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Ten Survivalist Foods and How to Find Them

by Christopher Dale
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Anyone who’s ever watched Naked and Afraid has placed themselves—hypothetically and perhaps less nakedly—in the contestants’ precarious positions. Clothed or otherwise, if you were stranded in God knows where for a few weeks, could you live off the land until help arrives or evacuation is possible?

In such scenarios, survival can depend on knowing what’s edible and what isn’t. So though you’ll likely die from a bear mauling, gangrenous wound, or hypothermia, at least you won’t die hungry.

Related: 10 Foods We Eat That May Lead To Poisoning Or Death

10 “Complete Eat” Plants & Flowers

Is Eating Dandelions Good for You? | Super Foods: The Real Story

A wide array of plants and flowers can be safely consumed—but many come with caveats like “eat the leaf but not the stalk.” So if you’re in a bind, it’s helpful to know which plants and flowers can be eaten in their entirety without having to remember species-specific “ifs” and “buts.”

For example, amaranth is a weed native to the Americas that can be consumed as-is. While it’s recommended to boil it to remove the harder-to-digest oxalic acid and nitrates it stores—as well as the small spines sometimes dotting its leaves—it’s safe to eat raw.

Four-leafed or otherwise, clover is another survivalist staple. It often grows in thick patches and can be eaten raw or boiled down. The reddish varieties are especially nutritious, providing varying degrees of calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.

Another widespread and easily distinguishable plant is chicory, which is native to Europe but also prominent throughout North America. Identifiable by its telltale lavender and blue flowers, chicory can be consumed flowers, leaves, roots, and all. They’re best eaten boiled, but raw is okay in a pinch.

Typically preceded with expletives by lawn owners everywhere, the (f*cking) dandelion might be this category’s winner. The hearty weed flower is both impossible to avoid and readily edible (it also tastes disgusting, but beggars can’t be choosers). If boiled, the water can also be drunk as a nutritious punch.[1]

9 “Partial Palate” Plants & Flowers

Wild Food Foraging- Cattail- Veggie Pasta

While it’s useful, for the sake of both efficiency and simplicity, to know which flora can be consumed entirely, some partially edible plants come with obvious hints regarding which parts to eat and which to scrap.

For example, if you’re stranded in the Eastern Hemisphere, burdock is a common plant that, as a bonus, grows quite large in the wild. Its tip is a sort of spiky, pollen-filled bulb that screams “don’t eat me”—think a sunflower, but the yellow part has spikes sticking from it. However, its leaves are completely edible, as are its stalks once the top layer is peeled away.

But if you’re near a marshy area, the most ubiquitous and easily identified plant is the cattail. Plentiful in much of the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, the fast-multiplying, ugly tallgrass is one of the many reasons my home state of New Jersey is roundly mocked by neighboring New York.

Each cattail has both male and female flowers on the same stalk. The male flower falls off the stalk’s tip once it pollinates the female. However, before that occurs, its unspent pollen is an excellent protein source. Meanwhile, the female flower—which resembles a fuzzy hotdog—is green prior to pollination and can be harvested and eaten, typically mixed with water and mashed. Cattail roots, which contain an adequate amount of starch, also can be softened in water and consumed.[2]

8 Squirrels

Sure beats rats or bats, doesn’t it? While they may not seem particularly palatable, squirrels are among the most ubiquitous mammals in the world, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

Less gross than rats and less likely than bats to start a global pandemic that leaves millions dead (you know who I’m looking at), squirrels can provide a serviceable amount of protein in a pinch. In fact, an adult squirrel can yield nearly half a pound of edible meat—that is, if you can bag the little buggers.

The easiest way to catch a squirrel is with bait and a cage. But assuming those aren’t accessible, a simple piece of wire or even plant-based cordage can be employed. It’s better shown than explained, but the concept stems from squirrels’ preference to climb trees on an incline rather than straight up the trunk. Finding a low-hanging, diagonal branch (or leaning a felled one against a tree), the goal is to snare the squirrel’s neck in the cordage. When the critter struggles, the simple trap tightens, twists…and hangs it.

Squirrel meat can be such a survivalist staple that entire articles are dedicated to skinning them in ways that maximize meat yield. While the process is somewhat stomach-turning, squirrels have been intermittent culinary fixtures for centuries. An October 2020 article in Fine Dining Lovers boldly announced the rodent’s return with the headline “Squirrel Is Back on the Menu.”[3]

Squirrels: the other-other-OTHER white meat.

7 Snakes

Born Survivor 3 – How to Kill a Snake

For survivalists, snake meat represents a significant “risk vs. reward.” Rewarding because snake meat is, typically, pleasant tasting and nutritious. Risky because (duh) you might die trying to procure it.

When hunting for some slithery supper, it helps to be able to distinguish the poisonous from the pretenders. Some snakes look dangerous but aren’t, and vice versa. Here, geography matters. For example, if you’re lost in the woods of the northeastern U.S. or Canada, you’re in luck: the only venomous snakes are the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake, and neither packs enough punch to kill you.

If you’re in Central or South America, approach with extreme caution and, perhaps, not at all. The region has nearly 400 distinct species of venomous snakes, including the dreaded Fer-de-Lance (or “spearhead,” due to its pointy head) pit viper, whose inch-long fangs and deep venom reserves make it the deadliest reptile in the Americas. If you’re in Africa, where cobras and black mambas and puff adders abound…well, probably skip the snakes unless your last name is Irwin.

Assuming you’re armed with only nature’s tools—long sticks and rocks—the best way to kill a snake is to pin its head with a long stick and crush its skull with the butt of another stick, or if you can safely get close enough, a sizable stone. If a knife or sharp stone is handy, chop its head off to ensure it’s dead.[4]

6 Mushrooms That Won’t Make You Die

9 Wild Edible Mushrooms You Can Forage This Spring

Any responsible discussion about edible wild mushrooms warrants a separate entry on ones to avoid (see next entry). First, let’s look at varieties that are both safe and easy to distinguish.

Chief among these might be hen-of-the-woods. Native to China, Japan, and North America, it’s favored by beginner mushroom hunters for its lack of dangerous lookalikes. Grayish-brown in color with white undercaps, they range from 3 to 15 pounds and are generally found in autumn. Helpful to identifying hen-of-the-woods is its lack of striated lines, or gills, that many mushrooms exhibit.

Another low-risk option is the oyster mushroom. Found in forests worldwide and high in B vitamins, these grow in clusters resembling shelves on dead or dying trees. The tops of their oyster-shaped caps range in color from white to brownish-gray and in width from 2 to 8 inches. Their undercaps contain tightly spaced gills that run down their stubby, sometimes nonexistent stems and are white or tan in color.

Another is the unfortunately named but heartily nutritious sulphur shelf. Also called chicken-of-the-woods, they thrive in the forests of Europe and North America. Like oyster mushrooms, they grow on dead or dying trees, zapping their remaining nutrients.

Sulphur shelf mushrooms are usually orange or yellow in color and grow in overlapping shelf-like clusters. However, if you see it growing on a conifer—a cone-producing tree, typically an evergreen—DO NOT EAT as this is likely a lookalike capable of causing severe allergic reactions.[5]

5 Mushrooms That Might Make You Die

This Mushroom Starts Killing You Before You Even Realize It | Deep Look

Death caps: Called death caps because Amanita phalloides isn’t intimidating enough, these are among the most poisonous of all fungi and cause most mushroom-related deaths worldwide. This is due to their combination of lethal poison and an edible lookalike, the innocent Paddy Straw. The caps are usually off-white with hints of green or yellow. Another giveaway is an unpleasant, almost bleachy smell.

Another non-menu mushroom is the Conocybe filaris, which grows in Europe, Asia, and North America. Tiny but toxic, they sprout up in various grasses and wooded detritus. Their caps are cone-shaped and typically no more than an inch across. A telltale sign is the fungus’ prominent tan annulus—a collar-like ring around the stalk. Conocybe filaris can be fatal if ingested and has plenty of nontoxic lookalikes, so it’s best to avoid mushrooms even loosely fitting its description.

Other notorious imposters include false morels, so named because they closely resemble edible true morels. Both benign and malign morels grow around wooded areas, particularly near ash, aspen, elm, and oak trees. Both have a wide array of colors and appearances, including ridged, wrinkled, waved, and smooth variants. The best way to discern the edible original from its poisonous pretender is to cut them open. True morels are hollow, while false morels are meaty through and through.[6]

4 Berries

How to Not Poison Yourself Eating Berries

For a survivalist novice, berries are usually a better bet than mushrooms. While the wrong fungus might kill you, a bad berry will just cause varying levels of illness.

Berry-picking has some general rules of thumb. Always avoid yellow, white, and green berries, while black and purple are typically safe. Red berries are iffy but usually fine if the berries are NOT arranged in tight bunches. Another helpful hint: aggregate berries, distinguished by tightly-packed fruit clusters called carpels (think blackberries and raspberries), are almost always edible.

Examples that fall into one or more of these categories include elderberries, huckleberries, cloudberries (which resemble orange raspberries), muscadines, and the inappropriately named chokeberry.

So which berries should be avoided? First, anything Christmas-y is a no-go. Holly berries contain saponin, which can cause severe vomiting, while mistletoe’s white berries have phoratoxin, which can cause stomach issues plus a slowed heartbeat. Also known as Christmas oranges, Jerusalem cherry plants yield yellow-red berries with solanine, which can lead to gastrointestinal infections and heart arrhythmia. Thanks, Baby Jesus.

Other bad-for-you berries include pokeweed, a deceitful lookalike as its grape-like berries are purple, an established “safe berry” color. Pokeweed gets more toxic as it matures, and in some instances ingesting too much can be fatal. Finally, generally steer clear of ivy and vine berries, regardless of the color. Many contain the aforementioned saponin; others, like Virginia creeper berries, pack toxic levels of kidney-damaging calcium oxalate.[7]

3 Roots

Teal from Naked and Afraid foraging for Kudzu. Quest For Survival Knowledge S1 Ep 8

While mushrooms and berries are high risk-high reward, roots are merely high energy-high reward. You’ll exert yourself unearthing them, but it’s a survivalist treasure trove when successful. This is because the roots are generally a plant’s energy storage center, making that part a prime source of nourishment.

Among the most ubiquitous plants whose roots are edible is the daylily, which is native to Asia but has spread to North America and Europe. Daylilies are fierce, resilient resource competitors; in fact, they’re commonly called gutter or trench lilies due to their tendency to sprout up through pavement cracks, along roadsides, etc. Easily identified during the summer, daylilies have large, flat flowers that are also edible. Its roots are purportedly delicious even when eaten raw but only consume them if the tubers are white and fresh.

If you’re in a warmer climate, another readily accessible option should be kudzu, an invasive species identifiable by large green leaves growing in sets of three with giveaway grape-smelling flowers. Like most roots, younger pieces are much more palatable. Carefully remove soil near the base of the plant and then lift the roots out before separating them.

Kudzu leaves are also edible, but a word of caution: kudzu likes to grow near poison ivy, so harvest with care.[8]

2 Worms

Eating Worms to Survive

…are gross, and a recent peer-reviewed study confirmed they have cooties. But they are both edible and readily accessible, so onto the list they go.

If you’re stranded in a wooded area (and it hasn’t recently rained, which would make the task quite easy), the best place to catch worms is by finding and clearing a layer of ground-level, preferably leafy vegetation. Worms like moist soil, and this will generally be the dampest dirt. If you’re sheltering in place awaiting rescue, covering the damp ground with a piece of cardboard is a reliable way to attract a steady supply of worms.

Another quick trick can lead to a worm-filled feast, but it requires something you might not have: dish soap or laundry detergent. If you have it, mix it up with water and spray it generously on the ground. Worms hate soap (because they’re filthy and live in dirt) and will come shooting to the surface within minutes.

That these creepy-crawly creatures amount to a wriggling superfood is proof that God a) exists and b) has a sense of humor. If you can stomach them, worms are packed with protein and have high levels of iron and amino acids. They also contain copper, manganese, and zinc. If you absolutely must, try smoking them over a fire, a popular means of preparation for some indigenous peoples in South America.[9]

1 Maybe Your Belt (But Definitely Not Your Shoes)

Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe for Thanksgiving – The Gold Rush (1942 version)

Yes, you really can eat leather. Well…sort of. It really depends. Before preparing a fillet of (shoe) sole, understand not all leathers are created—meaning tanned—equally, and that this distinction is the difference between passable and poisonous.

In its purest form, leather is completely edible, containing approximately 35% protein and 65% water. However, various leather products are tanned differently, and those that are chemically tanned are dangerous to consume. For example. a tanning agent called anthracene can damage the kidneys and liver, while common finishing agents like formaldehyde and arsenic are well-known toxins.

Shoe leather is a big no-no, as it’s almost always tanned in harsh chemical concoctions. A test of 21 pairs of brand-name leather shoes found, to varying degrees, arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. High levels of trivalent chromium were found in every pair and mercury in all but one. So please, eschew the shoe stew. Luggage and wallets also frequently contain such toxins.

The three safest leather products are saddles, holsters, and belts, as these are commonly tanned using vegetable oil. Assuming you’re not stranded in 19th-century Tombstone, Arizona, a belt is the likeliest available menu item. Still, you’ll need to boil water—meaning a fire and some sort of heatable container is required—before the leather luncheon can commence. Soak it for a good long while, then hold your nose and pretend it’s Burger King.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Christopher Dale

Chris writes op-eds for major daily newspapers, fatherhood pieces for and, because he's not quite right in the head, essays for sobriety outlets and mental health publications.

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