Are you prepared for the unknown?

Prior to attending the National Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, I hadn’t put much thought into it. In fact, most days, I don’t even know what I’m going to eat for lunch, let alone what I’d do in the event of lean times — or worse, an apocalypse. 

Turns out, more and more people are interested in learning survivalist techniques. The event was expected to draw in more than 7,000 people over the course of two days — and this is just a small representation of the 3.7 million Americans who classify themselves as preppers or survivalists.

With this many people actively practicing emergency preparedness, you can bet that this already multibillion-dollar business will only continue to climb.

So what’s the secret behind this niche industry’s explosive growth?

An Industry on the Rise

“The first year we did this, we had about 4,000 people and just 45 exhibitors. This year, we’ve nearly doubled.” Ray McCreary, Show Director of NPS Expo, told me. 

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While the impressive turnout at the event made it abundantly clear that this industry wasn’t showing any signs of stopping, I was determined to learn more about the uptick in interest surrounding survivalist behavior and preparedness techniques. Why now? 

I sat down with Charley Hogwood, resident Chief Instructor on emergency preparedness and disaster readiness at P.R.E.P, and author of The Survival Group Handbook: How to Plan, Organize, and Lead People for Short or Long Term Survival.

“A lot of [the industry’s recent growth] is based on the current culture at any given time,” Hogwood told me. “People get excited about things like the election, and that causes things to get bigger.”

Hogwood’s explanation reminded me of Wharton Professor Jonah Berger’s work on the transmission of ideas. In short, Berger believes that one of the principles that drives people to share and talk about an idea is triggers — environmental or societal instances that serve as a reminder to make us think about something.

And when it comes to survivalists, it appears that events such as the election bring about enough concern to trigger an increased awareness for the importance of preparing for uncertain times. To see what I mean, just take a look at the following Google Trends chart:

You’ll notice a big spike during November 2012 for the search term “prepping” — the month in which President Obama was elected to a second term. I’d say it’s safe to assume that this is no coincidence.

While this was a fascinating discussion, I wanted to know more about the specifics. What were people thinking about as they started collecting nonperishables and brushing up on their survival skills? What were their core motivations? And still, why now?

Understanding the Core Motivations for Preparedness

“People conjure up a bad image when we talk with them about being a prepper. But it simply means we prepare for things — known and unknown,” explained Panteao Productions instructor, Kyle Harth.

For preppers and survivalists, the “known and unknown” can mean a lot of different things. And contrary to the stereotypes, not all preppers are gearing up to take out zombies in an ominous, apocalyptic world. In fact, the reasoning behind people’s decision to live a prepared lifestyle is often reflected in their individual stories of awakening. 

My husband also lost his job right when our first (turned out to be only) baby was born. Those first few years were rough,” prepper D’Ann explained in an article detailing how certain preppers got their start.

“My start at prepping began three days after 9/11/2001. While hearing the reports of what was going on and happening in NYC, my wife described the scene as best she could without losing her voice,” another prepper, Jack, wrote in the same article. “I am and have been blind since age 24 . . . When my wife described it to me I turned to her and said, ‘Our world has changed now.'” 

Aware that people often expressed vastly different motivations for preparedness, Dale, host of the Survivalist Prepper podcastrecently polled his Facebook community to gain a better understanding.

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According to Dale’s poll, the top three concerns were an economic collapse, grid failure, and natural disasters. 

Having seen economic stability rise and fall across the world, many preppers are concerned that the global economy will soon fall and not get back up.

“I firmly believe it’s [economic collapse] one of the most serious threats we face,” urges Robert Richardson, founder and editor of Off Grid Survival.

“Economies around the world are crashing, countries are drowning in record amounts of debt, and governments continue to pile on new debt like there’s no tomorrow. At some point this debt train is going to come to a screeching halt; when that happens we are going to see panic and chaos like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” he goes on to explain.

As for grid failure, it’s likely that recent instances like the scattered power outages which hit the State Department, White House, U.S. Capitol, and Justice Department back in April, have driven people to become more aware of the vulnerability of America’s power grid.

And with the devastating outcomes of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Haiyan, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake being broadcast all over the internet, it seems logical that uncertain environments have altered people’s attitudes towards prepping in recent years, pushing more and more people to join in the movement. 

Making Preparedness More Accessible 

The growth of this whole movement can’t just be attributed to increasing concern over economic, environmental, and infrastructure concerns. There are also several reasons why this issue’s reached such a huge audience worldwide.

The Rise of Survival Entertainment

On August 30, 2000, 51.7 million viewers tuned in to find out who would be crowned “Sole Survivor” during the season finale of Survivor: Borneo. The Survivor series — an American reality survival series that chronicles the journey of a marooned group of strangers — began airing in May of 2000, and recently kicked off its 31st season in Cambodia. 

“When Survivor started, there weren’t a lot of shows like ours on the air,” explained host and executive producer Jeff ProbstHowever, since then, it would appear that the series has pioneered the way for a new wave of survival entertainment to surface.

Here’s just a small sample of the survival shows that have launched since Survivor first aired:

  • Survivorman – 2004
  • Man vs. Wild – 2006
  • The Colony – 2009
  • Man, Woman, Wild – 2010
  • Dual Survivor – 2010
  • Doomsday Preppers – 2012
  • Naked & Afraid – 2013
  • Doomsday Castle – 2013
  • Lost Survivors – 2013
  • Marooned with Ed Stafford – 2013
  • Survival Live – 2014
  • Alone – 2015

What’s interesting about many of these series is that they’ve taken the shape of a social experiment of sorts.

For example, the Emmy-nominated series, Naked & Afraid chronicles the survival experience of a man and a woman who must learn to survive together for 21 days in a rural location. When you tune in, you can’t help but wonder: How will they divide the work? Will gender influence their behavior? Can they work together? It’s pretty fascinating.

“With a social experiment, you genuinely feel like the people are going through something that feels real and authentic. We’re seeing how people react to a certain situation in a real and authentic way,” explains Matthew Kelly, VP of Development and Production at Discovery. 

So while there’s no denying that the show — like most reality shows — is edited to an extent for entertainment, past participants at the expo insisted that what they endured was very real, and at times very painful.

“I found out after just five steps that Tanzania would put thorns in me where I never knew they could go. I knew I could go through this experience and challenge myself, but I didn’t expect it to be this big. I’m graciously glad that it is, and now I want to get survival out to as many people as possible. It will save your life,” three-time Naked & Afraid survivalist EJ “Skullcrusher” Snyder told us. 

Reminiscent of early shows like Big Brother and The Real World, this fusion between reality television and social experimentation has become increasingly popular in modern programs like Married at First Sight, Dating Naked, and other survival series like Alone and Survival Live.

And given the unconventional nature of these experimental survival series and their overall abundance, it’s likely that they’ve had an effect on the industry’s growth. In fact, if you refer to the Google Trends chart we mentioned earlier, you can see that the search volume for prepping begins to steadily increase from 2012 on, when a vast majority of these programs were released. 

Television aside, there’s also been an increase in survival-related film — from blockbuster hits to documentaries and docudramas — that have helped propel the preparedness movement. 

While waiting for a class to begin at the expo, I chatted with an attendee, David, who had traveled from Maryland to check out the events and expand his skill set. When I asked David how he’d gotten his start with prepping, he explained that he became interested in learning more about emergency preparedness after viewing a couple of related documentaries: After Armageddon and American Blackout.

“I realized that this was something I should consider. I wound up passing the documentaries around at work and many people made the decision to start prepping after seeing them too,” he told me.

A Foundation in Education

As I made my way around the expo, I’d noticed that while a lot of booths were pushing things like essential oils, canned food storage, and “bug out” trailers, many of them were more focused on sharing knowledge. 

For example, husband and wife duo Kevin and Tammy, along with their daughter Montanna, were excited to discuss their educational training card game, Survival Simulator, when I stopped by their booth.

How it works is simple: Players draw and discard cards that prompt them to act out a skill-testing scenario.

“This deck plays on the necessity of repetition for training,” explained Kevin. 

But Survival Simulator wasn’t the only education tool that attendees could get their hands on. There were water procurement classes, instructional DVDs, waterless cooking demonstrations, and even some live-action learning on “friction fire 101” thanks to Naked & Afraid participant, Clint Jivoin.

By the end of the day, there were two things I knew for sure: 1) My survival abilities were laughable … no seriously, people laughed at me. 2) Education was the lifeblood of this industry.

To get a better sense of of how this community was creating and sustaining educational content outside of events like this, I took to Google to see what was out there.

I was surprised to find that there weren’t just a few blogs or forums dedicated to prepping and survivalism … there were hundreds:

What was even more interesting was the social share counts some of the articles received:

It became clear that the community was not only creating resources, but preppers and survivalists everywhere were also actively sharing them. And while this type of social transmission has undoubtedly helped educate and raise awareness, blog articles weren’t the only piece of content they were creating.

I found videos:

And calculators:

And individual and group education programs:

While there was no shortage of self-education resources, I found the group trainings to be most interesting in terms of the advancement of this industry. This is because per my conversation with Charlie Hogwood — who runs the show at P.R.E.P. — I discovered that Mutual Assistance Groups (MAGS) are a huge part of the world of preppers and survivalists.

These groups of similarly minded individuals or families form to assist each other in times of crisis, and work together to ensure that everyone in their circle is educated in all aspects of survival and preparedness. 

“This is the ‘people’ part of prepping,” Hogwood explained.

I liked the sound of that. It meant, if nothing else, the reason why many of these people are drawn to the lifestyle is because it provides them with a sense of belongingness — a common motivation fueling many successful movements.

Ready, Set, Prep

So why the sudden urge to prep? Why the explosive growth? Why now?

While it’s seemingly impossible to pin down one, concrete answer to these questions, the rise in prepared living seems to stem from uncertainty. Whether or not they’ll need to put these plans into action is yet to be determined, but this movement doesn’t seem to be loosing steam anytime soon.

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