By Jim Baird
History Channel’s Alone is the toughest survival show ever – it is the real deal. It’s a self-shot show, there are no camera crews and no gimmicks. Survivalists are dropped off in separate locations with no map and minimal gear. And whoever can survive the longest goes home with a cash prize of $500,000. This past Season 4 had a crazy twist, opposed to prior seasons that featured a single person, surviving alone in a single location. This time, teams of two family members competed together, though they started separately. One person from each team was dropped off at a camp along the coast, the other was dropped 10 miles away with nothing but a compass bearing, basic camping gear, camera equipment, and no trail to follow through some of the densest forest in the world. Their job was to find their family member. Then, if and when the pairs were reunited, their challenge was to survive together, and outlast the other teams. If contestants were starving to death, injured, or they’d just had enough, they could “tap out” using a satellite messaging device, and they would be extracted by a team of search and rescue specialists.
To get on the show, you had to have a solid resume of outdoor experience, you had to be good with a video camera, plus you had to be articulate and honest in explaining what you’re doing and feeling. My brother Ted and I submitted a casting video, and were selected out of 7,500 applicants to be part of the show. And then -- spoiler alert -- after surviving for 75 days through one of the rainiest falls, and one of coldest winters ever recorded on northern Vancouver Island, we won!
Thankfully, we weren’t sent out there with nothing. Each person was automatically allowed specific clothing, a knife, and a sleeping bag. A single fire steel was automatically allowed to be brought by each team, as well as two 10 x 10 tarps which were given for the protection of camera gear. In addition to this, each team was allowed to bring 10 items from a list. What you take could make or break your success out there.
Below, I’ve detailed the 10 items that Ted and I chose to bring, and why.
3.5 lbs of Trapping Wire – There is very little small game on Vancouver Island, and trapping was off limits anyways. Ted and I brought wire of various gauges with plans to use it to make our shelter, a canoe, and a crab trap. There are a ton of uses for wire when you’re in the bush.
Multi-tool – For one, this came in very handy for cutting the wire, but in general, tools are good – so we brought one that is many. I filed down the multi-tool’s flathead screwdriver to an edge, so that it would make another striker for our fire steel. And we chose a multi-tool with a saw, file, awl, scissors knife, and serrated knife.
12 x 4 Gill Net – This is something that can put food on the table. It caught us some fish, but only about 15 small Sable Fish in 75 days. And it takes a lot of energy to set up. In the end, it didn’t produce like we thought it would.
2 Quart Pot – This is a no-brainer, cooking food and boiling water are far easier with one. And additionally, boiling your food saves nutrients as the water can be drank after the food is eaten. It can also be used to gather food in. Getting a pot with a bail arm so that it can be hung over the fire is key too.
Bow and Arrows – Only traditional bows, made of wood, with wooden arrows were permitted. Even more so than we’d anticipated, the bow and arrows are more for opportunistic hunting or protection. When you’re dropped off hungry from Day One, and so much time needs to be taken each day to find, and forage food. Putting time and energy into hunting big game, in the environment, and at the time of year we went out there, could be fruitful if you were very lucky. But, that would more likely mean a faster end to your stint, because of all the calories and time needed. Would I bring it again? Yes. We did almost get a couple ducks with it.
12 x 12 Tarp – We chose a heavy-duty tarp, 18mm, so it would be more durable to use as the skin for the canoe we built, and also to catch rain water for drinking. Also, it rains a lot on Vancouver Island, another tarp never hurts.
Fishing Line and Hooks – Likely, if we were only allowed one item, this would be it. We took mostly 20-lb.-test mono line, but also some strong 50-lb. mono, and some 30-lb. braided line. Other than foraging for things like limpets that we found under rocks, this is what put the most food on the table.
Saw – We brought a big one after some debate. A smaller folding saw, or a Swede saw were also on the table. The one we went with, proved to be a real pain for cutting small logs and sticks. And, because of its length, the blade would bend while cutting horizontally, making it useless for cutting down standing trees. Once we’d exhausted all the smaller firewood relatively early on in our stint, all we had was large dead yew logs. And, because this saw has no top bracket, and large aggressive teeth for cutting hard woods like yew, it was a real asset by the end of the trip, even though we cursed it in the earlier days.
Axe – An excellent tool in the bush in almost any situation. We spray-painted ours blaze orange so it would be easy to find and hard to lose. Because all we had for firewood was very big logs by the end, the ability the axe gave us to split them was crucial.
2 pounds of rations – Though two pounds is only about one-third of what one of us could eat in a day, we thought it would be crazy to go out there without at least some food. We brought trail mix, but the day before we went out, we swapped it for pemmican because it has more calories.
A lot of thinking went into the specifics behind each of our choices, including the items that we were automatically allowed. For example, we were allowed one fire steel. So we brought one that was 6 inches long and 1 inch wide. (It pretty much could have doubled as a club.) The sleeping bags we brought were synthetic winter sleeping bags, and good to -22 F (-30 C). Ted’s knife was very heavy duty, and bordered on a machete, mine has a hollow handle that could be fitted onto a pole to make a quick and effective spear. When deciding on our 10 items, we chose to forgo bringing a second container, and cordage, as we chanced that we’d find some washed up on the shore, and we thankfully did. In the end, the most important of the 10 items we chose, was fishing line and hooks, and the axe, the pot is a very close third.
-- Check back for Baird’s follow-up, detailing how the skills learned and experience gained on his extended wilderness canoe tips were crucial to his success winning the survival contest.
-- Watch Baird’s Lessons From the Trail, a 15-episode C&K series following an expedition through Quebec’s Côte-Nord region.