Garrison, New York — On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, a group of men, women and children, hiked along a barely-there trail in the mountains of Garrison, NY, watching their footing as leftover snow and earth slipped beneath them.
They arrived a few minutes later at a small clearing, their camp for the day, where they joined the rest of their group on logs around an empty fire pit. Decked in their new survival gear, they huddled under tarps hanging from the trees, and piled branches beneath their feet to keep away from the cold earth.
Their leader, Shane Hobel, survival expert and instructor at the Mountain Scout Survival School, addressed the 22 New Yorkers from the exposed center of the camp.
“There is zero sustainability down in the city,” said Hobel. “Being prepared is simply being responsible.”
Throughout the day, students learned to build a shelter out of branches and leaves that could withstand blizzard-like temperatures, filter water with everyday objects like plastic water bottles and bandanas, and collect firewood while conserving energy.
Their most important lesson came when three volunteers popped out suddenly from behind rocks and beneath leaves while the students were building a shelter. The lesson: always be mindful of your surroundings.
“People are becoming more aware and more self-actualized,” said Hobel, who believes learning to live off the land is a birthright. “That’s the beautiful thing that people learn through these skills. They actually get to be reintroduced to themselves.”
New Yorkers are turning to survivalist groups and classes, like Hobel’s, to master skills for a range of disaster scenarios from blackouts to zombie apocalypses. Groups that emphasize survival gear and supplies, known as preppers, are also popular; as recent emergencies and pop culture inspire dozens of citizens to ready themselves for the worst.
Organizations like the Mountain Scout Survival School and prepper groups like the New York City Prepper’s Network offer lectures, workshops and classes on self-defense, wilderness survival, navigation, and home protection, among other skills. Some survivalist groups also have wilderness weekends where members can put their skills to the test.
Cecilia Raymond, 39, a contractor and former member of the military joined the New York City Prepper’s Network in 2013 to refresh her survival knowledge, specifically how to escape the city during an emergency and what gear to pack for long-term wilderness survival.
“I became more aware of what’s going on around me, doing more research, going on YouTube and trying to see these skills,” said Raymond, who is learning to build fires, camp and hike. “I want to pass these skills on to my kids. You never know what could happen.”
Most of New York’s survival and prepper groups have 20 to 30 members; some are regulars and others filter in and out. Members of the New York City Prepper’s Network tend to be more advanced, with military and first responder backgrounds, while groups like Prepare Defend Survive cater to the average person.
Prepper and survivalist groups have recently increased in popularity because New Yorkers have become more aware of the city’s vulnerabilities. Superstorm Sandy and 9-11 were wake up calls for some citizens to prepare themselves for natural disasters, blackouts, pandemics, terrorist attacks, and even financial collapse. They want to know how to communicate with family members and create an evacuation plan.
“People are genuinely interested,” said Jason Charles of the New York City Prepper’s Network. “They’re nervous and they’re like, ‘I have to do something. I have to protect my family.’”
Will You Survive?
The end of days are nigh and you must evacuate New York City. You can only carry five items with you. Choose your supplies and drag them into the bag to see how prepared you are for a disaster.
Credits: Icons made by Don Willow.
Survival and prepper groups are also forming in other parts of the country that are prone to natural disasters like California, Florida and Tennessee. A National Preppers and Survivalists expo, held for the third time, even took place in Tulsa recently. Many of them stress self-sufficiency and sustainable living, like farming and finding wild edibles, to help members decrease their reliance on vulnerable government systems.
Some say survivalism is a growing fad because of the plethora of apocalyptic television shows and movies like “The Walking Dead,” “Doomsday Preppers,” and “This Is The End.”
“It’s contributed to an overall culture of being able to survive by yourself,” said Alex Chan of Prepare Defend Survive. “People are attracted to that type of genre and have decided to join preparation groups.”
Some groups are using pop culture to attract members and make light of survivalism.
The NY/LI Zombie Outbreak Response Team started in May 2013 and uses the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for everything from attackers to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. They try to prepare their members for every worst-case scenario, zombies included.
“If you are prepared for the zombies you are ready for anything!” says the Meetup group’s page. “A zombie could be anything from a person infected by a pandemic outbreak to a crazy nut job, criminal or gangster who wants to hurt your family.”
On the other hand, Prepare Defend Survive caters to average New Yorkers, without basic survival skills who may be more vulnerable in emergencies. Their members’ ages range from early 20s to late 60s, and a majority are women.
“Our group stresses providing the knowledge for everyday people,” said Chan.
The group began in March 2012, but wasn’t active until after Superstorm Sandy. Now they hold monthly meetings where members research and present subjects like first aid knowledge, food canning, and self-defense without the use of guns.
Prepare Defend Survive helps members learn to survive on their own when first responders can’t to get to them quickly, or at all.
Living in New York, many survivalists haven’t used their skills in a real-life emergency scenario. But they like knowing they can protect themselves and their families if they need to.
“We hope we don’t have to use these skills,” said Chan. “But the confidence is very empowering. It helps people in their daily lives.”