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Local man attempting to become top naked survivalist


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Photo courtesy Jeff Zausch

POCATELLO — If he is able to complete his latest challenge, Bannock County native Jeff Zausch will have spent more time ‘Naked and Afraid’ than any other contestant on the popular Discovery Channel show.

Zausch, 33, has completed four previous challenges, including 60 days in the Philippines and 40 days in Colombia. Should he survive the elements of the Louisiana swamps for another 60 days, Zausch will have endured 195 days — more than six months — of the ultimate test of primitive survival skills.

The test, he explained to from an actively erupting volcano in Iceland, is far more mental than it is physical.

“The most important thing about wilderness survival, and overcoming all the horrible pain and suffering that you have to go through, it’s primarily mental,” he said. “Anybody can have physical skill and anybody can teach themselves the skills they need to survive in the wild.”

Zausch credits his childhood, in the unincorporated land on the outskirts of Pocatello, with teaching him both the mental and physical skills he needed to become the ultimate survivalist.

“Idaho gave me the perfect environment to be able to put the primitive hunting really into practice,” he said. “There’s no way that I would have been able to accomplish anything I’ve accomplished without having grown up in Idaho.”

In reminiscing about his youth, as part of a family of “very accomplished hunters,” Zausch harkened back to memories of packing 100-plus pounds of animal flesh for miles on blistered feet.

‘Naked and Afraid,’ entering its fourteenth season, is a show on Discovery Channel in which a pair of survivalists, most commonly one male and one female, are left in remote pieces of land. The duo, without clothes or supplies, save for one selected item apiece, must survive in the elements for a set number of days. Then, in order to claim victory over the challenge, they navigate to a preselected extraction point.

Jeff Zausch, Iceland

Photo courtesy Jeff Zausch

Not only does Zausch have the chance to become the show’s most veteran cast member this season, he and his previous partner, Laura Zerra, had, until this season, been the only duo to complete a 60-day challenge. Because Zerra did not return, Zausch said, he has a chance to be the show’s first participant to complete two 60-day challenges.

That was part of the reason for his return.

Zausch compared this opportunity to Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.

The 60-day challenge is the “pinnacle of ‘Naked and Afraid,'” he explained, and this is the chance to cement himself as the ultimate primitive survivalist and all-around outdoorsman.

“It was a chance to make a statement, to be like ‘Hey, what I’ve done in the past, luck had nothing to do with it,’” he said. “I won’t just do it once, I’m going to go follow it up and do it again.”

He is happy to walk the fine line between arrogance and confidence, as he challenges himself with a first. He falls on the confidence side of that line, he said laughing, because confidence is arrogance with the ability to back it up.

In backing up his confidence, Zausch is calling on the experience that only he has. He knows this test, he has passed it before. And this time he goes in with additional knowledge.

Preparing for his second two-month challenge, Zausch worked out twice a day for six weeks, and upped his daily caloric intake to 12,000. In one-and-a-half months, he gained 51 pounds to better prepare.

“I kind of felt like I have a leg up, a little,” he said. “Going in, I kinda knew what to expect.”

One thing he does not believe viewers will be expecting is the difficulties that come with surviving in an area of the United States.

While he has survived the jungles of the Philippines, the Amazon rainforest and the tropical regions of Africa, he was not fully prepared for the difficulties the southern swamps of Louisiana would bring.

“Without a doubt, unequivocally, this was the absolute hardest survival challenge I’ve ever done in my lifetime,” he said.

Sixty days in alligator-infested swampland with limited resources would have been enough. But it was the mosquitoes that he said created the biggest issue.

“They were so thick that you couldn’t even take a breath in without just inhaling mosquitoes into your lungs,” he recalled.

At one point, the skin on his lower legs and feet were completely covered with the insects, “it looked like I was wearing black socks,” he said.

Zausch was unable to divulge whether he and his partner were successful. For that information, he said, Idahoans will have to watch the show, like everyone else. The new season of ‘Naked and Afraid XL’ debuts Sunday, at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.

In the meantime, Zausch is now in position to look back on the challenge, as he takes in the majesty of Iceland, where he has been sponsored by Fuji Film to document the eruption of Fagradalsfjall.

“Iceland, for me, has always been a dream location,” Zausch said. “When the volcano started erupting about five weeks ago, I knew, ‘this is my moment.’ … You can’t really pass it up”

As an outdoorsman and lover of winter climates, Zausch has always had mountaineering in Iceland on his bucket list. And with his degree from Idaho State University in Earth and Environmental Systems and a career in Geographic Information Systems in his pocket, the geological study of a volcanic eruption piqued his interest.

The combination of Iceland and an active volcano is almost as perfect as the combination of Zausch and the Discovery Channel, or being both naked and afraid.