For 13 years Kelley has been been fascinated by the various survival shows on TV—even though he doesn't like camping!
The appeal of the wild for me is its unpredictability. You have to develop an awareness, react fast, be resourceful and come up with a plan and act on it.
— Bear Grylls
Survivalists have been around for thousands, if not millions of years, but only in recent decades have they appeared on reality or docu-series TV shows, impressing audiences with their toughness, resolve, skill, knowledge and adaptability. Consequently, some of them have acquired household names and even become TV stars in their own right. This list suggests 14 of the best but almost certainly doesn’t include every one of the best; after all, the author hasn’t seen every survivalist on the planet. It’s also heavily weighted toward English-speaking men and women, as they dominate American, Canadian and British TV—for some crazy reason!
Incidentally, this compilation is written in no particular order, because only the winners of some imaginary contest could establish the best of this brawny bunch. One may wonder if there is such a stellar survivalist show in the works. Well, if the public wants it badly enough, it will happen.
Please keep reading!
1. Ken Rhee
Ken Rhee was a member of the Underwater Demolition Team of the Republic of South Korea Seals, attaining the rank of lieutenant; he also spent two years training with the US Navy Seals. Thereafter, Rhee began appearing on internet productions and survivalist TV programs; he appeared as a trainer on Fake Men, a YouTube series, thereby gaining fame and fortune in his native South Korea. Rhee also appeared on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s First Man Out, in which he challenged Ed Stafford in a five-day race to the extraction point in the badlands of Kazakhstan’s Altyn-Yemel National Park. “Kazakhstan is probably the most severe terrain I have ever come across,” Stafford said. Rhee lost the race only by minutes; it seems he spent too much time building a raft from scratch! Nevertheless, Rhee will almost certainly return for many more survivalist challenges in the future.
2. E.J. “Skullcrusher” Snyder
The nickname “Skullcrusher” certainly applies to E.J. Snyder, since he’s mastered all aspects of survival, including hand-to-hand combat, and could certainly crush a skull or two if he needed to do so. Actually, Snyder acquired this moniker while serving in the US Army for 25 years; he’s also a graduate of the US Army Ranger School and served in a combat roll during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Moreover, Snyder worked for seven years as an instructor for military survival and self-reliance. After leaving the service, Snyder began appearing in such TV survivalist fare as Naked and Afraid, Dual Survival, Man vs. Amazon and Naked and Afraid XL. Snyder has also acted in many other TV shows and movies, particularly Lost and Patton 360. Tough as nails and showing an in-your-face demeanor, Snyder could probably survive just about any survivalist scenario— asteroid strike, tsunami, H-bomb detonation—piece of cake!
3. Kellie Nightlinger
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According to an online biography, survivalist Kellie Nightlinger says she can live in the wilderness with few tools; she particularly enjoys living in the remote areas of Canada. Notably, she has her own company—U.P. Wide Adventure Guide, in which she teaches people about kayaking, spelunking, snorkeling at shipwrecks, bear, deer and wild boar hunting, cross country skiing, skijoring, winter camping and many other aspects of bush craft such as backpacking and living off the land. Her motto is: “Life is short, live for the dash.” Nightlinger has appeared on the Discovery Channel’s program Naked and Afraid, an episode on which she—along with survivalist E.J. Snyder—must survive for 21 days without being given food, water or clothes, just one survival item each, before trekking over the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, Africa. It seems safe to write that Nightlinger appears able to survive in just about any wilderness situation for days, months or even years.
4. Mykel Hawke
Mykel Hawke spent 26 years in the US Army Special Forces (12 years active duty), achieving the rank of captain and serving in battle-scarred Africa and fought narcotraffickers in Colombia. Excelling in martial arts, Hawke has earned black belts in both Aikido and judo. Now retired from the military, Hawke has done survivalist work on the Discovery Channel’s One Man Army, Science of Survival and Man, Woman, Wild, the latter of which he appeared with his wife, Ruth England. Hawke also appeared with his wife on the Travel Channel’s Lost Survivors. Hawke has also written books about survival: Hawke’s Green Beret Survival Manual (2009) and Hawke's Special Forces Survival Handbook: The Portable Guide to Getting Out Alive (2011). Hawke also speaks seven languages and has two college degrees. Obviously a tough guy who’s acquired an impressive skills set, Hawke may also be the brainiest person on this august list!
5. Ray Mears
Ray Mears is an expert on all manner of wilderness survival skills and may also be a so-called tree hugger, as he advocates what he calls bushcraft, “the art of understanding and being at one with the natural world.” To further that endeavor, Mears owns the company Woodlore, which sells outdoor gear. Now a wilderness icon of sorts, Mears insists he’s not a celebrity such as Bear Grylls, another survivalist Brit of note. Over the years, Mears has hosted many BBC television shows: Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival, Ray Mears’ Bushcraft, Ray Mears Wild Food, Ray Mears Northern Wilderness and Wild Britain with Ray Mears. Mears also hosted Survival with Ray Mears, a program investigating the plight of endangered species such as leopards, wolves and bears.
Notably, in 2014, Mears hosted How the Wild West Was Won, a TV miniseries about how the Wild West was “really won,” as the title seems to suggest. And, in 2021, Mears hosted Wild China with Ray Mears.
6. Laura Zerra
Laura Zerra is your quintessential outdoorsy young woman and became a survival enthusiast at a young age. Zerra was born in Massachusetts and studied ethnobiology at Connecticut College. When she wasn’t cracking the books, she began making bows and arrows, studied wild plants and tracked game. She even hit the local highways looking for road kill, so she could tan the hides she collected. In spite of being vegan, she started eating meat, because she wanted to learn to hunt. Utilizing such wilderness skills, Zerra began in 2013 a stint on the Discovery Channel’s show, Naked and Afraid, on which cast members, while naked, must survive for 21-days in wild places such as the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. Zerra did so well they invited her back for Naked and Afraid XL, which demanded 40 days of survival on the Colombian savannah.
On Zerra’s Facebook page, she lists such interests as antler hunting, bow hunting, cutting meat, horse packing, hide tanning, primitive and urban survival, the jungle, alternative forms of travel, scuba diving, rock climbing, extreme cold, bow making, the open ocean, skinning animals, spontaneity, deep sea fishing, pushing edges, and new experiences. What’d she leave out?!
7. Tom McElroy
Tom McElroy, while in his twenties, spent one full year living off the land; he built his own shelter, purified drinking water, fished, hunted with a bow and arrow he made and gathered edible herbs and wild vegetables. He’s lived and trained with various indigenous tribes, such as the Huaorani of the Amazon rainforest and the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyon region in Mexico and lived with a shaman in a thatched hut hundreds of miles off the coast of Sumatra. McElroy is so good at wilderness survival that he became one of the instructors at Tracker Inc., Tom Brown’s Wilderness Survival, Awareness and Tracking School. He’s also starred on the Discovery Channel’s programs Solo Survival and Naked and Afraid.
8. Hazen Audel
Starring on National Geographic’s Primal Survivor, Hazen Audel has spent 20 years learning survival skills while living with the indigenous peoples of Indonesia, Panama, Mongolia, Kenya, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Nepal and Tanzania. Born in America, Audel has Native American blood—the Kootenai and Salish people from his mother’s side of the family. Audel can speak several languages most people have probably never heard of; and, at the age of 18, he began learning about the lives of native peoples when he lived with the Quechua and Huaorani tribes of Ecuador. Audel has also appeared on National Geographic’s Survive the Tribe (2014). Apparently trekking by himself on these TV shows, he seems able to survive in just about any high-stress, remote situation. And, incidentally, what is the most unusual indigenous food he’s ever eaten: “Butter-filled horse stomach.”
9. Matt Graham
A shamanistic kind of guy, Matt Graham has been an off-the-grid enthusiast since he was 15, when he trained at being a triathlete and rock climber. Reputedly, one day he took a walk and ended up living in a wilderness area of southern Utah for six months—all by himself. Then, astonishingly, at the age of 23, Graham “ran” the Pacific Coast Trail, some 1,700 miles long, in only 58 days. For awhile now, Graham has taught survival skills for the Outdoor Survival School in Boulder, Utah. Hitting the big-time eventually, Graham became a survivalist on the Discovery Channel’s shows, Dual Survival, Dude You’re Screwed, as well as Live Free or Die on the National Geographic Channel. Graham excels at martial arts as well, becoming as expert in judo, Tae Kwan Do, Wushu Kung fu, and Jeet Kune Do. It seems safe to suggest that if Graham became the last man on earth, he’d just shrug and build a split-level tree house!
10. Dave Canterbury
Dave Canterbury spent six years in the US Army in the 1980s, working in the military police and security. Regarding weaponry, he attained the level of expert for automatic rifle, pistol and hand grenade. Since then, Canterbury has worked in the survivalist field, specifically what is known as bushcraft or woodcraft - the art of making do with what you find in the wild—which he teaches at the Pathfinder School in southeastern Ohio. Canterbury also wrote the manual, Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival. Canterbury co-starred with Cody Lundin on the Discovery Channel’s program Dual Survival; he also starred on Dirty Rotten Survival on the National Geographic Channel. Moreover, if you want to survive in the wilderness, Canterbury’s five C’s of Survivability include cutting tools, covering elements, combustion devices, containers, and cordages.
On Dual Survival, Perhaps Canterbury’s greatest moment was when he showed how to cauterize a bleeding wound. He took his knife, sliced open his arm, dumped gunpowder on the cut, and then, using the firing mechanism of a musket, touched off the gunpowder with a poof and sealed the wound.
11. Cody Lundin
Cody Lundin, a survivalist of sorts since he was a teenager, grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, where he graduated from high school. When he attended Prescott College in Arizona, he lived on the streets for awhile, and then joined a commune, after which he built a brush shelter while he continued his studies, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Depth Psychology and Holistic Health. Then in 1991, Lundin founded the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Arizona, for which he has been a survival instructor more or less continuously. Lundin’s TV career began in 2004, when he hosted Lost in the Wild on the Discovery Channel. Later, he co-starred on Dual Survival, another Discovery Channel program, from 2010 to 2014. Lundin is also the author of two books: 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive (2003) and When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes (2007).
Generally attired as a North American Indian, when Lundin appeared on Dual Survival, he nearly always wore shorts and went barefoot, in spite of the weather conditions or the terrain. Can you imagine the calluses on Lundin’s feet? He also lives off-the-grid in Arizona, paying zero for utilities!
12. Les Stroud
In 1990, Les Stroud, a Canadian-borne survival expert and wilderness guru, became a guide for Black Feather Wilderness Adventures in northern Ontario, Canada. Four years later, Stroud and his new wife built an off-the-grid shelter in the wilds of Ontario, where they spent their one-year honeymoon, the adventures of which became the documentary, Snowshoes and Solitude. Then Stroud hosted two one-hour survival specials for the Discovery Channel, eventually produced as one show entitled, Stranded.
Next, beginning in 2004, Stroud hosted 23 episodes of Survivorman, a series of wilderness adventures for which he had to survive for one week in each place. (Stroud video-taped these episodes all by himself, please note.) In 2010, Stroud hosted a series of documentaries entitled Beyond Survival with Les Stroud, in which he studied various endangered, indigenous tribes around the world.
From 2012 to 2015, on the Science Channel, Les Stroud continued producing Survivorman episodes; and then in 2018 Les Stroud produced two specials and nine episodes of Survivorman Bigfoot.
In episode one of the latter show, Les Stroud traveled to the mountains of Alberta, Canada, looking for signs of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Skookum, a Skunk Ape or Gigantopithecus, as the creature is variously known. Certainly skeptical regarding the existence of such a huge beast, Stroud said, “I need to see one.” In many of the episodes, various Bigfoot enthusiasts and researchers helped Stroud along the way, providing advice, expertise and/or thrilling anecdotal accounts.
In 2016, Les Stroud produced four episodes of Survivorman and Son, in which Stroud and his teenage son, Logan, were dropped into various wilderness locations throughout the world—British Columbia, Wabakimi, Ecuador and Mongolia.
By the way, Les Stroud is also a musician of note. He played lead guitar for the group New Regime and is considered an excellent blues harmonica player who’s performed at many different venues in Canada. Interestingly, for episodes of Survivorman, Stroud composed and performed all of the harmonica music!
13. Bear Grylls
Born in Northern Ireland, Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls has the resume of an explorer/survivalist/climber that's as long as some of his knives. In May 1998, Grylls, at 23, was among the youngest people to climb Mt. Everest (a record now surpassed by two 19-year-olds). Grylls also became a member of the British Special Forces, circumnavigated the British Isles on jet skis; crossed the North Atlantic in a rigid, inflatable boat; had a formal dinner party in a hot-air balloon flying at 25,000 feet; paramotored near the summit of Mt. Everest; and led an expedition of five for 2,500 miles in an inflatable boat through the Northwest Passage.
As for his exploits and performances on TV, perhaps Grylls most impressive show to date is Man vs. Wild, airing from 2006 to 2011. Astonishingly, for each episode Grylls showed he was willing to eat just about anything: insects, spiders, snakes, deer poop, grubs or whatever else that’s utterly disgusting. Grylls also climbs just about anything that gets in his way—towering trees, glaciers, water falls and vertiginous cliff faces.
A long-time enthusiast of climbing fearsome mountains such as Ama Dablam, which Sir Edmund Hillary claimed was “unclimable” and, of course, Mt. Everest, Grylls has summited Everest three times, one of which using no supplemental oxygen!
In August 2020, Grylls hosted The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, in which athletes from around the world competed in a race on Fiji. The program is available on Amazon Prime Video.
14. Ed Stafford
Ed Stafford, English explorer and survivalist, may be the most televised survivalist in the present day. Stafford’s TV career began in 2010 when he became the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon River, a trek for which he did most of the photography, as shown on the BBC’s Walking the Amazon on Channel 5. He also wrote an exciting, engrossing book of the same title in 2011. Then, in 2012, Stafford began hosting a series of programs for the Discovery Channel. In Ed Stafford: Naked and Marooned, the staff leave him naked and with no tools or weapons and no way of making fire, on an uninhabited tropical island, where he has to spend the next 60 days by himself!
In current times, episodes of Marooned with Ed Stafford have followed, for which Stafford is left naked and with no equipment, only bringing cameras and communications, when dropped into various wilderness areas around the planet. Afterword, Stafford hosted Ed Stafford: Into the Unknown, and then Ed Stafford: Left for Dead, a show on which Stafford is left alone for 10 days in various uninhabited wilderness habitats.
Stafford’s latest televised survivalist challenge is on the Discovery Channel’s First Man Out, 2019 to present, a show on which Stafford tries to beat an opponent to some landmark in a remote area of the planet. Usually Stafford wins—but sometimes he loses!
Now it seems evident to this writer that Ed Stafford is at least one the world’s greatest survivalists. On many televised programs he’s been left alone, sometimes without clothes or equipment of any sort—and usually with no camera crew—in dangerous, wilderness hellholes, some of which so bad he’s had to be rescued before he died of thirst or exposure. So where will Ed Stafford be dumped next time—the Moon, Mars or Pluto? Stay tuned!
Please leave a comment!
Questions & Answers
Question: Why on earth did you put Bear Grylls on the bottom of the Best 10 survivalists list?
Answer: As I wrote in the opening paragraphs, this list is written in no particular order, because in order to establish who's the best survivalist, there would have to be some kind of contest, which will probably never happen.
Question: Why does Bear Grylls sleep in motels rather than out in the wilderness when he's doing a survival show?
Answer: I've heard that Bear Grylls doesn't always sleep in the wilderness when he's doing one of his survival shows. Whether he does this all the time, I don't know. I suspect that other survival experts do the same—on occasion at least.
Question: What's in urine that is suitable to drink?
Answer: If you're very thirsty, you can drink your urine, because it does contain water. It will be salty but shouldn't have any bacteria in it.
© 2017 Kelley Marks
Stan Craig on January 06, 2020:
Bear Gryllis doesn't belong on the list. He stays in motels, not where he says he does. Most of the show BS. I wouldn't do a lot of what he mentions. Like jumping in a cold river when it's freezing out and snow all around. How stupid can someone get?
David Anson on November 04, 2019:
What a bunch! One think I learnt in the military was to be careful who you went soldiering with...... or surviving. You could survive anywhere with nearly all of this team..............great people. The ones who have the internal strength are the greatest and Ray Mears is no.1 for me.
Nithish Kumar on August 09, 2019:
I like Bear Grylls.I think he is the greatest person of all survivors in the world.So please give him no.1 rank.
Mark roberts on June 13, 2019:
Bear Grylls what is he doing on here. Every situation this guy talks about he’s always got a knife and flint. Like who carried knife and flints on them all the time. My opinion worst one on the list
Shahid on May 18, 2019:
I really wanna say from my bottom heart that survivalists are one of the greatest personalities that God have given to us in that top ten personalities I love bear Grylls