Wilderness survival movies have always been a staple of modern filmmaking because it taps into a primal element of human nature. When people are stranded in a harsh environment, they can either rise to the challenge or succumb to the elements. Although wilderness survival films are not a specific subgenre, they do belong in a class of their own.
So, with that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best 22 wilderness movies that pit man vs. nature in everything from the snow to the jungle.
Almost all of these titles are available to watch now on your favorite streaming platform (i.e., Netflix or Amazon Prime), or you can rent them for a small fee.
Table of Contents
Into the Wild
Some of the best wilderness movies are based on true stories, and that’s where our list begins. Into the Wild documents the story of Christopher McCandless, who dropped out of college, donated all his money and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wild.
Although McCandless died while out in the forest, his story is still a compelling call to adventure. Unfortunately, due to the success of this movie, many other people have tried to make a pilgrimage to find the bus where he was living before his untimely end.
Because of the dangers of the wilderness, the Alaskan government removed the bus to discourage future travelers.
This film is a grounded look at McCandless’ story and illustrates the crushing weight of wilderness survival if you aren’t prepared for the worst.
This movie is most notable for its marketing pitch around getting Leonardo DiCaprio his much-deserved Oscar.
Also, the film is brutally honest, with hard-to-watch scenes of the brutality of man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. bear. As with most wilderness survival movies, the plot is pretty simple – a man is left for dead and wants revenge.
However, this film is beautifully shot with scenes that look gorgeous from start to finish. Interestingly enough, all the outdoor scenes used natural lighting, which is partly why everything looks so stunning and authentic.
Touching the Void
As you’ll notice on this list, survival movies tend to take place in one of five locations: the ocean, the forest, the jungle, the desert, or on top of a mountain.
Touching the Void is set on a snow-capped peak in the Andes mountains, where two climbers must face harrowing circumstances. As a documentary, the thrills are even more intense because there are no stunt doubles or safety equipment.
A truly stunning look at the dangers of mountain climbing and why no one should ever try to tackle a mountain without lots of experience and training.
Without a likeable star like Tom Hanks, this movie could have been quite a snoozefest. We spend over 90 percent of the runtime with Hanks as he learns to adapt to the harsh environment of an uninhabited island.
Fortunately, he makes the time worthwhile and the movie is pretty captivating from start to finish. I think it’s a testament to the filmmakers that audiences could feel so connected to a lifeless volleyball. Also, Hanks’ transition from chubby FedEx worker to slim survivalist is pretty impressive.
As with many wilderness survival movies, 127 hours dramatizes a real-life event. If there’s one thing you should take away from these films, it’s that you should never head out into the wild by yourself. If something goes wrong (like a rock trapping your arm), you have no backup or way of getting yourself free.
As with Cast Away, we’re spending most of the time with Franco and no one else. Fortunately, Danny Boyle knows how to make the situation feel intense and captivating, even though not much is happening on paper.
Also, Franco delivers a stellar performance of a man brought to the edge in a desperate pursuit of survival.
Never Cry Wolf
Alaska is a popular backdrop for wilderness movies because the state is so wild and untamed. This 1983 film is about a researcher heading into the Last Frontier to document the brutality and savagery of the local wolf population.
However, as he learns to survive in the harsh landscape, he discovers that these animals are much friendlier and more sociable than people were led to believe. If you’re an animal lover, you’ll appreciate this film.
The Way Back (2010)
The Way Back is our first entry that focuses on the desert, and it follows the journey of Siberian gulag escapees trying to flee to India.
The trek is pretty straightforward, but the crew must trek across four thousand miles of desert and rough terrain to reach freedom. Considering the dangers they face, that illustrates how brutal Russian gulags must be. More impressively, this movie is also based on a true story.
The Way Back features a pretty impressive cast, complete with Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan before she became a Hollywood star.
War survival movies are something of a sub-sub-genre, particularly because war is a perfect setup for people to find themselves in a survival situation.
In this case, Christian Bale plays a pilot who gets shot down over Vietnam. He has to endure harsh prison conditions but manages to crawl his way out and escape with barely his life.
However, the jungle is just as brutal of a prison if you don’t know what to expect. As with Cast Away, Bale’s physical transformation is nothing short of impressive.
The Snow Walker
This Canadian film is something of a love letter to the native tribes of Northern Canada. Barry Pepper is a hotshot WWII pilot putting his skills to use in the Arctic Tundra. He agrees to take a local Inuit girl to a town for medicine since she has tuberculosis, but she winds up saving him instead after they crash.
The film is somewhat lighthearted for a survival story, but it features some gorgeous scenery and the female lead (Annabella Piugattuk) is mesmerizing. It’s too bad she never starred in anything else notable after this.
In 1947, an explorer with the awesome name Thor Heyerdahl set out on a raft to prove that ancient Polynesian tribes could navigate the Pacific Ocean without larger ships or Western technology.
However, while Thor proved his theory right, the journey was not an easy one. Traversing 4,300 miles over open ocean on a single raft is nothing to scoff at, and the man barely made it out alive.
This film is a modern retelling of Thor’s book and the original movie, which came out in 1950 with Thor playing himself.
This film documents a true story of two teams partnering up to go against the elements in their quest to summit Mount Everest. The expedition is plagued with problems, including illness, storms, and bitter infighting.
Although the plot isn’t as exciting or nail-biting as some of the other entries on this list, it does have some notable stars, like Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Sam Worthington.
Some of the climbing scenes are also pretty awe-inspiring and highlight why so many people try to reach the top every year.
Plane crashes are a common trope for wilderness survival movies, as it’s an easy way to explain why and how our main characters found themselves stranded in such a harsh environment. Alive is another fictionalized account of a real story of a Uruguayan soccer team that had to survive in the Andes mountains after their plane crashed.
This 1993 film stars Ethan Hawke, and it’s a relatively faithful adaptation, even if none of the stars look Uruguayan. It’s also a good story about how people can rise to the occasion during a disaster or become a liability.
This film is a lot like our first pick, Into the Wild, but with a much less somber ending. In this case, a woman named Cheryl Strayed decides to head into the wilderness to find herself after a string of setbacks in her life.
She loses her mother, her husband, and her grip on her sanity, forcing her to gaze inward and discover what she’s been missing. This movie documents Cheryl’s expedition along the Pacific Crest Trail, which is one of the longest and harshest trails in the world.
Reese Witherspoon stars, and she’s affable enough that you care about Cheryl’s struggles and triumphs along the way.
Into the White
This won’t be the last time we see a Harry Potter star in a wilderness movie. Into the White is a loose adaptation of real events that transpired during World War II.
Enemy fighter pilots shoot each other down over rugged territory and must put aside the rules of engagement to survive. Despite the gritty backdrop of war, the film is relatively slow-paced and features a lot of bonding and talking, not as much survival and conflict.
Rupert Grint (aka Ron Weasely) stars, and he basically carries the movie by being a likable guy put into an intense situation.
In the Heart of the Sea
These days, it’s kind of hard to watch In the Heart of the Sea without picturing Thor and Spiderman fighting against a supervillain whale. This movie highlights the story that inspired Moby Dick, so there are a lot of ocean shots, nautical terms, and visions of a giant sea creature, hell-bent on killing our stars and the rest of the crew.
With Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland, it’s hard to believe that this bombed at the box office, but it’s mostly full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The visuals are incredible, and your jaw may hit the floor a couple of times, but it’s hard to connect with the characters and believe that they’re really in mortal danger. A better plot (or better writing) could have made this a classic.
If you look up famous movie bombs throughout history, The Edge usually pops up on one or two lists. It came out in 1997, and both stars, although heavyweights in their own rights, had been in career slumps at the time.
So, even with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin at the helm, the movie didn’t really stand a chance. Looking at it from today’s perspective, though, the film is actually pretty enjoyable, although the dialogue is somewhat brainy for what you might expect.
There’s plenty of drama to be found, both with the wilderness (a Kodiak bear is stalking them) and between the leads. One of them is cheating on the other’s wife, so both of them are ready to betray the other at a moment’s notice.
All is Lost
Here we have another lost at sea survival movie, with Robert Redford as the titular man against the elements.
Redford plays a man undertaking a solo voyage across the Indian Ocean, when disaster strikes in the form of a shipping container. His boat hits the container and starts taking on water, which damages his radio equipment. To make matters worse, the boat encounters a fierce storm that threatens everything, including his life.
As with other solo movies (i.e., Cast Away), everything hinges on the main actor’s performance. Robert Redford does well here, although it sometimes feels like he’s trying to polish his Oscar nomination reel by acting the crap out of some of the scenes.
If you’re a fan of man vs. nature stories, this one should not get lost in the shuffle.
Sometimes, wilderness survival movies benefit from having an antagonist, even if it is an animal, not a person.
In this case, the Grey features a pack of wolves hunting down a group of survivors after a plane crash. They’re men stationed on an oil rig, with Liam Neeson as the security officer who winds up trying to save them.
As the men get picked off one by one, the group struggles to push further and further. This film takes itself a bit too seriously and is quite a slow burn. There are brief moments of action when the wolves show up, but otherwise, it’s kind of a slog.
Neeson is also too morose to be entertaining, and we’re meant to believe he’s a man with nothing to live for and nothing to lose, so it’s hard to root for him to pull through. If he doesn’t care about surviving, why should we?
Here’s the second wilderness survival movie with a former Harry Potter star, with The Boy Who Lived acting as the primary protagonist. The story follows two best friends who venture into the Amazon jungle with a guide.
Unfortunately, nothing goes according to plan and the men are left to fight against the harsh elements to stay alive. Jungles are notoriously dangerous, with many animals that are trying to hurt or kill our main characters. Although the plot seems a bit thin, Daniel Radcliffe does a solid job of anchoring the movie.
As the film’s only notable star, he does all of the heavy lifting, and he doesn’t really buckle under the pressure.
If you took the movie All is Lost and added a love interest in the boat, you’d get Adrift.
This story follows a couple making a voyage on their boat when they unwittingly go through one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history. The boat gets pretty beaten up, and the male half is too wounded to be of much use. Fortunately, our main star (Shailene Woodley) uses her love and her wits to fight against the elements.
Adding a love story to the mix makes Adrift unique among other survival movies, but it’s hard to connect with the couple since we don’t spend that much time with them outside of the main conflict. If we knew more about their lives and their ambitions, the movie might be more enjoyable.
The Mountain Between Us
This is another love story wrapped in a survival movie, but our main couple falls in love during the journey, not before. Also, we’re trading the open sea for a mountaintop.
The Mountain Between Us checks off a lot of Survival Bingo squares – a plane crash, a harsh snowy environment, and stunning visuals. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Idris Elba and Kate Winslet is tepid at best, so it’s hard to believe that they fall passionately in love because of their struggles.
Instead, it seems like a Hollywood cliche romance. Still, if you’re a sucker for love stories set against colorful backdrops, The Mountain Between Us might be a good date night movie.
A Cry in the Wild
Our final entry is a good family-friendly wilderness survival story.
This movie is based on the novel Hatchet and follows a young man who must fight to survive after, you guessed it, a plane crash. While the star, Jared Rushton, is not much of an actor, he’s enjoyable enough to stick with the movie throughout its runtime.
Also, you want him to survive, even though he seems kind of like a spoiled brat in the beginning. If you have young kids, A Cry in the Wild can be a good option for family movie night.
What is the best survival movie and why?
The best survival movie is The Revenant. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the film follows the journey of frontiersman Hugh Glass as he navigates the harsh wilderness after being left for dead by his hunting team. The movie is a brutal, intense portrayal of survival and the lengths a person will go to stay alive.
What is the best wilderness survival movie?
The best wilderness survival movie is Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn, it’s based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in search of adventure. The movie is a beautiful and heartbreaking journey that showcases the power of the human spirit and the dangers of the great outdoors.
What is the best wilderness survival movie on netflix?
The best wilderness survival movie on Netflix is Bird Box. The film, which stars Sandra Bullock, follows a woman who must navigate the world while blindfolded to protect herself and her children from mysterious creatures that cause people to kill themselves. Bird Box is a tense, suspenseful thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a must-watch for fans of the survival genre.
Wrapping up our favourite survival movies
In conclusion, wilderness survival movies provide a unique perspective on the human experience and offer a thrilling portrayal of man vs. nature. From Into the Wild to Bird Box, there is a wide range of titles that showcase the challenges and dangers of surviving in the wild. Whether you’re looking for a movie based on a true story or a suspenseful thriller, there’s something for everyone in this genre.
If you’re looking to experience the thrill of survival in the wilderness, be sure to check out one of these great movies today!