by Tony Nester
Living off the land is a skill that can pay off in large dividends if you are stranded in the wilds long-term; want to add more variety into your daily diet at home and reduce food bills, or be prepared in the event of a grid-down situation where the grocery shelves empty.
Having taught extended bushcraft courses during the past 26 years, I’ve found the area of procuring food in the wilderness to be the most challenging skill in the field of wilderness living. Once learned and regularly applied, you will gain greater confidence in the back-country and know how to obtain food from a land that has much to offer, to those who know where to look.
The following material intends to convey practical methods that a person, with little experience in the outdoors, can use to get started obtaining food from Nature’s Kitchen. The emphasis of this article is on small game and not big game animals like elk, moose, and deer.
On any given day in the wilds, you are going to come across a greater concentration of rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, raccoons, and other smaller critters. For the survivor, these animals will provide sustenance until you can procure the larger game.
Food procurement has a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding it, however. The idea that one can simply grab their bug-out bag and head into the hills to live off nature’s kitchen for a few months has been perpetuated in the reality shows and can get you into trouble. It took a tribe to feed a tribe and our ancestors relied on sheer numbers to obtain wild food, not on a lone-wolf mentality.
I’ve had the opportunity to eat just about everything that crawls, flies, walks, or slithers- from snakes and coyotes to rats and grasshoppers. Under conditions where hunger is constantly gnawing away at the body (and mind), my food prejudices quickly fade after a few days and you will eat anything that runs in front of you. My success is also greatly increased by having a few key hunting and trapping tools with me at all times. Keep in mind that game laws vary tremendously from state to state so research your region of the country to determine what’s legal.
The Challenge of Living Off the Land
Procuring food in the wilderness can be a challenge because of some or all of the following reasons:
1) Few people subsistence hunt or trap like they did a generation ago and the skills and knowledge base in the community have been reduced or completely disappeared in some regions.
2) When many people hunt today, it is mostly for Big Game trophies which means sport first, and meat second. Plus, the sheer number of hunters taking to the woods each season is staggering. As a result, state game laws are becoming more restrictive and the pressure from often ill-informed animal rights groups have all but eliminated certain practices such as trapping from many states.
3) The geographic region (desert, mountains, etc…) may not support much life to begin with. It is far easier to make it as a hunter-gatherer in the lush, Pacific Northwest than in the desert lowlands of the parched Southwest.
4) It may have been a particularly tough year for your region. Perhaps the drought is severe or wildfires are wreaking havoc, and thus the animals and plants are suffering.
5) Modern game laws are much different than when our ancestors walked the planet and could harvest any species of animal in any season, day or night.
6) Subsistence hunting and gathering is best performed as a group (tribe) and not as a solo pursuit. The more eyes, ears, and hands out on the land the greater the odds of obtaining wild meat, fish, and plants. Many of us today have little choice but to go solo which reduces “caloric efficiency.”
7) Finally, one cannot discount the TBH Effect- “Trained By Hollywood Effect.” There is a constant barrage of romantic notions that we receive from movies and “reality” shows depicting how people are supposed to live in the wilds. If you trek into the wilderness like Jeremiah Johnson, then have realistic expectations of your own skills, what the land can provide, and what is reasonable (and legal) for your region. Even then, don’t expect it to be easy.
Four Areas of Study for the Modern Hunter-Gatherer
In today’s world, if you want to feed yourself reasonably well in the backcountry, you must focus on the following four areas of study:
- Proficiency with a .22 caliber rifle or pistol.
- Basic fishing methods such as angling.
- Knowledge of the ten common edible plants in your region.
- How to use traps and snares.
Granted, there are other methods of procuring wild game such as bowhunting, slings, bolas, etc… but the above four represent the core skills to set your sights on as a beginner, in my opinion. If you are a skilled archer then, by all means, work with what you know. The more skills you possess in this realm, the more options you have.
If you are new to firearms and hunting, then seek out an experienced family member or friend who can show you the basics of firearm safety and marksmanship. I highly recommend taking a Hunter Safety class. This will provide the foundation skills of safety and basic gun handling skills as well as covering game laws specific to your state.
Tools of the Trade
Provided you are in good habitat, a quality rifle along with the proper training can tip the odds in your favor for procuring wild game. Having been on countless survival treks where we lived solely off the land using primitive skills (no modern gear), I can say that I will gladly take a small caliber firearm any day for filling the stew pot.
There are two approaches to living off the land: Passive and Active. 1) Passive is using traps, snares, deadfalls, trotlines, cast nets, etc…. You are setting out the device and letting it do the work for you while you are back at camp or home. 2) Active is where you are moving across the landscape or still hunting. This is more calorie intensive and not as productive as trapping. I find it is best to employ both methods which increases your food procurement capabilities.
I use a Ruger 10-22 with a scope for small game. This is the most ubiquitous .22 on the market with plenty of products if you want to modify the stock, trigger, sights, etc…. CCI Minimag hollow points are my preferred ammo for hunting. I also have a Marlin Papoose collapsible .22 that I use on occasion.
I am a sucker for the old H & R single-shot 20 gauge for hunting small game. You can still find these for under $120 and many a youth has bagged his first squirrel with this simple but efficient shotgun. H & R also makes a hollow, synthetic stock called the Survivor. The stock has enough space to stow basic survival supplies.
I think the best of both worlds is getting an over and under rifle. I use either a Savage Model 24 which is a .222 caliber over a .20 gauge or a Savage Model 42 which is a .22LR over a .410 gauge. Both of these are excellent for taking large and small game. I have a penchant for the older rifles with a real wood stock and a nice heft.
A former student of mine, who was involved in air gun competitions, introduced me to high-powered air-rifles for hunting small game. Until my vision changed recently, I was using a Benjamin 392 with iron sights but have switched to a Hatsan 125 with a scope. This shoots .25 caliber pellets and is excellent for dropping squirrels and rabbits easily within a 30-yard range not to mention that the ammo is cheap. The Pyramyd Air Company has a wide selection of air rifles and is a good place to start your research.
During archery season, I use a Bear Kodiak recurve or a handmade cherry bow both of which have a 45# draw weight. I like making my own cedar arrows and use blunt tips for small game and Zwickey Eskimo broadheads for large game. I fletch my own arrows with a Bitzenburger jig.
I like making my own high-powered slingshots using tubular bands and use these each Fall for squirrel hunting. The beauty of practicing with a slingshot is that the muscle-memory carries over to your archery skills. I use .50 caliber black powder balls for ammo.
When we teach trapping courses in Utah, we utilize conibears and snares. A #110 conibear is an excellent game-getter that we use for procuring small animals while we use the larger #330 conibears for beaver and raccoon.
These are extremely efficient traps that can easily fracture your fingers or limbs if you are unfamiliar with how to use them. Take a trapper’s education course, obtain a permit, and then spend time with an experienced trapper if you plan on using conibears.
There’s a reason that the archeological record, the world over, indicates that trapping was the prime means of sustenance for indigenous cultures.
Rat traps, obtained from big-box hardware stores, would be another option for procuring small game and don’t have the hazardous kickback that the Conibear possesses.
Fishing isn’t something I do much in Arizona but when I head up to northern regions I bring a collapsible Shakespeare fishing pole, 6-pound test line, three-dozen assorted fish hooks and assorted artificial baits.
Obviously, if you live in a more productive state then your fishing tackle should be heartier than my kit and you may even want to add in crayfish traps. The latter can be found at Wal-Mart.
Cast & Gill Nets
Both cast and gill nets allow the fisherman to harvest a large quantity of fish while expending little effort. These are the time-tested methods used throughout the world by maritime cultures. If I were venturing into a remote waterway or wilderness region and weight wasn’t an issue, I would definitely pack along a cast or gill net for survival purposes. Cast nets range in size from three to eight feet while the standard survival gill net is 12’ by 4’ and packs down to the size of a softball.
A Menu of Small Game
Small game includes cottontail rabbit, squirrel, marmots, skunk, gopher, woodchuck, jackrabbit, chipmunk, ringtail, raccoon, and porcupine. Not all of these are legal to hunt and you will have to check out your state’s game laws.
One squirrel or rabbit will generally provide a single meal for one person. On the other hand, a fat raccoon or porcupine might last one person for four days. Raccoon tastes like roast-beef, if grilled over an open fire or the barbecue, and is an outstanding meat.
Most of us tend to have a romantic image of the native hunter relying on deer or buffalo as their sole means of sustenance, when in fact, it was the microfauna or small mammals that provided the consistent day to day food source in many parts of the world.
In terms of animal population density, you will be able to sustain yourself with small game far easier than larger animals like deer and elk (and obtaining hunting permits for small game is far easier!).
One wildlife biologist in Nevada found that the number of small mammals per square kilometer was around 4600! Another study in Manitoba, Canada revealed 10 squirrels per acre. The research also suggests that spring and early summer show the highest concentration of mammals.
If you are reading this article, then you had ancestors who hunted and gathered, fished and foraged. Our body and mind evolved from a much different lifestyle than the one we lead today in our largely urban world. You were born with the senses and abilities to be a hunter. They are already hardwired into your being. Spend some time focusing on one of the four key areas listed here and get started this weekend.
Learn about the top ten edible plants used in your region, acquire proficiency with a .22 rifle or air-rifle; get a small-game hunting permit and take to the field; spend time fishing with your family on the next camping trip. The time to learn how to feed yourself from nature’s kitchen is before a crisis hits and the grocery shelves empty.
Start out with a few of these activities and you will be, not only eating healthier but prepared to supplement your home pantry in the event of an emergency.
- Camp Life & the Tricks of Trapping
- The Modern Hunter-Gatherer
- Subsistence: A Guide For The Modern Hunter-Gatherer: Hunting, Trapping, Fishing & Foraging for a Living in Texas
- The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
About the Author: Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community, and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, NY Times, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. Tony also writes post-apocalyptic fiction under the pen name JT Sawyer.