“I used to be into guns, but that’s not a realistic plan,” says Michael Robertson, 69, of Utah. “How many men do you need to guard a place 24 hours a day? Twenty?”
About 13,000 preppers are gathered at this year’s PrepperCon in Sandy, Utah, the largest survivalist expo in the US. And around 200 vendors like Robertson, the purveyor of a $US1299 ($1742) hand-cranked laundry machine, are here to ease you into life after civilisation, after the power grids are shut off. Or an EMP hits. Or North Korea finally builds a nuke that can reach American soil.
Each booth might answer the question that saves your life. Is your seed bank properly tailored to your local soil? Do you have enough seeds? What if someone tries to steal your seeds?
As far as merchandise goes, there’s something for everyone — bulletproof backpacks for kids, off-grid solar-powered water heaters, a stun gun disguised as a Vape pen capable of delivering 18 million volts, gardening tools, swords.
“After a certain point you’re better off spending your money on the things that will make the transition into your new life easier,” Robertson continues, “because we are spoiled with so much luxury these days.”
He jerks his chin at a vendor across the way selling all-terrain vehicles that resemble tiny houses mated to Army Assault Breacher Vehicles, and cost twice the price of the average US home. “Where are you planning to go in that? Where are you getting fuel? Come on.”
Punk band Revolt, who aren’t representative of the majority of the PrepperCon attendance. Photo: Russel Daniels for Gizmodo
Robertson, who looks like the world’s oldest Boy Scout in his pressed khaki shirt and eggshell white, wide-brimmed outdoorsmen hat, along with 60 per cent of all Utahns and nearly everyone at PrepperCon, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — the original preppers of American history, thanks to an emphasis on readiness and the faith that we’re deep in the “Last Days” epoch of creation. The weekend gathering in quiet Sandy, about 32km south from Salt Lake City and buffered from the world by the Wasatch Mountain Range, might as well be a Mormon retreat.
And yet, considering that we’re surrounded by people discussing the collapse of civilisation, there’s a real lack of urgency. The crowd putters around the carpeted convention hall, picking up pamphlets on collecting rainwater or stopping to look at Salvador Alvarenga, a celebrity survivor after 13 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
Around 200 people die in storms every year, yet kids here skitter giggling through the Hurricane House simulator. Smart marketers with common products — like seed banks — pull eyes by slapping the words “Zombie” and “Survival” on their kits to appeal to The Walking Dead fans. And while you can get a lesson in strafing your way through an active shooter scenario obstacle course (the secret is to work in pairs and check a room’s corners before you charge in), the fact that everyone laughs after being fake-shot-in-the-head has a way of removing you from the implications of a country averaging at least one mass shooting per day.
Active shooter obstacle course at PrepperCon in Sandy, Utah. Photo: Russel Daniels for Gizmodo
Scott Stallings, who founded PrepperCon, says that the industries vital to a prepper’s stockpile — tents, home agriculture, precious metals, guns — have historically served a conservative market. But anyone who tunes into their local conservative AM talk radio will be familiar with ads that target the fragile state of decent society for ageing men. Buy gold, boost your testosterone, and consider Ron Paul’s choice of freeze-dryers to store food for your family because you just never know.
But Robertson’s reticence to stockpile ammunition speaks to a larger shift in the market as right-wingers are no longer afraid of a government gun grab under Trump. There’s a levity here today, because the urgency has shifted elsewhere.
“The market has gone totally soft,” Robertson says. “Except for liberals. Liberals who’d never considered this are absolutely starting to prepare.”
Clinton’s defeat in November soothed many conservative wallets shut, yet prepping is somehow at its most lucrative. Prepper Shows USA lists upcoming events in 20 states. It seems that something once considered the exclusive territory of paranoid militia types is moving into mainstream acceptance. And new business means new business strategies.
A vendor stand at PrepperCon in Sandy, Utah. Photo: Russel Daniels for Gizmodo
“The problem a lot of businesses have is they have staked themselves to a point of view,” says Survival Frog CEO Byron Walker, whose booth of meal replacement kits and water-purifying straws remains busy all weekend. “You go to their website and it’s covered with pop-up ads about Obama committing fraud or directing you to a Glenn Beck book. So right away you turn off half the people you could be selling to. The businesses that survive aren’t going to be hard on the left, I think, but they will avoid endorsing any side.”
Still, Walker agrees that Trump’s “loose cannon” persona has shocked a once apathetic progressive consumer into survivalist shopping sprees. Survival Frog sales were up 99 per cent from the previous year in November 2016, and up 120 per cent in December.
Supporting Walker’s thesis are the slew of “liberal prepper” trend pieces and the growing number of groups across social media — be they general like The Liberal Prepper Facebook page or the forums of the Survival Life website tracking personal stories of adjustment from liberal to survivalist. It’s here you’ll find that sense of panic conservatives lost when they saw Obama leave office without executing a coup. Scroll through their websites to read battles over whether they can be moral peppers without using guns, or if maybe even non-lethal force might be enough? (One argument on a private group centres over whether you can defend your homestead with a slingshot.) On this side of the aisle, accepting the necessity of prepping is not fun, but a cutting reversal of what is and isn’t paranoid behaviour that some of the shell-shocked are still struggling to come to terms with.
SilverFire vendor specializing in off-grid stoves, “biomass grills” and solar cookers at PrepperCon. Photo: Russel Daniels for Gizmodo
PrepperCon founder Stallings finds himself fascinated by where the broader base might drive the market. “It’s awesome!” he shouts over a serpentine EDM-remix of “Blurred Lines” during the Prepper Fashion show, where a model is strutting down the runway rocking a burlap tent fashioned into a bell skirt.
He sees himself at the centre of the prepper movement, and all of its changing and merging parts. Some of it is a welcome change: “We’re seeing some groups say they want to focus less on security and firearms. I like guns myself, but, if you gave me $500 to prepare with I’d rather spend it on seeds.” Some of it is an opulent distraction: “We’re seeing some groups spending millions on these outlandish bunkers pulling away from the core of the movement.” But in the end, “everyone is a liability in the right situation! We need people working together!”
And maybe, after an increasingly likely apocalypse, one can imagine the two sides of the prepper aisle working together, comparing notes on solar panels and trading seeds.
It’s a fantasy only broken by the few people with overtly political messages, like the gun vendors, selling “Lock Her Up” shirts a few metres down from the assault rifles. Or that one vendor who wears a pair of Confederate flag suspenders as he gives out ammo advice and complains about “fake news”.