How The Rugged Survivalist Show 'Alone' Became An Homage To Family
Ten hardened men went out into the arena armed with bows, axes, and knives, each convinced he would last the longest. They were ex-military, a law enforcement officer, a prepper: survivalists dropped into the damp wilderness of Vancouver Island to compete in Season 1 of History’s reality show Alone. Within 12 hours, the first left after stumbling on a bear den. Wolves chased off a second contestant, and by Day 4, another had been rescued in the middle of the night from a prowling black bear. Then the show began to shift. Lucas Miller survived 39 days before tapping out due to “coming at peace with self,” per the Wikipedia log. In the seasons that followed, contestants talked about healing in nature and opined on their loved ones. The carroty taste of foraged root vegetables brought a Season 3 competitor to tears as he thought of his young family, thousands of miles away; others left when the loneliness got to be too much. As time went on, the spectacle of a competitor bludgeoning a wolverine with an ax became less the draw (for viewers into that sort of thing) than the personal awakenings. The prize money turned out not to be the most important thing out there.
Alone, now in its seventh season, first aired in 2015 as an experiment, says executive producer Zach Behr. “Ten people signed up to go live in the woods for an undefined period of time, and they didn't know anything about a prize. It wasn't until they all got on-site in Vancouver Island and they were told, ‘Oh, by the way, there's a half a million dollar prize at stake for the winner.’” (For first-time Alone viewers, there are spoilers ahead.)
Each season, competitors are dropped off into a patch of wilderness, several miles apart, with a pack containing 10 survival items they have chosen, cameras, and battery packs. They are given a primitive cellphone that allows them to communicate logistics via text message with field producers, and a two-way radio for the event that they need to quit or, in Alone parlance, “tap out.” They must build a shelter, source water and food, generate fire to keep warm, and last months on their own — and longer than any of their opponents — to win. They receive no news of the outside world and make contact with humans only during brief, terse medical checks.
Families effectively have to sign up also — not for adventure but to be left behind, with very little information. “Our team in the casting department speak with them about every week or two,” says executive producer Ryan Pender. “What we can say is, ‘Everything is OK. They're doing fine.’” If there is an emergency at home, competitors can be alerted, though some have opted not to know. Typically, “the people that have kids are like, ‘Yep, tell me. I don't care. I will leave this for my kids,’” says Pender.
Producers review as much as 5,000 hours of footage of each participant over the course of a season and don’t really know what has been happening until they collect it every 10 to 14 days from a designated dropoff point. (“It’s a crazy production model,” says Behr.) And it is objectively dangerous for participants. The most profound relationship a competitor has is with the camera.
“Whenever my camera battery would die, that's when I freaked out because that's when you really feel like nobody knows that you exist,” says Britt Ahart, who left behind his wife and elementary-school-age son to compete on Seasons 3 and 5.
Along with their survival items, contestants can bring a single photo of their family. “Some say, ‘Absolutely, yes! I want a picture of my husband, my wife, my kids, cause that's going to power me through,’” says Behr. “And some say, ‘The last thing in the world I'd want would be a picture because I don't want to think about them. That would make me want to tap out.’”
Self-defense instructor and father of four Barry Karcher had a macho hunter-trapper energy on Season 6 of Alone, filmed in Canada's Northwest Territories, just south of the Arctic Circle. He brought a picture of his wife, but kept it in his backpack for the first month. In his third month, “I woke up one day, and I was trying to think about my children and I just could not picture their faces,” he says. “It really broke my heart.” Camo-clad Karcher had left a 7-week-old daughter and 2-year-old son behind, intent on muscling through any homesickness. “I literally thought, I'll be gone for maybe four months. I'll make half a million dollars. That's a great payday, and my kids will never really remember it anyway, because they're so young.”
As the effects of starvation progressed, he began to disintegrate emotionally. “Looking back, that might've been a better decision, to take a picture with the kids' faces,” he says.
“I decided to take the picture,” says Amós Rodriguez, a competitor on Season 7, who said at the outset that his journey wasn’t about the prize money. “It was a good reminder of how supportive my family was.” A survivor of the Salvadoran Civil War, Rodriguez left behind his 2-year-old daughter, Metzi. On her second birthday, Rodriguez attributed the fish in his gill net to her — “a gift.”
Ahart tapped out 35 days in after looking at a picture of his wife. Emotionally, “I was standing on the edge of the precipice, and I just fell in immediately. I'm like, ‘I got to go home right now.’”
Brooke Whipple, an outdoor educator, and her husband, Dave, remain the only set of parents to go on the show simultaneously, for Season 4’s pairs challenge, leaving behind two middle-schoolers. “We had to have their blessing because, especially with Alone, if you go out with any kind of baggage, if you go out with any kind of hesitation from your family or trepidation, I think it really plays against you mentally, physically, emotionally,” she says. “You need everybody on your team.” She and her husband promised each child $10,000 of the prize money so they had “skin in the game.” Brooke competed again, this time solo, on Season 5 in Mongolia, lasting 28 days before tapping out due to loneliness.
Season 3, set in the shadows of Patagonia’s sawtooth peaks, had four of the 10 competitors tap out due to missing family. One, high-school teacher Jim Shields, went from brusquely defending his strategy of sitting on a log and doing “as little as possible” to tapping out three days in, admitting he regretted leaving his wife in the middle of adopting three children.
Season 6 competitor Michelle Wohlberg left late in the game, worried that impacted bowels might tear her pelvic floor and prevent her from carrying any more children.
For some competitors, the thought of providing their family prize money capable of paying off debt, purchasing land, or facilitating a trip across the world to visit a grown daughter is the primary motivator for signing on, but family can just as easily become a pressing reason to leave. “You go from this thing of I want that money, I want that money, to being out there long enough to realize that money has no value out there. So what are you going to do with it?” says Pender. “They could all have a million dollars right there with them, but it doesn't buy them anything, right? [Doesn’t] bring their family to them.”
Part of the agony of Alone is that the end of the game is determined by each competitor. Everyone carries with them what Behr refers to as “the button that you push, and all of a sudden the machine comes flying down to you.”
The last competitor in the field finds out they have won when, during a medical check, a loved one stalks out of the woods to surprise them.* Often the shock is so great the winner doesn’t realize what is happening. Weeping, they gather the toys they have whittled for their children, unhitch the sign they have hung on their little hut, and board the helicopter or speedboat. Field staff dismantle their site once they have departed, until there is no trace of the resident. The person who left to go on the show is rarely the person who returns.
“We were very honest with them in the beginning that this will very much change their lives and the way they see things,” says Pender. After months alone in the wild, the heat of a lightbulb, the smell of gasoline can feel like sensory overload. The “bullsh*t” of daily life can be maddening, and reintegrating with families can be difficult. “I essentially came home like a modified person,” says Ahart. Rodriguez says his daughter barely recognized him the first time they spoke over FaceTime.
“What I went through out there was a giant ego death,” says Karcher. “I had, for about 40 years, built my life around false accomplishments, around standard accomplishments.” When he came back, all he wanted to do was spend time with his children. “As I began to heal, I realized this is all I ever want to do. I just want to hang out with my kids forever.”
In the epoch of the pandemic, the show has grown in popularity, offering those casting about for answers the hard-won knowledge of a defining life event without their having to leave the couch. Watching a competitor scream as he stabs a musk ox, we are reminded of the many things we have taken for granted. The proverbial cheeseburger figures, but so does family.
“At the end of the day, they're all still learning the same lesson about being alone and what is, what's really important on this Earth. And it's not money,” Pender says. “Even if you win, you still are able to take that piece of information home: Have you been spending your life the way you really should be?”
After the show, Ahart quit his cubicle job as an accountant for FedEx. For the past three years, he’s been driving his son's school bus. “I love it,” he says. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
The three-hour finale of History’s Alone airs Thursday, Aug. 20, at 8 p.m. ET.