Popular survivalist Bear Grylls is back with bolder and more exciting episodes of the hit series Running Wild with Bear Grylls, but for this season he ups the ante by introducing The Challenge to every epic show. Grylls will teach celebrity guests the essential survival skills they need, and they must then 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 goals.
"I've got three boys now and it's getting clearer over time," says the adventurer, who got into sailing and climbing as a kid. "Those early years with my late father, who was a commander and loved a lot of this stuff, were really formative years for me, where I really just wanted to be around him. It wasn't that I absolutely loved the adventure, I just wanted to hang out with it and before you know it I was just doing a lot of it. I look back and those connections are so strong and I'm so thankful for those times. So many of the early lessons came from that. you know what sometimes Things won't go your way, you will get bad weather, things will happen, but sometimes you have to put your head down and be persistent and just move on and not complain. I have such memories of those kinds of conversations with my dad.”
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Bear Grylls motto: improvise, adapt and overcome
There's no doubt that Grylls loves to test himself and those around him, but wasn't Running Wild tough enough before adding a new challenge element?
"We're always as a team, even as a crew at National Geographic, we're always ambitious to push the envelope, keep moving forward and mess things up, and so it's kind of ingrained in our DNA," he says. "I think in general we're all at our best when we have a goal to aim for and when we set ourselves challenging goals and stuff like that. We're really proud of this season. We've been to some tough places, I mean, we don't go out much in northern Canada in the dead of winter, you know?
About These Amazing Places: How does Bear Grylls help plan these exciting adventures?
"We tend to leave [a location] and I'll get a good aerial shot from a helicopter on our route," he says. "I'm listening to some of the local search and rescue workers who are always extremely knowledgeable about local conditions and dangerous animals at this time of year, so I'm listening to that a lot, and I'm listening to our crew a lot, who will be about a week ahead of me." Been there and made CASEVAC (victim evacuation) plans in case something goes wrong. And then, beyond that, we kind of go in and do it. It feels like a natural process to me and I like having to do a lot of thinking with the celebrity on the spot.”
You would think it would be difficult to get celebrities to do such a rigorous show, or have agent teams make rigorous demands of what they will or will not try. Surprisingly, that's not always the case, says Grylls.
"I'm always amazed," shares Grylls. “The guests are always very happy to come. In general, the people we put on the show aren't there for the money or the fame. You want the experience. They tend to be at the top of their game in their field, but they want a challenge. They want to be pushed, they want to learn some skills, they want to go somewhere really wild. But they want to do it with a team they trust and they also trust me with their brand and reputation, but it's a small team of six people, we keep the trips flowing. We know where to start and roughly where we will end. I can lengthen and stretch or shorten the rides as local dictates once I somehow see how they are. We always say come alone with no entourage and just trust us and they do. It is a great privilege and I will never take that for granted.”
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Another aspect of these shows that Grylls never takes for granted is the stunning locations he gets to visit. "I think the Costa Rican jungle is a place that we've been to a number of times on different shows over the years, it's amazing with the volcanoes out there... and the cave systems. It's also just a challenging environment, there's a lot of mangrove swamps and I think that's one where I've been happy to be able to bring someone like Ashton Kutcher who's really interested in this stuff. He told me before that he grew up as a Boy Scout. He loves that and he loves a challenge.”
For Grylls, seeing the celebrities perform with each challenge is a gift. "There isn't a trip that goes by without the guest being pushed and challenged in so many ways," he says. “I love seeing them grow in confidence and skills. simu [Liu] was great. He'd just wrapped up his epic film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and was fit and excited and dying. It was below zero (in the Canadian Rockies) for much of the trip. Within five minutes we were really cold. So to strip down to your briefs and jump into a frozen lake in -35 degrees when you see the whole crew literally huddled and shivering takes a bit of heart and soul! Also, Natalie Portman has had a pretty tough trip in the desert canyon at times in super hot conditions... but what a great spirit she has.”
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Paddle your own canoe
Gryll's passion for cultivating well-rounded people isn't limited to celebrities. He is the driving force behind the Be Military Fit initiative. The BMF provides pre-recruitment training to the UK military and is extending to the UK National Health Service to provide them with the resources they need too. "I think it's so good for our mental health too," he says. "We need that community and sunlight on our faces, and we need the weather ... not just constant indoor light."
Grylls was honored with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2019, awarded by the Queen for services to young people, the media and charity. "I'm standing on the shoulders of giants," he says. "I meet so many heroes every day through the Scouts and volunteers and people who give so much time and resources for free to help young people and I'm very proud to still be Chief Scout and part of this global family of 55 its millions strong. I have a feeling that was her award as well.”
At 48, our epic adventurer still loves to travel. "One of my dad's things growing up was always about paddling his own canoe, you know? Find your own path, find what you really love and give your all for it, and there is power in that.
Running Wild With Bear Grylls: The Challenge premieres Monday, July 25 at 9:8c on National Geographic with Natalie Portman as the first guest. Weekly episodes will also star Simu Liu, Ashton Kutcher, Florence Pugh, Anthony Anderson and Rob Riggle. All episodes of the latest season will stream only on Disney+ starting August 10.