No food, no phone — the wild luxury of survival holidays

Surrounded by dense jungle on a desert island off the coast of Panama, Tess Davison, a physiotherapist from London, was lost. Davison had left her campmates to trek to a nearby beach, but after entering the swirling mass of vines and creepers she quickly took a wrong turn. This was, in a roundabout way, exactly what she had signed up for.

For the cost of a stay in a luxury resort, Davison, 55, had flown more than 5,000 miles to try to survive without the assistance of civilisation. She learnt to forage for flora and fauna, the basics of spearfishing, navigation and rescue signalling and how to ignite a fire using just two sticks. When she finally found her way back to camp that day after a few hours in the jungle, she recalls chopping down a coconut and lying on the beach, thinking, “This is worth a million bucks.”

Dicing with death in the great outdoors is no longer the preserve of TV adventurers like Bear Grylls, Ray Mears and Ed Stafford; survival skills are no longer restricted to a kooky niche with a penchant for military fatigues and conspiracy theories. From the Highlands of Scotland to desert islands in south-east Asia, a growing number of specialist tour operators are offering the chance to experience what it would be like to survive in the wild, and often charging hefty nightly rates for the privilege.

Bowls made out of gourd like fruits
Any useful objects the Desert Island Survival guests make in the training phase can be taken into the survival phase © Gareth Lloyd

A man stands by a campfire at night, stirring a pot
Tom Williams cooks dinner for the group on the Pearl Island archipelago © Mathew Maynard

Tom Williams, who runs Desert Island Survival, the bushcraft survival company that organised Davison’s trip to the Pearl Island archipelago off the Pacific coast of Panama, says the majority of guests who go on the 20 trips he runs each year have never even camped before.

For the first five days on the island, guests are fed and provided with hammocks while they train in bushcraft, then they are sent off to fend for themselves for three nights with no more than a ration of water, a machete, a hand knife, a satellite phone and a medical kit. By the time they check into a beachside resort on the final night, it feels like a “10-star hotel”, says Williams.

The surge in interest has been propelled by reality TV game shows that put contestants’ survival skills to the test, such as Survivor, Naked and Afraid and Alone (the UK version of which concludes on Channel 4 this weekend, with Williams taking part and down to the final four vying for the £100,000 prize). But the biggest draw for guests, Williams argues, is the chance to disconnect from the humdrum of white-collar office life where workers are glued to screens.

A woman stands in woodland holding an armful of moss and twigs
Naomi Aldwyn-Allsworth, one of the contestants on Channel 4’s ‘Alone’  © Channel 4

A man uses a wire to tie logs
Another contestant, Louie Seddon, sets snares for squirrels © Channel 4

Wenjie Cai, an associate professor in tourism at the University of Greenwich, agrees that the growth in survivalist tourism is fuelled by “techno-stressed” workers wanting to escape the “constant connectivity in everyday life”.

“Ironically, digital-free breaks often find their way on to social media afterwards,” says Cai. “These posts about life-changing experiences are the most powerful promotional tool the companies have.”

On one desert island off the coast of the Philippines that Desert Island Survival uses, there is still phone signal but instructors change guests’ pin codes for the duration of their 10-day stay. “We’re seeing skyrocketing depression and anxiety in our societies and hyper-connectedness is a catalyst of that,” says Williams. “So counteracting that with experiences like ours is a big driver.”

A former software salesman, he had grown so disillusioned with his career that he had considered crashing his car on the motorway to secure a few weeks off work for injury. Instead, inspired by a conversation with a friend at the pub, he decided to train for a North Pole expedition in 2010.

A woman sits cross-legged, weaving leaves together
A guest on a Desert Island Survival expedition learns weaving . . .  © Terence Ver S Angsioco

A mat and a bowl woven out of leaves
. . . in order to make bedding mats, bowls or hats © Gareth Lloyd

After spells working on a superyacht, running kayak expeditions in Patagonia and cycling over the Andes, he organised the first Desert Island Survival trip in 2016. The cost of its holidays has since doubled to around £3,000, not including flights, and the company is planning to increase the number of trips to around 40 per year. Williams is in the process of hunting for new uninhabited islands off the coast of Indonesia.

From the start, Desert Island Survival offered a “purist” approach — participants are not given ration packs, matches, flints or fire-strikers and must instead forage, hunt and use primitive bow drill and hand drill methods to start fires. Oisin O’Leary, a 34-year-old fund manager who works in the City of London, still vividly recalls the feeling of elation when he managed to start his first fire after trying for two days on a trip to the Pearl Island archipelago last year. “When you achieve that, something so small, it triggers this primal sense in your brain about ‘Oh, this is how our ancestors used to live’ and you get this immense sense of gratitude for all these teachings,” he says.

Increasingly, however, other operators are blurring the lines between primitive survival skills and the modern trappings of luxury. At the five-star Sani Resort in Halkidiki, Greece, guests can take a break from their sun loungers (and the 35 bars and restaurants) to head into the nearby 1,000-acre woodland to learn how to chop wood with a knife and construct a shelter as part of the Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

There are plans to launch the academy at Sani’s sister resort Ikos Porto Petro in Mallorca. The academy also hosts courses at Parkdean holiday resorts across the UK. A total of 60,000 clients have taken the survival course designed by Bear Grylls since it was launched in 2012. “You were considered a bit of a whack job if you were interested in survivalism back then,” says Paul Gardiner, the academy’s managing director. “But TV series, like the ones Bear’s done, have all helped create that space and make it a bit more serious.”

Someone holds a knife to a small pile of wood which is catching fire
Making a fire on a Rvival wilderness experience . . .  © Grace TSP

A young girl crawls out of the undergrowth
. . . and learning about camouflage and concealment with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy

Rvival, a specialist survival camp operator based in Scotland, allows guests to customise the intensity of their trip, choosing between camping in a luxury bell tent, an expedition-spec Land Rover Defender roof-tent or in a normal tent. Guests can also receive tutelage from an ice-swimming coach, a falconer and a knife-maker, depending on their interests. Trips can cost anywhere between £4,000 and £9,000 per person.

Eliza Brown, who set up Rvival last year, thinks clients are attracted to wilderness experiences partly in response to growing uncertainty in the wider world. “There’s a lot of chat around climate change and wars and all these elements [and] I think they’ve struck a chord in people who want to spend their money more meaningfully,” she says.

Rvival largely caters for busy white-collar workers and senior executives, says Brown. Two of its trips this year have been corporate retreats with team-building exercises led by Rvival staff who are former members of the military special forces. Corporate courses are also the biggest division of the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, according to Gardiner.

A group of people around a campfire at night
Desert Island Survival guests are fed well during the first few days . . .  © Thomas McElroy

A pot hangs over a fire on a beach at night
. . . and are taught the skills they will need for the final three days © Tom Williams

Anders Anderson, lead instructor of The Wild Tales, which launched last year offering survival trips to Guyana, says the appeal of survival experiences lies in the humbling power of the jungle: “Mother Nature just peels off these layers until there’s nothing left than whatever is in the deepest parts of us, and there we meet ourselves in such a vulnerable position. If you come and you’re physically very strong or very successful with money, the jungle doesn’t care about any of this.”

His 12-night trips (which cost about $3,000) include introduction, expedition and isolation phases — during the latter the participants are left alone “to survive until the evacuation”. This year, Anderson has hosted around 50 guests. Next year, he plans to host at least 150 clients and possibly more than 200. “It’s growing exponentially,” he says. “Every time we have Instagrammers or YouTubers coming, we get more and more requests.”

People walk in line through the undergrowth
Trekking into the Scottish wilderness on a Rvival expedition . . .  © Grace TSP

A person on a zip line over a river
. . . and ziplining over a river © Grace TSP

Anderson describes going to collect his guests from their scattered camps after the isolation phase, arriving to find “stone age” scenes. There is typically a fish cooking on the fire, a hut made of interlaced palm leaves and the smell of sweat and smoke pervading the air. “It’s just so raw and authentic,” he says.

The final episode of ‘Alone’ (UK) is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday; it is already available to stream

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