Here are the rules to Discovery’s long-running reality show, Naked and Afraid: Two people, a man and a woman, are naked. They’re deposited into wilderness with just a few tools, often a knife, a fire starter, and a pot. They face predators, parasites, sunburn, cold, hunger, and each other. Their goal is to survive for three weeks, but there’s no prize for completing the challenge, and anyone can tap out at any time. The finished episodes, with their blurred genitals and Edenic concept, are strangely wholesome, family-friendly. It’s a sufferfest for glory, a chance to face nature and win.
In April 2018, my husband and I were invited to apply for the show. Apparently, years ago, I had nominated us for a now defunct couples’ survival program—which I don’t remember, though it’s something I would do—and the application made its way to a casting agent. We thought the wilderness challenge seemed like fun. What was the harm in trying out?
We sent in some videos, traveled to Los Angeles for interviews, took extensive multiple-choice personality tests, and tried our best to seem charming and competent. After we flew home to Wisconsin, Discovery called to say we’d gotten the gig—but that we’d be separated and sent to different locations. We just had to wait for our placements. From then on, it was all we thought about for months.
I thought I’d do pretty well at the challenge. At 30, I had worked in the outdoors professionally for more than a decade. I’d guided and thru-hiked and crossed the Arctic by dogsled, and I’d read a lot of survival stories. In books, it seemed like survivors either shaped the wilderness—made it like home—or went feral, becoming part of it themselves, and I had a pretty good idea how my experience would play out. I’d set up a cozy lean-to on a tropical beach, tip rocks for hermit crabs (four calories each), and weave rugs and baskets by firelight after dusk. I’d recognize my partner as my greatest survival asset, even if he wasn’t someone I’d pick. I even had my sound bites ready. “I don’t see this as a test of toughness,” I’d say, squinting at the setting sun. “I see it as a test of creativity.” Boom. Cut to commercial.
That summer, as we got ready, it all felt like a game. Every morning for an hour, I practiced starting fires with a bow drill. I sprayed a stinky liquid called Tuf-Foot on the soles of my feet. I built deadfall traps from logs and made snares with yarn, catching my husband in doorways throughout the house. I quizzed him: Which birds can you eat? Which reptiles? When I walked in the woods, I saw each plant in a new light: the stalks that could structure a thatch roof, the fibrous stems that could twist into rope. I drank milkshakes to gain weight and studied how to tap rubber.
I got vaccinations for typhoid fever and Japanese encephalitis. “I’m going to be on Naked and Afraid,” I told my doctor.
“What is wrong with you?” he said. Then he called in his nurses to tell them the news.
“Could you do it in the forest here?” one of the nurses asked. “The bugs would kill you.”
“Or the meth dealers,” said the other nurse.
My mom said she wasn’t worried. My dad forwarded me articles about how it’s dangerous to eat slugs.
I even made a plan for moments during the challenge that I didn’t want filmed: I would sing songs with expensive licensing fees so that Discovery couldn’t use the footage. The Beatles were famously pricey, right? If I got diarrhea, I’d sing “Hey Jude” at the top of my lungs.