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Popular survivalist Bear Grylls is back with bolder and even more exciting episodes of the hit series “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” but for this season, he’s kicking things up a notch by introducing “The Challenge” to each epic show. Grylls will teach celebrity guests the essential survival skills they’ll need, then they will have to demonstrate them in epic, high-stress challenges. M&F sat down with the man himself, to talk about his love of the great outdoors and the importance of setting targets.
“I’ve got three boys now, and I see it clearer and clearer as time goes on,” says the adventurer who took to sailing and climbing as a child. “Those early years for me, with my late Dad who had been a commander and loved a lot of that stuff, those were really formative years where I just wanted to be close to him, actually. It wasn’t that I necessarily loved the adventure, I just wanted to hang out with him and before you know it, I was just doing a ton of it. I look back and those connections are so strong and I’m so grateful for those times. So many of the early lessons came from that. Sometimes, do you know what? Things are not gonna go your way, you’re gonna get bad weather, things happen, but sometimes you’ve got to put your head down and be dogged and just kind of get on with it and not complain. I have such memories of those sort of talks with my dad.”
There’s no doubt that Grylls loves to test the mettle of himself, and those around him, but wasn’t “Running Wild” already tough enough, before adding a new challenge element?
“We’re always, as a team, as a crew with National Geographic as well, we’re always ambitious to push the boundaries, to keep progressing, and mixing things up, and so it’s sort of deep in our DNA,” says Grylls. “I think, generally in life, all of us are at our best when we have a target to go for, and when we set ourselves challenging goals and stuff. We’re really proud of this season. We’ve been to some tough places, I mean we don’t often do Northern Canada in the depths of winter, you know?”
About those amazing locations: How does Bear Grylls help to plan these stirring adventures?
“We tend to go to [a location] and I’ll have a good aerial recce from a helicopter on our route,” he says. “I’ll listen to some of the local search and rescue guys who are always super-dialed in to local conditions and dangerous animals at the time of year, so I listen a lot to that, and I listen a lot to our crew who will have been there about a week before me, creating CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) plans for if things go wrong. And then beyond that, we kind of get into it and go for it. To me it feels like a natural process, and I like having to do a lot of thinking with the celebrity, on the ground.”
You would think it would be difficult to draft celebrities onto such a rigorous show, or have teams of agents make stern demands about what they will or won’t try. Surprisingly, it’s not that way all the time, Grylls says.
“I’m always amazed,” shares Grylls. “The guests are always just super-excited to come. Generally, the people that we take on the show aren’t there for the money or the fame. They want the experience. They tend to be at the top of their game, in their field, but they want the challenge. They want to be pushed, they want to learn a few skills, they wanna go to somewhere really wild. But they want to do it with a team that they trust and they are also trusting me with their brand and reputation, but it’s a small team of six of us, we keep the journeys fluid. We know where we’re going to start, and roughly where we’re going to end. I can elongate and stretch, or shorten the journeys as it dictates on the ground once I kind of see what they’re like. We always say come on your own with no entourage and just trust us, and they do. It’s a great privilege and I’ll never take that for granted.”
Another aspect of these shows that Grylls never takes for granted is the stunning locations that he gets to visit. “I think the Costa Rican jungle is a place that we have been to a few times over the years, on various shows, it’s amazing with the volcanoes out there… and the cave systems. It’s just a challenging environment as well, there’s a lot of mangrove swamps and I think that’s one where I was pleased to be able to take somebody like Ashton Kutcher who’s really into this stuff. He told me beforehand that he’d been a Scout growing up. He loves this and he loves a challenge.”
For Grylls, seeing how the celebrities evolve during each challenge is a gift. “There’s not a journey that goes by without the guest being pushed, and challenged, in so many ways,” he says. “I love seeing them grow in their confidence and skills. Simu [Liu] was great. He’d just come off his ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, epic film and he was fit and excited and fired up for it. It was sub-zero (in the Canadian Rockies) for much of the journey. Within five minutes we were really cold. So, to strip down to your underpants and jump into a frozen lake in -35 degrees when you see all the crew just literally huddled and shaking, takes a little bit of heart and soul to do! Natalie Portman had quite a tough journey as well at times in the dessert canyon with super-hot conditions … but what a great spirit she’s got.”
Grylls’ passion for cultivating well-rounded human beings is not limited to celebrities. He is the force behind the “Be Military Fit” initiative. The BMF provides pre-recruit training for the British military and is expanding to the UK’s National Health Service to provide them with the resources that they need too. “I think it’s so good for our mental health as well,” he says. “We need that community, and sunlight on our faces, and we need the weather… not just indoor light all of the time.”
Grylls was honored in 2019 with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), awarded by the Queen for his services to young people, the media, and charity. “I stand on the shoulders of giants on that one,” he says. “I meet so many heroes everyday through the Scouts and volunteers, and people who give up so much time and resources for free to help young people, and I’m super-proud to still be Chief Scout and part of that global family of 55 million strong. I kind of feel that this was their award as well.”
At age 48, our epic adventurer is still loving the journey. “One of my dad’s things, growing up, was always about ‘paddle your own canoe,’ you know? Find your own path, find what you really love, and give your all to that, and there’s a power to that.
Running Wild With Bear Grylls: The Challenge premieres Monday, July 25, at 9/8c on National Geographic with first guest Natalie Portman. Weekly episodes will also feature Simu Liu, Ashton Kutcher, Florence Pugh, Anthony Anderson and Rob Riggle. All episodes of the newest season will stream from Aug. 10 only on Disney+.