Gathering food (trapping, hunting, fishing, and foraging) is probably the most difficult aspect of bushcraft. While it is not as difficult as it sounds, it is still something that requires practice. Where things get tricky for folks who dabble in survival craft –yet have no experience in gathering food– is that it takes more than a few times hunting in order to become proficient enough to stay nourished.
While the human body can survive for three weeks without a meal, you will begin to feel the effects of hunger within seventy-two hours. You will feel lethargic and light headed, and simple decision-making will become impaired. This is why it is important that you begin finding food within just a few hours of arriving in the wild –if you know you aren’t going to get back to a grocery store any time soon.
We are just going to give you a very brief overview on finding food in the woods, and hopefully point you in the right direction to finding more information.
Historically, trapping was seen as the most efficient way to take game, while preserving the meat and fur of the animal. It is said that trapping is based on percentages, which means that the more traps you’ve set, the higher the chance of catching a meal.
Now there are all kinds of traps, from the complex to the simple. If you are new to the game, you may wish to focus on the simple for now, and then figure out complex traps later. At this point, you might even wish to load a few commercially made traps into your pack, as these will be extremely helpful once you begin. Why?
These are traps that you don’t have to manufacture, especially if you are inexperienced at the moment. All you need to do is learn how to set them. While those traps are working for you, you can practice making traps with woodland materials. Remember, learning to be wilderness self-sufficient is about a slow transition.
The two lightest, smallest, and most effective styles of traps that you can pack are snares and #110 conibear traps. Snares are a rather low-percentage type of trap, but they are small, light, and you can set many quite quickly. The #110 conibear traps are higher percentage, meaning that if any critter trips the trigger, then that critter is dinner. You can easily stash two or three #110 conibear traps in your pack without sacrificing too much weight and space for what they are worth.
The beauty of trapping is that it works while you are performing other tasks, adding leverage to your survival. Even if you couldn’t catch a fish or find game for hunting, it is likely that your traps would have come through for you. It’s all about increasing your percentage chance of catching a meal.
While your traps are waiting, hunting is another way to leverage your time. Of course, hunting is a massive subject in its own, with all kinds of gear, methods, history, and laws, so here’s just a very brief overview.
In the especially the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, woodsmen always carried a musket, as this ensured their ability to take game for food and even defend themselves against a human threat. However, this is also what bound them to society, as they would have needed to return for rounds and gunpowder. Native Americans, on the other hand, were highly proficient with the bow, which can be made entirely out of woodland materials. So, if you are looking to survive in the woods for months at a time, you may want to bring a rifle and ammunition, but also don’t forget the bowstring.
While you are exhausting your rifle ammunition, you can craft a bow from hardwood and also make arrows. Bow hunting is quite a bit more difficult than using a rifle, so it is a good idea to learn to hunt with a rifle first, then slowly transition to the use of a bow. Having a good bowstring takes up little weight and space, but you can craft a bow in the wild, keeping you from having to pack one in.
The best way to learn the hunt is to take a hunting course and get licensed. Then, find a sportsmen’s association in your local area and make friends with hunters that are sure to be there. Not only will joining a sportsmen’s association allow you to hone your marksmanship (as there are usually shooting ranges in these places), but also they often have skills seminars and courses. You may even be able to befriend a member, who would be happy to take you along for the hunt. There is no teacher like experience.
In addition, there are dozens of different hunting devices that aren’t rifles or bows. For example, you can make rabbit sticks, blowguns, large darts, and even slingshots and sling bows (a slingshot that fires arrows).
Fishing is another great way to acquire food, and is perhaps one of the easiest. Fish are loaded with calories, and taking them only requires a few hooks, monofilament, weights, bobbers, and bait. All of this can be reduced to a small tube or tin. Fishing tends to be higher percentage than hunting, so be sure to have your fishing kit with you.
Foraging will require a lot of learning, as there are certainly plants you don’t want to eat. The best thing you can do is to first learn which plants are poisonous in your region as well as buy a comprehensive field guide to edible plants and herbs. You will certainly have your work cut out for you, but it is likely that you will never find yourself more than a few yards from a potential snack.
Field dressing and processing game for a meal is rather simple, but it’s not always easy. Ultimately, the goal is to remove the organs, while keeping the meat for your consumption. This is usually done in the field, before you return to camp.
Also, if processed correctly, you can keep the hide and other parts of the animal that will even add to your tools and gear (bones, sinew, fat, etc.) While not every animal is the same, the key is to remove the organs without cutting them with your knife, as their contents could contaminate your meat. Every hunter, fisher, and trapper should know how to field dress and process game. Knowledge on the subject is easy to acquire.
Cooking your meat is essential for killing viruses and parasites. If you are ever in doubt about the quality of the meat, then cook it well done.
Your most versatility will be found in cooking kits that supply you with a metal pot and pan. Often times, military surplus cooking kits on the cheaper side will do just fine and hold up for decades.
Making jerky will keep your food preserved for long periods of time, as long as it is not exposed to moisture. Rufus Sage (1841) explains the process:
It consists simply in cutting into thin slices the boneless parts of buffalo or other meat and drying them in the wind or sun. Meat thus cured may be preserved for years without salt. Ropes of raw hide were stretched around the waggons upon which the results of our labor were left to the finishing effects of the wind and sun as we proceeded thus making an important saving in the item of time.
Perhaps the best way to dry meat is to hang it over a fire, but not cook it. The key is to sap away the moisture from the meat, and the smoke keeps away the flies.
If you plan on spending a lot of time in the woods, knowing how to properly dry your meat will give you a great way to preserve protein-packed food.
Make sure you practice, practice, and then practice some more, and before long, you might realize that you don’t need grocery stores, restaurants, or even cash to eat like royalty.