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"Most are regular people who feel like they would have the need to use these skills if, let's just say, society collapses," Koelker says. Their questions center on how to acquire and use alternatives to typical resources and tools. When a doctor is unavailable, how does one treat a broken arm? When antibiotics are out of reach, how might one fend of a marinating sickness?
Because when the need rises, the people with answers to those questions are suddenly going to turn into your best friends.
"They are generally community leaders," Koelker says. "They're looking not to help just themselves and their family, but the community as a whole."
That's about as close to a description of the archetypal prepper as one is likely to get. And even those that don't subscribe to the moniker are interested in a wide array of sustainability measures.
Also down I-77 in Richfield, Jim and Laura [they requested their last names not be used in print] oversee a world detached from modern time at Heritage Homestead Classes. They offer a range of classes on how to become more self-reliant. While they avoid the prepper terminology, they've based their lives around forming sustainable habits for day-to-day life and for emergency situations that could come up at any time.
"These are crafts and trades that are disappearing rapidly," Jim says. "It doesn't matter what the world situation is, we're working to keep these skills and crafts alive."
He notes that living skills, such as purifying water or identifying edible herbs and plants, took humans thousands of years to learn.
And now you can learn them in as little as a weekend by watching YouTube.
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Though the whole notion of prepping is rooted in the unknown, certain natural disasters of recent years and the potential for financial collapse often top the list of concerns in corners of the prepping world.
A self-proclaimed history buff, Knight points to the Argentina's 1999 financial collapse as a real-world example of what many preppers fear. That crisis has essentially been ongoing, leaving many to wonder such an event would look like in the U.S. And closer to home, in fact, he mentions that the U.S.'s housing market collapse in 2008 demonstrates how real those fears may be.
"Anything that's happened in the world can happen again," Jim notes. Financial collapse is as possible - if not more so - now as it's ever been. And with more and more of the population hooked into grids of all kinds and off of the homestead, it's clear that preparing for anything is a necessary course of life.
"It's so simple to do right now. It'll be darn near impossible in a Hurricane Sandy situation," he says. "Every time you go shopping, buy a little more than you need."
When it's too late, after all, it's too late.
"The point is, if anything ever happens unexpectedly, you're ready for it," Jim says. "Just have yourself ready for living life the way you want to live it."
Several years ago, the American Trucking Association published a report titled "When Trucks Stop, America Stops." It highlighted the chain reaction that comprises the global food supply - not to mention how transportation affects the health care industry and waste removal services. It is this possible systemic breakdown that lies at the root of many preppers' plans.
Because many commercial grocery outlets and big-box stores operate via automated stocking, there's not often a massive supply of food or other items in a given store at any one time. Part of what goes into thinking like a prepper is an understanding that supply shortages are where problems start.
According to the report: "The forecast of a winter storm quickly exhausts basic commodities at grocery stores and supermarkets. It takes retailers up to three days to recover from these runs on supplies. News of a truck stoppage - whether on the local level, state or regional level, or nationwide - will spur hoarding and drastic increases in consumer purchases of essential goods. Shortages will materialize quickly and could lead to civil unrest."
Alarmist, but not off-base.
Knight paints the approach to prepping as one that deals in probability.
Imagine a standard graph in which the x-axis represents time and access to resources and the y-axis represents the odds of a particular emergency event happening.
When the odds of an event like a bio-terrorist attack are low, there's very little time and access to safe resources when it does occur. Likewise, when the odds are high, like an intense winter storm along the lakeshore, residents have more time to prepare and greater access to safety.
Build common sense and a bit of your own resourcefulness into that graph and you've got the working template of the prepper community.
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The approach of returning to our roots and relearning how to work off the land informs the prepper community, running contrary to popular images.
The Boy Scouts' motto has transformed into a subculture. Knight's local meetings are one thing, but a global community has been fomenting online for years. And it's the extremes of fringe subcultures that attract glowing television ratings and hordes of social traffic online.
It's further evidence of the commodification of niche interests. G'head and download the Doomsday Prepper mobile game, sanctioned by National Geographic itself.
(In the interest of objective journalism, it's worth pointing out that the game is, in a word, tedious. Judging by the scoring system, it's also worth pointing out that this author likely wouldn't survive much of anything - from biological warfare to that weeks-old turkey sandwich I slammed at my desk this morning. ...It's been nice knowing you.)
Before all that happens, though, let's just take a step back and remind ourselves that prepping for the uncertain has little to nothing to do with constructing bunkers deep beneath the Earth's surface. Nor does it have anything to do with stocking said bunkers with at least two years' worth of Christmas Ale and ramen noodles.
"It's just common sense. And you can't buy it," Conroy says.
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