In the list of topics that fall under the survivalist umbrella, bartering might not hold the top slot but is surely in the top 10.
The basic concept runs like this: In the event that our current forms of currency are suddenly worthless due to an economic collapse or some other long-term disaster, We may want to have on hand a small stockpile of goods we can use to trade for other things we need.
Sure, we’re survivalists, so we should be well stocked with food, water and such. But we’re also human, and thus, we aren’t perfect. We might not have stored enough of this or that. Perhaps we even completely forgot about something that turns out to be critically needed.
What we’ll have available for trading tends to fall into two different categories: stuff and skills. “Stuff” refers to the physical, tangible items we can stockpile in advance of a collapse. “Skills” are the jobs we could perform in exchange for goods or services. Each category has pros and cons, and a savvy trader will have invested in both.
There are three basic rules I try to follow when determining whether an item should be stockpiled for later trading. First, the item should have some inherent value to me. I may never need to use the item for bartering, so it should have some use for my family and me. In other words, don’t invest in items for the sole purpose of trading them later. Should civilization and/or the economy stabilize, you might find you’ve wasted your money buying things for which you have no use.
Second, the item must store well for long periods of time. Perishables don’t make for good trading fodder, except in the short term. While you may find people eager to trade with you after you’ve harvested a deer, unless you have the means to keep that meat fresh for more than a couple of days, you’re not looking at any sort of long-term trade currency. Your chosen trade goods should be shelf stable and require little to no maintenance to remain viable for years to come.
Finally, your trade goods should be both inexpensive now and likely to have high value later. It is like the old axiom when it comes to the stock market: Buy low, sell high. As was mentioned earlier, it makes very little sense to sink a ton of money into barter goods if you end up not needing them for trade later.
Keep in mind that e very dollar you spend on barter goods is one less dollar you can spend on food, water, medicine and other essentials. Prepping is a balancing act—ideally, the items you choose to stockpile will not impact your wallet very much and will have tremendous trade value down the road.
With all that in mind, what are some recommended barter items? For consumables, give thought to the things people will want and need but likely won’t have on hand in large quantity, such as salt, sugar and honey. Each of those will last essentially forever without any special storage requirements. Drink mixes will also be prized once people have run out of s oft drinks and other packaged beverages. Heirloom seeds are truly a long-term investment but well worth the expense should the disaster aftermath be measured in years.
After just a short time without them, toiletries such as soap and shampoo appreciate exponentially in value. Anything that will help people feel “human” again will be highly prized. If you travel regularly, be sure to snag the complimentary goodies in your hotel room, because they might make excellent barter goods later. Toothbrushes and toothpaste can be had very cheaply if you shop around.
Along those same lines, hygiene supplies will also be popular. Toilet paper (if you have a roll or two you can spare) will be like gold. Feminine hygiene products will also be highly sought after. Don’t overlook medications for yeast infections and other feminine ailments, as well.
There are all sorts of odds and ends that make for excellent barter material. Butane lighters don’t last forever, but if you stick to the name brands, you’ll get a fair amount of storage time out of them before they run dry. Strike-anywhere matches, if you keep them dry, last quite a long time, too. Nails, screws and other fasteners will be handy to have when it comes time to start rebuilding.
When running to the store to pick up a new pair of pants isn’t a viable option, people will find a great need for patches, needles, thread and other clothing repair items. Granted, lots of folks face a rather steep learning curve to be able to use those items effectively, but if you can at least provide the supplies, they’ll be a step ahead.
In many ways, it is preferable to be able to trade your skills rather than your stuff. Unlike trade goods, your talents and skills won’t run out. Plus, they don’t take up any space at all, and you can carry them all day long without getting tired! That said, most skill sets will require the use of tools, equipment and supplies that will all need to be stockpiled.
First and foremost, any medical skills will be highly valuable. Obviously, the higher up the food chain you are, the better the service you’ll likely be able to provide (such as an experienced nurse practitioner compared to a Red Cross first-aid class graduate). I highly recommend spending time learning natural remedies, as well, such as wild medicinal plants and such.
The local pharmacy might not be an option. The means filtering and disinfecting water will be absolutely vital if the water isn’t flowing from the taps. Most people can make do with using old T-shirts or bandanas for the filtration part of the process, but those items won’t do much of anything to eliminate parasites and other microscopic nasties. If you’ve invested in water filters for you and your family to use, you would probably have success trading your ability to make water potable.
If you have skill in providing food through hunting, trapping, foraging, gardening or some other means, you’ll be able to trade some of your bounty for other things you need. Experience in processing the harvest will also be sought after by those who lack it.
Any of those skill sets we refer to as “the trades”—carpentry, plumbing and electrical—will be useful in many cases. Of course, you’ll need the tools and supplies to make the repairs and such, but what you lack could probably be borrowed or scavenged. If the crisis runs unabated long enough, those with experience in what is termed “pioneer skills” (such as blacksmithing) will find there is plenty of work to be had.
If there is one person in the community who likely will never go hungry, it is the one who can provide the hooch. Learning distillation and home brewing takes time and no small amount of trial and error. However, once you’ve mastered it, your product will probably be in high demand.
SHOULD I TRADE MY AMMO?
The idea of using ammunition as currency has been a popular one for quite some time. I agree with proponents who say ammo would be easily standardized for trading, and there would be a high demand for it. However, my concern would be the person deciding to return their ammunition to me—using some sort of high-velocity delivery system.
My recommendation is that ammunition should only be traded with those whom you trust absolutely. And even then, use caution.
BARTERING IN THE COMMUNITY
In the first few weeks, bartering will probably be limited to trading with neighbors, family and friends. A cup of sugar for a cup of flour might be the starting point. As times goes on, and with no end in sight, the town might find it useful to set up some sort of central location for trading, such as the high school gymnasium or a local park. This provides a safer way to conduct transactions, rather than just a couple of people on their own. In addition—and just as importantly—it will provide a sense of community among the residents, which could be vital to the successful recovery of the town.
We often engage in barter today, although we might only think of it as doing a favor for someone who returns the favor at some point down the road. It would be well worth your while to explore the notion of trading and bartering on a larger scale.
Not only can bartering save you money, the negotiation skills you learn and hone right now might also come in handy if the future unfolds in an unexpected way.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide.