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A survivalist is a person who anticipates a potential disruption in the continuity of local, regional or worldwide society, and takes steps to survive in the resulting unpredictable situation. Some survivalists take an interest in survival in the wilderness or at sea.

The specific preparations made will depend on the nature of the anticipated disruption. The natures of the disruptions most commonly planned for among survivalists include:

  1. Natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, and severe thunderstorms
  2. Disasters brought about by the activities of humankind: chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, war
  3. Collapse of the socioeconomic structure resulting in the unavailability of electricity, fuel, food, water, and other goods and services.

The taking of prudent precautions as a hedge against bad times is as old as history. The modern survivalist movement in the United States can be traced chiefly to two sources:
  1. The directive of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to its members to store a year's worth of food for themselves and their families
  2. The publication of How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years by Howard A. Ruff in 1977.

Ruff's book was published during a period of rampant inflation in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Most of the elements of survivalism can be found there, including advice on storage of food. The book also championed the notion that precious metals, such as gold and silver, have an intrinsic worth that makes them more usable in the event of a socioeconomic collapse than other currency.

Howard Ruff later repudiated much of the book. He has kept it out of print and claims to have purchased the undistributed copies and destroyed them.

Common preparations sometimes include preparing a clandestine or defensible "safe place" and stockpiling food, water, clothing, seed, and agricultural equipment. While some survivalists do not emphasize also stockpiling weapons, many do. The common goal is to allow a group to remain completely self-sufficient for the duration of the breakdown, or perhaps indefinitely if the breakdown is predicted to be permanent.

Specifically, survivalists assume they cannot prevent the collapse, and prepare to survive as individuals, as families, or in small communal groups.

Some businesses have arisen around providing survivalist supplies, including businesses that sell complete sets of food supplies for specified periods of time.

Fringe Groups

Some survivalists take a militaristic approach and have an uncommonly strong concern about government involvement in their affairs. This is most common in extremely rural parts of the Western United States, where a world view occasionally develops that growing interference from the federal government, and the United Nations, is best countered through acquisition of suitable small arms and the setting of strategic booby traps. However, not all who take military matters into their own hands are survivalists; see militia movement, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City bombing.

Such a militaristic approach is not shared by many survivalists, and is indeed condemned by many. The vocal advocacy of such an extreme position, however, gives survivalism a bad name.

Other voices

People outside the survivalism movement who have encountered similar situations, either in third world countries or as a lifestyle choice, usually assert that the survivalist's emphasis is misplaced for a number of reasons.

  1. The emphasis on stored food and water
  2. The low likelihood of a scenario involving socioeconomic collapse serious enough to require preparations but mild enough that such preparations will not be overcome by disease, looting, fire, war, or other forces