“SHTF” is a time-worn and borderline cliché prepper acronym we have all heard, seen and continue to hear and see daily in prepping circles. What will you do when the SHTF? Where will you go when the SHTF? Has the SHTF? It never ends.

Even so, it is an important concept. In case you have been sadly out of the loop for the past couple of decades, “SHTF” stands for Shit Hits The Fan, a vulgar euphemism for things going well and truly pear-shaped; FUBAR, sky is falling, hell on wheels, you name it.

A SHTF event is one where your daily survival necessities are no longer guaranteed, where the typical social order is suspended or heavily disrupted, where help in the form of emergency services is not available and where government intervention is either useless or part of the problem.

In this article, I’ll offer my thoughts on the matter.

Small Fans and Large Fans

Disaster is a matter of perspective, I suppose, and perception being what it is in this day and time with everything, every word, concept and interpretation rendered hideously malleable by the current cultural zeitgeist, it makes sense that event the concept of disasters would be subjected to the same.

A common car crash, however bad the effects on life, limb and property, is not a disaster and never will be unless the car crashed into a tanker full of nuclear waste and knocked it into a nearby river.

That has not stopped some people from treating car wrecks like “serious” SHTF events. And one could say they are if you treat SHTF as shorthand labeling for any event that requires you to employ emergency skills at any level.

How about the destructive crash of some larger conveyance? How about a train? I say that is not a SHTF event, either. How about a jetliner crash? I still say no, though the passengers aboard the doomed vessel hurtling toward terra firma would doubtlessly dispute my assertion. So what does qualify as a SHTF event in my eyes?

For me, it is a matter of scale, and not simply in property damage or lives lost, or the potential for either. A real, SHTF scenario will affect almost every facet of your day to day existence for some time going into the future.

How long that disruption lasts being of course dependent on the intensity of the event, its reach and any other of the thousands of potential variables that keep society knit together and recognizably functioning as such in 2019 America.

Severity Counts

As a ‘for instance,’ one could say that a powerful natural disaster would qualify as a SHTF event. Landfall of a severe and powerful hurricane could qualify as a SHTF event without question.

One need only look at the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Andrew in the not too distant past to get a glimpse into the dystopian misery awaiting us. Natural disasters of many kinds, if severe enough, if they strike the right place at the right time, could do much the same.

But if one were to drive far enough outside the majorly affected area, one would probably see life as normal chugging on without a care in the world, save perhaps a rise in lumber and gas prices. I would not say an event has to have a truly regional or even national area of effect to qualify as a SHTF incident.

Disruption of Society

Anything you can walk away from and go get a burger after or go to get groceries after is certainly not a SHTF event. SHTF events by any measure should disrupt society almost entirely, or rather disrupt our day-to-day “normal.”

If you cannot turn a switch and expect electricity, cannot open a tap to get clean water and cannot expect waste in any form to be vacated from the premises, you are dealing with a SHTF event.

If you cannot reliably call on the cavalry in the form of EMS, police and fire responders, you are likely living in a SHTF scenario (or a major American city). If everyone has to seriously start relying on bartering and get deals done before returning home to meet a curfew, you are likely dealing with a true SHTF event. If you are fleeing rampant pillaging and looting, or a city on fire with no end in sight before it turns to ash, you are dealing with a SHTF event.

A major prolonged breakdown of any and especially multiples of the above facets of our societies should be considered herald enough for a true, blue SHTF instance.

A power outage lasting a half hour to an hour is not. A protest that turns violent and gets put down harshly is not. A freak fire that burns down a handful of buildings is not.

When the bad things we take for granted as taken care of start going unopposed unless you oppose them yourself, that is a SHTF situation.

Reach and Area of Effect

A SHTF event that affects a handful of people cannot be said to be a true SHTF event. You and three friends who get irretrievably lost in bear country while out joy hiking are in the shit now, for certain, but it is not a SHTF event, even when Yogi and Boo-Boo come sniffing around.

There will be people, authorities, friends, family, looking for you. Helicopters will be scrambled. Dog teams deployed. Rangers on four wheelers. The works.

An entire town a couple of hours away from a major metropolis that is left to rot and fend for themselves because what functioning government is left is triaging the situation and deploying all available resources to keep command and control facilities, government institutions and critical supplies and infrastructure solvent? Oh yeah, that would definitely qualify as a SHTF situation.

Essentially, the more people that have to say to themselves in chilling realization “No one is coming. I am on my own,” the more likely it is that you are facing a true SHTF scenario.

Paradigm Shifting Events

As awful as some things are, like city-wide riots and cataclysmic natural disasters, as much havoc as they spread, as much damage as they do and as many lives as they claim, they are not what I denote as paradigm shifting events, a sure symptom of a SHTF situation.

Flood waters will recede. Things will eventually dry out. Rubble will be swept away, bodies will be hauled off to be disposed of, power lines reconnected and life will eventually go back to normal.

So what do I mean by paradigm shift? When a paradigm shift occurs, things don’t go back to normal. It might mean a technological regression, a near-permanent loss of modern commodities, or living under the constant burden of some new threat or vulnerability.

A great example of a paradigm shifter is something like a typically imagined cataclysmic EMP that wipes out much of or the entire nation’s electronics and electrical grid.

Author R. William Forstchen imagined this precise scenario in stunning detail in his speculative fiction novel One Second After. Give it a read. You’ll get some inkling of just how irrevocably things will change in the aftermath of such an event.

So much of what we assume is “just the way things are” will vanish, permanently, with one stroke of fate. Something similar will happen in the wake of a nuclear exchange, major asteroid impact, or super volcano detonation.

As an example that most will understand, a paradigm shift would undoubtedly occur if zombies were to rise from their grave or aliens were to invade.

A paradigm shift is knowing, “Things will never be the same.” Whatever caused it is definitely a SHTF event.

Government Conflict

Any time a widespread, regimented crackdown is inflicted on citizens by their government that qualifies as a SHTF event unto itself. History furnishes ample examples of how badly and how quickly violence and loss of life and freedom happens when things finally boil over.

Even at the state level, it is all too easy for the government to start infringing on basic rights and liberties, imprisonment and executions being the hallmarks of tyranny.

Even for those outside of conflict zones, disruptions to travel, commerce and utilities can quickly turn a scuffle into a proper siege at the larger scale.

Checkpoints, inspections and constant stress will lead to flaring tempers, overreactions and the spilling of more blood and subsequently tighter restrictions. Your staples and essentials are now officially no longer guaranteed thanks to localized sanctions.

These things have a way of snowballing, especially in the histories of Western nations. We don’t generally do sustained, low-level, brushfire conflict, preferring instead to let things become intolerable before our animosity erupts in an orgy of violence that changes the course of history and the lives of the surviving populace forever after.

If the tree of liberty must be refreshed with blood, you can be certain of SHTF.

All Together

To me, a SHTF event is one that not only sends you scrambling to respond, but will put you and everyone else in your area, and probably your region, in prolonged mortal peril.

Your basic survival requirements, and I mean the necessities- clean air, shelter from the elements, clean water for drinking, food- will no longer be guaranteed unless you are clever enough and prepared enough to provide them.

The institutionalized trappings of a functional society will be strained past the breaking point or just cease to exist. The uneasy quasi-truce between the rabid dogs of society, criminals, and the rest of us will disappear, and the natural law will once again take precedence.

What is yours will only stay that way of you can keep it. Your next meal will only be ready if you provide it. Your continued existence will no longer be guaranteed by default barring a fluke. Survival, real moment-to-moment, day-to-day survival is the new normal. The Way Things Were is the simultaneous plea and eulogy on everyone’s lips.

Diseases that are rendered powerless by modern medicine will reassert themselves with fury. Death will harvest his grim crop in ways that were once laughable inconveniences. Infection from a scratch. A fever gone unchecked. Parasites. A rotten tooth.

Medieval ailments will once again spell nearly certain doom. There will be no competing pleasures to occupy your time. Every moment will mean another minute of life, earned, or a squandered opportunity in the face of the encroaching night.

When things have changed so utterly for the worse that your most fervent wish is full bellies and a warm, safer place to sleep next to your loved ones, that’s when you’ll know you the Shit has well and truly Hit the Fan.


The term SHTF should be reserved for major events that severely threaten lives and the fabric of society, not localized disasters and crises no matter how bad they are.

While events that mortally imperil you, even for days at a time, are scary and might be the penultimate test of your life, they are still likely not true SHTF situations.

Try not to water down the import of a term that should be reserved for properly cataclysmic situations by tossing it out every time a riot occurs or a tornado touches down.

what is shtf pinterest image

This content was originally published here.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *