In recent years, survivalism has been edging deeper into mainstream culture. In 2012, National Geographic Channel launched “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality show featuring a series of Americans bracing for what they called S.H.T.F. (when the “shit hits the fan”). The première drew more than four million viewers, and, by the end of the first season, it was the most popular show in the channel’s history. A survey commissioned by National Geographic found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”).
One newsletter deemed by some to be one of the most important on survivalism and survivalist retreats in the 1970s was the Personal Survival ("P.S.") Letter (circa 1977–1982). Published by Mel Tappan, who also authored the books Survival Guns and Tappan on Survival. The newsletter included columns from Tappan himself as well as notable survivalists such as Jeff Cooper, Al J Venter, Bruce D. Clayton, Nancy Mack Tappan, J.B. Wood (author of several gunsmithing books), Karl Hess, Janet Groene (travel author), Dean Ing, Reginald Bretnor, and C.G. Cobb (author of Bad Times Primer). The majority of the newsletter revolved around selecting, constructing, and logistically equipping survival retreats. Following Tappan's death in 1980, Karl Hess took over publishing the newsletter, eventually renaming it Survival Tomorrow.
Still, these extraterrestrial-looking foodstuffs seem to be having something of a moment: For the past four years, Costco has been selling pallets of shriveled vegetables, fruits, grains, and meats that promise to feed a single family for up to a year—and if you’re not a member, you can purchase similar survival kits, many of which boast a 20- to 30-year shelf life, at Walmart and Target. One top seller, Wise Company, saw its sales nearly double over the past four years, reaching around $75 million, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story last November. The company’s CEO, Jack Shields, told me he estimates the industry as a whole generates between $400 and $450 million annually in retail.
In practice, the process can be a bit tricky. Freeze-dried meals require that you have potable water lying around, which might not be the case in the event of a serious calamity (some Wise Company kits include water purifiers). The cooking instructions for the Wise products I tested call for using the entire four-serving bag at once, which means that you have to have a container on hand to store what you don’t eat, and a fridge to keep it from spoiling. Even at my office kitchen, the only way I could make it work was by pouring about a fourth of the packet in a mug, filling it with water, and putting another mug on top of it.
What, then, needed to be done? More than anything, there was an obsession over acquiring or building a fallout shelter for your home. Every edition of PSM featured reams of advertisements from British and international companies offering to construct such a shelter, or send one that could be buried in your garden and accessed through a small hatch.