Northern Colorado man stars in ‘Naked and Afraid’
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Greeley Tribune on Tuesday, Aug. 21.
Contrary to the title of the reality show, Justin Tuell was not afraid to go without much food for three weeks. He was not afraid of snakes or bugs or whatever else the Nicaraguan jungle could toss at him. He was not afraid of being outside, in the heat or the rain or at night.
But he was fairly nervous — even, yes, afraid — about being naked.
Tuell, a 31-year-old nurse at North Colorado Medical Center, is someone you’d want on your side when there’s some sort of apocalypse, whether it’s zombies or the flu or a nuclear exchange after President Trump sends one too many offensive tweets to North Korea.
He will spend up to two weeks hiking 100 miles per week in the mountains with a lighter, a machete, a tent and sleeping bag and an axe while he hunts for elk with a bow. He does not bring much food or water. He prefers to live off the land. This is what he does for fun.
He’s well equipped to handle it. He’s taller than you and distributes his 285 pounds in the right places, and he grew up in two areas, in Hawaii and on a farm in Yuma, and his father’s hunts to supplement their meals in Hawaii and working cattle and the land on the farm taught him how to survive.
no need to search for drink before hand
“I always knew where food came from,” Tuell said. “I don’t think many people know where that comes from any longer.”
The idea to get naked, though, started with a drinking game, as many of those kind of ideas do. Tuell and his friends were watching the TV show “Alone” and he and his friends, emboldened by the alcohol (and, in fairness, their love for using survival skills), decided to sign up. When they filled out a form, another one for “Naked and Afraid” popped up.
“Naked and Afraid” strips a man and a woman of everything — yes, everything — and dumps them in a tough spot, with only a couple of tools. Tuell signed up, had a laugh and forgot about it.
You can watch Justin Tuell’s show at discovery.com/tv-shows/naked-and-afraid.
Except, a year later, he got a call from a producer of the show. At the time, Tuell was hiking the tallest mountain in Colorado, Mount Elbert, because of course he was. He called them back from the top of Elbert.
The producers thought that was awesome. They flew him out. He talked about his experiences in the mountains as well as his job as an intensive care unit nurse. Both, he said, involved life or death decisions, many of them urgent and immediate. The producers thought that was awesome too. He was invited to be on the show.
He prepared for the role by getting kind of fat. This seems counterintuitive to getting naked for a national TV audience, but Tuell wanted to survive more than he wanted to look good for the ladies. So he kept exercising because he didn’t want to be a bad example to his patients, but he also ate what he wanted and beefed up to 305 pounds.
Gaining that much meant breaking a promise he made to his mother not to go over 300 pounds: His father had a stroke when he was young, and his mother, a nurse, said the Flight for Life helicopter wouldn’t fly you if you weighed more than 300 pounds, which was an issue working with occasionally angry cattle on a farm. Regardless, he flew out — on a commercial airline — to film the show in February.
Plump, fit and ready to survive for 14 days, all Tuell had to do now was get naked. He would be partnered with a female because that creates drama, and that’s when he found out he would meet that female in the buff on the beach. That female turned out to be Maci McKinney, who was Maci Bookout when she was the first one cast on the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” in 2009. She later starred in the spin-offs “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom OG.”
“Hi, I’m Justin,” Tuell said and extended his hand. He was, of course, super nervous at first but got more comfortable by the second.
“I had my tattoos,” he said.
Expectation vs. Reality
He saw the jungle and prepared himself to starve since he didn’t think there would be anything to eat, but he cheered up when he saw that the show provided a pot, a machete and a firestarter. Tuell, then, knew they would have clean water. A person, he said, can go three weeks without eating but only three days without water. Water wouldn’t be an issue. He felt good about his chances.
The first day, Tuell and McKinney took their time getting to a campsite that the TV studio needed them to reach to make filming easier. McKinney’s feet hurt, and Tuell eventually carried her to the site. The next morning, McKinney decided surviving this hard wasn’t for her, and she decided to leave the show.
She was a big part of the show — the show honestly promoted her a lot more than Tuell because she was already famous — but Tuell got to stay on, and right away, he proved himself. The program didn’t show as much of his next week as it did her one day, but Tuell understood that, even as he watched it with friends in a bar when it aired on June 24.
“It wasn’t about the publicity,” Tuell said. “It was about the challenge and survival and being mentally tough enough.”
He liked the brittle, weak wood that he could break with his hands, even if it burned quicker than he would like. He caught crabs with his bare hands that tasted as good as sushi soft shell crab. He set bird traps, made a fishing pole and bowls out of gourds and created a natural Gatorade out of the plants there. He had sugar, water and a decent if sparse food supply.
He was set up for the next week. He even made himself some slippers. The hardest part was the diary cam. The crew encouraged him to complain about the conditions to add drama, but Tuell didn’t think they were that bad.
“I would pray to God, and God would provide,” said Tuell, whose father is a preacher. “Before I went, my Dad was excited about me going. He liked the Adam and Eve component to it, and he’s the one who instilled in me the mental toughness you need to survive.”
Tuell even set up a post for his machete so he wouldn’t step on it, but ironically, that would be his undoing. On day eight, Tuell stuck his machete into the post. Remember that brittle wood? The post failed, and the machete swept through it and straight down into his foot. The show’s doctor said his challenge was over because the risk of infection was too great. Tuell reluctantly agreed.
He still wears an ugly scar.
A second chance?
“It still feels like a failure,” Tuell said, “but no challenge is worth my foot.”
The producers talked about inviting him back for a 40-day challenge, and Tuell hopes they do.
So do his new group of fans. Tuell isn’t a star, but people do recognize him. One enthusiastic dude wanted a photo with him as Tuell walked through the Denver airport a few weeks ago. His patients recognize him, but that’s because the other nurses love to tell them about Tuell getting naked on a TV show. Many others have hit him up on Facebook, and they told him they loved his positivity and thought he did well. Most of those people are women, but a few are hardcore survivalists like himself who offer suggestions.
“That’s always nice to hear,” Tuell said.
Tuell was paid for the show, but it was just enough to cover his time off from work. He was grateful for the free trip and the chance to show off his survival skills. But he doesn’t need a camera to have fun suffering out in the wilderness. Hunting season starts soon.
Front Range duo Shovelin Stone, made up of Makenzie Willox and Eagle Valley High School graduate Zak Thrall, performed the final ShowDown Town concert in Eagle this summer. While in town, they stopped by the Vail Daily to perform a Newsroom Jam.