Out in the wilderness, an abundance of edible plants, insects, and mushrooms hides in the lush landscape. Unfortunately, many poisonous varieties are out there as well, so you must know just what you are dealing with before you take a bite. That way, if you ever need to survive in the wilderness — or just want to show off your foraging skills — there won’t be any deadly mistakes.
Since you won’t always have access to a fully stocked camping kitchen and food, you need to learn how to safely find and eat foraged food in the wilderness before you head out on your next camping trip — and we’re here to help! Use this helpful guide to learn all you need to know about safely foraging wild edibles in the outdoors.
Table of Contents
- Always Use Great Caution Before Eating Wild Food
- Plant Foraging Basics
- Understanding Insect Foraging
- Foraging for Mushrooms
- The Universal Edibility Test
- Staying Safe with Smart Wild Food ID Tactics
Always Use Great Caution Before Eating Wild Food
Whenever the occasion arises to eat wild food, you have to exhibit great caution to ensure everything is completely edible.
To help you out, here are a few safety rules to remember when eating wild edible plants:
- Never eat anything you cannot confidently identify
- Always work through the proper identification steps before eating wild food
- Use all five senses as you work on identifying wild food
- Be aware of dangerous look-alikes and how to tell them apart from edible wild food
- Start with a small amount to check for allergic reactions or food intolerances
- Only try one new food at a time to see what your system tolerates well
- Teach your fellow adventurers how to identify and find food in the wilderness
- Ask for a second opinion on your plant, insect, or mushroom ID whenever possible
When you take the time to stay safe while foraging, you can eat wild food without worry about gastric upset or worse.
Plant Foraging Basics
When it comes to identifying plants, field guides are helpful tools, but they must be used with a little bit of knowledge as well. Simply flipping through the guide, hoping to find a match, can prove frustrating and fruitless all at the same time. Instead, you can learn how to visual identifiers to zero in on the correct plant family and exact species with Newcomb’s Plant Identification steps.
Newcomb’s Plant Identification Steps
Using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, you can work through the precise steps needed to pinpoint each species of plant in front of you. Once you get to the end of the steps, you will have a three digit code that allows you to look up the exact plant species in the book. So, get the book and follow these steps to identify plants in style.
Categorize the Flower by Shape
In the first phase of the process, you will take a close look at the flower on the plant, paying close attention to its shape. You will need to determine if the flower is regular, irregular, or indistinguishable.
Regular flowers are symmetrical across the radial line, or center of the flower. Irregular flowers are the exact opposite. They are not symmetrical when divided across the center. Indistinguishable flowers are too tiny to see clearly, leaving you guessing about their flower shape.
If you determine the flowers are regular, then you must count the petals to see how many it has. With this information, you can derive your first number. Irregular flowers receive a one while indistinguishable flowers get an eight. Give regular flowers the number matching their petal totals.
Determine the Plant Type
To find the second number in the identification sequence, you must determine the plant type. You will need to examine its structure to see if it is a vine, wildflower, or woody shrub. If you have a wildflower on your hands, it will need a longer look at its leaves to find its number. Look carefully to see if it has:
- No sign of leaves anywhere
- Leaves only at the base of the stem, called basal leaves
- Leaves that alternate up the length of the stem
- Whorled leaves
- Pairs of leaves
When faced with a plant with no leaves, give it a one. Plants with basal leaves only get a two. Plants with alternate leaves receive a three, while opposite and whorled leaves are assigned to four. Shrubs and vines are five and six, respectively. Once you have the second number, you are only one away from having the full sequence and knowing what plant you have.
Describe the Leaves
An examination of the plant’s leaf shape will give you the third, and final, number needed to successfully identify it. If the plant does not have any leaves, however, add the number one to the end of your three-digit sequence and move onto the next step.
If there are leaves on the plant, look at the shape of their edges to determine if they are:
If the edge of the leaf looks smooth, give it a two. For leaves with lobed or toothed edges, assign them a three. Divided leaves are given the number four. With this final number in your hands, you can use your three-digital code to identify the plant and see if it is safe to eat.
Use the Code to Find Your Plant
With the three-digit sequence, you can flip through Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to find the matching plant. If you correctly identified the flower shape, plant type, and leaf shape, you should have the exact plant in your hand as the one shown in the book. If not, you need to start over from the top to try again in identifying the plant.
Some edible plants are difficult to eat if they aren’t cooked, so if you plan to forage while camping, make sure you have the proper equipment packed. A cast iron pot and a fire can do wonders for helping prepare any type of foraged foods out in the wild, so make sure you’re prepared before heading out.
Only when you accurately identify the plant and determine that it is edible should you even consider giving it a try. With a confident ID, you can start slow in integrating the wild food into your meals. Remember to only try one new food at a time, and in small amounts, to see how your system responds before going all out.
Understanding Insect Foraging
Insects can provide all the protein you need while out in the wilderness. You just need to know where to find them and which ones are safe to eat. With that knowledge, you can find an abundance of edible insects that will keep your belly full. And who knows? With their surprisingly complex flavors, you might even find you like them far more than you ever thought possible.
How to Tell Which Bugs are Safe to Eat
In case you ever get stuck in the wilderness, knowing which bugs are safe to eat can save you from dire consequences down the road. Insects, which have six legs, an exoskeleton, and an antenna, are all typically edible, but you should make sure by looking for these warning signs:
- Bright colors (even just on the legs)
- Furry body
- Eight legs or more
If you spot any of these warning signs, put that bug on your permanent do not eat list. All arachnids and myriapoda, such as millipedes, fall under this list, so skip them as you search for bugs to eat in the wilderness.
Although it might seem obvious, it also needs to be said that you should never eat any bugs that are venomous. Scorpions are the only exception, however, as you can snip off the tail and eat the rest.
Barring the warning signs, insects you can eat include:
Although not insects, earthworms, grubs, snails, and slugs are also edible. In fact, snails are quite a delicacy in many parts of the world. When foraging in tropical areas, make sure to cook both slugs and snails very well to kill parasites.
Since most bugs are plentiful in the wilderness, you should have no trouble finding enough of the edible varieties to keep you satiated. However, when planning to eat wild-caught insects, you should always take care to cook them thoroughly beforehand. Insects can sometimes carry parasites that can be transferred to you after ingestion, so if possible, you should take precaution and cook the insects over a camping stove or other heat source before eating them.
Where to Look for Insects
Although finding edible insects in the wilderness is as easy as turning over stones, there are some tricks you can use to speed up the process. Here’s where to find the best bugs for eating.
- Termites: Old logs hide termites in droves. You will have to break open the log to find them, so pick a rotten piece and get to splitting it apart.
- Grubs: Peel off the bark on rotting logs or search under rocks to find grubs, then pick them up and put them in a container before they wriggle away.
- Ants: See ants? Follow them back to their anthill. Then, poke at it with a stick — and once the ants latch on, dip the stick into a container of water poured from a hydration bladder or a camping mug to collect the ants.
- Earwigs: Find earwigs under old logs, rocks, and leaf litter, but work fast, as they tend to rapidly scurry away as soon as daylight hits their behinds.
- Crickets and Grasshoppers: Find these guys happily lazing about or hopping along in the tall grass. For an easier catch, hunt these critters in the early morning hours.
When you take the time to hunt for edible insects, you can fulfill all your protein needs and avoid feeling hungry on your wilderness adventures.
Foraging for Mushrooms
When it comes to looking for edible food in the wilderness, foraging for mushrooms might be the most rewarding, but also the riskiest. Highly-coveted and wildly-delicious edible mushrooms hide at every corner of the forest, awaiting eager foragers looking for a tasty treat. There are also a plethora of dangerous to deadly mushrooms lurking out there, so it is important to pinpoint the edible ones before digging in.
Risks of Mushroom Foraging
If you are not incredibly careful, you could fall prey to toxic mushrooms and suffer many ill effects. Depending on the mushroom type, toxic varieties can cause:
- Stomach upset
- Liver damage
- Kidney failure
With many toxic mushrooms carrying the potential to cause severe illness and death, it is important that you always take the time to accurately identify the mushrooms you find. If you cannot identify them, throw them away and find something else to eat.
Common Edible Mushrooms
Thankfully, there is a wide array of completely edible and delicious mushrooms in the wilderness that are already normally used for cooking in kitchens and with camping cookbooks all over the world. Here are several you can toss into your cast iron camping skillet while on your adventures.
For a burst of mild peppery flavor, you can always count on chanterelles. If these turn out to be your favorite mushroom, you are in luck because their beautiful appearance makes them easy to spot from afar. They look like gorgeous trumpet-like flowers in bright yellow to deep orange hues.
When growing in abundance, you might catch their apricot-like scent on the air. Look around the base of hardwood trees, pine trees, and various bushes to find them. Depending on your location, you can find these mushrooms from summer through fall. While collecting your wild mushrooms, make sure to leave the forest floor undisturbed to ensure the chanterelles come back year after year.
A prized delicacy, morel mushrooms can only be gathered in the wild. Their robust texture and complex nutty flavor makes them a favorite of many, especially those who love fine dining.
Although they have an iconic honeycomb-like surface, these mushrooms can vary quite a bit in appearance. As they grow, their caps can remain bulbous or extend in an oblong shape. Their color varies from light brown to deep gray as well.
You can find these tasty mushrooms growing in the spring and fall at the base of living trees and in pastures and meadows. They are also likely to grow in areas that were recently burned in a forest fire. These fire morels are most likely to grow near spruce and pine trees, though they can pop up anywhere in the area.
The combination of a velvety texture and nutty flavor make oyster mushrooms a favorite amongst foragers and fine diners alike. You can easily locate oyster mushrooms throughout the fall months, as long as you know where to look.
To find this delicacy, look for the clusters of white mushrooms that look like little oyster shells. They are usually growing on fallen trees and old stumps. Since oyster mushrooms are partial to hardwoods and conifers, looking at these trees first is your best bet.
The types of mushrooms you’ll find out in the wild depend on where you’re foraging, so you might find other mushrooms instead of these ones. Make sure to do some research on your local area and what types of mushrooms are common there before going out to forage so you don’t miss out on any great finds.
When you find edible mushrooms in the wilderness, mark them on your map because they are likely to regrow there again and again through the years. Come back throughout the growing season to collect your mushrooms and enjoy the most amazing delicacies in the forest.
The Universal Edibility Test
Failing all else, if you are stuck in the forest and in need of emergency food, you can use the universal edibility test to determine what is safe to eat (note that this does not apply to mushrooms). Here’s how it is done:
- Break the plant down into its basic components, separating the roots, flowers, and all.
- Taking one piece at a time, inhale the plant’s scent, noting any unpleasant smells. If the plant has a strong odor that you find repulsive, it is likely not safe to eat.
- Rub the plant on the inside of your elbow and monitor for a skin reaction, such as a rash or burning. Wait at least 15 minutes before continuing with the test. If a reaction occurs, the plant should be deemed unsafe.
- Take the plant and gently rub it on your lips to see if there is a reaction. If you notice any itching or other strange sensations, end the test, as the plant is not safe to eat.
- You will need to taste the plant next, chewing it up and holding it in your mouth for at least 15 minutes. If you note any bitterness or other unpleasant flavors, remove the plant from your mouth and end the test.
- If the plant tastes fine to you, it is time to swallow it to perform the final step of the universal edibility test. If you are still feeling fine after several hours, you can determine that the plant part is edible and completely safe to eat.
You will need to repeat these steps for every plant part you intend to eat. You may find that many plants have parts that are safe and quite tasty along with others that are not edible at all.
Staying Safe with Smart Wild Food ID Tactics
No matter what types of food you want to find, you should always make safety a priority. Take the time to move through the steps to accurately identify wild food before you eat it or prepare it in your portable camping kitchen. Additionally, be sure to carry a bear canister with you, because wild animals may be attracted to the smell of the food you forage. Through your efforts, you can stay safe and keep your belly full while on your adventures in the wilderness. Your diligence will be well rewarded through all the amazing foods you can often only find growing across the local landscape.