Future Tense

The Schism Breaking Apart the “Prepper” Community

A fiery mushroom cloud.
Mesut Zengin/Getty Images Plus

These are heady times for survivalist forums. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the attendant speculation about nuclear war, has sent participation soaring. One of these communities, Reddit’s r/preppers board, describes its mission as “learning and sharing information to aid in emergency preparedness as it relates to disasters both natural and man-made.” It’s gained more than 20,000 subscribers since January (and currently stands at a hefty 292,000 subscribers). “Emergency preparedness” there has long been a varied conversation. If it features location- and event-specific preparations (for weather disasters, for instance, or pandemic shortages), it also hosts many discussions about apocalyptic scenarios, often referred to as SHTF (when Shit Hits the Fan). Plenty of those discussions are duly skeptical of lone wolf fantasies about battling marauders (or surviving nuclear apocalypse).

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So it would be wrong to say that the bulk of the subreddit consists of bunker-minded scenarios—there are plenty of exchanges about gardening and canning, for example, and meta-discussions about whether people should “prep” for individual crises like job loss, say, as opposed to full-scale societal collapse. Advice includes stockpiling strategies and the importance of clean underwear. There are weekly chats where people discuss whichever modest steps they took that week to prep, and many posts, far from fetishizing individual survival, are public-spirited. Ukraine has become a common subject. One recent post is titled “I never prepped for taking in refugees. My story as an European prepper.” The replies are supportive and interested, with recommendations ranging from buying pads and tampons to adult diapers to clean socks and underwear.

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But discussions of doomsday scenarios involving bunkers and guns and MREs aren’t exactly rare. And it seems reasonable to say that the majority of the members are male. This leads us to the other big change that has come to the board. Soon after Russia began its invasion, some long-running tensions in the prepper community erupted out into the open.

You might call it an emerging schism. And it’s not only caused an exodus of female members—it’s challenging the very idea of what it means to prep.

In late February, a post on r/preppers titled “Will the female preppers please stand up” lightheartedly complained about how equipment necessary for survival was aggressively gendered male. Some of the responses from female preppers evolved into a more general complaint about how the community discussions had a masculine cast to them: “Lol one time I made a post on here about stoking birth control and plan b and it got taken down,” a user replied. “I don’t think getting pregnant would help me survive when SHTF but what do I know?” Another user replied: “I remember that post and yes it got taken down by mods who felt that advice relevant to half the country isn’t actually relevant to prepping and we apparently aren’t allowed to talk about things like birth control and preventing yourself from sexual assault without it triggering some people.”

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A debate ensued about whether posts were really being removed—that is, downvoted or reported by members, resulting in their removal by the auto-moderator. Some moderators expressed concern, saying that removing posts about female concerns went against the very spirit of the community. Another moderator claimed it hadn’t happened; only one post he could find in the logs (about “bugging in” with a baby) had been removed by an auto-moderator. He claimed no one had appealed the removals of any posts and complained that the subreddit was needlessly hemorrhaging women over one post no one had complained was gone. Skeptical members requested proof that the removals had actually happened. In the middle of the debate, a user replied with an innocuous announcement. “I just made r/TwoXPreppers,” she wrote. Hundreds of users immediately started subscribing.

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The subreddit description reads: “A place where women can talk about prepping for their specific needs. Even though I used XX in the name this sub is trans inclusive and pro LGBTQIA.”

It wasn’t a hostile secession. In fact, evidence that female-centered posts on r/preppers had been removed was shared on r/TwoXPreppers at the request of r/preppers moderators, in the hopes of addressing the problem. “The report button is there for a reason,” a screenshot showed a moderator saying, “and if so many members Reported your post that it got removed then I would have to say that the community has spoken.” When this screenshot was posted, another r/preppers moderator wrote: “I am sorry that this happened and am trying to fix the issue. We in no way want to exclude women topics and I really have no idea if the other mods are male or not, but I do assume that they are.”

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It was telling, however, that this conversation was happening on the new, spun-off sub. The cat was out of the bag. Right now, about a month after its creation, r/TwoXPreppers has 7,500 members.

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It was clear from the get-go that things on r/TwoXPreppers would be different. Sure, there were plenty of survival-specific queries—posts in the early days included how to clean hand-pump water filters without chlorine bleach, do laundry without a washing machine, sew bras, infant prep, and deal with childbirth and miscarriage. There were discussions of how to track menstrual cycles accurately to prevent pregnancy, how to acquire mifepristone and misoprostol for medical abortions, and how to treat UTIs, which can be particularly dangerous when antibiotics aren’t available. “Any Rape Deterrents?” reads one post. Another reads, “Living Without Refrigeration.” There are posts asking trans and nonbinary preppers what they’re doing to prepare and asking about where to get tools for small women.

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But it soon became clear that the definition of “prepping” itself was expanding. One of the earlier popular entries in the subreddit was titled “A Fuck Off Fund: the most important female prep.” The advice: that women need to maintain a financial ability to escape bad situations or relationships. A post on “Gender Roles and Learned Reliance on Men” discusses how some women weren’t taught essential skills and how to learn them, with particular emphasis on financial literacy. These are long-term, even ongoing concerns—not just responses to sudden threats. “Ladies,” one poster wrote. “I know some of you do not like dealing with that stuff, it’s boring, you may not have any interest in it—too fucking bad. It is not safe to not have access or know the password to your accounts or how to access all of the money you both have if you are married. … If your husband is investing in Bitcoin? You need to know how much.”

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Inevitably, posters started to make direct comparisons with how prepping was generally discussed on the other, larger board. “It gets a bit boring when it’s all about mres, guns and building a fortress. I’m about making from scratch, making do with less, and building community,” one user said. “I will never, ever, shoot my neighbor for stealing a cabbage. I’ll invite them over for cabbage soup and show them how to dig/mulch/weed next months cabbage. And I’ll do that today, before it gets to the stage that my neighbors need to steal my cabbage.” It’s a fair distinction: On r/preppers, you’re more likely to find members warning one another never to show their stash of supplies and weapons to neighbors or acquaintances for fear of becoming targets. In response to an article about what Ukrainians took with them while fleeing, some r/preppers found fault with those who carried “nonessential” items. The discussions on r/TwoXPreppers drift, however, toward a conception of “survival” that includes community and entertainment and pleasure. Even when it comes to shared interests like stockpiling food, the focus is less on brute calories (or Spam and cans of beans) than on how to maintain the ability to eat meals that you’d actually want to eat. Another topic of comparison was child care, which one poster said “seems to be totally dismissed in most prepping conversations,” even though one lesson of the pandemic should be otherwise.

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Looked at from this emerging angle, where people discuss which children’s books to pack in a bug-out bag or which movies to store in a portable device, “prepping” starts to drift awfully close to “living.” The users are aware of this, and skeptical of some of the bright lines the mostly male preppers draw between “normal” life and the emergencies they’re readying themselves for. It’s a fascinating question: Is the objective of prepping to create some kind of continuity with life as it is ordinarily lived, or to adjust (violently, if necessary) to a jagged new reality characterized via pared-down survival measures? One poster suggested that many of what the main forum considered SHTF scenarios weren’t too far off from what people who have lived in poverty have grown up experiencing. Whereas the one group tends to treat the conditions one preps for as exceptional, the other prepares for “Tuesday, not doomsday.” “For many men, prepping is a fantasy of stepping up to occupy a role which has been all but erased from the modern world,” a different poster observed. “For women, on the other hand, prepping is a fantasy of not being badly inconvenienced by disasters as we continue in the roles that we’re already occupying.”

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Some examples of this expanded definition are more extreme than others. One person suggested that all sorts of things women routinely do, from clipping coupons to buying kids shoes in bigger sizes, count as prepping. So, for that matter, do meals with friends: “Social skills are called skills for a reason, and they’re vital to navigating hostile situations and people. Every time you organise a boozy brunch, you’re upping your chances of survival.”

This position creeps awfully close to something like gender essentialism, and it met with some pushback. “The idea that ‘women are natural preppers!’ is an over exaggeration to me and just lumping the entire gender into a positive characteristic,” one person said. Others were adamant that their mothers and grandmothers were not, despite being women, remotely prepared—and that friends who shopped compulsively for fast fashion and impractical shoes could not be credited with “prepping” in any meaningful sense. They were just shoppers, and that was OK.

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And so the definitions of what prepping involves among a newly vocal contingent are both expanding and narrowing in real time, being negotiated by a community that didn’t quite have the space to hammer that stuff out before. That has not exactly led to a consensus that the concerns on r/TwoXPreppers should be the purview of women—or, indeed, that it should exclude men. Moderators of the sub announced that they were in no way shutting men out and that all were welcome, provided they didn’t try to close discussion down. Some men have participated enthusiastically. Some others have taken the existence of the sub badly, labeling the members man-haters and downvoting posts. It all looks a lot, in other words, like the growing pains that attend a new and real dialogue.

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The schism between r/preppers and r/TwoXPreppers isn’t likely to be permanent or unbridgeable. There’s plenty of goodwill on both sides, and a lot of women who post on r/TwoXPreppers are still members of the original community and claim to find value there, even if they’re grateful for the more wide-ranging discussions the new subreddit makes available. After all, it’s not straightforwardly the case that members of the original group never consider the vulnerable. One man posted for help planning a bug-out bag for his 80-year-old mother. Another, replying to a post asking whether members were prepping for themselves or for their community, acknowledged the group’s tendencies while challenging them. “You must be new here,” he wrote. “The prevailing sentiment of this sub (beyond the immediate family) is, ‘Fuck you, got mine.’ History and logic tells us that larger, community based prepping would be best for long term survival and comfort.” A recent “Ask a Woman Prepper” post saw high engagement.

There are also additional offshoots: r/QueerPreppers was created shortly after r/TwoXPreppers, and a new women’s prepping sub was recently founded that explicitly does exclude men. The Mad Max framing that shaped so much prepping discourse still exists, but it’s now surrounded by other approaches that might import a little more utopianism into traditionally dystopian thinking. Like hope that the goal of preserving life and food can extend to social structures, too. That, in other words, the practice of planning for the end of civilization can now include keeping some of it around.

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