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Should You Learn How to Live Off the Land?

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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 that day.

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 at now.

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.



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