Bob Hansler survives for a living. A former high school biology teacher turned professional YouTuber, he’s been known to skin and cook creatures such as gophers and snakes, both to feed himself in the Texas wild and to entertain his online fans, who are legion. He munches on insect larvae and whip scorpions and can fashion a fish trap out of pretty much anything: stacked rocks, an old plastic jug, nets woven from the fibers of a yucca plant.

Hansler, who has light brown hair and a chin beard, favors aviator sunglasses and Wrangler work shirts. The 37-year-old reckons he’s handled about a thousand rattlesnakes with nary a problem. Except for that one time, in 2018, when a perturbed western diamondback followed him and some friends down a narrow trail through the brush on his land in South Texas. Hansler tried to fend off the reptile with a stick—an encounter captured on video, naturally—but it fanged his left forearm, putting him in the hospital for three days. About a month later, Hansler was back making videos. One, in which he panfries a western diamondback, garnered international headlines. In another, he grills and eats the snake that bit him—revenge being a dish best served crispy, wrapped in bacon, and shared online. Not that he’s gloating. “Snakes deserve a lot of respect,” he tells viewers, encouraging them to use the skin and eat the meat of any rattlesnake they dispatch, to “make sure it doesn’t have to die in vain.”

Hansler is also a connoisseur of brown garden snails. An invasive species, they have infested backyards across the state. He washes off the slime, grills them, and calls them survival escargot. “Now these, I would eat all day,” he says, popping bite-size morsels into his mouth for a video on his YouTube channel, where he’s developed a cult following with 383,000 subscribers. “A lot of people say they’re gritty,” he adds between bites. “Not at all. They taste like calamari.” His costar, a dog named Huckleberry (Huck for short), is offered a bite, but sniffs and turns away.

Crawfish cooked by Hansler over a fire in a prickly pear cactus.
Crawfish cooked by Hansler over a fire in a prickly pear cactus. Photograph by Nick Simonite
Huckleberry inspecting a freshly caught crawfish.
Huckleberry inspecting a freshly caught crawfish. Photograph by Nick Simonite

No surprise there: the pup is rarely impressed by his owner’s cooking, a running joke in the videos, which cumulatively have been viewed tens of millions of times over the past fifteen years. The episodes are more relaxed and educational than the average wilderness survival show on TV. Many are filmed by Hansler’s wife, Shauna, on one hundred acres of family-owned savannah near the flyspeck town of Runge, about seventy miles southeast of San Antonio, where a sandy creek named Ojo de Agua flows into the San Antonio River. Other videos are shot in West Texas, where Hansler, an Eagle Scout, volunteers each summer at the nine-thousand-plus-acre Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch, high in the Davis Mountains.

“Be prepared.” Following that old Boy Scouts of America motto, many of Hansler’s posts skew toward practical applications, teaching his viewers to sharpen knives, tie knots, build an oven from river stones, and treat skin left itchy by poison ivy, although his more outré content attracts the most attention. It’s not every day that a Texan uses a deerskin, instead of a pot, to boil up a soup of yucca seeds, wild onions, and invasive Asian clams. Hansler says his videos grew out of his time as a schoolteacher, horseback guide, and Boy Scout troop leader. “My classroom was great, but I could only help a hundred and fifty kids per year,” he says. “I didn’t want to look back on my life and go, this is the only impact I had.”

Hansler’s teaching background translates onto the screen. His calm, quiet, and assured presence prompted one commenter on the snail video to describe him as “the Bob Ross of teaching us to survive,” referring to PBS’s late, beloved Joy of Painting host.

I came across Hansler’s YouTube channel in 2020, in the stressful early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and was captivated. Like most Texans, I live near grocery stores and restaurants. I’ll likely never need to catch a fish using a cactus spine for a hook, but for me and other viewers, the fantasy of doing so taps into a deeper instinct. We are generally not preppers stockpiling ammo and dry beans for the inevitable slide into chaos. But if the opportunity arose, could we escape the complexities of the modern world, even for a little while, and live to tell of it? Children have devoured the Gary Paulsen novel Hatchet for decades, and TV is filled with shows such as Alone and Survivorman. Suburban dads are suckers for this stuff. But real life is always more complicated. Someone who stumbles onto a Bob Hansler survival video during a late-night YouTube binge would never know the real challenge that’s unfolding behind the scenes. 

Hansler is legally blind.

Hansler grew up with perfect vision in Odessa, the West Texas town best known for oil and football. He never fell sway to the Friday night lights. His grandparents were successful entrepreneurs with an adventurous streak. For two summers, Hansler’s grandpa led the family on gold mining and dredging expeditions in Alaska. “I was four years old, flying in bush planes and spending three or four months at a time in the backcountry,” he recalls. Hansler’s dad, Bob Sr., owned a machine shop that went bust during a downturn in the oil business. Money was tight, but they could always go camping. When Hansler was eleven, he joined the Boy Scouts, a “blow-your-mind” opportunity to immerse himself in the outdoors.

One year later, he got sick. He lost at least twenty pounds in a single week and fell into a coma, nearly dying on a flight to Lubbock. Hansler was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and spent several weeks in intensive care. In the years that followed, scouting became an even bigger part of his life. At the age of fifteen, when he went to work for the horseback program at the Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch, he didn’t tell people about his diabetes, which is incurable. “It simplified things,” he says. “I didn’t want to be treated differently.”

Hansler shoveled stalls, taught campers how to ride and care for horses, and worked his way up to leading weeklong expeditions into the rugged backcountry, where he got so tired of canned food that he tried planting squash and tomatoes at watering stops along the trail. Animals kept eating his crops, so he turned his attention to the berries, nuts, and other foods that grew naturally on the range. Over summers in the Davis Mountains, he taught himself to forage. He also earned a biology degree from the University of Texas Permian Basin and landed a teaching job at Odessa High School.

Hansler repairing a saddle bag at his leather workshop near Runge.
Hansler repairing a saddle bag at his leather workshop near Runge.Photograph by Nick Simonite

In 2007, when he was 23, Hansler started posting on YouTube: mostly low-budget instructional videos about horseback riding. The ad revenue was an afterthought, putting less than fifteen cents a month in his pocket. In 2012, when Hansler met Shauna, an Ector County mineral appraiser and fellow Odessa native, they started making videos from their other adventures—and began earning real money. They quit their jobs and, with Shauna’s two daughters from a previous relationship, moved to a patch of his grandparents’ South Texas land, where the couple still live most of the year. (The daughters are in law school and graduate school now.) Before long, the videos were routinely racking up more than 100,000 views each. Bob and Shauna were earning high five figures from the ad revenue.

In 2016, cable TV came calling. Hansler was invited to compete on a new show, called Bushcraft Build-Off, that would pit survivalists against each other in a weeklong contest to build shelters, bridges, and other structures using primitive tools and trees they chopped from an aspen forest in Utah. Hansler was ecstatic. This was the break he’d been hoping for. One day that November, the casting director called to congratulate him: Discovery Channel had picked up the show. Hansler could hear members of the production team cheering in the background. 

But Hansler had bad news. For months, he’d been ignoring problems with his eyes. Bright lights bothered him, and his vision had become blurry. The symptoms were getting worse, requiring surgery that forced him to bow out of the show. 

It turned out the retinas in both of Hansler’s eyes had detached, a symptom of high blood pressure stemming from his diabetes. “All in one day, everything I’d been working toward just shattered,” he says. Over the next year and a half, Hansler underwent twelve surgeries. For eight months, he lay in darkness, unable to open his eyes. When he emerged from treatments, he’d completely lost the use of his right eye. “It’s dead,” he now says. The left eye was severely impaired as well. Even with a corrective lens, he is legally blind. It’s like he’s viewing the world through a film of oil. “It makes things a little blurrier,” he tells me, “and shadows get really dark, really fast.”

When he was finally well enough, the survivalist went back outside and started making videos again. Although Hansler has almost no way of seeing in shadowy areas, he already knew the trails on his property and throughout the Boy Scout ranch. To help him find his way, he trained Huck, whose coat is yellow and white, to trot a step or two ahead of him. “I can follow the little white dot,” Hansler says.

Throughout his medical crisis, he’d posted short videos to keep his YouTube fans apprised of his condition. Some of the updates were grim. Now, though, Hansler was having fun. Although he posted with less frequency than before the surgeries, he was again catching critters, eating cactus—and surviving that snakebite. It seemed Hansler was back to his old self.

Hansler holds berries and bulbs he foraged on his land in Runge.
Hansler holding berries and bulbs that he foraged on his land.Photograph by Nick Simonite

On a bright day in May 2020, I visited Hansler, Shauna, and Huck in South Texas. We were joined by two of Hansler’s friends who also had dreams of career freedom via YouTube and were living in a travel trailer on the property while Hansler taught them to make their own videos. We gathered up several homemade crawfish traps and baited them with dry dog food. Then his pals and I tried to keep up with Hansler as he tromped through a field of tall grass before sliding carefully down a steep ravine above the creek.

“Is there a bank for me to walk on?” Hansler asked as he felt the water’s edge with the toe of his boot.

“Um, no,” said one of the friends, a fellow Boy Scout alum named Taylor Latus. “About four feet to your right, there’s a little ledge there.”

Hansler scooted over and tossed in the umbrella-shaped trap. Next, we waded into the river and worked upstream, digging our fingers into the soft and squishy sediment for the hard shells of washboard mussels. “Folks that have lived their entire life here in South Texas would starve to death on the bank of the river at some times of year, not knowing that if they just jumped in and raked their hands through the water, they’d pull in a hundred pounds of clams within twenty minutes,” Hansler said, describing an unlikely survival scenario.

I pulled an enormous mussel from the muck. Hansler held it about an inch from his left eye to carefully study the shell’s subtle and slightly iridescent rings. “Dude, you found the biggest golden orb I’ve ever seen,” he said. 

After drying off, we wandered through the forest sampling Turk’s cap blossoms, the tender shoots of briar vines, and a variety of wild berries.  

That day, and in subsequent visits with Hansler, as we became friends, I was so busy trying to keep up with him that I tended to forget about his vision loss. But sometimes Huck would get distracted. He might see an armadillo and go crashing through the brush, and Hansler would lose the trail and tumble into a stand of prickly pear. A few times, reacting too slowly to warn him, I watched unforeseen tree branches rake Hansler’s face. It surely stung, but he pushed on.

I also visited Hansler at the Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch, where he, Shauna, and Huck spend most summers. The ranch was closed in 2020 because of COVID restrictions, but Hansler was there anyway to perform “service projects” that ranged from clearing trails and installing solar panels to caring for the horse herd and repairing cabins. To explore the area, Hansler, Latus, and I piled into a Yamaha utility vehicle with Hansler behind the wheel. It’s illegal for him to drive on a public road, but this was the backcountry, where Hansler could make his own rules. The trail led through the bottom of a canyon, then up a series of extremely tight switchbacks alongside a sheer ledge of several hundred feet. Hansler had often driven the path before losing his vision, sometimes in a bulldozer, so he knew the route well, although, at one point on our drive, he cut the wheels really sharply when turning, right up the vertical face of the mountain. The wheels spun out, and we rolled backward. Hansler said the maneuver was necessary to get around the switchback, but for a second, it seemed this was how my life would end.

When we finally reached the top of the fittingly named Forbidden Mountain, Hansler stepped aside to water the bushes. I immediately turned to Latus in the back seat. “Am I wrong?” I asked. “Isn’t Bob . . . blind?”

“Yeah, he is,” Latus replied. “I still trust him more than I’d trust myself on that trail.” The more I rode with Hansler, I came to realize that as long as there was plenty of contrast between the trail and the surrounding landscape, Hansler steered true. After exploring the high country, we returned to the vehicle, and he guided us, unscathed, down the mountain.

Hansler and Huck in Runge on November 14, 2021.
Hansler and Huckleberry.Photograph by Nick Simonite

Several months passed. Hansler cooked up a snake with Gordon Ramsay on the famous chef’s National Geographic television show, Uncharted. He was also recording and editing a new slate of videos. In May 2021, however, Hansler began to feel more tired than usual. His blood pressure plummeted. He was cold, and his skin tightened and swelled from retained fluid. He could barely walk. He was again rushed to the hospital, where he learned that his kidneys had failed. “I should have died several times,” he told me afterward.

Even so, he spent the summer volunteering at the reopened Boy Scout camp, with Shauna driving him back to Central Texas each week for three days of dialysis. In late August, he shared his first video in months, in which he revealed his condition and asked for help finding a kidney transplant.

Hundreds of potential donors reached out, many of them his former Scouts, and thirty completed the initial screening process. Hansler is optimistic that by the time this article is published, he will have a new kidney. 

He’s eager to start filming again. And he has big plans for his family’s one hundred acres in South Texas. He wants to open some of the property for a camping ground, where visitors can “come down here and do something,” whether that’s chopping a tree, clearing brush, or throwing a fishing line into the San Antonio River. A neighbor two miles down the road has agreed to loan him an excavator so he can also build a few new ponds. He wants to plant his version of an orchard, what he calls a “food forest.” 

Hansler is not much for reflecting on the past. “I know what I’ve lost,” he says. “I know what I was capable of before. But it’s been interesting to find workarounds.” For his fans and friends, Hansler has done more than survive. “I’ve done quite well,” he says—and there’s still so much more to do.

This article was updated to clarify Hansler’s familiarity with the trail at Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Survivor.” Subscribe today.