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By May 23, 2012 Read More →

Scavenging Versus Looting – What is OK?

A very common scene in post-apocalyptic fiction is where the hero, down to his last can of beans and out of bullets, stumbles across a ravaged but still standing Walmart or Target store.  He manages to find just what he needs, despite the store having obviously been ransacked multiple times previously.  Fully resupplied, he heads back out into the wastelands to wreak havoc on his enemies.

At no time does our hero think twice about scavenging these supplies.  In a technical sense though, he’s nothing more than a looter, right?

Or we could look at a real world scenario.  Think back to the news footage we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Remember all those people stealing things like big TVs? Were they looting or scavenging?

I fully understand that the idea behind prepping is to be able to provide for your own needs, come what may.  I not only understand it but wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.  However, if you are unable to think of any reasons why you might be cut off from your carefully put back supplies, you lack even a marginal amount of imagination.

Could be a fire started from a tipped over candle and spread throughout your retreat.  Or a group of “mutant zombie bikers” has rousted you from your home.  Regardless of the cause, you may suddenly find yourself on your own with nothing more than what is on your back.  In that situation, would you pass up the opportunity to scavenge a few canned goods and perhaps a knife?

There are many people who say they would never take items that didn’t belong to them.  Often, this is due to religious reasons, the Eighth Commandment and all that.  If you are in your moment of need and come across the aforementioned shell of a store, how do you know your Higher Power didn’t lead you to it?  There is an old joke about a preacher stranded on top of his church during a flood.  As he’s clinging to the roof, several times people come by and ask him to get into their boats to save him. On the last attempt, it is a helicopter.  Each time, he tells them, “If I need any help, the Lord will take care of me.”  Well, he drowns.  As he’s standing at the Pearly Gates, he inquires of God why didn’t He save him? God replies, “I sent you three rowboats and a helicopter, what more did you want?”

There is a simple, yet vast, difference between looting and scavenging, at least as I see it.

Taking plasma TVs is looting.
Taking food for your children is scavenging.

In other words, if the items have no clear ownership and will keep you and yours alive, it is scavenging.  On the other hand, if the items serve little purpose other than just being inherently valuable, then it is looting.

Keep in mind too that we’re talking about a total collapse situation.  Not a three day blizzard but a complete societal breakdown.  Obviously, the looting versus scavenging debate is full of gray areas.  But it is a situation that is likely to come up should there come to be a truly world-ending event.  As such, it is something to discuss ahead of time.

One last thing — please don’t take this post to mean I’m giving you carte blanche to go out and pillage the countryside at the first hint of a collapse.  My hope here is merely to show you my own perspective and open up a dialogue about the topic.  I am not advocating breaking the law.  But in the absence of law, each person will need to make their own decision on how to behave.

Jim Cobb writes as The Frugal Prepper in every issue of Survivalist Magazine.  His primary website is and he also blogs daily for  His new book, Prepper’s Home Defense, is available for pre-order and will be out in October, 2012, from Ulysses Press

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3 Comments on "Scavenging Versus Looting – What is OK?"

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  1. I agree completely. 

    I would add while listing the difference as you see it between the two: IF there is a shelter some where within walking distance that could take care of you and your family – you have a responsibility to go there FIRST, before the remains of the local stores. Scavenging is a last resort tactic NOT an alternative for those who just don’t want to walk to the shelter.

  2. You asked some good questions and went about the topic logically. As I read, I was asking what would I do? Survival tactics are not always pretty, but if you are not ready to do what you have to do, you might not be one of the survivors. Good comparison…tv or food for the kids. Your ideas made it very clear to me what the difference is. Thanks so much!

  3. Jeff says:

    Looters get shot…. scavengers don’t.
    That was tongue in cheek, but based on common sense. Scavengers usually will only take what they need to survive. Looters want it all to keep anyone else from having it. In my mind, that’s the dividing line.