'When The **** Hits The Fan': The Eccentrics of Doomsday Preppers

Remember the frenzy surrounding Y2K?

In the years and months leading up to the new millennium, IT organizations spent billions patching systems and replacing software that had infamously been designed to support only a two-digit year — a problem dubbed the Year 2000 bug, the Millennium bug, or simply Y2K.

While the world pondered dire predictions of massive global infrastructure failures — everything from elevators to air traffic control systems were rumored to be vulnerable — the specter of a total paralysis of business operations resulting from cascading Y2K failures galvanized organizations into a frenzy of activity.

The Y2K problem threatened to tear our modern world apart — at least that was what some people thought. I’ll never forget friends stockpiling food and water in preparation for the certain collapse of our system of commerce. I actually heard grown men arguing like children over whose Y2K stash was larger. It seemed like, everywhere I went, people were obsessed with being prepared.

And then it was over. On Dec. 31, 1999, the world held its breath — and nothing happened. Jan. 1, 2000, came in just like any other day. There were no major failures to report anywhere.

In the aftermath, or non-aftermath, some pundits said all the preparation had been overkill.

I’ll admit it: there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for emergencies. In fact, ran a helpful article just the other week about preparation. But the other side of the coin is that some people become obsessed with preparing for one implausible catastrophe or another — these folks have become the inspiration for National Geographic’s perversely fascinating documentary series Doomsday Preppers.

Doomsday Preppers has a simple premise: preppers share how they are gearing up to survive the event or condition they fear will take place. After the preppers demonstrate their plans, a group of consultants from the organization Practical Preppers rates the preparations and offers suggestions on how to improve their plans. The show briefly revisits each prepper after they have made some changes based on the suggestions.

Each episode does a decent job revealing the eccentricity behind the obsession with survival. One Texas couple practices shooting on a daily basis at their compound made from metal shipping containers, and they have stockpiled literally decades worth of food, much of which they’ve hunted or farmed themselves. Another woman prepares gourmet meals for her bunker and declares that when the apocalypse takes place, she’ll be the only person left with a hundred pounds to lose. One prepper in Los Angeles takes to the urban woods to survive a massive earthquake, a plan that includes his survival pack.

Preppers love to talk about what happens “when the **** hits the fan.” Another common phrase you’ll hear from preppers is “bugging out.” When a family bugs out, they head to a predetermined location, presumably either out of harm’s way or in a remote enough area to be away from people. The couple from Texas that I mentioned earlier bugs out in converted school buses with a group of 22 people in a convoy aiming for a location 12 hours away. They literally circle the wagons when they stop to rest and guard their perimeter throughout the night. Other bug out locations are much simpler: mountain or desert cabins or remote campsites. One young woman plans to bug out from Houston to Mexico in the event of a global oil crisis.

While some of the preppers do some amazing and admirable things — one family lives almost completely off of the food they’ve grown in their urban garden on about a tenth of an acre — most preppers drive themselves to some desperate measures to ensure their survival. One prepper, a New York City firefighter who worries about an explosion of the super-volcano at Yellowstone National Park, practices regular “bug in” drills, where his family locks and tapes themselves into their small apartment, surviving on MREs and bathtub water, and throwing broken glass into the hallway to fend off intruders (certainly endearing himself to his neighbors). Another woman has a plan to euthanize her cat before she bugs out.

One couple of teetotaling Baptists in Alabama stocks up on liquor in bulk, not for libations, but for barter and weaponry. For another prepper, the survivalist mentality takes a tragic, dangerous turn when he nearly shoots off his thumb while teaching his sons how to fire guns.

With Doomsday Preppers, National Geographic has done a fine job highlighting a certain subset of American life. In the eyes of the show, these people are the eccentrics among us. For the most part, they could be any of our neighbors, friends from work or church, or even our kids’ classmates, but they are outliers nonetheless. Don’t think that the show’s branding of preppers as different from the norm isn’t lost on the survivalist community. One blogger rants:

The bottom line is, Doomsday Preppers isn’t necessarily doing us a lot of favors in their presentation of us to the mainstream.


The consequence of Doomsday Preppers is a negative viewpoint being presented and built of our community. (emphasis his)

And this is exactly what they want.  I’ve talked to them – long before the pilot was put together last year.  Their view of our community and the view that they want to present is that we are on the fringe, we are not normal and that we are gun nuts.  And WE are letting them do it – for a literal 15 minutes of fame.  They are getting exactly what they want; they present a show with a bunch of crazies and they get the largest viewing audience they’ve ever had all at the expense of our community and how the public perceives us.

One of the most fascinating features of the show takes place over the closing credits. An announcer examines the probability of the preppers’ fears becoming reality. In practically every case, the odds are infinitesimal. Much like the people who freaked out over Y2K, these preppers expend untold amounts of time and energy getting ready for events that are highly unlikely to actually take place.

The first season of Doomsday Preppers has come to an end, but National Geographic reruns the season’s episodes incessantly. The channel claims that the show has garnered the network’s highest ratings ever, so it stands to reason that future seasons could well be in the works. Eccentric or not, it’s clear that these preppers have struck a chord with viewers.

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