I used to love watching TV when I was a kid. There were specific shows that would come on that I would tune into: Batman: the Animated Series, Dragon Ball Z, Courage, the Cowardly Dog… I’m showing my age, aren’t I?
With that said, I wasn’t the biggest fan of educational shows. There were a handful of educational programs that I like I’d sit through – albeit reluctantly – and then there were the ‘cool’ educational shows. These were more… mature and, as a wee young’un, I’d watch them with my parents.
Which brings us to the topic of the day: survival TV shows. It’s a genre that’s popular with filmgoers and it’s just as, if not more popular on television – it was also a personal favorite of mine.
There’s just something exhilarating about watching people get into and then out of seriously risky / dangerous situations. It also doesn’t hurt that you get to learn a few new, useful tricks (i.e. building shelters, fire-starting, water filtration, etc.) along the way.
With that said, and bearing in mind that not all shows will be educational in nature, what are some of the best survival-oriented TV shows to watch?
1: Survivor (2000 – Present)
One of the earliest entries in the survival TV show genre that I saw, Survivor takes a group of 16 people and divides them into two teams (tribes). The group must then spend 39 days in a wilderness environment – completing various challenge games to gain rewards.
At the end of every few challenges they’ll have an immunity game where the prize is a trinket of some sort which prevents the one who has it from being voted out of the game.
Usually following the immunity challenge one of the two tribes goes to tribal council and they vote to have one person from the tribe removed from the game. The object of the game is to ultimately be the last man standing – the sole survivor.
The show was popular for several reasons when I was a kid; the challenges are interesting and the locales that they use are phenomenal. Each season takes place in a different place, the seasons I remember the most easily are the Amazon and Palau seasons.
It was popular enough to get a South African spin-of, Survivor South Africa, which was the same thing with South African competitors. Oddly enough, the only season I can name off the top of my head is Cook Islands.
Survivor has faced some criticism over the fact that it’s largely a game show in beautiful outdoor locations. There’s very little in the sense of an actual survival element; you’ve got camera crews, medical aid – things you likely wouldn’t have if you were in a real survival situation.
Still, it’s a great show and it’s still going strong some 20 years after it started so that’s something! As of 2021, the show is heading into its 41st season.
2: Dual Survival (2010 – 2016)
Dual Survival takes two guys who are complete opposites of each other and drops them in situations where they must survive whatever that situation is by working together.
The idea of being stranded in extreme situations is, generally, not pleasant. Add in the element of having your polar opposite with you…yeah, this sounds to me like it can go pear-shaped pretty quickly.
Think about it, two guys with different backgrounds, skills, and viewpoints are forced to work together; there’s bound to be friction between the two. Now, they do work together and pull through (otherwise there wouldn’t be a show) and they impart some useful tips and lessons along the way.
The show premiered in June 2010 and ran for nine seasons before coming to an end in October 2016.
3: Naked and Afraid (2013 – Present)
This one just sounds like a cruel form of punishment. Naked and Afraid drops competitors / participants off in the wilderness buck naked!
They meet a partner of the opposite sex and must work together to survive for a while (a few weeks usually) using only what they can make or find and a single item that they were allowed to bring with them into the wild.
Talk about awkward! I can only imagine how uncomfortable these people must be when they meet the first time; I also know what I’d bring with me – a pair of jeans!
4: Dude, you’re Screwed! (2013 – 2014)
Dude, you’re Screwed! is like the ultimate trolling/practical joke show – the twist here is that the people involved are all experienced outdoorsmen and survivalists.
One member of the group is selected at random and ‘kidnapped’. The kidnapped person is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and must survive while getting to a specific place where he’s picked up and rejoins the group.
As each member of the group is a survivalist, they get to test their skills and have fun – if you can call being stranded fun – in the process.
5: Survivor Man (2005 – 2016)
If you’re in the survivalist scene, you’ve probably heard the name Les Stroud a few times and for good reason. Survivor Man sees Les Stroud dropped off in the wilderness with only a camera and a few tools to help him survive the environment in which he finds himself.
He sets up the camera, and films everything he does to show you how you could survive on your own in the wilderness.
6: Alone (2015 – Present)
How do I describe this one? Seven couples are separated and dropped off in the wilderness. They have to navigate the terrain to find their partner and then use the tools they were given to survive the season – recording pretty much everything that they do as they go along. Last couple standing at the end of the season wins $500,000 – a fair deal if you ask me.
This is the ultimate test for relationships, to see how well you stick together in hard times. It doesn’t hurt to be entertaining either.
7: Out of the Wild (2008 – 2011)
Imagine Survivor without all the challenges, tribal council, immunity idols, and rewards. That’s what Out of the Wild is. The show takes a group of regular people and drops them off in the wilderness with minimal supplies.
They must get from point A to point B, stopping off at small checkpoints for supplies and rest along the way. Oh, and the best part? Getting from point to point (including the camps) involves trekking over rough terrain where your first mistake may also be your last.
There’s something about a group of inexperienced outdoorsmen trying to survive in harsh environments which just fascinates me. These people have little to no idea what they’re doing, and their mistakes can cause a lot of problems; but watching them learn and adapt as they go through is very satisfying to watch.
8: Doomsday Preppers (2011 – 2014)
Doomsday Preppers is exactly what it sounds like a show about people preparing for the end of the world. What makes this one interesting is that the contestants – if you can call them that – don’t seem like preppers at all. That might sound a bit odd but let me explain, when you think of a ‘prepper’ what comes to mind?
Big guys with beards and lots of food, water, weapons, and so on – right? Well, these guys don’t fit the stereotypical Rambo-like image that non-prepper folks think of when they think of preppers. They’re office workers, bankers, lawyers; just normal people who are secretly stockpiling supplies.
Even more interesting than the players are their setups, some are preparing for nuclear fallout, others are gearing up for surviving Mother Nature in a bad mood. The variety of setups is fascinating and while some of the guys do seem a little off their rockers – if you’ll pardon the expression – it’s worth a watch.
9: I Shouldn’t Be Alive (2005 – 2012)
I Shouldn’t Be Alive is a series that dramatizes true life stories about people who were caught in situations where their odds of survival were very slim and survived anyway. There are so many shows like this one that it would be difficult to count them all.
Some of the stories shared on this show are truly horrific and will leave you with a distinct uncomfortable feeling. Others will have you grinding your teeth in frustration over some of stupid decisions that some of these people make.
There’s no real beginning or ending point to the series so you can just dive in with any of the episodes and see how you like it. If this kind of thing is your jam, then I Shouldn’t Be Alive is definitely worth watching!
10: Man, Woman, Wild (2010 – 2012)
The setup here is simple: a former special forces soldier and his wife are dropped off in remote locations with minimal supplies and must survive for a while in these environments before being picked up.
One description I read about this show talked about getting tips on how to deal with tough situations like the ones shown when you’re with your significant other. This is actually a pretty good point, tempers flare more easily when under extreme pressure.
When you’re in these kinds of situations, having someone there to help you physically and psychologically is a major bonus – especially if that person is survival-savvy. The last thing you want to do is lose that support by losing your temper. More than that, though, this show can also help you learn to generally keep your wits about you.
If this sounds like something that interests you, then check out Man, Woman, Wild.
11: Extreme Survival with Ray Mears (1999 – 2002)
Outdoorsman and TV personality, Ray Mears created this one and he spends each episode demonstrating survival skills and telling stories of survival in harsh environments. The series ran from 1999 to 2002 and was very popular at the time of its release.
This is kind of like a mix of I Shouldn’t Be Alive and Dual Survival or Man vs. Wild. If that sounds like something that interests you then give this one a look.
12: Lone Target (2014 – 2015)
Lone Target follows Joel Lambert, a former Navy SEAL, as he uses his expertise to evade manhunts. These manhunts are held by various military and law enforcement organizations, and Lambert has to get to a specific place/objective within a set time.
Of course, nothing is going to go according to plan and the pursuing unit isn’t the only issue; mother nature has a few surprises of her own.
The show aired on the Discovery network in January 2014, and ran for a total of twelve episodes before coming to an end on July 28, 2015.
Quick note: the IMDB page for Lone Target lists 14 episodes instead of twelve.
13: Hunting Chris Ryan (2003)
Hunting Chris Ryan is like Lone Target. It takes a former member of the SAS, Chris Ryan, and drops him in a tough environment with the task of completing a specific objective while avoiding a team of ‘hunters’ who are trying to stop him.
Each hour-long episode pushes Ryan to his absolute limit and the viewer is along for the ride. Unfortunately, there are only three episodes but if you’ve never tried survival-related television then this is a good starting point. You can use it like a litmus test and see how you like it.
14: Danger! 50,000 Volts (2002)
A sort of spoof on the outdoor survival genre, Danger! 50,000 Volts showcases a variety of life-threatening situations with tips from survival experts on how to handle them. The use of danger signs and British humor makes this an…interesting, if not amusing watch.
15: Man vs. Wild (2006 – 2011)
Anything with Bear Grylls involved is going to be an entertaining watch. This one follows a tried-and-true formula. Bear Grylls is dropped, with a camera crew, into an environment with limited resources and has to survive and find his way back to civilization. Sounds cool, right?
Well, despite some criticisms about some of the stuff being staged; the show was immensely popular. It ran on the Discovery network for seven seasons from 2006 to 2011 before the network cancelled their contract with Grylls due to a contract dispute.
Grylls’ many demonstrations of survival techniques are easy to understand – although, learning to survive in these environments is going to take more than watching a TV show. If you haven’t seen this one, I definitely recommend it.
16: Running Wild with Bear Grylls (2014 – Present)
Running Wild with Bear Grylls is basically Man vs. Wild with a twist. What is that twist? Why, the inclusion of a celebrity of course!
Bear takes a different celebrity along for the ride on his adventures and teaches them various survival skills. He’s been accompanied by the likes of Kate Winslet, Zac Efron, Michelle Rodriguez, Vanessa Hudgens, Scott Eastwood and others.
The show started in 2014 and is still going strong having started its 6th season earlier in 2021.
17: The Island (2014 – Present)
The Island is the UK’s version of Survivor; the basic premise is that a group of people are dropped off on a deserted island with minimal tools/resources and left to their own devices.
Contestants have to stay on the island for a month or two, and their survival skills are put to the test. It’s a test of the survival skills of average 21st Century Joes.
The show started in 2014 and has faced some controversies with allegations of animal cruelty over the death of a crocodile, to sexism (the first season was all-men), to fakery, but it became immensely popular, and 6 seasons were produced from the show’s inception.
been going ever since, the 7th season was supposed to be started in 2020 but, of course, COVID-19 kind of changed things.
18: Escape from Hell w. Bear Grylls (2013)
Escape from Hell is another Bear Grylls offering and this one was sadly short-lived. The show started in 2013 and ran for 6 episodes before presumably being cancelled.
Essentially, the show recreates the stories of people who’ve survived against all odds in hostile environments with Bear demonstrating what was done correctly and, more importantly, what was done incorrectly.
This is an interesting watch, and I can definitely see the appeal, it’s a pity the show didn’t last longer. If you get the chance, I highly recommend checking this one out; it’s worth your time.
19: What Should You Do? (2003 – 2006)
Airing 29 episodes between 2003 and 2006 What Should You Do? was a reality TV show that told stories of survival – with re-enactments of the events.
At the end of each episode, the host, Leeza Gibbons, would ask the question: What should you do? and the audience would be presented with a bullet list of things to do compiled based on the advice provided by survival experts throughout the episode.
Stories vary from kidnappings to car accidents and beyond so there’s tons of learning material in the show.
20: I Survived (2008 – 2015)
I Survived was a show that occasionally gave me nightmares. The show documents the stories of survivors and how they were able to get out of their situations. It’s kind of like the proverbial little brother to I Shouldn’t Be Alive.
If this sounds interesting and you get a chance, check it out.
21: Fight to Survive (2014 – 2015)
Craig DeMartino survived a near-fatal fall in a climbing accident, and now he takes people who’ve been in survival situations back to the scenes of their accidents and tells their stories. The re-enactments are great and the stories that go with them are harrowing.
The series was rather short-lived running from 2014 to 2015 for 20 episodes. It’s a great series to watch, and it’s worth your time.
22: Human Prey (2009)
Human Prey was a short, six-episode series that aired on Animal Planet in 2009 and followed incidents where humans became prey for wild animals. Compared to some of the other series on this list; this one may seem out of place. The focus of the series is on the animal and animal behavior and each episode breaks down what happens in a situation to trigger the attacks of the animals.
The interviews with the survivors of these incidents are great; they talk about their experiences and how the incidents affected them before, during, and afterwards.
It’s probably not what you typically think of when you think about ‘survival’ shows but it’s an interesting watch just the same and I highly recommend it.
Your Watch List just Grew!
Well, there you have it; I just extended your to-watch list, didn’t I? In all seriousness, this was a blast to write and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
The survival sub-genre is full of weird and wonderful titles, and you won’t necessarily enjoy everything you see. With that said, there’s always going to be something for everyone.
In closing, I hope you enjoyed the article and that your watch lists grew substantially. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next article. Take care, and happy viewing!