How a PEOPLE Staffer Survived 'Naked and Afraid' !

Senior writer Steve Helling learned how to survive with the barest of essentials

Photo: Discovery Channel

When I first heard about the TV show Naked and Afraid, I thought it was a sign of the impending apocalypse.

Not only were people expected to live in a remote jungle, but now they had to do it naked? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I’m pretty sure I used the words “exploitative” and “lowest common denominator.”

So when my editor asked me if I wanted to fly to Belize to do a Naked and Afraid experience, my gut instinct was to say no.

For one thing, I’ve spent the winter gorging on Girl Scout Cookies, and I wasn’t thrilled about displaying my expanding waistline to the world.

Secondly (and more importantly), I’m a dad of six children. I wouldn’t necessarily want them getting naked for a reality show. What message would I be sending them if I did it?

“I Can’t Believe I’m Doing This”

What happened next was a series of increasingly awkward discussions about blurring, camera angles, Speedos and tastefulness. I finally agreed to try my hand at Naked and Afraid – but only under a few conditions.

The first condition was my partner. Naked and Afraid always partners a male and female together. I didn’t like the idea of explaining to my young kids why I was in the jungle with a naked woman who wasn’t mom, so I requested a male partner instead.

The show paired me with Matt Wright, a Colorado survival expert who makes his own machetes and tells stories of tanning animal pelts with his own urine. (In true reality TV fashion, they didn’t tell him that he was being paired with a guy. He expected a pretty anchorwoman. Instead, he got a 205-lb. reporter with a hairy back. Poor Matt.)

Just like the show, I was allowed to bring one survival item into the jungle. Knowing that Matt was going to bring a machete, I opted for an industrial-sized roll of duct tape, which turned out to be a godsend. We made ropes, shoes and bowls out of it. (Helpful hint for future participants: If you bring a roll of duct tape on Naked and Afraid, you don’t really have to be naked. We made duct tape loincloths almost immediately.)

Matt taught me how to build a shelter, start fire and forage for food in the jungle. I was having the time of my life – until night fell and the camera crew went home. Temperatures dropped into the mid-50s, which is really cold to sleep on bamboo in nothing but a duct tape loincloth. (Shrinkage was an issue.)

Misery and Exhilaration

It rains a lot in the rainforest, so we couldn’t find dry firewood. I huddled by the dying embers and plotted the deaths of everyone who got me roped into the adventure.

But then the misery ended. The sun rose, the temperature warmed up, and I felt much better – and ready to do the whole thing over again. The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.And that’s the secret to Naked and Afraid. It’s not about nudity; it’s about vulnerability. What really happens when you’re stripped of everything and forced to fight against nature?

Would I do the full 21-day version of the show? I’ve asked myself that question several times since returning home from Belize. I probably wouldn’t, but if I were to do it, I’d have one requirement: I get to bring more duct tape.

Naked and Afraid premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery.

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