Jeff Zausch: Surviving 40 days naked in the wilderness
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POCATELLO — When I walked into Jeff Zausch’s home, it was the first time I had seen him with his clothes on.
Zausch is one of the stars of Discovery Channel’s extreme survival show “Naked and Afraid: XL,” where 12 people were dropped naked into remote Columbia wilderness with the goal of surviving for 40 days.
It was difficult from the start.
When the crew drove Zausch to the drop point – blindfolded in the back of a pickup truck – he was already nervous. That escalated considerably when the truck stopped, the blindfold came off, cameramen and producers surrounded him, and someone said “OK, strip down.”
“That’s when you feel it,” Zausch said. “You feel naked.”
But being seen naked wasn’t an issue for long. After a day, he suddenly didn’t care about people seeing him naked. Being naked only mattered from a survival perspective.
“If they would have just given me a pair of shorts, you know … it would have been so much better,” Zausch said. He winced when he talked about getting bit by insects and spiders in “you know, the region where I did not want to be bit.”
The show, which airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel, is halfway through its season. Zausch could only talk about everything he went through in the first 20 or so days. In fact, he couldn’t even say if he made it the full 40 days. (Contestants “tap out” when they can’t go on.)
He summed up his experience trying to survive naked in three words and a shudder: “It’s absolutely horrible.” However, there is also excitement, elation, and joy that came out of filming the show, particularly when Zausch kills an animal and an involuntary and unstoppable battle cry comes out.
“When I kill something … it just comes out,” he said, adding that even if someone offered to pay him $100,000 to not scream, it wouldn’t work. He can’t help it. And on a show like “Naked and Afraid: XL,” it’s even harder to keep the roar in when he makes a kill since the combination of starvation and the adrenaline hitting him impacts his body so much more than on an average day.
“It’s like a drug,” he said.
But its a drug that he got far too little of in this survival competition. This challenge was considerably worse than he expected.
‘Hardest thing I’ve ever done’
Prior to this 40-day naked-survival challenge, Zausch was a contestant on Discovery Channel’s original nude survival show: “Naked and Afraid,” which challenged a pair of strangers (one man and one woman) to survive for 21 days.
Zausch said that at the time, that show was a difficult, horrible challenge. But his perspective has changed.
“’Naked and Afraid’ was like a grade school,” Zausch said.
Going into this latest 40-day challenge, he thought it would be like doing two of the 21-day challenges which, while still incredibly hard, felt possible to him. It was instead “unbelievably harder” than just two challenges.
He said it’s like “going into a normal ‘Naked and Afraid’ challenge after being hit by a bus.” By the time Zausch got to day 21, he was already skinny, having lost all his fat reserves and most of his muscle. On top of that, his feet were infected, and he had a variety of other injuries.
“Anyone who makes it even just to day 22 is “freakin’ awesome,” he said.
Although Zausch qualifies as “freakin’ awesome,” having made it past day 21, he was tight-lipped about what was still to come in the remaining six episodes.
He wasn’t tight-lipped at all, though, about what he wants next in life: his own survival show.
Jeff Zausch’s Future
Zausch would like that show to be with Discovery, to continue his relationship with them, but was also excited at the idea of a show on the local PBS station. “Something like ‘In The Zone: Hunting With Jeff Zausch,’” he said. “I would love that.”
Part of Zausch’s drive for wanting a show is that he’s a wilderness survival advocate, meaning he thinks it’s wonderful for people to get out of their comfort zones, leave technology behind, and get out in nature.
“I think it does a lot for people,” Zausch said. “I want them to push whatever limits they have.”
Zausch said pushing your own limits is key. If spending one night outdoors sleeping in a tent does that, then that’s what Zausch wants you to do. If that is easy, though, then keep searching until your limits are tested, even if that means “spending 10 days in the wilderness with nothing but a knife,” which is one of Zausch’s pastimes.
Whatever the wilderness excursion might be, Zausch has some tips for you. If you go to his website JeffZausch.com and sign up with your email, you get a free e-book “10 Skills to Surviving Any Disaster,” which Zausch calls the “10 most precious skills … somebody should know if they were stranded in the wilderness.”
Two of those skills are building a shelter and starting a fire with sticks (the bow drill method) which Zausch ranks as the most important, saying that the feeling when you’re sleeping in a shelter you created with “nothing but your hands and a knife” is incredible.
“You feel like a wild person,” he said.
And once you can also start a fire with sticks, then you are set. You are ready to leave home without any supplies and go try to survive for a weekend … or a week.
But survival skills are only 20 percent of the battle. The rest is mental ability. Zausch said surviving a challenge like “Naked and Afraid: XL” is 80 percent mental fortitude. It’s being able to push beyond any amount of pain, sadness and anguish, which brings out the inner survivalist, the inner warrior.
And Zausch has been bringing that warrior out for years, seeking out extreme survival challenges in the mountains and nature where, he said, “I felt pain and I felt sadness and I felt like I could die.”
Yet after each challenging situation Zausch puts himself in, he takes stock of just how much he accomplished.
“I kind of recognize, ‘Wow, I did that. I survived that. What else can I survive?’” which leads to him pushing himself further.