As I've watched the prepping movement grow through the last few years, I've been somewhat surprised and intrigued by some of the topics which have been brought up by various preppers and authors. Back when I started as a survivalist, the main concern was getting out of the city and surviving in the wilderness. The idea of bugging in was impossible. After all, no home can protect you from a nuclear explosion.
But the threats we face today are different than the threat we faced back then. All-out thermonuclear war is not a likely possibility in today's world, but an EMP is. Therefore, our strategies must change with the times. This means developing the means for today's risks, not focusing on the risks of yesteryear.
One thing I've seen bandied about quite a bit in recent years is the idea of bartering. The general idea is that bartering is a means that can be used to get supplies that we weren't able to stockpile or forgot to stockpile, before the disaster struck. Of course, that assumes that such supplies will still be available. If they are not, then those who are sitting on stockpiles of barter supplies may find that they are better off using those supplies themselves.
The assumption that there will be supplies available to barter for, in the aftermath of a disaster, is a dangerous assumption to make. Considering how few people are actually preparing their own stockpile, about the only people who might have anything available to trade are other preppers or possibly business owners who manage to keep their stores from being looted.
What supplies do exist will most likely be used up in short order, leaving less and less available for barter. However, the best barter rates will come after supplies are running low. So it's going to be difficult to determine when the ideal time to get into your barter stocks are. Bartering too quickly after the disaster or waiting too long could have equally negative effects on your ability to make a profitable trade.
Of course, everything about bartering depends a lot on the type of disaster we end up facing. Since preppers try to work under the assumption that there are many different possible disasters that could come our way, there are surely some where bartering will be of value.
One very realistic scenario in which bartering may be the way to go is in the case of a financial collapse. Such an event would render our money virtually useless. Bartering would then become a means of avoiding the use of that worthless money and instead getting something of value for whatever trade goods we have.
This follows the historic example of other financial collapses. If we look at the Argentinean collapse, for example, we find that many bartering co-ops were formed, where people traded mostly food with one another. This allowed them to take advantage of their excess, trading it for things they lacked.
With the probability of a financial collapse growing each month, that alone is enough of a reason for creating a stockpile of trade goods. Besides, even if those goods can't be traded for other food items, there are a number of other ways that barter goods can be used:
- Using them for your own family, when your food stockpile runs low.
- Bartering with neighbors for labor.
- Building a survival team out of your neighborhood; using your barter goods to bring them together.
- Helping friends and family who are not preppers.
While none of these may be your principal plan in building a barter stockpile, they are all worthy uses of it; ones which will ultimately accrue to your advantage. There's another great use of a bartering stockpile, that's to use it for your personal financial gain.
During World War II, food shortages were common in occupied Europe. The Germans were taking everything they could, leaving the people with the scraps. As with many disasters, this was felt worse in the city than in rural areas, where the food was grown. Food was strictly rationed, so that there would be plenty to send the German Army in the field.
This left people in the cities without enough food; sometimes, not enough to survive. Many of those people, needing to feed their families, packed up their suitcases with the silver, jewelry and other valuables and went to visit "relatives" on their farms in the country, where they were able to trade those valuables for hams, sausage, cheese and butter.
This was a wonderful deal for the farmers, many of whom had been poor. While it didn't help them much immediately, once the war was over, they were able to sell those valuables for a considerable profit, financing the restoration of their farms and more.
The same sort of opportunity as this exists in the aftermath of any disaster. People who are hungry and without supplies are always willing to barter whatever they have, in order to feed themselves and their families. An astute trader can get a whole lot more value for their trade goods, than what they have invested in them. That is, if they have the ability to stand their ground on their prices for the trade goods they have.
There is always an "after" when things return to normal or to a new normal, with any disaster. It might take a while for that new normal to appear, but it will. Just like with the European farmers in World War II, that's when the profits can be reaped. It requires patience, but for those who have that patience, a disaster can be an excellent opportunity to make a profit.
But there is always a danger here. The people who will be bartering for those trade goods will be desperate people. Many of them won't be concerned about making a fair deal, as they will in getting what they want. Some will even be willing to resort to violence in order to get that. This means that even letting people know that you are bartering carries the risk of inviting attack.
Bartering and Security
If you are going to barter, you must take your security seriously. Otherwise, you may not ever have to take anything seriously again. The fact that you have supplies, when so many people don't, will make you an obvious target. In desperate circumstances, good people may be more than ready to turn to crime, if that's what it's going to take to feed their families. On top of that, you've got die-hard criminals and street gangs who are always ready to use violence to their own benefit.
But this is a manageable risk. With the right precautions, you should be able to barter safely; or at least with a minimal risk to your life. A few proactive measures, especially obvious ones, will make a great difference. But the biggest difference will come from doing everything you can to maintain OPSEC.
To start with, you want to avoid doing any bartering at home, with the exception of bartering with neighbors or friends. They already know where you live, so you're not giving anything away by conducting business at your front door. Just don't let them know how much you have stashed away in your basement (or wherever you have it stashed).
But when we talk about bartering in the midst of a crisis, we're usually talking about bartering with complete strangers. The problem here is that you have no idea of their character, morality or desperation. So you have absolutely no way of knowing if they are likely to show up at your doorstep with a shotgun in their hands, or not. By doing business away from home, you reduce the chances of that happening.
Typically, markets are established in public places, like plazas, downtown squares and even parks. These become ideal places to conduct business, mostly due to the large number of people who are there doing the same. If there is strength in numbers, than having a number of vendors in the same place should reduce the likelihood of any one vendor being picked out to be attacked.
On the other hand, the concentration of vendors and their wares makes such a market an attractive target for any gang who wants to make a mass attack. So you can't assume that you're safe, just because there are others around. Rather, you (and every other vendor) need to be armed and prepared.
The first rule of any such market or even of setting up on your own on a street corner, has to be self-defense. That means picking a defensible position and either using what cover is available or bringing your own cover to provide a safe shooting stand. It also means going out to barter with a team of people, rather than going on your own. One could be the main negotiator, while the others could provide security.
At least one security person with a good scoped rifle should be outside your stall, in a good overwatch position, where nobody can sneak up behind them. That person becomes your ace in the hole, able to pick off attackers, while remaining more or less impervious to counter-attack. Like any sniper, should you come under attack, their primary mission is to take out the opposing leadership, disrupting the enemy and hopefully convincing them to quit the field of battle.
You don't need to intimidate people, but you do need to protect yourself. So an overt display of weaponry is appropriate, but pointing those weapons at anyone isn't. Carry your weapons holstered or slung over your shoulder, but practice drawing quickly, especially while moving, so that you are ready to defend yourself, even if they have the drop on you.
But security at the market isn't your only concern. There is always a risk that someone will try to follow you home, just to find out where you live. In that case, you'd pretty much have to assume that their intention is to return with a large group, so that they can attack your home.
You can thwart these efforts with good counter-surveillance techniques. Investing the time in learning those techniques would be very worthwhile, especially if bartering is part of your survival plan. But don't just lean about those techniques, take the time to practice, so that you can develop the necessary skills to use them when you need to.
The thing about counter-surveillance is that once you start, you have to make it a permanent part of your life. In other words, once you start bartering, you have to assume that every time you leave your home, there's a chance of being followed. You might not be doing anything on that trip which would attract attention, but if someone who tried to tail you before sees you, they'll follow you back home.
You also have to assume that everyone you see is a potential tail. Never give someone a ride, assuming that they are not a risk to you. People who follow others try to disappear into the woodwork; both by their actions and by their appearance. So that woman pushing a baby stroller might actually be spying on you.
Never display a large stock of product available for barter. If you have 20 different items that you are bartering, then only have a few of them on the table at one time. You don't want to give anyone the idea that you're their dream come true.
The trick here is being able to restock, without others seeing you do so. If you are regularly going to the trunk of your car to take out more trade goods, someone is bound to notice. You're better off dealing in only a small amount of trade goods, each time you go out to barter. Take what you think you can trade that day, and leave the rest in storage, for the next time.
Should You Bother?
With the security concerns associated with bartering, it would seem that bartering is not worth the risk. That's a decision you'll have to make for yourself, based on your plans and goals. For some, it will be a great opportunity to make a profit, but many others will forego that opportunity for security.
Even if you avoid bartering because of the risk, I would still recommend stockpiling some barter goods and making them part of your survival stash. You might find yourself in a position where you need those barter goods or where someone comes to you with an offer. If they do, you should be ready to make the most of the situation.
You can also mitigate the risk of bartering, while still reaping some of the benefits, by choosing to limit your bartering activities to friends, neighbors and others that you know. In this case, you would be bartering out of your home, so you'd need to make sure that your home is secure. But friends and neighbors are less likely to attack and more likely to beg you for supplies. That's the risk you're going to be facing then.
I think the idea of depending on bartering as a means of getting supplies that you don't have is more or less useless. If you're a prepper and you don't have something in your stockpile, what do you think the chances are that someone else will have it? About the only people who might have it are other preppers, and they'll either not want to let it go or be looking to make a profit off it, just as you are.
Nevertheless, those trade good are still valuable, especially to accomplish the things I mentioned in the introduction to this article. Just the idea of being able to co-opt your neighbors, giving them a little food in exchange for them working for you, makes those trade goods valuable, even if you don't do anything else with them.
Some are stockpiling silver and gold to use as barter goods during such a time. While silver and gold always appreciate in value during a time of economic crisis, that doesn't mean that people will accept it as money. Most probably won't, recognizing that they can't eat that silver, while they can eat the canned goods.
About the only way that precious metals will be of benefit to you through a crisis of this sort is to wait until the crisis is over and then sell them. The rise in the cost of a dollar will probably be enough that you will make an extensive profit from that transaction; making it well worth having.
The other way you might be able to use precious metals is in trade with other preppers who have a large stock of trade goods. Some of these people will become the grocers of the crisis. As such, they will be used to dealing in volume and prepared to take your silver or gold in trade for goods. Just realize that you won't get as good a rate from them, as you will if you wait until after the crisis is over.
So, What Sort of Trade Goods Should You Have?
This brings us to the next question, that of what to stockpile as trade goods. Actually the answer to that is quite simple; stockpile whatever you are stockpiling for yourself. If you are going to need it to survive, then you can be sure that others will need it too.
Let me give you a brief rundown of ideas:
- Non-perishable food
- Personal hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.)
- Feminine hygiene products
- Toilet paper (very valuable in a crisis)
- Fire starters
- Fuel of all types
- First-aid supplies
- Medicines - both prescription and over the counter
- Ammunition (although I'd be careful who I bartered this with)
- Disposable diapers
- Common repair items
- Heirloom seeds
While it's cheaper to buy your trade goods in bulk, it's easier and more profitable to trade it in small packages. So, go ahead and buy it in bulk, getting that discount, while making sure that you also stock a good selection of plastic bags to repackage your trade goods in.
These things I've mentioned will probably all work out to be good trade goods. Even so, it's a good idea to stock an assortment, rather than counting on just one thing. That way, if one thing doesn't sell good, you still have lots of other trade goods you can make a profit off of. But in reality, while these are all excellent choices for trade goods, they aren't the goods that will be most popular; those are:
- Drinking alcohol in any form
Interestingly enough, sales of these items, as well as illicit drugs, increase after every disaster and in the middle of every economic crisis. That's because people are looking for an escape more in those times, than they are in any other time. So, they turn to the vices people have always turned to, in an effort to escape their problems, even if only for a little bit.
In this, I think that Maslow may have made an error in his hierarchy of needs. Or perhaps it's that people have changed enough that they put their mental and emotional comfort before survival in our modern times. Then again, it could be that the pull of addiction is stronger than that of survival. Regardless of which, there are some people who will put their vices before their very survival, allowing their bodies to suffer, in order to have that moment of emotional bliss and escape their problems.
This may be a cynical way of looking at things, but the statistics back it up. The desire of people to escape their problems is strong. So stockpiling these goods, even though they aren't basic survival goods, will probably make for excellent trade goods. Of course, don't just stock those things, but adding them to your basic supply of trade goods can be very profitable.
The one problem here is that cigarettes don't keep for a long period of time, but go stale quickly. The solution is to stock loose tobacco and rolling papers, possibly even a rolling machine. This will allow you to provide for these people, without the risk of your stock going bad. Just be sure to pack the tobacco away so that air can't get to it, and it should keep for a long time.
What is Fair Trade?
The biggest challenge in bartering, besides the idea of protecting yourself, is determining fair market value for any trade goods. Eventually, an average value will appear, which is accepted in your area. This will depend on the availability of the item and how many people are looking for it. The law of supply and demand will be just as active then, as it is today.
But that's after a while. At the beginning it will be a bit of a struggle to determine value of any trade goods. Part of this problem will be because people will be used to paying a low price for those items and the other part will be because there will be more available. But the actual trade value has to be based on the value of the item, at any particular point in time.
Value is kind of a funny thing. We're used to valuing everything in dollars. But when the dollar isn't worth anything, it's hard to establish value. Value is also fluid, especially in that sort of situation.
Remember when we were talking about people bartering suitcases of food and other valuables for food? That came about due to the increased value of the food, under the circumstances. That silver wouldn't help keep people alive, but the food would. So, they were willing to give up otherwise valuable items, for something that was normally quite cheap.
We'll see the same thing happen again. Once the value of the dollar disappears, value will have to be based on need. That will make things which we deem valuable today of little value, while elevating the value of those things which are needed for survival.
The problem might be in convincing the people who you are bartering with that their grandmother's china isn't worth all that much, while your canned goods are. Unless their minds have already made the leap of understanding, so that they can see value as relative, they'll still want to peg that value to the price they are used to paying, in dollars. But you can't do that. If you do, you'll literally be giving your goods away for a fraction of their value.
Likewise, the same problem will rise up once the disaster is over, and things return to normal. People who have traded you valuables for food, will want to be able to trade back at the same rate. But once again the relative value of the items will have shifted, so that if you make that trade, you are allowing them to steal from you.They may not like it, but the fact of the matter is that they sold those items to you for a price. You aren't mistreating them or robbing from them by saying that the price has changed. All you'll be doing is following the fluxuations of the market. They may think that you making a profit off their misfortune isn't "fair" but that's too bad. Neither is it fair that you invested to survive that period of crisis and they didn't. I suppose you could say that they should be glad that you were there to save their lives.