The image of a rugged and ragged survivor picking their way through the charred, ashen corpse of society after some pivotal and epoch changing catastrophe is an enduring one in apocalyptic fiction of all kinds. In search of food, a few rounds of ammo, a part or screw to repair a gadget, or a few precious drops of fuel or water, our hero searches high and low, sifting through great sprawls of refuse and long abandoned structures that seem to lean into the wind.
It makes sense that plenty of preppers have at least considered the possibility that they will scavenge what they need, should they need it, from among the aftermath and wreckage left in the wake of a crisis. It may just one more thing that you have to do to survive.
Scavenging is usually a simple affair in the movies and video games, and relatively consequence-free. In the unlikely event our protagonist is confronted in his rummaging, it is often only to set up the fortunate and chance encounter with his future plucky sidekick. In the real world, nothing of the sort will be that simple. Considering what all will have happened and what you, and everyone else will still be going through, scavenging may fall into a gray area.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at scavenging as a survival strategy, a way to bolster what you already have or replace what you lost. There are significant ethical and practical considerations that must be addressed by any good guys and good gals when it comes to taking “supplies left adrift.”
We’ll try to address all of them below.
What are Reasons to Scavenge?
That’s an easy answer: you are searching for abandoned or unclaimed materials, provisions or supplies because you lack something essential. Maybe you did not know you’d have need for it. Maybe you lost or used up your own. Perhaps you were caught out, completely flat-footed, and now must scavenge to provide the essentials you need to survive and see you and yours out of a mess.
It is easy to claim that you will not need to scavenge, that you are more than prepared, “ready” and itching to go when disaster strikes. You won’t wind up like those lost and lonely fools you see tip-toeing through the debris in search of a bite of bread or scrap of cloth.
Funnily enough, Mr. Murphy has a way of turning such prognostications upside down. You are right to be prepared, and to maintain a relaxed state of awareness, but you cannot foresee all ends, and if you could you would not need your stash at all.
That all being said, scavenging should not be undertaken lightly, and only then after careful consideration of the totality of the circumstances unless the items you are pilfering can be objectively said to belong to no one.
There is a significant ethical component that any upstanding citizen must assess and continually re-assess before scavenging, and also serious practical considerations. We’ll get to that right now.
Is Scavenging Ethical?
Depends on who you ask, and how much distinction between looting (i.e. thievery) and scavenging you read. For some, the two are essentially synonymous. Others see scavenging as distinct from looting in that scavenging is undertaken only when taking from discarded or un-owned items and materials. Therein lays the potential rub.
Who can say what does or does not belong to someone? What about things that belong to a non-human entity like a corporation, city, state and so on? What about anything that was bought and paid for with taxpayer dollars? Heck, you basically own it already, or at least are a shareholder, right?
Almost everything belongs to someone. You can forget about the fantastical “last man on earth” scenarios. Chances are you will not be him, so we can plan on tons of survivors capering about, same as you, in the aftermath of any major event, even one with high casualty rates.
So how do you know it is ok to take it? Is it ever ok to take something that is not yours? It is not enough to assume a person has abandoned it because they fled or evacuated, or consider it fair game because, God forbid, they perished in the event.
Our society has long established that ownership is a chain of custody, one that we make allowance for through such concepts as estates and probate. You aren’t a thief, are you? What if someone else related to the deceased is planning on making use of the same?
Do they not have first right to the items? What if the departed person has every intention of coming back and accounting for their things, or trying to recover them, or rebuild with them? What if your partaking deprives the surviving homeowner of his preps? Not so easy is it?
As I said, tricky. Say you have survived a major weather event, one that destroyed about 75% of the buildings in your town. Your own house survived, barely, but is going to need reinforcement and repair to make it roughly weatherproof for you and your family to stay there. Regrettably, your garage and all your tools were destroyed and swept away.
You explore a few ruined neighborhoods near your place. You find one that has a fair few tools easily accessible in the ruined garage, and plenty of intact plywood you can make use of. Problem solved! Or is it? Where is the owner of the home? It belonged to someone. There is no one around to ask, and no calls or knocks are answered from within the surviving homes. What do you do?
Ponder that for a minute.
Like I said, considering that you will, except in a series of events so mathematically improbable it would make a Texas Instruments calculator beg for mercy, not be surviving in a last man standing scenario. Count on, even in small towns or rural areas, that there will be plenty of people around to notice, or perhaps contest, what you are doing.
This may not mean they try to stop you, or even confront you. But it does mean that people will likely be observing you. Consider what I said above: there are plenty of people who make no distinction between scavenging and looting. This includes law enforcement in some areas, and obviously the lawmakers whose laws they are enforcing.
This is not an old appliance you are hauling away from someone’s curb who was tossing it out anyway. You aren’t dumpster diving for a scrap of food or an old sandwich. You will, probably, be picking through the things, vehicle or a building owned by someone. Consider what you are taking: if you need a fire to cook with, would you be more likely forgiven for swiping a few matches, perhaps some firewood to go with it, or a nice stainless propane grill?
What might people think of someone who does that? May they consider you an opportunist, a looter, a thief? May they simply object to the fact that this person is picking through the remnants of their neighbor’s home or business?
Would a cop or other LE agent mark you as a bad guy for doing what you are doing? Before you pop off, this is not just a simple admonishment to avoid being caught “shopping” but it is a concern. You never, ever want to be seen or perceived as anything but an upstanding member of the community.
Of serious concern is the fact you will be caught scavenging by the owner of said items you are perusing! This does not necessarily mean conflict, but consider this: you have no doubt planned for, perhaps even daydreamed of, catching a looter in the act, and meting out some corrective measure. What might the owner think of you, despite your protests? Lesson: it is difficult to talk your way out of a label that you have acted your way into.
So What Gives? When is it Ok to Scavenge?
Bottom Line Up Front: scavenge when you have no other viable options, and your need, or prospective need will be very great. Scavenging is not necessarily criminal or unethical; I only go to such great lengths to inoculate over-enthusiastic survivors against a shopping-spree mentality. There may not be any law, or any law enforcement left. Your town may be blasted off the maps, but morality must always endure, even if we have to bend it a little to keep ourselves alive.
Considering all that, you must be alive to make amends. There is no honor in dying stupidly for want of a can of fruit. There is no disgrace in doing what you must to survive. If you, or your family, were starving, what wouldn’t you do to feed them? Exactly. The same goes for shelter, or water or clothing, or keeping safe from threats.
Make like a Vulture – Scavenging 101
The time has come to hit the bricks and come up with a bite, a drink or much needed supplies. You have needs, are in a serious survival situation, and proverbial winter is coming. Or actually coming. It might be blizzard conditions, just sayin’. Where do you go to get the things you so desperately need?
You would look in all the obvious places that were nearby, of course: shops, stores, groceries, etc., and then hit up other places like cafeterias, offices, vehicles and so on.
What is most important before setting out looking for what you need to bring home is to truly assess your needs. Don’t think so much about the destination before you clearly define the goal. A thorough knowledge of the principles of survival will greatly help here.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you zero in on likely places to search.
What Am I Trying to Prevent? Say you are cold, and need materials and gear to stay warm. You first thoughts, beyond a roaring fire, will probably turn to clothing and perhaps items like a tent or sleeping bag. Things like that.
What you are really trying to accomplish is raise your body temperature, and then insulate it against heat loss. A nice, arctic rated sleeping bag would sure do the trick, as would a nice tent to go with it, but there are other ways to keep warm with minimal and commonly found materials.
You could for instance use a couple of large contractor bags or barrel liners, cut the bottom out of one then tape the two together. Repeat the process, and insert the new bag into the first. Line the space between them with crumpled paper (newspaper works great) and you have yourself a fine sleeping bag that really keeps out wind.
Instead of a proper tent, could you construct a small shelter to keep out wind, line the interior with foil or a space blanket then construct a fire to reflect even more of its heat into you? You’d feel like a baked potato, but you’d be plenty warm, and would not need to go out hunting for specialty gear.
An improvised field-expedient solution may work plenty well, and save you much tramping around. A few examples like the one above:
- Looking For: Food – Really Need: Calories. Try vending machines, cafeterias, etc. for preserved, high calorie items.
- Looking For: Weapon – Really Need: Security. If you cannot find a gun or ammo, don’t be afraid to pick up a bat, axe, machete, etc. A sturdy tool handle can be fashioned into a spear. A pitchfork with a little work makes for a nasty trident, etc.
- Looking For: Fuel – Really Need: Transport. Can you find an alternate vehicle, perhaps a bike? If you cannot, could a cart to help you move your supplies be of benefit?
- Looking For: Shelter items – Really Need: Thermoregulation. Learn how to keep your body hot or cold anywhere by focusing on the principles. You can make even your own body heat far more effective with the right insulation in a small space or microshelter. Similarly you can use evaporative cooling techniques to cool off rapidly just by fanning yourself.
What Kind of Person Uses What I Need? In a situation where you have been forced to rely on scavenging versus charity or your own supplies, you can probably assume that plenty of other folks are doing the same, and that looters will be happily picking clean all stores of everything they can, commodities or not.
This means that as time goes on, you will be less and less likely to find what you need in stores and shops, unless you need an old arm off a clothing fixture. This means you’ll need to broaden you search parameters, but you won’t necessarily need to go much farther if you can warm up the ol’ gray matter.
Consider water, specifically you are looking for bottled water. Not a single one left on store shelves anywhere. Where else might you look? You might try:
- A delivery truck.
- Anywhere that might have a vending machine, the more out of sight the better. These are easily accessed with minimal tools, and will likely have several bottles or cans within.
- Any office or professional space where employees are likely to eat lunch on site. Many will have bottled water available for employees, or perhaps some left in refrigerators and lockers.
Those are just a few “out of the box” ideas. They aren’t out of the box, just logical, and ones you are not likely to think of first. That means others are not so likely to think of them either. You could apply this line of reasoning to things like ammo, food, tools, etc.
Think Unconventional. As I mentioned above, you may be able to craft what you need if you cannot find the precise item you want. Think about all the things you could procure to make your life a little easier when surviving, and just how much you could come up with in as few stops as possible.
Below is a list you could try to scavenge a significant amount of survival material and tools from without roaming all over creation.
Abandoned or Destroyed Vehicles
Vehicles can furnish much in the way of raw materials: foam from seats can make excellent insulation or padding. The carpeting is often thick and of rugged construction, good for many things. Oil can be easily drained from below or drawn slowly off the dipstick for lubrication, rust prevention and as a component of camouflage paste. Wire and electronic components can be stripped, to say nothing of compatible parts for your own vehicles.
Vehicles may also contain needed supplies, from packaged foods to tools, maps, clothing and even weapons. Taking the time to rummage through several vehicles may save you a lot of time and effort going from place to place.
In office parks, schools, hospitals, etc. These large kitchens are often forgotten when looking for food and water, but will also have an enormous supply of pots, pans and other metal vessels. As mentioned you should definitely expect to find some foodstuffs here, especially canned or otherwise preserved and in large econo-sizes. Large sacks of dry goods like beans and cereals are also likely stored nearby.
If you need ammo, you’d obviously expect gun shops and sporting good stores of all kinds to be picked clean, right down to the carpet. But what you probably did not think of is hitting up an indoor or outdoor range, specifically to be on the lookout for loose rounds on the ground or in misfire buckets, many of which will still be perfectly serviceable.
Additionally, keep your eyes peeled for a comprehensive trauma kit or medic bag near the office or range hut, as many of these facilities will keep one handy for their personnel to use in the case on a training accident and subsequent bullet wound.
Easy, we aren’t going grave robbing. Instead we are looking for the groundskeeper’s hut or shed, which will likely contain an assortment of tools, including power tools, and fuel to run them. You can expect to find shovels, axes, perhaps a chainsaw, and others.
Many larger graveyards also have a small runabout or side-by-side ATV that you will probably find keys for nearby. This could be an invaluable time-saver or escape vehicle. Cemeteries are on nobody’s “check first” lists (until now) so you should expect to find a goodly little stash there.
This can be a little dicey, especially if you are very far out, as places like this will be the first choice for survivors looking to hightail it out and away from a bad situation around the city and then wait for the whole thing to blow over. It would not to get pot-shotted by an overzealous defender, so proceed at your own peril.
Nonetheless, you can often expect to find a small assortment of ammunition, likely shotshells and rifle cartridges, at these camps, along with some camping gear and seasoned firewood. There may even be some canned or otherwise preserved food stored as well.
Well worth the trip if convenient to you, but be sure you assess the risk before proceeding.
Sports Training Facilities
Well equipped gyms, stadiums and other special complexes will be very likely to have a significant amount of medical and first aid supplies on hand to treat various injuries as well as a good stash of bottled water and sports drinks.
Depending on the facility and the season, you can also pick up some useful protective gear like batting helmets, shin guards, knee and elbow pads, etc. Additionally a good bat from a batting practice cage or field will make for a time-honored and highly effective melee weapon.
Those are just a few unconventional but high probability places to search for the things you need.
Drop it, Creep! What to do if Confronted
Face it, you may not be as alone as you think or you simply picked the wrong patch. Even if you know you are doing nothing wrong there is nothing to be gained by pushing your luck when a fellow survivor is pissed off at you. There are a few things you can do to defuse most situations, especially if the person confronting you did not rock off and shoot you or shank you from the get go.
- No sudden moves. Startle response + finger on trigger = dead prepper.
- Be cool, collected and friendly. You don’t want to seem intimidating, but you also don’t want to appear guilty. Perception is everything.
- Explain your relatable “why”. You are starving, your kids are starving, or freezing, etc. etc.
- Apologize. There is everything to lose from being haughty, or a hard case. Apologize profusely; tell them you want no trouble, and that you won’t be back. Humility and an appropriate level of obsequiousness will help defuse the situation.
- Leave and don’t return. You will not be treated so leniently next time.
Scavenging may not be your first choice for procuring survival supplies and needed equipment, but it does have its place in your bag of tricks when the situation is desperate. So long as you are not stealing for profit or fun, there is nothing to be ashamed of from doing what you must to survive, and knowing where to go and how to search will save energy and your precious time.