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California Trails

Behind the Scenes at the Bear Grylls Survival Challenge

Our intrepid Los Angeles scout tests himself against firestarting skills tests, battles of wits, and a very real-feeling fake war zone in the U.S.’s first installment of the trail run/obstacle course/survival skills competition.

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It’s midmorning on a Saturday last month, and neither I nor the 100 or so people I’m grouped with in the dusty hills of Santa Clarita’s Movie Ranch are really sure what we signed up for. We face our instructor—a former drill sergeant—who is surveying us with an equal mix of amusement, skepticism, and disdain.

“Did you remember to pack all of your survival gear in your backpack?” he asks. (A pause, a measured stare.) “Are you SURE? Suit yourselves. I hope you packed water.”

A deep breath.


The premise of this particular obstacle course/trail run/survival skills challenge is simple—run the course as fast as you can, complete the obstacles, and amass a maximum of 100 Survival Points (35 awarded for “speed,” 65 for how many skill challenges you complete). It’s the inaugural United States edition (a previous incarnation took place in the United Kingdom), and we’re told that Bear Grylls himself curated the obstacles. Personally, I’m looking forward to testing my bushcraft skills while under duress. In a race format, I have no idea how I’ll do.

After a course overview, we’re finally asked what three words we need to remember. Holding three fingers aloft—by the look of it, some of the Bear Grylls faithful know what’s next—we yell out the following creed in lockstep with our instructor: “Never. Give. Up!”

A peek inside the official Bear Grylls survival packBrad Stapleton

We’re herded into shacks to check our survival backpacks for the Ziploc baggie, cotton ball, emergency light, whistle, glowstick, map of a “war-torn village,” and condom (Durex, if you’re wondering—apparently generics aren’t good enough in survival situations) that we were given at check-in. A cannon blast rattles our temporary home, a door flies open, and we scamper out posthaste.

The race is on.

First up, a short climb on a trail. My friends, fellow racers, and I descend a hill and find ourselves jumping through rotted-out buses and navigating around cars on fire, eventually scaling a mound of discarded tires. We pass a giant road sign that looks straight out of your average post-apocalyptic popcorn flick: NEW YORK CITY – 2794 MILES. Odd, but we fly on by.

The route leads into a small room with four doors, each with a four-digit number. Pick the right one, and exit is guaranteed, along with an increase in our survival score. After a few confused glances around the room, the choice was clear: the door that said, simply: “2794,” the same number that was on the New York City sign. A beep of a transponder station confirmed our accurate choice.

We are immediately confronted with a few benches containing our first feat of skill: a knife (or axe, if that’s your thing) throw. The goal: Throw the weapon into a stump 10 feet away. One inspired throw later, my hatchet clatters to the ground. “Take the gate to the right,” the safety officer says, “the one that says, ‘FAIL.’”

Immediately after, we grab sand bags from a bin, hoist them, and vault over some bales of hay. Easy. Not so easy is the cave complex that looms almost immediately – a giant hulk of faux-rock fashioned into a series of abyssal tunnels. We need a light source – glowsticks! A clumsy fumble through our packs, a quick snap to break the ampule, and the pitch-black cave was no more.

After scaling a tower of sand via cargo net, we’re greeted with kindling strewn all over a table next to a sign: “Grab fuel, but don’t get it wet.” I haphazardly stuff it in my backpack, resolving to deal with it later, because of course I wouldn’t get fuel wet—it’d be in my backpack. Next to me, my friend motions impatiently: “Dude, Ziplocs!” I begrudgingly place the kindling in the gallon-sized baggie.

A quick sprint leads to a little treat—a mud pool. “Get nice and covered—you wouldn’t want a sunburn!” shouts one of the course marshals. “Dirty Armor,” they call it (survivalists have to use whatever they can to keep the sun off their leathery skin, right?). On went the mud. We ran out, the marshal nodding at each of us if we are sufficiently caked. More Survival Points!

A left, a right, and another left, and we arrive at a fenced-in enclosure. In the center, a table strewn with compasses. “Your exit is the southwest door,” says the attending marshal. Seven exits surround us. Of course, a compass would work, but this is a race, after all, and the sun is almost overhead. “East to west,” we mutter, and promptly find the right door.

Climbing another hill, we find ourselves face to face with the tail of a rotted-out helicopter. “HOOK UP TO A BAG!” a marshal shouts. We’re at the “dead weight” obstacle, which is meant to mimic dragging an injured partner to safety. After fashioning a rope to the aforementioned punching bag and swiftly dragging it across the way, we’re through the next gate (gotta get all the Survival Points).

A \”war-torn village\” re-created in Southern CaliforniaBrad Stapleton

“Are they shooting people?” someone gasps as we run to the next challenge, a replica of a Middle Eastern village. Stern-looking military types greet us. Turns out they are active or former military, and they are not messing around. “GET AGAINST THE WALL, AND LISTEN UP!” an extremely angry gentleman in fatigues shouts. “WHERE’S YOUR MAP? DO YOU WANT TO BE BLOWN UP BY AN IED?” It would seem that Bear Grylls wanted to introduce a little shock and awe, too—an ode to his special forces days, perhaps.

Brad Stapleton

Raising our maps in front of us so he can see, we’re told that we can proceed. The chatter of prop rifles rings in our ears only feet away. On cue, our escort arrives. Rifle at the ready, he shouts to stick with him, assumes a crouch, and we’re off running behind him as he shoots at the enemy (whoever that is), wondering where we’re going. We’re meant to follow the map through the village to our destination, but that plan quickly falls apart. We duck into a cove as raw heat and blazing fire erupt from an alley nearby, along with a hooded figure on a motorcycle who blasts his rifle at our escort. We look at each other, look at our maps, and run across the plaza to the next waypoint—but wait, are people running the wrong direction? Confusion reigns. Invisible bullets fly as the clack-clack-clack of the prop air rifles fills the air. We triangulate position through the smoke and sprint towards the exit.

After another sprint and a recall drill, we come to a water station. But it’s not for drinking. “Take a gallon of water across the log beam,” a sign says. Small problem: We don’t have containers. Or do we? Out come the Durexes. Tied-off condoms are filled to their breaking point, and we balance across the beams to the next challenge. Mine breaks. So much for name brands.

After another hill climb and a slackline challenge, we duck into a shack and are greeted with a spartan wood box, lined in plastic and filled with what seems to be some sort of roach or cricket. What would a survival challenge be if it didn’t require you to eat some natural protein? Imagine the texture of dehydrated snap peas, with a nutty aftertaste.

Our hero does what it takes for Survival Points.Brad Stapleton

We run up to the next challenge, a giant pool filled with mud and silty water. We have to go under a log spanning the pool’s width to complete the challenge, which means complete immersion. Those of us who put our fuel inside the Ziploc breath sighs of relief and plunge in the muddy depths without delay.

Taking a diveBrad Stapleton

We quickly rush into a corral—the sounds of the EDM-driven pulse of the finish line are wafting over us now—and are shown a few rows of metal bins, each containing a simple flint and striker. It’s time for the penultimate challenge: “Light the fire within.” I unzip my waterlogged pack, retrieve my bone-dry fuel from its plastic home, and one healthy spark later, the boot of an Army veteran stamps out my quickly growing fire. “You’re good to go,” she says.

Last up, our reward: a custom-made Slip ‘N Slide down to the finish. After sliding a bumpy 40 yards, we’ve finished the race. Our time was a breezy hour and a half, and we successfully completed almost all the challenges. Turns out, I only amassed 40 survival points—but really, I don’t think the transponder recorded all of my successfully completed challenges.

Make no mistake, this race isn’t for those looking to test pure survival skills. I found it fast and enjoyable, though I would’ve liked a few more bushcraft challenges: maybe something to do with water filtration, catching a fish, completing a shelter, or whittling a spear. I wanted to see if the course exposed any glaring survival-related weaknesses in me, but the focus was a little more weighted towards conditioning. Which, let’s be honest, can always be better.

That said, it’s perfect for those who want to undertake fun, low-consequence challenges (while breaking a sweat) that are translatable to real-life situations. Everything plays a role, including strength, stamina, endurance, basic navigation, improvisation, bushcraft, and keen observational skills. But even if I’d failed every challenge, I’d still have that one takeaway looming massively above the rest: Never. Give. Up. 

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