It doesn’t matter if you have been prepping for your whole life or just for a week you have no doubt heard of the term “SHTF”. Peppers wonder about when it will happen, how big it will be, and what they will do when it does occur.
But what you might not know even if you know what the acronym stands for is what kind of event, precisely, constitutes “SHTF” status.
SHTF is an acronym that stands for “Shit Hits the Fan”, indicating a situation that is extremely disruptive to the current social paradigm.
A SHTF event describes a situation where you won’t be able to rely on emergency services, where government efforts to contain the situation either do no good or make things worse, and where you are no longer guaranteed to obtain survival necessities like food, water and shelter. A SHTF event is extraordinarily disruptive to the day to day social order and is likely to see your fellow citizens panic or act irrationally.
It sounds like that could describe almost any kind of disaster. It can if you try, but many preppers toss around aimlessly the term to describe any emergency great or small.
This dilutes the meaning of SHTF, and if a term can mean almost anything then it has no meaning at all.
In the sections below, I will help you put a finer point on the SHTF terminology so that you may not only use it responsibly but also learn what constitutes a genuine SHTF situation.
Emergencies, Disasters and Catastrophes
If you ask 10 different preppers what SHTF means, you will likely get 10 different definitions.
Our language today, already made highly fluid and amorphous thanks to our changing culture, is further tormented by people’s own internal dictionaries containing what they think a word should be.
Obviously, the prepper glossary is subjected to these same vagaries as well.
Not everything bad that happens, even very suddenly, qualifies as a true disaster.
When you think about the plethora of bad things that can go wrong you will come up with things ranging from an incidental cut or scratch at home or a tumble down the stairs all the way through really rough stuff like car crashes and home invasions, and all the way up to society- and landscape-altering events like pandemics, hurricanes, earthquakes and massive civil unrest.
Consider the scale of the event that you are facing: I would argue that something like a household accident or a car crash is definitely NOT an SHTF event no matter how jarring, injurious or scary it is for the people involved.
Life simply goes on for everyone not involved in the accident; society doesn’t come to a screeching halt.
Even something truly terrifying like a home invasion does not fit the classic definition of an SHTF situation; it will certainly affect the occupants of a home, and might even terrify the neighborhood, but it does not affect society on any greater level and your day-to-day expectation of goods and services really will not change in the aftermath.
I assert that a real, dyed-in-the-wool SHTF scenario is one that disrupts and alters almost every single element of daily life indefinitely going forward.
They will rarely have a precisely defined endpoint, and the ripples in society that they create are felt at least at the statewide or even regional level, perhaps beyond.
In short, a real SHTF event turns life upside down placing you in “survival mode” for a long period of time.
Certain powerful disasters are SHTF events all on their own. One only has to look back a few years to see how much damage both to structures and to society that certain acts of nature can do.
From earthquakes in Central America and across the Pacific Rim in Asia to record-breaking mammoth hurricanes striking the Gulf and East Coasts that leave entire regions crumbling or flooded with very little in the ways of supplies or help coming in any effective way.
Major disasters of this type can also leave people rightly afraid of the depredations of their fellow man.
Without the rule of law, the more opportunistic and predatory elements of society will have a field day looting, robbing, and committing other crimes at will.
Even otherwise good people who are driven to the edge by desperation may do things that are extremely out of character for them, but nonetheless bad for your continued survival chances.
Events of this magnitude may not affect an entire country, especially one as big as the United States or say Russia, for instance, but you will have to drive for quite a way to get outside the area affected to find life going on normally.
Even in that case, the impact of major natural disasters can cause supply shortages far outside of the affected area. Any natural disaster that has a truly regional impact certainly qualifies as an SHTF event.
Impact on Society, Services and Commerce
If any emergency occurs, in the aftermath you can dust yourself off, bandage your wounds and go right back to your normal day-to-day life of going to the movies, getting groceries and attending social functions you can be assured you are not dealing with a SHTF event.
By nature, events of this magnitude will bring most daily tasks to a screeching halt, replacing them only with need: the need for food, the need for shelter, the need for security.
Aside from the most temporary outages, the suspension or overwhelming of emergency services is a typical indicator of a true SHTF event.
If police, fire departments and emergency medical responders are too busy dealing with the event and its aftermath to help you, you might be dealing with the SHTF.
If normal commerce disappears to be replaced by the time-honored standard of bartering with useful goods or even precious metals you are very likely living in a real SHTF situation.
If you are fleeing your home and cannot foresee circumstances in which you may return, for there is no town left to return to in the aftermath, you are probably dealing with an SHTF situation.
The more of these disruptive factors that are present at once during a disaster, the more likely it is that you are dealing with a true SHTF event.
Local, Regional, National or Global Effect?
Real SHTF events affect far more than just a handful of people. Entire populations must be affected at the outset to qualify for SHTF status.
If you and a handful of friends are going on an ATV tour of the backcountry before a crash sees two of you suffer bone-breaking injuries, that is certainly an emergency and very likely a survival situation, but not a true SHTF event.
Sure, you can say it has hit the fan for you personally, but chances are you can depend on help coming, and a rescue operation being mounted one way or the other.
If your hometown is left to fend for itself in the wake of a situation that is unfolding at a national or even global level, that is something totally different.
Your government is likely going to be sharpening their pencil and deciding who can be left to go without care, aid or assistance while prioritizing resources, manpower and funds for the cities and industries that they just cannot live without.
That is a hallmark of SHTF situations…
It is a pretty easy thing to determine when you are in SHTF territory just by assessing or determining how many people are being affected by the event in question, or the second and third order effects of the event that is affecting you.
The broader the reach of the event, the more likely it is that you are dealing with an SHTF scenario.
One of the most obvious and thankfully rarest indicators that you’re dealing with an SHTF event is when it causes a real paradigm shift. What is a paradigm shift?
In short, when things don’t go back to normal, when the pieces don’t fit back together the way they should, and when some things you used to take for granted in life are gone seemingly forever. That is a paradigm shift.
After the worst tornado, after the most destructive flood and the most intense earthquake, things will eventually go back to normal for the most part. Rubble will be cleared. The dead will be buried.
Power and water services will be restored, and habitation will be repaired or rebuilt. Assuming the entire populace was not wiped out, life will resume in a recognizable normal fashion.
A paradigm-shifting event will not be like that. It will cause so much destruction or be so uniquely disruptive that life just will not return to normal. You’ll see entire communities dissolve in the face of mounting damage, death and lack.
Certain goods and services will disappear entirely for the foreseeable future. There will be a palpable sense of vulnerability and exposure that did not exist prior to the onset of the event.
What kind of event are we talking about that could cause so much disruption and regression?
One commonly feared and certainly well-known example is something like a major nuclear exchange between superpowers.
Not only would this be a cataclysm unto its own right, it would usher in World War III as a certainty, no matter how brief the subsequent war lasted.
The impact on society all around the world would be massive, and immediate. The ecological damage alone, assuming humanity survived such an onslaught in any kind of recognizable shape, would completely change the way we live.
This is truly the stuff of nightmares, and it is all too plausible.
Other events that might qualify as paradigm shifters are things like super-volcano eruptions, major meteorite or asteroid impacts, coordinated EMP strikes, a mass release of chemical or biological weapons, or other similarly deleterious catastrophes.
When you know that things will never go back to normal, you will know for sure that you are dealing with an SHTF event.
Another obvious indicator of the shit hitting the fan is a government properly turning against its people.
There are dozens upon dozens of examples of this nefarious behavior strewn all throughout human history, and I don’t need to get into them here.
I’ll bet any amount of money that you already have a handful of examples in mind. Loss of freedom, loss of property, incarceration or even death are all the calling cards of a tyrannical government crackdown.
These types of incidents usually don’t happen all at once.
Even in smaller countries or at state level the government will start to nibble away rights and liberties here and there, people will be incarcerated or fined for things that would have been out of the question prior to the onset.
Before you know it, people are being rounded up and disappeared or executed.
Government tyranny is a common herald of war and rebellion. And even those in “loyalist” areas far from the conflicted front will feel the strain. Commerce will be greatly reduced or even halted. Utilities may no longer be guaranteed.
Martial law will be one of the few guarantees you can look forward to, along with roadblocks, unannounced inspections and curfews, possibly enforced at gunpoint.
If the people are taking up arms and scrambling to both survive and resist their government’s tender ministrations you know you are dealing with an SHTF event.
What a SHTF Event Might Look Like
Whatever the spark is, whatever starts the blaze, a shit hit the fan event is one that will scare you if you have any sense at all.
No matter how prepared you are before it starts, you immediately start worrying about where you can get more of the things you need, the things you really need: water, food, medicine, guns, ammo, shelter, fuel for vehicles, fuel for heating and so forth.
You know instinctively that providing all of the above is now solely on you, your wits and your skills.
The fraying at the edges of society will be brought into stark and immediate contrast. Law enforcement will likely fail to keep the monsters lurking at the edges of society at bay.
You will no longer be able to trust strangers and defending you and yours along with what you have against those who would take from you will become a daily, and more importantly nightly, concern.
The law of the jungle will be the only law of the land for the foreseeable future.
What you have does not necessarily belong to you, not anymore. It belongs to whoever wants it the most, and is only yours so long as you can keep it.
In accordance with this new law, nature itself will be doing its best to kill you. Diseases and injuries that were once laughable inconveniences back when we had our lofty perches will now be very serious business.
Infection will claim untold lives. Something as simple as an abscessed tooth could spell an agonizing death. A broken bone may be a slower death sentence still.
When no one arrives to clear away the rubble, when the sirens go silent permanently and when whispered fears and rumors are the only news there is, when you instinctively know that your continued survival is no longer a guarantee buoyed by the success of our society and our technology, when you know that your death is no longer a fringe possibility but drawing closer all the time if you don’t find a way to push it back, you will know you are dealing with an SHTF event.
The term SHTF is best applied to major disasters and other incidents which will disrupt societies at a regional, national or global level. It is not a label that applies to accidents or events that endanger only a handful of people, no matter how dangerous they might be.
A SHTF event is a major test of your survival capabilities, and will be a life-altering event. Do not dilute the import of the term by using it as shorthand to describe any bad turn of events.
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.