Natural Selection

Survivorman LES STROUD talks about venturing into the world's harshest environments alone, and the importance of a good harmonica.

Les Stroud
Ryan Krogh

In 2000, Canadian Les Stroud carried a few small cameras into the wilderness of Northern Ontario and filmed himself surviving for a week without food or water. Eight years later, that simple television formula has grown into one of Discovery Channel’s most popular shows, and turned Stroud into a household name. This month, Survivorman, is back for its third season and Stroud releases his new book, Survive: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere—Alive
. We caught up with him before his next adventure.

How did you first get into the outdoors?

I’ve been into it since I was a child, but I got into music for a long time as a teenager and as a young adult. Then I made a decisive move away from film, television, and music in my mid-20s and decided to go full hog into nothing but outdoor adventure.

So what did you do?

I saw that there was a survival course at a local college and I thought, well, that’s a great place to start and so I took the course and absolutely loved it. From then on I just jumped in headfirst and did everything I could in outdoor adventure, from sea kayaking to winter camping to white water canoeing to survival. I learned as much as I could, became a guide, developed my own company, and spent ten years doing nothing but paddling a canoe and being in the outdoors.

What’s been the hardest environment to survive in?

The hardest experience was dealing with heat stroke and heat exhaustion in the Kalahari Desert. It was 61 degrees Celsius [141 Fahrenheit] in the sun and it was just intense. One night I wasn’t able to cool down. I was actually getting hotter, so I knew I was getting close to heat stroke, which can kill you pretty quickly. I used a damp cloth to bring my temperature down, and it took me about four or five hours to do that. That was the closest call I’ve had. But as far as the toughest environment, I would always give the nod to any environment where I have to deal with cold. Even in the heat of the desert you can hide under the shade from a tree, but when you’ve got to deal with cold, and you’ve got to escape it, that’s always the toughest.

And what’s the best environment to get stranded in?

Probably what you would imagine, a tropical island. The survival is kind of ideal.

How do you learn about all these different environments?

Some survival skills transfer around the globe, but that doesn’t mean I know what plants to eat in Costa Rica. I’ll spend about a week researching, often with a local expert, the flora and fauna in the area. I’ll find out what’s going to kill me and what’s not going to kill me.

And you have a safety crew, right?

Yeah. There’s a safety crew that’s anywhere from five to thirty miles away, and I have a two-way radio system for them. The problem is that it doesn’t always work—it’s not going to get out through the canopy of a jungle or past canyon walls. So when those moments happen, I’m in serious survival mode. And even if I do have access to them by radio, that doesn’t mean they can get there in time. A bite from a cape cobra can kill you in half an hour.

What’s the appeal of your show?

I think there’s a very deep curiosity that we have as human beings in terms of “Could I really survive if it was me? Could I really live in the jungle or live in the forest if I was stripped down to nothing?” Many of us wonder about that, either in a morbid, fascinating kind of way or a realistic, practical way. I think a lot of people have tapped into the authenticity of what I do, the fact that I really go out there and do it, and that I’m not pulling any punches and I’m not trying to over dramatize anything. I just do what I do.

What’s the best piece of advice for someone who finds themselves in a survival situation?

One of the key things is to rely on yourself. You may go out there with a guide but I always say trust your guide but don’t rely on them. What that means is they’re probably good guides but you need to rely on yourself to be self-sufficient. You need to look at the map, know the route you’re taking, know the campsite you’re trying to make it to, know where the food is, and know where the emergency items are. Take responsibility for yourself. The guides will appreciate that you’re being proactive, and that way you’re effective if you do run into a survival situation.

What’s the biggest mistake people make?

The number one cause of being in a survival situation is lack of preparation. You want to be well prepared before you head into it the wilderness. But the big thing if something does happen is to not panic. It’s panicking that kills. People start moving faster and they feel like something is chasing them. Then they start doing things like not believing in their compasses any more.

Do you like the city at all, or do you feel more comfortable in the wilderness, all by yourself?

I actually love both. I love jumping back and forth between the two worlds. On any given day I could have the good fortune to be in a canoe in the jungle or in some multi-million dollar recording studio.

That’s right, you’re still big into music, aren’t you?

Yep. In fact, one of the things that I’d like to do is a full on concert series where you’ll be seeing my wilderness images spread across the screen and then the band will play live.

So what’s with the harmonica in the backcountry?

I like to have the music with me wherever I go. I play guitar and keyboard and I sing, but the harmonica fits in your pocket. You can’t put a keyboard in your pocket.

The third season of Survivorman premieres Friday, November 7 at 9p.m. eastern.