man practicing survival skills in the wilderness on an adventure vacation
Learning survival skills on vacation is becoming a popular travel experience. | Photo by Karthika Gupta for Thrillist
Learning survival skills on vacation is becoming a popular travel experience. | Photo by Karthika Gupta for Thrillist

How to Have a Truly Wild 'Survivor' Experience on Your Next Adventure

From open-water swimming to eating maggots, the choice is yours.

One November afternoon last year, I found myself baking in the hot Arabian sun after trekking deep into the arid valleys surrounding the majestic Hajar Mountains, an hour north of Dubai. The terrain was rugged; I'd spent all day scrambling over massive boulders and navigating dried riverbeds that could quickly become perilous in the event of a flash flood. Luckily, I was not alone. In fact, I was with a group of eager adventurers learning about backcountry survival at the world’s first Bear Grylls Explorers Camp (BGEC) in Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven emirates. 

And just as I was about to pat myself on the back for having successfully completed the survival course, I heard something that made me dry heave.

"Congratulations, you're almost done, and your final task for the course is to eat dry dead maggots, Bear Grylls’s favorite wilderness snack,” said Frans Jordaan, my very buff and seemingly infallible instructor and archery coach from South Africa.

I’d already spent $120 and four hours mastering fire making, constructing shelters from old tarps, and learning the intricacies of various knots for potential escape scenarios. Now I knew I’d reached my limit.

Which did prompt the question: Why exactly was I there? When I later asked Diana Anson, a licensed clinical social worker and wellness program director at Insight Therapy Solutions, she told me that those who engage in survival tourism are motivated by a quest to capture the essence of being alive. “This is an adrenaline-seeking behavior, in the same way that some people might get a thrill from going to the casino or driving a little bit too fast,” she explained.

That felt true to me, although it was perhaps even truer for my companions who actually ate the maggots (which they would describe as “somewhat tangy” and a “bit sour,” for what it’s worth). And if adrenaline-seeking behavior at all appeals to you, for whatever reason, there are plenty of options at your disposal. According to a study published by Verified Market Reports in 2023, the global “survival training market” is expected to reach nearly $13.5 billion by 2027; for now, the options include everything from a $69 class in the basics to handing over the cost of a new car to have a luxury travel company dump you in the middle of nowhere and see how you fare.

group of people building a shelter on a deserted island during overseas adventure travel
Desert Island Survival will allow you to live out your castaway fantasies on an uninhabited island. | Photo by Tom McElroy, courtesy of Desert Island Survival

Cosplay Survivor for five days

Desert Island Survival, established in 2018, offers immersive programs that bring together 10 consenting castaways for eight days to learn essential survival skills on an uninhabited island, with the initial five days focused on preparing participants for the subsequent three days of raw survival. A diverse range of guests have plopped down a minimum of $3,200 (excluding flights) to take part in the experience over the past six years, including students and professional athletes, though the demographic typically breaks down to 70% men and 30% women, all from North America and Europe.

"Our clients often hold respectable jobs but feel a void in their lives, craving excitement and adventure," explains founder Tom Williams. "They seek to challenge themselves and derive personal growth from their holidays, rather than indulging in poolside cocktails and subsequently needing a vacation to recover from excess." Williams emphasizes that the essence of the experience ultimately transcends mere survival skills; it's about cultivating perspective, gratitude, confidence, and personal development.

bucket list trip for overseas adventure travel and survival skills
Black Tomato is a luxury travel brand that will also test your basic survival skills. | Photo courtesy of Black Tomato

Get lost... on purpose

For an even more exclusive experience, luxury travel company Black Tomato offers their bespoke "Get Lost" service. For around $19,000 (depending on the location), travelers can be whisked away to an unknown destination. Would-be adventurers fill out a questionnaire meant to assess how "lost" they want to be as well as a sense of the environment they might want to get lost in. Folks at Black Tomato will then hint at what type of training should be completed beforehand, as well as provide the necessary equipment. But because the actual destination isn't revealed until arrival, participants are compelled to tap into their inner strengths, beliefs, and passions to reach the trip's conclusion.

"These expeditions are crafted to foster both physical and mental discovery, aiming to be transformative and leave a profound impact," explains Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato. "It's not uncommon for clients to describe this type of journey as truly life-changing."

people jumping off cliff into open water in dublin for an adventure vacation
Swimming in the open water is popular in places like Ireland, where your travel experience can also include a luxe hotel, in case you're not into building a shelter. | NurPhoto/Getty Images

Dip your toes into a daring travel trend

You don’t have to become a castaway or get lost on a distant island to learn some valuable life skills. Hotels like Anantara The Marker Dublin in Ireland’s capital city offer soft adventure training for their guests, an activity that's equally challenging yet costs less than $200. For instance, this Wild Swimming experience led by open-water swimming guide Jessica Lamb immerses participants in the frigid Irish Sea so they can participate in the beloved national pastime of wild swimming—or, as we know it, a cold plunge.

“There is no environment wilder for a human to occupy than the ocean—you are so far removed from the environment you're specifically designed for, and it can get scary when you start to think about what could be underneath you,” notes Lamb. “So yes, it is a survival situation, even before you talk about cold temperatures. It’s brave to get into deep water and that energy leaves you feeling buzzed with the dopamine hit and a sense of accomplishment beyond what you thought possible.”

overseas adventure travel by a man in baja who is looking down a mountain
For those who aren't ready to wild swim or eat maggots, this outdoor outfitter will allow to start with the absolute basics. | Photo courtesy of REI

Or just start with mastering the essentials

Another excellent—not to mention relatively affordable—option for learning survival skills is by booking a class with outdoor co-op REI. Wilderness Survival, introduced in 2010, is one of the company's longest-running programs and emphasizes building confidence in one's life-preserving abilities. Starting at $69 per person, these group classes encompass a wide array of skills like building emergency shelters, igniting fires, understanding survival priorities, locating and accessing drinking water, navigation techniques, knot tying, and signaling for help. Additionally, REI offers women-specific wilderness survival classes that provide practical tips and tricks tailored to the unique needs of female outdoor enthusiasts.

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Karthika Gupta is a travel photographer, freelance writer, and podcaster based in Chicago but originally from India. Through her storytelling and photography, she aims to bring cultural narratives to the forefront. Her work has been featured in Vogue, BBC Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, Hemispheres, Travel and Leisure, and more. She was recognized as one of 12 female artists worldwide by Fujifilm. As an avid outdoor enthusiast, she enjoys writing about destinations, brands, and products in the outdoor, lifestyle, beauty, and travel space. Follow her work via Instagram or her portfolio.