Bear Grylls Survival Academy Hits the Catskills

Challenging fun from a Catskills survival skills program

Expert survivalist Bear Grylls has expanded the minds of television audiences worldwide with his tips and techniques for wilderness survival on shows such as Man vs. Wild and Escape From Hell.

And while there is more than a touch of irony in watching his outdoor adventures from the comfort of your climate-controlled living room, those who feel the palm-tingling urge to really rough it now have the chance: The Bear Grylls Survival Academy has arrived in the Catskills at the Frost Valley YMCA in Claryville.

“The academy was Bear’s brainchild — it’s his way of bringing basic skills to modern man,” says Don Mitchell, an instructor who’s traveled the world and worked with Grylls before joining the academy team. “We chose the Catskills because it’s a great area with challenging terrain, and it’s easy to get to — it’s a playground on the doorsteps of New York City.” The first Survival Academy program was launched in the Scottish Highlands in 2012. The Catskills location — the first in the U.S. — opened in 2013; additional academies now operate in California and Colorado.

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Tackling a ropes course is part of the curriculum at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy in Claryville

From May through August, the academy offers three different programs. There is the 24-hour Family Course ($678 for one adult and one child) designed for children ages 10-17 and their parents. Adults and kids alike learn how to navigate without a compass, build a fire, use a knife correctly, make and set traps, build a shelter, tie knots and use a rope, forage for food, and other outdoor skills. “Kids absolutely love it because they’ve never done anything like it,” Mitchell says. “And they will often do things without a fear in the world. At the top of a stream, there’s dynamic rope work — the kids strap up to their harnesses and jump straight in. The parents are usually the hesitant ones.”

The two other courses cater to those who yearn for an even more intense challenge, and therefore are open to adults only: a physically demanding 24-hour course ($579) and the “Survival in the Catskills” five-day extreme challenge ($3,215). In each program, attendees learn tracking, navigating, shelter building, snares, skinning and gutting for a “wilderness breakfast,” water purification, and more.

“The course is designed so that it is challenging in different ways — some people get squeamish skinning and gutting a rabbit, others have difficulty building shelter,” says Mitchell. “People will sometimes start with self-doubt and think they’re not strong enough, but survival instinct kicks in; when they start working together as a team, it really shows each person’s mettle. Besides survival skills, what they often get out of this is self-confidence and empowerment.” 

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