In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
Since the very first episode of Survivor, the challenges have been one of the core aspects of the show. Whether they are for a reward “worth playing for” or the always important immunity, the challenges test the physical and mental capabilities of each season’s castaways.
What makes an iconic Survivor challenge, though? Sometimes it’s from the comedy they provide, other times the heart-wrenching drama they offer. It doesn’t hurt for the audience to have a rooting interest in the outcome. Whittling down over 1000 challenges to just 20 was nearly impossible, but these are the challenges that I have deemed the most iconic for their own reasons. I have decided to only include challenges where the castaways compete for either immunity or reward, which means no auctions or fire-making challenges (sorry Lacina and Tony).
20. You Shook Me (Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers)
This final immunity challenge had heavy stakes going in. Ben had avoided the votes for three tribals in a row, but immunity idols couldn’t save him any longer; he needed to win to make the final three (or… so we thought). At one point, it looks like Ben is leagues ahead and is going to snatch the final immunity until infamously, he places the “U” in “Hustlers” upside down. When he attempts to fix his mistake, he drops most of the blocks. The rest of the challenge is a tense back and forth between all of the castaways until Chrissy is able to pull out her fourth immunity win, tying the record for women. We all thought this was Ben’s fallen angel moment, boy, were we wrong.
19. Pilfering Pirates (Thailand)
The Attack Zone! A beloved Survivor moment that’s hidden in a not so beloved season. While Chuay Gahn and Sook Jai are tasked with maneuvering across beams to a boat to retrieve baskets, they are also encouraged to throw each other in the water. However, only in the Attack Zone or they will be removed from the challenge. Sook Jai seems to have missed that key phrase, despite Probst reminding them again and again… and again. They lose four of their members and four of their baskets, handing Chuay Gahn the win.
Robb Zbacnik is really the star of the challenge—letting Ted head-butt him out of the Attack Zone, flipping off Probst after Sook Jai loses their first member, and then choking out Clay (not in the Attack Zone), getting himself removed from the challenge in hilarious fashion. Bonus points for Shii-Ann getting continuously tossed like a rag doll out of the Attack Zone by the guys on Chuay Gahn.
18. 11-Mile Hike (Guatemala)
Starting off the season with a marooning is commonplace in modern Survivor, but how about an eleven-mile hike? This grueling task was presented to Yaxha and Nakum just minutes after they started the game. The two tribes trekked through the jungle as they raced towards the finish line, the reward of living at the Mayan ruins and flint driving them to win.
Stephenie and Bobby Jon, the final two members of the tragic Ulong tribe in Palau, pushed their respective groups to win their first challenge. Many of the new contestants are given a reality check for just how difficult Survivor can be. Despite the race going through the night and into the next day, the challenge ended in a close finish. Nakum came out victorious, but the physicality of the challenge took a big toll on the men. Stephenie describes it as the most difficult challenge the game has ever had—that might still hold true.
17. Survivor Smorgasbord (China)
Food eating challenges have been a staple of Survivor since the first season when Gervase didn’t want to eat the grub. While Courtney spitting up her eel onto the plate after she loses (in the most Courtney way possible) is certainly a plus for this challenge, the real reason it is notorious is for the showdown between gravedigger James and lunch lady Denise. They each have to eat two baluts, a developing duck embryo. James is trying to throw the challenge, Denise is just trying to get the balut into her mouth. Denise’s screams and pleas for the duck to get in her mouth are phenomenally funny, and James’s eventual biting of the bullet and finishing first after being so deliberately slow is unfortunate. Peih-Gee asking James if he wants to lose to Denise (not realizing he actually does), in an attempt to motivate him, is just the cherry on top.
16. Quest for Fire (Cambodia)
Quest for Fire was the very first challenge on Survivor. It also kicked off the advantage era of Survivor in season 31. Kelly Wiglesworth lost both times, there’s something oddly poetic about that. In this iteration of the challenge, Wiglesworth is not the Kelly to focus on. Kelley Wentworth, the pre-merge boot from San Juan del Sur, has her breakout moment on the show when she finds an idol during the challenge. It was the first time anything like this had been done on Survivor, and I have to say, it was thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, screaming at my TV, pulling at my hair as I watched Wentworth wait for her moment to pounce and snatch the idol. Now, this type of thing may be more common for the show, but the first time became an iconic moment instantly.
15. Uncomfortably Numb (David vs. Goliath)
This challenge has everything a Survivor fan loves. A battle of endurance, moments of hilarity and villainy, and a heap of nachos! The battle of Alec versus Christian is intense, as they both know that Alec has to win to stay in the game. Alec casts his Tony-like spell, seemingly willing Gabby to drop from the challenge. Christian casts a spell of his own—filibuster. The robotics scientist begins talking… and talking… and talking for over two hours. My personal favorite moment of that montage is when Christian asks Probst if he knows what a Reuben sandwich is.
Alec pleads to Christian that he needs the immunity more, and Christian delivers the iconic line, “I know.” When Alec finally drops after five and a half hours out of pure exhaustion, the look of shock on Christian’s face is too pure when he realizes he won. To top it all off, we are gifted the hilarious moment of Angelina and Carl toasting margaritas “to the future” as they watch from the sidelines.
14. Match Game (All-Stars)
The Match Game is great because it offers the castaways an opportunity to talk and interact. The banter amongst the returning players and Probst is classic. Whether it’s Ethan turning when Boston Rob calls out “pretty boy”, Ethan making fun of Jenna Lewis for opening her box too much, or Lex walking away from the challenge with his box to shield off any prying eyes, this challenge is chock full of hilarious interactions. Plus, the all-stars seem to have a psychic ability to find matches to their items.
13. Depth Charge/A Stone’s Throw (Cook Islands/Micronesia)
It’s hard to talk about one of these challenges without thinking of the other, so I’m lumping them together as one. These challenges are iconic for one reason, and that’s Jonathan Penner and his friendly rivalry with Probst. In the Cook Islands, the tribes are tasked with dropping cannonballs into the water to release buoys. Despite Raro’s early lead, the Aitu Four are able to catch up, and Penner is getting flustered. When Probst notes that Raro “wasted one of their cannonballs,” Penner retorts with “Oh please, Jeff.” This leads to one of my favorite Jeff Probst moments, “Jonathan, getting frustrated with me!”
In Micronesia, it’s a similar story. The Malakal tribe has no trouble breaking their ceramic tiles, Penner’s tribe Airai doesn’t have the same success. The tiles are breaking, but the puzzle pieces aren’t falling, and Penner is upset. When he lands another hit on the tile, and the pieces don’t drop, he exclaims the always funny “I mean, my ass!” to which Probst responds, “The Airai tribe needs to stop bitchin’ and start throwing.” The back and forth between Penner and Probst is always a joy to watch.
12. Parang Swing (Marquesas)
An important moment in Survivor history, no doubt, the “coconut chop” challenge marked a shift in the way people thought about the game. When Sean, Vecepia, and Kathy are taken out first, with Paschal not far behind, the Rotu Four show their hand about who they want to take to the end. Sean recognizes this, the game flips on its head, and John Carroll is taken out. This challenge gave way to the first major power flip in Survivor and claims its rightful spot on this list. In addition, Sean’s quips about calling Johnnie Cochran after him and Vecepia are eliminated first (the lawyer, not the future castaway), deserve recognition for the biting commentary and his willingness to talk about real issues on Survivor, while still being humorous.
11. Perch (The Amazon)
At first glance, this challenge might seem iconic for one reason only, Jenna and Heidi volunteering to strip for peanut butter and chocolate. Certainly, that is a big reason for this challenge making this list. It is a classic moment in Survivor history that most longtime fans would remember. Cesternino telling Probst to hurry and get the girls what they want, and the men deciding whether or not to look, make the moment even funnier. Some other little gems make this challenge great, such as everyone’s exchanges of thumbs up when Roger jumps off early or Christy’s disappointment that Probst’s spaghetti temptation doesn’t have garlic bread. And of course, the challenge ends in a way only old school Survivor would, rock, paper, scissors (and somehow Deena gets immunity and half of the spaghetti?).
10. Uncomfortably Numb (San Juan del Sur)
This is the only direct repeat challenge on this list, and it’s here for a good reason. This version has some fantastic character moments and some of the funniest. Where do I even begin? Jon being tempted down by candy after Probst eats it right in front of him and then screaming “SUGAR!” louder than Ace, Randy, and Colby combined. There’s Baylor’s well-known line “shut your mouth, Homey G!” she says as her mom brags. We can’t forget Wes telling Probst about his “eating nuggets contest” and reminding him of Jeff’s semi-nude cameo on Two and a Half Men. When it’s just Natalie and Reed left, Natalie tries to mimic Reed spitting but accidentally ends up with it all over her shirt. Then, after three hours, Natalie is somehow able to place her order with Probst and get exactly the food she wants, what an icon. In the end, Reed is crowned the winner as he does the splits on the ground. Need I say more?
9. Dig It (Kaoh Rong)
While most of the entries on this list have a comical upside to them, this one certainly does not. This challenge is most well known for giving three castaways heat exhaustion, with Caleb needing to be evacuated from the game. As Caleb’s tribe gathered around him, their tears were felt by the audience at home. It was painful to see on screen, I can’t imagine how terrifying it was to be there. Seeing Cydney break down emotionally and physically was gut-wrenching. Even Debbie, a normally comedic character, being affected in such a serious way was a reminder of how real this game is and the very real toll it takes on the castaways’ bodies and minds. There are very few times in Survivor history where the audience gets to see what’s behind the fourth wall, and this was a moment that hopefully, we will never have to witness again.
8. Sumo at Sea (Blood vs. Water)
Sumo at Sea is a challenge that is perfect for the Blood vs. Water format. Pitting family members against each other in a physical battle is always going to be prime television, even if the first iteration is more compelling. The Vytas versus Aras battle is fabulous to watch because you don’t know who to root for. Their dynamic is fascinating to see play out, especially when Aras lets Vytas get back up and Vytas tries to take a cheap shot. When Laura has to defeat her daughter in order to win the challenge, Probst must’ve been salivating. Let’s not forget the injury of Tyson’s shoulder, which he will milk all season and may have helped him avoid being targeted in the early merge and eventually go on to win.
7. Vertigo (Cagayan)
“The greatest comeback in Survivor history” is a phrase we often hear uttered on the show by Probst. This challenge, I believe, is actually the greatest comeback. Tony, Spencer, and Woo have very little trouble balancing on the pole, pouring water, and retrieving their key. The story is not the same for Chaos Kass, who is shaking on her pole, barely getting any water in the tube, and tangling the rope attached to her bucket. By all means, she should’ve been out of this challenge.
But Kass perseveres, and finally, she retrieves her key. Kass is able to quickly catch up on the puzzle and zooms past her competitors, securing her spot in the final three. All of this, she accomplishes in front of her husband. Her win here is one of the greatest moments on the show, even if you were rooting for Spencer. The hilarious Tony moments of him climbing down the ladder because he can’t swim and then accidentally trying to unlock the wrong set of puzzle pieces are just gravy.
6. Bob-Bob Buoy (Palau)
The longest challenge in Survivor history, at just under twelve hours, is a brutal battle of endurance between Tom and Ian. While Katie stays in for a while, the willpower of Tom and Ian is unmatched. As they sit there, grasping onto the buoys, the challenge eventually goes beyond the game as Ian offers Tom a deal. He would step down and let Tom take Katie to the end if he could win back their friendship. In what is certainly one of the most human moments on the show, Ian puts his relationships and his integrity over the money. Was it the right game move? Certainly not. Was it the right decision for Ian? I think that’s something only he can answer.
5. Touchy Subjects (Panama)
While this challenge has the same pecking order quality as the Marquesas version, the reason it’s so high on this list is because of the pure comedy gold that comes out of it. Having the tribe members guess what everyone else thinks and forcing them to eliminate each other is a perfect formula for drama. Terry getting eliminated in the first round despite getting the question right is par for the course. Who never shuts up? Courtney. Who’s the biggest poser? Courtney. Who is the most annoying person out here? Courtney. It’s amazing.
Meanwhile, Shane is antagonizing Courtney while Aras reminds everyone this game is meant to splinter them (Terry in the background, “Yeah! Splinter!”). And then there’s Cirie, who is giggling endearingly throughout the entire challenge. She ends up winning the challenge on the question, “Who would never survive on their own?”. The answer, herself. Haunting foreshadowing, right?
4. Battle Dig (Heroes vs. Villains)
An epic start to an epic season, the players came out strong here. There are so many memorable moments from this challenge; it would be hard to list them all. Let’s see, in the first round, Probst compares Cirie to a linebacker, and Courtney tells Parvati to break Stephenie’s shoulder, which she does. Later we get to see Coach drag Colby to the Villains’ mat, while Russell looks like he’s trying to twist Tom’s leg out of its socket. Sandra undoes and rips off Sugar’s bra, which prompts her to give the double middle finger when she scores (Sandra throwing the bra afterward is hilarious as well). And then, of course, Rupert breaks his toe. This challenge set the tone for an amazing season and raised the bar for what a Survivor challenge can be.
3. When it Rains, It Pours (Micronesia)
This challenge is fantastic across the board. As each castaway has their hand raised above their heads, Probst is going to try and tempt them to come down. Cirie and Erik drop together for a bowl of candy, prompting an underrated James line, “What in the Nickelodeon is going on ‘round here?” When Probst brings out his next temptation, Alexis, unfortunately, falls before he reveals what it is and doesn’t get the cookies and milk. Probst reminds them they must let him know before they fall if they want the food in order to get it, then Natalie immediately falls. James follows with, “Damn, that would suck… Oh, bitch!” as his water rains down on him, leaving him without the cookies as well.
Amanda drops out of the challenge because she has to pee, which is rarely mentioned on the show (looking at you, Fabio). Then Probst brings out his final temptation that would be split by the entire tribe if either Parvati or Jason steps down. When Jason asks for a guarantee that they won’t vote him out, the tribe complies (although Cirie and Alexis have their fingers crossed). Jason agrees to step down, but right before he does, what does he do? He crosses his fingers. This series of events is absolutely hysterical, poetic, and an iconic moment.
2. Loved Ones Overboard (Pearl Islands)
The lie heard around the world. When Jonny Fairplay’s loved one, Thunder D, stepped out to greet him, I don’t think anyone expected it to become one of the most well-known scenes in Survivor history. Fairplay tells everyone that the reason Thunder D is here is because his grandmother had died, his whole tribe (minus Sandra) felt his pain. Burton wants to allow Fairplay the opportunity to hear more about his grandmother and eventually helps him win the challenge. I think the best part about this scene is that the audience has no idea it’s a lie until after the challenge when we hear that Fairplay’s grandmother is “sitting home, watching Jerry Springer right now.” Jaws were dropped everywhere.
1. Hand on Hard Idol (Borneo)
Was there ever any question about the number one slot? Hand on Hard Idol is classic Survivor, and the original version is still the best. The challenge is simple, it’s all about who wants it the most. Richard’s decision to step down, seemingly for some slices of oranges, remains as one of the best strategic moves the game has ever seen. Richard knew that if he voted out Rudy, he would lose his vote. He needed Kelly to do his dirty work, and he knew that she realized Rudy was the biggest threat to win the game. It was a calculated risk that paid off in spades when he became the first winner of a show with a now twenty-year legacy. This challenge goes down as the most iconic Survivor challenge to date, and I doubt it will be toppled.
Honorable Mentions: Gimme Three Steps/Slide On (Kaoh Rong/Winners at War: Michele kicks the puzzle, twice!), By the Numbers (One World: Kat keeps jumping in the water), So You Think You Can Meke? (Fiji: Earl can dance!), Super Golf (Gabon: Hilarious Randy and Matty antics).