Are You a Survivalist or Prepper? (Or Both!)

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by Graywolf

A lot of people have preconceived notions about the differences between preppers and survivalists. A lot of you who read my site at Graywolf Survival know what a survivalist is, but today, I thought I’d give you an idea of what I think a prepper is.

Much of what people think about survivalists or preppers is due to television shows, movies, and the media. Unfortunately, a lot of those descriptions and characterizations are either developed by people who have no actual knowledge of either discipline, or worse – they distort the ideas to get better ratings or more page clicks.

While everybody’s idea of the differences between preppers and survivalists will differ, I think I’ll give you a fairly fair shake here. I’ve spent several decades working in both the military/government and civilian sectors in many different urban and rural environments including jungles, deserts, swamps, war zones, and politically-sensitive areas. Based on these experiences, here are some of my thoughts on the matter…

What is a survivalist?

The public perception of a survivalist has changed over the years. The media portrayal of people like Eric Rudolph, Troy James Knapp, and Ted Kaczynski gave the term ‘survivalist’ a bad name. For many years, the idea that you were a survivalist meant that you were some crazy loner who lived up in the woods, eschewing society as a hermit.

Luckily, people like Ray Mears, Les Stroud, Mykel Hawke have shown that these skills are valuable to “normal” people, and that you don’t have to be an anti-social lunatic to learn and practice them.

To me, a survivalist is someone who spends a great deal of time learning and practicing primitive skills in order to be able to survive natural threats such as exposure, starvation, predators, and dehydration, in many different wilderness environments. Not all survivalists spend their time focused solely on wilderness survival, however. Some spend a great deal of time learning how to deal with urban threats or combat scenarios.

As a whole, these are the traits generally attached to survivalists:

  • They learn which plants are edible and which are poisonous.
  • They learn various methods to start a fire so that they can stay warm, fend off predators, and boil water no matter where they may find themselves.
  • They learn to find and filter/purify water in different environments.
  • They prepare themselves physically and mentally to deal with harsh environments and physically-demanding terrain to be able to hold out until they escape or are rescued.
  • They learn various bush medical skills to be able to self-medicate or take care of wounds on their own.
  • They use their skills and the knowledge of the land to survive, striving to be able to do this with the least amount of supplies and support.

So, what is a prepper?

The show Doomsday Preppers has been both a blessing and a curse for people who consider themselves preppers. On one hand, the show got people to realize that they’re not the only ones out there who realize that there are real threats in the world and want to be prepared for such. On the other hand, the directors of this show hand-picked those who were eccentric and then sensationalized the shows via editing, making some of these “contestants” seem like complete lunatics.

HERE IS RUSSELL BRAND’S VIDEO 

Contrary to what the show depicts, most preppers aren’t fixated on just one major disaster they’re convinced will wipe out humanity. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some out there that believe some crazy things, but I believe they’re just a very small minority. In my experience, most preppers are sane, logical people. People who see  potential problems and want to do something to protect their family.

When I think of someone who’s a prepper, I think of preemptive action

It’s a man who values his independence – not wanting to be forced to beg help from others. These threats include “trivial” short-term annoyances, such as the power being out for a few days. Some threats involve criminal activity, such as home invasions. Even ensuring economic security for your family is a form of prepping.

Other larger (yet “normal”) threats include fire, floods, earthquakes, riots, tornadoes, hurricanes, and so on. These threats can cause a lot of destruction in a small or even regional area.

And then there’s the big stuff – infrequent, devastating concerns such as Ebola, EMP, war, etc. – things that could cause a longer term degradation in what society offers. These are also threats preppers prepare for. In any of these scenarios, supplies such as food, water, medicine, and power are liable to disappear. Threats of violence from starving or rioting people increase immensely as a result.

Preppers want to do something in advance of these threats so they’re not stuck empty-handed waiting for FEMA

Also, by preparing for the worst-case scenarios like this, minor inconveniences such as a three-day power outage are already covered. I don’t believe that taking rational steps to deal with a problem means that you’re obsessed with that problem. Are you obsessed with wrecking your car when you put on your seat belt? I don’t think so.

To combat this, a lot of preppers store large (or not-so large) supplies of essential items, such as food, medicine, and gas. Stores are created large enough to (hopefully) last them until those supplies are back in supply. Other preppers grow their own crops or set up self-sustaining aquaponics ecosystems so they can be their own grocery store.

Preppers store water at home and learn how to filter and purify it. They learn self-defense and set up their property with physical defenses. They set up off-grid power systems. They learn primitive survival skills in case they’re forced from their homes, away from the city and have to survive for a time in the wilderness.

They use their skills they’ve learned, supplies they’ve stored, and systems they’ve developed in order to to this with the least amount of external supplies and support.

How do preppers and survivalists compare though?

In developing this article, I asked my Facebook audience what their thoughts were on the differences between preppers and survivalists. The opinions were so varied that some definitions were exactly opposite to others.

Some still see survivalists as loners, and yes, I’m sure there’s a bit of the loner in a lot of survivalists.

Some see the stereotypical view of preppers that the media has presented, in that they are getting ready for The Event while the survivalist is the minimalist.

Some see prepping as the way to deal with a short-term breakdown in society and survivalism as how to deal with the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI).

Some see preppers as people who hoard supplies and don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, this is often true.

Some see preppers as people who set up plans and supplies in advance of something happening and survivalists who just learn to deal with the basics with whatever they happen to have around them at the time. Essentially, some feel that preppers plan ahead while survivalists don’t have to.

(If you want to plan ahead with your food storage – and you should – check out our Quickstart Guide on how to do so.)

Personally, I think that the two overlap in so many respects that it’s sometimes difficult to really tell them apart. I think they both identify threats, the risks that those threats present, and they both take action to mitigate those threats.I think that there are a lot of survivalists out there who use their knowledge of surviving the wilderness to help deal with surviving when they’re not in the wilderness. I also think that there are a lot of preppers out there who spend a great deal of time learning how to deal with surviving if they’ve lost everything.

Survivalists spend time honing skills and knowledge in advance of being put in a survival situation. To me, that’s prepping. I also believe that preppers spend time analyzing and preparing to survive both urban and wilderness threats. That’s survivalism.

So, am I a prepper or a survivalist?

I don’t really consider myself either, and yet I’d have to say I’m both.

I know several ways to start a fire by rubbing sticks together. Do I do that when I’m out in the woods? No, I use a lighter most of the time.

I know several ways to filter water using natural resources. Do I regularly use those methods? No, I use a Sawyer Mini or LifeStraw most of the time.

While I know how to navigate in many different types of terrain using only a map and compass, do I regularly do that? No, a GPS is simpler and much more accurate.

Some people don’t think you can be a survivalist if you bring a tent, sleeping mat, or any electronics. I bring all three. I’ve spent enough uncomfortable nights out in the swamps, deserts, and jungles that I don’t feel that I need to impress anyone with how I can “rough it.” I like to be as comfortable as I can whether I’m stuck in a remote valley somewhere or sitting at home watching Dr Who.

Some people don’t think you can be a prepper if you don’t have a year’s supply of food and a thousand gallons of water stocked up. I have neither. I have enough to make it convenient if I couldn’t go to a grocery store for a while or if the city water supply suddenly stopped but I know how to find food and water in the area and prepare both with whatever I can find.

I have a go bag of essentials but it’s very small and I use it mostly if I’m helping out the local Sheriff’s Office or heading out into the desert.

I only have a few medical supplies that fit into an IFAK but I’ve had some medical training from the military.

Would I be able to survive if I were dropped out in the woods with just a knife? Probably. I think I’ve learned enough by now from growing up in the woods and what I’ve dealt with overseas to be able to deal with that. Does that make me a survivalist? Maybe.

Would I be able to survive if the sun sent out a huge CME and wiped out the power grid, causing the collapse of society? Probably. I’m quite familiar with the probable ramifications of what would happen and what I’d need to do in response. Does that make me a prepper? Maybe.

So, what’s the final word? Can people be preppers and survivalists?

I love to learn about all sorts of ways to deal with situations because I love being self-sufficient. I also like being able to master a situation and be comfortable in it instead of just barely surviving it.

I think in the long run, if we can get past the stereotypes of what preppers and survivalists are, those who see a big difference will also see that there is a lot that both groups can learn from each other. I don’t really see that there’s all that big a difference.

What are your thoughts on the situation though? Are there other factors to consider between preppers and survivalists? Do you consider yourself a survivalist, a prepper, or both? Let us know in the comments below.

About Graywolf

Graywolf is a former Counterintelligence Agent and US Army combat veteran. His experience as an agent, soldier and government contractor on assignments around the world gives him a unique perspective on the world and how to deal with it. His website is Graywolf Survival.

Are You a Survivalist or Prepper? (Or Both!)
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29 Responses

  1. As a woman rapidly approaching my 79th year, I would have to say I am more of a prepper. Even if I knew “how to survive”, I don’t think I would be very good at it. BUT, as a shelter at home prepper, I feel that, should there be no electricity I am prepared to stay warm, eat from stocks, purify water, and prepare/cook without the modern conveniences. I have [most] of the tools and am working on the rest.

  2. As I sit here typing in my hole in the woods in the middle east (US) surrounded by a foot of snow, running on generator power, I realize I’m nowhere near as prepped as I need to be.
    It’s a small wake-up call. Will still live mostly normally, but I have a lot of shoveling to do of a lot of heavy wet snow that my small snow blower can’t handle. (Yes, very slowly with many breaks)
    So I guess I would say right now I’m a survivor.

  3. We too are older ‘preppers’. And feel we can survive a disaster fairly well, more so than maybe other people. We practice a few survival skills now and then. But we have our preps in order and could get by comfortably, long term if necessary. We really pay attention to world events and change our preps slightly as needed, think “adapt”. Our next big step is moving to a more sustainable location, closer to our prepping friends and relatives.

  4. I consider myself a Survival Prepper. A mix of both. I could last for a long time going “caveman” but I would rather put the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” to good use.

  5. I can’t say that I am either. I am a person of Faith who sees a “take over” of our free Republic by a Marxist ideology.

    Call it “The Great Reset”, or “The International Communist Conspiracy”, it is happening.

    Don’t take much stock in predictions but #1 I don’t believe “The Left” will allow themselves to be voted out of power after stealing an Election. #2 Should the Patriot side retake power in D.C. the Left will react with much violence, maybe a Coup or Civil War, who knows?

    Bottom line, BE PREPARED FOR WHAT IS COMING, BECAUSE WHAT IS COMING WILL NOT WAIT FOR YOU TO GET PREPARED.

  6. I’m “into preparedness”. The term survivalist became “evil” in the 90s and was consistently associated with criminals and the Patriot movement which went sideways with the OKC Bombing. Preppers are generally associated with those who believe they can buy their way out of a situation.
    Owning 900 per prepared food buckets but doing nothing else won’t help you start a fire in the rain or protect you in a riot. Owning 100 guns but having a box or two for each and no stored water isn’t the right direction either. Having a shed full of garden implements but not gardening will put you behind the power curve of a true crisis. Doing all these but failing to train and group up will leave you wanting.
    I shoot to be well rounded in both stocked items and skills.

  7. Never really thought about the differences too much because there’s a very large amount of overlap. At one time, I too could have survived with the bare minimum of gear/tools, but now, physical infirmities make that an extremely difficult task. There’s nothing wrong about knowing your limits. It’s a good thing, because it allows you to focus on what you can do.

    The Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” applies whether you’re a Prepper or a Survivalist.

    So I would say I’m a bit of both.

  8. I see survivalist skills as a short term situation where these skills will help you get through the emergency till you can come into a better situation, rescue or plan. Everyone should have those skills in case of a real emergency (e.g. plane crash). Another set of tools in your tool box.

    I have meet more than a few survivalists who seem to think in terms of “who is the better survivalist!” in the ways of who can survive with the least, or endure the harshest conditions, as if that makes them better.
    Want to go into the woods for a week with only a knife? Have at it. I am with Graywolf, take a lighter (or blast match, seems whenever I need a lighter it is always empty or wont lite even if I bought it yesterday, Murphy is always lurking), tent, freeze dried food, gravity water purifier etc.
    One thing I have noted about these survivalists, they never seem to have a long term plan past, “Survive today!” Tomorrow is the same plan as today!”

    As noted, there are also various types of preppers.
    Some just went to some on-line store, bought a pre-made kit of camp food, water tablets, first aid kit, all in a 5gallon bucket that could double as a toilet.
    Others have a well stocked pantry, large gardens, small, medium and even large live stock. They save seeds, can food from the garden, process their own livestock.
    Even others have all that and are totally off grid, in a rural area.

    IMHO, we all know going it alone is not a viable long term plan. We are going to need friends, family, community. As a prepper, a more realistic long term plan is one where everyone basic needs are met (food, water, shelter, security), and they are reasonably comfortable, more so than living in a lean-to in the woods.
    Plan like that might look like breeding program to produce the best livestock. Seed exchanges, helping each other with their gardens, or trading surplus. Game management plan. Help each other fell, block, split and stack that winters fire wood. Mutual security agreements or a community militia.
    Look around at your local community. If things were to go badly, how could you organize to ensure you and those around you survival?

    1. That five gallon bucket is one of the most underrated prep items: water, laundry, pooper, storage for other stuff, seating, you name it.

      1. Jo Blo,
        Yep!
        Used it for all those things you mention.
        The one point of weakness of the 5gal bucket: The wire handle. At some point, they all break though the plastic (okay, the plastic where the wire goes through is the point of failure).
        So, about 3 ft of rope and the Bottle Sling knot makes for a new handle: https://www.animatedknots.com/bottle-sling-knot

  9. I’m just a simple guy trying to live a simple life. I love life and have a lot of zeal for learning new things.

    My lifestyle pretty much demands both prepping and survival skill sets. Farming full time on a livestock operation kind of keeps me out of town. And I prefer it that way. When I run my river expeditions both disciplines come together, but pepping skills still carry me further than survival skills. I’ve had to survive my way out of the bush once. It sucked and nearly cost me all. So, I learned to prep better and hone the bush skills I know I’ll need and developed discipline when to reach into the bag-o-skills for the proper solution.

    To sum up, I’d say I’m definitely a prepper. One that knows how to survive.

  10. Our 4 years as a boy scout, allowed us to learn everything we needed to on how to survive with next to nothing.
    A good knife, 2 matches, halazone tablets, we learned how to fish, trap and eat a porcupine!
    What gear was needed, for all seasons, (a poncho is utilitarian, plastic bags, wool socks for your feet). Which tree bark, ‘forest lettuce’ and cattails were edible.
    How to camp out in below zero temps (“Operation Zero”), then hw to walk upon the snow.
    All 5 of our scout Leaders were WW2 veterans One and Army Ranger had good insight.
    We often had hard lessons to learn, under “Captain O” but he was a gem of a leader.
    These skills helped tremendously when I went to live ‘off the grid’ in Northern California

  11. My experience, training, philosophy, and active preps say I’m a blend. At 21 I live alone in the woods for 10 months. All I had was 1 change of clothing, 10 paper matches, a dull pocket knife, and a head full of camp craft, wild foods with experience in some foraging, and a vegetarian up bringing. I caught, cleaned, and cooked one fish at age 11.
    Did I plan it. No. But when I needed to be invisible I headed for a woods I’d know as a child. No blanket. No jacket. Just the contents of my pockets and a grabbed change of clothing. I survived. My prized possession was a can that once held corn. I used the old elastic from the top of my panties to create rabbit and bird snares. I’d prayed for wisdom of how to get food. The ideas came and I tried things till it worked. Saplings were the spring to make it work. I drank polly wogs, robbed pack rat nests of their stores of seeds. I quickly learned to made sure to burn oak as my last wood to have hot coals to save in the ashes.
    Today, I’m turning 75 this month. Health and strength are improving since covid in the spring of 2020. I have been gardening. Canning, sun drying, and saving seed. I’ve also planted wild edibles on my land with more to add this spring. I’ve taken archery back up. Have a few other things that are more convenientional weapons. Have 4″ pipe for hydroponics. Added a mannual winch to my second well. I have 5, 330 gallon potable water containers for critters and garden. 24 gallons of water in my home with a hand pump for the containers. Food to last 2 people for a year but now its just me. Also much more.
    Home has a nonoperating solar array. So I’ve lived without house power for right at two years now. Doing fine. Have small solar phone and battery chargers. 2 wind up lanterns and oil lamps. A small wind up radio. Heat and cooking is gravity fed pellets or sticks. Its a rocket stove with a removable pellet hopper.
    This carried us through covid when I couldn’t go shopping. It carried us through many weeks when no one was available to say with my husband with alzheimers. I’d be fine if I didn’t get into town for a year or more. Laundry is 3, 5gallon buckets and a heavy duty toilet plunger. I have soap enough for 2 or 3 years. I dry on folding racks set near the heater. Pretty comfortable really.
    I have a few chickens and rabbits. My 2 old ducks died this winter. I’d like more chickens.

    1. @ClergyLady. You are amazing. I would definitely want you on my team if our current environment goes even further south!!

      Take care…..

  12. Survivalist, mostly, and prepper, somewhat. I’m generally learning and practicing survival skills, and also setting aside some necessary supplies.

    I’ve a propensity* for tech-base recovery, either directly or via alternates. (Like geared computers vs liquid computers. Or that one computer setup using solely wires and nails and boards…)

    * – “an inclination or natural tendency to behave in a particular way” (Oxford Languages); I prefer the former (“inclination”) as it triggers fewer counter responses.

  13. a survivalist anticipates all civilized support disappearing – this dates from the cold war when civilization could very well have disappeared in an hour. “prepper” is quite recent and anticipates some limited problem that resolves and recovers in one fashion or another.

      1. Actually, what we call prepping now, is what people per-Industrial revolution, or Great Depression, or just afterwards, would call, “Monday.”
        My one neighbor, in his 70s, can recall getting electricity, in-door plumbing as a child.
        Post-SHTF, is really just going back to a lifestyle pre-dating all of that.
        It is getting through the bottle neck, the first year or 3 that things will then return to that era that will be the hard part. Those who hold on to our current lifestyle are the ones who will not survive or may in despair. Those who accept the new paradigm and press forward will be the ones who will fare better.

        1. “Those who accept the new paradigm and press forward will be the ones who will fare better”

          which leads to the observation that neither “prepper” nor “survivalist” adequately describe that approach.

          “really just going back to a lifestyle pre-dating all of that”

          more accurately we won’t drift down for a soft landing in the 19th century, but rather we’ll free-fall all the way down to the 6th century and crash there.

          1. “more accurately we won’t drift down for a soft landing in the 19th century, but rather we’ll free-fall all the way down to the 6th century and crash there.”

            We can’t let that happen. It’s up to us to preserve a level of technology such that we do not fall to a level before 1760 (the start of the industrial revolution). Store your older but still functional laptops, tablets and cell phones in a Faraday cage. Store smaller solar panels that can recharge the batteries on these devices. Store data on USB devices and external hard drives and cables needed to copy files to the saved cell phones.. Download or buy on an external hard drive the SurvivorLibrary.com. There are other libraries as well. Buy hardcopy books as well. If even one persons information stash survives and is put to good use, then we need not fall back to the 6th century.

            Maybe you won’t live to see your information stash used to help restore civilization, but maybe your children or grandchildren will.

          2. “which leads to the observation that neither “prepper” nor “survivalist” adequately describe that approach.”

            You wont.
            There are a number of regulars posting here that will.

            “more accurately we won’t drift down for a soft landing in the 19th century, but rather we’ll free-fall all the way down to the 6th century and crash there.”

            Those of us who can and do will land in a mix of late 1800s, early 1900s with some current technology mixed in.

            1. “Those of us who can and do will land in a mix of late 1800s, early 1900s with some current technology mixed in”

              especially when you’re the sheriff and can “volunteer” people to do what you think needs to be done. have to admit jarhead, you’ve really found a great survival niche for yourself. the only niggle is whether you can get the others to go along with your envisioned role in it. good luck.

  14. actually needs to be much more of the old “survivalist” mindset around in the prepper circuit >>> there wayyyyyy tooooo many preppers that had a problem with preparing for a global pandemic – for them it was classified along with “end of the world” scenarios …

    What else do you have dismissed as an improbable SHTF or a scenario that you believe is unsurvivable like a nuke incident or another worldwide conventional war …

    More than ever in this country is the need for self preparedness an absolute requirement – if you think the Bush or Obammy FEMA response to one of the natural disasters was a disaster unto itself >>> I actually cringe with the thought of a pending Biden response – if there’s an actual response to ponder ….

  15. If one has lived in S. FL for many decades, one prepares for hurricane season (June 1 through whenever) by stocking up lots of dry/canned foods to feed a person or two for a week minimum.
    Every available pot/pan/bottle/cooler gets filled with water. Kerosene lamps/candles/lighters/matches/etc. are all SOP necessities. I’d never thought of myself as a prepper all these years until I came across Daisy’s excellent site. Am I smug? Nope, there are the Selco articles to add to the repertoire, plus a few other bits & pieces to be comfy in my castle. Being an ex-backpacker and long distance sailor has provided a base, mentally, to know that you can get through the worst. The mental aspect is the most important one, IMO.

  16. I’m definitely a prepper and have been since Y2K…remember that? It’s only recently that I’ve begun to acquire survival skills, but am pursuing that. Like Matt, I liked ant7’s definitions, which imply that prepping and survival skills are are on a spectrum.

    For about 6 years, I worked in physical and cyber security and had a colleague with Army special forces training who advised me to watch “The Walking Dead”. I lifted an eyebrow and said “really?” The zombie apocalypse? He replied “you can learn a lot from what they do to survive”. Well, that got me interested, and I’ve been interested since.

  17. I’ve always thought the difference between a survalist and a prepper is — survivalists focus on skills, and preppers focus on supplies

  18. We all need to quit using mainstream propaganda caricatures as our examples when we want to make a point about something. When we do that we reinforce their mind control.

    Case in point. I think we all need to read up on Ted Kazynski a little bit instead of relying on his media caricature as a reference point. He had a history that led him to an advanced awareness of the evils we face now. And however distasteful his actions, he at least walked the talk.

    By extension, the much-touted second amendment means little until someone exercises it. It’s an ugly scenario…but all those guns mean nothing until those behind them muster the courage to use them against their oppressor. If and when this happens, they’ll be caricatured in the corporate media just like “the Unabomber” was.

    Should that day come, will you be supportive or will you desperately cling to your placid, domesticated mainstream respectability and distance yourself as quickly as possible?

    Will you be a rebel or a milktoast normie?

    1. “until someone exercises it”

      (shrug) that would require organizing. and most of the mainstream (and internet) propaganda caricatures work against that – they equate patriotism and nationalism with “tyranny” and “oppression” and “police state”. so they won’t.

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