Naked, Unafraid

A native Mainer bares all on a 40-day survival challenge.

By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Mark Fleming
From our July 2016 issue

Ryan Holt recently fashioned himself a crown of wildebeest horns, which pairs well with his gator-foot necklace. He was in South Africa for the second season of Naked and Afraid XL, airing this month on the Discovery Channel, a show that asks 12 (naked) contestants to last 40 days in the wilderness. He returned from filming a few months ago and is currently building a geodesic dome on a wooded 42-acre property in Roxbury. Holt aims to open a hostel by next summer. An ex-Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s also pursuing his Maine Guide license so that he can lead other veterans — especially those suffering physical and emotional trauma — on wilderness trips (free of charge, he hopes, pending donations).

A Harrison native, Holt previously tamed the Florida Everglades with aplomb on the regular, 21-day edition of Naked and Afraid. He talks with Down East about the ups and downs of the show, his survival ethic, and the texture of lizard meat.

You left a sign in the Everglades that read “Thrive.” You have that word tattooed on your back and printed on your license plate. What’s the significance?

I don’t like the word “survival.” Some contestants manage to survive by lying around and conserving energy. I can do that at home. Thriving takes it to another level. It’s a different approach than a lot of other people bring to the show.

Seems to have paid off in the Everglades.

A lot didn’t even make it through editing. I caught nine catfish; they showed two. I got four snakes; they showed one. I also found a lime tree. I sautéed catfish with lime, seasoned alligator, flavored my water, brushed my teeth. They never showed any of that. I guess they didn’t want it to look too easy.

Did group dynamics affect you in the show’s XL format?

Yeah, you meet everyone in their rawest form, stripped of comforts, struggling with hunger and thirst. So the personality thing gets intense. You try to find your place, but that was difficult for me.

How do you explain the underlying appeal of doing the show?

All you have is what’s up here [pointing to his head] and maybe a knife. It’s like a giant puzzle or playground for me. I love to MacGyver the shit out of things. I also got to share my plan to guide other veterans, and the publicity from the show has been great for that.

How was this season’s venue?

You’ve got black mambas, hyenas, Cape buffalo. You don’t leave your shelter at night, because that’s when the leopards and lions come out. It was an extremely dangerous environment, but also one of the most beautiful. I felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss book.

Were you able to hunt?

It was much harder than any of us expected. Everything — big game, insects, fish, even plants — has been fighting for survival since the beginning of time, and they know what they’re doing. One of my greatest successes was netting a 6-foot monitor lizard.


Not my favorite. Stringy and tough. Alligator tasted much better.

Were bugs a problem in South Africa?

One day I picked between 200 and 300 ticks off my body. I got tick-bite fever that hit me after filming. I spiked a 103-degree fever and had to go see an infectious-disease specialist in Philadelphia. Fortunately it’s treatable with antibiotics.

So blackflies don’t look so bad anymore.

If blackflies ever start to bother me, I just think about Everglades mosquitos.

Could Naked and Afraid do a Maine episode?

Even though Maine is my stomping ground, it would be more difficult here than in a warmer climate with lots of fruits and reptiles. Reptiles are a heck of a lot easier to catch than moose or squirrels.

After two go-rounds, would you ever do the show again?

I’d absolutely do it again. You can quote me on that.

You’re hooked on the challenge?

It’s not just Naked and Afraid. I’ve done other pretty wild and crazy things apart from the show. It’s addicting to push your limits. I like to feel who I am without any clutter or chaos.

Or clothes.

Or clothes. I don’t like when clothes get in the way.

No lingering inhibitions about nudity then?

It doesn’t faze me a bit. There are 7 billion people in this world, and we’re all naked at some point.

Read more about Holt’s Human-Nature Hostel and Wilderness Warrior Project.