Fresh from celebrating the recent success of Netflix series ‘You vs Wild’ Bear Grylls tells RSNG how psychological and physical strength must work hand-in-hand if you are to survive in the wilderness.
RSNG What’s been your closest shave in the wilderness?
BEAR GRYLLS ‘Not so much the wilderness, but I once lead an expedition to be the first team to circumnavigate the UK on jetskis in aid of the RNLI. It was an incredible trip for us – sometimes flat, calm and spectacular; but also all too often huge scary seas around the north-west coast of Scotland and parts of the North Sea. We would often lose sight of each other in the troughs of the waves and after 20-plus days of 12-hour shifts on these little machines, it became hard work just to hang on.’
‘I was always taught that failure was a building block and the only way you can fail is by not wanting to try to run past the challenge.’
RSNG If you could only take one survival item into the wild what would it be?
BG ‘Knowledge. It’s the most important tool of all, and unfortunately it only really comes with practice. The more you kind of get used to hardships and discomfort the better you become at coping with them. It’s definitely in everyone, it’s just about grit and heart.’
‘There is nothing in physical form that can give you more of an advantage that what’s in your head though, so knowledge is such an important tool for survival, and a big part of that is heart…’
‘You need to get straight into the mindset that everything you’re doing is for a sole purpose – to stay alive’
RSNG What about a specific object?
BG ‘If you forced me to choose one object I’d have to say a knife – shelter, hunting… a knife is your key wilderness tool; that is, assuming you haven’t got a satellite phone with you, and a waterproofed one at that.’
‘At the end of the day, whatever you’re in… whether you’re in a lifeboat or stranded up a mountain, your priorities of survival is always the same, which is protection, rescue, water, then food.’
RSNG What are the essential psychological qualities needed for survival in extreme environments and how can we hone them in everyday life?
BG ‘You need to get straight and directly into the mindset that says everything you are doing is for a purpose, and that sole purpose is to stay alive. If you don’t get a fire going, you’re in trouble that night. If you don’t shelter up, you’re going to be devoured by everything. You have to see everything practically, and you have to embrace failure.’
RSNG Do you have an example of when sound psychology really helped you through?
BG ‘Well not so much me, but a good example is the guy who spent 13 months stranded on a 22ft fiberglass boat. To stop himself from going mad he would have needed to have broken down the day down into goals that he needed to achieve. Each day he would have known at certain points he needed to get out of the sun, or out of the wind or the rain, or the waves. Then it’s protection, then it’s rescue, make sure you’re doing all you can, whether it’s keeping your flares dry or making the boat visible.’
‘Then it’s about water collection, then it’s about food, getting your fishing lines out. Even a day on a raft, if you’re doing survival right, it’s a packed day where you’re not getting much chance to let your mind fail you and slip into despair, because that’s when you stop having the motivation to do the task.’
‘The art to survival is resourcefulness, imagination and using your initiative; it’s about coming up with smart ways of doing things. You’ve got to keep busy.’
‘We’re gradually losing those innate survival skills that humans spent thousands of years perfecting’
RSNG Should we all embrace bushcraft skills?
BG ‘I think we are gradually losing those innate survival skills that humans spent thousands of years perfecting, and that’s a real shame. The worry is we lose them in little more than a couple of generations. I’d love us to hold on to those and perhaps schools should be the way forward.’
‘Experts will tell you bushcraft is much more of an art – it’s using your surroundings for interest and pleasure. What I put greater focus on is survival, and that’s one step away from it. Most people think of Ray Mears when it comes to bushcraft, and I have ultimate respect for him – he is an incredible guy and does a fantastic job. I’m pretty focused on my shows, I’m sure he’s focused on his. I always think we’re in the same business, which is to get out there, challenge people and express a love for the outdoors. Ray is a definite hero of mine.’
RSNG Which environment do you find the hardest to travel through?
BG ‘I will always come back to Everest on this one. It was such a dream for me as a kid and one of those things that just seemed so incredible and, I guess, impossible, when I was growing up. That was something I really did for myself, but more than that I felt my dad was there with me, because he was the person who taught me to climb, and every step of the way it felt like it was a project we were on together. To have someone in your mind is a really nice thing and it’s worth and extra 10% of energy, no matter what it is you are doing.’
‘I think Everest’s landscape made it the biggest challenge – it’s terrifying, and nothing is quite as it seems – neither distances nor perspective; it’s so bright, so sunny, yet very very cold, and beneath you are dangers you can’t even see. One wrong step and you can be gone. Compare it to the jungle or the desert where everything is there in front of you.’
‘I guess we are lucky that within a few thousand miles of each other we can experience environments that are totally at odds with one another. It all makes planet Earth the most incredible place to live.’
‘It’s not the strongest who survive: it’s the smartest’
RSNG What responsibility do you think you have to alert people to the threats to our wild spaces from climate change and human encroachment?
BG ‘I think there are people much more qualified than me who should be listened to, but what I can offer is a view into some of these places that perhaps people don’t see. For human encroachment we sometimes think about deforestation; for climate change perhaps it’s the retreat of the glaciers; but when you film a series such as The Island and there’s a picturesque beach covered in plastic and discarded rubbish, then I feel that’s probably more valuable in one five-second clip than anything I could bring to the table by quoting statistics or numbers.’
RSNG What’s been the single most effective workout to build fitness for your efforts and expeditions?
BG ‘I’ve always gone for workouts that give me core solidity, with functional strength and movement. I will hammer it for between 30 and 45 minutes, then recover for 20. I’ll do this four or five times a week. It’s simple and effective, but I am someone on the move a lot anyway, so usually it’s a supplement to the daily activities or walking, climbing and such.’
‘I do all I can to eat healthily generally avoiding sugar, dairy and wheat, and focusing on whole foods as found in nature.’
‘What I would say though is muscle mass, fitness and strength are not the only weapon in the survivor’s arsenal, and it’s actually quite a small one. If you’re smart, you don’t need to be banging your head against a tree, you work out a way to be clever and resourceful around stuff, and that’s what a clever survivor does. It’s not the strongest who survive, it’s the smartest.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for the Bear Grylls Netflix hit You Vs Wild.
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