SHTF – What It Means, the Likely Causes, and How You Should React

Just the thought of a full-blown collapse of society can be terrifying, but we need to consider it if we’re going to be ready for when it happens.

Many people hear the term SHTF and they aren’t exactly sure what it means. We hear “what does SHTF mean” all the time. It stands for shit hits the fan. It is basically any event that turns your world upside down. That means that the meaning is much more involved than a simple four-letter piece of prepping slang.

Other terms that mean the same thing are TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It), or maybe even just EOTW (End of the World).

There is a lot to consider when you’re thinking about SHTF. For most people, it’s the main driving factor behind why they prep, but it can be completely different depending on who you ask. What you really need to determine is what it means to you.

Once you figure that out, you can really get down to prepping for real. We’ll list a few possible scenarios below that you can look over. Hopefully, they will get you thinking about what you should be prepping for or even convince you that you should be prepping for some kind of emergency event.

Natural SHTF Events

Major natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, and so on are the most common form of SHTF. These are generally events that affect a certain region with outside aid coming in before, during, or shortly after the event is over. Many of these events are so devastating that they leave the area they hit completely uninhabitable for long periods of time, even with outside disaster relief.

If you live in an area where a major natural disaster is likely, you’re probably better off prepping for that first before you try to move on to any of the other SHTF events we discuss. This is for two reasons. First, it’s the disaster that you’re most likely to face. Second, prepping for a natural disaster will likely meet a lot of the requirements for prepping for another type of disaster.

A pandemic or localized epidemic is another reason why some people start prepping. In a scenario like this, disease would spread rapidly through the population. It could be a regional disaster or even a worldwide SHTF. This scenario is especially scary for people since you can’t see a disease coming.

Many of the most deadly diseases have been all but eradicated through vaccinations and other medical breakthroughs. The bad thing is some of these diseases are seeing a resurgence in certain parts of the world. Depending on how the disease is spread, and how deadly it is, this could lead to any number of man-made situations on top of the disease itself!

Solar flares are a natural occurrence on the surface of the sun. Large solar flares can produce massive amounts of electromagnetic energy that travels to the earth at roughly the speed of light. This means that by the time that we can observe these solar flares the electromagnetic energy is also hitting the earth.

When this energy hits power lines they act as antennas, magnifying the power and transferring the energy to transformers and power production plants. This has the potential to bring down power grids across entire continents.

Man-made SHTF Events

Economic collapse happens when something causes the banking system to fail in some way. This could come in the form of hyperinflation, a cyber attack on the banking system itself or a major stock market crash.

A serious economic collapse could make your money worth practically nothing or it could wipe out your life savings. Either way, social unrest and other types of disasters are probably going to be on the way.

With the social and political climate the way it is, large-scale social unrest is very likely. Some would say it’s all but assured. Something as simple as a protest in one city could quickly turn into riots in major cities across the country thanks to social media and news agencies continuously spurring our anger toward each other.

The full-scale collapse of the power grid would devastate the country! This is probably the worst possible SHTF event we could experience. A state-sponsored terrorist organization could conceivably cause an EMP that would take out power in most, if not all, of the United States.

The power grid is even vulnerable to simple gunfire in certain areas. If there was a coordinated attack on remote substations power could be disrupted in certain areas for a long period of time. It’s even susceptible to cyber-attack from our enemies.

A nuclear attack is another catastrophic event that some are prepping for. It seems far-fetched, but just take a look at the world leaders that have access to nuclear weapons…it’s scary when you really take a look at it!

A nuclear attack would have an impact far greater than just where it occurred. It would send the country, and the world, into a panic.

World war is another possible cause of SHTF that seems like it could never occur until you look at our political landscape. The Middle East remains a hot zone where America and our enemies are almost always just a few miles away from starting WWIII.

What Are the Likely Scenarios?

There is a lot of debate about what is most likely to cause a disaster scenario to occur. We’ve spent a lot of time looking through the most likely causes of SHTF and these are the scenarios that we came up with. These are loosely in order from most likely to least likely. Some of these are easy to put ahead of others, but many are hard to put in rank order.

Personal Disasters

Normally when we think about what an SHTF is, we turn to some grand scheme that involves nukes or the overthrow of the government. While those may be possibilities, they’re also not likely to ever occur.

On the other hand, people experience personal disasters every day. These aren’t things that affect all of us, but they’re just as devastating to those that experience them. If you’ve ever lost your job, found out that you have a significant medical problem, lost a close family member, or any number of other things then you know how they can change your life immediately and in a major way.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are a cause of emergency that are almost as common as a personal SHTF. They occur daily all over the world and can have catastrophic effects.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are examples of an SHTF caused by a natural disaster. Smaller, less wealthy, countries suffer more during natural disasters due to their lax or non-existent building codes, high level of poverty and lack of ability to recover from natural disasters.

Areas that are just barely making it before a large natural disaster often never recover from its effects.

Terrorist Attacks

We’re all too familiar with terrorist attacks these days. School shootings, lone wolves inspired by Islamic terror organizations, not to mention the attacks on 9/11 have made it almost commonplace to see terrorist attacks on the news.

These events can be both small and large scale and are becoming more and more common.

Social Unrest

Social unrest used to be thought of mainly as a secondary form of SHTF. This means that it would follow something like an economic collapse, terrorist attack, major cyber-attack or another large-scale event. Now, social unrest is more likely to occur by itself thanks to the supercharged division in the country.

The continued division found in western society is troubling to say the least!

Economic Collapse

America’s national debt is one of the greatest threats we currently face. SHTF from economic collapse has barely been avoided multiple times in the last 20 years.

Economic collapse is another event that will likely follow many of the other disasters. Once there is major uncertainty caused by an SHTF, the stock market is likely to implode and bring the entire banking system down with it!

Cyber Attack

Most developed countries in the world are under cyber attacks every day. If one of these cyber attacks was successful it could cause any number of disastrous events.

They can take down the banking system, compromise military systems, or even cause a total grid-down scenario. As more and more items are connected to the so-called “internet of things” the possibilities are very scary.

Grid Down

A full grid down SHTF event can be caused by an unsettling number of scenarios. An EMP, a cyber-attack, a coronal mass ejection (commonly referred to as a CME), even a coordinated physical attack on certain parts of the grid itself can all bring it down and leave the country in the dark.

America’s power grid is based on decades-old technology that is both aging and difficult to maintain. The parts take months to manufacture and the people and facilities that can do it are limited.

Some studies suggest that a total grid down event would result in the deaths of 90% of the population in the first year. It’s one of the most catastrophic SHTF scenarios that could occur, even worse than a nuclear war!


We’ve all but eliminated many diseases that used to be considered a death sentence just a couple of decades ago. Vaccines and modern medicine have made it feel like a widespread disease is a thing of the past, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Diseases are still the number one cause of death in many parts of the world, the overtreatment of simple colds with antibiotics has brought about strains of disease that are almost impossible to kill and the possibility of biological attacks from terror organizations are always there.

Nuclear Attack

An actual nuclear attack is just about as likely as it has ever been in history. More countries have access to nuclear weapons than ever and the leaders of those countries are more unstable than ever.

A nuclear attack still isn’t likely, but it seems like it’s getting more and more likely as time goes by. The chances could get even worse in the future. State sponsors of terrorism like Iran are seeking nuclear weapons. They may not be able to hit the U.S., but they could hit U.S. military easily. Any nuclear attack would most likely trigger some degree of social breakdown.

Where Are the Places You Should Avoid Following an SHTF?

Major cities are going to be some of the most dangerous areas to be after a true breakdown or disaster. The population density alone makes them more dangerous than other areas. Riots and martial law are likely as more and more of the population figures out what has happened. Regardless of the type of disaster, these are certain places you should avoid at all costs.

When food and water stop in these areas, it is difficult to predict exactly how the population will react. One thing is certain, it won’t be pretty.

Military installations are going to be seen as a potential place for supplies for some and a potential target for others. If the cause of the SHTF event was in some way due to a military event, military bases could be targets of follow on events such as terror attacks or follow on military attacks. If the event was not military in nature, then civilians may try to breach gates and fences in an attempt to find supplies.

Military commanders may also be forced to use some kind of elevated force to subdue intruders and rioters. You don’t want to be caught in anything like that.

FEMA camps will become some of the worst places to be in short order. Government-run refugee camps are the last place that you want to be after a major disaster. They will not only be home to frequent violence and gangs, but they can also lead to the spread of disease as conditions deteriorate as they take on more and more of the unprepared.

You will almost certainly have to give up any weapons that you have with you. Going into a situation like that completely unarmed is how many will die.

Stores are going to be a target of looters. The reason we prepare is so we don’t have to be part of the crowds that are looting stores for weapons, food, and water. There will even be people looting things like TVs and laptops if there is an SHTF.

These people aren’t going to catch on until it’s way too late. By the time that they figure out things have been changed for the foreseeable future, they will become some of the most desperate and violent people out there.

Transportation hubs and infrastructure are another area to avoid. In places like train stations and airports, people will be trying to get out of town or out of the country if they can. Highways will become blocked with bogged down traffic when everyone starts trying to flee to areas that may not be affected. When this occurs, you won’t want to have to cross any bridges or tunnels. Staying off the highway as a whole will be a good idea but it may not be any better in the long run.

Hospitals will be flooded with the injured and needy looking for food, water, shelter, and aid. If the disaster was caused by an epidemic, then the flood of people into hospitals will be even worse. Regardless of the reason for the disaster, staying away from hospitals makes a lot of sense. Hospitals are as much a breeding ground for disease as they are a place to seek medical attention. After a collapse, even minor diseases could be a death sentence.

Prisons and the area surrounding them should be avoided. After a major disaster that causes large scale collapse, it’s uncertain if guards will remain in place, power will be maintained or how the criminals will be dealt with. If they try to contain them then it’s likely that they will have far fewer guards than they need.

The other options are to either release them or leave them in their cells unsupervised. This is going to leave the prison system as a big question mark when it comes to a large-scale disaster.

What You Should Do Immediately After an SHTF

These steps are loosely in order. They can be done simultaneously if you have a whole family working together or you can skip items if they don’t apply to you when things go bad.

Establish security. You can’t do anything if you’re not working from a secure environment. The first thing you should do is secure your bug in location. This will give you and your family a secure location to find out what has actually just happened and start gathering supplies if you need to.

This security can be as simple as making sure you have a pistol readily available to you or as in-depth as posting security in key areas outside your home. Don’t take this step for granted! The last thing you want is to have someone try to get into your house while you’re gathering supplies.

Fill bathtubs/sinks/etc. with water. The thing that most people are in dire need of is more water. Once you’ve secured your area, I’d suggest filling the bathtub and sinks with water. It’s the one thing you can never have too much of. If you still have time when that’s done, start filling pots and pans.

Find out what is really going on. At this point you should be trying to figure out what’s going on. If you have an emergency radio, I’d suggest getting it going. You can also check with neighbors and friends to see what they know. If cell phones are still working, you should use them to make contact with any family members that aren’t home.

Make a plan to get family members home. You should have a plan to get family members home in case of a disaster. If there are plans in place for family members to get home on their own, then you should let those plans play out. Don’t abandon your home to go looking for a family member that is capable of getting home on their own.

A good get home bag makes it much easier for family members to get home!

Bug out if you need to. Bugging out should be the last resort following a disaster. If you’ve made it to that point and you cannot stay at home any longer, then you should leave a message for any family members that come looking for you. Make sure you tell them when you left and where you’re going. If you worried about someone finding the note then write it in a way that will be obvious to friends and family and not make sense to random looters.