Naked and Afraid’s Wes Harper

At first glace, Wes Harper seems like a typical Cary resident. When he’s not enjoying a slice of pizza from Ruckus, Harper can usually be found working at his IT company, Lightwire, Inc., or spending time with his wife, Molly, a full-time real estate agent at Heaton Real Estate. The Virginia native and father of five has his quirks, however. If you see him walking around town barefoot for a month or so, or setting traps and building a tinder nest in his backyard, mind your business. If his signature string necklace with a large bead at the front looks strangely familiar, you might want to check your viewing history on Hulu — because chances are, you’ve seen him before.

In his most recent challenge, Naked and Afraid XL: Frozen, Harper endured freezing temperatures in the Montana wilderness. Contributed photo.

“I decided I wanted to be a runner when I was 30,” said Harper. “I was a little heavy and decided I wanted to get in shape. Before long I signed up for a 5K, 10K, a half-marathon, and eventually a marathon. It culminated with me doing the Raleigh Half Ironman. I didn’t even own a bike, but I signed up for it. Once I completed that, I was kind of looking for my next thing. I’d been watching Naked and Afraid for years when all of the sudden it clicked that that’s what I wanted to do.”

For those who haven’t seen it, Discovery Channel’s reality series Naked and Afraid is exactly what it sounds like: Each episode pairs up two survivalists, sans clothes, who then attempt to survive in the wilderness for 21 days. Each participant is allowed to bring one helpful item, such as a pot for boiling water or a machete, and their journey is documented from beginning to end.

“My wife signed me up,” said Harper, with a laugh. “She put in an application because I was yelling at the TV, telling people what they were doing wrong and what they were doing right. I got a call from LA the next day. I was in the right place at the right time and they saw something they liked.”

After a yearlong interview process, Harper eventually found himself in a two-part series titled “Stalked on the Savannah” in Tocantins, Brazil (season 10, episodes 19 and 20). After surviving 21 sun-scorched days in jaguar territory, Harper was hooked.

“Wes has always been an outdoorsy person,” said his wife, Molly Harper. “He loves to challenge himself on things that are just outside of his comfort zone. Marathoner, triathlete, Ironman — he accomplished all of these, so it was only logical that he do something that combined his ability to prepare for anything with his mental toughness. Being a survivalist requires all of these attributes, which is why I knew he would be great at it. He does not give up!”

“People climb Everest because they don’t know if they can quite do it. They might die trying, but they’re going to give it a shot. Setting a goal that you might not be able to accomplish — there’s a lot of personal growth involved with that,” said Harper.

Harper credits his resilience to a childhood spent running through the woods and creeks of northern Virginia, where he learned how to handle himself in the wild from a young age.

“I grew up in a family where my parents took my brother and I hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, just anything outdoors,” said Harper. “I’m also 52, so when I was a kid you got kicked out of the house when the sun broke and you weren’t allowed back in until dinner. So you spent all day every day outside, walking through the woods or creeks or just playing. And so I think that really prepared me for the physical aspect of knowing how to handle myself.”

After Brazil, Harper was ready to take on an even bigger challenge — a 40-day XL survival season featuring 12 veteran survivalists in Limpopo Province, South Africa (season 6, episodes 1–9).

“I was definitely the most afraid in Africa. It’s not like you run across something that might hurt you — there are things out there that are trying to kill you and eat you. It’s terrifying,” said Harper.

Unfortunately, Harper was medically tapped out of the show on day 28 due to a bowel obstruction.

“Physically, Africa was terrible. I was really sick. If it had gone on much longer, I might not have made it. Like, big picture not made it,” said Harper.

Despite his health scare, Harper wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. He appeared yet again on a 21-day all-star challenge in Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador (season 12, episode 5). Harper made it 18 days before the show wrapped early due to Covid.

Wes Harper turns heads while walking at Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary. “Wes loves this. Having fans, being recognized, being asked to speak at various organizations’ meetings — it’s notoriety that he just has never gotten before,” said Molly Harper, Wes’ wife. “The feeling he gets from the shoutouts from fans is really hard to put into words.”

“The Covid tap in Ecuador, that was an emotional breakdown,” said Harper. “I had decided that I was basically going to retire from being a survivalist after finishing the 21 days. I had tears in my eyes; I just didn’t know how to react. That was crushing.”

As it turns out, everything happens for a reason. Following that challenge, Harper no longer has any plans to retire. “I’m just a survivalist now. It’s what I do,” he said.

Harper really is a survivor, in the truest sense of the word. After undergoing a catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm) in 2019, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2021 — but is happy to report that he is now 100% cancer free.

Viewers can watch Naked and Afraid on fuboTV, Hulu +, and Discovery+. Contributed photo.

“The biggest deal about Wes is he’s a conqueror,” said Jermaine Jackson, Harper’s most recent partner on Naked and Afraid XL: Frozen (season 9), filmed in Montana this past March. “There are certain times where you really just want to sit because it’s too hot, or too cold, or you’re too tired or in too much pain. Wes would literally go, ‘We’ve got to move now.’ So what impressed me the most was his ability to overcome the mental stresses and continue to operate.”

Like Harper, Jackson is a veteran survivalist who continues to challenge himself on the show for the sheer satisfaction of saying that he made it. Despite what most people think, there is no pot of gold at the end of the survivalist rainbow.

“It’s an internal struggle more than it is for some shiny object,” said Harper. “The best part of the show is that there is not a big cash prize. It eliminates a lot of the fake people.”

One of the true prizes from the show seems to be the lasting relationships formed between partners during a challenge.

“We’re in this bubble of an environment, sharing the same experiences of just being miserable, suffering, having victories and failures, and so very few people can really relate to that on the level that we’re playing on. When you make those connections, you keep them,” said Harper.

Fun Facts about Naked and Afraid:

  • There is no cash prize.
  • The production team is only on set from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and no interaction with survivalists is allowed.
  • The necklace worn on the show houses a microphone, and the bag they carry holds the battery pack (among other things).
  • Participants know where they’re going approximately 30 days in advance.
  • Preparation includes walking barefoot and practicing with traps, fires, and shelter building.
  • Survivalists have a walkie-talkie in the event of an emergency.

Harper continues to speak with Jackson almost every day, and he catches up with Gwen Grimes, his partner from Africa, at least once a week. Following his last challenge in Montana, Jackson even penned a letter to Harper’s wife, thanking her for letting him borrow her husband for a while.

“With Wes, what you see is what you get,” said Jackson. “He’s super genuine, and I would also say that he’s very driven. He’s the best partner I’ve ever had.”

When it comes to perseverance and drive, it seems that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Waylon, one of Harper’s sons, followed in his father’s footsteps and finished a 14-day Naked and Afraid challenge of his own, titled “Next Gen Survival” (season 14, episode 6).

“My kids enjoy watching it now,” said Harper. “When I did the first challenge, they didn’t want to see their old dad’s butt on TV, and they didn’t want their friends to see dad’s butt on TV. But now that I’m in the upper echelon of the Naked and Afraid franchise, they’re very proud of it. They have watch parties and their friends come over.”

When it comes to future Naked and Afraid episodes, Harper is ready and willing to go wherever they send him — but he has a bone to pick with Africa.

“I want to go back to Africa,” said Harper. “I’m not done with Africa yet. It got the best of me on the last challenge, and there’s pent-up demand from viewers to get me back out there. We will see.”

For more information about Wes Harper and upcoming episodes, visit

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