"Hey, you want to come camping with Bear?" That's a pretty random email to get on a Thursday morning, and it contained no other details. So, I said yes, packed a bag and hopped on a plane to New Mexico. Here's what happened over the next few days.
I really do mean no details. I had a rough idea of where we were going — the Gila National Forest, a 2.7 million acre region — and was told not to worry about a tent, sleeping bag or pad. The rest was, "You'll be doing his typical stuff."
A bit intimidating, right? This is the guy we've all spent the last eight years or so watching jump off waterfalls, eat snakes and drink his own urine. So I went a bit overboard with my preparation, but more on that in another article.
The reason this was happening was that a 22-year old girl named Alex (above) had won the Land Rover Discovery Adventure Challenge in Geneva. Her prize? A trip with that brand's ambassador, Bear Grylls. They flew her over from China, where she's studying, to do it and at the last minute figured they should invite a couple journalists along as well. Me and Mark Harris from London's Sunday Times.
They didn't know any more than I did. We just drove way out into the forest to a spot where Bear was flying in by helicopter. He hopped off, we hopped into a couple Land Rovers and crashed through rivers out into this incredibly gorgeous little canyon, a location that needs to remain secret because it's where Geronimo was born.
Bear was definitely in on-camera mode, all enthusiasm and instruction and "eat this" and "cllimb that." He and his team were basically turning the canyon into an outdoor playground, taking advantage of its river and cliffs to create obstacles for us to play around on. It was like being in an episode of Man vs Wild, just without the quick edits.
Behind the fourth wall, Bear's shows are necessarily a lot less devil-may-care than they look. With insurance and liability and the need to meet a production schedule without delays for injury, every move has to be carefully planned by a small team of experienced experts. In addition to moving the on-screen talent around, that team has to look after a small army of cameramen and producers crossing the same challenging terrain that you see on-screen. Honestly, the skill and professionalism that helps all that go off without a hitch is more impressive than Bear's on-screen shenanigans. Anyone can climb a mountain, very few people could move an entire film crew up one in complete safety.
So it wasn't the most personally challenging trip, but it was a fun one. I think Bear felt the same because, as it became evident that we were all on the same page, the on-camera action hero stuff started to fade behind his actual human personality.
Bear likes to talk about his family, their home in Wales and his favorite new hobby — parasailing. That's all told through a constant stream of running jokes with his team, a close knit group of friends that have spent the last eight years traveling the world together almost constantly. Impressively, it's all upbeat, positive and very little of it is about him. Off camera, Bear doesn't like to be in the spotlight. But, sitting around the campfire, I did convince him to talk about himself a little bit.
IndefinitelyWild: What does pee taste like?
Bear Grylls: I wish I had a dollar for every time I've been offered pee in a bar. Listen, pee sucks and I'm not one of those people that does it in my home time. But, the truth is that if you're well hydrated, you've got nothing else and you're in a survival situation, it can help save your life.
Tastes horrible though, it's salty and warm. The worst I had was from a snake skin. I'd killed a snake and used it as a water bottle and I'd had it around my neck in the desert so it'd been fermenting in the snake. That was bad.
Eating any of these things, goat testicles or what have you, isn't going to be nice, but you get into that zone, you become focussed and you do what you need to do. It's all about one thing: coming home in one piece.
IW: How did the first show come about?
BG: I was part of this military expedition to Everest and, when I got back, I wrote a book about it. Someone at Discovery read that and said, "Why don't we do a show where we put you in various situations and you show us how to get out of them?"
I was super skeptical about doing TV. I said no three times, part of which was confidence because I didn't really understand that world. I know how to climb mountains and do all that, but I wasn't a TV person. Eventually my wife Shara said, "Why don't you try it out once and, if you don't like it, you can say no then."
That was smart advice, so we went and shot the pilot for Man vs Wild and it never felt like TV. We were shooting rapids and chasing snakes and all that stuff. I look back now and understand the world a bit better and know how competitive it is and, now that I've been through so many episodes, I think I must have been such an idiot to have said no at the start.
They put that first one on late at night, no marketing, no nothing and it beat all their season premiers of all the other shows they'd done. So they commissioned a proper series.
The running joke at Discovery is that all the other hosts would come in at the end of each season and say how they deserved another. Then, I'd come in and say, "It's been great, it's been a privilege, I love it, but we're done."
IW: Did you set out to create a show with substantial survival advice that was useful, or a show that was entertaining?
BG: I grew up on survival shows and they were always just so…anoraky. So I said, If I do it, I don't want to brand myself as that. Yes, I've had this training, yes I've done this all my life, but I want to film the mess and the mistakes and I'm not going to do a textbook survival show because it's boring.
Invariably, you join this market of all these survival shows and everyone's going, "Your advice is dangerous!" Really, textbook survival says stay still, don't take any chances, wait for rescue. That's a boring TV show. My thing was always, "Listen, shoelace, dead squirrel and no other way down this rock face. You can do this!"
Yeah, it's reckless, but for me that is what kept it fresh. I didn't want to do eight seasons of How To Build A Fire. The intention was to make something fun and dynamic and about self rescue, not about whittling.
IW: Beyond enabling people to live vicariously through you, what value do your shows offer?
BG: It's about being willing to take risks and it's about getting out there and not being scared to make mistakes and to go for things. Simple values like the wild rewards commitment. You throw yourself wholeheartedly into it and smile when it's raining.
Early on, I started to get so many letters from unlikely people; a single mum going, "I watch your show, I'm not into survival, but I hold down four jobs and I get it when you say it's about persistence and putting a positive attitude into things during difficult times." That for me was a great liberator to realize that the show isn't about me running around, jumping off stuff and flexing muscles, it's about inspiring people. That makes me really happy.
Pretty sure Alex won this round. She wants to be a travel writer, so we're going to have her contribute to IndefinitelyWild.
IW: As Chief Scout in the UK, how do you plan to change that organization?
BG: When I accepted the role I told them, "Look, I'm not going to do meetings, I'm probably going to be the scruffiest Chief Scout you've ever had and my health and safety policy is non-existent."
Now, when I take kids into the woods, I tell them, "What we're going to do today is going to be incredibly dangerous." And you just see 20 smiles go up. "But, we're also going to learn to look after each other, who to work together and who to understand and manage that risk." That's what it's about, you don't empower kids if you don't expose them to risk. You empower them by teaching them how to deal with it.
IW: Should the Boy Scouts of America allow gay adult leaders?
BG: Yes. People go, "Oh, Baden Powell, he wouldn't recognize Scouts today." But, I think he'd be proud of that. He used to say that you can never stand still, you always have to keep developing and keep moving forward. Scouts should be progressive and should be adapting. If you're gay or not it's irrelevant, Scouting values respect.
Yes, the Boy Scouts of America should definitely allow gay adult leaders and I think it's really going to hold them back if they don't.
IW: Why is danger so important?
BG: Nothing inspires people more than reckless acts of courage. Look at all the stories we admire, it's just the truth. Without risk, there can be no growth. I wouldn't be doing my job and you wouldn't be doing yours unless we'd been prepared to accept that failure is a possibility. As a society, we've become terrified of failure, but you can't grow without risking it.
People ask me, "How do I succeed?" Whatever it is they do, I say, "Go and find 20 ways of messing it up. By 21, you'll be getting there." Life is an adventure, go back with cuts, scars and bruises.
IW: Someone's sitting at home on their couch right now, wanting to do what you do. How do they start?
BG: Just start adventuring. You don't need to go to the ends of the earth, you don't need to climb Everest to have a great adventure, it's invariably on our doorstep. Whether you're camping out in a city park or going to a climbing wall, you can do these things. Once you go outside and start doing these things it makes you feel good, it fills you with pride and confidence. You can't buy that in a shop.
Photos: Michael Jones
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.