For the past 25 years, Les Stroud has devoted his life to surviving. From teaching wilderness courses to his own documentary series Survivorman, in which he filmed himself in real-life survival situations, Stroud knows all the things there is to know about not dying. Now, he’s sharing his knowledge with the contestants of Samsung’s SOS Island, the online competition program in which the winner actually gets the island. We spoke to the world’s foremost authority on outdoor living about the show, about his keys to survival, and what the geek community could do if the power goes out.
NERDIST: How did you get involved with the SOS Island competition?
LES STROUD: It was really an initiative where Samsung wanted to, I guess, work with someone who had some kind of ability, some authenticity to what they do in terms of survival, and instruction, and that sort of thing, and they turned to me. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a long time now, 25 years professionally, and of course 12 years on television. I was the first one to start doing it that way. They gave me a call, and I was interested from the start. The first question I asked him was, “Are these people really going to survive?” and once the answer was, “yes, they’re really going to survive. It’s not just going to be show fakery,” then I said, “Okay, I’m in.”
N: Most people are familiar with the TV show Survivor, but your show Survivorman kind of started as an answer to that; a more realistic answer to that. How does what they’re going to be going through on the island compare to something like that, like the big Survivor TV show?
LS: There are some comparisons that we can easily draw on, that’s for sure. They aren’t going to be as hard core as Survivorman. You’ve got to remember when I go out there, I know I am supposed to know what I’m doing. The comparison can be drawn between kind of like bridging the gap between the two. You do have a group of people, they are on an island, they do have challenges and things they need to go through. One of the differences that was really important to me was that that there was not going to be any of the sort of silly tribal counsel, voting off the island, backstabbing, forming allegiances and alliances, that sort of stuff. If that was going to be in it, I would be out. It really had to be, really, much more based on actual survival, what they go through on a daily basis. I have nothing to do with the challenges they set up, but I did step in and we did sort of go over, “okay, but what are they going to have with them? How are they really going to survive day to day?” I wanted to make it as tough as possible.
N: What kind of natural challenges exist on the island already?
LS: Well, it’s Puerto Rico at this time of year: scorching heat. Scorching, debilitating, energy-draining heat. Sun burning you to a crisp. When the rain comes in, it comes in really hard and fast. There’s very little warning time. Well, besides the clouds coming across the sky. I mean when the rain hits here, it hits hard and you get drenched; They’re going to have to deal with that. That’s almost pretty much a daily occurrence, and then at night they’ve got mosquitoes and no-see-ums that are going to hit them. For me, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for most of these guys, it’s probably going to be a a massive deal.
N: You put the finalists through a pretty hellish boot camp. What are some of the things that are most important, you think, for them to learn, and what are some of the hardest things for them to learn, from what you’ve seen?
LS: Well, first of all, let me correct that. They did not go through a hellish bootcamp. Not at all. In fact, I would call my bootcamp “Survival Light.” I am going to refer to it on my show as my mini-survival boot camp, because really I only have them for 45 minutes once every day. All I’m really able to do is touch on the basics: shelter, fire, food, water, scavenging, that sort of thing. They are going to need to glean from this training, while they’re in this. They’re going to need to, and I mentioned this a few times, pay attention to the little details. Pay attention to the little side comments that I make as we go along, because those little side comments are the type of things that can change everything in a day and even save your life.
They’ve got to pay attention to me that way, and they’ve really got to look after themselves. Okay, we’ve got a liability with a bunch of other people and you become a liability. You don’t want that; you want to look after yourself, and make sure you are covered for cleanliness, and hygiene, and all injuries and all those sorts of things. Most of them are not very handy with a knife, and that scares me a lot. Eventually they will end up with a knife on the island through various challenges and sorts. That bothers me a little bit because it shouldn’t be, other than not being good with the knife can lead to a pretty bad injury. They are going to have to concentrate on the fact that lack of food is not that big of a deal. Chill out. There will be water supply. There has to be, they just couldn’t make it. Lack of food is not a big deal, so deal with it. Now, they are getting food here and there, just not a normal supply.
N: Are the contestants going to get any more help from you once they’re on the island and the competition gets tough?
LS: They are going to be able to access me online for survival advice daily, which will be pretty cool because there’s another big social media element as well. It’s all live, it’s all interactive and all the rest of it, so they can actually access me for bits of survival advice. One other thing I did inject into it was, once a day, at the end of the day, they will get a little survival package that I have designed for them to get. It might be maybe a bottle of bug spray. It might be a fresh green coconut. It might be, I don’t know, a warm tarp or something like that. Once a day, they are going to get something from me just to help them a bit with survival.
N: Survivorman, your show, has been cited several times in that the tips you’ve taught people watching have actually led to them surviving in real life situations. How gratifying is that for you as a person who has been doing this for such a long time, that people watching your show can get that much out of it, to where they don’t die out in the wilderness?
LS: I’m very, very proud and very humbled at the same time that people have been able to glean from these shows, and use them in an actual situation, lost for five days by snowmobile, stuck up in the mountains for five days. However, to answer your question more personally, how gratifying those examples are to me, like, “yeah, yeah, I figured that would happen.” The real gratifying results for me have been getting these e-mails from people who say things like, “you got me through eight months in a hospital on my back because of your show.” “I’ve reconnected with my estranged son because of your show.” “You got me out of an abusive relationship because of your show.” How the heck did that happen, out of a show about fire, bows, and shelters, and scavenging for food? It’s really strange, but what’s happened is my intent was always to create work that inspired people, and created a positive influence in their life, and I put that intent into everything I did, above and beyond building them shelters. Somehow it worked, because I have got many types of those e-mails that are heart-rending. Just like, “Wow. Wow, that’s huge.” That has been the most gratifying of all the past 12 years on Survivorman.
N: Finally, something for our readers: We’re the Nerdist, so our audience is very tech-savvy and kind of electricity-reliant. What do you think the number one thing, if one of our readers found themselves completely away from civilization, what’s the number one thing that they would need to know, or remember, to at least begin the survival process?
LS: I’m going to make it two things, because really it’s a one-two punch. The first one of those punches will be psychological, and the second one will be physical. The first one is to remain calm; that is vital. Once they remain calm, they can start thinking about what they have, and what plans they can make. That’s really vital. The second part of that one-two punch is critical, and that is the one thing that everyone could know. No matter where you get stranded, no matter what the situation is, if you can have a way to get a fire going, that is just a huge psychological boost. You get that fire going, it makes such a big difference. You signal people with it, you have a way to cook your food, to boil your water. It’s everything. It’s crucial. Physically, I always say if I have a way to get a fire going, I would rather that over a knife any day. Psychologically, it’s all about remaining calm so you can devise plans. And one last thing I’d like to give the Nerdist audience is: please remember that electricity is not an essential need of survival.