Just What Constitutes SHTF?

“SHTF” is a time-worn and borderline cliché prepper acronym we have all heard, seen and continue to hear and see daily in prepping circles. What will you do when the SHTF? Where will you go when the SHTF? Has the SHTF? It never ends.

Even so, it is an important concept. In case you have been sadly out of the loop for the past couple of decades, “SHTF” stands for Shit Hits The Fan, a vulgar euphemism for things going well and truly pear-shaped; FUBAR, sky is falling, you name it.

A SHTF event is one where your daily survival necessities are no longer guaranteed, where the typical social order is suspended or heavily disrupted, where help in the form of emergency services is not available and where government intervention is either useless or part of the problem.

In this article, I’ll offer my thoughts on the matter.

Small Fans and Large Fans

Disaster is a matter of perspective, I suppose, and perception being what it is in this day and time with everything, every word, concept and interpretation rendered hideously malleable by the current cultural zeitgeist, it makes sense that event the concept of disasters would be subjected to the same.

A common car crash, however bad the effects on life, limb and property, is not a disaster and never will be unless the car crashed into a tanker full of nuclear waste and knocked it into a nearby river.

That has not stopped some people from treating car wrecks like “serious” SHTF events. And one could say they are if you treat SHTF as shorthand labeling for any event that requires you to employ emergency skills at any level.

How about the destructive crash of some larger conveyance? How about a train? I say that is not a SHTF event, either. How about a jetliner crash? I still say no, though the passengers aboard the doomed vessel hurtling toward terra firma would doubtlessly dispute my assertion. So what does qualify as a SHTF event in my eyes?

For me, it is a matter of scale, and not simply in property damage or lives lost, or the potential for either. A real, SHTF scenario will affect almost every facet of your day to day existence for some time going into the future.

How long that disruption lasts being of course dependent on the intensity of the event, its reach and any other of the thousands of potential variables that keep society knit together and recognizably functioning as such in 2019 America.

Severity Counts

As a ‘for instance,’ one could say that a powerful natural disaster would qualify as a SHTF event. Landfall of a severe and powerful hurricane could qualify as a SHTF event without question.

One need only look at the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Andrew in the not too distant past to get a glimpse into the dystopian misery awaiting us. Natural disasters of many kinds, if severe enough, if they strike the right place at the right time, could do much the same.

But if one were to drive far enough outside the majorly affected area, one would probably see life as normal chugging on without a care in the world, save perhaps a rise in lumber and gas prices. I would not say an event has to have a truly regional or even national area of effect to qualify as a SHTF incident.

Disruption of Society

Anything you can walk away from and go get a burger after or go to get groceries after is certainly not a SHTF event. SHTF events by any measure should disrupt society almost entirely, or rather disrupt our day-to-day “normal.”

If you cannot turn a switch and expect electricity, cannot open a tap to get clean water and cannot expect waste in any form to be vacated from the premises, you are dealing with a SHTF event.

If you cannot reliably call on the cavalry in the form of EMS, police and fire responders, you are likely living in a SHTF scenario (or a major American city). If everyone has to seriously start relying on bartering and get deals done before returning home to meet a curfew, you are likely dealing with a true SHTF event. If you are fleeing rampant pillaging and looting, or a city on fire with no end in sight before it turns to ash, you are dealing with a SHTF event.

A major prolonged breakdown of any and especially multiples of the above facets of our societies should be considered herald enough for a true, blue SHTF instance.

A power outage lasting a half hour to an hour is not. A protest that turns violent and gets put down harshly is not. A freak fire that burns down a handful of buildings is not.

When the bad things we take for granted as taken care of start going unopposed unless you oppose them yourself, that is a SHTF situation.

Reach and Area of Effect

A SHTF event that affects a handful of people cannot be said to be a true SHTF event. You and three friends who get irretrievably lost in bear country while out joy hiking are in the shit now, for certain, but it is not a SHTF event, even when Yogi and Boo-Boo come sniffing around.

There will be people, authorities, friends, family, looking for you. Helicopters will be scrambled. Dog teams deployed. Rangers on four wheelers. The works.

An entire town a couple of hours away from a major metropolis that is left to rot and fend for themselves because what functioning government is left is triaging the situation and deploying all available resources to keep command and control facilities, government institutions and critical supplies and infrastructure solvent? Oh yeah, that would definitely qualify as a SHTF situation.

Essentially, the more people that have to say to themselves in chilling realization “No one is coming. I am on my own,” the more likely it is that you are facing a true SHTF scenario.

Paradigm Shifting Events

As awful as some things are, like city-wide riots and cataclysmic natural disasters, as much havoc as they spread, as much damage as they do and as many lives as they claim, they are not what I denote as paradigm shifting events, a sure symptom of a SHTF situation.

Flood waters will recede. Things will eventually dry out. Rubble will be swept away, bodies will be hauled off to be disposed of, power lines reconnected and life will eventually go back to normal.

So what do I mean by paradigm shift? When a paradigm shift occurs, things don’t go back to normal. It might mean a technological regression, a near-permanent loss of modern commodities, or living under the constant burden of some new threat or vulnerability.

A great example of a paradigm shifter is something like a typically imagined cataclysmic EMP that wipes out much of or the entire nation’s electronics and electrical grid.

Author R. William Forstchen imagined this precise scenario in stunning detail in his speculative fiction novel One Second After. Give it a read. You’ll get some inkling of just how irrevocably things will change in the aftermath of such an event.

So much of what we assume is “just the way things are” will vanish, permanently, with one stroke of fate. Something similar will happen in the wake of a nuclear exchange, major asteroid impact, or super volcano detonation.

As an example that most will understand, a paradigm shift would undoubtedly occur if zombies were to rise from their grave or aliens were to invade.

A paradigm shift is knowing, “Things will never be the same.” Whatever caused it is definitely a SHTF event.

Government Conflict

Any time a widespread, regimented crackdown is inflicted on citizens by their government that qualifies as a SHTF event unto itself. History furnishes ample examples of how badly and how quickly violence and loss of life and freedom happens when things finally boil over.

Even at the state level, it is all too easy for the government to start infringing on basic rights and liberties, imprisonment and executions being the hallmarks of tyranny.

Even for those outside of conflict zones, disruptions to travel, commerce and utilities can quickly turn a scuffle into a proper siege at the larger scale.

Checkpoints, inspections and constant stress will lead to flaring tempers, overreactions and the spilling of more blood and subsequently tighter restrictions. Your staples and essentials are now officially no longer guaranteed thanks to localized sanctions.

These things have a way of snowballing, especially in the histories of Western nations. We don’t generally do sustained, low-level, brushfire conflict, preferring instead to let things become intolerable before our animosity erupts in an orgy of violence that changes the course of history and the lives of the surviving populace forever after.

If the tree of liberty must be refreshed with blood, you can be certain of SHTF.

All Together

To me, a SHTF event is one that not only sends you scrambling to respond, but will put you and everyone else in your area, and probably your region, in prolonged mortal peril.

Your basic survival requirements, and I mean the necessities- clean air, shelter from the elements, clean water for drinking, food- will no longer be guaranteed unless you are clever enough and prepared enough to provide them.

The institutionalized trappings of a functional society will be strained past the breaking point or just cease to exist. The uneasy quasi-truce between the rabid dogs of society, criminals, and the rest of us will disappear, and the natural law will once again take precedence.

What is yours will only stay that way of you can keep it. Your next meal will only be ready if you provide it. Your continued existence will no longer be guaranteed by default barring a fluke. Survival, real moment-to-moment, day-to-day survival is the new normal. The Way Things Were is the simultaneous plea and eulogy on everyone’s lips.

Diseases that are rendered powerless by modern medicine will reassert themselves with fury. Death will harvest his grim crop in ways that were once laughable inconveniences. Infection from a scratch. A fever gone unchecked. Parasites. A rotten tooth.

Medieval ailments will once again spell nearly certain doom. There will be no competing pleasures to occupy your time. Every moment will mean another minute of life, earned, or a squandered opportunity in the face of the encroaching night.

When things have changed so utterly for the worse that your most fervent wish is full bellies and a warm, safer place to sleep next to your loved ones, that’s when you’ll know you the Shit has well and truly Hit the Fan.


The term SHTF should be reserved for major events that severely threaten lives and the fabric of society, not localized disasters and crises no matter how bad they are.

While events that mortally imperil you, even for days at a time, are scary and might be the penultimate test of your life, they are still likely not true SHTF situations.

Try not to water down the import of a term that should be reserved for properly cataclysmic situations by tossing it out every time a riot occurs or a tornado touches down.

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18 thoughts on “Just What Constitutes SHTF?”

  1. How right you are. Not only what you said, but SHTF could be different for each individual. I had to evacuate (I was given 10 minutes and did it in 8) from a wildfire a few years ago. I left with my dog and a duffle bag. I did not have time to load my preps. It changed my whole way of thinking. We can never really have one concrete plan that encompasses every scenario. We can only do what we think is best for our situation.

  2. Another aspect of SHTF is how wide spread the effect is. Global will differ greatly from nationwide, to state/region, to local. I’m sure many people in San Bernardino felt TSHTF. For at least 14, it did.

    As to the “caliber” debate. Bigger is arguably better, but what you have is better than nothing. I often respond to someone disparaging a “minor” caliber, “Well, you go stand downrange while I fling a few “pellets” at you.” To date, I have not had any takers.
    When you need it, the .38 in your pocket is far more useful that the .45 in the safe.


  3. Great article. I could not agree more, the negativity on all of the sites seems to be getting worse. It seems no matter what someone says, they are criticized for it. As far as what constitutes a SHTF event depends on who you are talking to and when. What may be a minor inconvenience for one, may be a total disaster for someone else. I have no idea what is going to happen next week, never mind next year, but I do have my fears and that is what I try to be ready for. There are a lot of good people that comment on these sites and we all need to stand together and support each other. The anti-preppers would like nothing more than to have us turning against each other. To you and all of the other people who comment here, keep up the good work and keep the ideas coming.

  4. Just want to say right-on and thanks Rourke. I’ve felt this so many times and often don’t participate in discussion for this reason! Merry Christmas and Blessed 2016 – Keep Looking UP

  5. Rourke- very well put !!Some food is better than none and this goes for weapons ,medications etc. Tomorrow is the first official day of winter-Have a safe Winter solstice. Arlene

  6. Wouldn’t it be plausible that if we can converse on the web then shft has not happened? Or if we can return home from a wildfire, a hurricane, earthquake, etc. then we are still on the pre-teotwawki side of life. For whatever it’s worth here, I see a real problem with people confusing all templates of ‘life altering’ circumstances with teotwawki! No matter what comes mine and your way, regardless of how horrible it is in our own domain, the fact is, if after that event the lights are on, food is on the table, the car still runs, and the rest of the world is functioning, then shft has not happened. There has never been, and never will be a shortage of personal disasters for all of us. But it isn’t the end of the world as we know it. When that happens we will know, and there won’t be an iota of doubt.

  7. SHTF is anything that removes you from your comfort zone, something that alters your day to day existence, something that is out of the ordinary, not normal. that is SHTF.

  8. Like they used to say pray for peace , but pass the ammo , but in our case it’s prepare for the worse pray ,hope for the best ,hope ya’ll have have very great Holidays

  9. I find it really funny…in a morbid way…that people as you say come out from under their rock and start giving advice on everything. We talk about the various weapons systems,calibre or ammo and whatever. Sadly a 22 cal will kill you just as dead as a 308. That IS a fact.

    We need to honor the choices of whatever from whenever. Maybe they DO have a reason for their purchase. Maybe it’s the cost…the availability of the item wanted for purchase. There are a number of reasons for it. We can offer assistance, hints, materials….and is “some” cases give items to the indivivud.

    Bottom line is this, if your in a group don’t stop planning, practice, or purchasing items. It’s the small things that will make these scenarios livable. My family and I found that out during our time in Florida dealing with hurricanes. We lost family members as a result of the storms, lost most of our home, lived in a camper for 4 months, but we survived because of good neighbors and pre planning we had done. Now we are in TN and a total different sets of priorities and a new set of friends and team members. Preps are never done, faith and concerns grow.

    Be safe and Merry Christmas to all

  10. SHTF is personal – TEOTWAWKI affects everyone. I totally agree that we need to stop picking each other apart, trying to show off who has the biggest (insert word of choice here) & just help each other. I’m a 70 yr old woman, in good shape for the shape I’m in, but my hands are not as strong as before. I’ve been asking advice from those who might know about what gun I need & could handle. In this case, their input was asked for & appreciated. Let’s all sing a chorus of “Come on people, smile on your brother” and have a merry Christmas!

    • Linda, I’m a 67 year old with the same situation. I went to gun stores all over town and found the only slide I could easily work was the Ruger SR 22P LR. I’ve had a Lady Taurus .38 Special since the early 90’s but the recoil is so bad it hurt my hands to fire it. Everyone says a .22 doesn’t have a lot of stopping power, but with 10 round mag. and 1 in the chamber, if I can’t take someone down, I might as well just give up. For long guns, a .22 Semi-auto is an easy choice and an SKS kick the least and are very accurate.

    • There is NOTHING wrong with using a .22 for protection. If that’s what you can work with and hit a target with then its what you should have. There are some others that have slides that rack easy in larger caliber. My wife has the same problem and we found that she could handle the slide on a Bersa in .380 with no problem. There was also a Sig that worked well ( also in .380 ) but I don’t remember which one. If you need to use a smaller caliber then you just need to make sure you can do kill shots with it ( head is best ) don’t let anyone put you down for your choice of weapon.

  11. Well .. “you pays yer money and you takes your chances”
    I suppose I am as much a “special snow flake” as anyone else. I think my choices are all right .. or I haven’t make the choice.
    That said I will be the one that suffers from it, one way or the other ..
    The right and wrong or a particular weapon, or food prep .. or anything is very situational.. I’ll do as much as I can within my financial limits. I hope I prepare fore the most likely events.. almost all of which would be shorter term.. and if I can do more .. then it will be gravy. I really respect the folks that have the discipline and means to be able to go completely off grid and self sufficient. Maybe I’ll get there some day before I need it. Rourke, I really appreciate the efforts .. and I hope I ask and listen as much as give an opinion.. Most everyone here are good folks ..

  12. great words from all, and truth from rourke. . . . I get really tired of the put downs by those who have the latest, best, most, biggest, etc. Hopefully we are all doing the best we can , given our unique circumstances. . . and no one likes a self aggrandizing smart aleck. . .

  13. I always thought that a SHTF event didn’t have to be state, country or even worldwide event . If something happens to rock my world if you will then that’s a SHTF event and I need to be able to protect and defend my children and me. Of course I have to be ready for the state, country and worldwide events too. Start small don’t get over welmemed and shut down. Just my two cents ~justme

  14. What is TEOTWAWKI and/or SHTF for one culture is day to day normal in many “third world” countries. Indigenous lifestyles have MUCH to teach us, if we are willing to learn.


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