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Survivalist businesses surge in uncertain times

Increasing numbers of mainstream Americans are preparing for disasters, many of these companies say.

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"We have seen an increase in survival-related businesses," says Doug Ritter, executive director of the Equipped to Survive Foundation, a consumer advocacy organization that has been assessing survival gear since 1994.

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Popular interest in survivalism took off in a big way in the late 1990s, amid concerns about the much-discussed Y2K computer bug said to threaten world information technology. Since then, Mr. Ritter says, newer businesses have entered the disaster-preparation market to provide a variety of goods and services to survive a range of crises.

"Fear is a factor that often draws people into preparedness," Rantala writes in an e-mail. "Pandemic, economic disaster, climate change, world war – these are some big-picture threats that some folks want to be able to counter."

Industry businesses' sales pitches are often equal parts professional marketing presentations and public service announcements. Survival skills author and instructor Cody Lundin has a website that includes a biography, video clips, training course descriptions, and a full-color résumé, complete with photo. Shane Connor, president of KI4U, distributes free nuclear-disaster survival guides, instructing people to keep rain ponchos, dust masks, and honey (a high-calorie food that doesn't spoil) on hand at all times.

While survivalist offerings expand, consumers often have different ideas of what exactly it means to "be prepared."

"I'll get one potential buyer who will say, 'I want to have a remote location,' and for him that means a house a couple miles out of town," says Moss, the realtor. "Then I'll get the guy who wants to be able only to hike into his location."

Such wide-ranging reactions are hardly surprising, says one expert, given that the crises survivalist goods are meant to address are as much a product of imagination as they are of real threats.

"The entrepreneurship of survival is nothing new," says Richard Mitchell Jr., professor emeritus at Oregon State University and author of "Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times." The narrative is that "there are troubles ahead, but 'just right' troubles, the kind survivalists have the means to confront ... imagined troubles always match the means at hand – or what is for sale to solve the problem."

As survivalist businesses grow in uncertain economic times, consumers new to the lifestyle might be overwhelmed by choices. Industry insiders suggest those preparing for the worst do their homework to find companies that put surviving disasters, not profit-making, at the core of their mission. Mr. Lundin estimates that only 5 percent of survivalist businesses are actually committed to living the lifestyle.

For Ritter, of Equipped to Survive, this means that people need to be serious about how they go about purchasing peace of mind. The recession might be cutting into paychecks and cheap survival gear ordered from a slick new website might seem like a great deal, he says, but in a disaster other considerations are more important. "There's a key question," he says. "Are you willing to bet your life on a piece of equipment?"