“It’s been crazy, crazy, crazy,” David Sanders says. “Unprecedented.”
Unprecedented, crazy events happen to be Sanders’ specialty. He runs an online disaster preparedness shop called Doomsday Prep, which sells a wide assortment of worst-case-scenario gear, from two-way radios, nunchucks, and knives to a “urban bug out bag” filled with medical supplies and food. Although the store’s mission is readying people for emergencies, it’s in a surprise dilemma right now. “Our supply chain and available inventory is in flux due to Covid-19,” a banner on its homepage reads. Some products are backordered until the summer.
When Sanders started his ecommerce business back in 2012, he was inspired by Doomsday Preppers, the National Geographic show that documents the great lengths to which some “preppers” go to plan for economic collapse or environmental cataclysm. Sanders doesn’t exclusively cater to this subculture, though. What was once the province of dedicated survivalists and cautious Mormon families is now a national pastime spanning demographics, religions, and politics.
Who isn’t thinking about prepping these days? In February, as fears about Covid-19 infection spread in the United States, medical mask sales jumped over 319 percent in dollar growth, according to data firm Nielsen, while hand sanitizer sales went up 73 percent. Nielsen is projecting that sales figures haven’t peaked.
Each preparedness retailer I spoke with had customer bases primarily in major cities. “There is no definable cohort anymore. It's not urban versus rural, liberal versus conservative. It is literally every single shape, type, size of person,” says John Ramey, founder and CEO of the disaster preparedness website ThePrepared. Ramey, who has been prepping for decades, says that people in the market for survivalist gear have far more options now than even in the recent past. “Up until a few years ago,” he says, “you were inundated with just extremist crap. If you just wanted to know what kind of water filter to buy for your earthquake kit, you had to dig through a YouTube video where a guy talks about how Hillary's going to steal your children.”
Prepackaged kits, from bug out bags to food storage bundles, are filling up shoppers’ carts across the country, as people sit in their living rooms, look at the internet, and fret. “It suddenly seems like anything that was being lost in translation before is not now,” Christian Schauf, founder of survival gear store Uncharted Supply, says. “Our message is coming across loud and clear.” Uncharted Supply has more of a general-interest outdoorsmanship vibe than something like Doomsday Prep—“I’m not a prepper,” Schauf says—but the coronavirus has caused the general public’s interest in the company’s wares to skyrocket. “We are getting Black Friday levels of traffic almost every day, and we're doing about a month in sales every week right now,” Schauf says. He pulled the majority of the store’s advertisements, but it now also has a banner on its website with a message noting that orders will take a few weeks to fulfill: “Coronavirus has sold us out.”
Meanwhile, Pottery Barn and Nordstrom are selling bags from Los Angeles–based startup Preppi, which has been recommended by Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow. “This is something that should be at grocery stores, Target, drug stores, you know—any place where you're shopping on a weekend,” Ryan Kuhlman, who created Preppi with Lauren Tafuri, says. “It shouldn’t be such a niche product.” Kuhlman says that the company initially struggled to get taken seriously when it launched in 2014. “Everyone that talked about us called us wacky! It was so absurd,” he says. “It’s a very sensible preparedness company.”
Preppi, beloved by influencers, is sometimes dismissed by survivalists. Offgrid Web, a survival website that encourages people to make their own bug out kits, called one of these bags “a massive waste of money.” (At one point, Preppi promoted a special $10,000 bag with real gold bars included for bartering, and 2 Chainz featured it on his Viceland show Most Expensivest.) But the company’s less expensive items, like a $100 weekend survival package—now sold out—have found buyers who don’t want to bother with DIY. Like its competitors, Preppi is struggling to keep up with demand, especially since many of its products come with the much-coveted N95 masks, which they originally included with California’s wildfires in mind. “We’re trying our best,” Kuhlman says. “When you have a preparedness company, you as a company have to be prepared. We can't be a hypocrite and say, hey, get prepared before something happens and then not have a large inventory on hand.”
Elsewhere in Southern California, the Kardashians have been hyping a new emergency preparedness kit company called Judy on Instagram. It may not have needed the celebrity endorsements, though, as some gear is also already out of stock. Started by their longtime friend Simon Huck, Judy launched in late January, inadvertently debuting into this major boom time for the industry. “Judy wasn’t designed for pandemic. It was designed for all emergencies,” Huck says. “We are not a medical authority. We certainly don't want to make any kind of claims or comments around products.” Because the Judy kits come with air filtration masks, the company has made a point to clarify on social media that the CDC does not recommend that healthy people wear the masks to protect from the coronavirus.
Although fear around the coronavirus has drawn attention to disaster preparedness gear, many of the companies stress that their kits aren’t only for extraordinary circumstances. Huck says that while the Judy team was developing its kits, they interviewed people about their anxieties around preparedness and realized that they should be focusing on “everyday emergencies” too. “If you've got kids who are below the age of 10,” he says, “you're using your first aid kit multiple times a week, for scrapes and bruises on the playground.”
In a 2018 Dissent article on prepping, writer Rachel Rierderer observes that prepperism is “fundamentally conservative” in its orientation. “Embedded in the prepper ethos is a deep distrust of public systems, fueled by the belief that we’re one cataclysm away from a Hobbesian state of unrestrained every-man-for-himself (and-his-family) competition,” she writes. Rierderer notes that President Trump’s 2016 victory spiked blue-state interest in prepping, compounded by the climate crisis. Even Kuhlman and Tafuri, who swerved away from doom-and-gloom as they packaged their Preppi kits, emphasize that the general public can’t rely on FEMA, and that their gear was in part designed to look cute and start conversations. “Deep distrust in public systems” is becoming more and more of a default perspective in America, as is awareness of how precarious many of our social safety nets are. “The single largest event that we see people actually use their preps for is unexpected job loss,” Ramey says. The rations designed to withstand earthquakes also come in handy when grocery money runs out.