How to Eat in the Woods

A Complete Guide to Foraging, Trapping, Fishing, and Finding Sustenance in the Wild


By Bradford Angier

With Jon Young

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A comprehensive, practical, and reliable guide to finding food in the woods and living off the land, by respected wilderness survivalists.

With text by wilderness survivalists, the information in How to Eat in the Woods is tried, trusted, and true. One of the most complete books written on the subject, this portable guide includes essential information on how to track, trap, kill, and prepare various types of animals; select bait, land fish, and clean and cook the catch; recognize edible plants, fruits, berries, and nuts; locate bird eggs; catch edible insects; and find potable water. Also included is information on building a fire and preparing food without utensils.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

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The Need for Food

THERE ARE MANY REASONS FOR WANTING TO understand how to eat in the woods. Some readers may wish to take advantage of the bounty all around them and want to enter a nearby forest with the intent of finding their next meal. Others may want to understand what to do should they become lost or stranded in the woods. Thousands of North America's millions of annually licensed fishermen and hunters do become lost each year, many fatally. Yet almost invariably, where such individuals suffer and all too often succumb to starvation or exposure, wild food is free for the picking, meat is free for the taking, and fire may be made.

You may be in an automobile that is stalled by mishap or storm in an unsettled area, a not uncommon occurrence that frequently results in unnecessary hardship and tragedy. Perhaps you'll be a passenger in an aircraft that has to make a forced landing. Perhaps you'll be shipwrecked.

It may even happen that you and yours will one day be compelled to seek sanctuary in the wilderness because of threats to civilization itself—an atom bomb catastrophe or the even more terrible microscopic foes of germ warfare.

"Man's capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge what we can do by any precedents, so little has been tried," Thoreau pointed out. "What people say you can not do, you try and find you can."

It is the task of another book to explore how to survive such disaster. The intent of this volume is to use the ways of living off the land discussed herein as a foundation for ingenuity and common sense. This will allow anybody who suddenly finds themselves dependent upon their own resources to stay alive. The wilderness is too big to fight. Yet for those of us who can take advantage of what it freely offers, nature will furnish every necessity. The following pages focus on the necessities of food and water.


Some of the best foods in the world are free. Long before we thought of raising them in our gardens and on our farms and ranches, all our commonest fruits and vegetables were growing wild.

Wild foods have always been important in this young country. The Pilgrims during their first desperate winter derived considerable nourishment from groundnuts, which are similar to small potatoes. California's forty-niners, plagued by scurvy because of the scarcity of food in some of the gold camps, were introduced to miner's lettuce by American Indians and the Spanish. Farther north, scurvy grass performed a similar function, both preventing and curing the vitamin-deficiency disease among early frontiersmen. When regular rations on the Lewis and Clark expedition had to be reduced to one biscuit a day, it was the sweet yellow fruit of the papaw that kept the explorers going.

Even today, in this age of space flight and split atoms, sustenance tasty enough to satisfy us in times of plenty and nourishing enough to keep us healthy if survival ever becomes a problem grows free for the taking in yards, vacant lots, and fields, along roadsides and seashores, on mesas, stream banks, and lake edges, and within marshes and sequestered woodlands—ready and waiting for those who recognize the bounties they hold.

It's easy to avoid picking any of the limited number of poisonous wild plants in North America just by positively identifying everything before you pick it—and this book, with its detailed descriptions and drawings, not only affords ample means for doing so, but also eliminates borderline plants that might reasonably cause confusion. Start with only a few wild edibles if you want—perhaps with those you've already known for years, although maybe not as foods. Each year, add a few more.

What hobby can yield the same amount of pure and vigorous pleasure with so little outlay, and such delicious returns, as the gathering of wild foods? When you become interested in them, each excursion outdoors is transformed from a purposeless stroll to an eager, rewarding quest. Each trip becomes an opportunity for making new wild edible acquaintances and enjoying hours of stimulating exhilaration.

Readers who prepare and sample even a few of the wild delicacies discussed in this book will be well on their way not only to exciting new adventures in gourmet dining but also to accumulating knowledge that can make the difference between life and death in an unforeseen emergency.


Starvation is as awful as most of us would expect. The body becomes auto-cannibalistic after a few foodless hours. The carbohydrates in the system are devoured first. The fats follow.

This might not be too disagreeable, inasmuch as diets seek to accomplish much the same result, but then proteins from muscles and tendons are consumed to maintain the dwindling strength their loss more gravely weakens.

No reasonable nourishment should therefore be scorned if one needs food. Some arctic explorers, including John Richardson, John Franklin, and members of their parties, lived for weeks and sometimes months almost entirely on the lichen known as rock tripe. Wild turnips kept up John Colter's strength when the mountain man made his notable escape from Blackfoot Indians. Beaver meat was a main item on the menu while Samuel Black explored the Finlay River of western Canada.

There is no need to explain why, if any of us are ever stranded and hungry in the wilderness, we will want to start searching for food while our strength is still near its maximum.


You can, with relatively few exceptions, eat anything that crawls, swims, walks, or flies. The first obstacle is overcoming your natural aversion to a particular food source. Historically, people in starvation situations have resorted to eating everything imaginable for nourishment. A person who ignores an otherwise healthy food source due to a personal bias, or because he feels it is unappetizing, is risking his own survival. Although it may prove difficult at first, a survivor must eat what is available to maintain his health. The salad plants and potherbs growing wild on this continent are so abundant that when one stays hungry for very long in the silent spaces it is not always with good reason.

Using our hard-earned money, we purchase from stores the food that fuels our body, never understanding where it comes from or how it is procured. What would we do if the stores no longer existed?

The first 22-day trip I took to the woods I lost 25 pounds. The head-high snow and harsh weather drained my energy and left me feeling weak. The demands of my training along with a limited food supply showed me how harsh living in Mother Nature could be. I drank pine needle tea and ate the meaty cambium found between a tree's bark and inner wood. I longed for a pizza or burger. After several days of this I realized that I controlled my destiny and if I wanted the valuable nutrients nature could provide I'd have to pay closer attention to the vegetation, bugs, and animals around me. When I finally snared a squirrel it not only provided me with a welcome meal but also lifted my spirits about my ability to survive.

—Gregory J. Davenport


Few will disagree, at least when the moment of decision is at hand, that there is a point where luxuries as such become relatively unimportant. One of life's luxuries that we esteem most highly is the freedom to indulge our taste buds. Our taste prejudices, a better understanding of which may one day prove beneficial, are commonly based on two factors.

First, there is a human tendency to look down upon certain foods as being beneath one's social station. Where grouse have been particularly thick in the Northeast, I've seen them scorned among backwoodsmen as a "poor man's dish." The same season in the Northwest, where there happened to be a scarcity of grouse but numerous hares, the former were esteemed while I heard habitants apologizing for having rabbits in their pots. As it is everywhere in such matters, the lower the designated station of the creature, the more prejudiced against eating it the locals are.

Second, it is natural to like the food to which we have become accustomed. We in the United States and Canada have our wheat. The Mexican has his corn, the Asian his rice. These grains we like also, but it might seem a hardship to have to eat them every day as we do wheat bread.

Our fastidiousness, too, is perhaps repelled by the idea of a Polynesian islander eating freshly caught raw flesh, although we may enjoy it in such preparations as sushi and beef carpaccio. The Inuit enjoy fish mellowed by age. Many of us regard as choice some particularly moldy, odoriferous cheeses.


Although it is true that under ideal conditions the human body can sometimes fend off starvation for upward of two months by living on its own tissues, it is equally certain that such auto-cannibalism is seldom necessary anywhere in the North American wilderness.

A good rule is not to pass up any reasonable food sources if we are ever in need. There are many dead men who, through ignorance or fastidiousness, did.


The value of food—as a source of power and warmth—is measured by its nutritional benefit. Nutrition is a somewhat imprecise science, but everyone agrees that a shortage of nutrients can cause energy slumps that bring early fatigue, lassitude, mind-numbness, and a predisposition for injury. Start every trip by planning to eat a nutritionally sound diet, balancing the best foods with what is practical to carry into the wild.

The most important element of good nutrition is water. Beyond this, there are three sources of energizing foods: carbohydrates, fats, and, to some extent, proteins. Although all foods must be digested into simple compounds before they can be burned for power, carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are digested most quickly and easily. Simple carbohydrates (simple sugars, such as granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, and molasses) are small molecular units that break down very fast, entering the bloodstream soon after you eat them. You get an energy boost right away, but most sugars are burned so quickly that energy levels can suddenly fall below your starting point if all you eat is simple carbohydrates. Therefore, complex carbohydrates (strings of simple sugars called starches, such as pasta, grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables) need to be a major portion of your diet. Being a more complex molecular unit, starches break down more slowly, providing power for the long haul. Simple sugars, in other words, are like kindling for a fire, and starches are the big, fat logs.

Fat is so important that your body will manufacture it from carbohydrates and proteins if you run short. Fats (cheese, nuts, butter, peanut butter, meat) break down very slowly in the digestive process, so more time is required for them to provide energy. That's a good thing when you need a steady source of energy over an extended period, such as long nights in the sleeping bag. But if you're used to eating a low-fat diet, add fats slowly to allow your digestive system to adjust.

Proteins are made up of amino acids, and amino acids are the basic substance of human tissue. Proteins (meat, milk products, eggs, cheese, seeds, nuts, whole grains) are not a primary energy source, but your body will use them if nothing else is available or if you exercise for a long time. But because tissue is continually lost and replaced (and new tissue is built after you exercise), proteins are essential. All the amino acids are synthesized by your body except for eight, which have to be eaten. A "complete protein" has all eight of these amino acids.

If you eat a variety of foods from all three sources—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—and enough of it, you'll get not only the nutrition you need but also the vitamins and minerals necessary for health and performance.


One of the biggest problems with long-term survival is meeting your nutritional requirements. Many backcountry enthusiasts focus on meat as their main source of food and often overlook all the other supplies Mother Nature has to provide. The ideal diet has five basic food groups:

1. Carbohydrates: easily digested food that provides rapid energy; most often found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

2. Fats: slowly digested food that provides long-lasting energy that is normally utilized once the carbohydrates are gone; most often found in butter, cheese, oils, nuts, eggs, and animal fats. In cold environments it isn't uncommon for the natives to eat fats before bed, believing they will help keep them warm throughout the night.

3. Protein: helps with the building of body cells; most often found in fish, meat, poultry, and blood.

4. Vitamins: provide no calories but aid in the body's daily function and growth. Vitamins occur in most foods and when you maintain a well-balanced diet you will rarely become depleted.

5. Minerals: provide no calories but aid with building and repairing the skeletal system and regulating the body's normal growth. As with vitamins these needs are met when a well-balanced diet is followed. In addition to food, minerals are often present in our water.

The five major food groups and a sixth "use sparingly group" make up your basic dietary regimen:

Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group—six to eleven servings a day.

Vegetable group—three to five servings a day.

Fruit group—two to four servings a day.

Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group—two to three servings a day.

Milk and cheese group—two to three servings a day.

Fats, oils, and sweets—use sparingly.

No one group is more important than the other—you need them all for good health. A healthy diet begins with plenty of grains, generous amounts of vegetables and fruits, and a smaller amount of protein and dairy products.


Scurvy has gathered more explorers, pioneers, trappers, and prospectors to their fathers than can be reckoned, for it is a debilitating killer whose lethal subtleties through the centuries have too often been misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Scurvy, which is characterized in its early stages by fatigue and bleeding from gums and mucous membranes, is now known to be a deficiency disease. If you have it, taking vitamin C into your system will cure you. Eating a little vitamin C regularly will, indeed, keep you from having scurvy in the first place.

Fresh meat will both prevent and cure scurvy. So will fresh fish. So will fresh fruits and vegetables, wild or otherwise. So will lime juice and lemon juice, but, no matter how sour, only if they too are fresh. The vitamin C in all these is lessened and eventually destroyed by oxidation, by age, and, incidentally, by salt.


Spruce tea made by steeping fresh evergreen needles in water will be as potent with the both preventative and curative ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as ordinary orange juice. You can get this vitamin even more directly by chewing the tender new needles, whose starchy green tips are particularly pleasant to eat in the spring.


A man can have all the rabbit meat he wants to eat and still perish. So-called rabbit starvation, as a matter of fact, is particularly well known in the Far North.

An exclusive diet of any lean meat, of which rabbit is a practical example, will cause digestive upset and diarrhea. Eating more and more rabbit, as one is compelled to do because of the increasing uneasiness of hunger, will only worsen the condition.

The diarrhea and general discomfort will not be relieved unless fat is added to the diet. Death will otherwise follow within a few days. One would probably be better off on just water than on rabbit and water.

Boiling supple needles in water will provide as much vitamin C as fresh orange juice and can restore a body with warmth and a sense of well-being under cold and trying circumstances.


Why is fat so important an item in a survival diet? Part of the answer, as we have seen, lies in the fact that eating lean flesh without a sufficient amount of fat will kill us, an actuality that may seem astonishing, for in civilization we obtain numerous fats from a very great number of often unrecognized sources. These include butter, margarine, lard, milk, cheese, bacon, salad oil, mayonnaise, various sauces, candy, nuts, ice cream, and the fatty ingredients in such staples as bread.

If in an emergency we have to subsist entirely on meat, the fat of course will have to come from the meat itself. The initial consideration in a meat diet, therefore, is fat.

Yet history tells of supposedly experienced men who, although starving, have burned vital fat to give nutritiously inferior lean meat what seemed to them a more appetizing flavor—a suicidal error of which we, having learned better in an easier way, need never be guilty.


It has always been believed, among all social levels of all peoples, that starving human beings left to their own resources will devour everything suspected of having food value, including their fellow human beings.

"It is rare, except in fiction, that men are killed to be eaten. There are cases where a member of a party becomes so unsocial in his conduct toward the rest that by agreement he is killed; but if his body then is eaten it is not logically correct to say that he was killed for food," explorer Villijalinur Stefansson says. "What does happen constantly is that those who have died of hunger, or of another cause, will be eaten. But long before cannibalism develops the party has eaten whatever else is edible."

Some scientists, who point out that objections are psychological and sociological, declare abstractly that animal proteins are desirable in direct ratio with their chemical similarity to the eating organism, and that therefore for the fullest and easiest assimilation of flesh, human meat can hardly be equaled.


Nearly every part of North American animals is edible. (Exceptions, not found in the woods in any case, are polar bear and ringed and bearded seal liver which become so excessively rich in Vitamin A that they are poisonous to some degree at certain times and are usually as well avoided.) All freshwater fish are likewise good to eat.

All birds are good to eat. When they are molting and unable to fly, it is not difficult to corner them on foot. Large flocks may be occasionally captured by driving them into nets or traps. Roosting or nesting birds can be secured by a noose fastened to the end of a pole. Birds can also be caught in fine snares placed where they nest, feed, or congregate. Deadfall traps immobilize them, too.

Even the riper eggs, or any eggs it may be possible to secure, are nourishing. If one has continued access to a large colony at nesting time, one way to be assured of fresh eggs is to mark whatever is already in the nests, perhaps removing all but a few if conditions seem to justify it.


Here are some tips for planning your cold-weather menu:

• Apart from basic nutrition, the single most important factor in cold-weather food consumption is eating food you enjoy.

• Your cold tolerance will improve if you eat a high-fat snack (about one-third of the calories from fat) every couple of hours. In fact, your blood sugar will stay sufficiently high if you eat a full breakfast and a full dinner, and snack throughout the day's activities. Food and drink every hour helps to maintain warmth and strength. Another snack just before bedtime will help keep you warm while you sleep.

• Spoilage is not a problem on winter trips, because the cold temperatures preserve the food. The biggest problem will be keeping food unfrozen. Wrap the food bag in your pack inside extra clothing for insulation. Keep snacks handy (and thawed) in a pocket near your body.

• Cut your cheese, meats, and butter into chunks before leaving home. Even if they freeze solid, you will still have manageable pieces.

• Think simple. You'll be cold and tired, so quick one-pot meals will be more appealing.

Chapter 1

Plants as Food

IN A SURVIVAL SITUATION YOU SHOULD ALWAYS be on the lookout for familiar wild foods and live off the land whenever possible.

You must not count on being able to go for days without food, as some sources would suggest. Even in the most static survival situation, maintaining health through a complete and nutritious diet is essential to maintaining strength and peace of mind.

Nature can provide you with food that will let you survive any ordeal, if you don't eat the wrong plant. You must therefore learn as much as possible beforehand about the flora of the region where you will be operating. Plants can provide you with medicines in a survival situation. Plants can supply you with weapons and raw materials to construct shelters and build fires. Plants can even provide you with chemicals for poisoning fish, preserving animal hides, and for camouflaging yourself and your equipment.


Plants are valuable sources of food because they are widely available, easily procured, and, in the proper combinations, can meet all your nutritional needs.

Absolutely identify plants before using them as food. Poison hemlock has killed people who mistook it for its relatives, wild carrots and wild parsnips.

At times you may find yourself in a situation for which you could not plan. In this instance you may not have had the chance to learn the plant life of the region in which you must survive. In this case you can use the Universal Edibility Test (see here) to determine which plants you can eat and those to avoid.

It is important to be able to recognize both cultivated and wild edible plants in a survival situation. Most of the information in this chapter is directed toward identifying wild plants because information relating to cultivated plants is more readily available.


Remember the following when collecting wild plants for food:

• Plants growing near homes and occupied buildings or along roadsides may have been sprayed with pesticides. Wash them thoroughly. In more highly developed areas with many automobiles, avoid roadside plants, if possible, due to contamination from exhaust emissions.

• Plants growing in contaminated water or in water containing Giardia lamblia and other parasites are contaminated themselves. Boil or disinfect them.

• Some plants develop extremely dangerous fungal toxins. To lessen the chance of accidental poisoning, do not eat any fruit that is starting to spoil or showing signs of mildew or fungus.

• Plants of the same species may differ in their toxic or subtoxic compounds content because of genetic or environmental factors. One example of this is the foliage of the common chokecherry. Some chokecherry plants have high concentrations of deadly cyanide compounds, while others have low concentrations or none. Horses have died from eating wilted wild cherry leaves. Avoid any weeds, leaves, or seeds with an almond-like scent, a characteristic of the cyanide compounds.

• Some people are more susceptible to gastric distress from plants than others. If you are sensitive in this way, avoid unknown wild plants. If you are extremely sensitive to poison ivy, avoid products from this family, including any parts from sumacs, mangoes, and cashews.

• Some edible wild plants, such as acorns and water lily rhizomes, are bitter. These bitter substances, usually tannin compounds, make them unpalatable. Boiling them in several changes of water will usually remove these bitter properties.

• Many valuable wild plants have high concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid. Oxalates produce a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and damage the kidneys. Baking, roasting, or drying usually destroys these oxalate crystals. The corm (bulb) of the jack-in-the-pulpit is known as the "Indian turnip," but you can eat it only after removing these crystals by slow baking or by drying.


Do not eat mushrooms in a survival situation! The only way to tell if a mushroom is edible is by positive identification. There is no room for experimentation. Symptoms of the most dangerous mushrooms affecting the central nervous system may show up after several days have passed, when it is too late to reverse their effects.



On Sale
Mar 15, 2016
Page Count
320 pages

Bradford Angier

About the Author

Bradford Angier (1910 – 1997) was a wilderness survivalist and the author of numerous bestselling books on nature, survival, and living off the land. His writing is supplemented by text from noted survivalist and naturalist writers including Gregory J. Davenport, Christopher Nyerges, Jon Young, and Tiffany Morgan.

Learn more about this author