Plant knowledge is true survival knowledge. My good friend, wild plant expert and former military/civilian survival instructor, Marty Simon of the Wilderness Learning Center always says, “I’ve never seen a plant run away from anyone.”
Many historians and anthropologists are now referring to certain tribal “hunter-gatherers” as “gatherer-hunters” since most of their diet reflected more foraging than active hunting. Foraging is more energy efficient than stalking and chasing prey. Learning plant knowledge is important to the modern survivor and requires minimal equipment. What follows are 6 recommended items no aspiring forager should venture into the field without. These items will make foraging safer, more enjoyable and more productive.
1. Multiple Field Guides
The best way to learn plants is first-hand from someone credible. With a reliable source, a lot of the questioning and uncertainty goes away. For the rest of the population who can’t find an expert, using multiple field guides is the way to go. Understand that some field guides utilize actual pictures and some use line drawings. Many will take the most perfect sample of a plant and feature that when, in reality, what you find will be missing flower petals, plants with fewer leaves, those that don’t grow as bold or appear off from the supplement. When you have a plant tentatively identified, verify it is the plant you assume it to be in at least 3 sources. Make sure the descriptions line up across different sources by different authors. Without a seasoned outdoorsman knowledgeable about plants guiding you through the plant-identification process, a collection of books with vivid descriptions, photos and illustrations is a good substitute.
2. Compact Shovel
Many wild edibles are found underground. Leeks, cattail, wild potato, burdock root — all of these will be found below surface level. With a knife, you can carve a digging stick or adze or you can simply carry a compact shovel. Based on the size of the kit you carry, your shovel will vary in size. Also, depending on the amount of foraging you do, you will want a larger, more easily manipulated shovel rather than a compact version that will make you work harder. Your shovel should be well suited for working in the environment where your intended harvest can be found. Small polymer digging spades from Fiskars will work fine in soft soil, but they can break when digging in rocky soil. The U-Dig It shovel is all steel and folds into a compact package. The larger you go, the heavier your kit will be. Don’t pack what you won’t carry.
3. Pruning Knife
A dedicated hook-shaped pruning knife will make short work of cutting vines and stalks. Straight edges can be used, but having the right tool for the job makes life easy. Pruning knives are purpose-built and the hook shape makes slicing with a single stroke possible. Having a dedicated knife for cutting low to the ground and in mixed terrain also means you can protect your dedicated survival knife on your belt from accidental rock strike and rust. If you can’t find a good pruning knife, go to a hardware store and purchase one meant for cutting linoleum. These knives are lightweight and cut great. If possible, purchase a pruning knife with a non-slip handle or one that can be modified with stippling. Depending where you are working and what you are cutting, your hands and tools will be slick. Make sure you don’t slip with your knife and cut yourself.
4. Pruning Shears
There are some plants easily harvested with a pruning knife. There are other times when you will be working with harder-to-cut stalks or branches. To be energy efficient, you can carry a good set of pruning shears. Invest in a good all-metal-frame set as the polymer version can break more easily if stressed too hard. Be warned, look for a set that balances the added heft of strong blades with portability. Some shears are extremely strong but heavy, as they are meant for landscaping where hiking and lugging the tool over great distances isn’t a concern. Pruning shears may not be the “cool” thing to whip out as others are using large knives or saws, but they do make short work of trimming branches in confined spaces. They are great to carry and can be used with either hand with minimal effort.
Since plants can’t run away, they have developed defense mechanisms that will wreak havoc on exposed skin. It only takes one encounter with nettles to know the stinging sensation from brushing up against the fine hairs. Thorns are another threat. The old joke about telling the difference between blackberry and raspberry thorns is to grab hold of the stem tightly. Rip your hand down the length of it. If your flesh is still on your hand, you have a raspberry bush in front of you. If your flesh is on the thorns and your hand torn apart, it’s blackberry. This “joke” illustrates a point, carry good gloves to handle certain plants with. Your hands allow you to do work and in an emergency, this work improves your chances of survival. Protect your hands with good leather gloves. One warning though, the oils from some plants (i.e., uritiol from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac) can linger on clothing long after initial contact with the plant. Be careful handling your gloves.
“Depending on the amount of foraging you do, you will want a larger, more easily manipulated shovel rather than a compact version that will make you work harder.”
6. Breathable Bags
When you become proficient with foraging, at some point you will need a way to collect and carry your harvest. The worst way to carry harvested plants is in plastic bags with no air flow. Vibrant green leaves quickly turn brown and decompose. The solution is to either create your own containers in the field out of birch bark or willow, or simply carry a spare breathable bag. Many supermarkets sell reusable bags and these easily packable bags can be tucked behind your field manuals for when you find the mother load to harvest. Even old-school brown paper lunch bags work well to keep your harvest fresh. These can be packed in a waterproof zipper-lock bag and pulled out when needed. Make sure to carry some bags and plan for success, otherwise you’re welcoming failure in your preparation.
These items help make foraging more enjoyable and will expand your knowledge, making you a better survivor. Remember to find a reliable source for learning or use the written resources you have at hand. Be like your ancestors and add more wild plant food to your omnivore diet.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the How To special issue of American Survival Guide.