Looting vs Scavenging

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Have you ever stolen anything? Chances are that most of us have at least one time in our lives. This could range from the completely innocent act of taking something you thought was yours by mistake, like your buddy’s Metallica CD, to something more heinous like the outright theft of a wad of cash laying on the table. Most of us, I would assume, haven’t done anything like the latter and even if we did, could probably chalk a good bit of this up to youthful indiscretions that you may or may not have already paid retribution for. I would imagine that few if any of us have even thought of smashing a window in or kicking down a door, entering someone’s home and taking anything. I would expect that even fewer of us have busted a store window down, barged inside and reemerged with a flat screen TV or handfuls of new clothes ripped from the rack. They are arguably the same thing though and that is stealing. Whether it’s your friend’s money or the TV from the store in town, if you take something that isn’t yours it is theft, right?

Is there ever a time when it is ok to steal? Maybe you say, we aren’t stealing we are scavenging and that is perfectly fine. Under the right circumstances and in the right situation I would agree with you. So today I wanted to discuss looting vs scavenging and how the two are related and how in a survival situation you could go about scavenging for items that could save your life.

When is it OK to Loot?

For many of us, just about any recent examples of disasters, protests, sports riots or uprisings in various forms illustrate a certain amount of looting. During Hurricane Katrina, looters floated garbage cans filled with clothing and jewelry down the streets. Even before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, people were tweeting their plans to loot the stores. There are usually people in the media or experts who want to explain away this type of behavior and remove any responsibility from the people perpetuating these crimes and associate guilt to societal breakdown. They insist that these people should be held blameless for their actions because of the disaster and the horrible effects it must be having on their lives. I think that in the overwhelming majority of cases that is crap and people who are looting by and large are simply criminals that should be punished. For me, looting is wrong and I can easily make the distinction between looting and scavenging. It comes down to a few basic questions for me.

What are you taking? – The looters in both Katrina and Sandy that I mentioned above weren’t taking items to keep them alive; they were plundering stores to enrich themselves. A flat screen TV is not something you need and could never be reasonably excused as necessary for your life. Jewelry? Clothing could on some very small-scale be construed as needed for survival in the right circumstances, but not if you already have a house full of clothing.

Why are you taking it? – The looter takes what they can get, not what they need. You may argue that these people were poor and they needed those TV’s, that clothing and that jewelry to make their lives better. Maybe they were going to sell those goods for money (not sure to whom) or that they needed those goods as reparations for some injustice 200 years ago. Even more absurd, you could say they needed the clothing to be able to get a better job. Right…

Who are you taking it from? – If you are taking almost anything from an electronics store, jewelry, liquor, or clothing, you are looting. This is what we routinely see on the news and these aren’t people who are scratching to survive, they are just stealing because there are no police around or worse, the police aren’t doing anything to stop them. Bottom line is these people are thieves and in a true grid down emergency, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t pay for those TV’s with their lives.

In those three examples above, there is no right way to steal. You don’t need anything you are stealing and your life is not in peril if the supplies you are taking aren’t acquired. You are simply looting because you can.

What makes scavenging any better than looting?

Scavenging on the other hand is what you see in almost every dystopic portrayal of a disaster or future where the world has gone to hell in a hand basket and people are eating dog food. If you watch any type of survival/apocalypse movie, the main characters will invariably find some supplies in a department store or abandoned house, maybe in a car somewhere. In the last Walking Dead, two characters found supplies of food in a house they came across. In the movie the Road, they actually found a survival bunker full of food. Food is very definitely something you need to live. I point to movies and TV shows because most of us have never lived through a situation where we had to steal food to live because there simply was no place left to get food anymore. These movies and TV shows are the only example of a future that some of us can imagine in extreme cases. Extreme poverty in third world countries is not what I am talking about here.

Imagining a total collapse of society, not a regional storm; certainly not a soccer game riot, where the supply lines and means of support we have relied on for years are completely ripped out; I can see us all facing a future where scavenging might be required if you expect to live. If we had a zombie apocalypse (I know there is no such thing as zombies…yet), nuclear war, global pandemic or a massively disruptive event that wiped out a lot of people in a relatively short period of time you could find yourself scavenging for items you need to stay alive. I can guarantee if something that horrible happened you wouldn’t be going after the big screen TV’s anymore. You would be looking for food, maybe even a dry place to sleep, anything that could keep you alive or safe. The problem is, so would anyone else who was alive.

Scavenging for food seems very logical under extreme conditions. What if you are wearing boots that are worn or even worse, footwear that isn’t appropriate to walking every day? Would you go looking for new shoes? Would you look for a good pack to carry everything, assuming you didn’t already have a good bug out bag? Scavenging is at its most basic searching for items to keep you alive or that could help you. Scavenging is not looting a brand new TV because you want to watch the game when the power comes back on.

Scavenging is not something I plan to do if people are around or there is the reasonable expectation that whatever event I am going through will be short-lived and that is one of my reasons to prepare. I don’t expect to be effected by short-term emergencies.  I would go into abandoned homes or businesses in extreme conditions if I was fairly certain that the owners were dead or could reasonably assume they would not be coming back. If this was my own area, I would start as far away from my home as possible and work my way backward towards my home. To keep track of the homes I had been in, I would try to have a map. This would prevent me from going into the same houses twice. If I was sheltering in place I would be looking for supplies I didn’t have or ones that could augment the supplies I do have like extra food, medical items, ammunition or items that can be used defensively. How is this different from looting if I already have supplies you ask? In my hypothetical, everyone is gone or dead and I am collecting what would rot to keep me and my group alive. I am not running into a store for a TV because the water rose (temporarily) or the power was out (temporarily).

If you need to scavenge, you have to realize that isn’t act isn’t without risk either. This must be balanced with the risk you face going into these homes, leaving your own and how much the home or neighborhood has already been scavenged by other people. Scavenging for food to save my family’s life is a risk I am willing to take under the right conditions. Getting some new sneakers or a flat screen TV is not.


  1. Justin

    March 25, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Too many prepper bloggers try to make a distinction between looting and scavenging. It’s not complicated imo, the looters are the ones that got shot, and the scavengers are the ones that lived to rationalize their actions.

    Turn it around and look at it from the rightful owner’s perspective. Which are you more likely to shoot in a SHTF scenario, someone stealing your TV, or someone stealing your food or medicine? And to anyone that would argue that they’d only steal from deserted places, I’d ask if it’s the owner’s responsibility to make their presence known to thieves?

    • P. Henry

      March 25, 2014 at 10:17 am


      Thanks for your comments. Obviously I wasn’t clear enough about my viewpoint on this topic to get my point across which happens from time to time. Or we simply disagree.

      What if the rightful owner is dead and not through any fault of yours? What if there is a SHTF scenario like you said and most of your neighbors are killed by the Ebola virus. What would you say in that situation to someone who would go through their house for supplies? It seems as though you do not see any distinction, both are theft and nothing justifies taking steps to survive regardless of the circumstances.

      You imply that scavengers are just looters who don’t get caught and that scavenging also involves taking from others when they are still present. That isn’t what I said and is not what I would ever advocate.


      • Justin

        March 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm

        Hey Pat. Sounds like I didn’t get my point across very well either.

        What I was trying to convey was regardless of the scavenger’s real or perceived justification for taking the property of another, to the owner they might just be looters. And looters of the worst kind, stealing those items necessary to ensure their survival at the expense of the owner’s survival. How would you know the owners were dead? Maybe that is their second home, or the home of their family trying to make their way there. How long exactly must a property be unoccupied before the scavenger can decide it’s been abandoned by the owners and their heirs? And as preppers, should we make our presence known so scavengers aren’t lulled into thinking our property is abandoned? Leave a light burning when the power is out for example? Or “You scavenge, we shoot” signs?

        I think my issue with the looter/scavenger debates comes from a moral dilemma of my own. I’ve decided, personally, that anyone trying to steal is desperate. And since they’re desperate, they’re also dangerous. Indiscriminate weapons may be required in some cases to protect my property that is critical to my survival. In other cases, decisions may have to be made based on someone’s actions as seen from a distance, without benefit of determining their motives or justification for them. We are talking about a WROL situation after all, right?

        If I ever found myself on the other side of the situation, needing to steal to survive, I’d expect to be treated no differently. I’d say a safer approach to the looting/scavenging debate would be that we leave each other’s things alone, or at least understand the penalty if we break the rule.

        • P. Henry

          March 26, 2014 at 8:39 am


          Thanks for clarifying and having a dialog with me on this subject. I think at the end of the day you and I see eye to eye on just about everything but we are each putting our own filters on what we have bigger problems with. Maybe we don’t have the same vision of the desperation I would see that could warrant this type of behavior.

          I understand your moral dilemma and I share the same turmoil now, but if we are in a Mad Max world (this is all hypothetical still) I think the lines will be clearer than they are now when everything is working fine and we can politely debate the what-ifs. I was juxtaposing the looting we see now after relatively minor disruptions with what I think people would really find themselves doing in a true SHTF/WROL type of world. I don’t mean to say that scavenging is more noble, but I can justify scavenging for food in an abandoned home or store more so when the goal is survival and not a flat screen TV. This may be just me.

          I agree with you that no matter what the situation is, you are taking something that did or could still have an owner. You have to expect that someone could be a little upset that you are trying to take what is theirs if they are still around. Like I said in the article, I wouldn’t want to take anything from someone and my scavenging was limited to places I thought were abandoned or where I could verify the people were dead. I concede that maybe you are right and there would be situations that they might just be taking a really long time to get home or their family might be coming, but you and I would probably be arguing about this in the front yard while someone else was taking supplies out the back. In the absence of anyone though and if I am trying to feed my family, I think found food and supplies becomes fair game and I can live with myself if that is what happens.

          I know I will have to deal with the consequences of my actions, but I would also have to deal with the consequences of my inaction.


          • Justin

            March 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm

            If we disagree on anything, it’s due to looking at it from different perspectives I think. Our SHTF preparedness level would probably be considered enviable by most preppers, but if we lost it all and I needed to steal – I’d steal. I don’t spend much time thinking about it now, and I wouldn’t care then whether it was justified or morally correct, I’d just do it because I believed it was necessary to survive. Everyone is going to have a different threshold where they’d cross the line, some might even try to better their own situation proactively, before their survival required it. Not to suggest you’re saying that, just that some prepper blogs/articles suggest scouting out good scavenge locations to ‘hit’ for supplies at the first sign of trouble. But regardless, whether someone is already living at the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid, or if they just decided theft furthered their own interests, I don’t care except to the degree their actions directly interfered with my own group’s survival.

            As the owner of some properties that might be tempting targets (some of which are unoccupied for months at a time now, but are within a 1/4 mile radius of my home), when I consider the scavenging/looting question, I look at it from the standpoint of protecting my properties from it, not how or when to do it. I’d be surprised if nobody ever thought to themselves, “if the SHTF I should come here, bet there’s a lot of survival stuff we could use”, when passing by our properties. So I’m more concerned with our personal ‘rules of engagement’ for dealing with scavengers/looters, or how much of our safety we should risk before we’re justified in using lethal force. Won’t go into details, but the current plan is a “3 strikes and you’re out” policy, and Strike #1 is ignoring my “No Trespassing” signs. Some other Strikes also fall short of the requirements where the Castle or the self-defense laws of my State would apply today.

            Anyway, hope you see where I’m coming from and why I dislike this particular topic discussed in the “looters are bad, but scavengers not so much” context. Because when it’s your stuff they’re going to take, who gives a damn what they call themselves? If someone gets away with the goods they’re a scavenger, if not then somebody else just killed a looter. It’s all subjective, or at least it is in my thinking.

            • P. Henry

              March 27, 2014 at 7:09 pm

              I know what you mean Justin and completely understand where you are coming from. I agree it is all subjective and depending on the situation you find yourself in, things are totally different.

              Thanks for the opportunity to hash this out with you; you have some great points in your comments and I hope you will visit again.


  2. Dan

    March 25, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    scavenging makes perfect sense if we are faced with a total collapse and are living in a world WROL. Scavenging is only looking for items someone can no longer use either because they have bugged out, not returned in a long time or are confirmed dead. If there is a reasonable expectation they may return then their home and stuff should be protected as much as possible without comprimising your own. It may also mean collecting their food and stuff and removing it to protect it. Just keep it in a separate area or marked. After several months if they are no show then it’s reasonable to assume they aren’t coming back.
    It’s a good idea to print out the sat photo’s from Google maps for your area. That’s gives you a good way to keep track of where you’ve salvaged and where people are actually living and so on.
    Salavaging an area also prevents others from moving in the area who might take by force what they can’t find. If they keep finding nothing then they might move on to other areas more productive.

    • P. Henry

      March 26, 2014 at 8:46 am

      I think you are exactly right Dan in a situation where you have a community and need to pool resources. It would make more sense in that scenario to have a common store of the supplies so they could be distributed as needed. This gets much more complicated, but would invariably need to happen in a WROL type of world if you wanted to ever get along with your neighbors again.

  3. ConservativeThinkTank

    August 22, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Congratulations on writing an incredibly racist article. It is obvious to me that your Criminology Degree and Juris Doctorate are coming in handy in your blog writing. I’m curious what you think about people scavenging from your home while you’re out scavenging from someone else’s? Would that be looting, even if you weren’t in the house and the person though it was abandoned?

    • Pat Henry

      August 22, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      I challenge you to give me one example in this article where I mentioned or even infer race. You don’t even know what race I am so that comment seems baseless and shows that you either A, didn’t read the article or B. have a giant chip on your shoulder for some reason.

      No legal system in the world matters if we are in the situation “where the world has gone to hell in a hand basket and people are eating dog food” that I discuss as the framework for this scenario so again I don’t know where your critiques stem from. If we were living in that type of life and someone stole from me, it would be what I deserved I guess. I never said anything to the contrary.

      You seem to miss the whole point of the article and assume I am talking about any old day when someone smashes a window and steals something. Since you said I was racist for saying that was wrong, I assume that means you believe that form of theft is OK? Is it OK for one race but not another?

      Either that or you believe that my conditionally approving scavenging after a disaster is racist and if that is the case, I would be curious to hear what your definition of racist actually is.


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