Training for the end of the world as we know it

If a disaster happens, they fear that neighbors will turn on each other. For most preppers, densely populated areas are nightmare scenarios. “Get you a paintball gun with pepper-spray balls, then get to New Jersey, steal a car, and head for the mountains,” suggests Doug, a potbellied, disheveled man staffing the Carolina Readiness Supply tent, peddling how-to manuals and dehydrated foods. There’s a sense of righteousness, of arrogance, of smug pity for people who don’t share the same certainty about the impending descent into anarchy. Many people are proudly wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’ll Miss You When You’re Gone.” One presenter sums up the preppers’ rallying cry: “If someone from the city tries to come to the rural areas we’ve settled, we’ll stand on the county line with our shotguns and tell them no.”

But the people at prepper camp are rational, reasoned, and eager to share their knowledge and skills, swapping tips about purchasing things like German surplus military phones—untraceable by the NSA—or night-vision goggles for spotting a sentry standing guard in a tree. They trade tips for stockpiling antibiotics without tipping off doctors or law-enforcement officials. These preppers are impassioned, but not hysterical or anxiously raving about the end of days—very different from the sensationalized caricatures portrayed on National Geographic’s hit TV show Doomsday Preppers. And they’re not so rare as you might think: In a 2012 nationally representative survey by Kelton Research, 41 percent of respondents said they believed stocking up on resources or building a bomb shelter was a more worthwhile investment than saving for retirement.