Idaho has gained a reputation for being friendly to people who expect the worst and want to prepare for it. Maybe it's the rugged mountain-man image. Or its reputation for attracting anti-government survivalists. Or its love of the Second Amendment.
James Wesley Rawles, who writes survivalblog.com, ranks Idaho as the best end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it "retreat" state. A quick jaunt around the Internet will turn up websites that advertise Idaho land for sale for this very purpose.
But it's Idaho's practical qualities that some emergency-preparedness and survival businesses say they like. The lack of natural disasters and crime. The abundance of remote areas where you don't have to worry about rioting in the streets. The lower costs of living and doing business.
Emergency preparedness is nothing new - it's a tradition in the Mormon religion and, for many others, a routine activity, like seeing the dentist. Organizations from the Boy Scouts to government agencies encourage people to be prepared for emergencies with water, food and first-aid kits. But there's a growing subculture of people who want to be prepared for the collapse of American democracy and civilization. Sometimes called "preppers," these apocalyptic types are a market for survival businesses.
Some of those businesses are decades old. Others are just babies, finding niches as prepping becomes more popular.
With each weather-related disaster, someone in a coastal state may buy an emergency kit created by a business that just resettled in Boise, or freeze-dried foods from a business that settled in Twin Falls about three years ago.
With each new iteration of the national gun-rights debate, another customer may walk into a local firearms store looking for an AR-15.
When stock prices go haywire, a Web-based disaster preparedness company in the Wood River Valley may get an order for silver.
Idaho was recently thrust into the global spotlight by a group of people calling themselves The Citadel. They've hatched a plan for a walled community of families stocked with rifles, food and emergency kits. They picked a mountaintop in northern Idaho for their project, which would be built around a firearms factory.
That project is extreme. But the group's desire to be ready when SHTF (a prepper acronym for when you-know-what hits the fan) is the same desire that supports several Idaho businesses with more modest plans.
BUILDING A HOME IN BOISE
Justin Evans, CEO of Guardian Survival Gear, arrived in Boise last April from Las Vegas with a plan to spend a few months here before moving the company to Las Vegas with him. (The company was founded in 2005 by Daniel Kunz, after he tried making a 72-hour survival kit from scratch while he was living in Idaho. After rounding up the items and looking at how much it cost, he realized he could make far more affordable kits as a wholesaler.)
"But I looked at the business climate, quality of life, standard of living, the fact that we have a warehouse full of stuff that keeps people alive in a time of distress, and I didn't want that stuff in Las Vegas or Southern California," Evans said. Boise seemed "more family focused, more community focused" and like a place where he wouldn't "have to stress out about our place being looted," he said.
The Boise Valley Economic Partnership gave Evans "more support than I can even explain," and he set up temporary offices in Downtown Boise with a dozen employees. He got to work moving the company's California and Utah operations into headquarters in Boise.
Guardian is a wholesale distributor of survival kits, food-storage kits, pet-survival kits and hygiene and sanitation products. It sells to about 6,000 retailers around the world. Tsunamis, hurricanes, superstorms and wildfires in the past couple of years have prompted large orders. Sales spike in November and December, when people give emergency kits to loved ones for Christmas.
Guardian sells to church groups, clubs, school districts and families, too. Its customers tend to be people and organizations that need, or just want, emergency kits on hand - kits that make it possible to use the facilities when a toilet has no running water, for example.
"We really don't appeal to those who are preparing for the apocalypse. Our products are there in case you lose your job and can't buy groceries," or for backpacking trips or emergencies like a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere, he said. "We don't sell underground bunkers."
AROUND SINCE 1994
For underground bunkers, you can to turn to Alpine Survival, a Wood River Valley business that started in 1994.
Founder C.W. Nelson, now in his mid-60s, grew up in a military and cattle-ranching family, which left "'be prepared, ready to survive' ... indelibly branded" on his brain.
He asked a friend named Vicki with a talent for cooking, "If you did not go to the grocery store, period, how long would it be before you were finding it difficult to prepare good meals?"
"Two weeks," she said.
He started buying freeze-dried foods for himself, and eventually it turned into a business. Nelson built a website, alpinesurvival.com, and got an 800 number. He branched out from foods to electrical generators, bomb shelters and underground bunkers, silver, medical kits and survival gear.
The friend, Vicki, took over the company seven years ago. She and Nelson fell in love, and she became Vicki Nelson a year and a half ago.
Alpine Survival's website reflects the worry the Nelsons and others have about America's future. It warns of "liberal Marxist politicians" seizing guns and ammunition, leaving a crime-ridden country full of defenseless citizens. It points to rising food prices as a symptom of an unstable country.
"Things change now frighteningly every day," C.W. Nelson said. "You can look all over the world and see what happens with food riots."
He doesn't like the term "prepper," saying it marginalizes people who spend time and money on being ready to live through a disaster.
Alpine Survival doesn't sell firearms, though the website links to a Utah dealer. Nelson thinks people shouldn't buy a gun without learning how to use it safely.
When things go south, Nelson is ready with his bow and arrow, a hunting slingshot and several years of martial-arts training. Vicki Nelson is ready with a garden.
TWIN FALLS WELCOMED THEM
One of the vendors Alpine Survival works with is Ready Reserve Foods, a family-owned company that moved to Twin Falls from southern California.
The company packages and ships food like dehydrated peaches in nitrogen-packed cans. It says it has tested foods that were packaged when the company began, in 1972, and found that the products last a few decades.
Its customers include hospitals and retirement homes as well as "extremists" and "newbies who never thought of it before until yesterday," said co-owner Kelley Blanton.
Blanton's father stumbled onto Twin Falls while driving through southern Idaho several years ago. He fell in love with it, she said, and the city welcomed them.
"There's a lot more openness here to what we do ... our mindset with being self-prepared and not relying on other people," Blanton said. Idaho is "for the most part small-business friendly. You don't get taxed every time you turn around."
Business "came to a screeching halt" last year, she said. "This year, immediately after Christmas, we hit the ground running and haven't stopped going 120 miles (an hour) since."
That's partly because of a new ammunition-storage line they offer, combined with the gun-rights debate and worries about federal firearms restrictions in response to the Newtown shootings.
"Our customers are nervous about a dozen different things at the same time," like political change, terrorist attacks, economic problems and weather disasters, she said.
Ready Reserve Foods logged more than 1,500 transactions so far this year, and sales "have already surpassed last year's final quarter," she said.
A BRICK-AND-MORTAR PREP STORE
The ups and downs are nothing new to Rusty Kappel, who opened The Preparedness Store and Bosch Kitchen Center in 1996.
The Kappels moved from Tucson, after much thought and prayer gave them the idea to sell preparedness supplies to people in Idaho Falls.
About 85 percent of their customers are Mormon, he said. They're maintaining food and water supplies in keeping with their faith.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages families to have a three-month supply of food, drinking water, savings and emergency preparedness supplies like bedding. The church also sells food and water supplies through its website. It also runs a cannery in Garden City where members can buy items for home storage.
Locals also can stock up on food at stores like Walmart and WinCo, which have added food-supply buckets and even emergency brownie mixes to their shelves.
The Preparedness Store started out with food, water and survival kits. The Kappels have since added water filters, emergency light and heat, containers and gamma lids, sprouting seeds and emergency sanitation, along with a line of Bosch kitchen machines and cooking and canning supplies. They also have more than 200 books on preparedness and survival.
Kappel said the survival industry predicted a banner year in 2012 with Obama seeking re-election, a shaky economy and that end-of-the-world Mayan calendar thing. Turned out 2012 was a dud, for Kappel and other businesses. He thinks a lot of the survivalist folks shifted away from food and supplies. They spent their money on guns and ammunition - not his bailiwick.
To supplement the family income, Kappel has opened a carpet-cleaning business - his former occupation in Tucson.
In contrast, Evans, of Guardian Survival Gear, said 2012 was his company's biggest year.
"What that means to us is offering more jobs to people in Boise," he said.
Guardian announced in the fall that it would hire 20 people and move to a warehouse, which it plans to do in a few weeks.
"How awesome is it," he said, "that we get to feed their families and take care of those they love?"
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey