Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wilderness Survival Part 6 – Food

Food and eating are central to what it means to be alive.  We eat several times a day and one only needs to go a few hours without food before hunger provides a powerful reminder that we need to eat.  For those new to wilderness survival, “What will I eat?” seems to be one of the first questions asked.  Just watch children playing “living in the wild” and one of the first things they will do is start collecting “food” in little piles and pretend to eat.

The reality is that food is not nearly as critical to short term survival as one might think.  Most healthy people can go several days without food with few ill effects.  Certainly attitude, shelter, and water are much more critical to survival than food.  That said, food goes a long way toward helping to maintain that good attitude!  And as hunger intensifies, it makes it increasingly hard to perform strenuous tasks.  Few people enjoy going hungry, but by slowing down a bit and staying hydrated, most people can function well after skipping a few meals.

This posting will focus on wild edible plants.  Hunting, fishing, and trapping will be touched on in future posts.

Foraging for wild foods takes a lot more time than running to the fridge or fast food restaurant.  The reality is that in long term living off the land, one may spend more time searching for food than doing any other necessary activity.  While there is a LOT of food in the woods, it is NOT convenient to gather or to prepare.  Significant skills are required to live off the land long term, and even after many years of study and experience there will be much left to learn about edible wild foods. 

But there are many simple “nibble foods” that can be plucked and chewed while hiking, building shelter, etc.  By nibbling on these foods, hunger can be abated until there is time to spend on a more exhaustive food gathering effort.  I recommend everyone who spends time in the woods build familiarity with local edible plants so he or she can snack along the trail.  These nibble foods will often be enough to sustain one through a short term survival situation.  The type of foods available is heavily dependent on the local environment.  In the Rockies, nibble foods might include fireweed, pine tree growth buds or succulent pollen buds, wax currants, rose hips and flowers, grass seeds, dock, dandelion flowers and greens, and thistle stalks.  In the Appalachians, add to these foods many more types of flowers and berries, persimmons, and leafy shrubs.  Don’t forget about prickly pear fruit which you will find in most ecosystems in the U.S.

How many edible plants are in the picture above?

These nibble foods, like most wild foods, will have a strong and often bitter flavor.  It takes an open mind and a few attempts to appreciate some of the powerful flavors of wild foods.  We have trained our palates to enjoy foods with most of the flavor cooked out, and then foreign flavors of salts, sugars, and other spices added back in.  Be assured though that given time you will appreciate these foods more, and will develop your personal favorites.

You will also find that these foods are seasonal.  A pine tree growth bud in the spring is sweet, juicy, and tart with a notable pine flavor.  Later in the year, they are bitter, tough, and taste like turpentine.  If you have even bit into a green persimmon, then you know beyond a doubt that they are seasonal fruits!  If you have not had that experience, then it is worth a try.  Everyone should know what a green persimmon feels like.  Feels?  Yes, feels.  It will not be a pleasant experience.  Ha!  The point is that it takes some trial and error to know which foods will be best at various times of the year. 

The foods listed above are great for getting through an active and hungry day, but our goal is not to simply get by for the short term.  The real goal is to be comfortable living in harmony with nature indefinitely.  This goal does require much more practice and skill.  The truth is that most wild plants are edible if one knows which parts to harvest and how to prepare them.  However, there are plenty of poisonous plants growing in the woods too.  It is critical to learn each plant thoroughly and to learn any dangerous “look alikes” and how to discern between the two.

Wilderness food is a rather vast subject.  Scores of books have been written on wild edible plants.  I strongly recommend that you purchase some field guides and spend time identifying and carefully sampling wild foods.  BEWARE!  Not all field guides will cover the plants adequately to discern between the good and the imposter.  There are some real killers out there, so make sure you know a plant very well before attempting to eat it, and then follow some practical rules of caution.   It is the goal of this post to introduce the reader to the vast and fun world of wild edible plants, but this is only an introduction.  Years can (and should) be spent learning and practicing wild plants skills.


The process below is not fool proof and can lead to DEATH.  The intention is to provide some information that might save a life, but this information can in NO WAY guarantee your safety.  Using the below edibility test should be a last resort.  It is far better to learn wild edible foods from an experienced person!!!

Testing just one part of a plant takes a full day.  But if you must, to test to see if a plant is edible, start when you have had nothing to eat for eight hours.  You also should not eat other foods while you are testing a plant.  Start by smashing it up a bit and rub it on the inside of your arm.  Wait for a quarter hour or more to see if it causes any irritation.  If there is no irritation, then rub a little of the plant on your lips.  Wait several minutes to see if there are any ill effects.  Next place a piece of the plant on your tongue.  Hold it there for 15 minutes but do not swallow.  If all is well, then chew a pinch of the food thoroughly and again, do not swallow.  Hold the food in your mouth for 15 minutes.  At this point, if you have not experienced any burning, or stinging, or numbing, or itching, then you can swallow ONE BITE of the food.  Wait eight hours to see what happens.  If all is well, then attempt eating ten bites or so of the food, and again wait eight hours.  NOTE!  Just because one part of a plant is edible does not mean that other parts are.  Each part of a plant has to be tested by itself.  Roots, leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, and seeds all need to be tested individually.  It can take days to prove even one plant is edible.

Again, the above testing method is not perfect.  Rather than using this method, it is far better to use multiple field guides and learn from one who has years of experience eating wild foods.  It is also recommended that you start by studying poisonous wild plants so as to avoid anything that remotely resembles them.

Why go to all the trouble of studying wild edible plants?  It makes a great hobby that could save your life someday.  It is also fun to supplement one’s backpacking diet with fresh foods at hand.  But perhaps the best reason to learn these skills is that they will provide you with a far greater appreciation of nature.  By learning where various plants grow and what factors influence their flavor and usefulness, one transitions from just being a visitor in the wilderness to being a part of the natural order.  This is a major part of learning to harmonize with the natural flow and to work with nature rather than against it.

To that end, watch how the animals forage for food.  Observe how the deer will move through an area taking a sampling of several difference species of plants, and especially how they do not eat all of a plant in an area.  By taking a bit here and a bit there, they preserve the plants to continue to grow and flourish.  We should harvest our foods in the same way.  Never destroy a species in an area.  Harvest with concern for the health of the ecosystem.

Watch a squirrel as it gathers nuts.  Squirrels bury nuts to be stored for winter.  Sure they eat a lot of them, but they also successfully plant thousands of new trees.  We too can give to an ecosystem that gives to us.  Matter of fact, it is a wise practice to give to the ecosystem before harvesting anything from it.  This reminds us of the value of the natural world and will keep us from wasting and destroying, as  many humans have selfish tendency to do.

By following the examples of these animals, you can even make the plants in an area thrive more than they would have if left untouched.  That should always be our goal, to leave this world a little better than we found it.  Help nurture the nature that nurtures you.