Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Realist: Thoughts on "Naked and Afraid"

Guest post by The Realist....

I've been watching Discovery's Naked and Afraid since it first started airing. This summer, Discovery aired a special Naked and Afraid XL series. Naked and Afraid is a show best watched in the background, while you are doing something else like reading news or answering email. The show emphasizes the drama over actual survival. But, even with all the drama, there are some lessons to be gleaned from the shows.

The basic premise of the show is to drop a man and a woman who have never met before (along with a production crew) in a remote wilderness environment with no clothing and one survival item each. (For the prurient who may be reading this, the show carefully blurs out certain body parts and there is no sexual activity.) The two cast members hike to a location where they will set up camp for most of the period of time. Then as the end of the 21 day survival ordeal approaches, the cast members travel (usually involving a water obstacle to traverse) to an "extraction" point where they are picked up.

Naked and Afraid XL takes a dozen "survivors" from prior Naked and Afraid episodes and drops them off in several small groups near each other in a wilderness area. Again, each cast member is allowed one survival item. The survival period is 40 days.

Typically, the the location chosen is a tropical/jungle location of some sort, although several locations have been semi-arid.

Cast members have the option of "tapping out" at any time if they feel they cannot make it to the end or they suffer a serious medical event.

After the first season, it was apparent that cast members would prepare ahead of time for the ordeal by walking barefoot to toughen up their feet, and eating high calorie foods (peanut butter mentioned frequently) to add extra fat to carry them through the 21 days.

The most common survival items chosen were a knife or small machete and a fire starting device (frequently a Blast Match). In the most recent season, a couple of times a cast member chose a metal pot in which to boil water and cook whatever meager food might be found.

Lessons gleaned from the shows

Fire. Fire is a life critical survival tool. Fire is important for a variety of reasons, including purifying water, providing warmth, cooking food, providing light at night, and usually keeping predators at bay.

The Blast Match works pretty well when dry tinder is properly prepared. Although, the flint bar will break if too much side pressure is applied, which happened in one episode.

Clothing. Obviously, clothing is important. The lack of shoes made walking difficult and unpleasant, and resulted in occasional injuries (e.g. infection caused by thorns breaking off under the skin). The lack of clothes resulted in sun burns, increased bug bites, and various other minor injuries. In a couple of episodes, the lack of clothing combined with unexpectedly cool weather resulted in cast members becoming very cold and at risk of hypothermia. When presented with the risk of hypothermia, a production crew medic would step in to measure body temperature.

Food. There was never enough food. Women would typically loose around 15 pounds and men would typically loose around 25 pounds during the 21 day ordeal. Some cast members were more skilled than others at being able to catch fish and/or reptiles for food. Catching warm blooded animals was rare. Insects were frequently consumed. And, lots of plant food was eaten when found. A secondary issue with food was the difficulty in obtaining protein. Protein is necessary to physical and mental health. I was surprised to learn how important protein is to brain function.

Animal flesh obtained for food should be cooked to kill worms and other parasites. In one episode where a lizard was caught, it had worms the size of night-crawlers inside it, and another animal caught that episode was full of tape worms. Snake meat must be cooked (but not overcooked) to be edible. Insects should be cooked because they can contain parasites.

The early effects of starvation were educational to observe. The effects came on much quicker and were more dramatic than I would have expected. First, physical energy reduced dramatically. Second, many people became quite irritable, with some exhibiting depression. Third, the starvation impaired other mental functions like problem solving.

Safe Drinking Water. Having enough safe drinking water was always a challenge. The first few days of the ordeal, cast members would become severely dehydrated as they searched for a water source and came up with some method of purifying water (usually boiling). Sometimes in desperation, a cast member would drink water that had not been purified. Sometimes they got lucky, sometimes they became gravely ill.

Scavenging. In a couple of episodes, cast members found abandoned containers which gave them the means to efficiently boil water for drinking. In one instance, a cast member found a small glass jar near the beginning of their trek, which later became a bearing block/socket for a bow drill for starting a fire. Even when seemingly in the middle of nowhere, watch for items lost or abandoned by others that may be useful.

Insects. Biting insects were a universal bane of the cast (and probably the production crew). In most episodes, cast members would be quickly covered in insect bite welts. Occasionally, the bites had more serious health consequences. Cast members would frequently cover their skin with a thin layer of mud in an effort to deter the insects.

Use all senses. Using all senses is important. In one of the Naked and Afraid XL episodes, a cast member smelled a large snake before she could see or hear it. This smell was identified based prior encounters with large snakes. In a couple of cases, the smell of a fire allowed someone from one group to detect and find the camp of another group.

Health. Medical issues can pop up unexpectedly. Besides waterborne illnesses and foot issues previously discussed, other injuries can occur. In one episode, a cast member became very ill from an allergic reaction to the sap of a tree they camped under. The other cast member was eventually able to find a natural antidote, that saved the ill cast member from having to tap-out. In another episode, a cast member injured themselves while chopping something with a knife. The cut on a finger went all the way to the bone. The production crew medic ended up suturing the cut without anesthetic - otherwise the cast member would have been evacuated (tapped out). Heat stress injuries, exacerbated by dehydration, were common. There were many other medical issues that popped up, requiring intervention of the production crew medic. Without the medic, or in a true emergency survival situation, those injuries could have been fatal.

Realistic assessment of skills. With a couple of exceptions, most cast members severely overestimated their wilderness prowess and survival skills. Maybe their skills were good for North America, but not other environments.

Team cooperation. Cooperation with team members was important. Where cast members got along with each other, worked together, and emotionally supported each other, their likelihood of success increased significantly over those who couldn't cooperate.

Mental attitude. The survival ordeal was as much a mental challenge as a physical challenge. Many cast members who tapped out gave up mentally. A positive can-do endure-to-the-end attitude was immensely important for success.


A new season of Naked and Afraid starts in a few weeks. The show is primarily about drama under contrived circumstances - traveling naked into a wilderness environment. Don't watch it expecting learn anything about wilderness survival. On the other hand, if you want to watch how people react to starvation and dehydration, it has some educational value.

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