Barter is a hot topic in prepper circles, so I thought we should ask someone who has a lot of real-world experience with trade in a dangerous situation.
If you don’t know Selco, he survived a year in Bosnia when his city was blockaded. Supplies were not allowed in or out, and residents were left without utilities and services. This interview is in his own words.
How quickly did people turn to barter once your city was locked down?
It was a matter of a few weeks.
Actually, for ordinary folks, it was a matter of few weeks because we did not get the new reality right at the beginning of everything.
Later when I remembered that period, I realized that even right at the beginning of SHTF there were people who did not want to take money for goods. They asked for valuables like gold, jewelry, or weapon for goods that they had.
Some of them were smart enough to realize that money was gonna become worthless really soon, and even gold and jewelry were only good in the first period, and then only if you had a connection to outside world to exchange it for something useful.
Ordinary folks needed few weeks. It was a process that went from buying goods with money, then buying goods from people who still wanted to take money (at outrages prices) to the moment when money was worthless, and only goods for goods were accepted.
It was rare, but sometimes you could find someone who would sell you something for foreign money but at the 20-50 times bigger prices.
For example if pack of cigarettes cost around 1,50 German Mark (outside of the war region) we could buy that pack for 40 German Marks.
US dollar and Canadian dollar had even worse value.
Obviously, people would accept that money had connection to the outside world, and some of them ended up as millionaires because of that.
Same ratio was for precious metals and jewelery.
For small and quick trades, the usual currency were cigarettes, because of the percentage of people that smoked.
Even values were expressed often like “Oh, that’s worth 10 cigarettes.” In other situations it was ammunition-bullets.
How were trade items valued? If someone wanted to make a trade, who set the terms?
Nothing was fixed.
Through the whole period, the value of goods went up and down based on a lot of things.
For example if a UN food convoy managed to enter the city and some local warlord (usually) took it all, and the majority of the food was cans of fish, you could count on the fact that that month those types of cans gonna be cheaper then the month before. Or if that day’s US airplanes managed to “hit“ with airdrops in our area then MREs were going to be bit cheaper to find.
Sometimes a simple rumor (planted by rival groups) for example about “poisoned“ cans of cookies meant that people did not valued it so highly anymore.
Some things did not change value too much during the whole period, like alcohol, simply because it was available.
Other things’ value was a matter of the situation.
For example, if you had a sick kid at home, and you needed antibiotic and you spread that word, you could expect high price simply because you give that information that you need something really hard and fast.
But usually, we knew the value of things (goods) for that week for example, at least approximately.
What were the general rules of trade during this time?
The value of things and trading “rules on the ground“ were similar to trade rules at normal life flea markets.
A few of those “rules on the ground“ during the trade were:
- If YOU need something then the price is going up. (Do not look like you desperately need something.)
- Do not offer all that you got in “one hand“ or on one try. (Do not go to trade with your best shots all together, it looks desperate, and you are losing all the advantage then.)
- Do not ever give a reason for someone to take the risk of attacking you because you have way too cool stuff (or way too much stuff) with you. (Have some amount of food, or ammo, or whatever, do another trade at another time with more of that. Remember people will take chances if they calculate it is a risk worth taking.)
- Never give info how much of the goods you actually have at home. ( The reason is same as above.)
- Never do trade at your home (unless you trust the person 100%) because you never know to who you are giving valuable information about how much you have, what your home look like, how many people are there (defense) etc.
- Doing the trade in other trader s home might mean that you are at his “playground“ (or he is stupid) so you are losing the edge. You are risking of being on unknown terrain. Always try to choose neutral ground somewhere that you can control the situation, giving the opponent the chance to feel safe. (But not safer than you).
It is most important that you understand when SHTF (for real) system is out, and only thing that protect you from losing everything is you.
Trade is gonna be a matter of carefully planning. It starts with information about who has something that you need, then checking that information, and rechecking, and then sending information to him that you want to trade, then setting the terms about the place and number of people where you’re gonna do the trade.
Usually, there was a rumor or information about who was safe to trade with. There was information about people who like to scam other people during the trade. If you did a good and fair trade with a man you could “save him“ as a safe trader (to some extent) for future trade.
Everything else is a matter of trust and skills.
Maybe, just maybe, if you are living in some nice small town there is gonna be something like a market, where people freely gonna exchange their goods between each other.
I never saw anything like that because it needs some kind of system to back it. Trade when SHTF is a high-risk situation simply because it is about resources, and there is no law, no system.
Are skills or products more valuable?
In the long run, skills were more valuable, simply because you can not “spend“ your skills.
If you had medical skills you could expect that people over the time (through the word on the street) will hear that, and that you simply will have opportunities to get something for that skill.
I pointed out in an earlier article that when a serious collapse happens, things fall apart around you fiscally, there are no services, so skills for “repairing“ were valuable, and so were technical skills.
Medicines were substituted with home (natural) remedies so knowing that stuff was valuable, making simple cloth pieces was good, and repairing weapons. I knew people who did good because they made very basic cigar holders from wood and empty bullet shell simply because people smoked bad tobacco hand-rolled in paper.
Skills that made the new reality easier.
Skills were also safer to trade simply because by attacking and killing you, the attacker cannot take away your skills from you.
What were the top physical items for barter? Do you recommend that people stock up on things specifically for barter? If so, what kinds of things?
In my case those were MREs, meat cans, alcohol, batteries, candles, cigarettes, weapons and ammo, drugs, and medicines… but if we are talking about the future, preparing, some things need to be mentioned.
There are lists about “100 things to store for SHTF“, and while they are good lists, they may be completely different from “100 things to trade when SHTF.”
Obviously when SHTF you will miss everything, because the “trucks are stopped“ and there are no stores and normal buying.
The basics that you need to cover are something that every prepper already knows: food, defense, water, shelter, fire, medicine, and communication.
Out of these essentials, you go in deeper. Like under medicine you’ll have antibiotics but also some knowledge about natural remedies. Under food, you’ll have cans but also some way to produce food like seeds or hunting or whatever.
If you are PLANNING to store things for trade then you need to have a strategy for that.
Let’s say you are storing huge amounts of food for you and your family for SHTF but you are also planning to trade that food for other items when SHTF.
Some advice for people who are counting to store things for trade are:
- Store things of everyday use, nothing too fancy. For example store rice or pasta (if that food is common in your region), lighters, batteries, or candles.
- Store small things, or in small packages, stuff that is gonna be easy to carry hidden on you, in your jacket, for example, lighters, spices, cigarettes, quick soups… not cannister of fuel, bags of wheat. I am not saying not to store fuel. I am saying it is much better to carry 20 AA batteries to trade then a 20-liter canister of fuel especially because value might be similar. Remember, do not give reason to anyone to take the risk of attacking you because you have something.
- Think about things that are cheap today, may have multipurpose uses when SHTF, and do not take too much space to store (alcohol pads or condoms for example).
- Think about things that you can “sell but keep“. For example, a solar panel with a setup for charging batteries for people. You are selling charging of batteries to people.
- NEVER be the “big trader“ or the person who has a lot of interesting stuff. Be the small person who is gonna offer good things through the network of a few people. Being big trader means attracting too much attention with too many cool things that you have. Hide your trading activities through a network of other traders.
- Understand today’s value and the value when SHTF. Think about the small things that save lives, antibiotics, anti-tetanus shots, povidone pads [iodine]. For example, candles are really cheap today but will be rare when SHTF.
- Do not underestimate things that are people addicted to, no matter what you think about it. Cigarettes, alcohol, or coffee (or whatever is case in your region) – the value will go way up.
- “Store“ skills and knowledge. It is best investment. Learn skills that are gonna be valuable like gardening, shoe repairing, clothes making. Maybe you can be the person who has knowledge about natural remedies.
Should you have precious metals as a means for buying goods when the SHTF?
Through human history, gold and silver were valuable. They were used for getting goods in all times, including hardest times like wars and similar.
Having precious metal for SHTF is big in the prepping community but I need to point out some things.
The value of gold went down during SHTF so much that you need to think about it very hard.
For example, in normal times (I am using these numbers as an example) you could buy with one gold ring 300 small cans of meat. When SHTF you could buy 20, and you could buy 20 if you could find a man who wanted to take that ring from you.
He did not usually want to take it because he could take stuff that he could immediately use, like weapons, drugs, or medicines.
He simply could not do anything immediately useful with it.
Having precious metals is a great idea for later, when some kind of system jumps in, because they are gonna be again precious.
Right in the middle of SHTF, the value of it is poor.
That is one of the reasons why some local warlords came out as very powerful people after everything. They simply took precious metal from folks for a “can of the soup“ value (or sometimes for nothing) and they had enough power to store that metal for the time when it would be valuable again.
Do not throw everything into precious metals. Store immediately useful things.
What were the top skills?
It was simple: skills that you might use to kill people or to heal them.
So fighting, security, medical skills, knowing herbal remedies, repairing a weapon, making a new one.
Right after those skills were skills about food.
Knowing what kind of herbs around us you could eat, or even knowing what kind of tree bark you could eat maybe, how to make some plants edible mixed with other ingredients, how to repair clothes and things in your home.
Were there markets for bartering or did people mostly do this in private?
In one period of time there was something like a market, but it was strictly under control of local warlord, so it was not smart to go there since you really could not know what to expect.
Almost all the trades were made in private arrangments after you got information about someone who had something that he wants to trade.
The best situation was if you knew that person prior the war so you had already built trust from before.
Scams were usual, attacks during the trade happened too, especially if the value of goods was high.
If you need to trade for something, do that in advance. In other words, do not wait to be completely without food and then go to look for food through the trade, because you are under pressure, you are desperate. It is not a good setup for trade.
How did you remain safe when trading goods and services? What were the risks?
The basic rule is not to go alone to trade.
The reasons are very simple because you have resources with you for trade, you are possible target so you need more security – more people.
The trade place usually needed to be checked for possible ambush or scam setup. You needed people for that.
You needed a guard during the trade, someone to check up things during your negotiation with the other trader, someone who was going to watch for things.
The ideal number of people was 3.
The risks are scams (bad goods) or an attack.
You could lower that risk by trading with known people or simply by showing enough force so that they understand it is not worth the risk.
Scams were avoided by checking goods of course. If you are buying batteries you need to check them all. You need to taste coffee – is it mixed with old coffee that was used and dried? Cigarettes packs were carefully opened and 1-2 cigarettes could be missing and the pack glued again.
It was like a chess game.
What are some myths about barter that most people think are the truth?
Trade is probably the survival topic with largest number of myths.
It is partly because we like to think that somehow the world will collapse but the majority of people will live by the rules from normal times, and partly because we are influenced by movies, shows, and fiction books.
“When SHTF people simply get all together and help each other, and that goes for trade too.“
No, actually when times get really hard people jump into survival mode, or perish.
For you it may mean that you ‘l be nice, and do only good things, for another, it may mean that he will do whatever it takes so he and his family survive.
That may include killing you over 3 MREs during the trade.
“When SHTF I will thrive because I stored a lot of things for trade, and I will simply be the biggest trader.“
It is possible. People did that and survived. And even got rich after everything was over.
But they had gangs around them, enough manpower to protect the goods, the control to not be overrun, and they were ruthless.
Most probably, you are an ordinary person who just wants to survive SHTF. You do not have 100 armed people with you. You just need to be small and careful.
You are not a warlord.
“When it comes to trade it is all about weapon and force.“
Actually, it is not.
It is about the correct mindset to decide what makes sense in that moment and what you really need (and what you do not). Weapons help a lot but do not solve the problem alone.
It is very similar to bargaining at a flea market with the possibility of violence.
Anything to add?
After years of being in the survival world, talking with other preppers and writing my articles I found out that a great number of people think something like “I cannot wait to go to trade when SHTF!“
In reality, one of the points of careful preparing is to delay the moment when you need to go out and trade as long as you can.
Because you’re gonna need time to scan what is going on and who is who in the new collapsed world. You need to gather information about who is good and who is not, who is trusted and who is a scammer, what area is safe
If you need to go out on the 10th day in order to trade something maybe you are doing something wrong?
Selco survived the Balkan war of the 90s in a city under siege, without electricity, running water, or food distribution. He is currently accepting students for his next physical course here.
In his online works, he gives an inside view of the reality of survival under the harshest conditions. He reviews what works and what doesn’t, tells you the hard lessons he learned, and shares how he prepares today.
He never stopped learning about survival and preparedness since the war. Regardless of what happens, chances are you will never experience extreme situations as Selco did. But you have the chance to learn from him and how he faced death for months.
- Read more of Selco’s articles here.
- Buy his PDF books here.
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Real survival is not romantic or idealistic. It is brutal, hard and unfair. Let Selco take you into that world.