A Beginner’s Guide To Wilderness Survival Foods

Foraging edible wild plants is a fun, rewarding hobby that pairs up perfectly with fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities, and it’s a valuable life skill every outdoorsperson should possess because you never know when a survival situation could arise.

The best time to acquire knowledge and build confidence is in a relaxed atmosphere when your mind is focusing clearly and not in a dire emergency when stress and hunger may interfere with making positive identification, which is the number one rule to follow before eating any wild plant.

Below is a list of easy-to-identify, top picks perfect for beginners to break ground with.

Dandelions

Dandelions are familiar to everyone, available from spring through fall and are a good source of calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin C. Leaves, buds and flowers can be eaten raw, cooked as a potherb or steeped into herbal tea (tisane). Roots can be dug, roasted, ground and used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

Stinging nettles can be steeped into tea or cooked as a potherb. Use them as a substitute for cooked spinach.
Stinging nettles can be steeped into tea or cooked as a potherb. Use them as a substitute for cooked spinach.

Stinging Nettles

As the name implies, the plant “stings” when you touch it (making it easy to identify), so wear gloves when harvesting. Nettles are as nutritional as spinach. One of the first plants to rise in spring, sometimes poking through the snow, makes them a dependable food source. The leaves, which lose their sting upon cooking, make a nourishing tea and a healthy potherb. Nettle flowers (seedy green tips) and can be pulled off and cooked like porridge. Add a few wild berries and you have a satisfying survival meal.

Wild Berries

Berries dish up fibre, vitamins, minerals and natural sugars, making them a high-energy food, delicious for eating out of hand. Flowers, berries and leaves make satisfying teas. Picking on a regular basis is a sure-fire way to learn about their varied seasons and habitats. There are many edible varieties, but novices should begin with familiar picks that resemble their cultivated kin (strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and gooseberry.) A field trip with an expert or an illustrated guidebook can help you learn about other less common edible berries, such as crowberries, soapberries and bunchberries, to name a few.

Rose hips. Photo by iStock.
Rose hips. Photo by iStock.

Wild Roses

Buds, flowers and leaves can be eaten raw, cooked as a potherb or steeped into tea, but it’s the fleshy, appley-tasting fruits (known as hips) that can be a real lifesaver, as they are loaded with vitamin C and natural sugars, can be eaten raw or cooked, are plentiful and, since they ripen in summer and cling to the bare branches all winter long, they rank high on the survival foods list. Break open the hips and thumb out the seeds, which have tiny hairs that can irritate your mouth, but do not discard the seeds because they can be ground with a stone into nourishing “flour,” which renders the hairs harmless. Plant “flours” such as this can be used as a thickener or mixed with water to make dough to be baked on a rock or wound around a stick and cooked over the fire.

Cattail shoots. In a survival situation, birch bark can be used as a plate.
Cattail shoots. In a survival situation, birch bark can be used as a plate.

Cattails

Tender spring cattail shoots, rich in vitamins and minerals, can be eaten raw or cooked. To harvest, grasp the bottom of the stalk and pull. Cut about six inches from the root end. The green flower spikes (resembling baby corn) are available in mid-summer and can be eaten raw or cooked. When the spike (cattail) matures and turns brown, the wholesome pollen can be collected by pulling it off with your fingers into a dish or onto a piece of birch bark and used as a thickener or flour. Cattail rootstalks are loaded with starch and can be dug year-round. Pound the roots with a stone and soak in water to release the starch, which is a concentrated source of carbohydrates.

Clovers

Plentiful clovers can add a touch of sweetness to your survival diet. Leaves and blossoms can be eaten raw, steeped into a calming tea or cooked as a potherb. Sun-dried blossoms can be pounded with a stone into flour, an olden-day staple of various Native peoples. A word of caution, overeating raw clovers can cause bloating, so cook whenever possible.

Evergreen tips can make a vitamin-rich tea.
Evergreen tips can make a vitamin-rich tea.

Evergreen Needles

Evergreen needles (pine, spruce, balsam) are a rich source of vitamin C, which prevented scurvy amongst early settlers and explorers. Simmer the needles and tips into tea. The hardened sap adds a little sweetness to the pot. These teas, especially balsam, are good for treating cold and flu.

Wild Nuts

Hazelnuts (which are kin to cultivated filberts) grow in mixed hardwoods and are the most popular wild nut in our province. Hazelnuts are a good source of protein and fat, well worth hunting down in a time of need. Pine seeds are very nourishing, but it’s hard to beat the squirrels to the cones; however, looking on the bright side, the pine forest is a prospective place to set a snare for a little supper meat.

Nodding onions can be used to flavour other wild foods, especially snared meat.
Nodding onions can be used to flavour other wild foods, especially snared meat.

Nodding Onions

Nodding onions, with their purple, chive-like heads, grow on sandy hillsides, rocky shorelines and in open woodlands. Positive identification can be made simply by their onion-like smell. The whole plant is edible and makes a tasty seasoning for other edible wild foods, especially small game that, if you’re good at snaring, can fatten up your survival menu.

Cambium

Cambium is the inner bark of hardwood and evergreen trees and is a rich source of starch and natural sugars. It is more plentiful in spring when sap is rising in the tree, but it can be harvested all year long. To harvest, peel off the outer bark and scrape the inner bark into jerky-like strips. Roast on a flat rock by the fire before pounding with a rock into flour to make into dough. Taking too much cambium from a tree can kill it, so you should only harvest this in a real-life survival situation for fear of killing the source.

How To Make A Birch Bark Cooking Vessel

In a survival situation, hot foods are more comforting and easier to digest than cold ones, so if you have fire to your avail but no pot, you can make a cooking vessel out of birch bark that will not burn as long as you keep the bottom covered with water. To use, put your gathered food and water (good for boiling water and melting snow for drinking) into the vessel and sit it on a flat rock over hot coals.

To make the vessel, cut about a 16-inch square of birch bark. Soak in water or snow until pliable. Slit and fold up the corners to form a basin. Secure the corners by cutting four small, round limbs about four inches long and making one-inch slits into them to act as cloth pins.

How To Make A Birch Bark Cooking Vessel

This article was featured in the BC Outdoors July/August 2020 issue. Order it from our Shopify store now (while supplies last) or subscribe to our our magazine to keep up-to-date with all of the latest issues!

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