What is Survivalism?
Survivalism is a growing idea that revolves around being prepared for (mentally, physically, and materially) disasters and catastrophes that might change the nature of “normal” life. This includes natural disasters (like hurricanes or floods), man-made disasters (like terrorist attacks), and severe disruptions to society and civilization (like the collapse of a government). To a lesser extent, survivalism also stresses the importance of being prepared for disasters of a personal nature – the loss of a job, the destruction of a home, and so forth.
Different people approach survivalism differently – some treat it as a hobby or interest – something they do on the side on top of their “regular” lives. Others build their lives around it, choosing to live in secluded areas and build off-grid, self-sustainable lifestyles that don’t rely on modern conveniences.
The kinds of situations that people prepare for are also different. Some survivalists are focused on pretty common disasters that happen relatively frequently – hurricanes, earthquakes, and so forth. They just want to be ready if a big storm hits. Others are more focused on apocalyptic existential threats – less common, but more devastating “end-of-the-world” type situations like the possibility of nuclear war or a major bioterrorist attack.
Essentially, survivalism is a belief that it is important (and wise) to be well prepared for a broad range of possible futures. That you should have a plan for if things go as expected, but that emergency preparedness is also important – in case things go wrong. Most people don’t bother because they’re afflicted with normalcy bias – they assume that things will be fine and ignore the (obvious) risk of disasters and catastrophes.
The preparations that people make most often fall into one of two categories – material preparations, and skill/knowledge acquisition. Material preparations would include things like stockpiling food or medicine, setting up sustainable, off-grid power sources, or acquiring secure or remote property (like a remote cabin or underground bunker).
Skill and knowledge acquisition would include things like learning to trap and hunt animals for food, or learning how to identify medicinal plants in the wild. There are a broad range of survival, wilderness, and tactical skills that might prove useful in different disaster situations. Anybody learning these kinds of skills with preparedness in mind could be classified as a survivalist.
People who participate or take part in survivalism are generally called survivalists or preppers.
What is a Survivalist? What is a Prepper?
Anybody trying to prepare themselves for the possibility of an uncertain or dangerous future can be classified as a survivalist. Sometimes, people who adhere to survivalism are also called preppers. The exact difference between a “prepper” and a “survivalist” is up for debate, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, generally speaking, we would argue that a “prepper” is more often the term used to describe people who stockpile resources like food, water, medicine, ammunition, and so forth, whereas “survivalist” is a term more frequently used to describe people who focus more on acquiring new survival skills, with a particular emphasis on wilderness survival skills like foraging, firemaking, and crafting/using primitive tools.
That being said, being a survivalist doesn’t have to revolve around wilderness skills – people who focus on learning emergency first aid or tactical self defense could also be described as survivalists. Even people who want to learn how to dress or butcher an animal – if they’re doing it because they feel like these skills will prove useful if life takes a bad turn, either personally or societally, then they can be described as survivalists.
As you can see, based on the above description, many folks are survivalists (they just might not know it) – even people who practice just a basic level of disaster preparedness. For example, someone stockpiling canned goods for hurricane season is a sort of prepper. A woman who wants to learn how to defend herself is a survivalist of sorts. Survivalism isn’t uncommon and shouldn’t be thought of as a fringe movement for paranoid conspiracy theorists. A lot of preparedness and survivalism is just common sense (like being well prepared for hurricanes in the stormy season). Some people choose to dive in deeper and prepare more thoroughly than others, but essentially most people adhere to survivalism in one way or another in their everyday lives.
Obviously, there is a large overlap between “preppers” and “survivalists”, so it might be more useful to break down the different kinds of survivalists in more specific categories for clarity.
Disaster-oriented – People who focus mainly on being able to weather either short term or extended disaster situations.
Off-the-grid survivalists – People who want to be able to survive without relying on existing infrastructure, particularly the electrical grid. These folks often also don’t want to be tracked or traced by the government or by corporations.
Self defense focused – People who focus on self defense, either unarmed or with a weapon, in order to protect themselves from home invaders, looters, and other criminals.
Wilderness survivalists – People who are focused on acquiring the skills to be able to survive in the wild indefinitely with minimal equipment.
Homesteaders – People who are focused on building a sustainable source of food on their own land
Financially focused – People who want to be ready to capitalize on any upcoming economic crisis situation, often with a focus on investing in precious metals (and more recently, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies)
Digitally focused – People who are acutely aware of the threats of modern technology and want to maintain as much of their privacy as possible by either circumventing the privacy intrusions by governments and large corporations, or by not using modern technology at all.
Religious Doomsday Preppers– People who believe that the end of days is coming as predicted in a religious text – in the US, these are often evangelical Christians, but this differs country to country.
Societal collapse focused – Some survivalists and preppers are primarily focused on the possibility of a breakdown of society and the collapse of institutions like the government. This would result in an “every-man-for-himself” scenario, or possibly a new era of tribalism or feudalism.
A Brief History of Survivalism
Origins of survivalism
In some ways, survivalism is merely the history of humankind – a “hunter gatherer” type caveman would have had most of the skills that inexperienced survivalists hope to acquire. The original “survivalists” (although they didn’t use this particular term) in the modern era probably date back to the time of the great depression, when money was scarce and some people were forced to rely on more primitive methods of living (e.g hunting, preserving food with techniques like drying/smoking, using fire as a source of warmth, etc).
Religion has also long had ties to a lot of survivalist thinking – many religions predict end of the world scenarios, and throughout modern history there have been calls by various religious leaders for their followers to prepare for the end times. Sometimes religious survivalists are also referred to as end-of-days or doomsday preppers
World War 2
There are also obvious ties between modern survivalist thinking and World War 2 Britain – the bomb shelters, gas masks, and constant threat of the “Blitz” of that era have influenced modern survival thinking in many ways. There’s a reason why the imagery of gas masks and underground shelters is so frequently tied to survivalism.
Cold War and the 1960s-1980s
In America, the era that probably had the most effect on survivalism as a movement was the 1960s and 1970s. The cold war and the looming threat of nuclear war between the US and the USSR made it all too easy to imagine that the literal end of the world would come tomorrow. Your grandparents might have stories of this time period – when children were taught in school to “duck and cover” under their school desks in case a nuclear bomb went off. The 1960s is when the term “survivalist” was first used.
There were also predictions of a forthcoming economic collapse in the 60s, which also played into the survival thinking of the time. This continued on into the 1970s, where there were economic concerns about severe inflation and widespread famine. This fear of inflation is what has tied the idea of investing in precious metals with more general survival thinking – these two modes of thinking remain very much attached to each other even today. Also, the OPEC Oil Crisis occurred in 1973, making people more cognizant of a potential energy shortage, and the shortage in many goods (including food) that could result from that. This is also when the idea of “peak oil” became a concern for survivalists and preppers – the idea that petroleum, a finite resource, would begin declining, eventually leading to economic and societal collapse.
The anxiety about the consequences of an economic collapse or energy crisis also tied in with the idea of building a ‘survival retreat’, which became more commonplace (probably the origins of the idea of “bugging out”). So did stockpiling supplies (and barterable commodity goods) to ride out the aftermath. Some survival experts also stressed the importance of making your home defensible against more localized threats like criminals and looters – the idea that being after a crisis situation, society might collapse and it would be every man for himself. A well designed, defensible home meant you’d be less likely to be targeted, and if targeted, you’d be able to defend your property more easily.
In the 1980s the nuclear arms race picked up again, and the focus of advocates of survivalism shifted back towards surviving nuclear detonations. Fallout shelters (as opposed to survival retreats) became reemphasized, as well as other preparations for nuclear war (potassium iodine tablets for radiation, stocks of food and drinking water to avoid consuming irradiated materials, etc).
Post Cold War: The 1990s and Y2K
Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1990s were not as fraught with apocalyptic risk as the previous decades.The idea of survivalism faded somewhat into the background because the world appeared to be more stable both geopolitically and economically. There was a resurgence around the idea of Y2K and its potential effects – to some extent, the emphasis by many preppers and survivalists on the idea of preparing for a world without modern technology (but an otherwise mostly undamaged world) can be attributed to the fear and preparation around Y2K. It should be noted that although “nothing happened” during Y2K, this was largely because most people were warned of the potential issues that Y2K could cause and prepared for them in advance. In other words, a potential crisis was avoided due to appropriate preparation, which is the entire point of survivalism.
2000s, 9/11 and the Security State
Post 2000s, we’re getting into very modern history – obviously the terrorist attacks on September 11th have had a huge impact on the entire survivalist movement in terms of the types of threats we should be thinking about.
On top of that, the government intrusion on the privacy of the average citizen in response to those attacks (e.g the patriot act, TSA and airport security, etc) is also noteworthy – as the internet has grown and become a large part of the daily lives of most people, privacy concerns have become an area of focus for many preppers and survivalists. Survivalists aren’t just worried about the US government – we’re also worried about foreign governments and corporations tracking our every move and intruding on our privacy in a large way. Old school types aren’t as well equipped to deal with these issues, however many of them avoid the internet entirely and are “off-grid”.
Obviously the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the economic uncertainty caused by that has rekindled concerns of an economic collapse. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina also looms large. Not to mention the global coronavirus pandemic that we’re dealing with right now.
In short, the history of survivalism has moved from a number of very obvious, very clear threats (e.g conventional or nuclear bombs from a foreign adversary, in particular the USSR) to a wider range of less predictable threats.
These days, it seems like major social disruption could come from any direction – in the past three decades, we’ve seen something in almost every category… natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), political tension (extreme polarization), global pandemic (COVID-19), terrorist attack (9/11) and technological threat (Y2K and internet privacy). It’s thanks to this that survivalism is gaining popularity. More and more people of every race, gender, and political party are realizing that the world we live in is a fragile one, and that it’s good to have a plan in case it breaks.
American vs European and Survivalists
There’s often a little bit of a disconnect between survivalists from the US and survivalists from other countries, particularly countries in Europe. From our experience here at Secrets of Survival, American survivalists tend to be more focused on truly apocalyptic events, and the scenarios they are planning for tend to be “bigger” in scale but also more unlikely. European survivalists tend to focus more on the possibility of institutional failure – e.g political or economic collapse for example. American survivalists and preppers also focus a lot on external threats like terrorist attacks or foreign threats.
American survivalism is also tied a lot more to religion, and survival ideas are also frequently politicized (this is changing somewhat as a new generation of liberal survivalists are primarily focused on preparing for the effects of climate change/global warming).
We suspect some of these differences are rooted in history and culture.
For example, during the Cold War, Americans lived under greater threat of a nuclear attack – this probably factors into the American focus on truly apocalyptic events. On the other hand, European countries have seen more societal upheaval – from fascism to communism, Europe has seen political and government instability much more than the US has in the past century – so it makes sense that they’re inclined to plan for upheaval on that side of things.
There are other examples we can draw from, but the main idea is that the idea of survivalism can mean different things to different people, and here on this site, our goal is to help you prepare better for whatever might come your way. We have a number of different contributors and writers with differing opinions on politics, religion, and so forth.
Just because you don’t think that the end of the world is around the corner doesn’t mean that you can’t be a survivalist or a prepper.
A lot of what we advocate on this site is just common sense preparation – much like buying insurance. Learning survival skills and preparing appropriate stockpiles is your insurance for a situation where something so bad happens that having monetary insurance is meaningless.
What Are People Preparing For?
So – what scenarios are survivalists actually preparing for? Obviously this question is very broad, and each prepper and survivalist has his or her own ideas, but we’ve included a list of some of the more likely crisis and disaster scenarios that folks like us have in mind when we think about preparing for the future.
“Mainstream” disaster scenarios
Mainstream scenarios include all your typical natural disasters – things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, blizzards, etc… The type of natural disasters that happen (somewhere) every year. Obviously, exactly what you’re preparing for will depend on what the risks are in your particular area – i.e you wouldn’t prepare for an earthquake if you don’t live near a fault line.
Other mainstream scenarios include the types of man-made disasters and crises that are sadly too common these days. Things like power outages, chemical spills, and severe recessions are common enough that most people wouldn’t think it strange to prepare for them. Then you have situations where people are actively out to do harm – terrorist attacks, school shootings and so forth – which are also relatively common and are also worth making preparations for. Obviously, the actual steps of preparing for the possibility of a terrorist attack are very different from those preparing for a hurricane, but the preparedness and readiness mindset is the same.
“Extreme” disaster scenarios
Many survivalists and preppers also focus on less likely, more extreme disaster scenarios. This is probably why survivalists are so frequently portrayed as “fringe” or “paranoid” by the media. However, just because events are low probability doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for them (especially if the potential consequences are truly catastrophic).
Here are some lower probability scenarios that some survivalists are prepared for:
- Major asteroid impact
- Supervolcano eruption (like yellowstone)
- Mass extinction
- Massive earthquakes
- Solar flare
- Extraterrestrial threats
- Nuclear terrorism or war
- Chemical/Biological terrorism or war
- Major famine
- Nuclear power accidents
While some of these might seem far fetched, just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s not worth preparing for. It just depends on how low the probability, and how massive the damage.
After all, not so long ago, “Global Pandemic” would’ve definitely been on this list of “low probability” scenarios, and look where we are now with COVID. Imagine how much worse it could be if COVID had a higher death rate – if COVID had the death rate of SARS, we’d be looking at close to 3 million dead at this point.
Survivalists and preppers have been discussing and warning about the very real possibility of a global pandemic for years and years. Indeed, here at Secrets of Survival, we had an article published more than a decade ago in 2007. The article was about the very real threat of a pandemic flu. At the time, we would’ve most likely been dismissed as “crazy” or at best “eccentric” for taking the possibility of a global pandemic so seriously and wanting to be properly prepared for it.
So these “far fetched” risks, in many cases, are still things worth preparing for because the consequences are (potentially) world changing. While it’s fully possible that many of them won’t happen in our lifetimes or in the regions where we live (some of them won’t happen at all) that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth preparing for. The preparedness mindset is exactly like insurance – it’s something you do so that if the disaster event actually happens, you’ve kept some options open for yourself.
How to be a Survivalist
If you want to begin your journey into survivalism (which we encourage) it doesn’t need to be complicated. There are three basic steps that you need to take – and by running through these same three steps over and over again, you’ll be able to build up the resources and knowledge you need to feel like you’re ready to face whatever is coming.
1. Understand your needs
Human beings need some basic things to survive – we go over these needs in detail in our article about the survival rule of threes, but the short version is that humans need oxygen, shelter, water, and food to be able to survive. Some of us may have additional needs – for example, some of us have illnesses or diseases that need to be managed with medication. Others of us have physical limitations, meaning that we need other people to work with us in teams to survive. You’ll have to account for whatever your specific needs are on top of the basic needs that all humans share.
2. Gather resources to meet your needs
Let’s take the basic need for oxygen. The air is free to breathe, so there’s no need to “stockpile” air. But what if the air was poisonous? Then we’d want a gas mask. What if we’re anticipating a long term stay in a bunker? Then we’d need some kind of system to recycle the air in that bunker.
Here’s another example: we all need food. So we should gather resources to meet our need for food – basically, we need to stockpile food. What if the food we’ve stockpiled goes bad? Then we need to stockpile food that has extended shelf life (or frequently replace our stockpile). Freeze dried food products have extremely long shelf lives, but require water to be edible. So if we stockpile freeze dried food, we also need to stockpile water. Ideally, that water is hot water (although in a genuine survival situation, cold water works – it’s just far less pleasant). So we could also gather resources that would help us heat water (fuel for fire or items that provide sustainable power).
The pattern here is simple. Identify a need, then gather the right resources that will satisfy that need, then figure out what else is needed to support whatever you’ve gathered, and so on. Until you have a stockpile of appropriate resources for all your needs, both the universal ones and the ones specific to you.
3. Develop skills that will help you meet your needs
The second level of being a survivalist is building the skills such that you can use your skills to gather resources when you run out or when your resources are lost.
Breathable air is a survival need, and so you might logically arrive at the conclusion that CPR is a useful skill to learn, because it allows you to help someone having a medical crisis to keep breathing.
Being able to find wild food, either by hunting/trapping or by foraging, is obviously a useful survival skill because it allows you to fill the basic need for food.
You get the idea. Becoming a survivalist doesn’t need to be complicated – simply pick a basic need, and either get something material or learn a skill that will help meet that need. If you do this over time, very soon you’ll be a pretty experienced survivalist with a good stockpile of resources and a broad range of useful skills.
The Survival Mindset
If you hang out on prepper or survivalist forums or Facebook groups, you’ll often run into special lingo like SHTF (meaning sh*t hits the fan), TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) or WROL (without rule of law). While these terms can be useful as reference points, they can often be intimidating to those who are relatively new to survivalism.
There’s no need to be discouraged though – it doesn’t take long to learn what these terms mean (we’re actually in the process of putting together a survival glossary which we’ll link to here when it’s done). Besides, what’s important when first learning about survival is your mindset you have, not the lingo or anything else that might make you hesitant to dive in.
If you feel like you’d like to be prepared for both the good and the bad, then you should start preparing – don’t let anything stop you.
Ultimately, being a survivalist or prepper is about having a certain kind of mindset. The mindset to accept that as much as we would like to be able to control the world or predict the future, we can’t.
Sometimes bad things happen. When they do, it’s better to be prepared than unprepared, and being prepared for unusual or dangerous times means devoting some of our hours and dollars towards preparedness while our lives are still normal and safe.
Hopefully, this article has made it clear to you what survivalism is (and what it isn’t). It isn’t just the domain of conspiracy theorists and the paranoid – survivalists are simply folks trying to prepare themselves for the possibility of a less welcoming, less friendly world that might be around the corner. It’s really just common sense. So maybe it’s time that you started considering yourself a survivalist too.