Lessons From the Trail: Foraging Ain’t Easy


I have no idea what this is. I am a bad forager.

I’m a plant geek. I like to think that if the grid went down and I was trekking through the wilderness, I’d do fine. There’s plenty to eat in the wild if you know where to look, right?

But this last weekend as I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I did terribly. The flora of the Appalachians are radically different than what I’m used to. Sure, I spotted some very obvious edibles: Hickory nuts, acorns, smilax and blackberry canes (without berries in October, of course)… but I came up very short in the “edible greens” category, striking out with the exception of some rank-tasting wild violet leaves.

As I hiked uphill with my friend, I gnawed on homemade jerky and looked… and looked… and looked for things I could eat. I kept asking myself, “What if I was stuck out here without any food?” I eagerly searched for wild persimmons but couldn’t find a single one… and all the acorns I found were bitter red oak nuts that had been picked over by squirrels. At one point, I started flipping logs looking for grubs. Surely I could find and toast a couple of grubs, right?

No luck. I found a salamander, a large centipede and a few spiders. Nothing remotely worth eating.

All my prepping for Florida let me down a half-day’s drive North. In my home state, I’m pretty familiar with the edible weeds and plants. I once did a “walk of edibles” around my neighborhood and easily nailed down plenty of caloric possibilities. I can spot native pawpaws, make a salad of a half-dozen wild greens or even cut down a cabbage palm and cut out its tasty heart. But whoa… Appalachia? I know there’s plenty to eat there… but yikes, I wasn’t finding it. And what I did find was very thin. The berries were gone, the smilax shoots had all been taken by deer and the hickory nuts were old and rotten. I managed to correctly identify some American ginseng growing in the wild… but, as cool as that is, you can’t live on ginseng.

My point to this? If I, a trained plant nut, couldn’t find enough wild food a few states away from home… most people are going to do even worse. Hunger is going to be very real during a crisis. The best food I saw on the trail? Squirrels. Those are going to disappear quickly during TEOTWAWKI, though I’m hoping some of them will end up in my stomach before their population gets wiped out.

I had plenty of time to think as I hiked. After the first day of foraging failure (granted, it was basically a forced march to the top of the mountain, so I wasn’t ever far off the beaten path), I realized a few things. Hopefully you’ll find them helpful.

Realization #1: You Must Know Your Local Edibles

I’ve taken a foraging class, plus spent lots of time nailing down the edibles of Florida… yet that was almost no help on the Appalachian Trail. If you grew up in upstate New York, don’t think your plant knowledge is going to help you in Texas… or Georgia… or Washington. Plants are very regional. Only a very few grow across large swaths of the US. If you’re a transplant, update your knowledge of wild edibles by looking for resources in your area. Classes, guidebooks, and lots of Googling will help immensely. Take pictures of plants you don’t recognize, then hunt them down online. For an example, say you found a shrub with square stems and fuchsia berries in clusters. Type details into a search engine, with some variations, and start doing image searches. You’ll discover it’s Callicarpa americana in no time.

Realization #2: Poisoning Isn’t Just For Mad Emperors

If you’re uninformed and looking for calories, you can make fatal mistakes. Some plants are known as edibles – like pokeweed. However, if you simply pick and eat pokeweed, you can kill yourself. Some plants need to be boiled multiple times in changes of water… other plants look like edibles but can kill you… and other plants may grow near enough to something poisonous that it becomes easy to make a mistake. Taste-testing isn’t the best idea. If that’s all you have to go on, good luck…

Realization #3: Hunger Is Good Seasoning

Yeah, you wouldn’t eat grubs, slugs or worms right now… but don’t overlook them in your prepping. We’re talking survival – not a French restaurant. (Though they do serve snails at French restaurants. Hmm… French Survivalist Cooking… there has to be a book in there.) After I ran out of jerky during the hike on day two, a few toasted grubs – or a plateful – would’ve been welcome calories. It’s amazing how much energy you expend while hiking. Replacing that is important – you need to know every resource available, not just the tastiest tidbits. Don’t be a snob.

Realization #4: You Ain’t As Smart As You Think

Coming up empty on edibles was a blow to my ego. Better to have that blow now before it’s a problem, though. I got two new books today – both on botany. If for some reason there’s a crisis and I’m nowhere near my sub-tropical home, I want to be ready. And I want you to be ready as well.

Realization #5: You Must Have Tools

With a little wire, I could have made squirrel snares. With a shovel I could have dug up roots. With a guide book I could have made breakfast. But once I was in the wilderness, I was stuck with the pack on my back and the knife in my pocket. Next time I’ll think ahead.

Really… that’s the key when it comes to prepping. Have you thought ahead? Have you gone hiking for a few days in the woods and tried to make do? Have you even considered what you’d eat if your MREs ran out?

And speaking of things to eat… are you gonna finish those grubs or can I have the rest?

About David The Good

David The Good is a naturalist, author and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David is the author of four books, writes a regular column for The Ag Mag in North Central Florida, is a Mother Earth News blogger and has also written for outlets including Backwoods Home, Survival Blog and Self-Reliance Magazine. You can find his books on Amazon here. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie who now lives somewhere near the equator on a productive cocoa farm. Visit his daily gardening and survival blog here: The Survival Gardener And for lots more gardening info, click here and subscribe to his often hilarious YouTube channel.

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