The Big Money: In Hard Times, Survival Classes Providing Some Comfort

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By Sara Behunek
Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's a sticky Saturday morning, and I'm handcuffed in the back seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked on a Philadelphia street. On one side of me is my boyfriend, Bruce, and on the other his best friend, Nick. Both of them are also cuffed -- and, like me, sweating like pigs.

I reach into my hair and pull out a bobby pin that within seconds I've fashioned into a simple device I use to jimmy open my handcuff locks. Our assignment now is to evade 12 professionally trained trackers in a 25-square-block area for the next eight hours.

It may be hard to believe, but we asked for this. Actually, we paid for it: $550 apiece.

Today is the final day of a three-day "Urban Escape and Evade" course offered by onPoint Tactical, a New Jersey-based company that teaches urban survival skills to soldiers, police officers and, increasingly, civilians.

Among the lessons we've learned are how to break through zip ties and telephone cords (the most common materials used as binding by kidnappers), smash a car window without making a sound, pick tumbler locks and padlocks, puncture the tires of a pursuit vehicle with homemade caltrops, call for help using a ham radio, kill an attack dog -- and, of course, how to escape from handcuffs. To make the exercise even more difficult, we've been assigned a variety of missions that will test our newfound prowess in urban tactical maneuvering.

OnPoint, started in 2004 by Kevin Reeve, a 52-year-old professional scout and tracker, is the only school in the country that teaches urban tactical skills. In the past nine months, demand for the course has surged. For the first time, Reeve approximates his annual revenue will top $200,000 -- a fair sum for a business in which the overhead consists largely of renting out space in community centers for classes and buying enough bobby pins to prop up coifs at a beauty pageant. In years past, Reeve said, he barely pulled in enough revenue to make a profit.

Driving the growth, in part, is a fear that resonates from the wealthiest consumers to blue-collar workers: that with the global financial crisis dragging on, life as we know it is undergoing a radical change. Looking forward, pundits say that at best we will no longer be able to subsist on the diet of credit we have so ravenously consumed for the past decade. At worst, our future looks like something out of a "Mad Max" movie.

What this has to do with breaking out of handcuffs or picking padlocks requires a rather Hobbesian leap. It assumes that if the government can no longer provide for or protect its citizens, there will be a complete upending of the societal order. It assumes that humans will act to the worst of their capacity. There is a sense that these skills are a necessity as our society becomes ever more precarious.

Each escape-and-evade class has 15 to 20 slots, and one is held each month in a different U.S. city. Last month it was Nashville, the month before that Chicago. When I attended, the class was split between the sleepy town of Medford, N.J., and downtown Philadelphia. Soon, Reeve will have a mobile training team that will be able to set up shop in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Seattle.

Increased exposure has also helped propel onPoint closer to the mainstream. Neil Strauss, who is best known for his 2005 book "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists," attended Reeve's class in 2007 as part of a larger quest to prepare himself for an impending disaster. In March, the diminutive writer and veritable god among sexually frustrated males published a book about his experience, "Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life," which spent 12 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. More than half of the people in the class I attended were there because they had read it.

Although it isn't formally tracked, the growth in the survival industry is not limited to onPoint. Firearms sales in the most recent quarter at Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson have grown more than 20 percent from a year earlier. The number of background checks for firearm purchases, required before the sale of a gun at a federally licensed dealer, has risen to 6 million through May of this year, a 25.5 percent jump from the same period in 2008.

The media attribute the spike in background checks and firearms sales to fear that President Obama will move to curb gun rights. They have also claimed it is attributable to increased interest in ammo and weapons as an investment vehicle. But isn't it also possible that it has to do with the same fear that is propelling sales at camping supply and military surplus stores, which are up 50 percent?

Traffic at Post Peak Living, an e-commerce site that sells survival kits, has also swelled, particularly as the price of oil rises, says co-founder André Angelantoni. Seizing the business opportunity, he has begun to offer online courses. You can learn how to raise chickens or how to start your own garden, and then there's the $199 flagship "Uncrash" course, which helps registrants evaluate how each facet of their lives will be affected by the inevitable fall. Angelantoni and his business partner, Craig Wichner, think the world has reached its peak in oil production and society will regress to the way it operated in the Colonial era.

People have always anticipated the end of days. And in truth, while having survival skills -- whether they are tactical or horticultural -- could save your life, in reality they aren't likely to do much more than what stockpiling canned beans and toilet paper did in preparation for Y2K: that is, lend a sense of security.

At the end of the final day, after my cohorts and I had successfully evaded Reeve's trackers, we convened at a Chili's restaurant and swapped stories with the other students. None of them had been "caught," either, but many of them had been spotted by Reeve and his trackers and had run for it. Some went deep into disguise; the most shocking of all was Kyle cutting off at least 24 inches of dreadlocks for the exercise. The mood was lighthearted; we were all drinking beer. Maybe it was because, with our knowledge, we all felt a little safer -- or at least better prepared next time we got locked out of our homes.

Sara Behunek is a financial blogger for TheDeal.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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