A Backpacker's Guide to Foraging

Start reconnecting with Mother Earth by learning to forage your dinner in the wild.
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beginners guide to foraging

Start foraging right, and you'll forage for a lifetime.

In a world full of grocery store mindsets, we often lose perspective of what it takes to get food from the Earth to our tables. It’s too easy to disconnect that gallon of milk from the cow it came from or those mushrooms from the dirt from which they were plucked. That's why foraging is a great way to reconnect not only to the food you eat but to the environment in which you exist.

When learning to forage, it is best to start with the medical mindset of “first, do no harm.” This applies to yourself, as well as the landscape.

“You can forage badly,” explains Briana Wiles, herbalist and author of Mountain States Foraging and Mountain States Medicinal Plants, and co-instructor of BACKPACKER's Identifying Wild Plants online course. “If you are just foraging to take, you are not being a part of your landscape.”

Wiles encourages people to “tend nature’s garden” rather than just take from it. This means harvesting items that will grow back quickly or even spreading native seeds.

In order to be a steward of the land and a sustainable forager, you must develop an understanding of your region and the plants that grow there. Your foraging journey should start with area-specific research; Our online course, guidebooks, and the resources below are great places to start.

“Keep it sustainable so you can take for years to come,” Wiles says.

When it comes to how you should start choosing what to forage, Wiles and co-instructor Kat Mckinnon say to start slow.

beginners guide to foraging - cinquefoil

Know what you're gathering

Where to Start Foraging

When harvesting wild plants, be sure you are 100% sure of your identification. In other words, be absolutely certain of what plant you're looking at before you put it in your mouth.

Mackinnon recommends getting two or three guidebooks and cross-referencing them when identifying foraged food.

“Start by knowing the poisonous plants in your area,” she says. That way, you know what to avoid. Poison hemlock, corn lily, jimsonweed, death camas, dogbane, giant hogweed, iris, monksood, and water hemlock are just some of the most common poisonous plants in North America.

Once you have a handle on what poisonous plants to avoid, you can turn your attention to finding edible plants. To be a considerate forager, Mackinnon recommends starting with harvesting weeds. By starting with invasive weeds or plants that grow back quickly after harvesting, you are gentler on the land. Dandelion, nettle, plantain, and lambsquarters are examples of common weeds that are generally safe to harvest in abundance.

“Find plants in your area, like mint, and start practicing with those,” Mackinnon says.

beginners guide to foraging - mustard

Plants in the mustard family are frequent and sustainable targets for foragers.

Common Species to Forage

Whether you are in Illinois or Iran, some common species to forage include mustard family plants, cattails, the pine family and, as mentioned above, the mint family.

Clearly, these items may not fully sustain you on a lengthy backpacking trip, but in the right area, Wiles and Mackinnon agree that you could feed yourself for awhile on a minimalist diet.

“It really depends on where you are and what season it is,“ Mackinnon says. For example, if it’s pine nut season where you are, you might have a better chance of going full forager for a bit. Or, if you are lucky enough to be in a place such as Hawaii, you’ll generally find an abundance of fruit year-round to keep you full.

“What’s usually missing is fat and protein,” Mackinnon continues. So having nuts on the menu could be a critical element of choosing where to plan your trip. Another option is to pack a fishing pole and try your hand at catching a little protein to add to your plate after a long day of backpacking.

Of course if all your looking to do is grab a small bite along the way of a shorter trip, all you really need to add to your pack is a knife. Many of the most common species to forage can be finger-picked and eaten. For example, cattails can be hand-picked and you can eat their shoots, leaves and immature flower spikes, directly. With a knife you can also easily access items that need to be dug up.

What Are the Dangers of Foraging?

The most important part of learning to forage is knowing which plants are poisonous. Eat the wrong thing, and it could be the last thing you eat.

“Getting sick or getting a rash are more common than dying from eating the wrong plant,” Mackinnon explains, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Another part of the learning curve is getting used to the taste of bitter and sour foods. Plants plucked directly from the earth will oftentimes have a very different flavor than items you grab in the produce section of the grocery store. Take your time not only getting to know the edibles but also their particular, natural flavors.

It is also important to know your area. You should do research beforehand so you know if there are pesticides or herbicides being sprayed where you are hiking. Additionally, you may want to look into what the landscape is like upstream: If there’s a mine or other structure that could be contaminating the soil or water that nourishes the plants you plan to forage, you could have another recipe for illness or worse, even if you are eating a safe plant.

beginners guide to foraging - mint

Mint is an easy and safe plant to collect.

Crafting Herbal Medicines With Wild Plants

In addition to foraging for food to eat, you can also forage for items to use as herbal medicines, the art of which is called “wildcrafting.”

Some basic ailments that can be aided with wildcrafting while out backpacking include cuts, diarrhea, and blisters.

“You can use plantain or yarrow to stop the bleeding of a cut" by turning the plant into a spit poultice and applying it to the wound, Wiles says. Plantain is also good for bug bites and yarrow is good for keeping bruising at bay.

For an upset stomach, i.e. diarrhea, you would want to look for some white oak bark, strawberry leaves, raspberry leaves or Siberian elm.

And if your boots have given you blisters, look for the Cinquefoil plant, which grows in the mountains and not only provides an astringent, but creates a cushion for the affected area so you can keep on hiking.

beginners guide to foraging - cattails

Hungry? Grab a cattail—just make sure it's not contaminated with pesticides or runoff.

Use Foraging to Connect With the Planet

Most importantly, make sure you take the time while foraging to truly feel the link you have with the environment.

“The biggest benefit for a forager is the feeling of gratitude for being fed by your surroundings,” Wiles says. Your “Mother” [Earth] is truly feeding you the way a mother feeds and nourishes her child.

Want to start foraging, but still don't know where to begin? Sign up for Wiles’ and Mackinnon’s online course, where you'll learn to identify safe plants and sustainably harvest your dinner.