Survive This! The myths and mistakes of TV and movies

When I launched Survivorman in Canada in 2001 (and shortly after in the U.S.), there was practically nothing on TV about survival.

Survivorman started as a way for me, a survival instructor, to teach survival skills and share my love of adventure in the wilderness. This was my sole motivation. Most of what followed by other hosts, unfortunately, were shows that appeared to have been motivated more by TV ratings.

But what about the skills in these shows? They were good, weren’t they? To be fair, sometimes they were. But on far too many occasions, many shows highlighted bogus and downright life-threatening stunts. The problem is that really bad skills that appear exciting on screen are blended in with a few real skills (because the real skills aren’t “dramatic” enough on their own), so the line between safe and dangerous practices gets blurry.

Don’t do this

Few survival issues cause as much controversy as drinking your own urine when dehydrated. Some TV hosts have endorsed it.

My feelings on drinking urine? Don’t do it!

The primary dangers of drinking urine come from its salt and toxin content (the same dangers apply to drinking salty ocean water). The salt content tends to cause further dehydration, so it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back. Urine also contains metabolic waste byproducts such as formaldehyde, ammonia and dissolved heavy metals. The less diluted it is, the greater the concentration of these byproducts you’ll be ingesting.

If you wait until you’re dehydrated, drinking pee will do you little — if any — good. A safer and more palatable option is to create a solar still to purify your urine.

A scene from The Revenant

Sorry, Leo

Films can also share poor survival techniques, and it can be difficult to recognize them because they’re often subtle. Take, for example, a simple scene in the 2015 Best Picture nominee, The Revenant.

A Pawnee tribesman builds a shelter for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in a sparsely wooded grove as the wind whips through. After the storm passes and the camera pans out, we see a wood-filled forest a few hundred yards away that would’ve offered much more protection from the elements.

Whatever skills shown in that scene were destroyed for the “look” and the drama. It is a beautifully shot film, but no skilled wilderness adventurer in their right mind would’ve set up shelter a short walk away from protective woods, and yet, marketing and media heavily focused on the film’s survival elements. This I find dangerously misleading.

Too much drama

Eating or drinking gross things, scaling cliffs and jumping into river rapids, getting too close to dangerous animals — these scenarios are set up to create excitement.

And some series are staged like unrealistic game shows. There’s little about them designed to teach survival; ergo, be wary of any skills presented in this format.

If you understand that many of these shows are staged and you just enjoy the entertainment, then view on! But the sad truth is that many people, including children, are watching and believing wrong and dangerous information.

When it comes to survival skills, people can die if they don’t know what they’re doing. You’re trying to survive; you don’t want to put yourself in a worse situation by attempting something risky that you saw on TV.

This is why I am so grateful for the Scouts and outdoor clubs. These organizations have always been about the real deal: the teaching of realistic and life-improving survival skills. They’re not after ratings; they want people to get out in nature and be armed with the right set of skills.

Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an award-winning TV producer, director, host and author. Learn more about him by visiting

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