by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor
Hunting & Gathering
Procuring food in the wilderness is perhaps the most challenging skill in the field of wilderness living and one that is often misunderstood even in the survival community. Once learned and regularly applied, such skills will provide you with greater confidence in the backcountry and show you how to obtain food from a land that has much to offer to those who know where to look.
The following material intends to convey practical methods that a person, with little experience in the outdoors, can use to get started obtaining food from Nature’s Kitchen.
If you are reading this book, then you had ancestors who hunted and gathered and fished and foraged and made fire by rubbing two sticks together. Our body and mind evolved from a much different lifestyle than the one we lead today in our largely urban world. You were born with the senses and abilities to be a hunter. They are already hardwired into your being.
As your skills progress and you become more proficient at hunting and gathering, you will realize that what seems, at first glance, to be an inhospitable landscape is in reality a generous land that will sustain those who know where and, most importantly, how to look.
Where to Start
While our ancestors were incredibly adept at exploiting the resources of the land, our modern conservation laws impose restrictions that one must abide by. The reader is responsible for researching their state game laws.
In today’s world, if you want to feed yourself reasonably well in the backcountry, you must focus on the following four areas of study:
- Proficiency with a .22 caliber rifle or pistol.
- Fishing methods such as angling and using castnests and trotlines.
- Knowledge of the ten common edible plants in your region.
- How to use traps and snares.
Granted, there are other methods of procuring wild game such as bowhunting, slings, bolas, etc… but the above four represent the core skills to set your sights on as a beginner. If you are a skilled archer or experienced with an atlatl then by all means work with what you know. The more skills you possess in this realm, the more options you have.
The initial emphasis for a survivor should be on Small Game and not Big Game animals like elk, moose, and deer. On any given day in the wilds, you are going to come across a greater concentration of rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, raccoons, and other smaller critters than you will big game. For the survivor, these animals will provide sustenance until you can procure larger game.
Animal protein is going to sustain you in the long run. Our ancestors were not vegetarians and it is nearly impossible to rely solely on wild plants for sustenance beyond a few days. The exception is if you have access to quantities of seasonal acorns and/or nuts. Plants will provide vitamins, minerals, and supplemental carbohydrates.
The Realities of Living Off the Land
Where short-term survival skills help you stay alive in the outdoors until Search and Rescue can get to you, long-term wilderness living focuses on the skills for staying out for extended periods of time and being truly self-reliant.
The average dayhiker or stranded motorist stuck for a few days need only take care of the immediate priorities of shelter, water, fire, signaling, and first-aid. The person interested in self-reliance, or wanting to bring home some food when the grocery shelves are emptied during a crisis, needs to delve into the area of obtaining wild game, fish, and edible plants.
Procuring food, be it animal, fish, or wild plants, is one of the most challenging areas of long-term wilderness living to master and the one area we spend the most time on during my survival fieldcourses.
As noted earlier, we are not talking about deer or elk hunting but pursuing small game and other critters. Knowing how to obtain small game is going to give you an edge and keep meat on the table for your family until you can procure the larger animals. Plus, during a crisis, the big game animals are the first to go as everyone with a Winchester takes to the woods.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to eat just about everything that crawls, flies, walks, or slithers- from snakes and coyotes to rats and grasshoppers. Under conditions where hunger is constantly gnawing away at the body (and mind), your food prejudices quickly fade after a few days.
For example, on a seven day survival course I taught in the summer, while equipped with only handmade, primitive hunting implements (no firearms), our group of five procured and ate the following:
3 rock squirrels
1 skunk (no it doesn’t taste like chicken)
14 panfish of various sizes
scores of minnows
2 dozen roasted cattail roots per person
wild onions (mixed into each stew)
mountain parsley (for flavoring and vitamins)
5 pounds of acorns
We were constantly roving the landscape (forested environment) on organized “hunts” as well as using a variety of primitive weapons from throwing sticks to rocks to handmade field-expedient wooden bows and deadfall traps.
We always made camp not far from water as this increases wildlife encounters, edible plant resources, and with any luck- fish and crayfish harvesting. Life would have been so much easier with my trusty .22 rifle but the emphasis on this particular course was entirely on primitive methods. We ate relatively well but it was also the end of summer and it had been a wet year. We could also rely on the collective efforts of the group to provide food rather than a lone individual.
My advice, to the average person with little outdoor experience, is to acquire proficiency with a .22 rifle, learn modern fishing methods, and get acquainted with a handful of common edible plants. Then, ease yourself into learning the primitive methods of hunting and trapping.
Misconceptions About What the Land Can Provide
Look at the archeological record anywhere around the globe and you will see that ancient cultures never practiced “low impact” camping and hunting. Our ancestors were ruthless in their food quest. They dammed up creeks and had fish drives, ran animals over cliffs in mass killings, and used any method that would fill the aching bellies of their kids back at the cave. The romantic notion of a native person living in harmony with the landscape was the exception and not the rule.
As an ancient hunter, efficiency was anything that worked. Times and legal restrictions have changed though. Try and apply the above ancestral methods on your next outing and you are going to have some explaining to do when the game warden shows up.
Today, a hunter-gatherer is restricted by modern game laws that weren’t ever an issue with our ancestors. Find out what is legal to hunt in your region, stick to the game laws, and then work on your food procurement skills for filling the stewpot within those parameters. You, the reader, are responsible for researching what is legal to hunt, fish, trap, and forage in your home state.
The other misconception about living off the land comes from the survival literature that has been perpetuated over the years. Most survival manuals have the same recycled line drawings illustrating a variety of complex traps and how these are the end-all method for feeding yourself in the wilds. Many books would have you believe that it is as simple as placing a hand-carved trap out in a field and then breaking out the dinnerware.
On my early survival treks where we headed out for a month in the High Desert to try and live off the land, I would set out one or two traps each night and then scratch my head wondering why I was so hungry. Trapping is a Numbers Game. The more traps you set, the better off you will be. I found this out the hard way through the School of Hunger and time spent with begrizzled, old trappers.
You need to set out as many as you are physically capable of. There is no such thing, under survival conditions, as overdoing it! When I later learned from professional trappers, that I should be setting out traps in quantity, my success rate changed and so did my food intake. Now, if I have to set up a primitive trapline for survival purposes, it is going to have anywhere from 10-20 or more traps (snares, deadfalls, etc…).
You also have to do a heck of a lot of carving of deadfalls and then set up the actual trapline. Trapping is time-intensive in the beginning but the payoff is well worth it if you know what you are doing. Once learned, it is the most efficient means of feeding yourself in the wilds in my opinion.
Trapping and wild game procurement however is not a skill that can be acquired in the comforts of your backyard. Like most worthwhile skills, it comes with trial and error and plenty of practice out on the land.
Deadfalls and Snares
I am going to discuss trapping from a survival standpoint such as when you are stranded in the wilds for an extended period or where a breakdown in civil infrastructure might prompt you to consider alternative means of procuring food. If you are interested in modern trapping using leghold and bodygrip (Conibears) traps, then contact your local state agency for more information on these methods and how to obtain a trapping license.
Primitive trapping, using deadfalls and snares, shows up in countless survival books as the sole answer to the problem of hunger in the wilds. It can be a tremendous asset if you know what you are doing but what most books fail to mention, and something I had to figure out the hard way, is that trapping is a numbers game. You need to set many traps to feed yourself and practice your skills frequently.
On 21-day survival trips in the Great Basin Desert, we would set out 10 or more traps per person for small game. On a good day, we would experience a success rate of 1 in 5 traps procuring an animal. Placing one or two deadfalls, as most survival manuals illustrate, (with the rehashed line-drawings) won’t cut it. Place as many you as you can. Remember the more you can set out, the greater your return rate.
There are dozens and dozens of primitive traps used by native cultures throughout the world. Some that show up in survival books are complex and require considerable skill in setting up. I prefer traps that are easy to remember, simple to construct, and feasible for the average person to make. The ones that follow have been chosen for these reasons and because they have been field-tested over the years on my survival courses.
Again, I would recommend researching the archeological record in your home region to determine what types of traps were used. Most native cultures tested things out more than one time to see if it was effective! In the desert Southwest, most indigenous people used deadfalls rather than snares due to the rocky terrain and ease of construction. In forested regions, snares come into their own and were used more than deadfalls.
Snaring and deadfall traps are both excellent means of procuring meat, be it small game or large animals such as deer. Deadfalls work by crushing your intended prey while they attempt to eat the bait that you have placed on the trap mechanism. They are very effective for squirrels, chipmunks, and packrats. In ancient Europe, prehistoric hunters even used large deadfalls to bring down wolves and bears!
There are four areas that must be considered when setting a deadfall:
- Carving a precision trap and then having the proper rock or log
- Knowledge of both the behavior and tracks of your intended prey
- Setting the trap in the correct area for your intended prey
- Using a bait or lure that will appeal to as many of the animal’s senses as possible.
Primitive deadfalls for small game require decent material like willow, tamarisk, or other straight stalks. I even use juniper logs that are split out into straight timber. Carving deadfall traps is a physical skill, a skill of repetition like many things in the field of bushcraft such as axmanship, sheltermaking, tracking, etc…
The best way to become proficient with carving deadfalls is to cut three dozen willow shoots and then spend the evening whittling twenty or more traps. Don’t worry about placement or rigging these up in the field. Just sit and practice carving so you ingrain the moves in your head and hands. Carving traps does not make you into a trapper- it makes you into a trap carver. Through practice, it will refine the physical moves in your hands for creating the hardware later in the field.
The next step is to practice setting up your traps, under non-survival conditions. When I was first learning to set deadfalls, I held the award for most-bruised knuckles. Thinking that the carved trap itself was the key component, I overlooked the importance of obtaining a deadfall rock that was flat at the base. Fifty-percent of your success in setting up a deadfall properly is in precisely carving it and the other fifty-percent is in having the properly shaped rock or log to match your trap.
Regarding the weight of the rock or log, it should be 2-3 times the bodyweight of the animal you intend to trap.
Deadfalls and snares are lethal traps. Do not set these in an area where children, pets, or other domestic animals may be harmed. In a survival situation, check your trapline at least twice a day and inform others in your group where the traps are set.
The Paiute deadfall is the fastest deadfall you will find. It was used throughout the American Southwest and Africa for trapping small game. It can be a frustrating trap for the beginner so carve a few sets and then practice setting the trap until you can do it with your eyes closed!
Snares are the simplest means of procuring wild game as there is little to carve as with a deadfall. When most people think of snaring, they recall the movie where a person steps on a camouflaged snare that encircles their leg and yanks them up into the jungle canopy. There are snares that work like that and in the old days, before the availability of steel cable, this is what was used as the wire or rope used for the snare was too weak to hold an animal on the ground in place. The snares I will cover are much easier to set.
There are two basic snare materials to consider. The first is for small animals like rabbits and squirrels and involves the use of thin wire available from hardware stores or military tripwire. For a few dollars, one can purchase a spool of 22-24 gauge picture wire that will provide dozens of snares and takes up little space in the pack. Some survival books imply that this is all you need to snare every animal in North America. This fine wire is only good for very small animals and won’t hold up to a raccoon or hefty jackrabbit.
Baiting Your Traps
If you are out in the wilderness without such baits then use something exotic and uncommon to the area. If you are trying to trap a rabbit, don’t use the raspberries off the bush near its burrow. Choose some succulent cattail roots from a nearby swamp. This will spark much greater interest than the greens it is surrounded by on a daily basis. Look inside your pack- any bagels or apples? The key here is to use something “exotic” and from outside the animal’s home region.
Setting Snares on a Trail
This is where you set up a number of snares along an established trail that is fresh with tracks and hope the animal meanders into a snare while going about their daily routine. You can dramatically increase the odds if you use bait placed along the trail behind the snare.
Edible bugs and grubs? Not a chance, you say! Guess what, if you have downed a cup of apple cider or chowed on peanut butter lately, then you have consumed insects. Western culture is probably the only culture on the planet that does not partake of insects as a regular part of their diet. In some regions of the world, insects are sold in markets. A few days of hunger will usually strip away one’s prejudice.
Insects are easily found on the landscape and can provide a tremendous amount of protein until your hunting or fishing pays off. Any insect must be boiled or roasted to kill parasites. Below are some of the more common types that we use on survival courses and are worth considering. Some insects are toxic and those with bright colors should be avoided (nature’s Hazmat indicator).
Be mindful when collecting insects that their predators may lurk nearby. Keep an eye out for scorpions, spiders, and the like. These creatures are not recommended for consumption despite what Reality TV shows try to pass off on viewers.
Any of the creatures below, once cooked, can be served with soy sauce, salt, or mixed into stir-fry just like beef or chicken strips.
Grasshoppers: According to data collected by entomologists, a single large grasshopper is comprised of a walloping 60% protein and 6.1 grams of fat! Eating a handful of roasted (never raw) grasshoppers is nearly equivalent to downing a hamburger. Crickets are a second best. In parts of Latin America, grasshoppers are sold in markets by the pound.
Having had my share of cooked grasshoppers on survival treks, I can say that they are indeed worth collecting, if nothing else presents itself. Remove the legs and wings and then roast them on a rock slab in the center of the fire for twenty minutes until crispy. It will sound like you are chowing on a bag of Doritos. You can also place grasshoppers on a cookie sheet in the oven on 200 degrees for an hour. Boiling for five minutes is another good method for cooking these tasty critters.
To harvest them in the wilds, use a three foot long section from a flexible, green willow shoot and then nab the grasshopper, fly-swatter style. Crickets can be harvested the same way.
Ants: boil up the pupae (whitish eggs in the nest) to make a hearty insect stew. Avoid fire-ant mounds! Pupae can be collected in huge numbers by carefully digging into the top layer of the anthill during the morning hours. Don’t dig up the entire mound, just a small “pie-shaped” section is needed. One or two scrapes off a small section of the hill should expose the egg chambers. After collecting, cover the mound back up with dirt and vegetation so the colony can recover.
Grubs/larva/worms: earthworms can be dried like jerky and then added directly to stew. Grubs found under or in rotten logs can be collected and thrown in the stew pot. Any of the above will also make fine bait for fishing.