Scavenging in a Post SHTF World

Okay, so you’ve decided to be a prepper. You’re starting to stockpile food, water and other supplies; you’re learning a bit about survival and you’re even putting some equipment together. Everything is going along fine. But what happens is a disaster hits before you can get ready?

Chances are, no matter how ready you are for a disaster, you’re never going to feel ready enough. There’s always some other piece of equipment you need, some other modification to your home, some new gadget that’s caught your eye. Then there’s the need for more food and water; no matter how much you have, you never feel like it’s enough. The truth is, there’s no such thing as ready.

So, when the disaster you’re preparing for finally hits, just accept that you won’t be as ready as you’d like to be. That doesn’t mean that you just give up and decide that you’re going to have to make it on what you’ve got; that means that you’re literally going to continue your prepping, while you’re trying to survive. Even if you’re the perfect prepper, once the disaster hits, you’re going to find that you missed something.

Settling this in your mind now will make things easier later. Rather than panicking because you don’t have everything you need, you’ll accept the situation. That will make it easier for you to do what you need to, so that you and your family can survive.

The problem we’re all going to have is that stores will most likely be closed, so our normal sources of supply will be unavailable. That means finding different ways of doing things and different sources that we can use. Some of those will probably be sources that we would never consider in normal times; but then, we’re not talking about normal times.

Let’s Talk Looting for a Moment

A lot of what I’m going to talk about here could easily be considered looting. In fact, I’ll have to say that I think of it as looting. That’s a problem for me and I venture to guess that it might be one for you as well. I’m a law-abiding citizen, not a criminal. In fact, I’m so law-abiding that my kids complain because I drive the speed limit. So if you’re ever following me, go ahead and use your horn or flash your lights, I have no problem ignoring those little hints.

Looting is, by any definition, a crime. More specifically, it’s the crime of stealing. That makes it a bit hard for us law-abiding citizens to contemplate. But we have to contemplate it and it’s best to do so now, before the time comes when we might find ourselves having to do it. We need to decide what circumstances will cause us to cross that line, and if we do cross the line, what limitations we will put on our own actions.


I say that second part because even criminals have a code. That code includes things they will and won’t do. In the mind of a thief, stealing is okay, but child molestation isn’t. They look down on child molesters and often mistreat them in prison.

But there may come a time when you have to take things that aren’t yours or risk having your children die. Are you willing to allow your children to die in order to maintain your morality? That’s a difficult question to face. My normal reaction is a resounding “No!” but if I had to look my hungry children in the eye, my opinion might change real quickly. Desperate people, as they say, do desperate things.

Another factor that I think plays into this rather strongly is whether the original owner of the item is alive or not. Stealing from someone who is alive is one thing, but stealing from the dead is another thing entirely. The dead no longer need it. So at least in theory, they shouldn’t mind losing it all that much.

In the case of a nationwide disaster, such as an EMP, a large percentage of the population will die off. At that point, taking from the dead really isn’t much of an issue. Everyone will probably be doing it and it will be seen as normal, especially if you are taking something from a dead family’s home, in order to help the community at large.

Of course, there’s the year’s worth of time after the EMP strike, when those people are dying off. Stealing from them during that time might hasten their death, especially stealing food, water or firewood. At a minimum, that could make you an accessory to manslaughter.

Bartering Instead of Stealing

One solution that might work in at least some circumstances, is to barter,rather than steal. It’s commonly believed that a barter economy will rise up in the wake of any major disaster. If that’s the case, then you can eliminate the need of stealing by bartering, assuming you have something to barter. This is why so many preppers stockpile trade goods, along with everything else they stockpile.


The most common thing that people will be bartering for is food. If you have extra food to barter, you’ll probably be able to get just about anything. But what if you need food? What can you do then?

I’d avoid trying to scavenge food from people’s homes, unless they have bugged out. Even then, chances are that there won’t be anything to eat in the home. Someone will have beaten you to it. Instead, I’d try and barter with local farmers. They may not have a lot of variety, but they are the ones most likely to have food to offer. Don’t steal their food, unless there is no other option, barter for it instead.

Early on in the crisis, you’ll be able to use money to buy things, assuming you have any cash to work with. People will still be accepting cash as a medium of exchange for some time. Exactly how long depends on how long it will end up taking people to realize that the cash is worthless.

First Stage Scavenging

The first stage of scavenging is going to happen right after the disaster hits. It’s a commonly held belief that people will rush to the stores, especially food stores, in order to get whatever they can. What may start out as an intention to buy will quickly degrade into looting, when the stores admit that their cash registers aren’t working. A few people who have cash may try to pay, but most will just walk out of the store with whatever they grab.

Stores are going to be dangerous places at this point in time, with people grabbing whatever they can and fighting over it. The crowd will feed on their fear, working themselves up into a frenzy. While there will probably not be anyone sticking a gun in another “shopper’s” face, shoving and fisticuffs will be the order of the day.


It would seem that this would be a good time to stay home, avoiding the mob scene in the stores; but I wouldn’t. This may be the only opportunity you have to top off your food stockpile; so I’d take advantage of it. But do so intelligently, going as a group, so that you can protect each other. If you can beat the rush, getting in and getting out before they arrive, so much the better.

Avoid the crowded aisled; don’t bother grabbing what everyone else is grabbing. Go for the foods that don’t need refrigeration and have high energy; canned goods of all types, flour, beans of all kinds, rice and pasta. Try to grab some condiments and spices as well, to make your food taste better. Avoid fresh foods, breakfast cereal and all types of junk food. Those will go fast and won’t give you the nutrition that you need.

I always keep a lot of cash on hand, for just such an eventuality. That way, I can be the one honest person in the crowd who tries to pay for their food. Without the cash registers working, I won’t know an exact amount, but I’ll make a guess and give them the money anyway.

Don’t limit your thinking to only food and water; this is an excellent time to hit up the hardware store or sporting goods stores. Most people won’t hit those up first, as they’ll be thinking food and then alcohol. So, you might be better off going to the hardware store first, rather than to the grocery store. Look for items that will help you survive, such as candles, rope, tarps and camping gear. Don’t just grab indiscriminately, as that stuff is heavy.

Once again, you’ll need to be ready to pay cash. Actually, you’ll probably need the cash there, more than you will at the grocery store. Those stores won’t be as crowded, so the owners might actually be able to maintain some level of control over the people.

Stage 1B


Once the mob abandons the grocery stores, it's time to go back. With that many people grabbing everything they can, there's a very high probability that containers will be broken open and spilled on the floor. While some may be rendered unusable, much of it can be salvaged.

Make sure to take a good supply of plastic bags with you, especially plastic zipper bags. This might be at night, so you’ll want flashlights or the headlamps that people are using. That will leave your hands free for working. Don’t count on shopping carts being available, people will already have stolen them to take their stolen merchandise home. So you’d better bring a wheelbarrow or other cart with you.

So, what are you doing? You’re looking for food that can still be used, even if it doesn’t meet up to your normal high standards. A broken bag of sugar, that’s spilled on the floor is useful. You can dissolve it in water, filter out the dirt and re-solidify the sugar as crystals; the same can be done with salt. Partial packages of all types will probably be lying around. Look for things that are spilled, but haven’t been trampled underfoot.

You’ll probably be amazed at the amount of food that you’ll find scattered around the floor and in the backs of shelves. Be sure to check the backs of top and bottom shelves, as those are the hardest to see. People will miss things there that can be useful.

Long-Term Scavenging

Once the initial flurry of scavenging is over, it’s going to be a lot harder to find things. But there will still be a need to find them. So, you’ll have to continue your scavenging operations, at least part time. While there will be no way that you can continue to scavenge for everything you need, especially food, scavenging will be a good way to find some other things that you will need.


One central idea about scavenging is that you take what you can get. In other words, even if you're out looking for things that you can use as water container, you don't ignore something else that you find. If you think you can use it, you take it; because it probably won't be there when you need it.

You've got to be good at thinking outside the box for this. A lot of the time, what you find won't be what you're looking for. But that doesn't mean that it won't be useful for what you need. Maybe you need something you can haul water in, so you're looking around for some five-gallon jugs and a wheelbarrow or hand truck to carry them in. Chances are, you won't find that. But you may find a couple of tricycles you can salvage wheels off of, an old kitchen sink, some scrap pallet wood and a plastic barrel. That will give you what you need.

You can use the old kitchen sink and tricycle wheels to make somewhat of a kids' wagon, with a couple of pieces of wood for a handle and a some more wood making a bracket to hold the barrel onto the wagon. Now you've got a way of hauling water, even if it doesn't look like what you had in mind.

Build a Scavenging Kit

If you're going to do any serious scavenging, you're going to need to build yourself a scavenging kit. This should include tools that you will need to have on hand, in order to acquire and haul your findings back home. It's rather unlikely that you'll find these things just sitting in someone's front yard, so putting a good kit together is an essential part of your scavenging.

  • Push Cart - Don't count on your ability to carry everything. You need something that you can put things in to carry them. Ideally, it should be balanced in such a way that you don't need to hold up any of the weight, leaving you to steer it and provide propulsion.
  • Crowbar - Probably your most useful scavenging tool. A good crowbar will allow you to break into places, break things loose and used as a lever, it can help you to move heavy items.
  • Bolt Cutters - The best lock pick in the world, especially for using with padlocks. In this case, the bigger the bolt cutters, the better.
  • A Good Knife - For opening packages and generally cutting things up.
  • Screwdrivers - There's no sense breaking things if you can unfasten them.
  • Heavy Hammer - You don't need an 8 pound sledge hammer most of the time, but a good 3 pounder can be useful for breaking things loose. Besides, you may need to break something up to get it home for firewood.
  • Saw - For cutting wood and other things, especially when you only need part of it.
  • Plastic Bags - To sort, store, contain and haul useful items that you find.
  • Flashlight - For the obvious reasons.

Of course, you're going to have to carry your EDC items as well, including some sort of weapon to protect yourself. So, you don't want to get carried away with your scavenging kit, adding a bunch of extra weight that you have to deal with. Better to go light, except in the most critical items, such as the crowbar.

Scavenging Homes and Businesses

Most of your scavenging will be in abandoned homes and businesses.Before attempting to enter them, you’ll want to make sure that they are truly abandoned. Some people might be trying to make their properties appear abandoned, while still being there. Entering such a building would be dangerous, as they would probably open fire as soon as you breached the door.


What you are able to find will depend a lot on the type of building you go into. In homes you're going to be limited to household items. But businesses could contain a treasure trove of useful items. It all depend on the kind of business you find and whether anyone has been there before you.

It's unlikely that you'll find much food by scavenging homes or businesses, although there is always the possibility of finding a warehouse that has food inside it. Most likely, this would be a warehouse that is not expected to have food, rather than a food distributor or processor. Others will find the food distributors and processors quickly and clean them out. However, a warehouse for one of the big office supply stores might have some snacks in it, as they sell those snacks in their stores. You might also find snack items in other stores and their associated warehouses, as many stores sell some kind of snacks at the cash register.

Even without the food, there are a lot of other useful things that you'll be able to find. In a prolonged situation you'll need clothing, which should be available in a lot of places. Hardware and other materials for repairs might be worth looking for. Pallets are great for firewood, especially the oak ones. You can find them just about anywhere. The list is probably endless.

When you find something, makes sure that you get all that you need or at least all that you can. Since you've probably broken into the building, you'll be leaving a building that others can get into too. So, chances are, you won't find those supplies available when you come back looking for them.

Carrying spare padlocks with you might give you the opportunity to lock a place back up that you’ve broken into. However, just the fact that you’ve been in there will make the doors easier to break into again, even if you do put a lock on them. So, while locking is a good idea, don’t depend on it to keep people out. All it will do is keep out those who are too lazy to try.

Scavenging Fuel


One important item that you’ll probably be scavenging is fuel; both fuel for the fire and fuel for your vehicle. Wood can be found in many places; trees in people’s yards, pallets at warehouse and even furniture. You probably won’t have as much problem finding sources of wood, as you will in moving it to your home.

Gasoline will be much harder, but will also be necessary, even if you aren’t driving your car. But there will be countless vehicles sitting around, with at least some gasoline in them. Siphoning is one way to get that gasoline, but a better way is to cut the fuel line and then hook the fuel pump directly to the battery. That requires a couple of wires with alligator clips, as well as some wire cutters and a jack, but it’s really a rather simple procedure. Of course, you’ll need some sort of container to drain the gasoline into.

Other flammable liquids should be high on your list as well. Most people will probably be using oil lamps for lighting. Fortunately, you can burn just about any flammable liquid in an oil lamp, although some burn too fast for efficient use. Always check the flammability of a new fuel outside first, preferably in a clay lamp, rather than a glass one.

The All Important Food

Scavenging food will be the greatest challenge there is. Hopefully, you’ll develop means of producing much of your own food through gardening and raising animals. But you may need to add to that anyway, in one way or another.

There will be many people who will be scavenging food, so that will be the hardest single thing to scavenge. However, there may be some sources that they overlook. So always check for food, when you are inspecting any building to scavenge from it.

You will probably be better off trying to get food from local farmers. Before any disaster hits, learn where the farmers are in your area and what they grow. Learn about planting and harvest times. This information will be invaluable, allowing you to get food directly from the farmers.


I would expect that farmers will be open to bartering. They may also be open to trading labor for food, especially around planting and harvest times. They probably won’t have enough manpower available to plant or harvest, especially if they have to do it by hand. That should make it relatively easy to work out a deal with them where you can work for food.

When you have an opportunity like that, get as much food as you can. You can always trade it with others. Even better than that, you can preserve it so that you have food to eat the rest of the year. Learn food preservation techniques now, so that when the time comes, you’ll be ready to can dehydrate and smoke your own foods.

Some farmers will also have animals on their farms. May people talk about hunting and living off the land in a post-disaster situation, but I don’t think they’ll find that all that easy to accomplish. However, cattle, pigs and chickens will be in abundance in certain areas. I think that many a non-survivalist who sets out to go hunting, is going to end up hunting some farmer or rancher’s cattle.

This goes back to that issue of looting and stealing. Technically, those cattle are the rancher’s property, valuable property. But your family needs to eat. This is one of those cases where I would ideally want to work out a barter arrangement with the rancher. Most of them will be trying hard to protect their herds as valuable assets. Shooting a steer for meet could end up seeing you hanging in their smokehouse, rather than that steer hanging in yours.

While cattle will be more abundant than other types of animals, there will be some animals around that can be hunted. I live in South Texas, and we have a serious problem with feral swine down here. Ranchers complain that the swine eat feed that they need for their cattle. So, people are usually welcome to hunt the swine, as long as they leave the cattle alone. Check in your area to see if there is anything like that which you can take advantage of. It’s not uncommon for wild animal populations to grow to the point where they become pests, eating farmers’ crops.


Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment - As always, please let me know your opinion in the comments section below. It's your opportunity to share some tricks with the community!

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Added to cart!