Foraging and wildcrafting have seen a resurgence in interest due to the recent pandemic; either as a means to acquire fresh food while saving money or as a way to cope with the new normal of being cooped up indoors. While this is generally a positive thing, the effects of irresponsible foraging can be detrimental to wildlife, endangered plants, and research sciences. It can also put beginner foragers in harm’s way.
In this guide, we’ll cover some ground rules to ensure your safety in the wild, as well as, ethical and sustainable foraging practices to be considerate towards the local wildlife, scientific researchers, and fellow foragers. You should be familiar with these before setting off into the wild.
Staying Safe in the North American Wild
Plan your trip ahead. Have a list of the plants you will be foraging as well as the right equipment to harvest them. Make sure you take the season and weather into consideration and always be prepared for emergencies. Have a first aid kit on hand and don’t forget to let somebody else know where you are heading off to and for how long.
Dress for the occasion. Wear weather-appropriate shoes, long sleeves if possible, pants, and protective gloves. Sunscreen and bug repellant may also come in handy. Also, be mindful of hunting season and make sure to wear vibrant clothing.
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Location, Location, Location
Location is one of the key factors in foraging. It is important not only to avoid getting lost, but also to know what kinds of plants are growing in the area as well as the local regulations regarding foraging. You can join local groups to keep up with what’s in season and known trails.
Be aware of your environment. Never stray too far from the trail, and familiarize yourself with the landscape to build a strong foundation of safe foraging. Avoid harvesting near busy roads and industrial areas as some plants, like mushrooms, act like a sponge and absorb all of the pollutants within their vicinity. Residential areas and public parks also have a tendency to spray their weeds with harmful chemicals, so it’s best to stay away from those as well.
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It cannot be stressed enough and you will hear this quite often, but always be 100% sure of a plant’s identification especially when you are harvesting it for consumption. It helps to know where to look for certain plants, what season would be the best time to harvest them, and if there are extra precautions to be done such as cooking in order to consume them safely. Some plants are only edible in certain seasons and some plants have poisonous look-alikes. Having a field guide is a great way to always have an easy reference on hand.
A great tip for beginners is to start off with a limited number of species that are easy to identify. Focus on those plants and forage with the purpose of finding those specific plants. Once you have mastered them, you can then start adding more to your list.
The best resource of information are the locals with experience, may it be mycological associations, herbalists, plant nurseries, farmers, hunters, fishermen, or fellow foraging enthusiasts. There is no better guide than one who has firsthand knowledge. It is helpful to create a network of people that can help you learn more about local trails and public lands, or cross reference information when identifying plants.
Unexpected Wildlife Encounters
Research on the wildlife of the area you will be foraging in to prepare for any chance encounters.
Give ample space. Most animals only attack when they feel threatened or provoked, so keep a minimum of 25 yards between you and any large animal and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. Making noise while you hike also helps any animal out of sight be aware of your presence so you can avoid accidentally sneaking up on them. Some people also make use of a walking stick to alert any smaller creatures hidden in leaf litter.
Stay on trails and use all senses. Check logs and rocks before sitting on them. Keep an eye out for animal tracks, droppings, and telltale signs of recent wildlife activity within the area. Avoid hiking after dark. Not only will you have a hard time seeing things, wildlife is also most active during this time, particularly at dawn or dusk. Do not wear headphones or blast music from speakers so you can hear what’s happening around you, and don’t forget to check for posted signs or warnings.
Never feed any animal for your own safety as well as theirs. This can lead to a preference in human food and disrupt their normal foraging behaviors. Properly store your food and trash in air-tight containers as odors can also attract all kinds of wildlife.
Never hike alone. Hike in groups of two or three. Your noise will help deter animals and they will be less likely to attack when you’re not alone. Having a buddy during an emergency is also always a plus.
Have protective gear. Bear mace and bug repellants may come in handy. Wear bright-colored clothes to easily spot ticks. Long sleeves, pants, and boots are preferred to keep bug bites at a minimum, and don’t forget to tuck your pants in your socks to avoid ticks crawling up the opening.
Do not try to help injured animals as they can act in unpredictable ways. It is better to call local authorities instead. It is also best to keep moving should you encounter a dead animal before it attracts any territorial predators.
Ethical and Sustainable Foraging Practices
Take Only What You Need and Give Back
Be a considerate and conservative forager. Never strip a site bare, and only pick from abundant specimens. If something is scarce, leave it alone or if possible, grow it yourself. Various wild plants are actually quite easy to grow, like weeds and certain fungi. You will not only be providing yourself with a more convenient food source, but also providing another source of habitat for native fauna.
Only take what you need. Most wild plants do not keep well anyway, so taking more than necessary is just wasteful. You have to keep in mind that you are taking from an ecosystem so it is always best to limit your impact on it.
Tip: A good rule of thumb is to take between one-tenth to one-third of a plant and leave the rest. However, this rule does not always apply. If you were to take one-third of a plant and the next one does too, and the next, the plant would be depleted either way. This is why you must do research regarding the species you are foraging beforehand to know how they normally grow, so you can assess whether a certain plant should be foraged or left alone.
Giving back can be as easy as dusting off the dirt from the mushrooms you’ve foraged around the area to spread its spores for future growth or leaving the less desirable fruits for other organisms to munch on. You can also make an extra effort by replanting some of the seeds from your harvest.
Time is of the Essence
Foraging is all about timing. Certain plants are only available for a couple of days in a year or are only safe to consume in certain seasons. It is important to be aware of the seasonal aspects of a plant which is why it would be easier to focus on a limited number of species first. Time is also of the essence by being mindful of when you harvest certain plants to make sure they don’t die out and are able to regenerate for the next season. Stressing plants when they are dormant in winter can cause significant damage and possible death. The same can happen during a drought in summer. It would be best to follow a harvesting calendar.
Be Intentional: Focus on Invasive Species and Avoid Threatened Species
Not all non-native plants are invasive, only those that reproduce quickly and tend to overtake other plants, making them detrimental to native flora and fauna. Harvesting them is a win-win situation as you are not only helping out native species, but are also rewarded with nutritional benefits for your deed.
Likewise, avoid species that are at risk. This does not only pertain to endangered plants, but also to plants that host endangered fauna such as the Milkweed, which may be considered a weed, but is also the only food source for the endangered Monarch butterflies.
Pay respect to the plant and do not kill the parent organism. The purpose of carrying a knife is to minimize the damage done to plants by cutting only non-detrimental parts and leaving the roots, the oldest parts of the plant, and the youngest parts of the plant intact, allowing it to continue to grow. An exception to this rule is when harvesting invasive species.
Indigenous people actually believe that plants are sentient beings and they treat them with the same reverence as animals. Their wildcrafting knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and they believe that plants are their relatives to some extent, who have gotten to know their forefathers and will get to know their descendants as well. It is all part of their concept of the sanctity of life.
Pay respect to the land by following local foraging regulations, asking permission when foraging on private property, and minimizing your impact on the ecosystem. Also stray away from cultural appropriation and do not use plants that are considered sacred to indigenous cultures for recreational rituals.
Pay respect to the inhabitants before you and always remember that while you have a variety of food sources to choose from, other living organisms do not. What may be a simple craving for you may be the only food source for another. Always check the plant for signs of life before harvesting.
Pay respect to other foragers and always leave some for the next person. It is also best not to reveal good foraging spots on the internet to avoid overcrowding and possible degradation of the area. Only share such information with trusted individuals.
Leave No Trace or Leave It Cleaner
Have a bag for your harvest and a separate bag for your trash as well as the trash of others. Not all people are mindful of their impact on the environment, but it is your job to keep all humans accountable even when you don’t do it yourself.
Leaving no trace also does not only apply to trash. Do not manipulate the ecosystem to be more convenient for you. Do not chop down branches just to make shortcuts. Tread lightly and leave only footprints behind, and make those footprints as small as possible. Avoid creating new trails or trampling other plants and fauna while on your search for a specific one. Human intervention should always be kept to a minimum and foraging in large groups is discouraged.
The Bottom Line
While it is important to plan ahead and educate yourself for your own safety, always remember the impact you have on others as well. Forage in a way that is safe for yourself, for the others who will follow, and for those before you, the ecosystem you are partaking in. Be mindful of the environment and pay respect to the land and its owners, both humans and wildlife.
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