Scavenging and the Law, by JRRT

There’s a lot to criticize about survival-themed movies, to the point where the only value most of them have is just to get all of us thinking about “what if,” and to entertain us in the process. But the trope that bothers me more than any other is the portrayal of scavenging. In survival movies, the heroes find caches of cool stuff, help themselves to fully stocked but deserted grocery stores, and appropriate vehicles. Survival almost looks fun! Who hasn’t fantasized about being able to have free reign to grab whatever they want from store shelves? As enjoyable as it is to watch movie heroes find Hummers with duffel bags full of sweet guns, I believe it does a lot to harm right thinking about survivalism. I’m going to outline a code of ethics for scavenging, and then discuss why scavenging is probably the most stupid possible survival strategy.

There are already some ancient laws that deal with abandoned property. The legal elements of abandoned property are that 1) the owner intended to leave the property, 2) but is in a condition that it is apparent that he has no intention to return or claim it. I’d modify this to add to this a Reasonable Man standard which so often comes up in law. Would a reasonable man consider it likely that the owner is going to return? I want to add this because it could be many people initially plan to return, but eventually it becomes clear they never will. These questions could be pretty opaque if large swathes of the country turn into a no man’s land. Let’s consider a few scenarios.

Scavenging Hypotheticals

Scenario 1.) You live in Florida, for some reason. A large hurricane is on its way, and your neighbors head for the hills…errr higher areas of swamp. You, the tough prepper decides to ride it out. But as you sit in the eye of the storm, you feel like a drink and you know your next door neighbor has some 25 year old scotch. Is your neighbor’s house abandoned? Obviously not, as they plan to return after the storm. You’ll have to spend the rest of the storm thirsty.

Scenario 2.) A mini ice age happens as result of a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland. People begin to trickle out of your increasingly cold climate farming town, because nothing will grow. After a year, unoccupied houses are everywhere. Are these houses fair to poke around in for useful things? What if everyone expects the climate to return to normal in a year? But what if it has been five years and there are no signs of things returning to normal? This is where the “reasonable man” standard comes in.

Scenario 3.) JWR’s big Crunch happens: A few miles from your house is a highway that is now a parking lot. Hundreds of cars sit where they ran out of gas, their occupants long gone on foot. It’s six months into the crunch and you have no idea if there is even a functional refinery left in the whole country. Are the vehicles fair game to salvage for waste oil and parts for the sweet wind turbine you’re building? It seems fair to me.

Scenario 4.) A slightly different scavenging related scenario: It is present day, and you’re elk hunting somewhere in the Western US. But you get sidetracked in the mountains and get caught in a snow storm. Disoriented and lost, you stumble down the mountains, and find an unoccupied cabin. You know that you will die if you don’t get warm (you didn’t properly plan for this eventuality), so you break into the cabin, light a fire, and even find some cocoa mix. In the morning with the weather clear, you write a note to leave on the table with your contact information, a profuse apology, and a promise to pay whatever the cabin owner asks. As of right now, in normal times, this scenario would be acceptable so you can save your life. But what about in not so normal times?

There will be many people who will probably be able to correctly claim that “appropriating” supplies is their only way to survive. The difference is, by doing something like this in a nationwide survival scenario, you may be hurting others chances for survival in a way you are not in normal times. Besides that, in normal times you have the ability to repay what you borrowed, in the future you may not.

These questions may seem irrelevant to some, because sadly there are too many people who gleefully anticipate collapse and the ensuing free-for-all. But I say, there is no survival situation that changes your duty to follow God’s laws. We will never have a right to steal and we must put all such things from our minds. Our preparations are a moral duty precisely so that we aren’t tempted to steal or worse to feed our families when the terrible times come.

With the morality of scavenging thoroughly discussed, I’ll now show why it is the most stupid thing to do anyways, even from a purely practical standpoint, with possible exceptions for certain machinery parts and building materials, and then only after things settle down.

Why Scavenging Is A Stupid Idea

Why would anyone willingly scavenge in the first place? It’s the diametric opposite of preparedness, a failure to plan. Fundamentally, there shouldn’t be anything you need to scavenge for.

There is plenty of discussion of just in time supply chains in prepper circles. The nation’s supplies, as they exist, are much more like a firehose then a reservoir. As long as the firehose stays on, there is plenty. But once it turns off, the water is gone immediately. Scavenging from stores is a fool’s game, as about every useful thing from any store that actually carries useful things will be empty within hours.  If you don’t have it when TSHTF you’ll probably not have it for a long time. Speaking of which, go into most stores and there is very little you’d want for your preps. Even a store like Lowes has quite bit of stuff that you wouldn’t cross the street to pick up if the power went off for good. Wal-Mart? There are few useful things there, but not much. So we see that stores will be barely worth visiting.

What about abandoned houses? There are many problems with this as well. The first being, Americans’ houses reflect our stores; most contain nothing useful. If you live in the suburbs and your whole neighborhood was abandoned, I bet you could look through 100 houses and not find five things worth keeping, even if people didn’t take their most useful things on the way out the door. I scarcely exaggerate: of the following list,how many would you find in the average suburban house? Cast iron skillet, wool blanket, duct tape, .22 LR cartridges, a can of stew. There are a lot of people now who don’t have so much as a flashlight or hammer in their house.

People eat out and take out more than ever, so already anemic larders are shrinking further. Far from being treasure troves of goodies, scavenging from these houses will be labor intensive and a waste of calories. What is the energy return on investment for checking 10 houses and finding one can of tomato soup? To highlight my point farther, the furniture in most houses is particle board Ikea stuff, so you couldn’t even re-purpose it or burn it for firewood!

Around here, we know that expiration dates marked on packaged food aren’t genuine expiration dates. The caveat is, food needs to be stored properly. Abandoned pantries will be subject to a lot of moisture and temperature swings, and canned food that is frozen and refrozen is probably going to be compromised. Dry goods will mold or be eaten by vermin.

If things get sporting, our procedures for answering a knock on the door may change. We may not answer the door at all. What happens when you decide a house is abandoned, go inside, and find a group of people who are not happy to see you trespassing?

Lack of Planning is Not a Plan

But by far the best reason not to lean on scavenging is that there are millions of morons out there whose “plan” consists of doing just this. They think that they’ll be able to grab what they want and hole up at some rich guy’s mountain cabin. You don’t want to be out with the Free Stuff Army. Rather, you want to be at your retreat location. It doesn’t help that too many “preppers” are really only prepared in the firepower department. Crowds of people who have plenty of guns and no extra calories aren’t people that I want to be near.

Hopefully, the foregoing convinces everyone of the folly of (most) scavenging. Please encourage everyone you can to prepare now, especially regarding food storage. Godspeed.

JWR Adds:  I must concur with the author. In most cases, “Scavenging” is just a polite word for looting.  Maritime law differs, with the Law of Salvage for abandoned vessels. But ashore, basically every piece of land, every dwelling, every store, every business, and all that is contained in them entirely belongs to someone, or to their rightful heirs. Behave accordingly!  Only in a massive pandemic with a 90%+ mortality rate would there truly be property with no heirs.

By avoiding scavenging you will also likely live longer, as looters tend to get repeatedly ventilated!


  1. Self governance is a precious gift of God. If we are waiting for some kind of event to convince ourselves we can indulge in beast like desires, we have to question the depth of our relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord.
    I have a feeling there is a whole lot of folks waiting to act out their Hollywood desires. If you have done it in your mind or your heart, you have done it. People do what they practice/worship when things get tough and they get scared enough to convince themselves their actions are really righteous and justified in the end.
    Our test of faith is when things get really hard for a long period of time. When out bellies and lives are at stake we find out how much we really Love God and our fellow man. Practice fasting now and learning the seasons that you go through during fasting so you recognize them when you do not have a choice. I recommend do it as a family as well. Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness. Start with that goal and it will change your thought processes. I promise it is the best (cheapest) training I have ever done. Water only.

      1. The idea of a rapture before the great tribulation only became a common belief in the 1800’s, and then only in England and America.

        What happens to people’s faith if that idea is wrong? If we find ourselves in the tribulation, and we have not been raptured?

        What the Chinese are doing to their Muslim population is just practice for what they will do to their Christian population. Will we all be raptured first, so a hundred million Chinese Christians won’t be tortured, imprisoned, brainwashed, starved, and murdered?

        If a pre-tribulation rapture is part of your core faith, what happens if you are wrong. What if ninety five percent of the history of Christianity, and ninety five percent of Christians, are right? That we follow Christ to the cross, carrying our own.

        1. I concur. My father’s church, fundamentalist old testament Christian, teaches that the only ones who won’t go through some part of the tribulation are those who are already dead. Those that die early on during the tribulation are also the lucky ones. The rest of us, the ones who live during the tribulation, are the ones who suffer. The rapture only happens at the end. Then the dead shall rise, and those of us who live through the bad times will be judged according to our merits, and it’s only the judgement of God for only He knows our hearts.

          The bible we read is highly edited. Remember, the council of Nicaea Ad 325, or should I say the several councils, held over about the course of over a thousand years, starting about AD 50, where groups of MEN determined what we should or should not be taught. Think, “Oh no, we can’t teach them that!” And think of all the books of the bible that were essentially banned by groups of men. What arrogance!

          So, all that is about to happen, is clouded by the corruption of man’s meddling. We don’t know when, we may or may not know all the signs to watch for. We can only prepare, based on what we have to work with. So effectively, God advised us all to be good little preppers, preparing for what God has in store for all of us.

    1. So much clarity here. Regarding fasting (such a great discipline) and the rapture. Always bear in mind when reading scripture that your interpretation may be different than what the inspired words originally meant. And, your interpretation is easily directed by your desire for convenience and comfort. Thus, the belief is a blissful rapture delivering from tribulation.

      Train for tribulation. At the very least, you will learn about yourself and your spiritual life will become deep and rich.

      CDarry on

  2. probably the worst scavenging that will be done is the …

    “I’ll just come to your place when it gets bad”

    sigh, can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to address that.

  3. Great article ! I agree completely with the author’s assertion that scavenging is the total opposite of prepping. And pity the fool who barges into my place just because he thinks that I am not at home…to quote the great Mr.T…

  4. A question, Christians are not subject to God’s wrath. The Tribulation is about God’s wrath.
    1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is very clear Christians are removed from this world.

    My faith is in Christ and what He clearly lays out. I do not find anywhere in Scripture to store up your treasures here on Earth but the exact opposite.

    Be prepared yes, but like the rich man building more barns since he had so much stuff, his soul was required that night.

    Proverbs 3 is an excellent Scripture for wisdom in these troubling times.

    1. Christians are regularly punished and rebuked, hence we do come under his wrath.

      Hebrews 12:5

      And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him.

      The 4th chapter of 1st Thessalonians does indeed state that we are removed from this world. It does NOT say that this occurs before the great tribulation.

    2. Skip,
      I am saying this with the most humble respect and gentleness for you.
      Please read your KJV carefully. Wrath and Tribulation are two very separate things. Christians are promised that they WILL have tribulation several times. God’s people (my sheep know my voice) are not subject to our Father’s Wrath. They are distinct in the differences between the two.
      Yet Noah obeyed God and built and stored for what God told him was to come.
      Joseph did the same thing with God using Pharaoh to warn of the future of Egypt and beyond.
      The Isrealites coming out of Egypt were given wares and gold and silver to leave with. How did they have weapons to enter and conquer the promise land of the giants and to kill everything?
      Our preps are not our treasures, they are insurance when there is no AAA or 911 or insurance company to NOT pay out or respond. Rather than owe someone or hope they come through, we live with less (without the lusts of the flesh) in order to provide the tools to work for ourselves and our families and those who are legitimately in need.
      Proverbs has a lot more there than Proverbs 3. All in context.

      Please read your KJV bible and be ye not deceived by any means. Go in Jesus Christ The Word of God, The Bread of Life.
      A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

    3. The Bible is very clear on the importance of preparation, there are many stories and admonishments that explicitly speak to it.

      Now if you trust your preparations rather than God you are unfaithful. But if you fail to prepare, you are tempting God, and being unfaithful.

      And without getting into end times theology, we simply dont know what the end times will look like. There very likely will be extreme hardships that come before the end of the world, and since no one knows when that will be, you’d best prepare. There are scores of historical incidents where people thought the world was ending, when in fact it did not. It’s a poor excuse not to prepare.

  5. ” I have a gun. I’ll take whatever I want ” is a comment heard sadly too many times at local gun shops. It’s always said in a jestering manner, but it does give one pause.

    Given the nastiness displayed in something simple as morning rush-hour traffic it’s easy to imagine things will get very ugly when it all goes bad.

    Looting and scavenging may be the least of our worries.

  6. Given property taxes and mortgages, it belongs to Wall Street or to Government.

    Who is the victim of looting if we are post allodial title?

    In general I will play by the rules my neighbors play by. But today, things are stacked and everyone cheats.

    Remember many are those who would take your kids or your guns.

    Or that your wife can kill your child in the womb legally and you have no rights.

    We are not in heaven, Christ is not here to rule, nor are we in Christendom.

    In the Islamic world there are problems with the rules of engagement and when one of our “friends” has sex slaves whose liberation would deprive them of what they consider their property.

    There is a place for pragmatism and prudence.

  7. I believe scavenging will occur in any long term trouble situation. No one can plan for every eventuality, and sooner or later you will find it necessary to utilize any available resource. The house next door, whose owners were in Guatemala doing missionary work when the balloon went up, will eventually be gone through for any useful items (hardware, clothing, non perishable food, tools). You don’t trash the place, and you must be prepared to reimburse the owners either in kind, in cash, or with help surviving if they are able to return home.
    Those of you who have a group should sit down and develop something of a policy about when a house should be considered abandoned and available for scavenging.
    I once read a pretty good description of the difference between a scavenger and a looter after a natural disaster: If you come out of a half wrecked walmart with bottled water and boxes of crackers, you’re a scavenger. If you come out with three flat screen tvs and a dozen pair of nike knockoffs, you are a looter. You accept the necessity of the first: you shoot the second.

  8. Only in America. We are so arrogant when it comes to having to deal with TEOTWAWKI, we are so quick sometimes to just say”we are going to be raptured before we have to live through that”, especially my own Southern Baptists. Christians around the globe live through “hell on earth” every day and they are not “raptured” away to save them from persecution,torture, and death. God is looking out for his people, He is telling them to prepare and He is showing them the signs everywhere, but I don’t think He is going to do our work for us. He has already given us a back and a brain. And another thing, why should The Lord God fight for us if we will not fight for Him, I was thinking that almost every other religion on earth has followers willing to defend their religion to the death, but not us “Christians”. We let folks right here in our own “Christian Nation” trample all over our Bible and our God and we stand by and let them. And our weapons that we might use to defend our God and our Constitution,well, we just keep sending folks to the District of Criminals who are bent on taking away those weapons(senate bill 7). We have lost our mind. Sorry, I know this didn’t have anything to do with scavenging, just a Sunday morning rant. Time to go to church.

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