Now living in the mountains of western Maine, Holt never expected to be on television. The opportunity sort of fell into his lap. And his background made him the perfect contestant.
Originally from Harrison, Maine, Holt served in the Marine Corps for eight years with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He then hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, using his time on the trail to decompress, heal and formulate life goals.
After the trail, his quest continued as he drove an 1983 Volkswagen bus around the country, eventually landing the Florida Earth Skills Gathering. There he learned the art of fire starting, which ignited his passion for primitive skills.
Seeking more knowledge, Holt signed up for Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Masardis, Maine, where he honed his survival skills in multi-week wilderness expeditions including a canoe trip down the Allagash River.
“That’s where I learned everything I know under the sun,” he said.
At the time, the owner and lead instructor at the bushcraft school, Tim Smith, was working for “Naked and Afraid” as a consultant during their casting process. Seeing Holt’s passion for survival, Smith suggested that he apply as a contestant for the show.
“At first I was like ‘heck no.’ People are getting naked on TV? What’s TV coming to?” Holt said. “I didn’t think it was real, you know? It was reality TV.”
Once Smith explained to him that many aspects of the show are authentic, and that it would truly test his survival skills, Holt changed his mind.
“Two months later, I was on an airplane to the Everglades,” he said.
Behind the scenes
“Naked and Afraid” typically features two survivalists — one woman and one man — working together to endure 21 days in the wilderness. Each contestant is only allowed to bring one tool. For example, a knife or a pot or a firestarter. It’s up to them — sort of.
Holt divulged that contestants actually show up with four items, and the producers select which one they get to keep. This adds one more element of uncertainty.
In 2015, Holt first appeared on the show as one of two contestants in “Alligator Alley,” the first episode of Season 4.
How did he feel about being naked on TV? Even if certain parts of his body were carefully censored or blurred?
“I really wasn’t too concerned about being naked or meeting anyone naked,” Holt said. “That part didn’t bother me. But on day one, when they’re filming me on camera and it was just this camera guy and the producer and they were like, ‘OK. Take your clothes off.” There was this one second of hesitation … that one second of clarity of, ‘OK. This is real now … This is what I’m doing. I’m going to get naked, and I’m going to be naked for the next three weeks.’”
Yet Holt claims it only took him a few minutes to adapt to life without clothes. He was more concerned about achieving the four basic elements of survival: water, shelter, fire and food.
“You just have to find the resources to make those things happen,” Holt said “It’s just about getting creative and crafty. It’s like a big puzzle to me.”
During the challenge, Holt survived 21 days in the alligator-infested waters of the Florida Everglades, eating crayfish, water snake and smoked alligator. His fellow contestant, Amber Hargrove — an Army instructor and mother of two — fell ill on day 16, likely due to drinking bad water or contaminated food, leaving Holt to finish the challenge alone.
“[The show’s producers] only intervene if you’re in major danger, like a life-threatening injury,” Holt said. “Until that happens, they’re not going to pull you out of there.”
In an effort to make the experience seem as real as possible, the camera crew of “Naked and Afraid” isn’t allowed to interact with contestants, Holt said. They also aren’t allowed to eat, drink or smoke in front of them. And while the producer will sometimes ask contestants to repeat something they said, no one is asked to behave in a way that isn’t authentic to their personalities or situation.
“I’m not an actor,” Holt said. “That’s why I love doing it and I’m really good at it — because I don’t have to put on a fake face or create a character. I can just be myself.”
Contestants are paid $300 for each day they last in the challenge, and they don’t receive any prize or reward for finishing.
“Not even a T-shirt,” Holt said. “It’s just a test of self.”
New location, new dangers
The next year, in 2016, Holt was asked to return to the show for the spin off, “Naked and Afraid XL,” Season 2 in South Africa. The 40-day challenge featured 12 contestants and spanned 10 episodes.
During the challenge, Holt fell ill due after eating contaminated fruit, then was surrounded by lions. So on day 29, against his wishes, he was forced to leave to get medical attention. He spent the next 10 days in the hospital recovering.
Several other contestants also ate the contaminated fruit, fell severely ill and had to tap out. Only four survivalists made it to the end.
The experience was humbling, Holt said, but it didn’t stop him from loving the show and the challenges it presents.
In 2018, Holt returned to star in “Naked and Afraid of Sharks,” (Season 9, Episode 13), a Shark Week special. With four fellow survivalists, he camped on a barren island in the Bahamas, surrounded by water that’s home to more than 40 shark species. Together, all five contestants lasted the entire duration of the challenge.
Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki
Before and after that challenge, back in western Maine, Holt worked with family and friends to construct a wilderness lodge in Roxbury. In 2018, the building opened as The Human-Nature Hostel, serving Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in the summer, and as a rental and retreat location during other times of year.
Holt also successfully passed the tests required to become a registered Maine guide. In the near future, he plans to lead pack rafting trips and canoe trips in western Maine, during which he’ll teach basic survival skills to his clients.
Despite being busy, he couldn’t pass up another “Naked and Afraid” opportunity.
This next challenge, airing on Jan. 26, is special because he’ll be entirely alone in it, without any other contestants to collaborate with and share the tasks of survival. He’ll also have a chance to redeem himself in South Africa, a place that defeated him during the “Naked and Afraid XL” challenge.
Holt thinks this might be the last time he’s asked to be on the show, simply because he’s been on it so many times, but he’d welcome an opportunity to participate in another challenge.
“Maybe they’ll give me a chance to finish a 40-day challenge,” he said. “I would absolutely do it again because every single time I learn something new about myself, pushing my capabilities a little bit further each time. I just love it.”
“Naked and Afraid: Alone” starring Ryan Holt — Season 11, Episode 2 — will start at 8 p.m. on Jan. 26, on the Discovery Channel. The show will begin with an origin story in which Holt narrates clips from his experiences on his show and shares information about his past. The last hour of the show, from 10-11 p.m., will be his latest challenge in Africa. The episode will also be available on the app Discovery GO. And the next day, it will be available for purchase on Amazon.