How to Scavenge for Survival Items Post-Collapse

It’s natural for many preppers to have at least considered the option of taking what they need, if necessary, from the scattered remains of their home town.

abandoned building

Even in the midst of the destruction left in the wake of a disaster, useful materials and goods will remain. It may just be one more thing you have to do to survive.

Scavenging is frequently discussed in prepper circles as a given, a process with little risk of consequence.

But when you are talking about a real-deal survival situation, nothing happens in a vacuum. Your little scavenging expedition will not be so easy in the real world, nor will it be without legitimate risks.

We must also consider that scavenging, even in extreme times, is very much an ethical gray zone.

We’ll go through scavenging as a survival technique in this post, including how to use it to improve or replace what supplies you have or need.

There are plenty of moral and practical issues that must be considered before you go swiping any unused supplies or materials in and around your area.

You Might Have to Scavenge for What You Need

In any SHTF scenario, scavenging will be an important part of gathering the resources you need to survive.

With widespread panic and shortages that will invariably result due to the breakdown of commerce and supply chains, it’s doubtful that you will be able to find the supplies you need on the open market. You may have to take what you can get from what is available.

Now, many preppers are probably even now redoubling their efforts to stockpile the goods, gear, supplies and materials that they think they’ll need so they won’t have to resort to scavenging.

This is definitely good policy, because we should get prepared when we want to, not when we have to, but the fact of the matter is that you might not have a choice when the time comes.

That same disaster that sees you reliant upon your survival supplies might take those supplies from you. Your survival stash could be partially or completely destroyed my natural disasters or man-made events.

Your supplies and gear could be stolen, or you could be separated from it due to circumstances beyond your control.

This means that, especially in a long-term collapse, scavenging will become your main source of supplies.

But don’t forget: anything you take from damaged or destroyed buildings or elsewhere among the ruins of society once belonged to someone else, one way or another…

Isn’t Scavenging Just Looting?

In normal times, scavenging and looting are very much one and the same.

Even if you are traipsing through a pristine patch of woods picking apples and other edible vegetation those fruits very literally belong to someone else.

Most of the time you can’t even go to a junkyard and take whatever you want, even though it is garbage: the junk and the land that it is kept on belongs to somebody!

But in a collapse situation there is a very important distinction to be made. Looting is the indiscriminate taking of anything and everything that isn’t nailed down.

This could include televisions, furniture, appliances, and anything else you might find in someone’s home or business.

Scavenging, on the other hand, is the targeted taking of specific items that you need in order to survive. This could be food, water, medical supplies, weapons, or any other materials that can help you stay alive.

The main difference between the two is intent. Looting is about satisfying your own desires, wants, with no regard for the needs of others. Scavenging is about taking what you need in order to survive.

Now, even in the aftermath of a society toppling event the things you will scavenge still belong to someone.

Even if they used to belong to someone who is no longer alive someone else probably has a more rightful claim to them than you do.

Those things might not belong to an individual, either, and instead could belong to a corporation, state or some other non-person entity.

The bottom line is that it is entirely possible that someone else, or a group of people, might well object and object most strenuously to you picking around the pile of debris and detritus that they consider theirs.

For this reason, don’t fall into the trap of believing that scavenging happens in a vacuum. You aren’t the sole occupant of some deserted island.

You aren’t going to be the last man alive on Earth or even in your city. Even if something appears abandoned or discarded that does not mean that someone else does not have a legitimate, rightful claim to its ownership.

For this reason, it is important to think through the second and third order effects of scavenging and what it might mean for you in the sight of other survivors living in the aftermath of an SHTF event.

Social Consequences of Scavenging

In a collapse situation, there may not be police or military to maintain order. This means that it will be up to each individual and group to decide what is right and wrong.

There are no easy answers here, but there are some things you should consider before you start scavenging.

The biggest and most obvious factor is that other people are going to be around. People will see what you are doing.

They might not necessarily care, and it definitely doesn’t mean they will try to stop you from scavenging, but you will be observed. This can have far reaching consequences.

The things you are looking for and hauling away might be pulled out of rubble or debris, but they are not exactly trash as I said above.

You aren’t going to be carting off an old sofa or some other appliance that someone set out for the trash man to pick up. You aren’t completely destitute and picking through a dumpster looking for some scrap of food.

You will be picking through the remains of someone’s home or business looking for tools, resources and other goods.

Advice for Courteous Scavengers

It is important to consider how you will look in the eyes of other people while you do this, people that you might come to depend on or people that might report of your deeds to organizations or individuals who won’t appreciate it.

Depending on what you are taking, would they consider you some opportunistic looter or someone who is truly desperate?

Is taking what you are taking make you look like a genuine bad guy?

Even in the aftermath of the apocalypse you want people to have a good opinion of you lest you be exiled or marked for retribution.

Here are some things to ponder upon before deciding what to take and where to take it from

Think about how your actions will affect others in the area. If you start scavenging and taking everything you can find, you will quickly exhaust the resources available to others.

This could lead to conflict and violence as people compete for scarce resources.

Really think about how your actions will be viewed by others. If they see you as a thief or robber, they will not trust you and may be less likely to help you when you need it. They might even sic someone on you, police or otherwise.

Think long and hard about where you “shop.” Taking from a residential area entails serious judgment compared to commercial or industrial areas.

Always, always consider the worst-case consequences of your actions. If you are confronted as a looter or thief while scavenging, you may end up in incarcerated, wounded or killed.

The latter consideration is in particular a big one, as things have a way of snowballing out of control quite quickly during a high stress situation.

When people are already physically and mentally fatigued, emotionally wrecked and cursing the day they were born you might not get a second chance to make up for bad behavior.

The next section will tell you how to deal with a confrontation should you be approached while scavenging.

What Should You Do if Confronted?

Whatever the circumstances and however it occurred, you rolled the dice and took your chances on scavenging, and it looks like the dice came up snake eyes.

You have been approached by a furious individual or small group who does not take too kindly to you rummaging through their things and taking supplies that they need.

Don’t act so surprised. Chances are you and you’re prepping buddies have boasted in swaggered about what you would do in the same situation if you all caught anyone trying to loot from your possessions…

At any rate, you are caught dead to rights, and the shotgun leveled at your belly held in their shaking hands belies the severity of the situation.

Now is the time for soothing words and cool heads. If you find yourself in a situation like this one while scavenging, try the following to diffuse the situation.

Don’t make any sudden moves. Very particularly if someone has a gun pointed at you as they may clench their hand and pull the trigger if startled. Even if someone has a melee weapon, jerky movements might prompt a response.

Be polite and respectful. Even if they are angry at you, it is better to show them that you respect their rights.

Don’t act like a cowering, condemned person, but definitely don’t be an ass, either. First impressions are everything.

Apologize sincerely. Now is not the time for ego or equivocating. Tell him you are honestly sorry and mean it.

Explain what you are doing and why. If they understand your situation, they may be more likely to let you go without consequence or even help you.

Tell them you desperately need supplies to build a shelter for your loved ones or are frantically looking for food for your wife. Tell the truth.

Offer to trade something for what you need. This could be food, water, or anything else of value that you have on you. If you can engender even a sliver of collaborative spirit, you might walk away from this with a good outcome all around.

-Leave the way you came and do not come back. Whatever the case, unless you sincerely believe that you have perhaps made some new friends never, ever come back to the place you were scavenging from.

Chances are you won’t be granted any clemency the next time around.

The decision of whether or not to scavenge is a personal one. There is no right or wrong answer. You will have to weigh the risks and benefits for yourself and make the best decision you can.

Survival Scavenging Fundamentals

Okay, we have considered all of the moral and social implications of scavenging under the circumstances of a major SHTF event.

The time has now come to get with it. You are in serious to desperate need of resources, be it food, water, tools, medicine, raw materials or something else.

You need to go out and find it, extricate it and then get it back to your home or base without getting hurt yourself.

Chances are this operation is going to be harder than you might think, and it will grow even harder over time as other desperate survivors do the same thing that you are doing.

Resources will dwindle, and the security situation is likely to get worse over time, not better.

With that being said, time to get your head in the game and get to scavenging.

Safety Considerations for Scavengers

In addition to the social considerations detailed above, there are also some practical things you should keep in mind when scavenging.

-Always be aware of your surroundings. The post SHTF environment is going to be full of dangers that can hurt or kill you for a moment’s inattention.

  • Don’t enter a building that is unstable or could fall down.
  • Watch out for live electrical lines or energized water.
  • Be wary of any surfaces that could collapse or send you sliding.
  • Keep an eye out for dangerous animals

Be careful not to damage or contaminate any supplies you find. If you take food from a grocery store, for example, make sure you don’t contaminate it with any biological hazard that might be present.

Unknown chemical or fuel spills are another constant hazard, as are problems posed by sewage contamination, particularly likely in the aftermath of a flood.

Think about how you will carry what you take. You may not have a lot of room in your pack, so you will need to be selective about what you take.

If possible, can you rig up a cart or trolley to help you carry things? If you are relying upon a vehicle, make sure the vehicle remains secure and your routes will not be blocked unexpectedly.

Always be aware of who is watching you, or who might be around. Situational awareness is paramount.

Avoid scavenging in any area where you being watched too closely or too intently. If possible, scavenge with a partner who can watch your back or offer aid if you are jumped.

As with all things related to prepping and surviving in a dangerous environment, trust your instincts and use common sense.

Determine Necessity

The first step in deciding what to scavenge is to determine what you need. Make a list of the items that are absolutely essential for your survival.

Items like food, water, shelter, and clothing are common, as are vital supplies like medicine, baby supplies, weapons and so forth.

As you might expect, this will naturally inform your choices of where to start looking, but I can give you some advice that will make your search easier, quicker and more productive.

Unless you need something that is truly specific, like a particular medication, you don’t necessarily need to think of your get list as discrete components. It might be more instructive to think of them as necessary concepts required for your survival.

For instance, you might be looking for a tent to help keep you and your family warm and sheltered inside your damaged home, but what you are really trying to find is the ability to thermal regulate your body temperature.

That can be done with clothing or improvised shelter Solutions which means that other items might fulfill that need.

Similarly, if you are looking for bottled water to drink you don’t necessarily need a bottle of manufactured water but the ability to produce clean water for drinking.

Might you be able to locate a water filtration system or the components to make your own more easily?

Don’t Get Tunnel Vision!

Once you have a list of the items you need, it’s important to keep an open mind. You may find items that are not on your list but could still be useful.

For example, you may find a first-aid kit or a can of food that could prove useful later and save yourself a trip now.

Like I was alluding to above, don’t get so locked on searching every building, office, car, nook and cranny looking for bottled water that you overlook the same product, clean drinking water, in the form of a jug, cooler or melted bag of ice.

Fatigue and weariness have a way of corroding your brain, and chances are you’re already going to be emotionally stressed out while the search is underway.

There is nothing to be gained from this. Take a breath, keep cool and keep your wits about you and your search will be concluded with a happy outcome that much faster.

Where Can You Find What You Need?

The trick with scavenging, as with so many other post SHTF resource Gathering tasks, is finding the stuff you need before other people do.

Particularly in areas of dense population there will be considerable competition for all of the basics like food, water, etc.

There’s also going to be a certain segment of the population who got going much quicker and more readily than you did, which means you are unlikely to find the things you need in typical outlets like stores, gas stations, groceries and the like for very long.

So even though you are still searching for the same things you’re going to have to think about where to find them a little differently.

It is time to start thinking through each discrete step in the chain of supply and consumption when it comes to giving resources.

For instance, packaged, ready to eat foods that you usually get at the grocery store are probably long gone from those same shelves.

But, you might have luck finding them in a stopped or abandoned delivery truck or tractor trailer, in any office building or industrial site that has an employee cafeteria or even in a vending machine where those are typically found.

This is not to say that it’s not worth checking the list of usual suspects when it comes to scavenging sites, but you must not depend on them if you want your trips to be fruitful for the duration.

High-Probability Scavenging Sites

In stark contrast to all the usual locations where people might be expected to scavenge for what they need, careful analysis of past incidents that resulted in societal collapse along with observation of survivor activity has informed the following list of unconventional but high probability scavenging sites.

In this case, high probability means a higher than average probability of producing supplies you might need in any given circumstances.

If scavenging is going to be a big component of your post SHTF response plan, you might want to think through how you’re going to access these non-typical sites and locate them ahead of time in your area.

Non-Typical Sites

Industrial/Commercial Cafeterias

Often forgotten in the midst of a major calamity, large industrial or commercial campuses, or large office buildings, often contain employee cafeterias that can furnish you a large amount of ready to eat food or basic necessities that you can repurpose to pad your own survival pantry. You also expect to find a large supply of cookware in these places, perhaps even some bottled and ready to use propane or other fuels.

These facilities also as a rule have large and generally well stocked snack machines that have probably gone forgotten by the mass of humanity.

The thought of subsisting on junk food is probably not appealing, but they will contain a large supply of calories if you can get to them in time.

Gyms and Wellness Centers

You probably aren’t thinking about getting your heart rate going any higher or getting a good pump in under the circumstances, but any large, nicely equipped gym or health center might well have a honey hole of medical supplies on hand, particularly those for treating common sports injuries.

You can also expect to locate a large stash of bottled water here and if you are lucky some sports drinks for electrolyte supplementation. Consider two that certain types of sports gear offer legitimate protective value in close quarters combat.

Pads used for football, lacrosse and hockey may protect you from blows sustained in hand to hand fighting and the implements used for the same can make formidable clubs.

Amusement Parks

The image of a rundown and abandoned amusement park is likely to cause a frisson of excitement and despair in preppers since it is such an iconic image in a post-apocalyptic fiction and reality alike.

That being said, amusement parks are always dotted with well supplied maintenance sheds and concession stands that can provide you a great hole of tools, raw materials and food if you can navigate the sprawling confines of the park.

Getting into the park might prove challenging since they are typically surrounded by tall fences and sturdy gates, but once you can do that getting the things you need will probably be simple enough. If you are able, grab a map of the park while inside or be clever and download one now to keep with your survival stash.


It sounds ghoulish, but this has nothing to do with being a set piece in your typical horror movie or zombie apocalypse fiction.

Large, well tended and properly kept cemeteries often have a keeper’s residence or at least a large shed on the premises; it contains all the tools professionals need to take care of the cemetery grounds.

It is highly likely you can find a good selection of tools inside, and possibly power tools along with fuel to operate them.

If you are very fortunate, you might find a small vehicle like a lawn tractor or perhaps a side-by-side four-wheel drive that could be repurposed in an emergency. It is highly likely that no one else will think of this location when it comes to obtaining supplies.

Scavenge to Survive in Times of Trouble

Scavenging for supplies is often thought of as part and parcel of survival in the aftermath of an SHTF situation, but it is not an activity to be undertaken lightly.

Social and practical considerations could result in negative outcomes if not handled deftly and with the appropriate amount of care.

Even so, the realities of a long-term societal collapse means that most will be forced to undertake scavenging to a degree.

It is best if you are properly oriented for the task. Use the info in this guide to get ready!

What do you think about the necessity of scavenging? Do you have a plan for scavenging when you must, or are you committed to avoiding the practice? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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