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You are organized. You planned ahead. You’re prepared for everything, but you didn’t plan on the fire. Your BOB in the trunk of your car burned up with everything else when your overheating car turned into an inferno. You barely made it out yourself, and now you’re stranded alone and in the worst situation possible: no water, no food, and no help. You’re on your own, and your stomach is beginning to growl.
Maybe it isn’t obvious right now, but you are literally surrounded by food, as long as you expand the commonly held definition of what you consider food. On day three, a lizard might still just be a lizard, but by day nine, a lizard is a porterhouse steak. 

FOOD IS ALL AROUND

When “Survivor” first premiered, every episode showed people “stranded” in some remote place nearly starving to death despite the wild grocery store that surrounded them. Insects and reptiles scurried through the underbrush while monkeys scampered through the tree branches. All I could do was laugh. But what is not funny is that every year there are people who find themselves in a wilderness survival situation. Many times the people starve to death and there is no reason for it.

Food of all types surrounds us if you know where to look. This lesson came to light while watching “Survivor.” One of the contestants caught a bunch of grasshoppers, which he was using as bait in an effort to catch a fish. Though this was a good idea, after a few hours with nothing to show for it, the man was just wasting time and energy. My daughter turned to me and said, “Why doesn’t he just eat the grasshoppers?” That was a good question and the logical choice, but the man didn’t do that and spent another night hungry, overlooking the obvious source of nutrition from the grasshoppers.

To that contestant, grasshoppers weren’t food. How wrong he was. Growing up, my father always told me, “If it walks, flies, swims, or crawls, you can eat it.” While it is an apt lesson about the availability of food in a survival situation, it needed some modification. You cannot eat everything that walks, crawls, swims, or flies, because many insects, as well as some reptiles and fish, are highly toxic. If you are unfamiliar with the area you find yourself in and the different wildlife that lives in that environment, please use extra caution before eating anything, plant or animal. If in doubt, pass it up.

FINDING EASY FOOD

Countless times we hear of the use of spears, traps, and snares, but what happens if you are unable to construct these devices or you don’t know how they work? Are you destined to go starve? The answer is a resounding “No.” Birds, small rodents, and fish can be difficult to capture without the use of traps or snares, but nature is full of many other kinds of animals that are easy to obtain. In a survival situation, the creatures you should be going for are those that will require the least amount of energy to obtain. If you burn more calories hunting for food than you take in when you do get something then you are defeating the very purpose of eating. The environment you are in will dictate what you should pursue.

Note: Be advised that many animals are protected by both state and federal laws. To kill or harm any animal, no matter how small, could be illegal. All of the information presented here is for emergency survival only.

“On day three, a lizard might still just be a lizard, but by day nine, a lizard is a porterhouse steak. ”

WETLANDS

Where there is water there is food. An environment with water is the ideal situation in which to be stranded. Fresh water ponds, small lakes, streams, and marshes will provide such edibles as both mature frogs and tadpoles. There may also be fresh water mollusks such as snails and mussels. River snails or freshwater periwinkles are plentiful in rivers, streams, and lakes of North America. Look for them in the shallows, especially in water with a sandy or muddy bottom.

Search the low hanging bushes for birds’ eggs or even baby birds. Don’t pass up a turtle or a snake that you happen upon. However, a word of caution: Unless you know the different species of snakes found in the area you are in (harmless vs. venomous), avoid snakes. You also need to be wary of snapping turtles and in some areas, the box turtle, which feeds on poisonous mushrooms and may build up a highly toxic poison in its flesh. Cooking does not destroy this toxin. Streams are a great source of food such as crayfish and small fish may be taken out
of small, shallow pools.

If you find yourself around the ocean, your food choices are even better. You will find saltwater shellfish such as snails, clams, mussels, bivalves, barnacles, periwinkles, chitons, and sea urchins. Many birds found along the coast nest on the ground, so take advantage of this. Tidal pools are great places to find many varieties of saltwater snails, small crabs, and sea urchins. Attached to rocks you will find mussels. Most every fish with fins can be eaten.

PREPARING WILD FOODS

You’ve caught dinner, so now what? If you have your pack with you, you will have a piece of aluminum foil. You can take this piece of aluminum foil and form it into a bowl. This will now form a cooking pot. If not, the world is littered with trash and you might be lucky enough to find an old beer can or a discarded tin can. Barring that, find a thin rock that can be used as a frying pan.

Insects like grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions, ants, and termites can all be eaten raw. Things such as frogs, shellfish, fin fish and birds’ eggs should be cooked before eating. When you get back to your makeshift camp, go over the food that you have gathered. Shellfish, like mussels, should have their shells closed. If any of them are open discard them as they are not safe to eat. If the shells are closed then just place them in your bowl and put the whole thing in the coals at the edge of your fire. 

You can also just set them on a hot flat rock at the fire’s edge. Once the shell pops open they are ready to eat. Reptiles, amphibians, and fish need to be cleaned before cooking. Once cleaned they can be skewed on a stick and cooked over the fire. Turtles can be placed in the hot coals and cooked right in the shell. Birds’ eggs can be broken open and cooked on a flat rock. Earthworms and grubs can be eaten raw or added with other wild edibles to make a soup.

“While this is not what anyone would call “fine dining,” it will keep you alive in an emergency situation.”

VALLEYS AND MOUNTAINS

Inland areas of high and dry ground present their own opportunities. Open fields yield grasshoppers and crickets, both of which are edible and a great source of protein. In the forest, among the leaf litter and undergrowth, earthworms and slugs are readily available. Search rotting logs for termites, ants, and grubs. Insects are the most abundant lifeform on earth and can be easily caught. Look for rotting logs, stones, branches, and anything on the ground that might provide a good hiding place. Worms too are a great source of protein. After collecting them, place them in some clean water, where they will clean themselves out. After that, bon appetit.

You may also come across small frogs and salamanders. Both are viable options as a food source, though some salamanders may be toxic. Rule of thumb is if it has bright colors it is likely toxic. Always err on the side of caution. As disgusting as it sounds to us, all of these critters are eaten by people around the world on a regular basis. You won’t gain weight by eating worms and crickets, but you will stay alive. Consider birds’ eggs and baby birds in the nests. Most forest-dwelling birds build nests out of reach of predators but if you stay observant, you may find some at an elevation you can reach.

DESERT REGIONS

In the desert food can be more difficult to find and more dangerous once you do. The desert is a harsh environment, and the animals that live there are well adapted at protecting themselves from being something’s next meal, including you. Insects are a great choice, as are lizards. Many lizards will be found sunning themselves on rocks, but so do venomous snakes, so be careful.

With that said, scorpions and other edibles can be found under rocks. If you do find a scorpion, pin it to the ground with a stick and, using your knife or a sharp rock, cut off the tail and stinger as that is the dangerous part. Pull off the shells and cook over the fire.

Toxic Terrors

Usually people are scared of the business end of the animal, the teeth and claws of mammals, or the quills and barbs of some fish. However, many creatures you may come across in a survival situation have many more tricks to keep potential predators at bay. Simply put, they’re poisonous. Here are eight of the most poisonous animals from around the world you’d do best to avoid, but you might notice that most of them live in and around Australia, where everything there is designed to kill you.

Blue-Ringed Octopus 

Ironically, the bite of this octopus doesn’t hurt, but the toxins in its saliva will eventually kill you. First, you will feel a numbness around the bite and that numbness will spread throughout the body. Soon, it will reach the muscles
that control breathing and you will die.

Box Jellyfish 

Accidentally contact the tentacles of the Box Jellyfish (found in western waters of the Pacific Ocean), and you will experience excruciating pain for weeks, as its venom can stop the heart or paralyze the lungs, as well as eat
away at the skin.

Death Stalker Scorpion

Found in North Africa and the Middle East, a sting from the Death Stalker Scorpion causes tremendous pain and a fever. If untreated, you will become paralyzed, slip into a coma and die. It is the most toxic scorpion in the world.

Inland Taipan 

The Inland Taipan, native to Australia, is considered the most poisonous snake on earth. One bite contains enough toxin (about 110 milligrams per bit) to kill nearly 100 people. Its toxin can cause vomiting and will eventually stop a human from being able to breathe.

Marbled Cone Snail 

Sure, it’s easy to catch because it is a slow-moving snail found in coral reefs around the world, but the sharp “tooth” on the end of its nose can lash out quickly and deliver an immediately paralyzing sting. When the paralysis reaches the lungs and heart of a human, death follows.

Poison Dart Frog 

From the rainforests of Central and South America, the Poison Dart Frog’s skin contains a toxin that has the ability to kill anything that touches it. And it only takes a very small amount to bring down a large  animal, sometimes even a human.

Stonefish 

Looking like a piece of rock or coral, the Stonefish is found in the waters of the Pacific Ocean around Australia and attacks nearby fish from its camouflaged position with its 13 toxin-filled spines. In humans, the venom causes
pain, swelling, shock and, eventually, death.

Sydney Funnel-Web Spider 

Large and aggressive, the Sydney Funnel-Web Spider is found in Australia and it has the most venomous toxins of any spider. A single bite causes great pain and can kill a person in under 15 minutes.

SUMMARY

While this is not what anyone would call “fine dining,” it will keep you alive in an emergency situation. Hopefully, you did all of the right things before venturing out, like letting someone know where you were going and when  you would be back; also that you are carrying your pack with the gear you would need to survive, including some food. If you did these things, chances are you won’t be forced to eat earthworms and scorpions. If that’s not the case, keep your wits about you and understand that, no matter where you are, you are surrounded by food

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.