Den Mother: Are Any Mushrooms Safe to Eat?

Mind the inedibles when you’re snacking at the backcountry buffet.
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Mind the inedibles when you’re snacking at the backcountry buffet.

Dear Den Mother,

Let’s say I’ve been lost in the woods for a few days when I happen upon a bunch of mushrooms. Which ones are safe to eat? – Wade Boggle, via email

➔ Short answer: None of ’em. Long answer: Don’t eat any mushroom that you wouldn’t bet your life is edible. There are plenty of tasty, edible mushrooms in the woods. There are also a lot of disgusting, poisonous mushrooms that look nearly identical to the good ones. Even mushroom foraging experts have to consult their guidebooks and sometimes mis-ID species. But beyond that, look at the benefit of abstaining: Mushrooms contain plenty of vitamins, but they don’t offer much by way of calories or protein—the two things you’ll need most in a survival situation. When you’re surviving’, you gotta minimize your exposure to risk. Eating a mushroom you feel just “pretty good” about is about as dumb as it gets.

But, um, what if—

➔ You ate one anyway? Oh, child. Well, since what’s done is done, I’ll lead with the good news: Many poisonous mushrooms are mild, meaning you’ll get belly-and butt sick, but not die. Also, the onset of symptoms can take up to 24 hours, so you’ve got a little time. That brings me to the bad news: Some mushroom toxins are hyper-poisonous (there’s a species of ’shroom called Death Cap) and they can attack kidneys, liver, immune and nervous systems—or some combination of all those things. That news make you queasy? Good. Now be a good boy and shove your fingers down your throat. Grab the chunkies outta the chum and bring ’em with you on your hike for help. The best way for the docs to treat you is if they know what toxin has got you.

If you insist on foraging, though, keep this in mind: Get yourself a good guidebook and target species that don’t have deadly doppelgängers, like puffballs.

Got a question for Den Mother? Email it to denmother@backpacker.com.