There are several more detailed accounts ( of varying levels of wing-nut-ery ) of the etymologies of both of these labels than what I am putting down here; this post just describes in general terms what I feel the differences in connotation the two terms bring.
First and most objective, the term “Prepper” is newer, and used more in current ( 2010 ) pop culture to describe someone who prepares for a disaster of some kind. By “prepares”, usually it’s meant that the Prepper stores consumables, supplies and other goods that would make a short to medium duration of a grid-down scenario easier to handle. Usually more than just stocking up, the Prepper also increases knowledge and skill to stack the odds in their favor, given a disaster.
A Prepper could sometimes be said to be engaging in a hobby, a pastime that will yield dividends not only at some unspecified time when disaster strikes, but also in the here and now in the form of greater confidence and awareness.
Also, the Prepper might live in a suburban or urban environment, and likely retains and nourishes a lifestyle that does not sacrifice much perceived quality of life while he or she Preps.
“Survivalist” is an older term, originating in the 70s in the middle of the Cold War, when the threat of mutual assured destruction from a nuclear exchange was an ever-present possibility.
Survivalists were people who took serious steps to redefine their lives so that they and their loved ones might have a better chance of survival in such a scenario. Survivalists changed their lifestyle to embrace these better odds by moving to remote locations, and embracing stocking up on goods for the long term a way of life, and the gathering and training in necessary skills an avocation.
Weapon proficiencies and strong political and/or religious affiliations also characterized many Survivalists’ ethos ( though certainly not all ), and many of these connotations continue through today. The term “casual Survivalist” seems to be an oxymoron.
While both groups have made a commitment, broadly similar, there are differences.
A Prepper could possibly be viewed as a “Survivalist-light”, a term coined in a recent ( Dec ’09 ) Newsweek article, though both Preppers and Survivalists might take exception to this, both groups for different reasons.
A difference between the two is intensity. It is possible to be a casual Prepper, perhaps just learning a skill or two that might come in handy if the SHTF, or perhaps just getting a week’s worth of food and water together for the family. It would probably not be accurate to call such people “Survivalists”.
In contrast, the person who unplugs from the grid, relocates to a remote wilderness and endeavors to live self-sufficiently off the land is more accurately a Survivalist, and might bristle at being called a “Prepper”.
Another difference would likely be the length of time a person could survive in a grid-down scenario. A Prepper might be good for a week or two, while a Survivalist could be good for six months to a year, or perhaps indefinitely when the grid goes down.
To some extent, the terms can be used to describe the same person, and perhaps a bit of middle ground. A Prepper that has sufficiently prepared for an extended emergency could be called a Prepper or a Survivalist.
More subjective seems to be the social connotations of these terms; the Prepper might be a hobbyist who is unwilling to drastically redefine the lives of their family but who has awoken to the idea that society is very fragile, and that preparing of trouble in some way might not be a bad idea. The Survivalist on the other hand has made a lifestyle commitment, and generally sees themselves outside the mainstream of society.
I’ve read discussions that drew gender differences between the two terms; I found these largely sexist, silly, and easily dismissed. There are many women who self-identify as Survivalists, and would take great issue with being labeled a “Prepper” based solely on their gender. It is also equally foolish to call men who Prep Survivalists simply because they are male.
It is entirely possible to be a Prepper who holds deep religious conviction, or a Survivalist who does not.
We write this blog with Preppers in mind, people adopting the idea of preparing for the worst, perhaps starting down the path to Survivalism.