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Meet Melissa Miller, the knife-wielding survivalist from Michigan that has done both of these grueling survival tests for the survival show Naked And Afraid. The only thing is, for this 29-year-old, being afraid isn’t in her survival routine.
If you haven’t heard of Naked And Afraid, it is the Discovery Channel’s reality survival show that throws two survivalists (one man and one woman) into the wilderness without any clothing whatsoever. The survival show is based on the concept of bare survival, where the survivalists must use their bushcraft, outdoors, military or wilderness experience and knowledge get food, water, shelter, and clothing by only using natural primitive means.
So why has Miller earned the title of survivalist? Her first introduction into the harsh reality show threw her naked into the Amazon rainforest in eastern Ecuador, considered to be one of the most remote and dangerous places in the world, where she spent 21 days. Fast forward a year and she is spending (currently on tv) 40 nights in remote South Africa, where Miller sleeps with her knife close by with the lurking dangers of lions, jaguars, hyenas, hunger, thirst and of course the mental game that comes with survival.
Oh, and if you are thinking this is just another light survival show, it’s not. The survivalists in Naked And Afraid endure every hard circumstance you can imagine. For many of them, being naked just adds an extra challenge as they have to deal with insect bite wounds all over their bodies. That’s not to mention the significant weight loss, fatigue, and extreme survival environments they face on Naked And Afraid.
We had a chat with Miller about her thoughts on survival, preparedness, knives and her love of the outdoors after enduring her ordeals as a survival show veteran. Let’s see what she had to say.
Miller: For Ecuador, in my preparation, I would have gained more weight coming into the challenge. I was pretty lean entering the rainforest and by the end of the 21 days in the Amazon, I was a twig.
For South Africa, I would have taken a larger blade due to the fact that neither of my initial partners had shelter-building blades, but rather they brought camp/bushcraft blades like my own. It was really hard collecting trees and cutting that hardwood with three knives. It took us a few days to finish our thorn fortress due to that.
Miller: I prepared in so many ways. I was outside all the time, I was reading foraging books, practicing primitive trapping, and perfecting my friction fires. For Africa I was shooting my recurve bow every day, preparing for lots of wildlife and big game encounters. I was trail running and road running without shoes.
I would also go into the swampland and build a shelter while in a pair of shorts and a sports bra. I would sit there and let mosquitoes bite at me to understand what it might feel like living in the jungle. I had to get myself mentally prepared to feel that miserable for 21 days. I also did a lot of work outside when it would be really humid because I knew this was the type of environment I had to prepare for.
I was practicing designing raised beds, and studying indigenous Amazonian tribes for the 21-day Ecuador and the African Bush People for my 40-day South Africa challenge.
Teaching wilderness survival classes also helped me prepare in many ways as well. I was living and breathing survival as much as I could.
Miller: I prepared myself for the misery and lack of comfort I would experience on Naked And Afraid. I came in hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Letting mosquitos bite me as I trained in the woods prepared me for the mental fortitude it would take to get through (the insects play serious mind games with you out there).
I also entered Ecuador with the thought that there was a possibility we may never get fire due to the humid jungle conditions. I would fast some days and sheltered build to familiarize myself with exertion through hunger.
“I came in hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
Melissa Miller – Survivalist – Naked And Afraid
I also entered each challenge with a purpose and a personal motivation. I knew I would have to overcome the anxiety issues I had. I used to have panic attacks and suffer from depression and anxiety growing up. I knew I would need to face those obstacles in the most extreme way possible, and I wanted to overcome the person I used to and prove to myself I was at a new place in my life.
From the beginning of each challenge, I told myself there was no way in hell I was going to tap out or quit. There were times where I thought about what it would be like to be in the comfort of my own bed, for sure. However, I’d envision the aftermath of leaving the challenge early (like many do) and the regret I would feel if I ever did give up. This was enough to make me never think twice about quitting. It was not an option for me from the start.
Miller: I have loved the outdoors since I was a kid. My family was not big into camping or the outdoors so I was kind of the oddball. My brothers loved video games, my sister enjoyed music and dolls. I was the kid running around our dirt roads barefoot, building forts, fishing, and catching snakes and frogs.
My passion for wilderness survival was rooted from my love of nature and studying indigenous cultures. I loved being in the natural world, and figuring out how to use nature’s resources was like this final step in my connection to the land. It started with fishing and then transferred to foraging, primitive fire, and archery. Ultimately, I wanted to know I could be independent in providing for myself.
That question is nearly impossible to answer for me because it is so dependent on the environment. I don’t have one favorite, but the first knife I really utilized was a Top’s Knives B.O.B. Fieldcraft. That knife has been to hell and back and served me well in South Africa during the 40-day challenge (It’s retired now). Nowadays it’s hard to choose a favorite because I find myself constantly testing new knives each week. I currently carry the Drop Point Renegade by Fiddleback Forge most often.
Fitness is extremely important in survival. When you have a strong body and more muscle mass, you are able to last longer after your fat reserves are depleted. I love outdoor sports and was passionate about fitness before I got heavily into survival; I have worked hard to maintain my physical endurance and have found that is has helped immensely in my challenges.
Training hard doesn’t just prepare you physically, but also prepares you mentally to push your body to extremes. I was big into long distance obstacle courses, competing on an international level in that sport before my dedication to wilderness survival. Enduring the cuts, bruises, and the complete physical exhaustion of those intense races made my challenges much easier. I trained my body it to withstand a lot of pain, and it made the physical challenges during Naked and Afraid much easier to withstand.
As an environmental conservationist, I try to spread awareness on using less and utilizing what you have. In order to be sustainable, you have to obtain a mindset that you don’t need a lot to survive. I prefer a minimalist approach to survival myself, and thinking that primitive practices are the true form of wilderness survival.
We live in a day and age where people are careless about consumption, we have luxuries that generations before us never had and we abuse that privilege. In a survival situation, you can’t use all the materials around you right away, you have to be sustainable. The earth can only provide so much, and you need to give it time to regrow.
The lack of consideration for our earth and it’s nonrenewable resources makes me very worried for future generations. We are cutting down trees and polluting oceans at an alarming rate. We are stripping the earth of the organisms that provide us our most crucial necessity, oxygen. Our lives begin with our first breath and end with our last. Instead of being sustainable with the resources that provide the air we need, we are destroying them in mass quantities each day. We take so much as if it belongs to us, but we need to realize we belong to the Earth.
Motivating young girls is a passion of mine. I want women to know that they CAN be feminine but they can also be independent and strong. I definitely have my “girly” side, but I don’t let it interfere with my independence.
There has been a positive shift in our Western society towards women being viewed as equals and I have so much amazing support from both women and men.
Regardless of sex, I want to motivate people to get outdoors and appreciate the tools nature has to offer. I strive not to be a strong woman, but to be a strong overall person. I hope for a world where everyone is seen as an equal, one where gender never defines expectations.
Oh boy. Being a female in this industry is truly a double-edged sword. On one side, I can gain notoriety much easier than a man in this industry because there are not a lot of women doing what I do and people find that interesting. I knew there was a niche for me to utilize in this industry. I also believe that women can easily use their sexuality to obtain fame much easier than men, I see it all the time and it is really unfortunate. There are countless men out there who have more credibility, experience, and knowledge than I do but they do not have the following simply based on their gender or appearance.
In all honesty, I am constantly at battle with defining myself as a knowledgeable and skilled person while also using my looks to an advantage. It’s a harsh truth I had to face.
A couple of years ago, I was posting a lot of knowledgeable content but not including myself in the post. I found that every time I posted a picture of myself I would gain more interest and viewers. It was a tough pill to swallow, realizing that ultimately looks do sell. This is a huge advantage, but also a fine line that I have to walk because I want to still remain respected in the community and I refuse exploit myself. I don’t want to be another girl posting pictures of herself without any useful information or content. I want to keep my honor and dignity especially to those who follow me to gain true survival knowledge.
Lastly, it is hard for me at times to develop professional relationships with people. I always walk with caution when talking to companies or makers because they are male 99% of the time. I have had to end a lot of business relationships with people who have stepped outside the boundaries of professionalism. In a very short time working with outdoor and knife companies, have found myself in many uncomfortable situations that I had to remove myself from. When someone crosses that line with me, I see it as a lack of respect and it shows me they are in it for the wrong reasons.
Survival skills and prepping go hand-in-hand for me. You can be prepared all you want, but if you do not know how to truly utilize the tools you have then they become pointless. I have a room full of blades, and outdoor gear but that would mean nothing if I did not know how to properly use those items.
“You can be prepared all you want, but if you do not know how to truly utilize the tools you have then they become pointless.”
Melissa Miller – Survivalist – Naked And Afraid
Prepping is one thing, but actually putting yourself in a survival situation is a whole new experience and Naked And Afraid taught me that more than anything. I thought I was going in so prepared and knowledgeable, I had so many ideas and things that I wanted to do on Naked And Afraid but when I was put in my location I found that a lot of the resources I needed were not there.
True prepping involves two major components, being prepared and knowing how to execute your preparation. One overlooked component of prepping is having the skill set to survive if you are stripped of everything.
If an apocalypse were to hit while you were away from home, what would you do next? How would you survive without any gear? That is an important part of survival I think many don’t consider; the idea of having to survive with nothing.
— Melissa Miller (@melissabackwood) July 2, 2017
A lot of things motivate me and drive me. I found something that I am passionate about and moved in that direction. I followed this crazy vision I had and it was really scary at first.
I graduated the University of Michigan with an elementary teaching degree, an extensive portfolio, and was at the top of my class in academics. I was so afraid what people would think of me once I decided to go on the show and change my life direction, but I knew I would not be happy had I chosen a job in the public school system.
I knew I wanted to teach something I was passionate about, and when I got my job as an environmental educator I found so much happiness and fulfillment and what I did (and still do). As I gained notoriety in the outdoor community I saw another avenue to make money through social media.
I am mostly motivated by my own happiness. I used to care so much about what others would think or be fearful that I was not choosing a life that others would approve of. When I let that go, my life changed completely. My friends and family saw that I loved what I was doing and supported me 100% and the people in my life that I truly cared about were happy for me simply because I was happy.
I look forward to going to my nature education job every day. They let me travel for my work in the outdoor industry and are super supportive and lenient with my work schedule. Working with outdoor gear and knife companies this past year has been so exciting for me. I am getting paid to do things that I love to do and I could not feel more thankful for that. Sometimes I become so overwhelmed with gratitude towards them with the opportunities that God has put in my life. I want to always stay humble, every new opportunity I have is cherished.
I really need to sit back and think of an ultimate plan because there are so many directions I want to go in and so many interests I have. Right now I’m working on growing my own brand and working as an affiliate for multiple companies. I am focusing more time and energy on my social media and the many opportunities it has given me.
I plan to stay an environmental educator but work fewer days at the reserve in order to pursue travel and work in the outdoor industry. My life is headed in a positive direction and it’s all happening so fast. I am currently figuring out how to manage my time in the most efficient way possible.
I’ve considered pitches to do my own nature-based show someday, that is always a possibility as well. As cheesy as it sounds, I’m following my instincts and my heart and simply doing what I love. I am at a very happy point in my life and just want to continue to move towards in that direction. When you have your life all mapped out in front of you, you might miss the opportunities that for fulfill you the most.
Well there’s no doubt Miller is a true survivalist and has crossed some extremely physical and mental boundaries in the name of bushcraft, survival, and education. If you enjoyed her story and want to follow her, check out her Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
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