Edible Wild Plants for Survival, (Not) So Fast!

One of the Survival 101 maxims is “Learn my top edible wild plants for survival!” Equipping yourself with this knowledge is empowering according to most instructors, whether it is a fight for survival or a recreational walk through the woods. Whichever experience is being sold, it comes down to being self-reliant. Therefore, many put learning edible wild plants at the top of their “must learn” list.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear on the word survival. We’re talking, “Oh Crap!” You are in an emergency situation with no immediate help. You will need to do whatever it takes until you can be rescued or rescue yourself. Statistically speaking, the average survival scenario lasts 72 hours.  No one is going to starve to death in three days!

Nonetheless, anything could happen. You or I could find ourselves in a longer ordeal. We obviously need food to live, right? And today’s “reality” shows are peppered with survival “experts” who evangelize edible wild plants for survival as an uncompromising priority. Some of these shows last as long as 21 days! Surely you will need to figure out what to eat to make it that long…

(Not) So Fast! Maybe a fast is the way to go, even at 21 days, or longer, according to Wilderness Living Skills and Survival Instructor Mors Kochanski (2013; bold added by me):

“In attempting to live off the land, it is more preferable to only drink water, than to eat less than the minimum number of calories required each day. In not meeting the basal metabolic rate, which may be from 1,100 to 1,700 calories per day, there is such a disproportionate use of protein reserves in comparison to fat reserves that one may die of protein depletion in at least a quarter of the time compared to fasting. In fasting there is a more balanced use of proteins and fats so that a healthy person of normal weight of 65 kilograms (143 pounds) will not begin to suffer any irreversible deficiencies for at least six weeks. Overweight persons may get by longer than this. The record stands at over a year.”

Fasting six weeks without irreversible effects should give the survivor peace of mind to focus on other needs such as staying warm, hydrating, getting enough rest, and rescue. But how do you make yourself comfortable for that long without eating? Those first 2 or 3 days of fasting will likely NOT be comfortable until your body adjusts.

Once the body uses up its storage of liver glycogen and a good portion of its muscle glycogen, without any food intake, the body starts to synthesize glucose through gluconeogenesis (Lundin, 2003). At this point the body switches gears and consumes fatty acids as the primary source of energy (ketone production). It’s important to note, fasts lasting more than 14 days cause the basal metabolic rate (BMR) to drop by 21% as the body becomes more efficient with it’s remaining resources (Lundin, 2003).

Mors Kochanski (2013) outlines salient advantages of fasting on water only:

  • Stop gap measure until you have had the time and opportunity to become competent in living off the land
  • You can learn to fast in less time than you can learn one edible plant
  • You may have no choice but to fast
  • Better use of calories than procuring limited quantities of food
  • Fasting usually brings on greater clarity of thought and improved recall
  • Within two to six days of true fasting, energy rates become available at a more normal rate
  • You may not feel like it, but you could exert yourself to the point of four to five thousand calories per day
  • You generally heal more quickly in a fasting state

Conversely, there are associated problems with fasting, especially when its your first major fast where the body goes through the detoxification process. Symptoms could include severe headaches, foul breath, aching joints and teeth, loose teeth, body odor, etc.  (Kochanski, 2013). Hey, it’s still better than death!

The major problem, according to medical research, in a long-term scenario where there is not enough food to meet your daily BMR needs of 1,100 to 1,700 calories is eating as little as 150 grams a day of carbohydrates could stop ketone production (Lundin, 2003). Thus, eating that little bit of whatever could cause you to lose the aforementioned advantages of fasting, including gluconeogenesis to tap into your energy reserves. You may want to read this paragraph again.

Note the mix of Carbs, Fat and Protein.

I’m not suggesting you don’t pack food. The context is fasting in a long-term survival situation where calories are limited. In the short-term, it is not the lack of calories that compromise your survival chances, it’s the shortage of carbohydrates. Avoid that sugar crash and “hitting the wall” by carrying foods with a proper balance of simple and complex carbs and some protein for stabilization.

There are plenty of energy (and candy) bars out there to fit this need. The question is, do you add one to your kit for potential long-term storage? The choice is yours, just be cognizant of spoilage and making a situation worse. Personally, I make it a point to add snacks to my kit every Fall.

In addition, keep in the zone of physical activity where your body burns more fat and less glucose. This is approximately 60% of your max heart rate. While there are more complex formulas out there to determine a zone specific to you, the simple formula is 220 minus your age = your max heart. Take 60% of your max heart rate to find your target zone of burning those fat reserves.

So if you are 40 years old:  220 – 40 = 180.  60% of 180 max heart rate = 108. Keep your heart rate at 108 or below and you will be primarily burning body fat and reserving your glucose for when you really need it.


FINDING CALORIES IN THE PLANT KINGDOM

It is suggested here, in a long-term survival situation, fasting is preferable unless you can eat enough to meet your daily BMR needs of 1,100 to 1,700 calories. Where could we find that many calories in the plant kingdom? And these variables will need to be considered when doing so:

  • properly identify the plant
  • know it’s poisonous look-a-likes
  • find it in the right season
  • know the right part(s) to eat
  • forage enough to at least meet your BMR calorie needs
  • know how to prepare it; and potentially have fire, a container, and water to do so
  • water to digest

To make this easy, let’s just look at the calorie content of some very common wild plants most identify as survival foods:

  • Cattail – 7 calories per ounce. To meet an average BMR need of 1,400 calories per day, you would need to eat 12.5 pounds of cattail. Granted, most of those calories comes from carbs (starches), it’s still low on the carb scale and simply unrealistic. Talk about an unbalanced diet!
  • Inner Pine Bark – 500 – 600 calories per pound. Sounds reasonable. I will let you do the math. By the way, the word Adirondack is Iroquois meaning, bark eaters, and was attributed to that tribe for doing just that with Eastern White Pine as a supplement to survive harsh winters.
  • Acorns – 142 calories per ounce for white oak. Now we are getting somewhere! I just have make sure my scenario happens where there are oaks and in the fall or spring when they drop. I will also have beat out the other wildlife for the resource and have a pot with fire and enough water to leach out the tannins.

As a reminder, the fasting aspect we are discussing here is for long-term survival. In the short-term, I will take those few carbs found in the easy to harvest cattail and inner-pine bark as long as I have to expend very little energy to get them and have water to digest.


PLANTS ARE WHAT THE REAL FOOD EATS!

Learning edible wild plants is a long-term commitment where you need to have the right season, right part, right preparation and you better have the right plant. Furthermore, you’re not going to obtain enough calories from just plants. See these three points from John and Geri McPherson’s book, Naked Into The Wilderness – 2:  Primitive Wilderness Skills, Applied & Advanced:

  1. The human being cannot be a vegetarian in the wilderness under primitive conditions (with the possible exception of the tropics).
  2. All nutrients required to keep the human body alive can be found in the animal kingdom.
  3. In reality, it is a combination of plants and animals that supply the necessary nutrients to keep primitives alive.

Seton_RabbitsThat being said, it is far easier to learn a few deadfalls, snares and improvised fishing methods if you are concerned about food in a long-term survival situation. And while I was joking with the title of this section, the calorie gain is much better with wild animals than edible wild plants as noted below. Approximate calories from just 3 ounces of meat:

  • Rabbit (cottontail) – 123
  • Rabbit (Jack) – 131
  • Squirrel – 128
  • Rainbow Trout – 140
  • Sunfish – 97
  • Crayfish – 74

And that is just the meat, you should eat more of the animal if food was a dire need. Liver, kidneys, kidney fat, heart, lungs, and brain would double the calories of an animal such as a squirrel or rabbit.

Eating the lean meat alone could lead to death of malnutrition in the long-term. You have likely heard that a high protein diet lacking fats and carbs is known as “rabbit starvation.” It killed numerous early explorers who did not know to eat more than just the meat. 

Unlike some rats, such as the Norway, which is an omnivore who will eat carrion; our native Eastern Woodrat, or Packrat (above), is a true herbivore who eats a wide variety of plants, grasses, and seeds. Likely a better diet than what the chickens, pigs and cows on our menu are eating. Anyway, adults weigh 10 to 16 ounces, and 10 oz. of packrat is close to 650 calories. Just saying!


CONCLUSION

Unless you’re skilled at taking game to meet your BMR in calories, a fasting strategy maybe your best alternative in a long-term survival scenario. Remember, its not the calories that will get you in the short-term; it’s the lack of carbs. Carry food, and if necessary, harvest any easy opportunities in the near term (especially those with carbs). Always have an ample supply of water to digest them.

This article was not intended to discourage you from learning plants but the opposite. I hoped to put context around what you may want to learn first about plants. Fire, shelter, cordage, deadfall materials, wildlife use, tools, natural insect repellents and medicine are other areas that deserve your attention, especially if wilderness survival is your intent.

Only plants can harvest the Sun’s energy from which all life here on Earth depends. Plus, they do that little gas exchange thing we need too. Plants are the linchpin to our existence. Of course you should learn everything you can about them on both a large scale and for our immediate needs.


SUGGESTED READING

In addition to the highly recommended references cited below:


References Cited

Mors_eBook

 

Author’s note:  Before publishing this article, I verified the survival premise with two other reputable instructors. The health related information in this article was found to be factual by a Medical Doctor who teaches Wilderness Medicine.

Christian Noble © 2014

About Christian Noble

Chris Noble is the founder of MasterWoodsman.com and Woodsmoke Camping Company. A Master Naturalist, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has worked as a Registered Forester and Certified Burn Manager in several states. Chris is also a Wilderness First Responder and since the late 90’s has been “practicing primitive” skills and taking lessons from numerous Master Woodsmen throughout North America. An advocate for Conservation, teacher of Wilderness Living Skills, and happily married, he enjoys passing what he has learned thus far to others, especially his 2 children, Emerson and Duncan.

21 Responses to Edible Wild Plants for Survival, (Not) So Fast!

  1. Brandon August 16, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Great read Chris! Some very good and useful information there.

    Thanks

    • Chris August 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

      Thanks Brandon! Been preaching this one for sometime, finally put it in writing with references. No new ideas here per se, just putting a bunch of others smart ideas together.

  2. sasweb@sbcglobal.net'
    Steve August 17, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    Hi Chris!

    I greatly appreciate the thought you put into this post and I enjoyed reading it.

    I tend to think of any survival situation lasting more than a few hours as an energy management game. The ideal food would pack lots of calories (including carbohydrates) and require few calories to procure. So I would be interested to hear how insects fit into this picture. They are numerous and can be acquired without expending large amounts of energy hunting or trapping. Coastal (rocky intertidal) situations also provide opportunities to acquire animal food with a low calorie expenditure.

    As you mention, the survival food that packs the most calories for the least effort are the ones we thoughtfully pack beforehand.

    – Steve

    • Chris August 18, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      Hi Steve. Great question of which I neglected to cover in the article. Just looking at ‘small’ grasshoppers, 130 calories per 3 oz. which is on par with the caloric content of the mammals mentioned. Relatively speaking, grasshoppers have 5x more protein per bite than they do carbs. Thanks!

  3. CBdeVidal.jk1@Gmail.com'
    Christopher de Vidal August 18, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    A similar article, which is also a must-read for the topic. Great comments, too.
    http://woodtrekker.blogspot.com/2013/09/living-off-land-delusions-and.html

    • Chris August 18, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Christopher. I forgot about Ross’ article. It is a good read for those looking into living off the land. The premise of the article here is specific to wilderness survival and plants. More than anything I hope folks get perspective about food as a priority in a survival situation AND where to focus their energy when it comes to learning plants. Thanks!

  4. dennysp@fairpoint.net'
    Denny August 21, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    This seems like a very well-done article and I think your right that there are lots of reasons to learn about wild plants other than for eating. The article helps put the food question in perspective. The whole question of body chemistry changes during fasting is good to know, if a bit hard to follow (I wonder how
    you would explain it to an 8-year old?).

    For a 72-hour scenario, I want to eat. I hate that sugar crash, lethargy etc. that comes in the first few days of fasting. I think that would seriously affect my mental state and make survival harder. I wish I understood more the “proper balance of simple and complex carbs and some protein for stabilization” but I don’t know what that would look like in a hunting and foraging situation, or what “stabilization” means. But I am inclined to eat something, even if it’s bark.

    • Chris August 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Denny! Thanks for the thought provoking comment. How to explain to an 8 year old… Hmmm, I doubt they would grasp the concept and even if they did, it would probably be out the window if they were in a survival situation. In my opinion, the best thing for a child that age when it comes to survival is the National Association for Search and Rescue’s Hug-A-Tree Program. Willy Whitefeather’s Outdoor Survival Handbook for kids is pretty good too.

      For 72 hours, you got it, a lack carbs/sugars is the issue, not calories. As far as a properly balanced diet, there are tons of information on the subject. For the purposes of our discussion, you will find more info than I will elaborate here in Lundin’s book which I cited. And even more information on food in his second book, When All Hell Breaks Loose (< highly recommended). Hope that helps!

      • dennysp@fairpoint.net'
        Denny August 25, 2014 at 9:40 am #

        Thanks, I started checking out the resources you cited. The example of the 8-year old was more in reference to my–ahem–intellectual capacities, rather than an actual child. In thinking about it, it might not be good for a child to undertake a fast anyway–I’d have to look into it. The thing that sticks in my mind about this article and the Lundin book is that the emphasis is on understanding how the body reacts to stress in survival situations. The most basic actions we take around attitude, thermoregulation and food far outweigh in importance some of the bushcraft skills, like knowing edible plants. I like learning the skills, but I think articles like this help because they put into perspective what you need to survive vs. enhancing your experience of nature’s bounty.

        • Chris August 25, 2014 at 9:50 am #

          Your spot on Denny, particularly with Lundin pointing out how one responds to stress. While I highlighted a comparison to game and calories, I could (and probably should) have added a whole other angle on the reality of a typical “dayhiker” fulfilling their food needs hunting and/or trapping. A hard to do when you don’t do it regularly, then put on top of a that a compromising situation…

  5. faultroy@grm.net'
    faultroy November 23, 2014 at 2:43 am #

    Fascinating… I’ve never read anything like this. Seems like you’re the real deal in a land of BS.

    Thanks for presenting.

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