As Storm Babet battered the UK last month, a niche but growing section of the population could have felt justified in their unusual pursuit: preparing for disaster.
With increasing threats posed by climate breakdown, such as flooding and wildfires, as well as fears over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “prepping” has elbowed its way into mainstream society. The scenes of empty food shelves caused by panic buying early in the pandemic have exposed Britain’s fragile retail supply chains, and spurred a burgeoning industry that targets people hoarding essentials for the kind of doomsday scenario that lockdowns made more imaginable.
In the US, the industry is well established – Americans spent $11bn (£9bn) preparing for disaster last year. Multinationals such as Amazon and eBay have dedicated categories for prepping. Now, specialist UK stores, high street chains and online shops dealing in leftover military stock are selling pallets of freeze-dried food, wind-up torches and radios, water purifiers and even full nuclear survival kits.
Lincoln Miles founded Preppers Shop UK almost a decade ago and says he has seen business boom since the Covid lockdowns. “I read about the concept of prepping in magazines and thought it made a hell of a lot of sense. In the past couple of years, it’s just exploded. There are some people in full hazmat suits talking about nuclear war and stuff, but there’s so many different levels to prepping; [people] have become worried about natural disasters.”
Miles’s store, in Wadebridge, Cornwall, sells a kit containing a month’s supply of freeze-dried meals for £478.71. Another site, UKPreppingShop, sells a one-person nuclear survival kit – complete with a gas mask – for £564.95.
Sgt Preppers, set up during the pandemic in the Pennines, offers guides to living “off grid” and £95 hazmat suits (in children’s and adult sizes). The Bug Out, a store in Wales, offers a £152 “survival barrel” in which emergency supplies can be hidden together in one place, ready for when disaster strikes, and the firm held a weekend meet-up for like-minded people in September.
Miles says his venture was the first prepping shop in Europe and has since grown to become the continent’s “leading survival store”. “Covid was the big boost for our business; I think people realised [that] if something happens again we are on our own,” he says.
“The big thing was queues in the supermarkets and food supplies running out. It became real for a lot of people and served as a bit of a wake-up call.”
Justin Jones established UKPreppingShop during the pandemic to help combat food shortages and says the pursuit has become “more mainstream”.
“We have a wide range of customers, including doctors, nurses, vets – all kinds of people,” he says. “A lot of them are very concerned, especially following what is happening in the Middle East right now. Oil prices are going up, food production will cost more, everything will keep going up and up.
“People are worried about the water supply as well, so we sell a lot of water treatment products.”
Miles adds: “Even after the pandemic, when Russia and Ukraine went to war, we had a crazy three months. We were sending a lot of stuff out to Ukraine but our biggest trade was with UK customers: people wanting food supplies, for example. We do a one-month ration kit and that went through the roof about one month after.”
Online searches for freeze-dried food have risen sharply this autumn in the UK, according to Google Trends data, as have searches for wind-up radios and survival kits.
The outdoor lifestyle retailer Blacks is perhaps best known for its family camping equipment but it has recently seen greater demand for products for use at home
Danny Robinson, a buyer for the chain, says: “We’ve seen an increase in sales of a lot of lighting, head torches, but also gas and stoves. People are buying these items in case the electricity gets shut off at home. People have also bought into sleeping bags at this time of year, but not to use for camping: rather to use in their homes, which is pretty disheartening – that people have to do that instead of turn the heating on.
“We are also seeing sales of aqua-robes [insulated towelling jackets] and other bits of furniture, such as tables and chairs, in case they need to pack their car up and go, what with the flooding recently.”
The sales boom at survival specialists appears to be symptomatic of a wider nervousness in the population. Earlier this month, a global safety charity report revealed that most people in northern and western Europe do not have confidence in their national governments’ ability to deal with a disaster. Meanwhile, research showed more than a fifth of UK shoppers’ favourite grocery items were at risk from climate breakdown.
A bleak increase in political and climate uncertainty could spell a bright future for survival businesses. Expect them to be well prepared.