The last big news most Americans heard about Bear Grylls was his very public breakup with the Discovery Channel, in the spring 2012. At the time, headlines screamed that the charming British host of the hit survival show Man vs. Wild had been “fired.” The truth was more complicated, as I reported in a feature profile of Grylls for Outside that fall. But still, it was a critical moment for the king of adventure television: What does he do now?
Gone With the Wind
The answer, it appears, is everything. On July 8, NBC will premiere his first-ever network series, Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls, a weekly reality game show that plays out (roughly) in the Survivor model: Ten two-person teams try to prove their mettle in the wilds of New Zealand. Each week, Grylls sends one team home. The duo left standing at the end wins $500,000. Later in the fall, Discovery will debut another brand new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell, which has him retracing horrific real-life survival tales. (The cable giant has also purchased the rights to air Get Out Alive after the show runs its course on NBC.) The 39-year-old also has a new book (his 12th), A Survival Guide for Life, new gear (including a boat), a growing network of survival schools (Bear Grylls Survival Academy), and, coming towards the end of the year, an obstacle race (BG Survival Run).
I recently phoned Grylls at his family’s barge on the River Thames in London, where he was enjoying a brief break with his wife and three sons, to talk about Get Out Alive and his life as the world’s busiest and best-known survivalist.
OUTSIDE: It’s been an interesting year for you. When we spoke in the spring of 2012, you really weren’t sure when you’d be on TV next.
GRYLLS: That was a pretty tricky time for us—we were right in the heart of all those tricky negotiations but we steered our way through it. Ultimately I really wanted the freedom to make some of our own shows. It’s a bit like a teenager leaving home, there’s a certain amount of pain. But I always said to them, Let me make Get Out Alive, you’re going to love the show, and then we’ll come back and make some other shows for you. We’ve done that and it’s so nice. I feel much lighter now.
Get Out Alive is a big departure from Man vs. Wild, which was all about you.
It’s the show that I’ve always wanted to make. I get the biggest kick from taking other people out, whether it’s people on expeditions, or the few cases where I took celebrities with me on Man vs. Wild, or what we’re doing with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. So I wanted to take 20 regular Americans on these big journeys and guide them and help them to fly. There are ten couples, whether it’s mother-daughter, father-son, married couple, best friends. Each week I send one couple home that least shows the qualities that I’m after.
So what qualities were you after?
It’s everything—not just determinations and courage. It’s just as much about humility and kindness and going that extra mile for your friend. You see people arrive wide-eyed without any knowledge of the values or skills that matter. And then they click in and realize it’s about digging deep.
Was it hard for you to send people home?
It was easier at the start. But as they really went through hell and I started to restrict the gear they were taking and the journeys got bigger, I got really close to them. In the last episode, we had three couples. We were in the rainforest in torrential storm conditions. They had no gear at this point—no sleeping bags no tents, nothing. It’s very moving when you see people with real relationships go through that together.
When you were casting the show, did you have a specific idea of the kinds of characters you wanted?
I didn’t want just classic reality TV melodramatic whining. I wanted people who had a real reason to go through this with me. Not just the money, but the fact that they would get to know each other in a way that sometimes you have to be married 20 years to get to know someone like that. People who wanted to prove to themselves and each other that they had heart and they had soul and spirit. That they could put up with hardship and get on with it.
Given your habits, I assume the hardships included eating disgusting things
I’ve always said: Wild food is never going to be pretty and it’s never going to taste nice but it’s a big part of surviving. It was interesting seeing people who’ve never done anything like this drinking their own pee or eating worms and maggots and fish eyeballs and all of that. But it was all for a purpose. If you don’t eat then you lack the energy and you suffer and your performance is weaker and you can’t help people and other people have to help you.
What can you tell me about your other upcoming new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell?
We’ve almost finished it. I follow the most incredible stories of people who’ve got into nightmare situations in jungles, deserts, mountains. I redo their journeys and show what they did right, what they did wrong, and champion their stories. They’re really moving stories of everyday people who should have died, really. We did one in the Rockies, in the Guatemalan jungle, in the Sahara. We’re about to go to the Alps.
Two new shows and you have time to oversee the Bear Grylls Survival Academy?
We’ve seen incredible growth this year. I didn’t expect it. I thought it, Oh, it’ll be a nice run with a couple of schools around the U.K. But it’s just gone crazy. We’ve started these father-son, mother-daughter 24-hour survival courses and they’re booked out for four years in advance now. We’re also opening up a couple of school in the U.S. and we’re licensing out as well to other schools.
How involved are you in the curriculum? And what would I actually learn on a course?
I totally wrote the course initially. But it wasn’t hard—stuff I do in my sleep. I know exactly what pushes people and builds people. Then we brought a lot of ex-military guys we’ve worked with and ex-Man vs. Wild team that I’ve worked with. And then we got them to train people. It doesn’t take long to get the brand and the style and the stuff that matters. Instead of just boring bush crafty survival things where people are whittling a spoon out of a bit of wood we have them doing river crossing in the Scottish Highlands and unarmed combat up a mountain by lantern at night.
That sounds more like an obstacle race. Have you thought about creating one yet?
We’re doing it! We’re devising one at the moment called BG Survival Run at the end of the year in the U.S.
Of course you are.
It’s gonna be a really fun 12K, big numbers of people, and all based around survival and teamwork and having fun. So many people over Twitter and Facebook over the last year have been saying, “You should do one of these! You could do it in such a cool way.” You see so many companies clutching at ideas—Grecian races or whatever. But it’s so logical for us to do a really gritty, muddy, dirty survival-based run.
Anything else I’m missing?
A Survival Guide to Life, my new book, has done well over here in the U.K. and is launching soon in the U.S. It’s all the lessons of life I’ve learned. It was voted the most influential book in China in 2012—beat Obama! Oh, and we’ve launched our RIBs.
What on earth is a rib?
Look it up: bgribs.com. They’re the most incredible hardcore offshore rigid inflatable boats—RIBs. And then we’ve hugely extended all our gear ranges, from tents to backpacks to sleeping bags.
It’s safe to say you landed on your feet after last year’s breakup with Discovery.
We’ve been super lucky. We’ve worked hard. But for me, all off these things—the TV shows, the books, the gear—are about inspiring people to be better, stronger, and be braver in the big moments. I get such a kick out of hearing and telling these stories. It’s all good fun.