Learn About a Few Useful Plants for Backpackers
By Steve Gillman
Why do you need to know about wild plants just to go backpacking
or adventuring in this age of high-tech gear and lightweight
freeze-dried foods? You don't really, but if you do take the
time to learn about a few of them you can lighten your pack weight,
eat better, and be safer.
Any true wilderness area is inherently risky. Blizzards can
come, bones can break, and you can be lost without food. Having
a few survival skills and knowing about the plants out there
can help you in these and other emergency situations.
the milkweed plant in the photo here. Often there are hundreds
of these plants in a small area, and even after a long winter
there are many with seed fluff still attached to the seed capsule,
as in the photo here (this was in the spring). If you have never
collected or touched this material, you will be surprised by
how silky it is. It's like goose down, and in a can be used as
You can insulate a jacket with it, for example. Or, if you
are wet and cold and have no gloves, just fill two plastic bags
with milkweed down and put your hands in them to warm up (tie
the bags around your wrists or tuck the ends under sleeves).
I can tell you from experience that this really works. The same
can be done to create warm booties for your feet.
Milkweed down also happens to be highly flammable. If you
have a fire striker (like one of those magnesium sticks) that
can throw sparks, you can usually get a ball of this fluff to
burst into flame easily.
A plant that is great insulator and a great source of tinder
is a plant worth knowing. Did I mention that the tender new leaves
and seed pods can be boiled and eaten? Boil twice in new water;
they're not very good, but it's food.
Food is not often the top priority in a survival situation.
That's why the most useful plants for backpackers are usually
those that can be used for shelter, insulation and fire-starting.
One of the most useful for all of these purposes is the cattail.
The seed fluff is a good fire starter, just like milkweed down.
The leaves can be used for thatched roofing and to make sleeping
mats and containers. And there is always at least one part that
you can eat in any given season.
For more about cattails, including information on the five
edible parts, se the following page: The
Cattail - One of the Most Useful Plants.
Of course, even though food is not always the first priority
in a survival situation, it is nice to know what you can eat
out there, just in case. It is also nice to have some fresh food
once in a while, which is difficult to carry when backpacking.
Bring a little olive oil, for example, and you can have a salad
or two when camping in the spring or summer.
Knowing a few edible plants means you can get the vitamins
and enzymes that are often missing in backpacking food. The best
ones to know for this purpose are perhaps the wild berries, because
the most common ones are found in most parts of the northern
hemisphere and are easily recognizable. These three are common
and easy to identify:
The wild varieties are generally much smaller, but if it looks
and tastes like a strawberry, raspberry or blueberry, it almost
certainly is safe to eat.
To learn about a few dozen more edibles, see this page: Edible Plants | Useful Plants.
Lightening Your Load
Once you know a bit about all the plant resources out there
you can travel lighter in two different ways. First, when you
are confident about the plants which will be available for use
where you are going and you know how to use them, you can risk
going a bit light on the clothing and sleeping bag, at least
in summer. For example, I have used dry thistle stalks to make
a warm bed, allowing me to sleep in below-freezing temperatures
with a 17-ounce sleeping bag. I'm not suggesting that you do
this routinely, but if you know a few survival skills and have
some knowledge of how to use plants, you can risk going a bit
lighter because you'll know what to do if it gets colder than
To really be prepared, and therefore able to go lighter and
be safer, you should read through all the pages of my Wilderness
The other way to cut your pack weight is to know how to locate
and identify those edible plants and bring less food. Be sure
you know the environment where you'll be going if you consider
trying this. For example, I know that hiking in the rocky areas
of northern Michigan and southern Canada in late summer I will
be able to find wild blueberries and (usually) wild raspberries
as well. I can count on filling my belly with them at least once
To recap, here are the three reasons to learn about all the
useful plants you have been walking right past while backpacking:
1. You can be safer.
2. You can eat better.
3. You can reduce the weight you carry.