Should You Learn How to Live Off the Land?
By Steve Gillman
Is it worthwhile for backpackers to learn all about survival
foods, just in case they get lost? Should hikers regularly eat
the plants and animals of the wilderness to supplement the food
they bring? What is the real value in learning how to live off
the land? I'll give my own (perhaps partial) answers to those
questions in a moment...
As I write this I'm looking over some notes from a hike I
did a few years back. I went to the top of Mount Humboldt in
Colorado, which is a peak in the Sangre De Christo Range that
tops 14,000 feet. I traveled mostly by foot, but I pushed my
bicycle up the old road and trail for a few miles, and left it
where the going got tough. On the way down bumped along over
the rocks and roots for about four of the eighteen miles traveled
I mention all of this because it was a rough route that could
have involved spending the night without a shelter or sleeping
bag, if I had been lost or sprained an ankle. It was comforting
to know that I had the knowledge and skills to do that if necessary.
In fact, on a later trip in the same area I did spend a night
below freezing up with just a tarp, and I ate wild foods to supplement
what I brought. On this particular trip I made a list of the
animals and edible plants that I saw. That's what I am looking
The animals I saw included trout in the streams and lakes,
birds of various types, deer, pika, chipmunks, squirrels, and
marmots. If I had been lost or unable to leave the area for some
reason, the marmots and trout are the only ones I might have
had a chance to kill without proper weapons. Trout can be corralled
or chased into shallows and splashed out onto the shore, or clubbed
with a stick. Marmots are slower than many other animals out
there, and seem to have little fear of humans, so a rock might
work as a weapon from close range.
As it is I do not want to kill anything, I don't hunt or fish,
and eat a more vegetarian diet as time goes by. But contrary
to what many vegetarians might like to believe, in the wild it
is tough to ever get the nutrition you need from plants alone.
I doubt I'll ever kill another animal, but if I was actually
losing strength from hunger and lost in the wilderness...
The plants that I saw and listed include wild roses. The fruit,
called "rose hips," were not ripe at the time (it was
August). But on that later trip when I did spend the night up
there on a snowy October trip, I ate quite a few of them. They
are full of Vitamin C, and especially sweet after they freeze
once or twice. They also tend to hang around for the winter,
making them a nice survival snack for humans and animals alike.
On this particular August trip I did eat wild currants, raspberries,
mountain ash berries, silver berries, red elderberries, and wild
cherries. The wild strawberries were all gone by this time in
the season, and the blueberry plants I saw were not fruiting
for some reason (they seem to produce good and bad crops unpredictably).
At higher elevations I quenched my thirst with the juicy peeled
stalks of thistles, and munched on the newest dandelion leaves
(the older ones get too bitter).
Other edibles that I saw but did not eat include juniper berries,
pine seeds, many puffball mushrooms, spruce gum and aster leaves.
If I had been camping I might have made yarrow tea, which is
said to be good for colds and flues.
The truth is, you will rarely if ever need to know what you
can eat out there. In an emergency where you are injured or lost,
hunger will usually be the least of your concerns. Almost everyone
who dies in a wilderness area in modern times succumbs to hypothermia,
frostbite, dehydration, or various other medical conditions long
before there is any risk of starvation. In fact, learning how
to stay warm, build emergency shelters splint broken bones, other
such survival and first aid skills should probably be a priority
over learning how to live off the land. And if you're like myself
you might rather take photos of animals than take their lives.
But there is absolutely something special about knowing that
here is food all around you when you are hiking hours or days
away from civilization. It is also very satisfying (to say the
least) to have something like fresh blueberries to eat after
days on the trail with nothing but dry or packaged foods. It
is fun too, to discover a bellyful of wild raspberries or some
tasty pinyon pine nuts, and to share these finds with companions.
For these reasons it seems worth it to learn at least a little
bit about what you can eat out there.