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Many preppers’ interest in survivalism goes back to one post-apocalyptic book or film. For a western Colorado-based outdoor and hunting retail worker who goes by the nom de plume Feature Kreep, it’s The Postman by David Brin.
The book takes place in the Pacific Northwest of an America that has been decimated by electromagnetic pulse attacks and bioweapons. In the opening scene, the protagonist’s campsite is ambushed and robbed by bandits. He tries fruitlessly to trade the compass and Swiss army knife attached to his belt for the stolen boots, jacket, and gloves — what he needs to live through the night. Defeated, he stumbles away in a ripped shirt, faded jeans, and tattered moccasins and serendipitously finds a prewar U.S. Postal Service jeep with a dead mail carrier inside. He takes the skeleton’s uniform and becomes the Postman, a folk hero embodying hope for the “Restored United States of America,” a dream under constant attack by the Holnist, a hypersurvivalist militia, who are distinguished by their army surplus camouflage.
Feature Kreep (who asked we refer to him by the name he uses for his blog and on prepper forums) says that reading The Postman at an early age instilled in him an appreciation for all things apocalyptic — zombies, robot takeover, economic collapse, nuclear war. But considering the prominent role that clothing plays in the book, it also seems to have inspired his professional career.
Since earning a bachelor's degree in apparel design at Oregon State University, Feature Kreep has been working in the outdoor apparel industry. When he’s not testing backpacks on hikes or helping wilderness enthusiasts pick out supplies, he’s answering questions on survivalist subreddits and studying the different subgroups of prepperdom.
One thing he’s noticed in his anthropological observations is that preppers love clothes. “There’s a bit of a fetish there,” Feature Kreep says. “In hunting there’s a fashion-show element, because everyone’s got to have cooler camo than the other guy — the latest computer-generated camo. Backpackers are more obsessed with absolute performance and they don’t care what it looks like. They can wear some pretty goofy-looking stuff. But preppers tend to focus on the appearance of clothing because they’re more aware of what their clothes signal about them, and they’re trying to manage that signal.”
Survivalism is a fringe movement that fuses America’s frontier lust with its apocalyptic anxiety. It revved up during the Cold War and builds steam every time a cataclysmic event occurs (9/11, Hurricane Katrina) or a perceived disaster is on the horizon (Y2K, 12/21/12). But now it seems we’re reaching peak prepper, thanks to North Korean nuclear chest-beating; a president who dog-whistles conspiracy theorists with talk of the “Deep State” shadow government; and a glut of post-apocalyptic TV shows like The Last Man on Earth, The Leftovers, and The Walking Dead.
The communities that formed around the survivalist newsletters of the 1970s were early adopters of BBS and Usenet, precursors to internet forums. The most well known early online community was the WELL, which stood for Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link. It was associated with the Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine focused on self-sufficiency, survivalism, and sustainability. Today, there are hundreds of active prepper forums, like Zombie Squad, Survivalist Boards, and American Prepper Network, where users share tips, discuss Armageddon scenarios, and recommend supplies. But now the most active conversations happen in Facebook groups and Reddit threads.
Spend a few moments on subreddits like r/Preppers, r/Survival, and r/Bushcraft, and you’ll notice preppers obsess about gear, and especially clothing. And why shouldn’t they? Without proper attire, you could die of hypothermia. You can’t run away from the living dead wearing sandals. If your jacket is too bright, you’ll be a target for cannibal anarchist militias. Of course, when it comes to preparing for fantasies like these, there’s also the matter of looking cool.
“The costuming is essential,” says Richard Mitchell, professor emeritus of sociology at Oregon State University and author of Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times. “It’s not so much about how you look in the mirror; it’s about how your friends respond to you. Sociologists call it impression management and anticipatory socialization — you dress like you imagine you’ll want to be in the future.”
As an outdoor enthusiast who spent 12 years studying survivalists, Mitchell believes their movement is speculative fiction. “These clothes have very little utility, of course, because survivalism, prepper behavior, is not a practiced trade,” he says. “It’s imaginative role-playing. People aren’t doing it. They’re talking about it. They’re imagining that this might happen in the future.”
In 2012, this genre of role-play seeped into pop culture with the popular National Geographic Channel reality show Doomsday Preppers and its spinoff Doomsday Bunkers. It was around then that survivalists say they started noticing an influx of liberal and libertarian-leftist preppers. With the election of Donald Trump, this trend has only grown.
Preppers on Reddit generally avoid politics. Instead, they concern themselves with matters like the merits of coveralls, why wool is superior to cotton, the best inconspicuous boots, survival pants that can be worn in social situations, and stab-proof vests.
A recent post on the Prepper subreddit titled “What is your ideal SHTF [Shit Hits The Fan] wardrobe?” received 50 comments from people sharing their favorite clothing and shopping tips. “Still building the clothing part of my SHTF wardrobe...,” saeglopur12 responded, “but currently I've got some key items, such as a pair of Fox River Military wicking mid calf boots, 5.11 TacLite Pro Pants, a pair of Mechanix gloves, a very old (think over a decade) pair of North Face boots that I still love and are completely waterproof, but desperately need to be replaced, and an equally-old but still totally functional Mountain Hard[wear] hard-shell jacket (which I'd probably throw over a North Face parka, if I was bugging out). Pockets would probably be kind of empty, because I've got a tactical belt/thigh holster rig with everything I need handy strapped to it... everything else would go in my or my wife's BoB.”
BoB stands for “bug-out bag,” the bag that’s always ready with everything you need to survive three days. Preppers are big on acronyms, like SHTF and BoB. They often compare the contents of their EDC (every day carry) bag, their GHB (get home bag), and their INCH (I’m not coming home) bag.
Some responders in the thread displayed extra imagination. “If you're in occupied territory and are trying to get out, best thing I can suggest is be the gray man,” Jrn77 wrote. “Blend in with the people and surroundings. For example, if you're in an urban environment that is occupied and need to exit, dress how everyone else is dressing. [W]alking around in black utilities and a backpack, you're going to stand out like dogs balls [sic].”
Practicing “gray man” or woman means dressing for a for a SHTF moment, but blending in with society. Before the rise of hunting and outdoors retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shop, a prepper’s best bet was the local army surplus store. Clothes designed for soldiers are durable, but they also alert your neighbor that you might be interested in overthrowing the government. The irony isn’t lost on Mitchell. “Much of survivalism is predicated on the notion that government and institutional knowledge and collective organization are all failures,” he says. “Oh, but let’s wear their clothes.”
But now that hunting brands like Kuiu, Sitka, and First Lite are borrowing from mountaineering technology and producing performance hunting gear, it’s easier to be both stylish and ready for an alien invasion. Some clothing companies, like Fortress Clothing and Beyond Clothing, specifically target preppers. And outdoor recreation outlet REI even provides a Zombie Preparedness class, in which instructors use REI products that could be useful during a natural disaster.
“Outdoor clothing has changed in recent years to look more normal, but still retain the durability and functionality of longterm outdoor use,” says a gray man who asked that we only use his Reddit name, docb30tn, so he wouldn’t attract government attention. This sort of thinking, he says, goes along with being a gray man.
Docb30tn is a health care professional and former combat medic who lives in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. His gray-man attire consists of Dickie’s cargo pants, lightweight moisture-wicking durable socks, combat boots that endured two deployments in the Middle East desert heat, military-issued nylon belt, Frogg Toggs rain jacket, Under Armour balaclava, and Walmart fitted work gloves.
In the last few months, he’s been seeing more “localized SHTF events” that give credence to his preparations. “Lately, riots that have been occurring mostly in California are SHTF scenarios,” docb30tn says. “The government does not tell us everything they know. If they did, then people would freak out. Thankfully we have our police, fire, EMS, and military to squelch such actions on a large scale. California, however, is a special breed of stupid lately.”
But not all gray men are so concerned about civil unrest. Damien is a Sprint sales rep who lives in northwestern Oregon. He’s been a prepper since he was 16, but he doesn’t think a SHTF scenario is imminent. “Doesn't mean we shouldn't be prepared, though,” Damien tells Racked. “Yellowstone was supposed to explode a long time ago. Mount Rainier is supposed to go off soon. The Cascadia fault is supposed to put most of the West Coast underwater. We are still here and nothing has happened. North Korea is pissed at us, Russia has never liked us, and China really doesn't want to get involved in anything right now. The right domino can be pushed to make SHTF. That's always a possibility.”
Damien’s gray-man wardrobe includes Wrangler Riggs tan cargos, 5.11 pants, plain gray T-shirts, a Carhartt jacket, a black Nike windbreaker, black Nike shoes, and Keen boots. He breaks in all his gear before he decides whether it’s apocalypse-ready. “To determine if they are durable enough for SHTF, I just wear them. A lot,” he says. “One thing that I look for right away is how much give the pants have in the crotch area. If I can't squat down or lift my knees in them, they will bust in the crotch area, I can guarantee it. And I won't own a pair that I think might blow out the crotch.”
The only thing worse than potential crotch-busters? Cotton. “For my shirts, I won’t want it in a SHTF situation if it has a lot of cotton in it. Cotton kills. It gets wet, stays wet, and drains body heat.”
The perils of cotton are one issue nearly every prepper agrees on. Other than that, there’s a lot of room for debate — especially between preppers and their close cousins, the bushcrafters, who put a premium on wilderness skills like tracking, foraging, shelter building. Think Grizzly Adams instead of Bear Grylls.
“Bushcrafters tend to make a lot of decisions based on historical fantasy and aesthetic rather than actual scientific rigor,” says Feature Kreep. “They can be very smug, because they have so many skills. They’ll make some claim like, it makes more sense to carry a two-pound axe and spend five hours building a shelter than it does to carry a two-pound tent and walk five more hours. They’ll come up with outlandish reasons for why they need to be wearing wax canvas and wool when it doesn’t make any sense.”
But everyone in the survivalist community seems to have one thing in common. “Between the groups, I can’t say which is more obsessed with clothes,” he says. “They all talk about it a heck of a lot.”