Tired of watching prepper movies and looking for something a bit more… real? Try our list of survival documentaries.
Could you survive alone in the wild? Or, more challenging still, with dependents you need to look out for? Like anyone who has imagined survival in a zombie apocalypse (see our list of zombie movies), preppers picture themselves in some collapse situation. This is not just daydreaming, but a means of planning ones preps, imagining what might be needed in different scenarios.
But fiction and reality can be quite different, that’s what makes survival documentaries so interesting. They are stories of real life situations. People that were faced with dire circumstances and pulled through… or not.
Not all of these documentaries of life or death situations, but living under adverse conditions is a consistent theme. Take a long look and choose two or three to watch. Some of these are really good.
The phrase “complete list” is quite a claim, so please, if you know of any other great survival documentaries, identify them in the comments at the bottom and I’ll add them to the list. Let this list be like the other “complete” lists, evolving and continually expanding.
In alphabetical/numerical order…
5 Lost at Sea (2009) 56min — As the title implies, this story about accomplished sailor Jesse Martin and his five young mates doesn’t end the way they expected.
Amongst White Clouds (2005) 1hr 26min — This probing doc follows the life and ways of Chinese hermits in the Zhongangs. True survival? Maybe not. Enlightening? Perhaps. It’s free on YouTube.
Being Caribou (2004) 1hr 12min — Talk about dedication to one’s career. In this doc, a wildlife biologist and an environmentalist follow a herd of caribou across 1,500 kilometers of Arctic tundra — on foot. Survival? Kind of. A tough journey, both for the filmmakers and the Caribou. It’s free on Vimeo.
Between Home (2012) 96min — A sweeping documentary about overcoming our own boundaries, “Between Home” follows the seafaring survival of Nick Jaffe on his world-spanning voyage.
Cold (2011) 19min — Earning the title, “the only American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter,” Cory Richards documents his climb with two companions, their near-lethal trek up a mountain in Pakistan now the stuff of legend.
The Donner Party Full Documentary (2015) 1hr 23min — Arguably the most famous American survival story, and containing many examples of the price you pay in the wilderness for making errors, this doc is a must-watch.
The Dust Bowl (2012) 3hr 49min – A well-researched film by Ken Burns chronicling the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history and how the people survived it. Here their stories and see the footage.
Happy People: A Year In the Taiga (2010) 1hr 34min — A candid look at the life and times of Siberian trappers, whose lifestyle has remained the same through the progress of the outside world.
High, Wild, and Free (1968) 1hr 45min — Living with Native Americans and trapping beaver to survive, filmmaker Gordon Eastman and his sons explore and strive against hundreds of miles of untamed wilds and water. Free with Amazon Prime. Follow the link
I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash (2010) 1hr 15min — In 1972, a plane carrying a college rugby team and several other passengers crashed in the desolate Andes mountains. This is the story of what happened during the 72 days the world thought they had perished. Free on YouTube.
The Last Trapper (2005) 1hr 34min — Seeking solitude and self-sufficiency, a trapper and his wife brave the harsh Yukon elements along with unpredictable wildlife and unforgiving terrain.
Modern Life (2008) 1hr 23min — The simple life of a farmer. It can be hard to come by in our times, but families in southern France seem to have mastered the art. This is their story. Subtitles.
The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971) 1hr 2min — A man and his children live a Luddite existence in the wooded hills of southern England, surviving without running water, electricity, or gas, making repairs to steam engines to subsist outside the civilized world.
North of the Sun (2012) 46min — A pair of youth spend the better part of a year roughing it in coastal northern Norway, living in a driftwood shelter and scrounging for food. The reason? Some of the best surfing waves in the world.
Paddle to Seattle: Journey Through the Inside Passage (2009) 1hr 25min — Piloting handmade kayaks for 97 days from Alaska to Seattle cover over 1,300 miles.
A River Changes Course (2013) 1hr 22min — In the rough land of Cambodia, three young adults must fight for their families’ survival against the encroachment of Western-style “advancement.” Is the rural Cambodian homestead a thing of the past? Subtitles.
The Summit (2012) 1hr 42min — K2 is known as the world’s most dangerous mountain, and it earned the title in part due to the August, 2008 untimely demise of 11 climbers, whose stories are told in this documentary.
La Soufrière (1977) 30min — Famed filmmaker Werner Herzog brings a camera crew to the island of Guadeloupe, where a volcano is about to erupt and one brave (or foolhardy) man has stayed behind to face it.
Surviving Alone In Alaska (2009) 52min — Upon the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, only a handful of families in the region were grandfathered in to be able to keep their land. Heimo Korth is the last to remain, and this doc by VICE explores his way of life. Free on YouTube.
Surviving In the Siberian Wilderness for 70 Years (2013) 35min — The crew from VICE travels to Siberia to document one family’s steadfast survival against both the environment and the advances of “civilization” toward their precious family land.
The Mercynaries of War – Combat Survival True Life Film (2018) 40min – A first-person documentary that follows a Scottish soldier as he transitions from military life to private contracting for the U.S. in Iraq. Costs and sacrifices. Free on YouTube.
This Way Of Life (2009) 1hr 24min — A New Zealand father struggles against nature and his own father to maintain the near-wild homestead he’s built for his family and their horses.
There’s something for every prepper there, from the kayak-builder to the mountain hiker, and all points in between, but I’m sure I’m missing some. I’m relying on your help to build the list. What survival documentaries are missing? Comment below.