There isn’t just one way to become a prepper. Prepper culture goes by many names – apocalypse preppers, doomsday preppers, or their in-house title of “emergency preparedness.” This assortment of labels is unified by a common focus on gaining skills, knowledge, and resources to prepare for a shit-hits-the-fan, end-of-the-world scenario, big or small.
I started my journey by word of mouth; an old friend from college introduced me to the idea. He wasn’t in-your-face about prepping or the sort of person who gives a thousand reasons why the end is just around the corner. He was pretty sympathetic to anarchism as a cause, agreeing with it in all but name, and expressed sincere concern for those who are hurt by society – a topic we bonded over pretty quickly. His focus was, contrary to my expectations, about preparing for a spectrum of scenarios, from full-on civil war to something more run-of-the-mill. Getting lost in the woods, losing access to running water, or even minimizing a reliance on consumer goods are just a few scenarios we spoke about. This helped me realize that these skills are valuable, and that many people involved care about spreading this knowledge.
Many others, though, join the community through gear comparisons – judging one another’s knives by virtue of their type of steel for example. You’ll see them at the glass counters of a local Bass Pro Shop, ranting about the specific technical features and faults of the items within to anyone who’s willing to listen. It isn’t hard to find people from gun communities, rambling about which gun model to use in what situation, about home self defense, and about end of the world preparations. There are healthy numbers of people from ham radio communities or homesteaders offering their land for sale, as well as your typical manufacturers putting on a corporate smile to sell their latest backpacks – boasting “grand” new features like slightly larger dimensions or an additional pocket.
Preppers don’t typically like to talk about politics. They consider their hobby apolitical, seeing day-to-day political concerns as irrelevant in the face of mass systemic collapse. Between all the technical debates – over which flashlights have the best balance of lumen output and portability or the proper types of knife grinds for any situation – it’s easy to forget that beneath the surface, emergency preparedness has a heavy conservative bent; the people and connections you make often lean politically right. Preppers tend to believe in and seek to embody a rugged American hyperindividualism with a Bear Grylls aesthetic. There’re scarcely calls for broader community organizing or helping those in need, and instead there are messages about protecting your family from the terrors of the outside world. While many claim to deride the action-movie approach and scold those deemed “mall ninjas” for using flashy multicolor-coated equipment over unembellished and practical gear, in practice there is clear hierarchy among adherents to see who has the ideal gear and mindset for the subculture.
This is reflected in how the community approaches politics, on those rare occasions it does, with prominent figures voicing queerphobic views, deriding the Black Lives Matter protests, and cracking jokes about how socialism is when the government does things. And it’s taken as a given that most of the audience is like-minded. I’ve witnessed prominent YouTube prepper microcelebrities drone on about “not being able to say anything these days.” What they may want to say is clarified by prepper subreddit sidebars that loudly and proudly feature bigotry and slurs. Casual knife forum goers deride prominent billionaires like Jeff Bezos, but praise millionaires like Cold Steel’s former CEO, Lynn Thompson, for being “badass.” They want law and order – the goal, after survival, is not to cause riots like those foul anarchists chariacatured on TV, or to address hierarchy and imbalances of power like the real anarchists want, but simply to reassemble the society we have now anew, same structures and all.
These are the views that are expressed, at least. Their gung ho attitude leads to an ironic sort of naivete in which, unlike leftists, they don’t seem to try to understand the systemic problems they face. It’s all well and good to have stockpiles of food, the proper equipment for temporary self-sustenance, or the ability to make a rudimentary shelter in the woods, but what good will that do in the face of police violence? Stockpiles of guns may help in the event of a machismo, Rambo-esque dream sequence while fighting off agents of a tyrannical government, but it doesn’t do much in the way of community self defense against more realistic threats of state violence or domestic terrorists.
The inherent disorganization of “every-man-for-himself” is the ultimate failing of the lot. Mutual aid, on the other hand, is an optimistic approach to providing sustainable relief. Cities like Portland, Pittsburgh, NYC, and Austin have structures in place, thousands worldwide ready to lend a helping hand and supply resources to those struggling, uplifting those at the bottom.
The lack of skill sharing between mutual aid groups weakens their effectiveness, no doubt, but this can be remedied. The scattering of people who provide practical skill-sharing in these groups exemplify how we can apply this knowledge effectively. It’s not hard to see why, after all, in an environmental collapse I’d bet on a community of people lasting longer than every-man-for-himself Bill from accounting with his extensive shotgun collection.
I’ve encountered a fair number of people who are left looking for answers in the face of impending societal collapse. They drop questions about how they learn, how they keep safe and protect those they love. As I share information and help people learn more, one concern lingers in my mind – I hope none of these folk become mall ninjas.