A lot of people have a preconceived idea about the difference between a survivalist and a prepper. Because a lot of you on this site are quite familiar with the idea of what a survivalist is, today I thought I’d start from there and give you an idea of what I think a prepper is. Much of what people think about survivalists or preppers is due to television shows, movies, and the media, and rightly so – it’s not a lifestyle or a hobby that everyone subscribes to.
Unfortunately, a lot of those descriptions and characterizations are either developed by people who have no actual knowledge of either discipline or worse – they distort the ideas to get better ratings or more page clicks.
Obviously, my idea of what a survivalist or a prepper is will be filtered by my own experiences. just as everything else is. I’ve spent several decades working in both the military/government and civilian sectors in many different rural and urban environments including jungles, deserts, warzones, and politically-sensitive areas.
Each person’s ideas of what a survivalist or a prepper is will be different.
Based on this experience, these are some wide generalizations. There will be many exceptions and examples out there that don’t fit into these boxes.
So what is a survivalist?
The public perception of a survivalist has changed over the years. The media portrayal of people like Eric Robert Rudolph, Troy James Knapp, and Ted Kaczynski gave the term ‘survivalist’ a bad name. For many years, the idea that you were a survivalist meant that you were some crazy loner person who lived up in the woods, eschewing society.
Luckily, people like Ray Mears, Les Stroud, Mykel Hawke and others in the spotlight have shown that these skills are valuable to many “normal” people, and that you don’t have to be an anti-social lunatic to learn and practice them.
To me, a survivalist is someone who spends a great deal of time learning and practicing primitive skills, to be able to survive natural threats such as exposure, starvation, predators, and dehydration, in many different wilderness environments. Not all survivalists spend their time focused solely on wilderness survival, however. Some spend a great deal of time learning how to deal with urban threats or combat scenarios.
They learn which plants are edible and which are poisonous.
They learn various methods to start a fire so that they can stay warm, fend off predators, and boil water no matter where they find themselves.
They learn to find and filter/purify water in different environments.
They prepare themselves physically and mentally to deal with harsh environments and physically-demanding terrain to be able to hold out until they escape or are rescued.
They learn various bush medical skills to be able to self-medicate or take care of wounds on their own because medical help may not be available.
They use their skills and the knowledge of the land to survive, striving to be able to do this with the least amount of supplies and support.
So what is a prepper?
The show Doomsday Preppers has been both a blessing and a curse for people who consider themselves preppers. On one hand, it got people to realize that they’re not the only ones out there who realize that there are real threats in the world that affect the lives of millions of people every year and are doing something about it. On the other hand, they hand-picked people and sensationalized what they found when they edited the shows, making some of them seem like total lunatics.
Contrary to what the show depicts, most preppers aren’t fixated on one disaster that they’re convinced will wipe out humanity. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some out there that believe in some crazy things but I believe they’re just an overlap of the MUCH larger group of crazy people who believe those things and have decided to do something about it. From my experience, MOST preppers are very sane and logical people. They see a potential problem and they want to do something in case that problem arises.
When I think of someone who’s a prepper, I think of someone who sees that threats exist to their family and wants to take preemptive action instead of relying on others to deal with it. Some threats involve short-term annoyances such as the power being out for a few days due to a storm or having to find ways to heat their home if their normal heating systems goes out in the middle of winter. Some threats involve criminal activity such as home invasions. Even ensuring economic security for your family is a form of prepping.
Other threats that happen to people around the world on a fairly frequent basis include fire, floods, earthquakes, riots, tornadoes, hurricanes, and so on. These threats can cause a lot of destruction in a small or even regional area.
Less frequent, but more devastating concerns are threats such as Ebola, an EMP from some terrorist or foreign nation, war, etc – things that could cause a longer term degradation in what society offers. Things that could temporarily – or even permanently – bring down the power grid or collapse society as we know it. In these scenarios, supplies such as food, water, medicine, and power may not be readily available like they are today. Threats of violence from starving or rioting people increase immensely.
Preppers want to do something in advance of emergencies such as this so they’re not stuck roaming the streets empty-handed, waiting for FEMA. Also, by preparing for the worst-case scenarios like this, minor inconveniences such as a three-day power outage are already covered. I don’t believe that taking rational steps to deal with a problem means that you’re obsessed with that problem. Are you obsessed with wrecking your car when you put on your seat belt?
To combat this, a lot of preppers store large (or not-so large) supplies of these items; enough to last them until those supplies are back in supply. Others grow crops at home or set up self-sustaining aquaponics ecosystems so they can be their own grocery store. Still others start a full-on homestead with crops and livestock so they don’t have to worry about having food (or what’s in their food).
They store water at home and learn how to filter and purify it and what water they would need if they run out.
They learn self-defense and set up their property with physical defenses and sometimes lethal and non-lethal firearms. I say sometimes because yes, there are many preppers who hate guns and refuse to use them to defend their property.
They set up power systems such as solar and wind to be able to live off the power grid in emergencies just as they do on the grid – or just go completely off the grid now so they don’t have to pay such high utility prices or rely on others.
They learn primitive survival skills in case they’re forced from their homes, away from the city and have to survive for a time in the wilderness.
They use their skills they’ve learned, supplies they’ve stored, and systems they’ve developed in order to to this with the least amount of external supplies and support.
Comparing and contrasting survivalists and preppers
In developing this article, I asked my facebook audience what their thoughts were on the differences between preppers and survivalists. The opinions were so varied that some definitions were exactly opposite to others.
Some still see survivalists as loners. I’m sure there’s a bit of loner in a lot of survivalists.
Some see the stereotypical view of preppers that the media has presented, in that they are getting ready for an event and a survivalist is a minimalist.
Some see prepping as the way to deal with a short-term breakdown in society and survivalism as how to deal with the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI).
Some see preppers as people who hoard supplies and don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, I have to agree with that in some cases but they’re actually the minority. Most spend a great deal of time learning many skills.
Some see preppers as people who set up plans and supplies in advance of something happening and survivalists who just learn to deal with the basics with whatever they happen to have around them at the time. Essentially, some feel that preppers plan ahead and survivalists don’t have to.
Personally, I think that the two overlap in so many respects that it’s sometimes difficult to really tell them apart. I think they both identify threats, the risks that those threats present, and take action to mitigate those threats.I think that there are a lot of survivalists out there that use their knowledge of surviving the wilderness to help deal with surviving when they’re not in the wilderness. I also think that there are a lot of preppers out there who spend a great deal of time learning how to deal with surviving if they lost everything.
Survivalists spend time honing skills and knowledge in advance of being put in a survival situation. To me, that’s prepping. I also believe that preppers spend time analyzing and preparing to survive both urban and wilderness threats. That’s survivalism.
So am I a prepper or a survivalist?
I don’t really consider myself either, and yet I’d have to say I’m both.
I know several ways to start a fire by rubbing sticks together. Do I do that when I’m out in the woods? No, I use a lighter most of the time.
I know how to navigate in many different types of terrain using only a map and compass. Do I do that? No, a GPS is simpler and much more accurate.
Some people don’t think you can be a survivalist if you bring a tent, sleeping mat, or any electronics. I bring all three. I’ve spent enough uncomfortable nights out in the swamps, deserts, and jungles that I don’t feel that I need to impress anyone with how I can “rough it.” I like to be as comfortable as I can whether I’m stuck in a remote valley somewhere or sitting at home watching Dr Who.
Some people don’t think you can be a prepper if you don’t have a year’s supply of food and a thousand gallons of water stocked up. I have neither. I have enough to make it convenient if I couldn’t go to a grocery store for a while or if the city water supply suddenly stopped but I know how to find food and water in the area and prepare both with whatever I can find.
I have a go bag of essentials but it’s very small and I use it mostly if I’m helping out the local Sheriff’s Office or heading out into the desert.
I only have a few medical supplies that fit into an IFAK but I’ve had some medical training from the military.
Would I be able to survive if I were dropped out in the woods with just a knife? Probably. I think I’ve learned enough by now from growing up in the woods and what I’ve dealt with overseas to be able to deal with that. Does that make me a survivalist? Maybe.
Would I be able to survive if the sun sent out a huge CME and wiped out the power grid, causing the collapse of society? Probably. I’m quite familiar with the probable ramifications of what would happen and what I’d need to do in response. Does that make me a prepper? Maybe.
I love to learn about all sorts of ways to deal with situations because I love being self-sufficient. I also like being able to master a situation and be comfortable in it instead of just barely surviving it.
I think in the long run, if we can get past the stereotypes of what survivalists and preppers are, those who see a big difference will also see that there is a lot that both groups can learn from each other. I don’t really see that there’s all that big a difference.
About the Author
Scott Kelley is a combat veteran of the United States Army and former Intelligence Officer. He has operated in several countries throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has trained and worked with intelligence and Special Forces units in operations such as surveillance/counter-surveillance, HUMINT, and Counter-Terrorism. He operates a website called Graywolf Survival where he uses real-world experience to teach wilderness and disaster survival skills.