me to grow up knowing – that life is about more than getting good school reports or looking smart. It’s about that heart.
I’m always surrounded by places where him and me were, and that’s a great sort of continuity. But there’s always going to be a hole, and I think you can’t run from that. I wish I had the magic cure, but it’s a rocky, awful road. You can’t be scared of the grief. It might be six months or a year later that you really fall apart, and the thing this has taught me is, don’t be scared to lean on people. We’re so used to standing on our own, but I turned to my close friends, with whom it’s okay to be very weak, very un-butch. When you’re vulnerable, it only strengthens the bonds.
I look now, and I think, What do I love about all these expeditions and the ‘Man vs. Wild’ stuff? It’s not about what we do; it’s actually about the bonds you create with people in difficult moments, and that’s what I’m always drawn to. I strip that back, and that all comes from my dad.
The day after he died, I got my first real break – a Sure deodorant commercial that played off my Everest fame. It felt like a gift, really, from him, as if he were saying, “I’ve done my job, given you as much as I can of what I value in life. Here’s a break. What will you do with it?”
How to Survive…lean times
When you focus on the money, the castle breaks down. But when you focus on just doing your job well and don’t think about what you’re getting paid, money will always follow. I try to give 10 percent of what I earn to friends struggling with their mortgages or somebody who needs a really good holiday. That’s a rule I’ve always followed, and it’s been really good in our lives. Money is like water: If you don’t let it flow, it’s just going to get stagnant.
How to Survive…high cholesterol
Cardiac arrest killed my father and his father. Both had high cholesterol, so I thought I better have it tested, and mine is naturally quite high. I’ve educated myself over the years about where cholesterol comes from and what we can do to influence it. I used to think: I’m training hard, so I need loads of chicken breasts, I need the protein! The more I educated myself, the more I realized you don’t need all of that.
The way to be healthy and keep your cholesterol low is to have loads of fruit and veg and whole-grain rice and pasta and potatoes, whole food things. There have been articles saying I’m a vegan, but I’m not. I eat a lot of crap when I’m working, because it’s my job. And I love nothing more than getting to the weekend and having a big family roast or going out and getting sozzled with my good friends and having a big burger. That’s a really important part of training – that you have to let loose, as well. So I’m not superstrict, but it’s like training; it’s about what you do the majority of the time, and the majority of the time I eat really healthy.
I was speaking to an Olympic athlete recently, and she said, “Fifteen years ago, they used to think your performance was 80 percent training, 20 percent nutrition. And now they reckon it’s 75 percent nutrition, 25 percent training,” which is unbelievable. As somebody who does a lot of physical stuff, I’m really aware of that.
How to Survive …a life-threatening injury, part 2
My back was a real, proper life-changing injury. I had three big breaks in the middle of my back and was in traction and braces, and the doctors didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk properly again. You take your movement and your health so much for granted, and suddenly I couldn’t do anything. It was a really dark, fumbling, difficult, painful road of doubt and everything. But you slowly piece your confidence back together, and it’s all about little chunks and little bites.
I look back now and think, Would I have done any of this stuff if I hadn’t had the accident? Sometimes in life it takes a real knock to make you realize what you really value and what’s really important to you, and I think for me, that was my knock.Bear Grylls Survival Tips
How to Turn a Watch Into a Compass
If you are in the northern hemisphere and your watch is still on your wrist (and still works!), the cardinal points can easily be deduced. Point the hour hand at the sun. Then form an imaginary line directly through the center of the “wedge” that is created between the hour hand and 12 o’clock. This is your south–north line. The height of the sun in the sky and the time of day will then show you which end of the line is north and which is south, remembering that the sun sets in the west and rises in the east. In the southern hemisphere, point the 12 o’clock mark at the sun and bisect that with the hour hand for the north–south line. (From his 2008 book ‘Man vs. Wild.’)
How to Build a Log Armchair Raft
This is one of the simplest and most effective flotation devices there is. Select two branches or the trunks of young trees. They should be as straight as possible and at least 18 inches thick. Lash them together with vines at both ends but leave about two feet of slack vine between them. Either cover this area with a tarp or sit directly between the two trunks armchair-style and float downstream. A long straight pole can be used as an oar: Either pole along or use it like a canoe paddle.
How to Build a Snow Trench
The simplest and quickest type is a shallow scrape deep enough to give protection from the wind and wide enough for air to circulate around you. The snow you dig out can be piled around the sides and compacted, then covered with a tarpaulin for a roof, which can then be covered with more snow. Leave one end of the trench open for an entrance and block the other with a rucksack or more snow. If the snow is compact enough, a more elaborate construction can be made by carving blocks of snow like thick paving slabs (about two feet thick). Lay them flat over the trench or lean them against each other for an A-framed roof that will give more headroom. If no tarpaulin is available and the snow is the wrong consistency for blocks, make a three-foot-diameter snowball, cut it in half, and lay both halves over a narrow trench. Then burrow in from one end and dig the trench wider the deeper you go.