Skip to main content

Opting Out: Preparing for the End of the World

As part of our week-long series on people who opt out of society, Eva Holland considers the extremes that preppers, or survivalists, are prepared for.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Nonnakrit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Nonnakrit/Shutterstock)

Early in my third year of college, a category two hurricane struck the small East Coast city where I lived. The power went out, and stayed out—in my apartment at least—for eight days. The telephone wires were ripped clean off the side of the building, and when the storm cleared, enough ancient, house-high trees had come down that I had a newly cleared view of the ocean.

The hurricane hit on a Sunday night; I’d been meaning to grocery shop for days. On Monday morning I woke up in a city where every store was closed and dark, and the only food I had on hand—rice, beans, lentils—required electricity, or some alternative heat source, to prepare. I had no family nearby, no camping gear, and no plan. I didn’t eat for nearly 48 hours after the storm.

My total helplessness in the aftermath of the hurricane has left me at least a little bit sympathetic to the people known as survivalists, or preppers, a group that is often the target of ridicule. Preppers believe in preparedness for a potential—even imminent—societal catastrophe. They stockpile water, food, medical supplies, and weapons; acquire wilderness survival skills; build alternative fuel systems into their homes and vehicles; and create detailed plans for escape or defense in the event of a breakdown in civilization. And while the movement has been around for decades, it’s seen a major resurgence in North America in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

"You’ll need to get your beans, bullets, and Band-Aids squared away, pronto. Most important, you’ll need to be prepared to hunker down for three or four months, with minimal outside contact."

James Wesley Rawles is one of the movement’s leading proponents. The creator and editor of, one of the leading prepper destinations, and the author of a preparedness guide, How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times, Rawles, a former Army intelligence officer, peppers his writings with acronyms: GOOD (“get out of Dodge), YOYO (“you’re on your own”), and TEOTWAWKI (“the end of the world as we know it”). He uses the military analogy of the overly long supply chain to suggest the extreme fragility of the modern, comfortable society that First World residents have become accustomed to.

“Imagine the greatest of all influenza pandemics,” he writes in How to Survive, “spread by casual contact – a virus so virulent that it kills more than half of the people infected. And imagine the advance of a disease so rapid that it makes its way around the globe in less than a week. (Isn’t modern jet air travel grand?)” It wouldn’t be long, he argues, before the remaining citizens give in to fear and stay at home, bowing out of their jobs at hospitals, farms, gas stations, and grocery stores in hopes of avoiding the pandemic. Everything, Rawles says, would grind to a halt. When the food begins to run out in people’s pantries, closed-up supermarkets would be stripped clean. Lawlessness would take hold. Looters would organize themselves into gangs, and only the fittest—or, rather, the most prepared—would emerge from the conflagration.

“You need to be able to provide water, food, heating, and lighting for your family,” Rawles writes. “Ditto for law enforcement, since odds are that a pandemic will be YOYO time. You’ll need to get your beans, bullets, and Band-Aids squared away, pronto. Most important, you’ll need to be prepared to hunker down for three or four months, with minimal outside contact.”

The flu pandemic is just one theoretical scenario that could trigger TEOTWAWKI. Depending on their particular beliefs and inclinations, many preppers brace for economic collapse—inflation, deflation, or an oil crisis; terrorist attacks; martial law or governmental collapse; or a major geological event, like an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or asteroid strike. The preppers are typically associated with right-wing causes and beliefs, but there are left-leaning preppers, too, most of whom focus on the threat of climate change. Brian Clegg, for instance, is a scientist and the author of The Global Warming Survival Kit: The Must-Have Guide to Overcoming Extreme Weather, Power Cuts, Food Shortages, and Other Climate Change Disasters.

Some preppers focus heavily on wilderness survival skills, envisioning a future of living off a land gone wild; others, like Rawles, prefer to emphasize logistical preparedness and careful planning until the societal ship is righted.

As for myself, I can’t imagine spending weekends training and preparing for the day that my neighbors turn on me and I’m forced to fight them to survive. But the hurricane I lived through was an eye-opener: Many of us are truly helpless when the lights go out and the stores close down. These days I always have candles, matches, and a headlamp with fresh batteries on hand; I also have a camping stove with fuel and a few dehydrated meals. I may not quite be ready for TEOTWAWKI, but it’s a start.

We're telling stories all week about people who opt out of society on some level—homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, anti-government survivalists. Read the entire series here.