Bear Grylls: Master of Disaster

Q&A with Guest Editor Bear Grylls
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Q&A with Guest Editor Bear Grylls

In order to become a true survival expert, you can't wait for a few accidents to come your way. You have to go looking for wilderness adventure. Which is exactly what Grylls, 38, did for seven seasons of Discovery's popular show, Man vs. Wild. And this came after countless serious scrapes while training for, and then serving in, the British Army's ultra-elite SAS.

More creds: He's climbed Everest, explored the Arctic and Antarctic, and faced off against deadly wildlife. In other words, our guest editor for this issue knows his survival skills--because he's had to use them. You'll find his field-tested advice in the following pages. But first, Deputy Editor Anthony Cerretani checks in with Grylls about living through the unexpected, learning from mishaps, and what it's like to make a career out of life-or-death epics.

BACKPACKER: Has there ever been a moment when you actually thought, “This is it. I think I’m going to die.”? Did anything change for you after that moment?

BEAR GRYLLS: I’ve had too many of those. I almost died falling down a monster crevasse collapse in the Himalaya, in a big Class V whitewater river in the Malaysian jungle, in a Himalayan slab avalanche, a rockfall in Canada, a parachute malfunction in Africa, a frozen lake in Ireland. Oh, and I almost drowned in quick mud as a kid. They have all taught me the same things: You gotta respect nature, never get complacent, and always have a backup plan.

What keeps you motivated to seek out the sharp edge between safety and disaster in the wilderness?



It’s the only place that I feel totally at home and calm—I find everyday life quite hard sometimes. For me, a switch kind of flicks when I am in the wild, especially when things start to go a little wrong. That is always my time. I am not as totally reckless as people sometimes think, but I know what I can do and have a good instinct for danger. I always give myself a 20-percent margin of error in the wild. (It used to be 10 percent, but I’m improving.)

What’s your most important piece of survival advice?



The heart of great survival is all about spirit—having that spirit of dogged determination to never, ever, ever give up. The rest is detail.

What’s the worst advice you’ve heard?



Bugs taste like chicken.

You’ve mastered knife skills, foraging, firestarting, and other lifesaving techniques. Which is the most important?



All are important: Ultimately, knowledge is power and the more you know, the easier your escape should be. Ingenuity is an under-appreciated but vital skill to develop. It means you can work out smart ways of doing things with very little. This ingenuity is the part of survival that I love the most.

Did you ever want a certain gear item you didn’t have?



A machete in the jungle. There is so, so much you can do with a machete that is almost impossible with a small knife. But therein lies the challenge. Most people who get lost in the jungle do so with very little—that’s why I go in with the bare minimum. This is what seven seasons of Man vs. Wild has really been about: empowering people to survive with the minimum amount of gear if disaster strikes.

What’s the most unexpected piece of gear you carry?



A laminated photo of my family that I keep under the sole of my shoe. Never underestimate the power of hope.

You’ve encountered some amazing wildlife. Is there an animal you’d like to see again?



I would love to swim close up once more with huge humpback whales. It was an incredible reminder of the quiet power of nature; the aura of strength and calm was palpable.

One you wouldn’t?



Probably the saltwater crocs in Australia’s Northern Territory swamps—they’re real cold killers, the ultimate stealth predators, and ruthless. The day before I was dropped in there, we heard of a croc that took a fisherman from the bank and shook him so violently in his jaws that the man’s head whip-cracked off before the croc disappeared with his body.

Speaking of animals, you’ve eaten yak eyeballs and live scorpions, among other things. What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve eaten?



Worst is somewhere between the elephant dung, bear poo, camel intestinal fluids, and raw goat’s testicles. No, in fact, the goat testicles were the worst! A memory I have tried to blot from my mind! They melted into a mouthful of everything you hope a mouthful of cold testicles won’t melt into!

You need a high fitness level to do your job. How do you stay in shape?



I train hard five or six days a week and consider it a key part of my work to maintain the strength, endurance, and flexibility to be able to survive in difficult places. I need a lot of core strength and explosive power whilst in awkward positions. I work out for about 40 minutes; it’s a mix of functional core body weight exercises where I do 30 seconds of hard work, then 15 seconds of rest. I’m also outside a lot, in the rain or mud. When I’m dirty, I train harder.

How do you stay cool in a crisis?



Calm in the storm is a key principle instilled in new soldiers in the British SAS. I have always remembered that, and it is true for survival. When things go wrong, people panic into doing stuff that makes the situation worse. The key is taking a few critical seconds or minutes to think calmly and clearly. As you get better at this, you can think and act clearly in seconds.

You have a dream job. But if you had to change careers, what would you do?



I’d maybe be a lifeboat guy in the small Welsh community on the mainland, near our island in the U.K. I often find it quite tempting to leave all the madness and go do this. Instead, I help out with a team called Global Rescue (globalrescue.com). In an international disaster, they go in first, ahead of the aid agencies, to set up communications and airstrips, etc. Cool guys and it keeps the edge.

You’re married and have three sons. What do you get out of backpacking personally and with your family?

It gives you that all-precious sense of freedom and self-determination, and that rare chance to escape the noise of the city and reconnect with who you really are. Time alone, unhurried, is rare nowadays—don’t underestimate what it can do for you on so many levels. I often go out alone when I need some space and time. It is also magic to take my kids out and show them the ways of nature. People form real relationships in the wild. It is hard to hide the real you, and that is a good thing.

Any favorite wild places in the U.S.?

The Alaskan mountains and coastline, Utah’s Canyonlands and Hells Canyon, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Are there areas you’d like to explore?

The temperate regions of the Rockies and remote rivers in Montana.

Why did you decide to work with BACKPACKER as a guest editor?

It’s a fantastic way to reach people who share many of the same values that I love, namely survival ingenuity, mountain freedom, and old-school adventuring.

What do you hope readers get out of this issue?

Good tips learned the hard way and a realization that, as humans, we are capable of so much more than we often imagine of ourselves.

What have all of your survival experiences taught you?

I have learned that I am not as invincible as I used to believe. You have to be so careful in the wild. Initially, you have to learn how to slow down and tune all of your senses in properly. When you reach that point, you can start to move faster, but by then, if you are in tune, you are totally aware of what is happening around you.

I have also learned that you only get it wrong once, so be smart, weigh risks carefully, and trust your instinct: It is the nose of the mind. Everyday life covers up our instinct, and it takes a while to learn to recognize it again.

Finally, I’ve learned that together, we are always stronger. People often ask me: “Does the crew help you?” and I answer, “Yes, of course.” We are a small team, all experienced ex-military guys, and they are best buddies of mine. Every moment of every day we have to look out for each other. It is how we have survived so many hard places—by working closely, with no ego, and looking out for each other at every step. Ego in the wild kills. •

Bear Grylls is the author of 10 books. His latest is the bestselling Mud, Sweat, and Tears: The Autobiography of Bear Grylls (Harper Collins Publishers).