Feeding yourself off the land can be a challenge even in favorable conditions and is one of the most important bushcraft skills to learn. It takes a good knowledge of local plants and animals as well as the ability to actually catch or gather them to make a meal. The field of bushcraft has lots of ways to make this easier. For more basic information on getting started with Bushcraft, check out our article HERE.
Bushcraft Skills: Foraging for edible plants
Being able to forage for your dinner requires an in depth knowledge of the plants in your area. You need to know not only what you CAN eat but also what you CAN’T eat.
What to look for
- Roots and tubers: Roots and tubers are found in the soil underneath the vine or stalk of a plant. They are very nutritious but usually require cooking or boiling. Potatoes, yams, and onions are all either roots or tubers.
- Grasses: The young whitish tips of many grasses are edible and often palatable. They can be eaten raw
- Seeds & Nuts: The seeds and nuts of many plants are edible and provide a good source of nutrition. If you taste a seed or nut and it has a bitter or acidic quality it is probably not safe to eat. Frequently seeds and nuts can be made safe to eat by soaking them for 12 hours in water or boiling.
- Fruit & Berries: We are used to seeing fruit in our supermarkets on a regular basis but it is important to note that the apples, pears, and bananas we consume are the product of thousands of years of cultivation by farmers. Many berries and fruits found in the wild can be harmful if eaten. Generally any fruit that is red in color should be avoided. Unless you are sure a fruit or berry is safe to eat these are best avoided.
- Leaves: The leaves of many plants are edible both raw and after boiling. Some palatable ones to seek out are watercress and nettles (be careful when picking nettles as they can sting), both of which often grow near freshwater streams. Beware leaves that have a strong bitter taste.
Things to avoid:
An important part of bushcraft foraging is knowing what to avoid. Remember that there are exceptions to every rule so it is best to educate yourself about your local plants as much as possible. Here are some general guidelines to follow.
Bad smelling plants – If a plant, or fruit has an off putting smell it is probably not ideal to eat. Out sense of smell has evolved over thousands of years to warn us against dangerous foods. Avoid anything that smells distasteful.
Taste of almond – This is usually an indication of the presence of prussic acid which is toxic to humans. It can sometimes be removed by boiling the plant. If you can no longer taste the almond bitterness after boiling or soaking it is probably safe. Be sure to safely discard the water you boiled the plant in.
Acidity or Bitterness – Any plant that tasted extremely bitter or “hot” should be avoided. This is a typical sign that it will make you sick or worse.
The Color Red – Seeing red leaves or fruit is a likely sign that a plant is dangerous to us. There are some exceptions of course (strawberries, apples) but unless you KNOW a red plant or fruit is safe avoid it at all costs.
Fungus – There are some mushrooms out there that are edible and even tasty. However these can be hard to differentiate between their lookalike toxic cousins. Again, unless you are SURE a mushroom is edible it is best to not eat them at all.
But what if?
If you are uncertain if something is edible or not and out of options the general approach is to taste a small bite of it WITHOUT swallowing it. If it tastes OK (no bitterness or strong acidity) then swallow a small sample and wait 1 hour. If not unpleasant reaction occurs it is safe to eat more. Again, this approach is a last resort. You are better off to keep on searching if you have any doubt in your mind.
Also remember that cooking or boiling can reduce or remove bitter tastes and in some cases toxins as well. Again, it is essential to gain knowledge over your local plants to be able to use this option.
Foraging Plants vs. Animals
When every calorie counts, there’s no question: Eating animals is the most efficient path to survival. Plants can offer additional nutrients, flavor, and supporting calories, but generally won’t contain enough calories to sustain you on their own. Most leafy plants will only offer 30-50 calories per ounce of weight. Contrast this with the 200 calories available from a small freshwater fish and 500 calories provided by a single fat squirrel. The numbers grow exponentially for larger game. Nuts, to be fair, do offer a respectable caloric payoff in the neighborhood of 150-200 calories per ounce. Most acorns will need a lot of preparation, but walnuts, beechnuts, and butternuts can be eaten fresh or kept for a few days after being dried in the sun.
Food sources are all around us; no less so when we’re in the backwoods. Regardless of your geographic location, you can rest assured there are plenty of indigenous wild edibles. One of your regular bushcraft projects should be to practice identifying and gathering some of these food items.
When moving in the woods, look constantly for animal sign. Scat, tracks, and eaten plants or nutshells are all indicators of recent animal activity. Gather convenient plants while you’re moving on other tasks; don’t devote valuable time to seeking out these lower calorie foods.
Traps and Snares:
If you’re in a situation that calls for feeding yourself, you’re likely to have a lot of work to do to stay alive. Moving toward safety, tending a fire (learn how to make a self feeding fire HERE!), securing water, and treating injuries take time and calories. Don’t waste either of those precious commodities on actively hunting for one animal at a time. Use snares and traps to multiply yourself. Snares will require wire or cordage. Keeping a few good sections of thin wire in your bushcraft backpack or survival kit is a good idea, and can be one of the more valuable bushcraft tools in a survival scenario.
When placing trap and snare sets, designs are limited only by your imagination. A few of the most common sets are:
- Figure-4 deadfall (video below)
- Basic peg trigger for spring-tree snare (picture above)
- Fish funnel
- Squirrel pole (video also below)
When setting traps, the key is to placing the trigger or snare loop where an animal is likely to hit it. Game trails, particularly those that lead to water or dens, are excellent locations. Place snares directly in the trail with the snare loop a couple inches off the ground at the height of a likely target animal’s head. Traps with baited triggers, like the Figure-4 Deadfall (see the video below), should have some tasty bait rubbed on the bait stick. Food wrappers or mashed up fish or frog parts work well for this.
Be sure to check your sets regularly. Remember, you’re not the only predator in the forest. A handy rabbit in a snare would make quite a good meal for a scavenging coyote. Check out this video on making a Squirrel Pole:
Cleaning and Cooking Game
Once your carefully set traps have secured some food, don’t ruin the payoff with poor processing. It’s important to cleanly skin and gut game to adequately cook and minimize spoiling of the meat. Squirrels and rabbits are easily skinned with just a few knife strokes. Fish can generally be filleted and de-scaled in about the time it takes to peel an apple.
Cooking is a pretty simple affair. Roasting meat on a spit is simple and gets the job done. Fish is generally best grilled on a flat rock facing a fire. If you luck into enough meat to last for longer than one or two meals, consider smoking and drying the meat on a tipi-shaped rack made of green wood and covered with bark. If you want to hone your primitive fire making skills, you can check out our How-To article HERE.
Bushcraft Tools for Wild Edibles:
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When you’re going into the wilderness, make sure an EPIRB is in your bushcraft backpack. From there, a quality knife, plenty of snare wire, a primary and backup fire starter, and a small fabric bag for holding foraged food are all near-necessities.
As you can see, there are really a lot of options for feeding yourself in the wild. As with most areas of survival the ability to do this comes down to knowledge and practice. Many of the trap sets look fairly simple, but hands-on experience will pay off. Integrate these setups into your regular bushcraft projects (but check your local game laws first). Practicing these skills will ensure you’re well prepared when a real need arises.
If foraging is one of the many bushcraft skills you want to master, start by learning about the plants and animals around you and then get out there and try it. I challenge you to try and feed yourself 1 meal from foraged or caught food the next time you head out to the woods!
Do you have a foraging tip you would like to share? What bushcraft skills do you want to learn more about? Please let us know in the Comments Section below, thanks!