5 Ways To Measure Foods Without A Scale

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as a scale, but there was definitely the need to measure the weight of food and goods without a scale for the sake of sale and barter. Systems were developed that were used for centuries until rudimentary scales were invented.

Now, of course, we have scales that can measure to the zillionth of an ounce, but what happens if SHTF and we don’t have batteries or power to run those scales?

We probably would go back to the old ways of measuring. There are still old fashioned grain and livestock scales and more could be built, but not everybody will have access to one. So, what would those people do? We’ve studied some alternate ways to measure your food and goods without a scale.

Way back in Babylonian and Egyptian times when it was necessary to measure the capacity or volume of a container, seeds were used but that seems a bit time consuming for what we’re looking for.

Let’s step forward in time a bit. Just a tidbit of useless info regarding this though: that’s where the term “carat”, which is still used to measure stones, came from: the carob seed.


bushelsThis is no doubt a measurement that will come back into regular use. It used to just be that a bushel was a bushel basket full of whatever you were buying and that may be fine.

At first it was items that didn’t vary in size much such as grain, ale and wine, but then it began to be used for other agricultural items such as corn, potatoes, apples, etc.

Though bushels were historically measured differently depending upon location, we did find one that’s simple and would be easy to use post-SHTF. The US customary unit was based on dry capacity and defined a bushel as four pecks or 8 gallons.

Since corn, apples, potatoes and other fruits and veggies vary in size, a modern bushel is measured in weight, but if we need to go back to older methods of measuring for trade, a bushel basket full worked for centuries.

Make Your Own Scale

weighing scales You’ve surely seen the scales of justice with the fulcrum on top of a pole and the two little plates dangling from either end of the fulcrum.

This would be pretty simple to build on either a small scale to measure such things as the ingredients for baking, or on a large scale to measure bags of grain, etc.

You would need something that you already know the weight of. For smaller items, that’s pretty simple. One ounce equals 5 quarters, 28 paperclips or 1 CD.

A liquid ounce equals 1/8 of a cup. To weigh larger items, a gallon of water weighs eight pounds. A good way to remember water weight is the old saying, “a pint’s a pound the world around”.

Of course, there will still be quart and pint jars around as well as 5-gallon buckets, at least for a while. In the worst-case, apocalyptic situation, new ways to measure items for sale or barter will undoubtedly arise.

Weighing and Measuring a Cow

Today, livestock are weighed using a livestock scale or the meat is weighed after it’s off the cow. The problem here is that not very many people actually own a livestock scale and we wouldn’t necessarily have a scale to measure the meat.

There is a tape that you can use to measure around the cow and it will tell you approximately how much your cow weighs. This would be a handy tool to put in your barn in your medicine kit.

If you don’t have one, there’s another way. For this to be most accurate, it’s best to take the measures when the cow has been without water for 12 hours. Unfortunately, you’re going to need a copy of a chart. This should be in your medicine kit, too if it’s how you’re planning to measure your animals.

Measure the circumference, known as the heart girth, of the cow immediately behind his front legs. Next, measure the length of the cow by starting at the front of chest right in front of the muscle at the top of his forearm and ending at the base of his tail.

Now break out your calculator and square the heart girth measurement. In other words, if your cow measures 36 inches around, multiply 36×36. Next, take this number (in this case, 1,296), and multiply it by the length, then divide that number by 300. That’s your cow’s approximate weight.

Be aware though that this isn’t super accurate because different breeds carry more weight than others. Dairy cows, for instance, tend to carry less muscle and fat than beef cattle.

Weighing and Measuring a Pig

Just as with measuring a cow, you’re going to need a fabric tape measure or a string that you can measure using a steel tape measure. Place the string around the pig just behind its front legs and measure his circumference to get the heart girth measurement. Next, measure the pig down his spine from the between his ears to the base of his tail.

To calculate the pig’s weight, square the heart girth measurement. Multiply that number by the pig’s length, then divide that by 400. That will give you a pretty close estimate of your pig’s weight.


eyeball measureYup, you can measure things just by practicing. For instance, when women needed to measure salt but didn’t have a measuring spoon, she’d use her palm. If you cup your palm and pour enough salt into the pit of your palm until it’s about an inch across, that’s about a teaspoon.

A pinch of salt between your thumb, forefinger and second finger is about 1/8 of a teaspoon. Two of those are a ¼ teaspoon. A mound in your palm the size of a quarter is a 1/2 teaspoon, and we already discussed a teaspoon. Oh, and the depression in the bottom of a soda or beer can? That holds exactly 1 tablespoon. Cool, huh?

Try it out for yourself. Practice with pinches all the way up to a tablespoon. If nothing else, it will save you some time when you’re cooking!

Now that you have some ideas for how to measure your foods and goods without a scale, go practice. Get a tape for your cattle or your pigs and get some bushel baskets. They’re great for storing things in and may come in handy if you every need to measure things if SHTF and you don’t have access to modern measuring tools.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments section below!


This article has been written by Theresa Crouse for Survivopedia

Written by

Theresa Crouse is a full-time writer currently living in central Florida. She was born and raised in the hills of West Virginia, where she learned to farm, hunt, fish, and live off the land from an early age. She prefers to live off the grid as much as possible and does her best to follow the “leave nothing behind but footprints” philosophy. For fun, she enjoys shooting, kayaking, tinkering on her car and motorcycle, and just about anything else that involves water, going fast, or the outdoors.

Latest comments
  • I appreciate all the work you’ve put into surviability. I think it is important and a gift. You clearly are all about making it available for all I wish you just didn’t have to bash the government, big government and Obama. There are already enough people discouraged enough to quit voting. However changing policy only happens through elections. As long as we have a government who is in office matters.

    • Ellen, I appreciate your sentiments but our government is corrupt. From Obama down. Our votes mean nothing these days. Everything is decided by the money people. Yes I still vote, but I also realize that it really doesn’t mean much but it’s the principle that matters. Just look at what has happened in the last 8 years. Our nation has gone from the greatest in the world to the most hated in the world. We can only blame the politicians and those behind the scenes that are truly pulling the strings. I am a veteran and I did not risk my life for what America is today.

    • Eileen, I agree that voting is important, but when some voting precincts report 160% turnout and it doesn’t get investigated, something is terribly wrong with the system. My grandmother voted Republican until the day she died, and she has voted Democrat ever since!

  • Actually the best system of measure, even (or especially) in a shtf situation, is still the metric system.

    It’s pre-industrial, so it’s easy to generate on one’s own.

    The traditional, though not the modern scientific, definition of 1 kilo is simply the amount of water that fits in a cube that measures 10 centimeters per side, at room temperaure. Everyone has water and most all rulers or measuring tapes have cms. on one side of them.

    Fom there, it would be extremely simple to develop wheights both larger and smaller than 1 Kg. Having those, it’s fairly simple to develop weighing scales, as you state n your article.

    • For liquids, you can convert teaspoons into ml by remembering that 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml. (Check out your medication dosing cups.)

  • Another simple way to develop measurements is to buy some weights. I have a set of gram weights to calibrate my scales as well as weights from 1 to 10 lbs. We also have measuring cups that display ounces as well as cups and fractions of cups. With these you can use your idea of making your own scales with known weights. Also anyone with a set of weights for body building has a good start because these are known weights. I can’t see these simple measuring tools we already have disappearing in a SHTF scenario. I am not discounting your article just adding to it. I appreciate all you do and the information you provide. As Ellen pointed out they are like gifts so thank you very much.

  • Get a fish scale. There are probably more than one size. Get a BIG one and a little one. They don’t run on batteries. And to Eileen What does your comment have to do with this article. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!

  • I am the age that metric was not taught in school so that doesn’t help me… and if it comes to having to buy by weight then whatever hits the fan will be too much for most…Just be prepared, I am…food, water, ammo, medical, and survival skills. GET PREPARED…now… And I agree that there is no need to continue to bash our govt…Even though I can’t stand the current administration and would NEVER vote for them…some are not that way.
    Good Luck, and Get prepared now…

  • The metic system is NOT the best system to use in a SHTF situation.
    how can you accurately measure ¼ or 1/8 of a piece of, for example, a baguette of bread? Its easy in the imperial system just cut it in half then half again for ¼and in half again for 1/8.
    Or a ¼ a can of gunpowder, or a quarter of a cheese wheel?
    The imperial system developed out of practicality.
    The metric system was developed by technical people for technical reasons and bears little relation to the everyday real world

    A mile a minute is easy to comprehend; 0.6 miles a minute not as easy.
    It’s 100° out is easy to visualize as pretty hot and sweaty; 37.77° doesn’t carry the same message.

    • Dear Grintch:

      You are absolutely entitled to your opinion (as is everyone else), but practically the whole world begs to differ.

      It is clear hat you have never attempted to understand, much less use, the metric system.

      No one says 0,6 miles a minute unless they are trying to relate back to the “imperial” system. They measure in kilometers. As in 1 Km a minute, or whatever the speed they’re measuring is.

      In the metric system, 32°F and 212°F are meaningless (why these two whimsical numbers anyway?). On the other hand, 0°C is freezing and 100°C is boiling. Etc., etc.

      But to each his own. In a SHTF (possibly not-so-distant) future, those who survive will be so isolated, that if one group decides to use Egyptian Cubits or the Babyonian system based on 60, it will not affect anyone else.

      In the meanwhile, practically the entire planet (including all English-speakng countries except most, but not all, in the U.S.) uses the metric system because those who have taken the time to understand it, have found it more practical for weighing both liquids and solids, for distances, temperatures, etc. because with the system those concepts from the world around us are all interrelated. It is a holistic system that ties us into our world and helps to give it meaning.

      • JFY, I understand what both you AND grintch are saying; while the metric system is more scientific and exact, not to mention inter-related between measuring solids, liquids and temperatures, some things in the everyday world are more easily thought of in the older way, especially if that’s what you’re used to. The base of the metric system is derived from the wavelength of Hydrogen (1 meter) and the freezing and boiling points of H2O (water) as in 0 degrees Celsius is the freezing point and 100 degrees Celsius is the boiling point. Every other metric measurement is derived from these two constants, which is pretty handy scientifically and perhaps industrially on a large scale, but when the SHTF, people are going to revert to what they are used to and most comfortable with, which, in the U.S., is standard measurements, except for, perhaps, whatever left-over medical dealings are left. If there are any functioning scientific activities going on, which will be unlikely or rare, I’m sure they will be using the Metric system.

        • Actually the original definition for 1 meter was one ten millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator. You have 10,000 kilometers from the north pole to the equator, and each km has 1,000 meters.
          Many people are familiar with the metric system on a day to day basis.
          However, if something big happens, as you say here and I mentioned above, the survivors will choose whatever they’re used to. Some might choose the metric system and possibly most will choose the “Imperial” system. Others may even invent something new.
          Whatever systems are chosen by the survivors, I hope they serve them well.

  • There are other measuring devices that you always have available, don’t have to buy and are fairly accurate. For instance, from the tip of your finger to your nose is about 3 feet, an adult foot is around 12 inches, the spread from your thumb to your little finger is about 6 inches, a step can be from 2.5 feet to 3 feet depending on how tall you are. Of course, if you are looking for a really accurate measurement, these won’t work, but for estimating with no other tools available, these work and there are others as well. Just get your measuring device and see what you can come up with. I learned these tips from gardening. I use a hoe handle that has been marked in inches with a felt tip marker as well as the entire length of the hoe.

    • I was in high school band, and as a result I learned to march eight steps to five yards (“8 to 5”), and I have discovered that if I picture myself as marching, even 35 years later, I still maintain eight steps to every five yards, which comes in handy from time to time, despite being a mathematically ambiguous combination.

  • As has been said in the replies here, it will be what is accepted in the local area. As a country girl who lived in the city and has returned to how she was taught. I teach hand measurements and the normal tools I have around. Have a new recipe? or new instructions? I do it the measured way and then adapt it to the ole fashion ways. Seems the younger people (20ish thru 40ish) are wanting to learn how. Thanks for the post since I can use this as a reference for some I’d forgotten. 🙂

  • First off, a COW is a female. When referring to male and females of the species, they are bovines or cattle. A cow is never male. Female calves are heifers, male calves are bulls unless they have been castrated, then they become steers.