It could happen at any time. Maybe an asteroid will hurtle toward Earth or a storm will cover the world in ice. A bite from a particularly angry monkey could start a viral zombie plague. The Internet could even shut off. Things could go to hell because of monsters or uncomfortably sentient robots, nuclear war or a terrorist attack. The question you should ask yourself is: What will you eat and drink when the world ends?
The people answering this question aren't scientists, the military, or NASA (though maybe there's a secret apocalypse science division in the government). They're known as "preppers" and are usually everyday folks with normal jobs — teachers or bankers or candlestick makers. The only difference between you and them is that they want to be ready when, in prepper jargon, SHTF because it's TEOTWAWKI ("the end of the world as we know it"). While FEMA's guide advocates for having a disaster kit consisting of a 72-hour supply of food, water, and clothing packed and ready to go, that's just a baby step for preppers. Come back when you've stored up enough to last you a week, a month, or a year.
"It sounds hokey, but I had a gut feeling that I needed to take steps to protect my family."
"Hurricane Katrina proved to a lot of people that everything you have can be wiped out very quickly," says Pat Henry, founding editor of the Prepper Journal. He explains that everyone has to focus on four categories of survival — food, water, security, and shelter. Since 2008, Henry has been slowly stockpiling backup supplies . He's used rain barrels, water filtration, and bottled water to amass "hundreds of gallons" of H2O. "It sounds hokey, but I had a gut feeling that I needed to take steps to protect my family," he says. While one Daily Mail UK article estimates "there are three million preppers in the U.S. alone," no one knows who estimated that number, and it's unlikely that there are actually solid statistics on the subject — thanks to an inherent secrecy within the prepper community.
But despite prepping's mysterious exterior, everyone seems to agree on the basic principles of planning, buying, and storing food, water, and cooking utensils one needs to survive a disaster. According to the experts, there are three rules that will help you prepare for the end of the world.
Rule One: Keep Your Groceries Hidden
Though preppers are very active behind screen names on the Internet — on groups like the American Preppers Network or websites like the Survival Blog — they stay under the radar in real life. It's not because they think their hobby is strange, but because when the end of the world comes, they don't want the entire starving neighborhood to know that their house is the one full of potable water, heat, and enough food to last a full calendar year. "The first rule of prep club is you don't talk about prep club," says Lisa Bedford, a mother of two teenagers and a prepper also known as the Survival Mom. As a result, there's not much in the way of hands-on education. "The community is online because people want to be very careful and cautious about who they talk to," Bedford explains. Bedford says that she has cultivated a small group of neighboring preppers who she could rely on if SHTF ("shit hits the fan," naturally). "But I have no idea how much they actually have."
"The first rule of prep club is you don’t talk about prep club."
Overall it seems like the secrecy is directed toward non-preppers: No one wants to get themselves into an ant-and-grasshopper situation where they're sharing supplies with the non-prepared deadweights of the neighborhood. Within the prepper community, however, there are websites like Prepper Dating and Survivalist Singles (just because it's the end of the world doesn't mean you have to be alone). Other forums facilitate people who want to either connect with neighbors or actually gather enough strangers to fill a home with like-minded survivalists.
Survivalists come in all shapes and sizes. Like any subculture, the people involved fit somewhere on a spectrum of intensity. On the one hand, you might have someone like Bedford, who began prepping as a backup plan if her family lost their primary source of income. On the other end are the types of people who build underground bunkers and whose security plans look like a mini National Guard.
But while outsiders familiar with prepping have a tendency to think survivalists have a streak of insanity, it's actually not all that different from the practice of homesteading. "They call it something different and do it a different way, but the end goal is the same," says Henry. He specifically references the local food movement where many people have taken to knowing their farmer or growing their own produce because they don't feel like they can rely on the government, big food corporations, or other overseers to adequately check the quality of what they're eating. "A large part of both movements is the concept of control," Bedford says. This is one reason why interest in prepping seems to increase after natural disasters, economic crises, or another traumatic event. It allows people to feel like, at least next time, they'll be prepared.
Rule Two: Don't Store What You Can't Eat
Though tents and bunkers might suffice for backup shelter, storing food and water is a much more involved process. It's not quite as easy as running to the local grocery store the day before a storm and buying up all of the bread and kale left on the shelves. People who are getting into prepping often treat food and water storage as the true first step. While water can be stocked in the form of water bottles or rainwater-capture systems, food is not as easy as following a pre-made grocery list off the Internet.
When Bedford began preparing for the possibility of economic disaster in 2008, she quickly fell on food storage as a place to focus. She says that a lot of people do their own food storage — particularly homesteaders or people who live so far from the grocery store that it's inconvenient to go more than once a month — but that as a "typical suburban stay-at-home mom" she initially felt out of her depth. "It was a whole new world," she says.
The main issue is that stored food is only as useful as your willingness to eat it. "Food fatigue is a real thing," Bedford explains. If all that's in the pantry is rice and beans, the monotony of the diet would eventually make anyone lose their desire to eat.
To get a varied diet, Bedford advocates a three-layer approach to stocking the pantry. The first layer takes place at the grocery store — specifically in the canned food aisles. "The reason canned food is so important is that it's shelf stable," Bedford says. That said, don't just purchase whatever is on sale. "Focus on things you'll eat and your family members will eat," she adds. And don't forget the spices: Adding new flavors to the same base ingredients is an easy way to combat food fatigue while sticking to a few pantry staples.
Next are the bulk foods which Bedford believes are where most of a prepper's time and money should be spent. Opening a can of ravioli might get you a meal, but there's not much in the way of choice. With freeze-dried meat, shrimp, yogurt, and cheese (almost every food seems to have been freeze-dried) and a healthy stockpile of various pastas, dried beans, and grain, "you can make hundreds of recipes," according to Bedford. For people who don't feel up to DIY recipe development, there are a number of resources to turn to. Many preppers blog and post individual recipes and tips on their websites. Prepping is also a (small) cookbook genre with titles like The Survivalist Cookbook or The Prepper's Cookbook that speak directly to their intended audience. Plenty of other cookbooks focus on things like canned soup, jerky, or campfire recipes.
Finally, a good prepper wants to invest in some ready-to-eat meals. They're not all that different from the field rations given to soldiers and, as a result, are not something the average person wants to survive on entirely. "You'll get tired of them pretty quickly," Bedford says. She recommends that the RTE meals comprise no more than 20 percent of total food supplies.
But it's important to remember that even long-lasting foods can go bad. Henry doesn't just stock a pantry and forget about it, but rotates through the food during normal, non-emergency meals. "You don't want to find out when the power's out and the grocery store is closed that all your food expired five years ago," he says. "That's another reason why buying things you eat all the time is important." It also would ease the culinary transition into end-of-the-world dining if the family is still eating mom's beef stroganoff but with freeze-dried beef, powdered sour cream, and dehydrated mushrooms.
"Right now if there was a massive power grid failure, millions of households will only have a couple weeks of food. They have no margin."
Bedford stresses that food storage does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. A city dweller simply doesn't have room to store a year's worth of food and water. Others can't afford to buy extra bulk and freeze-dried food — much less expensive gadgets or survival cooking gear. Even if someone could have a flock of goats and chickens doesn't mean they can take on that responsibility. "Not everyone can live that lifestyle and a lot of them don't want to," Bedford says.
Rule Three: Get Out of the Pantry
Unfortunately even the best-stocked food supply doesn't last forever. Bedford points out that food storage doesn't exist in a vacuum. "You'll open that can of beans and then what?" she says. "The purpose of stored food is to buy you time." In her family's case, the year or so their supply could carry them for would be enough time to connect with other families, work together, barter, and so on. "Right now if there was a massive power grid failure, millions of households would only have a couple weeks of food," she explains. "They have no margin."
Henry supports the idea of keeping chickens both for meat and eggs as well as investing in the time to learn about technology like aquaponics or even hydroponics, which can both create comparatively large amounts of food in small spaces. Surprisingly, he doesn't advocate relying too much on hunting. "If you're out there looking for food and things are that bad, chances are hundreds and thousands of other people are doing the same thing." There are only so many deer and pheasants to go around. That's why in the process of increasing their food supplies, many preppers also teach themselves how they could grow more.
Prepping is just as much about creating a sustainable source of food as squirreling it away. Because the end of the world doesn't just last a week or month or even a year — it's forever. And we all have to eat to survive.