Now, “civilians” are turning to expert preppers in droves for help in getting ready for the worst.
Nander Knobben, who runs an online prepper store from the Netherlands, told CNN he helps people “to become less dependent on the external things, like the government.”
Knobben has had “orders flying in” since the coronavirus outbreak began. He sold almost as many masks, rations, radios and water filters in February as he did in six months last year, and people he hasn't spoken to in years have been messaging him to request supplies.
At home, the 29-year-old has rations for two or three months, about 84 liters of water, blankets, candles, live chickens, spare oil for his car, a first-aid kit and a BOB (or portable survival kit) packed with a flashlight and freeze-dried food.
“If you prep it now and have food in the house for a month and it isn't the coronavirus, maybe in a few years you'll need it for another scenario, so it's never a bad idea to take some precautions,” he said. “I don't want to be dependent on anybody, I want to take care of myself.
“You store it in your house and then you just get on with living your life.”
Knobben does not believe in a “post-apocalyptic movie scenario” and avoids the more extreme Doomsday preppers and their online forums.
“I've been there, in the first year I started the web shop and I also got kind of sucked in with it, I was checking it every day. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that can happen, that can happen, we also need to prepare for that.'
“It didn't make me a happier person being there every day and doing that every day and I still really support the need for prepping and why people need to prep, I think it's really important but I don't think it's — I would advise against it to go on the internet every day and see all the conspiracies. It's a big rabbit hole and once you go down it, I don't think your life will be better for it.”
Lincoln Miles, who runs a UK preppers outlet, told CNN via email that things had been “beyond manic” following the virus outbreak in December. Sales are 20 times higher than usual, he says, and he has hired extra staff who are working into the night seven days a week to keep up with demand.
“The bestsellers are, of course, gas masks, hazmat suits and accessories,” said Miles, whose store also sells crossbows, axes and knives.
He is selling 600-700 military-spec masks, almost 1,000 filters and hundreds of hazmat suits every day, and sold 6,000 20-day rations packs in five hours last week.
His suppliers are “so overwhelmed that available stock is becoming almost non-existent,” Miles added.
The researchers concluded that “prepping is not a marginal subculture, but an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, driven not by delusional certainty, but a precautionary response to a generalized anxiety people have around permanent crisis.”
Co-author Sarah Browne, assistant professor in marketing and strategy at Trinity College Dublin, told CNN that preppers felt they were portrayed as “silly” or “paranoid,” and wanted to show they were “logical and practical while non-preppers are naive and ill-prepared.”
She said preppers do not see crises such as the coronavirus as “a temporary breakdown in otherwise functioning system” but as evidence of a “large-scale problem.”
Browne said most preppers first adopted the lifestyle because of a traumatic event such as financial collapse or losing a job. “It'll be interesting to see if the virus scare on this level could trigger some people to change their consumption and lose trust in the market system,” she said.
Edward O'Toole, a British author, has been prepping since he lived off-grid with his parents as a child and now lives in a north-eastern Slovakian village where it is a way of life.
Residents grow and preserve their own food for winter, when there are often blackouts or water shortages.
“You don't want to have to be reliant on someone else for providing your food or water or electricity,” he said. “There is a very logical side of things, not a Doomsday scenario where we need to stock up on weaponry.”
O'Toole collects wood for fuel, stocks up on canned food and water purification tablets and has what preppers call an EDC (“every day carry”) pouch equipped with a multi-tool, flashlight and first-aid kit.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread around the world, O'Toole thinks this will make prepping more and more popular. “It's a wake-up call to people not to be so laissez-faire,” he said.
“People have sort of removed themselves slightly from reality compared to the 1950s (and) 1960s … I think this will teach people to start having something in reserve just in case.”
He said prepping is not about stockpiling expensive survival products you don't know how to use, but about acting as a community. “Western society has become very isolationist, especially now we have an internet-based generation … you don't have to go out to meet your neighbor.
The writer says that there's a much stronger community spirit among people who are able to look after their own things first, then provide for others. “In a flood, someone with a canoe could go out bring food to the grandfather down the road,” he added.
“If the community is stronger and the members are more self-reliant, then you can help others, you don't have to be a burden.”