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Laura Zerra’s Go-To Survival Gear: What’s in the ‘Naked and Afraid’ Star’s ‘Oh Shit Bag’?

Laura Zerra was a fan favorite on the Discovery Channel show 'Naked and Afraid' — and even off camera, she subsists minimally and off-grid. We met up to talk gear and take a look inside her survival bag.

Laura Zerra demonstrates how to build a survival shelter at the GoPro Games; (photo/Meredith Guinan)(Photo/Meredith Guinan)
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Perhaps the strongest and most successful participant in Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” and also the star/host of CarbonTV’s “Decivilized,” Laura Zerra made a special appearance at this summer’s GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colo.

Emerging from her cave (yes, she lives in an actual, former mining cave in the mountains of Montana), she provided a quick demonstration on how to build a shelter out of branches and pine needles. She’s personable, funny, and the farthest thing from being socially awkward. Which is surprising for someone who sometimes goes 6 weeks at a time with zero human interaction.

During the demonstration, she imparted wisdom on how to live off the land with minimal provisions and shared details about her lifelong penchant for doing so. We talked with her about her life, her time on the show, and the contents of her day-to-day survival bag — a piece of equipment she refers to as her “Oh shit bag.”

Laura Zerra, Before ‘Naked and Afraid’

Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, Zerra never felt she fit in with other kids. She spent her free time exploring the woods near her home, stalking wildlife, and examining plants. She even befriended a pack of coyotes.

“I was a weird kid,” she said. “I was so shy I didn’t even speak to my grandparents. The only place I thought I could be myself and not judged was outside.”

Zerra spent her teenage years learning everything she could about outdoor survival, or as she describes it, “putting myself in dumb situations.”

Not wanting to be “tethered” to modern-day luxuries like stores, she figured out how to forage off the land and subsist on minimal material comforts. She taught herself how to skin animals. At one point (at around age 14), she even convinced her older sister to help her pick up a dead beaver she’d spotted off the road.

While studying ethnobiology at Connecticut College, rather than live in her assigned dorm room, she built a shelter in the campus arboretum. Her friends would visit and marvel at the small structure she built out of plywood. Volunteering for an outdoor program in Montana between semesters, Zerra met someone who convinced her to pursue what she loved. She dropped out of college and hit the road.

“I traveled all over the U.S. working odd jobs to pay off my horrendous student loans,” she said. Her travels included hitchhiking through the U.S., living in a homeless shelter in Chicago, spending weeks in the jungles of Mexico, and jumping freight trains to get from one location to the next. She picked up specialized skills and random work as a tree planter, mushroom forager, wild game processor, farrier, taxidermist, and knife maker.

Getting on ‘Naked and Afraid’

Although she was living without a phone or permanent address in 2013, The Discovery Channel somehow tracked Zerra down at a friend’s house. The network asked if she’d be interested in participating in a new reality show in which she and an unknown partner would be dropped into a mysterious location in the wilderness to try and survive for 21 days.

“They didn’t say right off the bat that there was nudity involved,” Zerra said, adding that it was only in the final conversations that the “naked” component was made clear.

“During one of the interviews on the phone when they were trying to decide if I was someone who could be on camera or just a weirdo who lived in a cave — which I am — they were basically like, ‘We’re going to drop you off with nothing, with a partner, in a new location you’ve never been to. It’s going to be great. Also, there’s a slight chance we might take your clothing,’” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait. What? My mom will kill me.'”

When the show’s creators explained that the absence of clothes made the challenge of survival challenge exponentially more difficult, Zerra reluctantly agreed.

“Clothing is your first line of shelter. I’d been living survival for 10 years at the time, but I’d never done it naked. It added a whole element of vulnerability,” she realized. “Even if you go out with a light shirt, it’s some protection against the cold. And the bugs. They don’t have boundaries when you don’t have clothes on.”

Surviving ‘Naked and Afraid’

Laura Zerra
(Photo/Shauna Farnell)

Some of Zerra’s most arduous experiences on “Naked and Afraid” include being bitten by a bullet ant “on the most specifically sensitive part of the human body.” She said, “It was literally blinding pain.”

Also, during her 21 days in the Amazon jungle for “Naked and Afraid,” the mosquitos were so thick, she and her partner were choking on them, wearing their canvas bags over their faces during every off-camera moment.

“There were crew members that left,” she recalled. “And they were wearing full bee-keeping outfits.” But perhaps her biggest challenges on “Naked and Afraid” were dealing with other people’s human drama. “I’m a low-drama person,” she said. “That’s why I spend half my time alone.”

That said, Zerra truly loves people. She has spent years teaching children at outdoor camps and relishes sharing detailed survival tips on CarbonTV’s “Decivilized,” whether it’s how to avoid avalanches in the backcountry or what to carry in your car on long drives. Zerra’s mantra for outdoor survival situations is “focus on what you have and not on what you wish you had.”

Regardless of where she is or what she’s doing, Zerra never leaves her cave without her “Oh shit bag.” Weighing in at less than a pound, the bag can fit in a pocket and contains the bare essentials for survival.

What’s in Laura Zerra’s ‘Oh Shit Bag’

Ziplock Bag With BIC Lighter or Matches

Laura Zerra’s Go-To Survival Gear - Oh Shit Bag
A sample of items in Laura Zerra’s ‘Oh shit bag”; (photo/Shauna Farnell)

“[My ‘Oh shit bag’ is] in a plastic bag, not only to keep it dry, but in some situations, you can actually boil water in a plastic bag.”

(We had to verify that claim, but in fact, Zerra isn’t lying: You can boil water in a plastic bag. Is it good for you? Probably not. But neither is drinking untreated water in nature.)

Fire Paste

“Fire paste will allow you to start a fire in any weather conditions no matter how wet and terrible it is. It holds a flame, essentially like cotton balls with Vaseline.”

Petzl Actik Headlamp

Laura Zerra gives us a peek inside her 'Oh Shit Bag'
(Photo/Shauna Farnell)

“This is new in the last five years. I used to make do without it, but man, it makes things easier when you can actually see at night.”

Used on the lowest setting and minimally, Laura Zerra said the battery on her Petzl Actik can last for a full month. The brand says on low-power mode, the light will last for 260 hours. It’s a very helpful addition to her “Oh shit bag,” she said.

Emergency Blanket

a folded brown wool blanket, emergency foil blanket, and box with an emergency blanket from SOL

“It’s not super comfortable. You can get super sweaty and clammy, but I prefer that to hypothermia. In non-windy areas, I’ve improvised to build a shelter with the paracord. You can string it up. In a downpour, it will work as a makeshift tarp. You can put it in a depression in the ground and boil water in it instead of your plastic bag. You can make a solar still. There are a million different ways to use it.”

These things are great and they weigh nothing.

Disposable Scalpel

Zerra’s Oh Shit Bag - Scalpel
(Photo/Shauna Farnell)

“I’m a knifemaker. People make fun of me all the time for not bringing a knife. If I had one thing and only one thing, I’d probably bring a knife. But if I have fire-making supplies already, I’ll bring a scalpel. I can cut things if I need to, and it weighs nothing.”

Coghlan’s Compass

Zerra’s compass
Zerra’s compass

“A lot of people talk about navigation, and it seems really overwhelming. I end up using this just for basic direction. If I know there’s a road and it runs east to west and I’m going to the north of that road, no matter where I am in that area, if I walk far enough, I’m going to hit that road.

“You can do the same with a major river. I don’t recommend doing it with streams, because they branch off. But for major landmarks, if you just know what direction to head if you get in trouble, you’ll be good.”


Laura Zerra gives us a peek inside her 'Oh Shit Bag'
(Photo/Shauna Farnell)

“It has a million different uses,” Zerra said. Paracord comes in handy for building a makeshift shelter, using it as a fishing line, wound management, binding things, improvising a tourniquet, and so on. It’s an extremely versatile, cheap piece of gear that should have a place in everyone’s “Oh shit bag.”

Zerra’s Favorite Survival Gear (Outside of Her ‘Oh Shit Bag’)

Nemo Sleeping Pad

Survival items 2.0 - nemo sleeping bad
Zerra’s well-worn NEMO sleeping bag; (photo/Shauna Farnell)

“I’ve slept with this in my cave, where it’s shale. I’ve slept on pine needles. My dog has stepped on it. Every time, I’m like, there it goes. But it doesn’t. It’s been great. It’s a shorty, so it’s super lightweight.”

All of that makes this an essential item for Laura Zerra, and one she keeps with her often. It’s too big for the Oh Shit Bag, but it’s a regular companion on any of her backcountry adventures.

Eberlestock 0-Degree Down Sleeping Bag

Naked & Afraid Go to Survival Gear - Eberlestock external frame backpack
(Photo/Shauna Farnell)

“I’ve had [this bag] forever. I have to keep it in a dry bag so it doesn’t get wet. It’s super warm.”

The 2.5-pound bag is ultralight, is comfort rated to 5 degrees F, and features Carinthia G-Loft insulation. It’s a solid lightweight bag at a great price compared to other brand-name bags of similar quality ($290).

Survival items 2.0 - Eberlestock External Frame Backpack
Survival items 2.0 – Eberlestock External Frame Backpack; (Photo/Shauna Farnell)

Eberlestock External Frame Backpack

“It’s got a giant dry bag as its center bag and two bat wings on the side, so when I’m hiking in, I can have all my gear on hand. When I get to camp, I can take the dry bag off,” Zerra said.

“Because I usually only bring a tarp instead of a tent, I can have everything packed inside, like my sleeping bag. I want to make sure it stays dry. Then I take the pack and use it to either prop up the tarp or my whole body is on it and my feet are off the ground.

“I have this perfect system where I have minimal stuff out there, but the stuff I use has many purposes.”

Laura Zerra’s ‘Oh Shit Bag’: The Final Word

Don’t leave for an adventure without your own “Oh shit bag.” You can make your own that’s both lightweight and pocket-compatible, just like Zerra’s. There’s really no excuse for entering the wilderness without one. As she will tell you, it just might save your life.

For in-depth survival guidance, catch Zerra on “Decivilized,” including a new episode showcasing the survivalist’s tornado-chasing debut and tips on surviving and avoiding twisters. Find out how to forge your own knife in her step-by-step book, “A Modern Guide to Knifemaking” and follow her on Instagram @laurazerra

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