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The Pitfalls of Bartering During SHTF

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: August 1, 2022
The Pitfalls of Bartering During SHTF

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Bartering is a subject I see a lot on prepper sites and the social media groups that I follow. Many people ask what items others think are most important or if people have relationships established such as trading with another household or farm.

This has led me to the conclusion that many people are prepping to barter a lot.

Not me.

I realize barter is going to be used a lot during an extended emergency or SHTF but that doesn’t mean you should plan on bartering a lot. In fact, you should try to prepare yourself and your family to avoid barter for as long as possible.

Bartering will become more dangerous as the situation unfolds and a sense of profound desperation enters the psyche of the majority of the population.

When you barter, you risk people wondering what else you have.

Bartering a lot can cause people to start thinking you are holding out on those around you. I realize barter may be necessary at some point but you need to realize the level of risk. The more dire the overall situation and the better you are doing the more things can slip out of your favor. It is best if those you barter with do not know exactly where you live. If it is suspected you have a big stash of valuable goods, you are at risk of having it taken.

Bartering is not going to be a meeting of friends that have your best interest in mind.

Perhaps people are hopeful? All I know is that it seems like there are a lot of folks out there that really think when the SHTF “we are all in this together” vibe will prevail. I myself have written about how we are all in it together in the sense that we need to all prepare for the same situations and to meet the same needs. When SHTF this is going to be abandoned by everyone at some point. You get to the point where you have to take whatever advantage you can get without going too far. That makes for a bartering atmosphere that is more sinister than what people hope for.

Don’t go alone to a barter

I would be suspicious of any barter situation where I was told to come alone. If you feel like you have no choice than you may consider having someone go so far with you and watch out for you as much as possible. Choose someone that can keep calm and as trustworthy as possible.

Consider the area you are going into

Although neighborhoods change over time, now might be a good time to gain a little info on crime and other factors in your area. As a SHTF situation progresses, the neighborhoods that were once considered safer may become quite dangerous. Pay attention to what you hear and take it into consideration when deciding how to approach a barter in that area.

While bartering in places that are not so hidden may seem like the safest approach, the conditions you desire for a trade may not be possible. Also during a major situation, if others can easily see two parties trading, you may both be in danger of robbery and physical harm.

For more info on avoiding ambush, take a look at  “Avoiding Ambush In Town & Country”.

Have something for self-defense

Going into a barter with your gun on display may be seen as overly hostile. While I believe that you should always have something for self-defense on you going into an unknown situation, a good rule of thumb is to keep it hidden but accessible. During major trades, there may be some ground rules laid that state you are going to be searched for a weapon. I know it sounds extreme but during SHTF gangs and warlords are going to pop up. In fact, they are already there on some level, it will just be worse as the situation escalates.

Here are a few links to posts I have written on weapons other than firearms. Personally, I like guns and knives but I think that you should know all your weapon options as well as how to use everyday things to defend yourself.

Best Non Lethal Weapons for the Prepared Individual

Weapons and Defense With Everyday Objects

Bartering is going to be more like a gangster movie or a sketchy drug deal.

In fact, gangs will actually be a large force when it comes to controlling the local economy. You might literally have to go to a gangster or self-made War Lord to trade. Now some of you may be street savvy or perhaps been involved with a thing or two in your younger days or at least been an observer to the actions of your friends so you might be imagining the sketchy situations you found yourself in. The principles are the same during SHTF, but they are amplified due to desperation, power, greed, and not knowing if you or someone you love is going to make it to see the sunrise the next day.

Appearance matters. Don’t look like you are doing a lot better than everyone else.

Everyone judges based on appearance at least a little bit. If everyone around you is starting to look a little rough and has lost some weight, you need to at least try to look that way too when going to barter. Baggy clothes that are not too clean would not be a bad idea.  Don’t wear any jewelry, makeup, or make your hair look too good. You want to look like you are like everyone else. If you look “rich” then get ready to get taken advantage of. Now is the time to hide your advantages, not flash them around.

Think about how you are going to travel to and from your trade point

Part of blending in is being able to move without attracting any extra attention. Don’t use a direct route where it is easy for someone to follow you. If at all possible, come back from the trade using a different route than you used to travel to it. The risk of ambush and robbery may be very high depending on how long your SHTF situation has been going on.

Traveling more slowly and taking a more clandestine route is critical during very hard times. Always allow for long travel time. Rushing to a point is a good way to get sloppy with your situational awareness and get hurt or killed.

Counterfeit goods will be a problem.

I hear from a lot of people in the prepping community. I read comments on prepper groups, comments on popular posts on a few sites, etc and based on this I will tell you right now there are people that have already decided that one way they are going to get by is by trading counterfeit or adulterated goods. These are not everyday criminals planning this either, these are everyday folks that probably have stellar reputations within their community. If they are planning this already, what do you think even more malicious types are planning?

How to check for adulterated products

Broken seals

This is an obvious one. At the same time during a SHTF situation, bottles and containers are likely going to be reused a lot more often. For example, you might get homemade liquor or moonshine in a bottle that is obviously not sealed.

Tape or other signs that someone has attempted to reseal

Small holes that may have been sealed over or otherwise hidden

Labels that just don’t look right or a total lack of label

The item has been very hard to find for a long time and suddenly someone has it

A too good to be true price or barter offer

Let me tell you a little story about a poor teenager in Hamilton, Washington. A lot of her friends in the late 90s spent $100 on Oakley sunglasses because that was what all the cool skateboarders and snowboarders wore. That was a lot. I honestly thought they were being silly. Fast forward to a North Carolina flea market. Oakley sunglasses for $15. I could afford that. I had never been to a big flea market and just figured they were a version of Oakleys that were not quite the same. They had the brand name and everything and they were actually really good sunglasses but they were not at all the real deal.

With sunglasses during good times whatever but when your family getting fed right or vital medicine is the part of the playing field, the game becomes more serious.

A few words for those already planning on selling or trading counterfeit items

Your bill will come due, and it won’t be pretty.

For those reading this that are already planning on taking advantage of others, I want to say that I would not want to be you if you get caught or do it a lot. There are consequences to your actions. At some point, someone will get the drop on you. It could be the first time or you may get away with it a few times but eventually, someone will do something about your actions, especially if they believe you are responsible for pain or suffering of them or someone they care about. Your hand will get called one day and you will lose it all. SHTF is not a movie and you are probably not going to be in a position to get away with playing with people’s lives.

Don’t go to barter with more than you are willing to lose or trade and never reveal all that you have.

If it appears you have a lot to trade or barter, people may think they can get more out of you than is actually fair at the time. Don’t automatically let someone know just how much you have to offer either.

Offering something of little value for something that has much greater value is not a good choice.

Remember that you can always start low with your offer but don’t offer a trade so low that someone is definitely going to be insulted. Of course, there are some that may act this way even if your initial offer is very fair. Bluffing and being resistant is part of trading. I am just saying if you know that something you want is worth the equivalent of $20 if you go into the trade and offer them something that is only worth $5 they may get a bad feeling about you or even call off the whole thing and not want to trade with you again, especially if you don’t counteroffer fast with something more reasonable.

Law enforcement and the system will not be around to make sure that you get justice and even if they are operating at a small level, they won’t care about theft and bartering issues like they will more serious things. You are on your own.

Good items for barter

  • Food
  • Water Filters
  • Antibiotics
  • Basic Medical Supplies
  • Lighters
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol

Check out our post on barter items for a more comprehensive list.

How to Barter for Survival (not just a list): 100+ Items to Barter in a Post-Collapse World (2018 Edition)

Price and barter value of items may vary a lot as SHTF unfolds

One week canned meat may be moderately priced on the barter market while the following it may be very expensive to procure if you can even find it. One thing a lot of people miss is the extreme volatility that they are going to face in a SHTF barter economy. Also, you have to rely on the info you can gather to tell you how the market is going. All that uncertainty makes it a stressful situation for everyone and it means you need to pay attention if you want to make it in the world of barter.

Bartering skills

A wide range of useful skills exists that can be used for bartering. Be honest with how skilled you are. If you boast about being a master at something but barely know the basics in reality, it is going to show and the other party is going to think you cheated them.

When it comes to bartering skills, everyone needs to be clear on what exactly is expected and how soon.

There are people that make it through bad situations almost entirely based on their skills. For example, I get mail and comments from older readers that cannot do as much heavy work as they used to. I could see how if you had extra food and supplies, you could trade that in exchange for some help around your place. Yes, you would be putting yourself at some risk but what if you have a younger relative that you trust but has not prepared enough? There can be strength in numbers. If someone can give back in some way, both sides can benefit.

If bartering your skills, it is crucial that you don’t make more promises than you can deliver on. It can be easy to say you will do something for someone, but if you do this too much and don’t have the time to fulfill your obligations, you risk being labeled untrustworthy, not reliable, or even a liar or thief. This can be a very big deal that can affect your odds of survival during an extended emergency.

Situations are different and there are so many things to think about that I cannot tell you step by step how to go about a specific trade. SHTF can mean some horrible things and a lot more desperation. I hope that this post will give you the tools to think about your situation and do what is best to get you through while maintaining some level of humanity.

Bartering now can be decent practice

I am not sure how it works now but there used to be some barter fairs that happened. If you have a chance to do a little bartering during ok times then it may be worth it just for the experience.

My experience bartering started when I was a little girl trading pocket knives. I drove a hard bargain. My Dad still has that little worn Boker knife that I got by trading a few knives with soft drink and cartoon characters on them. I was so proud because I knew that I had come out ahead on that deal. Sometimes trading is like that.

I also set and watched my Dad and his friends barter and trade. It was good to do and taught me a few tricks and how to use body language and demeanor to give the impression that I knew what I was doing and was not one to be taken advantage of even if I really wanted the thing that I was trading for. Neither he nor I probably realized that I was picking up on these things and that it was a good thing.

This leads me to believe that you should teach your kids a little bit about barter even if they are pretty young. During SHTF kids can be exposed to a lot of things and that can mean they don’t have the luxury of being a child with not so many worries. Teaching kids about barter lessens the chance that they will say something they shouldn’t or get taken advantage of when managing what they have.

What do you think about bartering? Do you think people focus on it too much when they first start prepping? Have you heard anyone bragging about how to make adulterated products and sell or barter them? Please share below so we can all learn together!

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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22 Responses to “The Pitfalls of Bartering During SHTF”

  1. Your saying carry a gun to trade post SHTF and I’m almost laughing because we not only carry but even do overwatch just to barter or buy things from people now.People already rob each other during transactions.
    I’m not even sure how you plan on communicating that you have stuff to trade. You do it on the radio and you open up to be raided cause you have stuff.

    • Oh, I carry now too. We just don’t really barter or buy and sell privately that much. We sell some sheep off the farm but they come to us. Always good to have something to protect yourself with. People on Craigslist often just meet at public spaces like grocery store parking lots where a lot of people are around. I am not saying that doesn’t have it’s dangers but places that are not secluded do offer some safety and comfort.

    • I’m glad to hear that.
      Folks used to say I was paranoid and the way I was due to my careers but I’m not hearing it from people anymore because the world has changed and it’s not safe when dealing with people.
      This is the first article I’ve read that didn’t encourage barter especially alcohol and ammo. I’m glad to see someone’s got some sense of reality.
      It’s not that it can’t happen it’s just not part of the plan.

  2. SHTF situations that could happen scare the crap out of me. Mostly because of gangs and warlords that would inevitably emerge. Some people will kill as soon as blink their eyes. People like that usually don’t because they know their chances of paying a price is relatively high. Once that price is reduced to zero, at least from official law enforcement, what’s to stop them?
    Hopefully you have an extended, trusted community of like-minded people to help watch each other’s backs.
    We take the relative security we currently enjoy for granted.

  3. I greatly appreciate this blog and thank you for your insights.

    I have a slightly different perspective. First, I only stockpile (for barter or gifting) those products I actually use myself like salt, sugar, OTC pharms, feminine supplies, etc. Sooner or later, other folks are going to need the same items and won’t immediately see me as a source for unusual, expensive, or hard-to-get products. For example: No one in our group smokes (anything). The only carton of cigs I have is to make pesticide for the tomatoes, not to trade. The fancy alcohol is for home use, medical use, or as a VERY special gift to family or friend. Like for a wedding, birth of a child, or a landmark birthday. Or for a “get everyone out of the dumps” spontaneous party. Those will be necessary as time goes on.

    Under no circumstances would I ever offer to trade substantial amounts of food, any ammunition, weapons, toilet paper or antibiotics. Even if I could readily replace it, those things are not something I want strangers to know about or suspect I have more of.

    That said, I am stockpiling and planning to distribute a lot of different supplies to friends and neighbors in need, mostly through the local churches. Some know Im a prepper – they are too. Others haven’t a clue and have skills or property that would benefit me if I got in a bad way. As time goes on, I would become the greyest of the grey men and occasionally would offer to share the bits that I “received in a small CARE package from Auntie Mary on the other side of the mountain when Cousin Eddie was coming through last week.” Not so often that people would expect it, but often enough to help people stay afloat for a little while longer. Without establishing a dependency relationship, this could help cement a true friendship where folks look out for each other as much as they can. It’s also an excellent way to collect HUMINT and other intel that would be helpful. Folks like to chat, even in hard times. Bring a couple of teabags along.

    A lot of these types of supplies, like a single bar of soap, condiments like catsup/mustard, jellies, or a small can of Spam, were considered luxuries by the Brits during WW2 and were given as gifts for Christmas and other special occasions. I’ve read that soap was the most gifted and appreciated item during this time.

  4. Probably best to barter with only those you know well and trust, and try to keep it to skills to be traded as opposed to material items if possible. Do not discuss what you have and make sure your family members adhere to that as well. Children like to talk. They do not have to know everything you are doing as that could be a security risk. Teach the older ones but keep your lips sealed with the younger ones.

  5. People have romantasized bartering. They think if they have stuff to barter, they are in a better position than the barteree. Who wants to get killed for a roll of toilet paper? Not me! No bartering!

  6. In a Mutual Assistance Group, we will rely on individuals who are good at bartering and getting items for the group as needed. Strength in numbers and all items would be a communal ownership. Scrounging will probably happen immediately after a disastrous event, and we will have specialists in that field also.

    Gaye: Out of all the blogs I follow and read, you have got to have the best information. Thanks for all you do!

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