Prepping for a possibility of survival challenges
By Lisa Brody
The last few years' global calamities sound like eerie passages straight out of from the Bible – a deadly world-wide pandemic, out of control wildfires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, extremes of heat and freezing cold, blackouts, political upheaval in several countries, even the reawakening of millions of cicadas descending upon parts of the United States in their once-in-a-17-year cycle.
It's enough to make anyone want to hide away in their basement or under the covers and never come out.
While most people won't head downstairs forever, increasingly many individuals are preparing for various potential catastrophes, and the possibility they may need to either heed stay at home orders, similar to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, or to get ready to flee their homes for an unknown period of time at a moment's notice. Once referred to as survivalists who chose to live “off the grid,” today those who choose to arrange their lives for any eventuality are called “preppers,” and are not isolated individuals or loners, but everyday folk.
“Preppers come from all walks of life, all races, all ages,” said Anne Marie Bounds, PhD, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York, who has written Bracing for the Apocalypse: An Ethnographic Study of New York's 'Prepper' Subculture. “It's much more mainstream. As climate collapse, concerns about the economy or government collapse, you have very young people, families, singles, couples, some senior citizens – all ages. The pandemic was the first thing many experienced. Unlike the perception, they're not loners. It's not an isolated thing.”
Once referred to as survivalism, the prepper movement is a social movement of individuals or groups of people who proactively prepare for anything that can happen, any kind of emergency, from natural disasters, to social, political or economic disruptions. Those who proactively prepare for any kind of disruption work to anticipate both short-term and long-term disaster scenarios, which could impact them and their families. Arrangements can be to anticipate short-term disruptions of services, such as losing power for a couple of days, to preparing for an international or global catastrophe. Preppers can, and do, prepare for personal emergencies, such as a job loss or to being stranded in the wild, or to adverse weather conditions related to where they live.
Their emphasis is on preparation, upon self-reliance, on the stockpiling of necessary supplies and having survival knowledge and skills while still living their everyday lives. Part of their preparation goes beyond first aid kits and water – it can include acquiring medical and self-defense training, stockpiling food and water, building structures such as survival retreats or underground bunkers, all in order to be self-sufficient in the event they need to be.
“The thing about an emergency – you don't want the first football game of the season to the Super Bowl,” commented Christian Schauf, CEO and founder, Uncharted Supply Company, a manufacturer of high-quality survival systems and products made to empower people with the proper gear and education to guide them back to safety in an unanticipated emergency. Their signature item is the Seventy2 Survival System, which they said contains all of the supplies a family could use for the first 72 hours in the event of a dangerous situation.
“Doesn't it make sense to prepare yourself for everything you need to survive for 72 hours for $400?” he asked. “The best first aid kit is the one at hand. If you have a great one, but it's at your house (and you're out), it does you no good. Make sure you're covered along the way. It's just smart.”
Schauf grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, and was taught how to prepare for all kinds of emergencies. He said he began Uncharted Supply Company after a career as a musician which took him to more than 300 different military bases in Iraq to entertain troops, including in remote and dangerous locations. After his musical career, he then took a tech job in California which “I hated. It was only for a paycheck. I wanted to make a difference.”
Not long after, visiting friends in Colorado, he got stuck for eight hours on a highway after a freak snowstorm hit, “and I was prepared, but no one around me was.”
Schauf had an epiphany, he said. “The world is changing, with natural disasters, political upheavals, emergencies, car accidents,” he said, “and yet, people's life skills are diminishing. We've gone from being generalists to being specialists. People aren't getting experiences.”
He said the average person does not need a masters degree in wilderness preparation to prepare for the “what ifs” in life – but they do need some help.
“If you're in an emergency, you want someone to tell you what to do, that makes their situations better,” Schauf said. “We're the guiding voice and give you the tools you need when you're in uncharted territory. If you only have one without the other, you only have half the recipe,” which can help individuals in situations as drastic as earthquakes and fleeing severe wildfires out west to a dangerous cut, and what they need to take care of themselves.
Schauf's realization born from that snowstorm is not unusual, where a stressful event led to prepper awareness. Ryan Kuhlman, co-owner and founder of Preppi, along with his partner Lauren Tafuri, began the company after realizing how ill-prepared they were after experiencing a small earthquake in 2014.
“It was only a 2.5 earthquake. What would an actual disaster look like?” he asked.
He and Tafuri went looking for an emergency kit, only to find there weren't very many options, “and those options were severely lacking in aesthetics. With that in mind, we decided to use our combined artistic backgrounds to create something people would actually desire to own… Preppi began because we saw a need in the emergency preparedness market for kits that were thoughtfully designed and curated with modern amenities that we have all grown to expect. Preparedness was often associated with the outdoors, but city dwellers such as teachers or accountants, for example, aren't going to go off the grid and fish for their meals – everything should be in one kit ready for them.”
He describes a Preppi kit as a “modern take on emergency planning that aims to encourage and excite people about preparedness,” with 72-hour kits starting at $100 packed with food, water and first aid supplies.
Stephanie Hartwell, a sociologist and Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean at Wayne State University, noted that often that understanding comes from undergoing a traumatic event.
“It's based on trauma, on the chaotic world we live in,” Hartwell said. “Not everyone want to be the last one left on earth. It's logical based on the political arena, natural disasters, manmade disasters, how the world may be running out of water. How do we make ourselves important in a chaotic world? There is often the seed of trauma, where they have been impacted by something of complexity. There is an understanding of the likelihood of a disaster and the feeling of the need or impulse to prepare. This is a problematic world. We need to prepare for the inevitability. Some of it is human nature, some of it is trauma and fear, and some of it is the inability to control life – like climate change and natural disasters, today's politics. It makes us feel hopeless.
“It used to be a loner guy with mental health problems living in the woods. But today, many are concerned about the world,” Hartwell continued. “Prepping is a way to try to instill control and safety into their lives. People aren't feeling safe.”
Prepping isn't a new phenomenon. The origins of the modern survivalist movement can first be traced to the 1930s to 1950s, in the United Kingdom and United States, where perceived threats included government policies during the Great Depression, religious beliefs, threats of nuclear warfare after World War II, and writers who warned, in both fiction and non-fiction, of social and economic collapse. Readers began to not only read about, but to believe in a post-apocalyptic world. Some early survivalists cite the Great Depression and the stock market crash of 1929 as examples of the need to be prepared for anything.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has long directed its members to store a year's worth of food for themselves and their families in preparation for such possibilities, and current teachings, according to “Food Storage,” in the LDS Gospel Library, advises beginning with a minimum of a three-month supply.
“After World War II, the interesting thing is we had a very good civil defense system in this country. It was an all-volunteer, strongly community-centered civil defense system,” said Dr. Alex Bitterman, architecture professor, Alfred State College in New York, who studies how extreme events shape communities. “Everyone was involved. It was amplified by the early days of the Cold War, when the nuclear threat was very real and very nascent.
“There was a very big interest in building home fallout shelters,” he continued. “It's where the beginnings of what we call the 'prepper' movement began.”
But with neighbors and community organizations looking out for one another, there was less of a sense that the bottom would fall out. Like today, people put away canned goods and paper products, but there was not a wholesale movement. Then, in 1973, Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) was created as part of the Department of Homeland Security, and in 1979, by executive action by President Jimmy Carter, FEMA was officially formed to centralize federal emergency functions.
FEMA's creation led to the gradual dissolution of the community-centered civil defense system, Bitterman said. “The perception was the government had deeper pockets, it was better prepared and had specialized equipment.”
However, over time, FEMA became stretched thin as more and more emergencies, notably natural disasters, came to plague the system.
“It became apparent over time that FEMA does it's very best, but in a huge country like the United States, to mobilize itself from one end of the country to other, it is very slow and not very efficient,” Bitterman noted. “We see the disasters and their aftermaths on the nightly news. Eventually FEMA gets there, but until FEMA gets there, there's a huge gap and because there's no citizen mobilization, what happens is people see an armchair analysis of the disaster aftermath on TV. Those images leave a very indelible fear on our psyches – which is unfortunate.
“Whenever someone is confronted with a fear, their response is to prepare,” he noted. “So prepping comes out of that very real fear, that helplessness, of not being cared for or being prepared.”
The hippie era of the 1960s, where many began living in communes to separate themselves from what they viewed as a materialistic society, and the “Ted Kaczynski”-style of survivalist of the 1990s, living alone in the woods as they hoped to escape what they believed to be an increasingly oppressive government, were precursors of today's prepper movement, writer Jim Forsyth noted, whether they are on the right or left politically, are concerned about no government.
“With our current dependence on things from the electric grid to the internet, things that people have no control over, there is a feeling that a collapse scenario can easily emerge, with a belief that the end is coming, and that it is all out of an individual's control,” Cathy Gutierrez, author of The End that Does: Science and Millennial Accomplishment, commented.
John Ramey started the blog “The Prepared” in 2018, and it has ballooned to such a point that it now offers not only the basics of emergency preparedness and prepping checklists for all kinds of situations, “bug out bag” checklists, but a variety of emergency and survival courses, such as austere first aid, water essentials, prepping basics bootcamp, knife sharpening and maintenance, kits for purchase ranging in price from $96 for a simple firestarter kit to $2,762 for a 30-pound bug out bag – and loads of options in between. The website also includes several reviews and guides on preparing for a variety of scenarios, on how to prepare and survive earthquakes and hurricanes, severe heat, a kidnapping, to how to prepare for and survive civil unrest. There is also a forum to communicate with others.
Ramey said the “number one time when people use their prepping supplies is after a job loss – they're tapping their rainy day fund, eating their freeze-dried food and other supplies, their medical, so their kids don't go hungry and they don't need to go to the ER.”
What is a “bug out bag” and should you have one? A bug out bag, or go bag, is essentially an emergency kit of things you would need if you “bugged out” of your home. According to The Prepared, building your own bug out bag is “one of the most most important steps you should take to get prepared. These packed and ready bags serve as your 'I need to leave home right now!' kit, and as useful supplies if you’re sheltering at home.”
While sites like Preppi and Uncharted Supply offer prepared bug out bags, individuals can put together their own, and if they buy one, should personalize a purchased one.
According to The Prepared, an essential bug out bag is under 20 pounds, and covers the essentials of what you need to survive and recover away from home, such as portable water in a canteen, water filter, first aid kit, food that's ready to eat, your documents on a USB file, a field knife and multitool, lighter, tarp, toilet paper, a jacket, cash, hat, underwear, socks and pants, storage bags and ziplocs, and USB charging cable and wall plug, among other essentials.
A level 2 bag is under 35 pounds and contains a sleeping bag and pad, a second flashlight, a portable stove for boiling water, food that needs boiling, wet wipes, compass, pistol and holster, and other items.
A level 3 bag is less than 45 pounds, and in addition includes a tent, rod fire starter and striker, battery charger, hand sanitizer, hand saw, duct tape, whistle and carabiners.
At ready.gov, FEMA provides advice on how to build a basic disaster supplies kit, such as one gallon of water per day per person for several days for drinking and sanitation; a three-day supply of non-perishable food; a flashlight and extra batteries; first aid kit; dust mask; manual can opener; cell phone with chargers and back up batteries; local maps; moist toilettes, garbage bags and ties, for personal sanitation; plastic sheeting and duct tape, to shelter in place; and a whistle to call for help.
Bounds of Queens College advises to add necessary things that are personal for you, such as proper medications and prescriptions, extra glasses and contact lenses, pet food, diapers and formula, and determine a meeting place for your family if you can't go home.
“Also, determine if you have to leave home, where would you go?” she said. “These are serious plans to share with family members. If there's a serious situation, you either shelter at home, like during the pandemic, or you leave. You have to be prepared for either contingency and what your needs might be for either. You need to think of your family as an individual. The general rule of thumb that preppers prepare for is one month, while most people just prepare for two weeks.
“Now that we've all sheltered in place, think about how you did it, what you needed, what you liked, and prepare for that,” Bounds said. “The best advice I have is think about how your family actually lives, what they like, what they drink. What could they do if there was no TV or internet. Think ahead about doing a home garden and canning and preserving.”
“A lot of this is lifestyle,” explains Ramey. “I personally have been in emergency situations where this advice has helped me.”
Ramey said he was in high school when 9/11 occurred; he later became “a Silicon Valley guy. Back in that time, I was on of the first to be outed as a prepper, back in 2009, 2010. Now, more and more of my peers are coming to me to learn. But back then, it was like you were crazy if you were doing this.
“The rise of social media, back in 2008, used by those who were upset that Obama was elected, and they were very vocal – they were different from the traditional survivalists. Thankfully, that stereotype doesn't exist anymore,” Ramey said. “It's lifestyle thinking. It's not the hermit in the woods. I like modern life. But I want to be a capable, independent adult. I believe part of being a capable adult is giving my family CPR or flipping the break wires.
“When we talk about the modern prepping movement, we're not talking about Ted Kaczynski moving to the mountains in a bunker,” he said. “The old stereotype was it was old men who went off the grid. Not now. It's young, old. Fifty-fifty, men and women. It's everyone. Our largest age group is between 25-35. More and more it's normal people. Prepping is just being a mature adult.”
Several people in the prepping movement, like Ramey, compared prepping for an emergency to buying homeowner's or car insurance.
“We have homeowner's insurance if our home burns down. Just because you have car insurance doesn't mean you're going to drive like an idiot,” said Ramey. “Shouldn't we also make sure our family survive the fire in the first place? It's like having a rainy day fund. You know what to do and are prepared.”
“There are two things that are very important,” Bitterman said. “The Boy Scouts of America, their motto was always 'Be prepared.' They've been teaching young people to be prepared for anything. That's a very resonant piece of our culture. Prepping is part of being an American – part of being able to provide for ourselves. We take great pride in being a self-sustaining nation.
“The other thing, as we magnify the more extreme events from terrorism to hurricanes to wildfires to storms and flooding, snowstorms, and extreme heat and cold, the way we build in this country is for a very stable climate – not for these massive fluxes,” he pointed out.
So, in essence, we must prepare because the system itself is destined – in effect, it's designed – to let us down, whether because sewer systems cannot accommodate 100-year rainfalls every few weeks so flooding occurs; overhead electrical wires were not built to handle wind, rain snow and the growth that has occurred in our communities, so they break and plunge thousands into the dark, leading to extended outages; increased air temperatures leading to increased water temperatures, causing more frequent and more intense hurricanes; out west, increased air temperatures have led to droughts, which provoke and stress depleting water systems and intensify more frequent wildfires.
Add to that the world wide COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdown orders, and an uncertain political state and election concerns, complete with an armed uprising on the American Capital building on January 6, 2021, and many Americans feel unprepared for today's world.
Melissa McDonald, associate professor of psychology, Oakland University, said, “This threat to their health and well-being is one many people haven't experienced before, especially if you're from a privileged background, live in an affluent area. The pandemic and shift in their sense of stability in institutions, and the ability of institutions to protect them, really upended their sense of safety and security. In addition, there has been erosion of trust in police and other institutions.
“This fear in the lack of stability of their institutions, in combination with people who are having these fears having the means and mental bandwith to deal with it leads to them becoming preppers, to preparing for the worst,” she said. “If you're dealing paycheck-to-paycheck, you're not prepping – you're just trying to survive the day. It's a combination of a lot of fear, time on their hands and expendable income.”
Hartwell, the dean at Wayne State University, concurred. “Prepping is an elitist movement – it's available to those who can afford to live off the grid for 30 days,” she said. “You don't have the luxury to worry about stockpiling when you have to get food on the table each day.”
However, Stephanie Preston, professor of psychology at University of Michigan, sees the behavior as primal.
“In my lab, we study how your emotions determine how you make decisions about your resources,” she explained. “People are so used to hoarding money in a bank account. Some part of your brain that you make that decision to hoard money in the bank or under your bed tells you to hoard food and prepare.”
She said it's seen in non-humans, too, where they hoard food to survive storms, droughts, or the winter. Look at squirrels at this time of year, busy acquiring seeds and nuts, and hiding them away to make it through the long winter.
“They have to be busy because seeds falling from trees are only available for so long, and they have to feed off of them for a very long time,” Preston pointed out. “Our research shows psychological stress can initiate this. The more worried you are about your environment and the abundance of your resources, the more people are to want to stockpile, just like money, with canned goods in the basement. But the more extreme the risk is in your environment, the more intensely you endeavor in this behavior – meaning stockpiling water, food to last months or a year.
“In animals, if they're worried something is going to steal from them, they could hide their resources in many places, like squirrels burying nuts in lots of different places, or a powerful animal could fight off intruders, like a bear,” she said, noting human behavior mirrors that of animals.
As fear grows and perceived threats intensify, the choice of what to stash away can grow, and change.
“People during COVID started buying guns,” Preston said. “They felt the need for the gun to protect from intruders, and to protect not only their families, but their stockpile.”
Those with the means, and a strong urge to protect themselves and their families, are doing more than just putting some things into a backpack and a storage cabinet. They are having underground bunkers built beneath their homes.
Rising S Company of Murchison, Texas, offers “underground living for our clients who want protection for the uncertainties of the future. Our clients want fallout shelters for all sorts of reasons. Some want to prepare for end of times, others want to prepare for the uncertainty of the country. They want a safe place their family can escape to in unthinkable situations.”
Made completely of steel, Gary Lynch, general manager of Rising S Company, said they have built shelters all over the country “and in many other countries,” ranging in size from 100 square feet to well over 13,000 square feet, ranging in price from $60,000 installed to well into the millions of dollars – all underground. “We can build as large as someone would like,” he said.
Their shelters are be built to be hidden, contain escape doors with tunnels, have surveillance cameras, and living spaces, depending upon size, which include built-in steel furniture, such as bunk beds, bench storage seating, tables with bench seating, shelving, kitchens and working bathrooms. They have heavy-duty steel security doors, air filtration, solar panels, generators, water tanks, and other amenities.
“They can be as elaborate and as comfortable as your living room, or basic.”
Lynch said that while in sheer numbers, the most they have built are in Texas and California, “per square mile, I probably have more in Michigan by land mass. Two of the largest shelters I've done have been in Michigan.” He declined to reveal their locations.
Local municipalities said they're not around here. Bloomfield Hills City Manager David Hendrickson said there have been no requests for underground bunkers, although “some previous homes have had safe rooms built.”
In Birmingham, building official Bruce Johnson said, “Over the years, people who have finished their basements might have built a safe room with valuables, but nothing I would categorize as 'preppers' or bunkers.”
Birmingham planner Nick Dupuis pointed out that in Birmingham “homes are so close, neighbors could see if someone were building a bunker.”
Bloomfield Township planner Andrea Bibby said there have been none built in the township “that we're aware of.”
While for years rumors have run rampant that some wealthy homeowners in Orchard Lake Village have installed large underground bunkers, Gerry McCallum, director of city services, dashed those whispers.
“I'm not aware of any underground bunkers or structures, and I've been here for 22 years,” McCallum said.
Rumblings about a large bunker built at businessman Peter Karmanos' home several years ago, McCallum said, was actually for a 22,000-gallon underground liquid propane gas tank to fuel their generator if they lose power – which did not meet code at the time, but for which they did receive a variance.
Lynch said people who can afford to build an underground bunker do it for the same reason other preppers do – insurance.
“We're a company that sells preparedness, not fear,” Lynch said. “It's an insurance policy, like auto insurance, travel insurance, health insurance. Insurance is one of the things we spend the most on and hopefully, we get the least from. Ours is like an iron-clad policy because our shelters are made of steel.”
Unlike many other preppers, who are concerned about climate change or immediate climate threats, he said the majority of those who buy and have a bunker installed are concerned about government collapse.
“The federal government is our biggest marketing partner – pushing the shape of our economy, forcing vaccinations,” Lynch said. “Across the board, there's a concern about an economic collapse, which means no longer food stamps and welfare… Those people who are dependent on the federal government, who are parents – where is their next meal going to come from? By any means necessary. That means if you have to steal. It will start with looting, and those people will become desperate. Then when the grocery stores are empty, it could be people with great wealth. No one will be going to work – they'll be home protecting their loved ones. That's where we come in: we're for people who prepare for that option.”
“Prepping is flattening the curve – the more I don't have to go to the hospital and can be self-reliant, the more the system is able to manage,” said The Prepared's John Ramey. “If I have the ability to be self-reliant, it's my duty to do so.
“People ask if prepping is selfish. I say, no it's not. What's selfish is asking a volunteer to get up in the middle of the night to save your ass.”
Uncharted Supply's Christian Schauf views it as a return to helping others.
“It's coming from a place of abundance. It's people taking care of other people, communities taking care of others, so people aren't isolated in an emergency.”