Preppers insist they don’t anticipate such far-out end-times scenarios as an asteroid hitting the earth or all the circuit boards in the country going down at the same time. Nor, they say, did they grow up watching post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and Mad Max and hoping they would become reality one day. They’re rational guys, watching their mutual funds tank just like you are, and thinking it might be smart to invest in some extra food, gasoline, and a few of their favorite indulgences, just in case.

Eric, a 32-year-old CPA in Northern California, is so concerned about his stores’ going to waste that he has his wife and children do regular tastings of freeze-dried foods and MREs, so they can decide what they do and don’t like. “Why have it if they’re not going to eat it?” he says. Unfortunately, his family proclaimed all of the MRE fare—except for the chocolate-chip brownies and chocolate-peanut-butter spread—“gross.” So Eric has squirreled away M&Ms in bulk to keep the kids quiet. For himself, he has a case of vodka. “If the shit hits the fan, I might want to tie one on,” he says.

Most preppers build up their rations by themselves, but not always because they don’t want help. More often than not, their wives, girlfriends, and friends think they’re fantasizing about disaster scenarios so they can play the role of Will Smith in I Am Legend.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” says Matt, a 37-year-old executive at a high-tech company outside Dallas. “She’s sort of a Pollyanna.” She doesn’t understand his weekend trips to a cannery, where he preserves different types of pasta—including farfalle and rotini, plus alphabet shapes for his 1-year-old daughter (“Macaroni would get old quick,” he says)—nor why he’s commandeered so much closet space. “But if a dirty bomb hit Dallas,” he continues, with the slightly misinformed hyperbole that preppers sometimes engage in, “every grocery store would be wiped out in an hour. That stuff can happen, and she doesn’t think it can.”

When Paul, a 29-year-old sales representative in Denver, hosts dinner parties, his guests sometimes ask why the kitchen shelves are sagging with the weight of all the canned food. He says it was on sale. He has a few like-minded friends, however, whom he calls when he spies a good deal at the grocery store. “They have their pantries,” he says. “If I see a 15-pound bag of rice for $15, I’ll let them know.” And even though his wife isn’t completely supportive (“She just lets me do my little thing,” he says), he stores tampons and makeup for her.

But all of this dogged readying for doomsday doesn’t mean the preppers don’t wonder occasionally whether they should be spending time rebalancing their 401(k)s instead of setting aside textured vegetable protein. Whenever Philip Nelson, 36, a technology executive in San Antonio, goes shopping for more things to add to his stash, such as backup video games for his PlayStation Portable or board games for his kids, he thinks, Am I losing my mind? Then he checks out the latest hurricane news on CNN.com and thinks, We’re in a weird time. “The more I try to talk myself out of it,” he says, “the more I think, I’m crazy if I don’t do this.”