The reason that Survivor has been such a mega-hit of a reality franchise is because of the casting, rules and gameplay. The thing that many fans might overlook about Survivor is that the show has some of best-designed and most inventive challenges of any reality TV franchise. Especially when compared to its CBS brethren like Big Brother and The Amazing Race, Survivor and its challenges are way above the curve. Sometimes the challenges are silly, sometimes they are dumb and sometimes they are brutally tough. Here are eight of the hardest challenges Survivor has put on through the many seasons. 

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8. “Hand on a Hard Idol” – Survivor: Borneo

In retrospect, this may not seem like that big of a deal. The first ever Final Immunity Challenge on Survivor seems laughably tame in comparison to everything that followed. The final three contestants had to stand at an awkward angle and hold on to the final immunity challenge pole for as long as possible. The challenge did not even last that long as eventual winner Richard Hatch stepped down rather early, assuming correctly that either one of his competition would take him till the end. Still in the Final Immunity Challenge in the first season, Survivor set the standard for their challenges. They would take something deceptively simple and turn it into a mental and physical endurance challenge. 

7. “Kicking and Screaming” – Survivor: Gabon

“Kicking and Screaming” is a challenge that Survivor has used several times. It involves one member of a tribe bear-hugging a pole stuck in the ground. Multiple members of the opposing tribe will then attack the designated castaway and try to forcefully rip them away from the pole and across a finish line. It’s a mean, nasty and incredibly violent challenge. There are multiple iterations to choose from but the one in Gabon’s season was so brutal because the tribes were so evenly matched and physically similar. 

6. “Slip Through Your Fingers” – Survivor: Thailand 

“Slip Through Your Fingers” is the reason that “Hand on a Hard Idol” has to be included on this list. Another Final Immunity Challenge, this one took the idea of “Hand on a Hard Idol” but it dialed the intensity up to an insane degree. Without “Hand on a Hard Idol,” “Slip Through Your Fingers” would not exist.

This Final Immunity Challenge saw the contestant hold a complicated yoga pose while trying to balance coins in between their fingers. It looks brutally difficult for the average person to attempt, not to mention someone who had been starving in the jungle for a month like the contestants on Survivor. “Slip Through Your Fingers” was a terribly vicious challenge and the only reason it is not higher is because it didn’t last very long. The castaways, understandably, could not do what was demanded of them for very long.

5. “Cat and Mouse” – Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites

“Cat and Mouse” feels like one of those Survivor competitions where the show maybe didn’t think through things so well. It was relatively simple in design. Castaways were paired up and shackled together. Then the tribes would face off and one pair would have to chase down the opposing pair and grab the flags they were holding. 

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On paper, it was flag football (in the jungle.) In practice, the pairs were dragging each other around and making life a living hell for their partner. The difficulty here wasn’t in the conflict of the opposing pairs, it was among the shackled partners. Poor Chet, who was in his late 50’s at the time, was literally dragged around the field by his much younger and stronger partner Joel. Chet’s head repeatedly made hard contact with the ground, as he was flipped and scrapped due to Joel’s bull-in-the-china-shop mentality.  

4. “Bob-Bob Buoy” – Survivor: Palau

This is another tough final immunity that took the concept of “Hand on a Hard Idol” and ran with it. “Bob-Bob Buoy” saw the final three stand on hard metal buoys, without shoes, in the middle of the ocean. Whoever lasted the longest would choose who went with them to Final Tribal Council. The thing that makes “Bob-Bob Buoy” so brutal is how long it lasted. The competition went on for nearly 12 hours until runner-up Ian stepped down. It might be the first and only challenge in Survivor history where Jeff Probst sat down, put on an extra coat and lounged, waiting for it to finally be over. 

3. “Spin Cycle” – Survivor: Nicaragua 

This really seems like less of a challenge and more just straight-up torture. “Spin Cycle” saw half of each tribe strapped to a giant wheel that would tip into a pool of water. The castaways tied to the wheel would have swallow the water and wait until they were outside of the water to spit the water into a funnel to fill up a container. Meanwhile the rest of their tribe would be spinning the wheel and dunking their teammates into the (presumably) ice cold water. In retrospect, it is a miracle that no one drowned. It’s also a miracle that no challenge designer from Survivor hasn’t secretly turned out to be a super-villain of a James Bond level with ideas like this floating in their head. 

2. “Step on It” – Survivor: Redemption Island

“Step on It” is another challenge that doesn’t look that intimidating from the outside but in reality it is absolutely terrifying. “Step on It” saw the castaways have to climb up and down a gigantic staircase in the baking island heat. That would be enough but the staircase wasn’t just huge, it was also a puzzle. 

The castaways had to lug multiple staircase pieces up and down and hope that the gigantic wood they were carrying would fit into the hole they were hoping to pass through. Survivor: Redemption Island is probably best remembered for the season where Boston Rob finally won. Considering Rob was the winner of “Step on It” it’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve the title of Sole Survivor just for conquering this challenge.

1. “Dig It” – Survivor: Koah Rong

No matter how tough any of these challenges were, the tribes still all finished them intact and (mostly) healthy. “Dig It” saw not one, not two but three castaways collapse from heatstroke. One of them, Caleb, originally from Big Brother, had to be medevaced off of the season. “Dig It” does not seem like that demanding of a challenge. The contestants had to dig for ball in a sand pit and then play a version of skee-ball to win a reward. In the insanely hot weather of Koah Rong, however, the challenge went from mundane to deadly. “Dig It” is by far the most dangerous challenge that Survivor ever put on. The biggest triumph was not winning the challenge but just staying alive.

But what do you think? What are some of the hardest Survivor challenges that you remember? Is “Dig It” the toughest challenge of the series or was something else more dangerous for you?  

Survivor season 33 airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS. Want more news? Like our Survivor Facebook page!

(Images courtesy of CBS)

Derek Stauffer

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Derek is a Philadelphia based writer and unabashed TV and comic book junkie. The time he doesn’t spend over analyzing all things nerdy he is working on his resume to be the liaison to the Justice League.