Opinion

Preppers versus Survivalists: What’s the Difference?

man in the wilderness

When it comes to the world of prepping and survival, there are a lot of different strategies and concepts to learn. Although often used interchangeably by beginners, this article will primarily discuss preppers versus survivalists: what’s the difference?

In order to do that, we’ll first define each term as we see it and provide some examples of each type throughout history. We’ll suggest some of the top experts for each and point out some of the similarities and differences between the two types.

What is a Survivalist?

We’ll start first with the term “survivalist”. A survivalist is someone who specifically gathers knowledge and skills that will help them survive by relying on whatever natural resources might be available to them.

Survivalist Origins

People who practice survivalism have been around as long as anyone can remember. Native Americans in the U.S. were survivalists. Early survivalists in history who shared their knowledge include people such as George W. Sears (Nessmuk) and Horace Kephart.

Some pioneers who traveled hundreds of miles with entire families in horse drawn wagons but knew not to rely only on supplies they could carry were survivalists. The hunters/trappers of that early pioneer period were survivalists. This is also sometimes referred to as bushcraft or wilderness skills.

Survivalist Focus

Survivalists are focused on mastering the skills that enable them to live off the natural resources around them. The primary focus is on knowledge and skills without dependence on stockpiling supplies and gear.

Many survivalists practice outdoor skills as a hobby for the enjoyment and fulfillment that comes with mastering skills. Survivalists tend to have a solid respect for mother nature and the environment and are conscious of how their interaction with nature impacts those resources long term.

Survivalist Skills

After mastering basic skills such as fire starting, finding water, making natural cordage, and shelter building, survivalists may expand to skills to include hunting, trapping, making utensils and tools from clay or rock, tanning hides to make clothing, carving antlers or bone into tools, identifying and foraging for wild and medicinal edibles, etc.

Survivalist Mobility

Survivalists who have mastered the skills to live in the wilderness by relying on the natural resources around them are better able to get and stay mobile when called for in a crisis. Expert survivalists have no need to worry about carrying all their gear and supplies with them because they are practiced in using whatever nature may provide to create or secure what they need to survive. Expert survivalists are confident that they can find or make whatever they need using the natural resources available to them in whatever location they are in.

Top Survivalist/Bushcraft Experts

When it comes to survivalists and bushcraft experts, there is no end to those you can learn from. If you are looking for a survivalist to learn from make sure that you choose someone who has a wide breadth of actual wilderness experience for best results. A few survivalists you may have heard of include:

What is a Prepper?

A prepper is someone who prepares for a future crisis event by stockpiling gear and supplies to enable them to survive. Some preppers prepare for short term survival such as a power outage and others prep for events with long term impact such as EMPs, economic collapse, or a SHTF event.

Prepper Origins

Believe it or not, Noah was one of the early “preppers”, although the term wasn’t in use till much later. Noah believed there was a catastrophic event coming (40 days of rain) and he prepared specifically to survive that event.

Our ancestors who made use of root cellars and home canning techniques were a type of prepper. They prepared for winter each year by growing a garden, raising livestock, and storing the excess food for when it was needed. Most people who lived through WWI, WWII, the Cold War and the Great Depression were preppers out of necessity.

In fact, through the late 1970’s, preparedness was more of a national priority. During and following WWI and WWII, citizens were encouraged to grow victory gardens and nearly 40% of food was produced from gardens. The government encouraged food stockpiling and the building of home bunkers starting around the time of the Cold War.

Modern Preppers

Unwarranted negative stereotypes by media in the 1990’s drove many preppers into hiding. The numbers of preppers received huge boosts due to Y2K predictions and actual events such as 9/11, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000’s.

With the advancements in technology and increased popularity of platforms such as Facebook (2004), finding prepping knowledge and sharing of prepping skills became much more accessible. Conservative estimates number preppers at a minimum of four million people worldwide and in all likelihood the numbers are probably double that knowing that many preppers do so entirely in secret.

Prepper Focus

When it comes to preppers, the primary focus for many people who adopt this lifestyle is on secretly stockpiling gear and supplies that will sustain them through whatever crisis they believe is looming in the future.

Skills and knowledge are important but the primary focus is on being prepared with the supplies and skills to sustain them when a future disaster or SHTF event strikes. Some can be a prepper without having much more than the basic wilderness skills of fire starting and shelter building, although many preppers realize the value of having advanced wilderness skills in addition to their gear and stockpiled supplies.

Prepper Skills

The basic skills for preppers today overlap some with those of a survivalist and include things such as shelter building, fire starting, finding water and storing food. Where survivalists focus on using natural resources for these, preppers may focus more on having or carrying gear or tools to accomplish these basic tasks. Other basic skills critical to preppers include navigation, food storage, communication, first aid/medical, home and personal security, self defense and many more.

Prepper Mobility

Preppers who rely more on gear and supplies will be forced to carry their gear and supplies if and when a crisis calls for them to leave their home or other shelter location.

Because of the reliance on gear and supplies, many preppers have less ability to get and stay mobile than traditional survivalists. Most preppers know enough to plan for this need to become mobile and prepare a “bug out bag” or BOB which holds gear and supplies to help sustain them for up to 72 hours or longer.

Top Prepper Experts

When it comes to prepper experts, many refer to themselves as survivalists or they stay incognito by using a “prepper” website or network name rather than their own name. Prepping can have many more nuances to it, depending on political views, comfort/focus on firearms and security, and what event or events you are prepping for.

There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of prepping websites, blogs, courses, and conferences. It’s important to find the ones that are the right fit for you personally. Some top prepper websites to learn from include:

Preppers versus Survivalists Today

When it comes to preppers versus survivalists, what’s the difference today? It’s actually much less defined I believe than it has been in the past. Survivalists have learned that while they can live off the land, it’s a ton of work and is much easier to accomplish long term if you carry some gear and supplies with you.

And many preppers have learned that total reliance on gear and supplies isn’t the most ideal plan if you must be mobile or if there are people who may confiscate your supplies. As a result the terms survivalist and prepper are even more interchangeable than ever before.

Degrees of Preppers and Survivalists

Today there are many more people who think of themselves as preppers even if their primary focus is on preparing to survive common and short term emergencies such as natural disasters, power outages, or job loss.

One type of prepper, sometimes called the “doomsday prepper” focuses on a specific event with longer term consequences that they feel will significantly alter life as we know it. Because of their firm belief in pending doom, these preppers often go to extreme measures when prepping, many times with an obsession on security and self defense.

Homesteaders are a type of prepper in that they live off their land with the goal of becoming self sufficient. Homesteaders focus on living off the land, preserving and storing the food they produce for later use, and they often supplement their income through crafts made on the homestead.

Many homesteaders are simply prepping for lean times rather than a specific event. I know many homesteaders who fish, hunt, and trap regularly and who are adding additional survivalist skills to their bag of tricks.

Hermits are another type of prepper in that they prefer to live in solitude. They live off the land and preserve food with a goal of reducing the need to go into town for supplies. Hermits by definition live alone, often for religious reasons, and prefer to avoid interaction with people.

In recent years, Prepping and Survivalism have overcome the negative connotation of exaggerated and dramatized reality shows like “Doomsday Preppers” and “Survivor” and thus more people are willing to adopt these terms for themselves.

In fact, today the terms survivalist and prepper are just two of the many categories on the spectrum of lifestyles. There are many different lifestyles on the spectrum such as minimalist living, subsistence living, homesteading, off grid living, tiny home living, and even RV living.

All of these lifestyles include parts of the “live off the land” skills of survivalists as well as the “stockpile/plan for the worst” skills of preppers. If you’re looking for quality shows that depict what some of these lifestyles entail, below are some of my favorites:

Are you more of a prepper or a survivalist? Or like most people today, are you part of one of the many other lifestyles that combine some of each? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear what you think.

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Megan Stewart

About Megan Stewart

A mother of four and grandmother of six, Megan is living the lifestyle any prepper would want. Gardening, homesteading and constantly planning for emergencies big and small, she's a beacon of knowledge in the prepping community.
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9 thoughts on “Preppers versus Survivalists: What’s the Difference?

  1. Ms. Stewart;
    Very well done, good article for sure, and something worth thinking about; as for many like myself I proclaim I live the “Lifestyle”, yet will not really sure what that “Lifestyle” actually is.

    In this modern day of everything needing a ‘Label’ and a particular cubbyhole to be stuffed into I guess I’m more of the “Old-Fart that has and does Stuff” sort of Lifestyle. If than makes sense? And I believe there are a LOT of us out here, for us it’s not a Prepper or Survivalist attitude that drives us, but a life of comfort in knowing we can outlast the 97% that are too busy with their Dumb-Phones and What the “Beautiful” people are doing on their vacations.

    For us there is a satisfaction of not only having that “Victory Garden”, Canning our harvests, but also practicing a few “Lights Out” or camping in 3 feet of snow, just because we enjoy it.

    A lot of us out here also believe that once that Hurricane or Earthquake hit we’ll fair well with our stash and the skills we have. Including knowing how to help others as needed. Unfortunately the Survivalist have gotten a bad rap because they are seemingly more concerned about their weapons and how much ammo they can carry (honestly look at a survivalist page, every other article is on ‘The Best Gun’) than being able build a community back. Same with the Preppers, the 97% have a view of them as Hoarders and people that have 5000 pounds of food in their basement/Bunker.

    So the question becomes how does one get ready for “Lights Out” (metaphor) and yet still live a ‘normal’ life? How does a group of close family/people maintain a seemingly benign life and yet have the resources to shelter a month or 3 without electricity?

    The differences between a Prepper and a Survivalist are minimal, compared to the differences between the 3%ers and the 97% that are Sheeple and have no clue what “May” be coming.

    Just my 2¢ worth, or maybe I’m wrong?

    1. NRP,
      I’ll be posting my response; but, felt the “need” to comment on your post, since you and I (and I suspect lots of others) have so much in common.

      In this modern day of everything needing a ‘Label’ and a particular cubbyhole to be stuffed into I guess I’m more of the “Old-Fart that has and does Stuff” sort of Lifestyle. If than makes sense? And I believe there are a LOT of us out here, for us it’s not a Prepper or Survivalist attitude that drives us, but a life of comfort in knowing we can outlast the 97% that are too busy with their Dumb-Phones and What the “Beautiful” people are doing on their vacations.
      I consider myself a mostly self reliant person and even accept the “prepper: label; but, you “Old-Fart that has and does Stuff” actually hits the mark quite well, LOL.

      For us there is a satisfaction of not only having that “Victory Garden”, Canning our harvests, but also practicing a few “Lights Out” or camping in 3 feet of snow, just because we enjoy it.

      I sort of agree; but, I’m finding that “colder” and “older” are not as compatible or as much fun as it used to be, unless of course, you keep a good fire going.

      A lot of us out here also believe that once that Hurricane or Earthquake hit we’ll fair well with our stash and the skills we have. Including knowing how to help others as needed. Unfortunately the Survivalist have gotten a bad rap because they are seemingly more concerned about their weapons and how much ammo they can carry.

      I see this theme a lot on TV and on different websites; but, in our rural agricultural area, “prepping” by whatever name, is mostly normal since running out of TP means a trip of at least 12-15 miles during business hours and more than 30 @ Oh Dark 30.

      So the question becomes how does one get ready for “Lights Out” (metaphor) and yet still live a ‘normal’ life? How does a group of close family/people maintain a seemingly benign life and yet have the resources to shelter a month or 3 without electricity?

      In our case it meant staying put, in one place for a long time. In the 34 years we’ve lived here we turned this place from an old windy house heated mostly with wood, into a fully functional retreat with good windows, great insulation, multiple ways to heat, with and without electricity; but, we now can also provide that for a rather long term. It meant long drives to work before I retired, internet that’s functional; but, not great, and TV via off the air and satellite that’s a bit more expensive than cable. It still means more planning and making lists to keep those trips to town infrequent and in short means a little isolation and less convenience, that are sacrifices some (the 97%?) are not willing to make.
      It also helped that I married a farm girl who grew up not 5 miles from where we now live, so the surrounding community already had connections.

      The differences between a Prepper and a Survivalist are minimal, compared to the differences between the 3%ers and the 97% that are Sheeple and have no clue what “May” be coming.

      I know for a fact that many of them know something is coming and will often admit it. I’ve had many of the 97% tell me how they envy my lifestyle; but, how it’s too much work for them or too expensive or too much something.
      There are also those who don’t need to prep, since they know “where you live”; but, usually are joking (I think) and are promptly informed of the dire consequences of such actions.

      1. The Ohio Prepper;
        Thanks for the reply; I always appreciate your input.
        Your quote “I know for a fact that many of them know something is coming and will often admit it.”
        And the following paragraph, is what’s very worrisome;
        I often ponder on what is worse the Sheeple that have NO idea, or those that do realize the dangers and yet do nada to prepare for any upcoming event, meaning anything from a full on EMP, Economic Crash, or simply a way to change a tire if they have a flat at 3:00AM.

        I have also on very few occasions had someone say “if something happens, I’ll just come to your place”, so how does one reply??? I simply look them straight in the eye saying “probably not a good idea” and just walk away.
        Maybe I should read the book “How to make friends and influence people”? HAHAHAHA

        1. NRP,

          I often ponder on what is worse the Sheeple that have NO idea, or those that do realize the dangers and yet do nada to prepare for any upcoming event, meaning anything from a full on EMP, Economic Crash, or simply a way to change a tire if they have a flat at 3:00AM.

          I look at them both in pretty much the same manner. Either oblivious that bad things can happen or stuck with “Normalcy Bias: that it is unlikely to happen to them. Many have the minor things covered, like that flat @ Oh Dark Thirty with a Cell Phone and a AAA card, and being realistic, 99% of the time, most of us go about our day to day business without any incidents. These people no doubt carry insurance on their home, vehicles, and other valuables; but, otherwise give it no thought beyond that. To be honest, I live my life in pretty much the same way, except that I do have the extra skills and resources to cover me in the predictable exceptional circumstances, based on my location and threats. Cold weather and power outages would be primary at my location; but, if we actually did get a direct strike by a tornado, I don’t know how well we would fair, since we have shelter able areas in the house; but, no real purpose built storm shelter, at least for now.
          I think possibly the most important thing about preparedness is mindset. Knowing that bad things can happen and having plans to mitigate them will hopefully allow one to cope “mentally” if a bad event occurs. We see news reports of groups like the Cajun Navy and local first responders, who hop into action when bad things occur and while in the neighborhoods helping we see affected people both working in the yard with a chainsaw and flashlight, while others are simply standing dazed, crying and pointing to the pile of rubbble that was once their home. I think it’s the PTS after the fact that may be the real killer of the unprepared.

          I have also on very few occasions had someone say “if something happens, I’ll just come to your place”, so how does one reply??? I simply look them straight in the eye saying “probably not a good idea” and just walk away.

          That’s as good a response as any. In our case we have had specific discussions with neighbors about coming here, and most are actually welcome, since in this rural neighborhood, everyone understands hard work and sharing. Most will bring resources and at least some number of defensive tools and skills. They know that while they will be warm and dry in a well lit location with power, they may be sleeping on a cot or bedroll on the floor.
          I lived in a small town of about 8,000 back during the blizzard of 1978 and everyone did work together in our small city neighborhood. Because of the way my house on a corner lot was situated, the power came from a different circuit than the rest of the houses on the block and I was the only house with power for about 3 days. I had several neighbors’ shelter with me, with some bringing food to be cooked and shared so it wouldn’t spoil and all in all it was a good experience for all of us. My experience has been mostly with small town and rural communities; but, I have to wonder about larger cities, and also know that I’m glad to be 30+ miles from the edges of the nearest big city (Columbus).

          Maybe I should read the book “How to make friends and influence people”? HAHAHAHA

          I’ve actually read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” years ago; but, I see it more as a self-help book. Author Dale Carnegie, published it in 1937, when I think attitudes were a bit different than today. It’s old enough that it’s available as a free download for anyone interested. I’m not sure even that classic book would help, since as they say: “It takes two to tango” and those who think they can simply show up and you are obligated to help, obviously have not practiced the steps to their part of that dance and should expect their feet to be stepped on. In my case, I’ll gladly do the stepping if required.

  2. By your definitions and today’s standards, I grew up in a family of preppers; but, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, every family I knew would have fit that definition, although most thought it just frugal and prudent living, with the depression in their rear view mirrors and the cold war and nuclear destruction an ever present threat.
    I learned Bush Craft skills by the age of 10 and had my first formal training in “Wilderness Survival” at age 14 in the Boy Scouts, and for a young teen, that is very empowering.
    Mobility
    Based on your definitions I was initially a survivalist, at least in part, due to finances, since learning skills is inexpensive, they are lightweight and easy to carry, and no one can take them from you. I’m rather confident that I could make it in most conditions, with the exception of desert, since I’ve only spent about 2 weeks total in desert conditions in my entire life and I’m not likely to spend any additional time there.
    On your Top Survivalist/Bushcraft Experts I’m lucky to have David Canterbury as an Ohio boy, with whom I’ve done some training. My last contact with him was a simple sit down and discussion when he was a keynote speaker at our OHTEIA (Ohio Hunter & Trapper Education Instructors Association) meeting last February. Living in a rural area is also a big benefit, since I can and do go out back to shoot, practice fire starting, and occasionally build a field expedient shelter for practice. I taught my DD to shoot @ age 5 and to build fires with a ferrocerium rod @ age 8 or 9. At age 10, I put a new Ferro rod in her Christmas stocking, and when she found it, she was still in her pajamas; but, immediately got dressed and went out to build a fire in the snow.
    In my case, and those of many of my neighbors and MAG members, the line between prepper and survivalist Is rather thin, especially since most of those who are neither, look at all of us with some amount of disdain. The unfortunate thing is that many who ridicule us, actually think what we are doing makes sense; but, are just unwilling to modify their lifestyles or be the brunt of jokes from their non-prepping friends and colleagues.
    Your list of books is pretty good; but, I personally like those of Tom Brown, Jr.
    1. Tom Brown’s Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival
    2. Field Guide to Living with the Earth
    3. Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children
    4. Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking
    5. Field Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness
    6. Field Guide to Wilderness Survival
    7. The Tracker
    W And as a kid who grew up in the 60’s surrounded by the wooded hillsides of the Appalachians of western Pennsylvania, we cannot forget
    Euell Gibbons and his:
    • Stalking the wild asparagus
    • Stalking the healthful herbs
    • Stalking the blue-eyed scallop
    • Stalking the Good Life: My Love Affair with Nature
    ith #1 probably being my favorite introduction for preppers, who might need to be able to
    ”Shelter In Place.” for short term events, like power outages during bad weather events.

    Conservative estimates number preppers at a minimum of four million people worldwide and in all likelihood the numbers are probably double that knowing that many preppers do so entirely in secret.

    I find the secrecy interesting, since in our rural community, no one bats an eye when they see a pile of firewood, a whole house generator, or see your “stash” of canned goods.
    I have 5 large propane tanks; but, most of my farming neighbors have something similar and no one really pays attention.

    Skills and knowledge are important but the primary focus is on being prepared with the supplies and skills to sustain them when a future disaster or SHTF event strikes.

    In our case, we plan to shelter in place, and have several neighbors who are already invited and welcome, with all of them bringing skills &/or resources to the ”party.”
    Prepper Mobility is one of those things that we’ve thought through carefully and with only a tiny exception, we will be staying put. That exception would be a fire in the house, or a tornado that hits the house; but, in our 34 years on this homestead, none of those have been a problem, except for a tornado that came within 1.5-2 miles back in November 2002. You can see our photos of the event here: http://www.theohioprepper.org/Tornado2002/

    As a result the terms survivalist and prepper are even more interchangeable than ever before.

    I totally agree and to those who mock the whole idea, there is really no difference.

    Today there are many more people who think of themselves as preppers even if their primary focus is on preparing to survive common and short term emergencies such as natural disasters, power outages, or job loss.

    Actually I see this as a good trend, since those things like a job loss, critical illness, death in the family or short to medium term loss of utilities are far more likely than that “Zombie Apocalypse.”
    Your list pr TV shows is in part my list:
    • Life Below Zero
    • The Last Alaskan
    • Mountain Men
    • Alaskan Bush People
    But I would also add:
    ”SOS: How to Survive” (The Weather Channel)
    ”Weather Gone Viral” (The Weather Channel)
    ”Mayday: Air Disaster” (The Weather Channel)
    Plus a lot of other Weather Channel shows that depict problems and solutions.
    and
    Live free or Die (National Geographic channel)
    In short, I love the rural lifestyle and always have, with the canyons of the cities making me almost claustrophobic.

    1. As it turns out, I forgot one item that both Survivalists and Preppers “Need” to have beyond basic food & shelter.
      Communications. Even in our modrn world with things working properly, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and other events can impact our ability to communicate with each other. In our case we have a landline that also provides our internet via DSL and that will have a dial tone long after the cell phones have no bars.
      We have three cell phones on two carriers; plus, a plethora of radios in various services, with the bulk in the Amateur (ham radio) service. I have equipment and people around our area to keep in constant communications, no matter what the events (mostly weather) may bring.
      This was something you didn’t mention In your article; but, something that could well be crucial to basic needs and survival.

  3. good article, i would add a few other resources, for skill building.

    over at you tube, look up : alpha charlie concepts, grey beard green beret/ corporals corner/ possibly even wrangler star. but the first 3 guys are tied loosely to canterbury, personally i think they are much better, asa modern survivalist.

    1. BLACK,

      good article, i would add a few other resources, for skill building.
      over at you tube, look up : alpha charlie concepts, grey beard green beret/ corporals corner/ possibly even wrangler star. but the first 3 guys are tied loosely to canterbury, personally i think they are much better, asa modern survivalist.

      Thanks for the list. I watched a few of these ; but, if you’re judging Canterbury only by the videos then you’re not seeing everything. I spent 3 ½ days training with him and some of his crew back in 2011 at his final fall gathering, and he’s a good and knowledgeable guy. I talked with him at a meeting last February about why he now only holds the summer gathering and it has to do with the kids, who often cannot attend the fall gathering since they are already back in school. Some of us are thinking about attending this upcoming summer 2019 Pathfinder Gathering in southern Ohio. It’s not yet scheduled; but, is normally in July. You and I need to talk about it. BTW, I have your telephone waiting for you to pick up; but, still need to build and test the dial tone circuit.

      1. don’t get me wrong. i’m not anti canturbury. several of those , well i think all 3 of them help him out, to some extent. dave loves the trapping and blacksmithing. i can do that semi o.k… the others are more wooodsie , taking advantage of modern items, almost through hikers. where dave likes the period costumes, bacon and fried possom..

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