Viewers of the National Geographic Channel show "Doomsday Preppers" know there's a lot to be afraid of these days. From earthquakes and hurricanes to economic meltdowns and 2012 Mayan-prophecy mania, threats run the gamut from the possible to the absurd. But preppers, the catchall name for those who appear on the show to demonstrate and test their survival plans, often take preparedness to the extreme, according to Paul Purcell, an Atlanta-based terrorism and natural disaster preparedness trainer and author of "Disaster Prep 101."
"It's a cottage industry, and there's a lot of fear-based marketing, so folks tend to either ignore preparedness or go way overboard," Purcell says.
At one end of the spectrum are people who invest in a basic three-day survival kit. The kits usually cost $100, and they include items such as a flashlight, batteries, water, dehydrated food and first-aid gear. But beyond the basic kit, doomsday preppers can easily spend thousands of dollars on all kinds of advanced gear, according to Brandon Garrett, the public relations coordinator for The Ready Store, a Draper, Utah, retailer that sells a wide range of survival supplies.
"We get people who are looking to survive in any situation," Garrett says. "Advanced kits range from $300 up to $4,000, and some customers spend beyond that, buying all kinds of extra gear like generators and water-purification systems."
But while it's easy to load up on gear, it's critical to set a budget, says Bernie Carr, a Houston-based health care professional who first became interested in prepping after riding out Hurricane Ike in 2008. Carr, who now writes The Apartment Prepper's Blog, says most people don't have the wherewithal to buy all that gear, and for many, it just doesn't make sense.
"I think of it like insurance. You always want to have it, but you never want to use it," she says.
Set a Budget
To set a budget, Carr says it's best to focus on likely threats. As a Houston resident, she weighs her budget against two common disaster scenarios: hurricanes and tornadoes. Other less likely events don't get much of Carr's budget, which is about $100 per month for restocking water, canned food and a few other supplies.
"There are people out there stocking up on guns and gold because they think we're on the verge of financial collapse, but there's probably a greater likelihood of getting laid off," Carr says.
It's also a good idea to invest in your skills because there's no guarantee you'll be near all your gear when a disaster strikes, Purcell says.
"I tell people to make sure they know how to do useful things," he says. "Cooking is an important skill because in a disaster, you're going to have to make do with what you've got. You should also know first aid, CPR and how to change a tire."
But while the subjects on shows such as "Doomsday Preppers" and other survivalists like to tout extreme skills such as using sniper rifles or eating bugs, Purcell says you need to be more realistic.
"It's really about taking your current skill level and building on it," he says. "You need to find a balance with what you're doing and approach preparedness with moderation."
If Money is No Object
On the other hand, there are those for whom money is no object when it comes to prepping. For them, preparedness drives every decision, and the costs can stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars because even their home is considered survival gear.
One company that builds homes specifically for doomsday preppers is Monolithic Inc., an Italy, Texas, firm that specializes in steel-reinforced concrete domes marketed to those who are concerned with surviving a disaster.
"Monolithic domes cost about as much as a conventional home," says David South, the company's CEO. "Across the Midwest and the South, it would cost about $120 per square foot. However, homes in California or the Northeast will cost substantially more."
But while the cost of building a disaster-proof home may generally be in line with home prices, buyers do pay a prepping premium. According to the company, most customers choose to pay cash because mortgages on domes can be hard to get.
What's Driving This?
If it feels like survivalists and doomsday scenarios have become a bigger part of the pop culture lately, it's because they have, says Purcell, who has been teaching security for more than a decade.
"These things are cyclical," he says. "While it's always good to be prepared, there are definitely security booms. Today we have a lot of economic fears, but after 9/11 it was terrorism, and before that, it was Y2K."
Most of the headline-grabbing fears don't come to pass. But, with each new threat, many people are tempted to overspend on preparation, Purcell says.
"Going over budget on your security puts you at risk, too," he says. "So it's just as important to stick to a budget as it is to be prepared."
Copyright 2012, Bankrate Inc.