Bartering is literally as old as mankind itself. When the earliest hominids wandering the plains of Africa eons ago had an excess of goods, whether berries or a fresh kill, they likely shared freely with their clan while resorting to trading with outsiders. The documented history of bartering—that is, trading goods and services for like—dates back to the Mesopotamian tribes around 10,000 years ago.

The Phoenicians and Babylonians, too, had a widely active and well-developed system of trading that reached as far away as Asia and Africa. Before the widespread use of currency and credit, and whenever money was in short supply (the Great Depression, for example), many people resorted to bartering for what they needed.

It works best in small groups of people who know each other (or at least come from the same place or are in the same situation). Each one has something they are willing to trade for something they need. How desperately that item is in demand determines its worth and sets the value. Case in point: When ammunition or gasoline becomes scarce, the value will increase.

There are dozens of specialty skills that are essential to life after a disaster. Many of these skills are not widely known—giving anyone who does know them a valuable advantage.


A great advantage to bartering is that there is no money involved. You can create something with skills—furniture if you are a carpenter, medical services if you are a doctor—and it costs only your time (and gathered materials). However, if you have a lavish stash of supplies, you decide what and when you trade based on your own needs and wants. Both parties can get what they want or need without having to first obtain third-party money to do it.

The biggest disadvantage to the barter system is deciding the level of trustworthiness of your trading partner. Is he a stranger with devious motives who engages you just long enough to see what wares you have in order to steal them and/or harm you? If he is trading goods for services, does he know how to do what he says he can do, and will he stick around long enough to complete the job? There are no warranties, no exchanges and no consumer-protection advocates if a trade doesn’t go as planned.

For instance, consider a deal that would involve trading guns or other weapons with a stranger who then might use those weapons to steal the rest of your supplies.

When stores are history, barter will be the only way to acquire many of the things you need.
Staying organized is an important step in ensuring your cache of supplies not only stays fresh and updated, but also that you don’t overstock a certain item or understock another.
Coffee and sweet drinks should be good items to trade, because they are popular and will be among the first items to be sought by heavy users.


The time to start collecting goods to trade and learning useful skills to barter with is now. This should give you plenty of time to develop, organize and stockpile a variety of things you’ve determined will be in demand.

Be Covert:  You could clear a big spot in your garage or empty the closet in your guest bedroom and immediately pack it to capacity with all manner of things. This, however, will impact your finances negatively and also alert anyone who lives near you to the fact that you’ve got a huge cache of supplies.

Be Gradual: The best method is to collect your supplies gradually and quietly. Buy one or two boxes of ammo every month or so. If you’re an avid shooter, that is a reasonable amount to purchase. Plus, if you make a single, large purchase of something  that has a shelf life—such as gasoline or allergy medication—all of that one thing will expire at the same time. How will you get rid of 50 bottles of Benadryl in a non-emergency situation before it all becomes worthless?

Be Organized:  With the exception of grain alcohol, honey, beef bouillon cubes and a few other things, nothing will last forever. Be systematic and orderly. When you buy something new, write the date on it. Then, remove the oldest-dated case from your storage of supplies and dispose of them as you normally would. This keeps your cache fresh, and it keeps you from having to discard anything.

Make, and keep, an accurate list of what you have and where you have it. It will make condensing your supplies easier in a panic and keep you from buying too much of one thing.

Be Flexible:  You do need a bartering plan, but you’ll also need to be flexible with that plan. You’ll need to be able to adjust your stash appropriately to account for the changes in taste, popularity and need. Over time, you’ll discover new items that might trade better (baby formula, heirloom seeds and calcium tablets, among others) and you’ll want to adjust your cache of goods to reflect that change. Consider yourself a store owner—but one who hasn’t opened for business yet. In order to be successful, you should stock the items people will desperately need. If those needs change, it is easier to make changes in a gradual manner.

Be Cautious: You might find yourself having to deal with someone you don’t entirely trust, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself from fraud, theft or bodily harm:

  • Don’t go alone. Always have backup when you meet someone to trade with.
  • Don’t trade near your stash of supplies. Meet away from your supplies so the other party won’t glimpse your hoard.
  • Don’t show what you have. Never let on how much or little of anything you have, because that knowledge will impact the values of the barter items.
  • Never show desperation for a particular item. If you do, the price will skyrocket.
  • If you choose to deal in guns and ammo, do so with people you know and/or trust.
  • Always be able to say no to any kind of trade.
  • Never make the other party angry. The best deal is one in which both parties feel they made the best exchange.
  • Never barter with something you might need. The only things you should trade are surplus items or those you are sure you won’t need in the future.



There are many items people will still need after a catastrophe has destroyed the means of their production. Anything you can cheaply buy now that cannot be easily produced in a bleak future—ammo, medicine, canned food, sugar, salt, etc.—is great to hoard for future trading.

Consider stockpiling items that fall into the five major categories of supplies needed in and after an emergency: food and water, protection, fire, tools and personal/shelter.

Popular items will get used up quickly, and those are precisely the items you’ll want to have plenty of to barter with. This may sound cold and heartless: Don’t take pity on those people with vices. A caffeine, nicotine or alcohol dependency can be a powerful tool for you, because people will go to great lengths to maintain their habit. As a result, keeping tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and/or soda in your supplies might be a boon to you down the road. This is especially true if these items will be of no use to you.

Here is a starter list of good items that will store well and be of value in a post-apocalyptic situation. There might be other items that will work for you in your particular situation.


  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables you’ve grown will fill a need for natural vitamins and minerals not found in other foods. The problem is that fruits and vegetables have very short shelf lives.
  • Baking soda: This will have broad appeal because of its many uses.
  • Grain alcohol: Besides the obvious, it’s also valued as a fuel, antiseptic, cleaning agent and other uses.
  • Butter: Real butter is available in a can that can last for a few years.
  • Canned foods: They store and stack easily, can be had cheaply today and will gain value.
  • Candy and gum: These simple delights might, for a moment, remove people from their current worries via a sugary treat.
  • Cigarettes and cigars: Although they don’t last more than a year at best, well-packed tobacco and cans of chew have much longer shelf lives.
  • Live animals: Sometimes difficult and expensive to raise and transport, live animals, such as chickens, pigs and goats,  can be quite valuable.
  • Coffee: Demand will only increase after a catastrophe.
  • Cooking grease: Anything related to cooking and flavoring will be valuable.
  • Powdered milk: A prime commodity, certain brands of powdered milk have an indefinite shelf life.
  • Canned meats: SPAM, for instance, is a great product. It’s cheap, easy to store and will last a long time.
  • Sugar: Sugar never goes bad, and it is very inexpensive … now.
  • Salt: Another multi-use commodity, salt is cheap and has a long shelf life.
  • Water purification tablets: Not intended for long-term use, these will trade well to those who need to treat questionable water.
The best thing about live animals is that they don’t expire the same way eggs, milk, bacon and cheese do.
Storing canned food is a great way to have a variety of tradable items in a small space. Plus, if the going gets really rough, you have excess food to eat.
Sugar is one of those rare commodities that has a host of uses from wound care to coffee sweetener, so keeping several large bags of it on hand (and safe from bugs) will serve you in the long run.
Even if you don’t smoke, keeping plenty of cigarette packs in your supplies will be good for trading. Many people smoke, and when cigarettes are difficult to come by, their value will skyrocket.
Keep your supplies organized and inventoried. Don’t let others know what you have, or its value—and your security—might be compromised.


  • Matches: The only way most people know to start a fire.
  • Petroleum jelly: From lubricating rifle actions to starting a fire, this item will be easy to trade.
  • Vehicle fuels: Although difficult and hazardous to store, and with only about a one-year shelf life, vehicle fuels will be in high demand.
  • Stove fuel: Stove fuel can be used for heating, as well as cooking.
  • Lantern mantles and kerosene: With electricity gone, demand for these will increase.
  • Lighters and fluid: Another method of fire starting, these also appeal to smokers.



  • Hand tools: Wrenches, screwdrivers, saws, hammers and other tools will be key for those depending on self-reliance for survival.
  • Nails and screws: These are heavy, but cheap and easy to store. It’s easier to repair and build with these than with vines and notched logs.
  • Plastic bags: They provide waterproof storage for a multitude of small essentials.
  • Batteries: Not everything can be recharged, and most people don’t own rechargeable batteries and solar panels. It’s best to keep AAA, AA and 3-volt lithium-ion 123A batteries in your stash.
  • Cable ties, cord and rope: Zip ties, real 550 cord and various sizes of rope have a thousand uses and draw lots of customers.
  • Can openers: Life is a lot easier if you have a can opener.
  • Duct tape: The uses for duct tape are innumerable. Keeping a dozen rolls in your stash of supplies is well advised.
  • Sewing gear: Mending clothing will extend wearability, especially if sewing factories are no longer operating. Needles, thread and scissors are small and can be stored easily in quantity.
  • Gloves and masks: Survival can be unpleasant and messy. Death, damage and injury will require people to be protected from disease and filth.
These ubiquitous red fuel containers can be used to store a variety of fuels—from gas and diesel to kerosene and lighter fluid.
Sadly, most people know only one way to start a fire: matches. That’s good news for you if you’ve got several boxes of them. Take caution in storing them for a long time. They do absorb moisture and lose effectiveness.
When things break, they must be fixed, and building supplies—specifically nails and screws—will be in short supply.


  • Antiseptic soaps and gels: Keeping clean and germ free will still be important in a survival situation.
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines such as Zyrtec, Claritin and Benadryl are invaluable when people have trouble with allergic reactions.
  • Bleach: Used as an antiseptic, bleach can sanitize drinking water and eliminate mold and mildew.
  • Contraceptives: Birth rates increase, even after simple blackouts. Pregnancy and babies can be additional challenges many won’t be prepared for. In addition, some contraceptives also serve other health and waterproof storage needs.
  • Toilet paper and tampons: These items can be bought in large quantities and will always be in demand, as will other hygiene products.
  • Toothcare items: Items such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and floss are essential to good dental hygiene and a healthy life.
  • Soaps and shampoos: Poor hygiene can lead to disease and illness, and natural cleansers might be hard to come by.
  • Razors and blades: These are small, cheap and have dozens of practical uses.
Since their invention in the 1950s, cable ties have taken a well-earned spot on the list of must-have survival gear.
Bleach is a powerful cleaning agent that sanitizes surfaces and can also help purify drinking water.
A dark world without electricity will always need batteries. Make sure to keep them in a cool, dry place and rotate them out frequently.

There will always be a need for feminine hygiene products, but if there are no women around to trade with, tampons work great at halting the bleeding from bullet wounds.


It’s not feasible to convert your home into a warehouse to maintain large stores of materiel in case of an emergency. So, how do you know how much of any one thing to store?

It comes down to a few factors: Price, space and mobility.

Price: Avoid bartering with expensive items such as flashlights, electronics and guns. Unless you’re very well off, to outlay a lot of cash now in the hopes that you will be able to trade it in the future is probably not a wise allocation of today’s cash.

Space: If you already have limited storage space, converting that hall closet to a survival cache isn’t the most practical idea. It might make sense to store your goods in a separate, but secure and easily accessible, location.

Transportation: A huge part of survival is the ability to bug out quickly and quietly. Having to pack the truck with a huge assortment of gear is conspicuous to those around you and is difficult to do quickly. In the end, having a unique and useful skill and the wherewithal to practice and trade for it might be a large part of your barter plan—especially if it doesn’t involve high material costs, large volumes of equipment and parts, and is easy to take with you if you have to bug out.


As long as alcohol is available, people will drink it—whether to escape reality or to lighten the mood. Having a few cases of grain alcohol in your collection will be a boon to your bartering.


You don’t have to wait for the world to come crashing down around you in order to test your chops. There are dozens of clubs and groups dedicated to bartering and trading goods and services, offering everything from trading houses and office space to cars and clothing. Here are three sites that would be a good place to get your bartering feet wet.

Shared Earth (www.SharedEarth.com): Similar to the model of the old-time sharecroppers of early in the last century, Shared Earth is where you can find people willing to trade the use of their land in exchange for a percentage of whatever it is you produce.

Zilok (us.Zilok.com): There is almost no good reason to spend a small fortune buying an expensive tool if you only need to use it one time. This site connects people who need specialty tools so they can borrow, rent or trade them.

Swap.com (www.Swap.com): This site is only for trading. There is no money exchanged and no bidding. Billed as a consignment and thrift store site, Swap.com offers mostly clothing and fashion accessories, baby items, movies and books.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.


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