Although it was never confirmed, if you’ve ever seen the movie Into the Wild, it’s speculated that Christopher McCandless’ journey into Alaskan Wilderness ended with possibly ingesting toxic plants in his location that he was trying to survive on in the absence of other, more practical food sources. While it may seem that plants offer enough nutrients to exist on during the harsher months of a survival situation, you may ultimately succumb to a slow starvation or inadvertently poison yourself.

The Myth: There’s a belief among certain preppers and survivalists that an experienced forager can survive indefinitely by eating nothing more than wild edible plants. These starry-eyed weed-eaters seem to believe that you can always receive enough nutrition and calories from the plant kingdom, anytime and anyplace. But is the grass always greener, or will this strategy leave you malnourished or dead?

The Reality: You and I are living proof that nature provided the necessary food for our ancestors to live long enough to procreate; but you have to understand that beggars can’t be choosers.

Our remote forebears harvested both plant and animal foods to sustain themselves. That’s why they’re labeled “hunter/gatherers” in the history books. Today, overeager botanists and vegans might think that they can subsist on wild edibles in any long-term survival situation, but they’re forgetting one critical detail — intermittent availability. You see, there are certain times and places that you could live off wild plant foods for months at a time (like an autumn forest with a bountiful nut harvest or fruiting season on a lush tropical isle). However, these “feast” times are always separated by generous stretches of “famine,” when only low-calorie plant foods are available.

Winter is the most brutal example of this cycle of natural deficit. When snow blankets the land, hiding or killing most wild edibles, your caloric needs skyrocket as your resources plummet. Even if you could find enough plants to fill your belly, it’s unlikely that they would offer enough calories for survival. As a second example, let’s look at springtime.

When I teach foraging classes in April, I have the greatest annual diversity of plants to show my classes. And I always tell them how our ancestors thought of spring as the “starving season.” Despite all the new green growth, the young plants are mostly water and they lack sufficient calories for subsistence. Eating only spring greens is like starving to death slowly in a field of iceberg lettuce — all water, no calories. Many cultures made it through winter by storing food, and they made it through spring by taking advantage of wild animal foods (like wild bird eggs and migratory spring fish runs).

As a final example to scare you straight, you simply may not have the necessary understanding to use the resources around you. Case in point, you may find yourself in unfamiliar territory and you won’t know which local plants are safe to eat. Plant identification can be difficult enough in your normal stomping grounds. Add in the stress of a survival event, a strange environment and a splash of desperation, and you have a recipe for disaster. This idea of a wilderness that’s always filled with high-calorie plant food is nothing more than wishful thinking.

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THE ALTERNATIVES:

If you find yourself in a survival situation with only wild food as a source of sustenance, don’t give up! This scenario is survivable, if you’re not too squeamish. Here’s what you can do to survive on wild foods.

Focus On Calories: Whether you’re trying to live on plants, animals, or a blend of both, focus on collecting safe high-calorie foods. Make a positive identification of edible tree nuts, starchy roots, and nutritious berries, then collect as many of those calorie dense foods as possible. And maybe don’t worry so much about collecting wild edible plants for teas and salads. These may taste delicious and provide vitamins and minerals, but they are never going to provide high calories.

Eat It All: There were plenty of ways to die on the early American frontier — but one of the weirdest was called “rabbit starvation.” Novice trappers, hunters and wanna-be mountain men would occasionally die from eating only lean meat (no fat or carbs) for weeks on end. For a more contemporary example of this, author Jon Krakauer speculated in his popular book Into the Wild that Chris McCandless might have died from this odd form of acute malnutrition. The take away here is very simple. When hunting, fishing, or trapping strive to collect animals with higher amounts of body fat, then eat ample amounts of fat and organs along with the meat. An animal-based menu of meat, organs, and fat sustains our cousins in the arctic who are eating a traditional diet, and it can keep us alive too.

Don’t Be Picky: In a grid-down situation, you may have to get creative. Bugs are surprisingly nutritious and safe to eat — if you choose edible species and cook them thoroughly. Termites are my top recommendation, as they have the highest calorie count of commonly available insects and arthropods (up to 6 calories per gram). Do your research, determine edible species, and cook them to destroy pathogens and parasites.

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