My impressions of emergency survival mostly come from Hollywood. Think eccentric rich guys like Anthony Hopkins in The Edge, or the militia-minded survivalists in Tremors. Then there's the sensational Doomsday Preppers and recent stories about Silicon Valley execs buying island hideouts.
People getting ready for possible disasters, often called preppers, aren't usually depicted as the most mainstream people around.
But preppers can be driven by all kinds of things—and the risks of climate change, natural disasters, and other world crises aren't restricted to rural areas.
I spoke to Cliff, who runs the YouTube channel The Urban Prepper. He says converts often come in waves, and the demographics are veering towards younger preppers. Every year, he says, he has more and more subscribers who are in high school or college.
"The younger generation is more apt to be using YouTube than they are to be even watching TV," he said. "I don't think we would have had the same kind of movement 20 years ago, or 15 years ago."
With conservatives who feared Obama now trickling out of the community, Cliff says he's also seen an influx of preppers worried about a Trumpocalypse. "I think politics is something that lights the fuse," he told VICE.
With such polarized motivations, it's safe to assume there's no one size-fits-all model of preparedness. They can't all be backwoods gun lovers or rich guys buying islands.
"A lot of the people on the left, at least in the US, are residing in urban, coastal regions, coastal cities," said Cliff, who lives in Seattle and works as a tech engineer when he's not posting new videos.
But urban and liberal preppers didn't just come into being with the rise of Trump. They've been a subculture of the survival preparedness community for years and are starting to gain more visibility. And they have their own city-centric needs.
"In an urban environment, I might need something for keeping my cell phone powered, or for charging electronic devices, or for storing electronic data, or for navigating in a city with a map and GPS equipment," said Cliff, who is less concerned with water filtration or starting a fire—usually priorities for people in the country.
When Cliff started prepping in 2008, there wasn't much information available for city preppers. "Preparedness was more something that people in a rural environment would do where they were adding fishing kits to their backpacks in case they're stranded in the middle of nowhere," he said.
"Since then there's been a lot more suburban and city people also posting."
Cliff got started like a lot of people. Now 38 and a husband and father, he felt a sense of responsibility to his family, to keep them safe in case of an emergency, whatever that may be—the tech industry can be a precarious place to work, and disaster can easily strike on a personal, financial level.
"For me it just seemed like the responsible thing to do, just like it would be responsible for me to have life insurance or to have auto insurance, or have us all on a medical plan."
He started small, buying extra supplies and hiding them around his apartment, not telling his then-fiancée what he was up to. But there's only so much you can do in that kind of situation. "Suddenly she found my stash of dried goods and was wondering what was going on, so I had to explain."
Storage is the first obstacle most urban preppers come up against. You can't necessarily build a bunker or even plant a garden when you live in a city, so Cliff focuses a lot of his energy on making the most of small spaces.
"Most of the organization tips I learned aren't from prepping channels or resources but from home organization—stay-at-home-moms that are reorganizing their pantry, or cultures where storage is limited, like in Japan," he said.
The main priorities for an urban prepper should be food, water, and shelter, Cliff told VICE. The classic first step is preparing a "bug-out bag": a portable kit with about 72-hours worth of survival supplies in case you need to bug out of a tough situation in a hurry.
Beyond that, Cliff says people in cities should be focusing on basic skills. "I think that people, especially in an urban environment, should start going with the percentages, with the odds first, before going to the extremes and the make-believe," he said. "Why prepare for zombies if you're not prepared to have a flat tire?"
Another major concern for urban preppers is fitting in without advertising their presence to their whole apartment building or neighbourhood.
"You kind of have to be incognito, blending in with your environment, I think a little bit more than someone who's in a rural environment," he said. Cliff sees a lot of rural preppers at conventions wearing camo hats and "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirts that wouldn't necessarily fit into a city setting.
"You have to work within the framework of society a little bit more," he said.
That kind of libertarian, gun rights mentality can turn a lot of people off, and it's a polarizing issue for city preppers, says Nate, the Canadian Prepper. "There's lots of overlap with gun culture, so that's where you have a big divide too, between the people who are in that hippie mindset," he said. "They want to grow their own food, and they don't want to use pesticides—but they don't like guns."
Anxieties around the thought of armed conspiracy-theorists will only increase when you live in close proximity to your neighbours, like in a city.
"Their initial perception is that you're someone who would be worried about an asteroid hitting the Earth and that you're going to have to survive the Mad Max type of scenario, Cliff said.
The reality is much more mundane, and often looks like just buying extra canned goods and first aid supplies, as Cliff usually does when he's out running errands. For him, prepping is more of an adjustment in your overall lifestyle, "almost like when someone needs to change the way that they eat for their health."
And without a specific date for when shit hits the fan, preppers have plenty of time to shop around. "Always think about looking for deals on things that could be beneficial for an emergency situation," says Cliff. "If they're having a sale on first aid bandages, for example, leveraging that even though you don't need it right now—you will need it eventually."
What does he do with those supplies? He stores them, mostly. At home, at work, in his car. And he stores them with an eye to different potential disaster scenarios. "I have a network of bug-out locations, like if there's an emergency where my residence was no longer safe for myself and my family to be, and I needed to go to a family member's or friend's, I have a set of caches that are strategically placed along the route and at the location itself," he said.
Prepping is largely a mindset for Cliff. It's more than a hobby, but in a lot of ways, it looks like any other interest or passion. "I'll constantly be researching, whether that be watching other people's videos, reading books, reading studies of, for example, what's going on in Venezuela right now with their economic crisis."
Brad, the creator of Full Spectrum Survival, keeps an eye on current events too, and even developed an algorithm to monitor natural disaster news and developing world crises, but he doesn't live in fear. "For me and my wife, survivalism and preparedness is not the doom-and-gloom mindset that kind of drove the genre in the past," he told VICE. "For us it's more of a methodology of preparedness and independence that we live by."
Nate similarly fits preparedness around his work and family. "I'm not constantly on the edge, waiting for shit to hit the fan or anything like that. I live a fairly normal life. You would never know I was a prepper unless I told you," he said.
This doesn't mean no one out there is preparing for the zombie apocalypse or building up a cache of guns in their basement. "There's always some truth to stereotypes," Nate said.
"Definitely if you were to go on YouTube and read some of the comments, you'd be like 'holy shit, these people are nuts.'"
But then it's hard to gauge any movement by the internet comments it attracts.
Lead image via Full Spectrum Survival.
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