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Stockpiles, Self-Reliance, & Survival Skills — How Some Women Are Preparing For Our Uncertain Future

For the month of October, Bustle's #blessed series will explore how young women are searching for meaning, finding connections to a higher power, and navigating spirituality in 2017.

Kristen Tyler, a 36-year-old Portland resident who works as the director of recruiting for a software company, has spent the last decade learning how to be an effective prepper. If a major disaster happens — in her city, her country, or the world — Tyler wants to have everything she’d need to survive on her own. Contrary to popular belief, not all preppers are religious folks preparing for an apocalyptic doomsday. In actuality, they are worshipers of organization and intense planning, who, instead of trusting in a higher power (including the higher power of government), put their faith in self-reliance, survival skills, and stockpiles — and many of them are women.

Every one to two months, Tyler seals a fresh supply of dry foods like quinoa, beans, and rice into mylar bags with silica gel packets to remove moisture, a process that can extend the shelf-life of the supplies by up to 12 years. She does the same with dog food for her two pups, a silver lab named Rhaegar and Winston, a yorkie. She also stashes cases of bottled water under the bed and in the closet (in addition to the five-gallon water jugs she keeps in the garage), keeps books on emergency field medicine handy, and regularly buys new supplies to add to the extensive first-aid and trauma care kits she keeps around the house and in her car.

She then meticulously documents everything she has in spreadsheets, which she keeps as digital files and also in a physical a binder she updates regularly, just to be safe. It’s still a work in progress, but her ultimate goal is to be able to survive for a full year with no outside help if necessary — mainly to be prepared in the event that “the big one” hits.

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Portland is adjacent to the Cascadia subduction zone fault line, which runs along the northern coast of California, all the way through Oregon and Washington, and into the southern tip of British Columbia. Experts predict that a rupture — which they they mostly agree is inevitable, though no one knows when it will happen — would be catastrophic, causing a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that would last roughly five minutes and result in tsunamis along the coast.

“I wouldn’t see all that where I live,” Tyler tells Bustle, “but here in Portland it would still be a significant quake that would take down buildings and trees and cause landslides and some pretty serious destruction.”

Early in their relationship, Tyler, who also runs a side business as a photographer, sent articles about the Cascadia fault line to her boyfriend, 28-year-old Aaron. They also watched a documentary about it together. But it wasn’t until the couple had to endure a scary mini-emergency together that Aaron became fully supportive of her prepping efforts.

“It doesn’t usually snow here,” Tyler says, “but last winter it did, and we were snowed in for several days.”

"It was a reality check for both of us to realize even something as small as being snowed in for 48 hours can be really scary if you’re not prepared."

Aaron wasn’t overly concerned about the fact that they couldn’t drive anywhere. In fact, he took advantage of the weather and the time off work to do some snowboarding down their street. It was all fun and games until Rhaegar, who was still a puppy at the time, collided with Aaron's snowboard. The couple was alarmed when they realized his paw had been sliced wide open.

“It was before I’d gotten really serious about first aid kits,” Tyler says. “We couldn’t leave, and we had this moment of total panic realizing we had an injured animal and were running low on supplies to help him with. It was a reality check for both of us to realize even something as small as being snowed in for 48 hours can be really scary if you’re not prepared.”

Rhaegar needed stitches. They were able to temporarily tend to his injury with antibacterial cream and gauze from their small first-aid kit until the snow cleared and they could get him to the vet, but they had trouble keeping him from biting the wound.

“After that,” Tyler says, “Aaron was like, ‘I’m so glad to know that you’ve thought most of these things through so we’d be prepared if something bad happens.’ He’s definitely fully on board with my prepping now.”

She adds that they’ve since added a dog first-aid kit and two pet cones to the spreadsheet column listing their available first-aid supplies.

"I don’t ever want to be in a position where I don’t know what I’m going to feed my child again."

At a time when the United States has just seen multiple devastating hurricanes, and major earthquakes and other natural disasters have rattled many parts of the world, many preppers are admitting that they don’t trust anyone but themselves, and are taking measures into their own hands to make sure they can take care of their needs, including their food stocks, medical care and peace of mind, should disaster strike.

For many female preppers, small emergencies or near-disasters like a badly wounded dog, provide the impetus for their desire to learn more about long-term disaster preparedness.

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For Daisy Luther, who has authored several books about prepping and runs the website The Organic Prepper, the initial scare that pushed her toward prepping was financial.

“When my oldest daughter was just a month old, my husband lost his job,” Luther tells Bustle. “That was our only source of income at the time, and we had two months of absolute bleak poverty while we were waiting for unemployment and he was desperately seeking a job.”

“It really scared me,” she says. “I thought, ‘I don’t ever want to be in a position where I don’t know what I’m going to feed my child again.’”

Luther started out just buying extra food and household supplies so that if something went wrong financially again, they’d still have food and essentials like toilet paper and toothpaste. Once her husband got a job again, they also started saving money so they’d always have emergency funds available.

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Then, in the summer of 2003, the entire eastern seaboard of North America experienced a power outage. By that time, the couple had two daughters and were living in Ontario, Canada, where they were without power for five days.

“It was absolutely miserable,” Luther says. “The kids were so hot and so uncomfortable. Our food spoiled. We had no backup plan for keeping ourselves cool or keeping any lights on. All we had was a few scented candles we were using at night.”

After that, Luther, who is now in her late 40s, started to take prepping more seriously. She started researching options for backup generators and water supply and purification systems, growing and preserving her own organic food with the goal of keeping her kids as healthy as possible in the event of an emergency, and making sure the family had all of their important documents within reach — passports, proof of insurance, mortgage agreements — just in case they ever had to leave town quickly.

"You want to practice surviving without your everyday comforts while you’ve still got a working thermostat and a fridge full of food."

Luther’s husband died unexpectedly at the age of 40, and the tragedy encouraged her further to ensure she and her daughters would be prepared for the future, no matter what came their way.

For a time, they lived off the grid in a cabin in North Central Ontario with only a wood stove for heat and raised chickens and goats. Now Luther and her daughters, who are who are 16 and 21 years old, live in a small town in Virginia, where they keep a large garden, do lots of food preservation, and regularly talk about what they’d do in the event of various emergencies.

“Prepping is more about doing stuff than storing stuff,” Luther says. “You want to practice surviving without your everyday comforts while you’ve still got a working thermostat and a fridge full of food in case it doesn’t go as planned. I remember one year, we only got three tomatoes out of our garden and a single egg from our chicken, so we certainly would have starved to death if we’d been relying on that.”

Luther also keeps numerous firearms. She says she knows how to use them, and so do her daughters. In a large-scale emergency situation, she says, other people could easily become a threat.

“We’re not as militant or aggressive as a lot of the preppers you hear about in the media.” Luther says. “It seems like the ones who get the most attention tend to be the loudest and most outrageous. I guess it’s easier to disregard the quiet ones who are just out here growing our food and canning our tomato sauce. I think my approach is very common sense.”

“But,” she adds, “We’re still packing, pretty much everywhere we go. We’re not going to be pushed around.”

"I want to have a plan of action if or when my ‘kind’ becomes a target of a second Holocaust or something."

The vast world of information about prepping tends to fall along traditional gender norms — websites and books geared toward men often focus on weapons and ammo, dealing with potential enemies, and hunting, whereas websites and books geared towards women tend to focus on stockpiling food and water supplies, first-aid and wellness, comfort, and even beauty products — but Luther certainly isn’t the only woman to view weaponry as an important component of preparedness.

“I’m a democratic socialist, with certain libertarian aspects, such as (mostly) supporting gun rights,” Nikki (who asked to only be identified by her first name), 18, tells Bustle. Nikki, who lives with her parents in rural Michigan but is about to to move into a dorm to start her freshman year of college, says she regularly practices with a bow and a rifle as part of her prepping activities, and occasionally visits a Reddit forum for liberal gun owners.

“I think the books are far more important than the weaponry.”

Since she’s about to move into a tiny dorm room where it would be difficult to keep a big stockpile of food or supplies, the other main aspect of her prepping involves collecting and studying books on survival skills.

“I think the books are far more important than the weaponry,” she says. “You could have an entire army under your command, but if you don't know how to clean a wound, or get fresh water, then you might as well be dead. I think knowledge is far more valuable than any amount of food or ammo.”

Nikki, who is transgender, has been interested in prepping since she was 16, but says she didn’t get really serious about it until Donald Trump got elected.

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“There's always been a lot of racism, transphobia, and homophobia where I live,” she explains. “There was a church that was burned down in the '50s for supporting civil rights, and the KKK was an active group here until 2008 or so.”

She adds that she knows not all of Trump’s supporters are racist or transphobic, but says she’s seen her “fair share of harassment,” and observes that things seemed to get worse for people of color and the LGBTQ community where she lives after Trump got elected.

“In the event that people such as Trump become increasingly extreme,” Nikki says, “I want to have a plan of action if or when my ‘kind’ becomes a target of a second Holocaust or something. I get that such a scenario is unlikely, but I would rather be prepared and not have a problem, than not be prepared and be trapped in the middle of a genocide or nuclear war.”

Although Nikki may seem like an anomaly given the stereotypical image of a prepper (straight, male, middle-aged, politically conservative...), Daisy Luther says preppers really are very diverse.

“It’s a common misconception that all preppers are conservative, right-wing Christians,” Luther says. “I know pagan preppers, Jewish preppers, atheists and agnostics — it’s a very wide spectrum. I myself am libertarian and many of my friends share those beliefs. A lot of us are sort of apolitical.”

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Jane Austin, who has appeared on the NatGeo show Doomsday Preppers and runs the website Survival Jane, pointed out that with an estimated 3 million preppers in the country, it’s likely that we’ve all met one, but just don’t realize it.

“I’d say preppers are more tight-lipped than tight-knit,” Austin tells Bustle. “And there’s a good reason for that. Let’s say someone wins the lottery. They wouldn’t broadcast that they won a lot of money… because if they did, people would line up at their front door with outstretched hands, right? Same holds true for preppers. Why announce that you have a lot of food or water, then when a disaster happens, guess who shows up at your door?” (This also explains why the women interviewed for this story would not provide Bustle with photos of their stockpiles.)

Though they may be tight-lipped, lots of preppers do use sites like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter to connect with one another and exchange tips, often anonymously. Austin is a full-time homesteader with her husband in the Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina, but she grew up as a self-described “city girl” in Central Florida, and says the transition to self-sufficiency was a little lonely at first.

"In an emergency, your community is going to be the people in your immediate neighborhood, not people you know from the internet."

“I’m a very social person by nature,” she says, “and living up on a mountain with 60 animals who don’t speak back was kind of tough initially for me. I get my energy from other people.”

So she did what most people would — she looked for community online. After initially having some trouble finding like-minded folks to connect with, she created the hashtag #PrepperTalk on Twitter in 2011. Now, it remains one of the most frequently-used hashtags on social media within the prepper community.

There’s also a national network of communities known as the American Preppers Network. Many people use their forums to connect online, but some chapters also organize regular IRL meetups in their communities, and not all preppers are secretive.

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“In an emergency,” says Daisy Luther, “your community is going to be the people in your immediate neighborhood, not people you know from the internet who live across the country or even just too far from your house to walk to.”

She points out that with Hurricane Harvey, “What you’ve seen is that so many people are helping their next door neighbors. The people who share a street are the ones looking after each other.”

“They don’t have to be preppers,” she adds. “I just think it’s important to find people you have something in common with in your physical community.”

"The most important component of survival is yourself."

When asked if they’ve specifically sought out partners who prep, most of the women interviewed for this story just laughed.

While a few dating sites specific to preppers have cropped up over the years, most of them now appear to have expired domains, and Bustle couldn’t track down anyone who’d ever used one — though a few women did note that they’d mentioned their interest in preparedness in their online dating profiles, mostly to avoid starting a relationship with anyone who’d be likely to give them a hard time about it down the line.

“If you really wanted to date another prepper, you’d be better off going to meetups,” Lisa Bedford, who has written several books on prepping, runs the website Survival Mom, and operates an online preparedness school in partnership with Daisy Luther, tells Bustle. “But you could also just put in a dating profile that you’re interested in gardening, camping, and hunting, and you might have a pretty good chance of finding someone like-minded.”

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Bedford lives with her husband and two teenage children in Texas, about an hour outside of Houston. Her family’s preparedness efforts include keeping a food and water supply on hand that could last them several months, keeping customized emergency kits in all of their vehicles, and maintaining a healthy savings account in case of a financial emergency. Ultimately, though, she reiterated what others told me — that being mentally prepared is more important than any of that.

“You could spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars getting prepared,” Bedford says, “but I think survival doesn’t require all of those kinds of expenditures as much as it requires some agility and nimbleness. We have several months of food on hand, but what if we came home one day and it had been flooded? The most important component of survival is yourself.”

"I don’t plan on keeping my kids on a tightrope expecting something bad to happen."

Bedford’s kids are homeschooled, and though the curriculum includes lessons in preparedness, she says she does her best to make sure they feel safer as a result, rather than afraid.

“We don’t have things like nuclear bomb drills, or anything like that,” Bedford says. “We do spend time talking about possible scenarios every once in awhile, and focus on problem solving and quick decision-making skills. And while we do have some things in place in case of more extreme scenarios so the stuff is there if we need it, I don’t plan on keeping my kids on a tightrope expecting something bad to happen.”

While preppers are often dismissed as paranoid, Bedford and many of the other women Bustle spoke with pointed to recent events, from hurricanes Harvey and Irene to the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, to demonstrate why they’d rather be safe than sorry.

“Preppers are teachers, moms, models, bank tellers, retail clerks, attorneys, and the list can go on and on,” Jane Austin said. “Preppers aren’t an exclusive group or club… we’re just people who understand that a disaster could happen at any time, and prepare for it.”

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