Scavenging for essential items to survive after a SHTF doomsday disaster should be a part of your weekly prepping routine and factored into the family’s self-reliance budget.
Most preppers stockpile preps to increase their family’s chances of survival, but that is only step 1 of the process. Tossing a bunch of seeds, powdered milk, and long-term food storage buckets in the garage is NOT a survival plan.
Think big picture when scavenging things to survive both during and after natural disasters or a SHTF scenario, unless your goal is only to live through the event and not be a part of the rebuilding phase during the aftermath of the apocalypse as the new normal evolves.
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Isn’t Scavenging Just Looting by Another Name?
No, scavenging is not looting. For the purposes of this article, we are defining scavenging as any manner in which you can source or salvage free (or nearly free) goods.
When the shit hits the fan, scavenging will become one of the most important skills you can have. The good news is that there are many things to scavenge for – if you know where to look.
The bad news is that scavenging is often seen as looting, which can come with a lot of negative connotations.
So, is scavenging just looting by another name? Let’s take a look.
Looting typically refers to the act of stealing from businesses or homes that have been abandoned or are in the midst of an emergency.
Scavenging, on the other hand, is the act of collecting items from an area that has been abandoned or is in the midst of an emergency.
While both looting and scavenging can technically be considered theft, there are a few key distinctions between the two.
For one, looting typically implies that the looter is taking things of value (e.g., jewelry, electronic devices, etc.), while scavengers are more likely to take things that are necessary for survival (e.g., food, water, medical supplies, etc.).
Another difference is that looters will often take more than they need, whereas scavengers will only take what they need and nothing more. This is because scavengers are focused on survival, whereas looters are often motivated by greed.
So, while looting and scavenging may seem like the same thing, there are a few essential differences that set them apart. Scavenging is an important skill to have in a post-collapse society and should not be seen as looting.
That being said, it is entirely likely that anyone who comes along and has a vested interest in the place you are looting is going to think you are a common thief, and might react accordingly.
It’s in your best interest to have a plan for such an encounter, and to learn how to scavenge without jeopardizing your safety…
Build a Scavenger Toolkit
If you were going to go out scavenging with a purpose, you don’t need to head out there willy nilly with nothing but the clothes on your back.
You were going to waste time, quickly run out of room, and you might find yourself in danger if you blunder into an environment when ill-prepared.
No, a good scavenger will have all of the tools with them that they need to succeed.
Having a teammate to help you and watch your back is always best, but it is entirely possible for a solo scavenger to work quickly, efficiently, and safely with the right tools.
Consider the below items your bare minimum for a successful foray.
Pack / Bags
You need a backpack at the minimum and a large, general purpose bag like a duffel bag to haul your supplies. Don’t rely upon pockets to carry what you find.
Likewise, keeping your hands free is a virtue so that you can react quickly to emergent situations. Trying to tote large and bulky items back in hand is only going to tire you quickly.
A scavenger’s best friend is a cart of some kind. If you’re doing a bit of urban scavenging or in an area with lots of paved surfaces, a shopping cart might work just fine, but you’ll be better served by a smaller flatbed utility cart with inflatable all-terrain tires.
This will make carrying back a large load of smaller items significantly easier, and also allow a single person to easily control and transport large or heavy stuff.
Flashlight / Headlamp
Scavengers are highly advised to keep both a flashlight and a headlamp with them at all times.
This is not to say but you’ll be out snooping and shopping in the middle of the night, though you might be, but many of the buildings and larger installations that you’ll be perusing through are likely to be pitch black inside once the power has gone out permanently.
It will be easy to get turned around or have an accident in these dark interiors. A headlamp is especially vital because it will allow you to keep your hands free while you work. Make sure you have an extra battery or two for extended headlamp use.
Let’s face it, sometimes you’re going to need to gain entry into a building or other installation to get the supplies you so desperately need.
If you want to do that without making noise and without leaving obvious traces of human passage, lockpicks will likely take care of the task.
You’ll need to learn how to use them, but picking up most locks is shockingly easy with just a little bit of practice.
A crowbar should be your constant companion on your adventures.
Capable of light demolition work, breaking down components, shifting heavy loads and also serving as a self-defense weapon in a pinch, don’t go scavenging without it.
Bolt cutters make a great companion to your lock picks. For popping off heavy chains, cables, and common padlocks, bolt cutters will take care of business without breaking a sweat.
They are also convenient for harvesting wire and cable for your own purposes.
Large and inconvenient to carry, these are best strapped to the outside of your backpack until you need them.
Lots of how to articles concerning scavenging talk about the importance of scavenging various liquids, including fuel, lubricants and water, but they don’t talk about how to scavenge those liquids.
The answer is a hand operated siphon. Make sure you have one for fuels and one for water only so you don’t contaminate one with the other.
You’ll need something to put those liquids in, and you’ll be well advised to set out on your travels with a small stash of clean and ready to use containers.
Clean, dedicated plastic containers for water that will later be treated are fine, but I highly recommend you get non-reactive glass or metal containers if you’re going to be stashing fuel or other scavenge chemicals.
A little bit of extra caution to make sure they don’t break or rupture is a small price to pay to avoid a melted container or cap.
Where To Score (Nearly) Free Survival Items
- The side of the road
- College campus rental neighborhoods at the change of the quarter or semester
- Craigslist Farm, Barter, and Garden Sections
- Facebook local auction and online trading posts
- Flea Markets
- Junk Yards
- Distribution centers
- Public bathrooms
- An abandoned home
- Yard Sales
- Farm Auctions
- Estate Auctions
- Local or Regional Freecycle Groups
- Make a list – Create a list of needs and wants and then prioritize them. Divide the list into categories: Food and Water, Medical, Transportation, Tools, Livestock, Clothing, etc. List scavenged items in each category by order of priority.
- Get Organized – Create an inventory so you know EXACTLY what you have and when it expires. Use the table at the end of this article to help you organize both your new and existing preps.
- Stages – Once you have a list of your wants and needs created, divide them up into disaster stages for both storage and usage purposes: Initial Disaster Stage, During Disaster Stage, Post-SHTF Stage.
- Non-Tangible – Think outside the box when scavenging and stockpiling. Don’t waste time on the skills vs. stuff debate, do the smart thing and “stockpile” both.
- Barter – Include bartering items in your scavenging of stockpiled goods so you can trade for needed items you cannot produce or run short of. The prepper who creates a trading post during the rebuilding phase just might wind up being the king or queen of their region.
Scavenging For Multi-Purpose Items
Fuel is going to be a hot commodity in the aftermath of a major societal collapse since the lengthy and highly intricate supply chain that produces it is going to break down entirely.
Your local gas station is going to run out of fuel basically overnight, but there will be plenty of stalled, wrecked, and abandoned vehicles around but you can pilfer fuel out of it if you have the right tools, mentioned above.
Also, don’t forget to check in non-typical places for stored fuel supplies, including groundskeeper sheds, car rental places, and so forth.
First-aid supplies are another critical commodity that will dry up rapidly once the gears of commerce grind to a halt.
You’re well advised to stock up, but in case you lose your supplies or run low it is in your best interest to know where to find purpose-made and sterile medical supplies of all kinds.
Hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices will be rated in the blink of an eye, but you’ll probably have good luck swinging by an abandoned ambulance service or paramedic bay, a gymnasium, wellness clinic, or even the nurse’s office of a large school.
Don’t forget that many medications and similar medical items have a definite shelf life and we’ll begin to lose potency or even spoil entirely after several years, so always check the label.
The time to worry about getting a gun is generally not after the end of society as we know it, and you can absolutely depend on the available supply of guns at all of the usual locations where they can be dried up instantaneously.
However, it is ammunition that will become increasingly precious as time goes on.
You probably aren’t going to find much ammo anywhere you would think to typically look, but you can find vital components that can be utilized for reloading or crafting ammunition or even as a trading resource if you are clever.
Look in and around shooting ranges for spent cases or misfire bins, and consider snooping around at old and abandoned hunting camps if you are sure they are not occupied.
So many folks have old tires tucked away around their property because there is a fee to get rid of them and they cannot be burned.
Junk yards, as well as mechanics’ shops would probably give you as many as you want for free because they too have to pay a fee to be rid of them.
- Tires can be used as container gardens to enhance you growing your own groceries projects.
- The can be filled with sand, dirt, or concrete to help create a barrier to block entry to your road or driveway.
- Filled tires can also be used to form a barrier to keep livestock in place or to keep rabbits and deer (if you pile them high enough) out of a garden.
- Fill the tires with dirt or concrete and use them to make an LP/OP or emergency shelter.
- Cut the rubber into strips and use them as replacement soles for your boots and shoes – outerwear and footwear of all types will fall apart far more quickly during rugged SHTF use. Lay your shoe on top of a piece of tire rubber. Trace around the sole, leaving a 1 to 2 inch flap style piece on each side and the front and back so the flap of the makeshift sole can be sewn or tacked onto a pair of boots or shoes.
- Use the waterproof tires as a housing unit to hide valuables at the bottom of a pond or creek. Tightly wrap plastic sheeting, a tarp, or a plastic tub inside the opening, secure it in place with a mountain of duct tape, and you have an underwater safe.
- Build a barn to house livestock close to your home for their safekeeping from marauders.
- Build a barrier wall in front of your home, with covert openings to fire a rifle through, using tires filled with dirt, sand, or concrete.
Junk Mail and Cardboard
Save all your junk mail and start collecting it from everyone you know, ask stores for their cardboard boxes, and dumpster / roadside dive for any boxes put out as trash.
Purchase a paper log maker and start making your own quick-starting logs. The paper logs are better than firestarters or kindling.
Even though they will not burn as hot or as long as wood logs, you should be able to heat a room or boil water using them in your wood stove.
Sure, you might have a ton of trees on your property and a big split firewood pile – but that might not always be the case.
One forest fire, which will happen with far greater frequency during a long-term SHTF disaster could wipe out your entire supply.
You might not be able to go outside due to the nature of the disaster (which could also destroy some or all of your trees) or because of a man-made threat around your property.
Making and storing the paper logs inside your home will help ensure your family will not suffer a winter night without heat.
To make paper logs, soak the cardboard and junk mail in cold water for at least two days if you rip up the material in about 6 inch by 6 inch pieces.
If you do not tear up the paper or cardboard anymore than is necessary to make it fit inside your soaker, the pulp-making process usually takes up to about 14 days.
Next, you will squeeze the water from the material. Then, scoop up a handful and place it into the bottom of the paper log maker.
It takes two or three handfuls to fill most paper log makers. Each manual machine functions a bit differently, simply follow the instructions to complete the process.
Turn a Junk Television into a Solar Oven
There are several useful raw materials which can be found inside junk rear projection televisions, but the most exciting find will be its Fresnel lens.
A Fresnel lens is essentially a massive magnifying glass. You can create a 2,000 degree solar oven with the junk television part.
Go junk hunting for glass jars. Snag as many unbroken jars you can find to use for making survival candles and lanterns.
Cooking oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and other non-toxic types of oils can be poured into the jar and a homemade cotton wick sunken in the middle to make a nearly free survival light source that can be lit with lighters.
Corrugated steel – sheet metal, can be found in scrap yards, junk yards, and rusty but still usable full or partial sheets, tossed into a heap on rural farms.
Corrugated Metal Uses
- The corrugated metal can be used to build a temporary or permanent shelter for humans or livestock.
- As a garden barrier from rabbits, deer, and prying human eyes.
- To make a LP/OP.
- To make shields.
- To make house shutters.
- To build a barrier to protect the entrance of your house from marauders while providing firing cover.
- As patching material for a roof leak.
Metal or Plastic 55-Gallon Drums
Scour your local scrap and junk yards, as well as online auction and for sale social media pages, for free and cheap drums.
Try to find food grade barrels, but plan on bleaching and cleaning the inside of each used barrel anyway, just in case some chemical was housed in it that could be harmful to the health of your family.
Use for Plastic or Metal Barrels
- Container Gardening
- Rainwater Collection
- Long Term Food Storage
- Livestock Food Storage
- As an underground hidden safe or cache for emergency survival supplies.
- If the 55-gallon drum is made out of metal, it could be used to make a BBQ grill, blacksmith forge, or crafted into a still.
If you can buy or barter for an old car that is no longer running, you have struck gold – valuable prepper gold, that is. So many parts of a seemingly useless car can be converted into useful preps.
Try to find a car or other vehicle that is the same as or similar as your own so you can pick it clean of still usable parts. Stockpiling repair parts for all vehicles and machinery could help keep your homemade biodiesel fuel-powered vehicle running after nearly all others have stopped.
Even if some of these following parts are no longer in good working order, they can be repurposed into other valuable preps, if you have a junk car at your disposal.
- Wiring – can be used as cordage, restraints, to set snare traps, for fence repair, for emergency repair on torn shoes, bugout bags, or outerwear, etc.
- Busted Headlights – The headlight plastic can be broken off and sharpened to fashion a knife.
- Window Glass – The glass can also be used to make a knife.
- Clamps – You can’t have too many clamps, right?
- Alternator – If it works or can be repaired, it can be used as an essential part when crafting a homemade generator.
My husband never, ever, under any circumstances, ever throws away a piece of scrap metal. The numerous uses for the free building and workshop material make the growing junk pile on one end of our property a source of great pride for my beloved.
Scrap Metal Uses
- Building Material
- Livestock or Garden Fencing
- Window replacement and shutters
- Tool Making
- Making Weapons such as knives
- Making an LP/OP
- Repairing Equipment, Vehicles, And Machinery
Check on the sides of the road where you live and online for free junk appliances and the like, even single-wide trailers, that folks are giving away if you just agree to come haul them off.
As an added bonus when you scavenge an old appliance for scrap metal, you should luck out with a few other usable parts such as: hoses, metal pipes, valves, tubing, screws, clamps, nuts, bolts, wiring, etc.
Such awesome trash-to-treasure deals typically go quickly, so make a check for scrap metal possibilities a part of your daily prepping routine.
Types of Scrap Metal “Junk” To Scavenge
- Washing Machines
- Empty Propane Gas Tanks
- Well Water Bladders
- Air Conditioners
- Shelving Units and cupboards
- Junk Cars
- Air Compressors
- Fuel Tanks
- Propane Heaters
- Kerosene Heaters
- Outdoor Furniture
- Industrial Kitchen Tools
- Storage Cabinets
- Fire Extinguishers
In theory, if you are skilled, an ordinary fire extinguisher can be turned into a flamethrower.
PVC and Metal Pipes
Again, the uses for either PVC pipes or metal pipes are vast.
Stockpiling as much as you did before the SHTF should give you ample pipe to not only suit your emergency repair, maintenance, and weapons needs during the disaster but leave you with extra pipe to use either far into the future to barter with.
In addition to using the pipe for enhanced rainwater collection and in small culverts making for water drainage, the pipes can also be used to make a deadly bow and to create an off-the-grid “humanure” septic tank system using 55-gallon drums or agricultural plastic and metal framed storage tanks.
Wood bits and pieces left over from home remodeling projects, torn-out pieces from the repair work, etc. come in handy for obvious small structure and project building reasons.
You can also use the scavenged lumber to create barriers, fences, raised gardening plots, for firewood, and even to make a training weapon – that perhaps is filed sharply enough, could cause injury.
The cans your pet food and veggies come in can be used as seed starters, growing containers for herbs, as an essential part of a rocket stove, or mini forge.
Aluminum cans strung together with their lids dangling on a rope or wire can be part of a low-tech surveillance system around the perimeter of your survival retreat.
The reflective nature of the can lid and bottom may also be good for signaling purposes.
High-Probability Scavenging Locations
Some places are likely to have more resources than others. Knowing where to look can help you get the supplies you need without wasting time searching fruitlessly.
Even better, many of these out-of-the-box locations will probably be missed or overlooked by other survivors who are out doing the same thing you are, increasing your chances of finding what you need.
Below are some high-probability scavenging locations to keep in mind.
Junkyards and Auto Shops
These are both great places to look for supplies, especially if you’re looking for tools or parts.
You might be surprised at what people will just throw away; Junkyards will have a lot of metal and even whole components that can be stripped and carried off to be used, recycled or repurposed.
Auto shops will invariably have tools, fluids, tires, and spare parts of all kinds that can be useful on your own vehicle or as trade fodder.
Warehouses and Storage Units
These are both great places to look for food and other supplies. If you can get into a warehouse, there will likely be plenty of non-perishable items like canned goods or dry staples that will last you a long time.
Accessing the most important items in the sea of similar boxes or high up on racks can be time-consuming and, in the case of climbing racks, dangerous.
Storage units are also a good place to look, although they may be more difficult to break into. If you can get into one, there is a good chance you’ll find some useful supplies like clothes, camping gear, or even weapons.
Great places to find fuel, fishing gear, and – if you’re lucky – an intact and operable boat.
Even if you don’t find a boat, there will be plenty of rope, nets and other supplies that can be used for fishing or in a pinch as trap components.
Be aware that marinas are likely to be heavily populated by those who choose to stay on the water while riding out the situation so use caution when approaching.
This isn’t something you’d expect to find in a typical horror film or some apocalypse novel with zombies…
Large, well-tended, and properly maintained cemeteries frequently contain a keeper’s home or at the very least a big shed where groundskeepers and other related professionals may store all of their equipment.
It’s quite probable that you’ll find everything you need, as well as power tools and petrol to operate them.
If you’re really lucky, you may come across a tiny vehicle like a small tractor or perhaps a four-wheel drive “ute” that can be reworked in an emergency.
When it comes to acquiring supplies, there’s a good chance no one else will think of this place.
Outdoor Shooting Ranges
Whether formal business or informal plinking spots, these are great places to find a few stray rounds of ammunition and ammunition components that can be refurbished.
However, you should approach with caution as the people who frequent these ranges may be thinking the exact same thing, or waiting to ambush others who are thinking the same.
Obviously, they are likely to be armed and dangerous.
If you can get in and out without being seen, you’re likely to find a good haul of supplies. You might even be able to pilfer bullets from a berm if you need lead to cast your own bullets.
Sports Complexes, Gyms, and Wellness Centers
Even if you aren’t planning on doing anything strenuous, any large, well-equipped health club or fitness center may very well have a haul of medical supplies on hand, particularly those for treating common sports injuries.
There will be a decent supply of bottled water, as well as some sports drinks for hydration. Consider too that certain sorts of sports equipment provide real protective value in close-quarters fighting.
Pads used for football, lacrosse, and hockey might shield you from blows received in brutal close-quarters combat with the sticks and clubs of the pastimes being employed for the same purpose!
While it may not be the first place you think of, an office building can have a lot of useful supplies.
Not only will you find plenty of long-lasting high-calorie snack food in the vending machines and break rooms, but there is also a good chance you’ll find medical supplies, first-aid kits, and even some self-defense items like pepper spray or stun guns.
Larger buildings are likely to have substantial tool closets for maintenance personnel. Of course, you’ll need to be careful as these buildings are likely to be inhabited by squatters who may or may not be friendly.
Schools are great places to find supplies, especially if they have a cafeteria. You’ll find non-perishable food items, as well as water and sports drinks.
The vending machines will also be a goldmine of snacks. You should be able to find first-aid kits and other medical supplies including medications in the nurse’s office, main office or dispensary in the case of the largest colleges.
And don’t forget about the gym – you can find all sorts of useful equipment there, including sports gear that can be used for protection as described above.
Commercial / Industrial Campus Canteens
Employee cafeterias are frequently neglected amid a large disaster; huge industrial or commercial campuses, or large office buildings that may provide you with a lot of ready-to-eat food or basic necessities that you can repurpose to increase your own survival pantry.
Also look for a substantial supply of cookware in these locations, perhaps even some bottled and ready-to-use propane or other fuels.
These sites also typically have big, well-stocked snack machines that have likely been neglected by the average person. Even if you don’t want to eat junk food, they will provide a large amount of calories if you can get there in time.
The vision of a dilapidated and abandoned amusement park invokes feelings of excitement and dread in Preppers, as it is such an iconic image in both post-apocalyptic fiction and reality.
That being said, amusement parks are always packed with well-stocked maintenance sheds and food stands that can save you time if you can traverse the enormous area of the park.
Getting into the park may be difficult because they are usually surrounded by tall fences and solid gates, but once you’ve done that, obtaining what you need should be straightforward.
Use the PDF table below to keep track of your prepping purchases Keeping records will help ensure you have not only everything you will need, but enough of it:
Now You Know What to Look For
You could spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week trying to gather and learn everything you need for a SHTF event and never feel like you are 100 percent prepared.
The more organized you are, the better the chances that you will not neglect to buy, scavenger, or learn the top priority items on your survival lists.
Divide up the scavenging, learning, inventory, and cross-training of skills to other members of your family or mutual assistance group to spread out the workload and accomplish as much as humanly possible in the time we have left before the end of the world as we know it and disaster takes place.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.