When faced with a survival situation, people almost always think about food. Hunger pangs are highly likely to ‘kick in’ if you are stranded for some time without food. It’s important to remember that you can actually survive for 3 weeks without food, though, as long as you have enough water to sustain you. You probably won’t be very happy or fit, but you will be alive. Therefore, food is the last of the Priorities of Survival. You need to abide by the rule of 3’s and obtain protection, location and water – whilst you have energy to do so.
In order to reduce the risk of eating a potentially deadly/poisonous food, all crew members are encouraged to carry some small amount of emergency food in their vests. These are readily available commercially. The best forms (with the longest shelf life) are those supplied for Liferafts and Aircraft Emergency Kits. They usually contain a vacuum sealed bar, and dependent on type, contain approximately 2500 calories each.
Carried by air crews since WW2, and available on Amazon for Liferafts etc., another option can include a simple tobacco type tin containing hard boiled sweets that you can coat for extra energy with ´baking sugar´. These can be used in a couple of ways. The first and most obvious is to just put it in your mouth. The second is to empty the tin out, boil water with a sweet added, and enjoy a morale boosting drink. If you also add common cooking ´stock cubes´, either meat or vegetable stock, and some salt sachets, you can include these into any wild food concoction that you make. This will make them more palatable.
As with all our equipment, you must employ a regular system to check the date and seals on any food that you carry in your equipment.
If you find yourselves stranded for an extended time period, and feel that you need to source food in order to survive, there are some general guidelines below that you can follow. Take time in the environment that you operate in to consult local specialists who can assist you in learning local food sources.
Plants, Berries, and Fungi
These are probably the most difficult category to determine when it comes to considering whether they are safe to eat. It cannot be emphasized enough that you should not eat anything that you cannot 100% identify. Certain plants can poison on contact through skin absorption, by ingestion or inhalation through the respiratory system. These include hemlock, castor bean and castor oil plant, oleander, lantana, poison ivy, poison oak, death lily and many varieties of fungi which can be lethal. This list barely scratches the surface, however. The only way to be sure is to do the research, find out what plants are growing in the location you’re heading to, and learn how to identify those which are safe to eat.
The military over the years has developed what is known as the ´taste test´ as consuming even a small amount of a toxic plant can cause gastrointestinal problems, or even death. Survival experts devised this test to determine a plant’s edibility. It is a slow process, but each step is necessary. (Warning: This is for emergencies only. Plan A should always be to positively identify everything you eat.)
- Separate the plant into its various parts—Focus on only one piece of the plant at a time.
- Smell it. A strong, unpleasant odor is a bad sign.
- Test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant on your inner elbow or wrist for a few minutes. If your skin burns, itches, feels numb, or breaks out in a rash, don’t eat the plant.
- If the plant passes the skin test, prepare a small portion the way you plan to eat it. (Boiling is always a good bet.)
- Before taking a bite, touch the plant to your lips to test for burning or itching. If there’s no reaction after 15 minutes, take a small bite, chew it, and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. If the plant tastes very bitter or soapy, spit it out.
- If there’s no reaction in your mouth, swallow the bite and wait several hours. If there’s no ill effect, you can assume this part of the plant is edible.
- Repeat the complete test for other parts of the plant as some plants have both edible and inedible parts.
It is not 100% foolproof, though. No matter how abundant and tempting plants and berries might be, you should never eat any wild vegetation unless you are 100% sure that you can identify it.
Pine needle tea is one of the easiest ´foods´ to produce, and one of my favorites (as it involves the words TEA).
It contains 4 to 5 times more Vitamin C than freshly squeezed orange juice, and it is high in vitamin A. It is also so simple to make. Chop pine needles, add to hot water, and drink.
Like all survival skills, try and learn two or three edible plants that are common in your region and practice!
I will spare the audience from the pictures! Whilst insects may not be the first choice on your menu, they are usually found in abundance and are the easiest kinds of ‘meal’ to find. They provide you with a very rich source of protein and can be made more palatable by adding into soups, stews or broths (another reason to carry stock cubes). You can eat most insects raw, if preferred, but always remove wings and any barbed legs first. Personally, I either dry for a day in the sun or cook and grind it a powder before adding to a soup. Common worms with scrambled eggs is particularly nice!
There are no poisonous freshwater fish, so you can eat them safely. You should cook them to get rid of any parasites first, though. They can be caught in several ways from traditional ´line and lure´ (if you carry in your kit, obviously) to using your head net as a gill net or a simple fishing net. Fishing lines have been used for centuries in the UK, manufactured from natural cordage (nettles) and plant spines (e.g. Hawthorn). Add a modern touch and make the float out of one of your foam earplugs!
Most species of frog are safe to eat, but you should avoid eating any brightly colored ones or those which have a distinctive X mark on their back. However, frogs should not be confused with toads which secrete a poison if they’re in fear of an attack. Toads tend to inhabit drier areas than frogs.
All bird species are edible, although the taste varies tremendously. Catching can be very difficult. The easiest method is a long length of thin cord (approximately 3 feet) with fruits or similar threaded along its length. With one end of the cord anchored to a tree, ground feeding birds ingest the cord as they eat the berries. When they try to escape, the cord is securely wrapped within the GI tract, and they are unable to escape. Other methods can include a mesh laid over the birds feeding ground to ensnare their feet, to a simple loop snare. (This is where the name ´Booby trap´ originates! From the traps used to catch the Booby/sea bird).
What birds do provide (if you can find them of course) is EGGS! One of the ingredients for your worm omelet!
You can cook in two other ways, if you don´t have a cooking pot. In the campfire ashes:
Or in a large ball of Sphagnum moss (or large ball of wet grass):
All species of mammals are edible, however, scavenging mammals can often carry diseases. It is important to think ´how much energy will I expend catching this animal compared to the nutritional gain I will receive (If you manage to catch it at all). Mammals also pose the risk of the survivor encountering injuries as it defends itself. Snares and traps are the most effective means of capturing animals. Unless you are lucky and have experience in poaching or hunting for most of your life, don’t expect to catch any mammals.
Food is the final of the Priorities of Survival, but one that all people think of first. Terence MacSwiney, an Irish political prisoner in 1920, lasted 74 days on a hunger strike before his death.
One of the key human factors regarding survival food is being able to adapt to what you can gather without the benefits of modern spices and flavorings. Many people have died not being able to adapt or overcome their own individual dietary beliefs or ability to eat food in its purest forms. Hiroo Onoda continued to survive in the jungle unaware that WW2 had finished for 30 years. He stated that he could not afford to be concerned with whether he “liked” any of the food he obtained. He just ate it all.
As a sobering reminder, just remember all the living things mentioned, will quite happily eat you, too.