Jason Charles has around 15 different hiking bags in the living room of his Harlem apartment. There are stashes of canned goods and an industrial-size box of ramen noodles in the hall closet. He says he has enough supplies to last around eight months.
But aside from a well-stocked pantry, there are few signs in his home that 41-year-old Charles, a firefighter born and raised in New York City, is the leader of an online community of preppers – people who spend their spare time making themselves ready in case they need to hunker down or escape an impending disaster.
It’s normally millionaires buying luxury hideouts in secret locations or wacky personalities portrayed in TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers” who get the most attention, but at the everyday end of the scale, Americans across the country are planning for a multitude of emergencies.
At his home in Harlem, Charles tells dpa that prepping is about fitness, planning an escape route if you need to get out of the city, and making sure you’re mentally prepared if you need to dash.
“Do you have the right survival skills if you get outdoors, away from your city apartment – now you’re in the middle of the woods, can you hide? Can you build a shelter? Can you build a fire and filter water?” he asks.
And it’s about being able to deal with the unexpected – which is not the norm in a city full of creature comforts like New York. “You have to be extraordinarily uncomfortable to understand where your skills lie,” Charles says.
He organizes events on topics including how to prepare your home for disaster, trauma skills, and weekend trips to upstate New York to test out emergency scenarios – such as “a hike gone bad,” where participants can bring only a limited number of items and make do for the night.
He sees it as part hobby, part insurance. “Except with buying insurance you’re doing it in one fast motion – you click buy, whatever you’re covering is covered. With prepping it’s long term … You start prepping now and you’re always going to be looking for canned food and deals and how to negotiate certain situations, like if you need to leave, will you take a bug-out bag?”
The prepping community has developed a lingo of its own – “bugging out” is to leave a place quickly, which requires a bug-out bag ready and packed to go. To “bug in” is to hunker down in your home. A “cache” is a hoard of food stores or ammunition, usually hidden in a spot known only to the owner.
Homesteading is living a self-sufficient lifestyle – something more common in rural areas where people can grow their own food or have space for storage.
Inshirah Overton is most interested in what she calls “urban homesteading,” and focuses more on sustainability, understanding your health, and knowing what’s in the products you’re consuming.
The 39-year-old is a “lawyer by day, prepper by night.” She started prepping in around 2008, when the financial crisis hit. Her firm stopped hiring and she decided she needed to be “not so dependent on the system.”
At a meeting aimed at female preppers, where the topics range from making your own soap to avoid unwanted chemicals to the importance of probiotics for gut health to what to put in a female-friendly bug-out bag, Overton explains that for her, prepping is about self-sufficient homemaking, but it is also “people-related.”
“A lot of preppers are solo Marlboro men,” she says, referring to the macho loner cowboy figure used to advertise cigarettes in the 1950s.
But she doesn’t subscribe to the “I don’t need anything or anyone” idea of prepping. “You know, the Marlboro man has family presumably and he goes home and he’s off of the range – for me, prepping has always been about me and my family,” she says.
There isn’t actually any evidence about how useful disaster kits are or what should be in them, says Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University.
But there is evidence of the benefit of social connections and “neighbours helping neighbours,” he says. Getting bogged down in yourself and your own resources could cause you to lose those ties.
“So you could have the greatest supply kit on the planet but actually be missing out on what is probably equally if not more important than having all the supplies – having access to the people that can work together through the recovery process,” he says.
It’s unclear how many Americans are preparing for emergencies, or even how many would label themselves as preppers. But there are spikes in preparation straight after disasters, says Schlegelmilch.
The NCDP was originally set up in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks on New York, but after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, there was a shift to focusing on climate disasters as the main threat.
As Schlegelmilch points out, the nature of the emergency doesn’t really change the way you would prepare, as you’re either stuck in your home and need supplies or you need an escape route.
“Regardless of what causes the disaster, you know that if the normal mechanisms of getting certain things are disrupted, it doesn’t matter if it’s from a flood or a fire or Godzilla attacking the city – it’s the effect of the disaster that you’re preparing against,” Schlegelmilch says.
Neither lawyer Overton nor firefighter Charles point to a specific disaster they’re preparing for – but they see examples around the world of scenarios that are all too real, like the lack of government support for hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, and economic collapse and hyperinflation in Venezuela.
Anna Bounds, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York studying urban preppers, says this is the key distinction between prepping and survivalism – prepping is “reality-based,” whereas survivalists focus on a specific, and often religious, dogma.
In a nutshell – survivalists are preparing for doomsday, and preppers are preparing for tomorrow, she says.
New Yorkers have seen disaster strike their city first-hand, and whether it was the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, the mass blackout in 2003 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many people realized they didn’t know what to do, Bounds says.
“We’re city dwellers. We live in a world of immediate gratification. Focusing on preparedness is the opposite of that – it’s the idea of slowing down, the idea of thinking about the future.”
Overton says she tries to focus on self-reliance and developing skills rather than letting prepping become an obsession that takes over every part of her life. In her later years, she doesn’t want to feel disappointed that the event she was preparing for never came.
So is it really about impending disaster, or about sustainability and slowing down? “It’s fifty-fifty,” she says.
“I see it as a journey where maybe when I’m 60, the bombs will all drop. But what have I done in the meantime? Have I just been storing up beans and bullets and living scared in a crazy state? No. I want to actually have a good, enjoyable, happy life on my way.”