How to Survive When Shit Hits the Fan

According to the American Preppers Network, a prepper is a “person who earnestly believes that no challenge is insurmountable with the proper dedication, determination and focus.” In online forums and Reddit groups, these believers swap tips on how to survive a variety of different apocalypses.

“For Hurricane Sandy, while people were running to the grocery stores, trampling each other over bread and water and batteries and all that stuff, my family and I were sitting in our living room watching Netflix,” Sandy L. Smith explains. “We weren’t concerned with getting to the store to get that last loaf of bread or gallon of milk.”

Smith is more commonly known in prepping circles by his YouTube handle, The Massachusetts Prepper, with accompanying slogan, “More then just a prepper” (sic).

Since the late ’90s, Smith has been prepping—installing a rack in his basement that can hold 660 cans of food, learning how to grow his own crops, buying water filtration systems, and taking dozens of other precautions to sustain him and his family if a natural or manmade disaster hits their Western Massachusetts home. (He would not get any more specific than Western Mass, for fear of being “targeted.”) While Smith now has enough canned and dehydrated rations to sustain his family of seven for a year, he’s less focused on a “SHTF” (Shit Hits the Fan) situation and more on preparing for short-term natural disasters, like the Bomb Cyclone and Hurricane Sandy. It’s not that all “preppers” believe the rats scurrying across major cities are carrying the next bubonic plague or that a comet is currently hurtling towards the Earth, promising a dinosaur-type extinction—rather, Smith and his ilk “expect the worst and hope for the best.”

According to the American Preppers Network, a prepper is a “person who earnestly believes that no challenge is insurmountable with the proper dedication, determination and focus.” In online forums and Reddit groups, these believers swap tips on how to survive a variety of different apocalypses.

Determined to find a community of preppers, Smith started a prepping-focused YouTube channel in 2014 with the aim of “sharing ideas, learning from others, and teaching others.” Smith reviews prepping materials—like Pine Fire campfire starter materials, Vita Pure Products Advanced Digestive Enzymes, the Fitbit Blaze—to help other preppers discern which materials are worth adding to their stash. Why the Fitbit? “If you’re not in good shape your chance of survival is slim to none.”

Though the community aims to circulate information, cooperation is limited. Many preppers don’t disclose their identities even to fellow preppers because, according to Smith, “as a prepper you will become a target in a worse-case scenario.” He clarifies: “At 10 days, people start killing someone for a can of beans. As a prepper... people will try and seek you out because you have what they need.” This tension leads to a conflict of interest; members of the prepper network are all working towards a shared goal—to survive—but they must necessarily prioritize individual survivorship.

“Morgan Rogue” is one prepper who was unwilling to reveal her real name. “Rogue” is her prepper pseudonym, under which she runs Rogue Preparedness, a website and YouTube channel. Her website’s plain black text urges viewers to “conquer tomorrow, by preparing today!”

Rogue is less concerned about people identifying her from her face, but she knows several YouTubers who don’t show their faces. “How secretive they want to be” is each member’s personal preference. For Rogue, safety means concealing her last name and displaying only a portion of her emergency supplies—and those precautions don’t hinder her relationships with other preppers. Despite the wariness, they’re “mostly good people,” she says.

Rogue has mastered the slingshot and runs mock-nuclear fallout drills—though not in an “obsessive” way—but hiding her identity seems to her like a step too far. It’s more important to her “to have a support group, because if something does happen, who are you going to rely on besides yourself and your family?” Rogue’s voice rises: “It’s all these people who want to get together and share and be a support system for each other.” For many, the prepper community is much more than a series of pixelated cartoon icons responding to forum posts once in awhile: It’s a band of people whose survival-themed feedback and camaraderie can turn a materially prepared prepper into an emotionally prepared prepper.

The Canadian Prepper, who signs his emails as “Nate,” runs one of the most popular prepper channels on YouTube with over 110,000 subscribers. He points to the absurdity of many preppers’ protectiveness: They “put up a YouTube video and it gets 1,000 views. They get worried that of the 7 billion people in the world, those 1,000 people are going to somehow know where they live. It’s ridiculous.” But in a community of people united by a preoccupation with the unlikely, slim odds can preoccupy.

Like many preppers, Nate can pinpoint a specific moment that sent him into the world of disaster preparedness. A few years ago, he realized he was so dependent on technology that he’d be utterly helpless if the grid went down. So his videos often focus on prepping for power outages and the grid failing instead of on the larger-scale disasters that obsess many other preppers—like nuclear apocalypse. Prepping for nuclear war or a doomsday triggered by North Korea, he says, is “sort of silly.” It’s the prepper community’s focus on silliness and hyperbole that prompted him to create his channel: “I’m not [making videos] in a way that makes the community looks like a bunch of nutcases. There are people out there that are loose cannons—that’s why there’s a stigma to prepping.”

The Canadian Prepper works as a mental health counselor, and he says “there is no diagnosable” mental health condition for preppers—at most, “just more anxiety” than the average person. He points to a double standard in how preppers are perceived by non-preppers. “If anybody looked rationally at the things people occupy themselves with today—sports and dumb memes people do on YouTube and what used to be Vine—what is our definition of insanity when people can spend tens of thousands of dollars on season tickets to watch some people throw a ball around on a court? Yet if you spend that money on ways you can self-preserve, that’s viewed as insane?”

But each prepper has a different vision of the ultimate SHTF scenario and adjusts their privacy accordingly. Preppers aren’t so much preparing for one event as much as recognizing the list of possible catastrophes is never-ending. “Rellgar,” a V.I.P., moderator, senior member, and staff member of Doomsday Forum, declined to comment because “no real prepper would give an interview without being anonymous.” The only details about Rellgar are listed below his username: his favorite weapon (a Daisy .177 BB with night scope) and what he’s prepping for (economic collapse). It’s hard to see just a weapon and a doomsday scenario as a potential friend.