5 Tips for Foraging and Storing Food on a Thru-Hike
What thru-hikers eat, and how they eat, can make the difference between making and not making it to the end of the hike. Feeding off the land, in addition to what you bring with you, can lighten the load and make your trek a little easier. Here are five tips for foraging and storing food on a thru-hike.
1. Don't Poison Yourself
The main thing to remember when you're foraging and storing food on a thru-hike is to be 100% certain a plant, berry, or mushroom is safe before putting it in your mouth. The best short hike nearby and show you how to find edible plants.
If you can't find a seasoned hiker, the next best thing is a book. Look for a field guide specific to the area you're hiking. It should include clear, color pictures of edible wild plants, as well as the dangerous ones. With some plants, you can only eat parts of it, like the flower and leaves, but not the stem. Others, like the deadly nightshade or belladonna (pictured above), are lethal from the berries to the leaves. The berries on these plants are also deceptively sweet. Be sure to pay extra attention to the poisonous plants you'll encounter, so you know what to avoid. The book should also talk about habitat and taste. After all, why eat something foul if there's something tastier available?
2. Know the Water Source
Water quality is crucial when foraging and storing food on a thru-hike. If the water feeding the plant is impure, the plant is likely to be contaminated and can make you sick, especially if you're eating it raw. Many hikers believe spring water is safe, but if the spring is near a polluted city, it may contain contaminated rainwater. Water near large farms may be tainted by pesticides and industrial waste. The best way to be sure is to boil the plant before you eat it. You can also soak the plant in a vinegar-water mixture to kill bacteria before rinsing it with clean water.
3. Get Permission
The Appalachian Trail is protected along 99% of the route by federal or state governments. The Continental Divide Trail is also on federal or state land, while the Pacific Crest Trail includes 300 miles that pass through private land. These three trails are the ultimate thru-hiking destinations, but some rules come with hiking on government land.
In some states, including New York and New Mexico, it's illegal to remove plants without a permit. On land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, you also need a permit to collect plants or plant materials. There may be certain stipulations, like specific locations where removing plants is a no-no. Some rare plants are also off-limits. The likelihood that you'll need a permit is high, so check before you start your hike.
Overall, do your best not to damage the ecosystem. A good rule of thumb when foraging and storing food on a thru-hike is to take no more than 25% of the plant.
4. Consider Insects
Plants and berries are often what come to mind when you think of foraging and storing food on a thru-hike. Eating bugs may not be your first choice, but when you're thru-hiking, they're a good source of protein. Know which insects are edible before you go. Grasshoppers, ants, cicadas, and crickets top the list. Stay away from bugs with bright colors, like yellow, red, or orange. Also avoid those with eight legs or more, like spiders, ticks, and centipedes. Make sure you're far from areas that have been sprayed with pesticides before you take that first bite. And while many insects can be eaten raw, frying or roasting them will make it a little less daunting.
5. Store Food Carefully
Of course, you're not going to head off on a thru-hike with no food at all. For all but the most experienced foragers, eating wild plants should supplement what you have, not be your sole source of sustenance. Keep your food in water-resistant, ultralight storage bags to make sure its well-protected.
When camping, put the bags in metal food storage bins if they're provided, so bears can't get to them. Speaking of bear protection, some parks allow you to hang food from trees, but there are specific requirements. In other places, you'll want to use a bear canister. Always check before you start your thru-hike on the rules for food storage. Happy hiking, and bon appétit!
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