Dictionary.com defines ‘to barter’ as:
“to trade by exchange of commodities rather than by the use of money.”
In a true survival situation, money basically loses its value (because the most important of the items it can theoretically buy become so valuable), so bartering is much more use. Even so, there are some easily stockpiled, easily carried supplies, many of which can be split down into small quantities, which are worth special consideration in your plans.
When deciding what to pack specifically for bartering there are three things main things to consider. The first is demand and supply in a survival scenario. Matches are a great example: in a survival scenario demand will be huge, so you could reasonably expect something very valuable (say some unusual meds the other person happens to have) in return for a relatively small number of matches.
A good way to conceive of this is to imagine what you might miss if you were put in prison tomorrow. The very basics would be covered by the prison (simple clothing, very basic food, heat and light etc.) and it is very likely that anybody who survives long enough to think about bartering will have at least some of these covered too. This makes the next stuff you want (after the basics: a better fire or knowing you can light another fire, security of you situation, luxuries like chocolate and candy etc.)
The second consideration is demand and supply now (in a safe environment). Sure, really strong painkillers would be a great bartering item, but their purchase is restricted and they are very expensive. Focus on stuff which can be stockpiled relatively easily.
Finally, consider how easily the values of different barter items (those you have and those of your trading partner) can be compared. One of the reasons that money has been so successful as a mode of exchange is that it is economically ‘liquid’, which means it can be subdivided into different denominations, so one payment can carry exactly as much value as necessary.
Here is an example of how this is pertinent to bartering:
You and your partner have a motorcycle each, having bugged out of a crisis. One day your partner breaks his leg, he can’t ride and you don’t want to leave him, really he needs medical attention. Going a little way to find food, you meet a guy who is willing to barter for his truck, which is in good working order and has a nearly full tank.
Great! The truck will get you and your friend to to safety and carry all of your gear, so it’s worth a lot to you. You offer the guy a motorcycle in return for the truck, but he refuses, saying the truck is worth more than that. Two cycles together are worth more than the truck so you don’t want to give them up, and anyhow the guy wouldn’t need them both as he lives alone. In the end, the guy drives off to find someone else to trade with.
The moral of the story is that you need to prepare to barter things which will be useful to many people, and crucially can be subdivided many times into small denominations. If the guy was a drinker, you could have worked out a number of bottles of whiskey which the truck was to him. If no measure could be agreed upon, then since whisky is literally a liquid asset, he could take home some many bottles ‘and a half’ (perhaps on top of a single motorcycle), and everyone would be happy.
What follows is a list of common, useful bartering supplies, which might also be useful to you in the moment, so will not be unnecessary baggage.
Obviously, the usefulness of painkillers for bartering cannot be overstated. They are small, light and easy to carry (though tablets are easily crushed which must be taken into consideration for transportation) and are very useful for you (so not exactly a waste of space, you can never really carry too many for yourself) or a trading partner in a survival scenario. You should stock up on a variety of strengths and types as different people may be allergic to some.
Although painkillers will deal with immediate symptoms, antibiotics will remove a disease entirely. Unfortunately, different problems require different antibiotics, so it’s definitely worth buying a mixed bag (or two, or three..).
Though the subject is much discussed and too complex to go into here, it is worth knowing that antibiotics marketed for fish or birds are often exactly the same as those for humans, and can be cheaper. The California based Camping Survival is known for its range. Make sure always to check the amount of antibiotic in each pill, as a bottle of 250mg pills will be cheaper than a bottle of 500mg pills, but you will need to take two for the same effect.
Bandages, Plasters and Dressings
For injuries and wounds drugs won’t do much good in the short run, and slips, breaks, cuts, bruises and similar are very likely in a survival situation. Stock up on the mixed-bag type packs of plasters and bandages, and then get some extra large, heavy dressings to pad these out.
More complex dressings like tourniquets and NATO bandages are great, but are much heavier and more valuable, and impossible to break down into small pieces to barter with. Carry some for your own use, but don’t expect to trade many.
Blood Clot Powder and Quickclot
Often supplies like this will actually work in place dressings or bandages and will be invaluable in conjunction with them for larger wounds. They are a consumable and something people often forget to keep in first aid kits, so will be good for trading.
People often don’t think to pack disinfectant in first aid kits, but when challenged about it (or offered some in a barter…) might suddenly realise it’s a very good idea! Definitely worth having.
Toilet Paper and Toiletries
Toilet paper is one of those things which most households are constantly replacing,with trips to the shops. If there are no shops around, or they’ve all sold out, people will be desperate to get their hands on it, so (especially when people are caught short!) it becomes very valuable as a trading item.
Toiletries and sanitary products are generally just taken for granted as always being available. Toothbrushes and toothpaste (tooth powder which can be rehydrated later might be easier to store and carry), wet wipes, tissues, tampons (which are great for lighting fires and for stopping bleeding in a first aid situation, so you should have some anyway), soap, shower gel and shampoo (dry shampoo can be just as effective but easier to carry or store) are all good bets.
The last thing you want in a survival situation is a pregnancy (and the next worst thing is the baby afterwards). Not that these aren’t wonderful things, but they will only make such a scenario more difficult for everyone involved, and much more difficult for the parents.
But there will probably be no TV either, and in the absence of things to do, people will want to make their own entertainment (did you know that birth rates are higher in the early fall because conception rates are higher around new year, because it’s dark and people don’t go out and do stuff?). So contraception will be in high demand, and if you have stockpiles then you have currency.
The contraceptive pill and condoms are probably the most popular and easy to store and use.
Food and Drink
All food is consumable and necessary for survival, so is inherently valuable and tradeable, especially if people are craving something in particular. Having said that, some foods and cooking ingredients are better than others for bartering. They tend to be necessities or common ingredients which people just take for granted, but would actually find it very hard to do without.
Almost all modern cooking (especially quick campfire meals) require some kind of cooking oil. It can also be useful to lubrication, if used in the right way, and for sealing woodcraft projects like whittled spoons. Cooking oils are also easy to split up into tradeable portions, so are great for small measurements of value.
Salt, Pepper and Spices
All food is better with seasoning. Salt, pepper and spices are more things which people simply think are always there, so won’t thin to include in a bug out bag, or to stock up on. Cinnamon, thyme, rosemary, curry powder, cumin, paprika, ginger, garlic and chilli are all fairly common, well used spices.
Everybody loves chocolate. A UK reality TV programme (Called Eden) once tested what happened if twenty three normal people were given free reign in an otherwise deserted place, to survive. It was a social experiment. In the second episode (about a month in) two fisherman hea about the show and dump a bag of luxuries on the beach, before vanishing. What did the participants go crazy for and fight over? Not candy, not fresh fruit, not alcohol, but chocolate.
Chocolate is also rather difficult to keep hold of, especially in hot weather, and is often not deemed an unnecessary luxury, so you will probably find yourself trading small quantities for immediate consumption.
Preserved meat can add a hit of flavour and protein to any simple campfire meal, without the difficulty of hunting or catching it yourself and exotic meats can add variety. Long preserved sausages like chorizo can be cut up into pieces for trading and jerky could be crumbled up and traded by weight.
People love their coffee. Especially so in a high-energy survival scenario where people will often need an extra kick to get through the day. Over time instant coffee will not go off, can be easily split into small units, and will be of use to most people. A really great investment for stockpiles. The best stuff is Starbucks Via.
Sugar, Honey and Syrup
Blood sugar levels must be kept up! Sugar, honey and syrup will help a lot with this and be very popular in a survival scenario. All three are also easy to trade in small amounts, and sugar could perhaps be kept in small plastic bags of exact measurements each (so many ounces in bag) to make trading and ‘prices’ easier.
In the long term, seeds will be of supreme importance for survival. Canny people will be happy to barter a loaf of bread for a bag of seeds which they can use to grow whole lot more food than that loaf (but if you have enough seeds be bartering them then you still have a loaf of bread, which is useful now.) Make sure to get seeds which are likely to grow well in your area, and ideally ones which are also edible themselves in an emergency.
Alcohol is addictive, widely enjoyed and can serve many purposes beyond beverage (as fuel for motors, lamps and fire starting, as a basic anaesthetic or medical cleaner etc.). It can be served in small quantities and lots of people will want it badly. Strong drinks like whiskey and vodka will provide more alcohol for the weight and keep better for longer.
Water (and Purification Tablets)
Clean water is surprisingly difficult to come by. For most people it just comes out of tap, but out in the wild there are no taps, so a person offering you a bottle of water with a label saying it’s clean is a real hero. Bottled water will be very tradeable in barter, and water purification just much, as they represent ‘potential’ or ‘future’ clean water.
Map and Navigational Tools
If moving around even a short distance in unknown territory, navigational tools become almost priceless. Keeping a few spare maps of your area is a good idea (it’s a good idea anyway if travelling in a group as someone is bound to lose theirs). You should also have the maps which border the ones covering your route/area, and these will be very tradeable, as anybody you meet to barter with is likely to be travelling in a different direction, so might find them useful. To make these even more useful, get the waterproof fabric printed maps.
Maps are great but much better with a good compass. Small compasses are easy to store and good quality should last a long time without much maintenance. The same goes for other navigational instruments like sextants and GPS units, though these tend to be heavier and require more prior knowledge, reference books or satellite coverage, so are probably not so great for bartering.
Razor and Scalpel Blades
It doesn’t take long for beard growth to get itchy, and people will want the use of a razor. These days most people use either disposable razors, or a blade holder with disposable blades. Both are useful to stock up on anyway (as are disposable scalpels, sharp precision blades have hundreds of uses) and can be good for bartering.
Matches are a consumable fire lighting method (unlike a bow drill or a fresnel lens) so even the best prepared will eventually run out (unless they are making their own, but in a survival scenario where it matters, this is very unlikely). People often see matches as a reliable, default fire lighting system, so even if they have others (strikers, lighters, flint and steel etc.) they are likely to be happy to trade for more matches.
Matches are also very small units, not much use on their own (true, only one match can start a fire, but people probably won’t want to barter for just one match at a time) so are effectively a fluid stock of value, very useful for bartering by a weight or number of matches in return for something else.
The best ones by far are variously called ‘NATO’, ‘weather-proof’ and ‘storm’ matches and can be bought in cheaply in bulk and kept loose in a ziploc bag until needed.
Fuels and Refills
Everything comes with battery power these days: flashlights, lanterns, phones, walkie talkies, digital compasses… the list goes on and on. Batteries are going to run out and even rechargeables will get lost, so spare batteries are always a good bargaining. Batteries are relatively small and most appliances take more than one, so are a good fluid asset, but you will likely need a range of different types and sizes for maximum utility.
Motor fuels are literally liquid assets and can be traded in measures with anybody who has a vehivel. This is especially useful since those with vehicles can carry more, so will have more useful stuff to barter with. On the the hand, if you are traveling with a vehicle or stationary and far from a fuel source, you probably want to keep as much fuel as you can (unless you are producing your own) and other vehicle users are likely to do likewise. On foot it would be difficult to carry a useful amount of fuel, so in most circumstances this is perhaps too good a barter item.
Lamp fuel will also be very useful, is needed in smaller quantities, and may be useful to you yourself. Perhaps a better option for barterable fuel.
Ammunition has obvious value in a survival scenario, but it is mentioned here as a warning as much as a recommendation. Unless you completely trust the person with whom you are trading (and if you do, you should probably just stick together and share you resources, not trade and stay separate) then by bartering for ammunition you have lessened your own firepower and increased that of someone you don’t entirely trust. Hmmmm, something doesn’t feel right about that!
There are two sides to this argument though. The other is that anybody who is willing to accept ammunition from you in trade is likely to have some already (they will certainly have a weapon to use the ammunition in, so they probably have some rounds for it too). If they wanted to do you harm, or kill you for your supplies, then they would have done so already and wouldn’t be trading, and if you giving them ammo won’t actually change the dynamics.
It’s your call, but ammo is certainly desirable as a barter item. 9mms are probably the most ubiquitous round out there, so are the best to stockpile for tradeability (unless you lots of people with bows and arrows). Shotgun cartridges are also very popular and can be used for loads of other stuff (easily made into traps, or taken apart for the gunpowder, which can be used in other projects).
Remember to always keep a few rounds for yourself, just in case you do need to shoot back at the other guy!
Tinder and Kindling
On a survival scenario, obviously tinder and kindling are of great use. However, some variety of each can be easily and cheaply foraged in most parts of the world (and where it can’t it is far too valuable to be traded). To counter this, you need to be thinking of bartering the very best fire lighting supplies; things like vaseline-soaked cotton balls (just keep a tub of vaseline and some cotton balls, ready to make up and trade as many as necessary), Zippo tinder sticks, or ready-cut seasoned firewood are very desirable.
Luxuries and Miscellaneous
Skilled Labour (Your Time)
Knowledge weighs nothing, and neither does your time. There is no reason why you can’t trade a service for goods, like fixing someone’s truck in return for some food, or stitching their clothes back together for a bottle of beer.
The most tradeable skills are the ones that most people will want use of, but are unlikely to have themselves: electrical repair, mechanics (especially ‘bush’ mechanics, fixing things with very few tools or materials and lots of improvisation), darning and needlework (fixing people’s clothes, backpacks etc.), teaching survival skills, advanced medical or first aid skills, communication over distance (if you are the only person with a radio, you could rent out its use at a bag of pasta for half an hour), hairdressing and barbering.
Knowledge of a local area (where the best fishing spots or edible plants are) or languages between people who want to talk but can’t (spanish is probably the most common in America) are also good bets.
Books and Reference Material
In a survival situation, knowledge is power. Books like the Ashley Book of Knots, the SAS Survival Guide or edible plant identification books be will invaluable if they can be accessed. Stocking up on hard copies of useful books is good, but the hard copies can be read by one person at once and are heavy to carry around and easy to damage.
On the other hand, a USB stick the size your thumb can hold thousands of ebooks or pdfs. These can be copied and the copies traded for other goods. This way you haven’t actually lost your original barterable asset, but you have still traded it for something else! The downside is that the person to whom you gave it will never need another copy, so you can’t keep trading it with them. To remedy this, you could charge a certain value (say, one bag of rice) for a set amount of time reading your books on a laptop or tablet if you can access one. This could also be done with hard copy books, much like a subscription library.
All addictive substances have what is called ‘inelastic demand’, which means that even if the price suddenly becomes very high, demand is unlikely to fall because the consumers have a habit, addiction or reliance. Vices like this also help people calm down in a high stress survival situation. Dried tobacco keeps well and conveniently can be bought in simple pouches, which are easy to pack (rolling tobacco).
Spectacles, Contact Lenses and Magnifying Glasses
People who need glasses or contact lenses(especially reading or long distance) find it difficult to function without them. Serious stockpilers can realise this and keep stocks, but it can be difficult because different people have very prescriptions. Contact lenses will be much easier to store and carry, but are less popular and hard wearing.
Magnifying glasses are a good substitute for people who need reading glasses, and happen also to be useful for lighting fires.
Precious metals (especially small chains)
Precious metals are desirable and will quickly become a rudimentary form of currency in a survival scenario, which makes them a good long term hedge. Small chains are great because individual links can be cut off and given in trade, whereas a single large gold coin or object would be difficult to break into useable pieces and would lose some of its value n the process.
In a survival situation, everyday items which people normally take for granted can take on a new value, and bartering can be the best way to cash in on it. Long life goods, which are easily broken down into small parts to trade with are best, and could buy that little thing which you forgot about.