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What is SHTF? Meaning, Examples and an In-Depth Explanation

You have probably seen the acronym S.H.T.F. if you have done any reading on or searching about prepping. If you are new to the concept you have probably wondered what it means. You might have heard other preppers say that they “are out of here as soon as the S.H.T.F.” or that “you won’t be able to do that once the S.H.T.F.” Maybe you know what the acronym stands for, but do not have a full understanding of what the term encompasses in terms of real-life situations.

In this article, you’ll learn not only what S.H.T.F. stands for, but also see some in-depth explanations of what it truly means as well as what types of situations qualify as true S.H.T.F. scenarios. Let’s get started before the, well, you know.

What S.H.T.F. Means                                

Let’s start with the acronym and get it out of the way. S.H.T.F. literally means “Shit Hits the Fan” (or “stuff hits the fan” if you prefer a term less vulgar). Whichever you prefer we all know how messy such an occurrence would be. When the S.H.T.F., it means that something has taken a turn for the worse. Most people think more in terms of a proper catastrophic event, but when it comes down to it, what constitutes a S.H.T.F. event is simply an emergent event or crisis that will put your survival skills to the test.

This can be different for everyone. Some people think a natural disaster is a S.H.T.F. event, and others are only dropping the term for a for a full-on end-of-days apocalypse. However, regardless of what an individual considers being a S.H.T.F. event prepping should be done, and should trend toward preparation against a worst case scenario in mind.

The responses to a S.H.T.F. event are likewise varied: some agree that when things get that bad, it’s time to either bug in or out. Others believe you should shelter in place if at all possible. However, how each of us responds to an event that we perceive to be a S.H.T.F. event will depend on who we are, where we live, how prepared we are, and what plans we have laid.

Examples of S.H.T.F. Scenarios

There are so many ways the S. can H. the F. It can be an event that is local, regional, national or even global in proportion. The duration too can vary greatly. The event could blow over in a few days, weeks, or months or it can be something that is permanent in nature and requires a drastic adjustment to life going forward. The latter example is probably the way most preppers perceive a S.H.T.F. event when they think about it. Below are a few examples that certainly qualify for the term.

Major Natural Disaster

A serious natural disaster is a local or regional event that can severely disrupt the lives of a large number of people. Such a thing no doubt qualifies as a S.H.T.F. event. For people who live in an area that can be struck by a severe hurricane, earthquake, blizzard, volcano or other weather event, the risk to life and limb is enormous, and if they survive their lives could be upset for weeks or months. Hurricane Katrina anyone?

Pandemic

The possibility of a viral outbreak is always hanging over humanity like a dark specter; after all, it has happened so, so many times in the past. Virologists agree that a pandemic is not only possible, but pretty much guaranteed. It’s only a matter of when the next bug mutates or jumps the gap from animal life to human. When a viral outbreak occurs and spreads to a global scale, when cases of to the virus rise and the illness reaches your city or town, then you need to consider the fact that this is a S.H.T.F. event. This is particularly true because there is no way to predict when and where a pandemic will start.

World War

There have always been struggles between groups of humans and as our population grows and grows unceasingly and the planet becomes ever more crowded something will have to give. There is already more friction than ever before. Consider the trouble with ISIS, North Korea, and Russia and another World War doesn’t seem fictional or so far away. A World War can bring devastation directly to American soil and entail any number of ways to die, including conventional, nuclear, biological, chemical, and cyber attacks.

Nuclear Attack

This is a natural fit for our World War III scenario above, but thanks to nuclear proliferation an isolated detonation is far from out of the question. If a World War is not the reason for the nuclear attack, the lone attack itself is bound to initiate said World War. Some preppers aim for being prepared for a full out nuclear exchange, believing that if they are prepared to withstand a proper nuclear war, they are prepared to ride out any literally any other S.H.T.F. event that could come their way.

EMP or Massive Grid-Down Event

If the grid went down, it would end modern life as we know it, just like that. Everything in our modern society relies on electricity: electricity keeps our food fresh and allows us to pump gas, get money out of our ATMs, heat and cool our homes and access this wonderful system of tubes we call the internet..

Have you ever gone into a store in which the computer wasn’t working? No service. There is no system in place to make do without electricity. Traffic lights, business, government offices, everything would shut down without electricity. We are so hopelessly inured to it in the West it has made us highly vulnerable to its absence. The power grid can go down due to a strong solar storm or via the high-altitude detonation of a nuclear bomb resulting in an EMP that fries circuits and other sensitive electronics. The power grid is also vulnerable to a direct cyber-attack from a major power.

Nuclear Meltdown

Another calamity caused by the power of the atom, the meltdown of a nuclear reactor is considered a legit S.H.T.F. event, one that would produce serious hazards from radioactive contamination and potentially fallout, just like a proper nuke. Anyone who lives in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor should include as part of their preparations a way to deal with a meltdown

Financial Collapse

This is perhaps the most plausibly likely S.H.T.F. event for which to prepare. Many people believe a financial collapse is already underway, that we never really recovered from the Great Recession of 2008.

A financial collapse can bring down an economy quickly and result in a major drop in the stock markets and a bank holiday, during which no one will have access to their money. The resulting panic, anger and desperation could see enormous hikes in the prices of everything from gas and electricity to bread and milk. Need is the ultimate monkey, and as soon as otherwise decent people have missed a few meals, things will start getting dicey.

A Slow Decline

Instead of a quick financial collapse, there are many preppers who anticipate that the collapse of the economy will come more slowly, with inflation creeping ever higher, unemployment on the rise, and increasing civil unrest from America’s cultural Balkanizing finally boiling over.

This is most definitely a S.H.T.F. event, though one that will happen (or is happening) so slowly and gently it will overtake you before you know it. This slow decline can also end up with a sharp, shocking collapse, which would bring us back to the previous point of preparing for financial collapse.

Specific Problems in a S.H.T.F. Situation

When the S.H.T.F., your problems will be manifold. You will have to be prepared to handle all of them. But there are certain problems that will be a particular threat, even if you have all your ducks in a row in terms of being prepared with food, water, supplies, a plan, and a group with whom to weather the storm. Consider the following:

Communications

During a S.H.T.F. event communication is vitally important, and very likely more difficult than it has ever been in your life. Your ability to survive and stay safe will rely on the information you are able to gather about what is happening around you. Make sure you have a means to communicate when cell phones no longer work. An emergency weather radio is ideal, but any alternate methods of communication you can manage between you and others are necessary. Consider dedicated landlines, Morse code, prearranged signals, etc.

Sanitation

You might have plenty of provision stocked, but what goes in must come out, and sanitation quickly becomes a problem in a S.H.T.F. situation. Garbage and waste piles up quickly, and once the water stops flowing or the sewage service is compromised there are no more flush toilets. It is garbage and sewage both that will quickly cause illness and disease to spread; either can become major threats to health and life in the wake of a major disaster.

Safety and Security

Speaking of danger, S.H.T.F. there will be people out there who don’t have what you have and they will want it. It might take a week or two for things to start getting desperate for the majority of people but at some point the masses are going to realize they’re on their own. If and when they find out you have food, water, and supplies, they will want it for themselves and their families. Desperate people will take desperate action, even otherwise good, kind people.

As for the not–so-kind ones and the criminals, they will quickly take to pillaging and looting with no provocation. You’ll need to be able to take care of yourself, and that means weapons, training and the will to engage in potentially lethal combat.

Law Enforcement

If law enforcement is still operating, you might be safe from the bad guys, but are you safe from law enforcement? Depending on the scenario, law enforcement may be on edge, or operating on orders of questionable morality. If things get bad enough, which would happen in a true S.H.T.F. scenario, law enforcement will get to a point where they will bail on their duties so they can take care of their own families. That is understandable at least.

Whether or not there is law enforcement on duty, don’t be fooled by criminals and desperate people who pose as law enforcement just to get what you have. If you can’t identify the real McCoy, then you need to stay hidden from view.

Health

In the end, you want to maintain your health and well-being, which can be difficult in a S.H.T.F. situation. You should strive to have good physical health prior to an event. This will help you deal with stress, strain and injury when times get tough. The body is the first tool, don’t neglect it!

When the S.H.T.F. you will be under a great deal of stress, have a lot of physical demands on your body, and probably be skimping on sleep. This will not only drain your body physically, but also mentally. A healthy body will help you maintain a healthy mindset, and mindset is critical for surviving a disaster.

Developing a Plan for S.H.T.F.

All of the above scenarios will require specific preparation, know-how and equipment to survive, from a mass riot or outbreak of civil unrest to a radioactive fallout event. There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to preparing for S.H.T.F.; you’ll have to analyze the most likely threats for you and yours based on your location, climate, living situation and other factors.

A prepper trying to get ready for a major event in the middle of Los Angeles or New York will be dealing with very different threats than a prepper living in rural Mississippi. The good news is that the core of readiness for most threats is centered on a baseline set of skills and material provision, think of it like Prepping 101, that will see you through most threats to life and limb in most S.H.T.F scenarios.

Skills like fire-starting and management, improvised sheltering and thermoregulation, navigation, basic trauma care and self-defense in tandem with a stash of food, water, water purification solutions, medicine, clothing, tools and fire-starting equipment plus tinder will see you able to weather most crises… assuming you can survive the initial onslaught.

That is where your skills come in. The curveballs and challenges will be flying at you hard and fast during and after a S.H.T.F. event, and the stakes are high. If you cannot evade danger or keep your body hydrated and at temperature conducive to life you lose. It is skills, not just gear, that will give you the confidence and knowledge to deal with whatever problems you have at hand.

After you have gathered essential gear and practiced your basic survival and austere living skills, it is time to deep-dive into the minutiae of your specific threats. If you are living in a major flood risk zone, you need to know everything there is to know about your chances, the local response and early-warning systems and how much time you have to react under ‘x’ amount of rainfall. You need to know flash flood risk areas and every single way in and out of the danger zone. Become an expert on flooding!

If you are living in the shadow of serious unrest and violence in a major city, you should become an expert on the simmering conflict: who are the players, why are they mad, what has the local law enforcement response been, where do you live in relation to areas of concern or probably violence? You’ll need to know every route both to and from your residence. You should be taking care to sanitize your personal equipage and vehicle so that you do not draw ire from any participants one way or the other. You should become the know-it-all on the topic among your friends and associates.

The same goes for any other threat, even if it is “just” a tornado, hurricane or volcano. Any mundane weather event can turn awe-inspiringly powerful and kill you just as dead as a nuclear warhead, gamma ray burst, rampaging horde of malcontents or kill-team of terrorists. Don’t get caught up in the unlikely and fantastic until you have prepared for the obvious and commonplace.

How S.H.T.F. Relates to Our Current Society

In the end, if a S.H.T.F. event happens, you will ideally want to have other people you can trust to work with you to survive over the long-term.  People survive better as a group than going it alone. We are social creatures. The image of the rugged individualist surviving against all odds is populist fantasy.  Unfortunately, it can be tough to convince the people in your life that it is worth the time and effort to prepare for such a scenario.

Most people just believe that nothing like the above scenarios are ever going to happen or they don’t think they’ll ever live to see it.  The people who do prep for S.H.T.F. don’t generally advertise that fact so they won’t have everyone they know beating down their door when the time comes.

Either way, this adds up to the fact that no one in our society talks openly about what S.H.T.F. really is, at least without some social stigma. This can make finding a like-minded group of people to work with challenging. Ultimately, your survival is in your hands, so start prepping now and simultaneously try to find a group you can trust.  Everyone you include in your plans will thank you for it.

If you cannot find a ready-to-bake group of survivors in your family or a dedicated mutual-aid group, you’ll need to start from scratch with what clay you have: hit up friends and neighbors who would at least be amicable to hearing you out. Setup sessions to practice and refine skills, but do so in a fun, interesting way. A lightweight backpacking excursion for a day or two is a great bonding activity and provides ample opportunity to practice skills.

You might try a trip to the shooting range, or a simple head-shed session to swap contact info, contingency plans, communications plans and more. None of you need to be snake-eating, hardened, off-the-grid survivalists to survive a S.H.T.F event; a group of average generalists, working together in tandem for mutual benefit will stand a much better chance of living through a crisis than one, lone, vulnerable superman with no support elements.

In the event that you really, truly are isolated and have no one to count on, do not fret: practice and prepare with an eye towards taking no chances, minimizing risk and being conservative with your tolerance for danger and you can avoid most trouble before it starts.

Conclusion

S.H.T.F need not be shorthand for “certain death.” Understanding how a true Shit Hit the Fan event differs from a simple everyday emergency is the key to preparing for and surviving them. They may seem enormous, even insurmountable at first, but every event can be broken down into discrete phases and threats that, apart, are simple enough to plan against and prepare for.

Take what you have learned in this article and use it as the basis for your prepping procedures. Remember that omission of action is almost always worse than making the wrong choice, so get started today before disaster strikes.

updated 10/15/2018 by Charles Yor

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About Karen Hendry

Karen Hendry
An urban prepper and rural wannabe, Karen has been working as a freelance writer for a decade and prepping for about half that time. She has gathered a wealth of knowledge on preparing for SHTF, but there is always more to learn and she has a passion for gathering and sharing that knowledge with other like-minded folk. Karen lives in London, Canada with her two children and plethora of cats. In her spare time she is writing the next great apocalyptic novel of our time, full of government conspiracy and betrayal at every level.

One comment

  1. Thank you for taking the time to explain. I discovered the acronym today and was pretty much puzzled.

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