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Bear Grylls’s most entertaining outing comes with Running Wild, which partners him up with celebrities. (Photo: Courtesy National Geographic/Ben Simms)

The 10 Best Outdoor Reality Shows of All Time

From ‘Naked and Afraid’ to ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls,’ these are our picks for the most riveting adventure series on TV

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There’s never been a greater time to see the wonders of the great outdoors from the comfort of your own home. Ever since the meteoric rise of reality television in the late 1990s, couch potatoes around the world have been obsessed with seeing the lives and behaviors of people who were just like them, rather than the Hollywood stars who occupied scripted series.

The stories we’ve seen across decades of reality television have shown the triumph of the human spirit against some of the most arduous circumstances. And nowhere is that more apparent than in outdoor reality shows, which pit humans against nature to see if they have what it takes to survive. We’ve picked ten of the greatest outdoor reality shows over the years, taking us from the blistering tropics to the freezing tundra and everywhere in between.

‘Survivor’ (2000–Present)

Of course we have to start with one of the biggest shows in modern reality television: Survivor. The series takes a group of strangers from different walks of life and strands them in the wilderness with only the clothes on their backs and some meager supplies. Their goal: build a functioning society, eliminating their fellow contestants along the way. When the show debuted in 2000, millions of viewers were hooked by the participants’ strong personalities and their battling of the elements. Over its 40-plus seasons, with a new one premiering this fall, the CBS juggernaut has shown contestants doing everything from eating rats for nutrition to facing off with lions in the middle of Kenya.

Watch it on CBS or stream it on Paramount+ or Hulu.

‘Eco-Challenge’ (1995–2002, 2019)

Before über-producer Mark Burnett became famous for Survivor, he created Eco-Challenge. The documentary series, considered a forerunner of modern reality television, took teams of four or five adventurous people and gave them a not-so-simple goal: traverse a 300-mile course by hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, and even scuba diving. The groups raced 24 hours a day to reach the end first. Eco-Challenge popularized the sport of adventure racing and even garnered a revival season that ran in 2020 on Amazon Prime.

Watch the latest season on Amazon Prime.

‘Alone’ (2015–Present)

If you were left in the wilderness by yourself, with few supplies, as temperatures began to drop, how long do you think you would survive? It’s a question that’s been answered for dozens of people on the History Channel series Alone. The series has a simple concept: get dropped off in the middle of nowhere and see if you can stick it out. Most seasons last as long as contestants can bear it before “tapping out” along the way due to injury or mental fatigue. With some journeys lasting as long as 100 days, Alone shows how the real danger may not be what’s out there, but what’s in your head.

Watch it on the History Channel or Hulu.

‘Naked and Afraid’ (2013–Present)

It’s definitely the most ridiculous concept on this list. Two strangers are tasked with staying alive in the wilderness for 21 days. Oh, and they have no clothes on. Now in its 12th season, the skin-showing survival series has sent its contestants all around the world for this unique three-week experiment. While the conceit of the series sounds like a parody, Naked and Afraid is alarmingly serious. If you can look past the blurs, you’ll see not only a test of survival skills but also partnership and camaraderie between two complete strangers.

Watch it on the Discovery Channel or stream it on Discovery+.

‘Alaska: The Last Frontier’ (2011–Present)

All the previous shows on this list pit people against the elements in pursuit of an ultimate prize. But there are many noncompetitive series, like Alaska: The Last Frontier, that are just as compelling. The Discovery Channel show depicts the lives of the Kilcher family as they try to build a life off the grid without the use of any modern amenities. Now going ten years strong, the series is equal parts survival show and family drama, as the clan consistently works against the clock to prepare themselves for what is always a long and harsh winter.

Watch it on the Discovery Channel or stream it on Discovery+.

‘Man, Woman, Wild’ (2010–2012)

Something as simple as building Ikea furniture can be stressful enough to tear apart even the strongest relationships. Now imagine doing that with your life on the line. That’s the concept of Man, Woman, Wild, in which former U.S. Army Special Forces survival expert Mykel Hawke and his television journalist wife, Ruth England, are dropped off in inhospitable settings, such as the caves of Croatia or the Amazon rainforest. In each episode, Mykel teaches his wife—and the audience by proxy—several survival techniques, as the pair attempt to last half a week in the wilderness. The interpersonal dynamics heighten the stakes, showing how tense a situation can get even when you’re alongside your best friend.

Stream it on Discovery+.

‘Dual Survival’ (2010–2016)

Dual Survival is another show that’s compelling for both the survival tips and the dynamic between the hosts. In this case, it’s naturalist Cody Lundin and military survival expert Dave Canterbury. The guys get stranded in various scenarios and have to survive with minimal gear. The fun comes from the two’s interactions and how their survival methods contrast, with Canterbury’s by-the-book nature bristling against Lundin’s free spirit. Even after the original two hosts had moved on, Dual Survival brought in eight others during its run, a sign of a true winning formula.

Watch it on the Discovery Channel or stream it on Discovery+.

‘Life Below Zero’ (2013–Present)

Like Alaska: The Last Frontier, this series takes place in remote areas of the 49th state. But instead of focusing on one group, National Geographic’s Life Below Zero takes a look at various people across Alaska who are attempting to live off the land. The series is most successful because of its characters; though they all share the same goal—to survive off the grid by any means possible—they are all strikingly different people. From the Hailstone family of nine to Jessie Holmes, who lives with his 40 sled dogs, each person’s backstory is gripping.

Watch it on National Geographic or stream it on Disney+.

‘Survivorman’ (2005–2016)

We finish with some survivalist show stars who have become household names. In this case, it’s the titular “survivorman,” Canadian filmmaker and survival expert Les Stroud. In every episode, he goes to a remote location for upwards of a week, equipped with minimal supplies. He’s then left to himself, filming his own experience as a one-man camera crew. The series put a less polished, more intimate style of outdoor reality show on the map. Survivorman became such a game changer for the genre that it was even parodied on an episode of The Office.

Watch it on Stroud’s YouTube channel.

‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls’ (2014–Present)

No list of outdoor reality shows is complete without mentioning Bear Grylls. The British adventurer made a name for himself in his long-running Man vs. Wild. But his most entertaining outing comes with Running Wild, which partners him up with celebrities. In each episode, Grylls and a famous guest traverse the wilderness, and the stars are in for a shock as soon as they step out of Hollywood. From sports stars (Drew Brees, Deion Sanders) to actors (Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, Terry Crews) to former presidents (Barack Obama), Running Wild shows how much the great outdoors can appeal to all of us—it’s why the outdoor reality show genre has been going strong for 25 years and counting.

Watch it on National Geographic or stream it on Disney+.

Lead Photo: Courtesy National Geographic/Ben Simms
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