- Survival reality TV offers a gripping and fascinating narrative that satisfies viewers’ desire to connect with nature and see people strip back modern complexities.
- The best survival shows feature a mix of exciting survival challenges and interesting personalities, providing entertaining crossovers like Surviving the Stone Age and Snowflake Mountain.
- Shows like Naked and Afraid and Survivorman bring a sense of authenticity, showcasing real threats and providing valuable survival insights, while shows like The Colony and Dude, You’re Screwed offer unique concepts and expert-driven entertainment.
While many wouldn’t be able to survive in the wilderness if stranded, it doesn’t stop audiences from watching other people try to do it — here are the best survival shows, ranked from worst to best. The survival narrative is also prevalent in mainstream television and movies. Harrowing tales of survival in films like The Revenant, The Martian, and 127 Hours almost instantly strike a chord with viewers. But when the same narrative is applied to reality TV, it morphs into something fascinating.
Watching real people strip back the complexities of modern lifestyles to fulfill their basic needs makes up for a gripping reality series. It satiates a viewer’s want to connect with nature. This explains why survival reality TV rarely relies on exaggerated melodrama and often has the narrative of a rite of passage for its contestants. Due to its popularity, the survival reality TV genre contains many kinds of shows; some are savage yet beautiful, while others are less successful. Here are the 15 best survival shows, ranked from worst to best.
15 Surviving The Stone Age
Surviving the Stone Age: Adventure in the Wild is a 2020 three-part miniseries following eight researchers who endeavor to survive in the Bulgarian mountains for a month using only the means of those who lived in the Stone Age, and it’s one of the best survival shows. Their goal is ultimately to learn more about humanity’s ancestors from this era while testing their merit in survival situations.
For lovers of reality television and history, Surviving the Stone Age is an excellent crossover that provides exciting tidbits about humanity in the Stone Age while also featuring the classic tropes of reality survival series. The show is also populated by personalities with a general sense of what they’re doing, eliminating some of the follies of other series that feature less capable contestants.
14 Snowflake Mountain
Snowflake Mountain is a fun, somewhat misguided reality show that takes groups of young adults without the necessary survival skills and instincts into various wilderness situations where they are forced to learn about the perils of survival and adulthood.
While Snowflake Mountain is a far cry from some of the more well-known survival series on television today, it does prove to be somewhat of a guilty pleasure because of the contestants’ complete lack of wilderness survival skills. The sheer amount of unbelievable moments makes it one of the best survival shows, even if it is a guilty pleasure reality TV series, as each contestant flails on even the most basic tasks.
13 Naked and Afraid
Set amid some of the most extreme environments on the planet, Naked and Afraid features several pairs who — bereft of clothing — attempt to survive the harsh forces of nature, making it one of the most bizarre but best survival shows. While the show’s “stranded in the wild” approach isn’t exactly novel, the sans clothing rule evokes a unique premise. There have been numerous fan favorites on Naked and Afraid that keep the show interesting.
The series also brings a quasi-documentary feel by proving that the featured participants have to face real threats of the wilderness. For instance, executive producer Steve Rankin was bitten by a venomous snake while filming in the Costa Rican rainforest.
12 The Colony
Produced by Discovery Channel, The Colony brings an intriguing concept to its fore, and it’s one of the best survival shows. Its contestants are neither on an isolated island nor in a rainforest with intense wildlife. Instead, they are stuck in a simulated post-apocalyptic environment where survival goes beyond finding food, water, and shelter.
The show not only creates an immersive experience for its contestants but for its viewers as well. Like most other reality shows, it may not always seem genuine and might get voted down for its role-playing elements. However, its meaty post-societal narrative and well-cast contestants are enough to give it an original appeal.
11 Dude, You’re Screwed
Dude, You’re Screwed is Survivorman meets Impractical Jokers, as five expert survivalists compete to see which has the better skills. Each episode sees one survivalist kidnapped by the other four and dropped off in a desolate location, leaving him to survive alone.
This series is a perfect watch for anyone who enjoys seeing experts in their field pushed to their limits, and it’s one of the best survival shows. Though the series had a minimal run of only two seasons, there is plenty of entertainment value and several good tips on surviving in various harsh environments.
10 Ultimate Survival Alaska
Beyond its breathtaking snow-clad mountains and idyllic dense forests, the Alaskan region accommodates some of the most unforgiving environments. The contestants of Ultimate Survival Alaska, one of the best survival shows, are subjecting themselves to this challenging terrain.
Divided into four teams—woodsmen, mountaineers, military veterans, and endurance athletes—the contestants aren’t in it for a grand prize. Instead, the sheer joy of conquering Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, forests, deep valleys, and wildlife drives them to survive the location’s harsh conditions. The unique team categories and Alaskan wilderness make the series intriguing and nail-biting.
9 Surviving Disaster
Hosted by former Navy SEAL Cade Courtley, Surviving Disaster is a series devoted to giving its viewers tips and tricks for surviving even the most harrowing disasters, including natural calamities, pandemics, and even manmade disasters. Its practical advice and focus on the audience make the series unique and one of the best survival shows. While Surviving Disaster only aired one season, the series is an intriguing, if not somewhat morbid, foray into the worst-case scenarios imaginable.
8 Man Vs. Wild
One of the most popular survival shows, Man vs. Wild, not only offers a thrilling survival experience to viewers but also inspires and educates. Leading the show with his forte and charm, Bear Grylls navigates some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.
While he’s at it, he does not hold himself back from giving viewers a bang for their buck by portraying an unflinching look at survival. Whether to learn more about survival or solely enjoy Grylls’ nail-biting feats of bravery, there’s much to look forward to in this one. It’s the series that first brought Bear Grylls to the forefront of audiences’ minds and the show that ultimately launched his very successful career in survival television.
Akin to Bear Grylls, survival expert Les Stroud purposefully strands himself in dangerous remote locations for a week in one of the best survival shows, Survivorman. With no food supplies or fancy equipment, the outdoorsman relies on his survival expertise and navigates viewers through his experience with his one-man camera rig.
The flair with which Stroud deals with every obstacle that comes his way is entertaining enough to keep most viewers hooked. But going a step further, the show offers valuable insights into survival tactics that might be useful for many. Ultimately, Survivorman is an easy show to love, becoming a staple of its genre.
6 Dual Survival
Dual Survival, as the name implies, features not one but two expert survivalists, Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin, each with a starkly different method of braving extreme environments. The two experts exchange ideas and debate methods in various corners of the world in one of the best survival shows, sometimes taking the opportunity to prove which way allows the viewer to be superior.
This series is an excellent addition to the reality survival television pantheon, offering genuine tips from real-life experts and giving the viewer the opportunity to assess which survivalist they agree with. Dual Survival is unique and is, therefore, a must-watch for any die-hard survivalist. It was so popular that it also got a spinoff series titled Dual Survival Brazil.
As the show title suggests, the contestants on Alone are left alone with no camera crews or support. All footage seen in the series is self-shot. With each season, the reality TV features a new location with an ample supply of food and water for the survival of its 10 participants.
However, it comes down to the participants exploring their environment’s torrid lands and equipping themselves with everything they need to survive. Alone has an edge over similar shows because of its transparent and unobstructed approach to survival. The contestants have to do it all by themselves and test their primal instincts to their limits. The survival show has inspired international audiences with ten seasons, spawning a British, Australian, Norwegian, and Danish version.
4 Frontier House
Frontier House is more of a history lesson than a reality show, but it’s still one of the best survival shows. Aired by PBS in 2001, the series allowed three families to get a realistic frontier experience by recreating the year 1883 in rural Montana. Besides its period setup and well-done set designs, the show features some intriguing community interactions between its participants, who are all from varying backgrounds and cultures.
The series also adds a layer of reality by not including any Herculian tasks or challenges but by placing the families in an environment where they must figure out everything themselves. These elements inspire the involved families and viewers to revel in minimalistic yet meaningful lives, similar to those who lived on the frontier. The show was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 and was followed up by Colonial House in 2004.
3 The Island With Bear Grylls
Bear Grylls again leads the way in one of the best survival shows. Every episode of The Island begins with Bear Grylls dropping off a group of amateur survival enthusiasts on a remote Pacific island. The catch is that a grand prize of GBP 1,000,000 is hidden on the same island. The first ones to discover it can split it with others or keep it all for themselves. Meanwhile, the ones who fail to survive and leave the island get nothing.
After its first season, the series was met with backlash because of its seemingly professional team of contestants. It was revealed that many of them had previously worked with Grylls and had survival expertise. But in the latter seasons, the show made up for these blunders by featuring contestants from decidedly opposite backgrounds who worked to survive and made up for a pretty entertaining viewing experience. The series ultimately won two awards, a BAFTA TV Award, and an RTS Programme Award.
2 Life Below Zero
Life Below Zero unfolds more like a documentary than a reality TV series. Nonetheless, it’s one of the best survival shows on television. Throughout its runtime, it highlights all the trials and tribulations faced by those who live off the grid in extreme Alaskan temperatures. Unlike most reality shows set in Alaska, Life Below Zero avoids collapsing into unnecessary melodrama or comedy.
Moreover, none of the people featured in the show are mere contestants but are real residents of the Arctic state, struggling and surviving day after day. Thanks to its unflinching portrayal of life in the Alaskan wilderness, Life Below Zero has won eight Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, mainly for its stunning cinematography and editing.
Since its release, Survivor has aired over 40 seasons and is now a veteran among reality shows. Throughout its runtime as one of the best survival shows, it follows various groups of castaways who have to fend for themselves on a desolate island. While at it, contestants must also compete in challenges to win rewards or immunity from elimination.
The final winner is labeled as the “Sole Survivor” and gets a whopping prize of 1 million dollars. Regarding its critical ratings, Survivor has had its share of ups and downs. Even so, it has garnered a massive following because of its exhilarating challenges, twists, and diverse contestants. With over 600 episodes, Survivor is the longest-running survival show in history and has won seven Emmys and even a GLAAD Media Award. Survivor season 45 will air in 2023 and shows no signs of stopping.