Words by Sam Haddad | Photos by Tristan Kennedy
“People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there." Cormac McCarthy, The Road
I’m wearing a gas mask for the first time, yet I’m not sure I’ve ever found it so hard to breathe. Whatever bad stuff this military-issue piece of kit is meant to filter it out, it feels like it’s cutting out the vital stuff like oxygen too. It’s super-eerie. My mind wanders; I feel trapped.
How the hell am I supposed to run from the apocalypse, in whatever guise it arrives, nerve gas, ISIS, zombies, giant blob forms…, while wearing one of these? If this is what survival looks like I want out. Then the photos are done. I take the mask off and instantly feel fine.
"On the paranoia scale I'm barely at entry level…"
I watch too much end-of-the-world telly and read too many dystopian books. It doesn’t take much to set my over-primed imagination off. Though judging by the healthy sales of the UK’s only preppers shop I’m not alone. In fact on the paranoia scale I’m barely at entry level. They sell three or four of these unused, ex-army gas masks a day, often with full hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. When the Ebola news stories peaked in 2014 they were selling 40 a day.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They also sell crossbows, knives, jerry cans, water-purifying kits, solar showers, army boots, military wet wipes and more. While I’m here the phone is constantly ringing. They get several walk-ins a day, though they sell most of their stuff online.
Prepping, the shop’s owner Lincoln Miles would later tell me, is simply “preparing for a bad scenario". Though everything I’ve ever read on the topic would suggest said scenario often features heavy end-of-the-world vibes, especially in the US, where prepping, or survivalism as it’s sometimes known, is a massive movement. In 2012 three million Americans were said to self-identify as preppers. They have conventions, camps, and of course YouTube prophets.
"People are worried about what could happen & they're trying to do everything they can to prevent it."
It’s not such a big thing here but the UK prepping scene is growing. I ask Miles why he thinks that is? Do events such as the ISIS Paris Attacks and recent Christmas flooding in the north of the England have an effect? “For sure," he says. “As soon as things like that happen it makes people feel like we’re not as safe. You just go through life and get on with things normally then something happens and it just reminds you that everyone is vulnerable. That things can happen anytime."
Is prepping connected to anxiety then? Miles says: “Yeah massively so. People are worried about what could happen and they’re trying to do everything they can to prevent it." To try and regain control over the uncontrollable perhaps, however futile that may be.
Are things actually less safe in the world or does it just feel that way? “I think everything has become more unstable. There’s a distrust because of things like Snowden and phone hacking. It makes people think how little they know of what does go on."
“Then there’s global warming, earthquakes, floods, everything feels like it’s coming together. And with the internet more people can turn on YouTube and listen to information. So with say budget cuts for the police, people think well if someone did burgle my house is anyone going to come and help me?"
"The sky seems limitless though the landscape is flat, in a slightly soul-crushing way…"
The Preppers Shop UK is on an industrial estate amid green fields and farmland in Bedfordshire. The sky seems limitless though the landscape is flat, in a slightly soul-crushing way. Once you turn off the main road, to reach the shop units, there’s a long drive and a bridge. Easy to defend in an attack, I find myself thinking.
Just over an hour from London, it’s prime Green Belt territory; it seems an incongruous location for a survivalist shop. Or is it? My friend grew up nearby and, on condition of anonymity, had this to say:
“I think these Home Counties places are full of Daily Mail readers who think the world is full of bad people and that the worst is going to happen (especially in these ISIS times)."
"There's nothing the British psyche loves more than apocalyptic scenarios set against…the tinkle of china at afternoon tea…"
"I think they have too much time on their hands and it brings a bit of drama and intrigue to these sleepy country towns! Like with Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders. There's nothing the British psyche loves more than apocalyptic scenarios set against the sound of leather on willow and the tinkle of china at afternoon tea."
Miles himself lives locally. He started out with an online surf shop, which he still runs along with a hipster beard product emporium, though the preppers side is by far the most profitable now. He started selling prepper kit in 2014 having read an article about the scene in America and how people build safety bunkers in their houses. He says: “I realised there was a huge gap. There wasn’t anyone catering to that market in the UK."
Is he a prepper or a businessman? “I thought it was quite cool then I realised it could be a business opportunity but when you’re growing a business you get so engrossed in it, and you learn everything about it…" How long could he survive if something went down? “I reckon I could last a good couple of months with my own stuff, let alone coming and grabbing stuff from here."
Who are his main customers? “It’s mostly men, blokes with kids worrying about the future. Some just buy stuff for themselves, while others bring their wives and kids, and get them all kitted out."
"Three million people in America self-identify as preppers."
Miles is keen to point out that his customers and UK preppers in general are less on the apocalyptic tip than their American counterparts. He says: “There’s probably one person in 1000 who thinks the world is going to end. Generally it’s just everyday stuff like flooding [instant sandbags are a bestseller], which could cause a power cut that lasted a week and make water undrinkable. People might think what if we didn’t have enough food and the police weren’t helping us and couldn’t rescue us, what would we need."
“Could I survive if stranded in my house and I couldn’t drink the water or use the cooker? We sell a lot of camping stoves and water purification systems."
But there are some more extreme preppers. He says: “Say if we had something like the London riots but it went on for a week, would people have to leave their house because it was being burnt down? They might want to bug out to the woods."
To what? “Preppers say bugging in or bugging out. If there’s a big scenario you have to decide if you’re going to stay put in your house and barricade the door as you’ve got three months of food and supplies or you might bug out with your rucksack."
"You'd want to get away from civilisation generally into the woods…"
"So if something happens you run out the door, that’s lots more camping-orientated. You’d want to get away from civilisation generally into the woods, especially in Wales or the Scottish Highlands. So could you start a fire in the field, and cook on it." They sell flint firelighters, axes, rucksacks, and hammocks to help with that.
They also have a hell of a lot of gnarly-looking knives and crossbows on sale. It’s quite unsettling. Are they for bugging out? “Generally you’d have knives on you anyway. It’s all bushcraft-orientated, you’d need to make a shelter and live off the land."
Can anyone buy them? “If you’re over 18, though we’d check that before selling."
Do they worry they could get into the wrong hands? “There’s a police stat that says 95% knife crime is done with kitchen knives. Is someone going to come and spend £200 on a knife, stab someone and chuck it in the river? They’re going to spend £2.99 on a bread knife." He probably has a point. Though what kind of survival fetishist would you have to have to keep a £200 knife under your bed.
"Even if I did have a knife under my bed I have no idea what I'd do with it…"
Does he have a knife under his bed? “Not under it but near it, yeah I’ve got plenty." Even if I did have a knife under my bed I have no idea what I’d do with it.
How about the catapults and crossbows? “A lot of people do target practice as a fun hobby [they sell Zombie adorned-target set ups…]. You can’t legally hunt with them even on private land, though you could if you needed to. They call it ‘shit hits the fan’ say if there was a complete breakdown in law and order and everything has gone to pot. There’s no police around you’ve got to fend for yourself, you could then use it to shoot an animal, skin it and gut it…"
I ask if the law is the same in America? “No in America you can do whatever you want!" Miles replies wistfully. “It’s a bit of a free for all."
Do UK preppers see America as the promised land?
“Haha yeah a lot of people do but then a lot of people think there’s a lot of nutters there, who give preppers a bad name. Weirdos running around with guns shooting everything they can, storing up thousands of bullets and stuff."
What is the appeal of American prepping then? “The space. That you could go off and build yourself a hut somewhere and no one would ever find you. Whereas over here you haven’t got that luxury. If you tried a dog walker would walk past you a couple of times an hour or a mum with a pram."
"The appeal of American prepping? The space. If you tried to [go off and build a hut in the UK] a dog walker would walk past you a couple of times an hour."
How many of us would still take the romantic view after an hour of chopping wood and trying to use the solar shower in a blizzard I wonder? A thought I often have about Cabin Porn, beautiful as those photos often are.
What else does Miles like about US prepping? “It’s so advanced over there. Every other town has a prepper or survival shop. They’ll have meets where thousands show up. But America is always a couple years more advanced generally. In the future people here will think it’s a normal thing."
Do they not now? “I think people like to keep being a prepper secret here. In case something did happen everyone would come straight to theirs."
"More people think it isn't preparing for World War 5 or whatever. It's more everyday scenarios [like flooding] which is a normal and good idea."
Not also because they’re worried about the social stigma? “That too. People might think they’re weirdos or nutters I guess. It’s more acceptable than it was now. More people think it isn’t preparing for World War 5 or whatever or a nuclear attack. It’s more everyday scenarios which is actually quite a normal and good idea."
What’s the weirdest conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard? “Some people spend a lot of time on YouTube. They’ll come in and spout for two hours…all sorts of stuff about the government, the Illuminati, on what if everything crashes…"
It’s hard to tell what Miles himself believes. He seems media-savvy enough to keep that quiet, aside from a strangely impassioned defence of the Confederate flag, which is draped at one end of the shop. It’s also hard to deny the appeal of bushcraft or more generally dressing up and role-playing survival scenarios in the woods, which a lot of this also feels like.
A lot of us fret on the future. Some channel that worry into health by buying juicers and rolling their own courgette pasta, others get wrecked to avoid thinking about it. And some people spend money on prepping in the hope they’ll be ready if the shit goes down.
But how do you know if the doomsday scenario you’re prepping for is the one you’re going to face? Not that I don’t worry about it, but if the end of the world comes I’m pretty sure there’s absolutely nothing any of us will be able to do about it.
For more info go to Preppers Shop UK