No one has to tell you that being able to successfully execute your SHTF plan means being organized down to the last detail. We go to great lengths to make sure we have everything we’ll need to get us through whatever crisis comes our way. We all know that the kits, bags, gadgets, and food are of no use if we can’t find them or if they’ve outlived their usefulness. So, we fold, roll, and stack our goodies and put them in an accessible place where they’ll remain good to go until SHTF.

Sometimes, though, out of sight can also mean out of mind. Some of us, out of habit, take for granted that our bug-out bag and supplies will always be at the ready. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unless your emergency supply consists entirely of nuclear war-resistant Twinkies, a large portion of it has limited shelf life. Some things last longer than others, but eventually everything comes to the end of its edible, usable, and/or effective life. Foodstuffs, batteries, medication and, yes, even water go stale (the latter mostly due to its packaging).

Survival food canned corn

The question then becomes how do we manage our stash so that when there is a crisis event, we’re not getting the trots from noshing on canned veggies whose best days were when the war was cold and Carrie Fisher was hot.

We assume you have a safe, dry place to store everything, and it won’t be piled up in the corner of some junk closet. There are many different storage racks, systems, and DIY projects to store and organize everything, but that’s an entirely different discussion. We’re focusing on managing all those “best by,” “sell by,” and “use before” dates.

If you want to see some pretty efficient shelf life management systems, stroll down to your local BigBuy SuperMegaloMart. These guys live and die by making sure the older stuff goes out and that there’s fresher stuff backing it up. They’ve got it down to a science, literally! Seriously, guys have degrees in that stuff.

Degree? We don’t need no stinking degree! All we need to do is reverse engineer what we see at Wally World.

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Nothing is Random

Organize your supplies according to their use and what they can be used with. It’s no use to arrange everything alphabetically if you end up having sugar right next to the spaghetti. Instead, arrange it with the flour and other baking goods — boom, aisle 15 at your fingertips. Breakfast bars and cereal pair well, all the medical supplies get grouped together, and so on. You should also maintain a category for stuff you plan on using for barter and trade. If you have a large SHTF food supply you may even want to label the locations of your categories, like the aisles at the market.

Old Guys to the Front

Within your organized groups you’ll want to put the items closest to their expiration where you can use them first. Duh, right? But here’s the tricky part — getting line of sight to pending shelf death well before it happens. How many times have you found and tossed cans that have expiration dates with a year starting with 200X?

This technique is often referred to as FIFO, or First In First Out — refer to our previous article for more info.

Rolling can racks, such as this one from, make FIFO organization easier.

Rolling can racks, such as this one from, make FIFO organization easier.

Write it Down

A simple inventory management and expiration date spreadsheet can help you do your part to keep all those less-than-shelf-stable sundries from hitting the landfill. It doesn’t have to look like Apple’s financial prospectus. Simple is better. A column for what it is, one for how much of it you have, one for where it is, and another for the month of the oldest item’s pending demise. Order the list with the items closest to expiration on the top. Don’t forget to include all the items in your bug-out and return-to-home bags.

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All that’s left is to get in the habit of regularly checking the list. You want to have plenty of time to make sure the items with one foot in the grave are taken care of. Mark your calendar, set an alarm, or pick some sort of semiannual event (daylight saving changeovers are handy) that will serve as a reminder to check the list and do it.

Use it or Lose it

A lot of us get in the mindset that our emergency food supply should never be touched except in an emergency. True, but as items reach the end of their lifespan, they should make their way into the pantry for everyday use. If you can’t use it before it expires, consider donating it to a food bank. Just make sure you replace everything with fresher items that … you guessed it … go to the back and everything else moves forward. Adjust your spreadsheet as necessary.

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Managing your inventory needn’t be a complicated or herculean task, but it does take some discipline. Then again, so does making sure you’re prepared for whatever nature or man throws your way.

Shelf Life: A Quick Reference Guide

<5 Years – These are common categories of emergency supplies with a finite shelf life; about five years or less depending on the item and condition of storage:

  • Cheese/soy storable dairy, including powdered eggs
  • Canned foods (commercial or self-canned)
  • Baking goods (sugar, flour, grains)
  • Condiments, peanut butter, jams, and jellies
  • Pastas, grains (such as rice), and legumes (such as beans)
  • Pharmaceuticals/medicines
  • Sports drinks/soda/non-alcoholic and some alcoholic beverages

>5 Years – Items with longer-term effective dates; many are five years and beyond, depending on item and condition of storage:

  • Batteries
  • First-aid supplies
  • Fuel
  • MRE, dehydrated, and freeze-dried foods
  • Seeds, fertilizers, and items for self–sustainability
  • Some alcoholic beverages
  • Ammo
  • Candles
  • Water purification systems

Use By, Sell By, Best Before… What Do They Mean?

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“Sell By”

This date has nothing to with the spoilage of an item, and everything to do with how long the seller wants it to stay on the shelf. It’s not mandatory to label items with a “sell by” date. That being said, if you want the best of what’s on the shelf (freshness, taste, brand-consistent quality) and to avoid the one that’s been looking for a home the longest, reach to the back.

“Best By”

This too has nothing to with the shelf stability or safety of an item. This is kind of like the manufacturer’s booty-covering move, telling you how long they feel the quality of their product is at its peak. In some cases there should be a “better if used after” date — think wine, cheese, bourbon, even sour cream can get better with time (gets a little more tangy). Isn’t sour cream, by definition, cream that’s spoiled?

“Guaranteed Fresh Date”

You’ll find this in that piece of heaven we call the bakery department. Items will be edible long after this date, but only some wild wolf-raised heathen would even consider eating a lovingly made double-stuffed chocolate chip cookie a whole 24 hours after it first slid down the wax paper in its fluorescently lit, slightly dusty, 1970-ish display case.

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“Use By”

Again, this date has little to do with the safety or lifespan of the product. It’s just another way for the manufacturer to suggest when they think it’ll taste better. Seems like a marketing scam to get you to replace perfectly good stuff you forgot to use.

“Expires After” AKA “Effective Until”

This is the big one! You’ll most likely find this on pharmaceuticals. Does it mean if you eat a Flintstone chewable from the Bush administration you’ll die some horrible Ebola-like death? Probably not. In 1979, the U.S. government required drug companies to stamp an expiration date on their products. It is what the drug company has determined to be the lifespan of the drug’s full potency, not the point at which it’s no longer effective. In fact, the FDA did a study and found 90 out of 100 prescription and OTC drugs they tested were perfectly good to use even after 15 years. With the exception of nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, medical authorities say most drugs maintain effectiveness for years.

Smells like another marketing ploy to get us to throw out perfectly good feel-good pills and buy the new “feel better because they’re fresher” pills. Caveat: you should store medications in a cool, dry place out of the sunlight to extend effective dates. Do not use medicine that requires refrigeration after it’s warmed to room temperature (talk to your local pharmacist).

So how do we really know when something actually has gone bad? The “Honey, smell this” test is a tried-and-true method. If it smells funky, doesn’t look right, has a furry layer of mold, or your cat just died after accidentally eating it, exercise your good judgment. When in doubt, toss it out.

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