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Why Foraging for Food Is a Bad Idea (If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing)

Why Foraging for Food Is a Bad Idea (If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing)

When it comes to survival skills, foraging for food is a great one to have. Foraging can also be a fun way to experience the wild places around you and get in touch with nature. However, it comes with its own inherent dangers, and most of us only have experience foraging around in a grocery store.

If you don’t know what you’re doing when foraging in the wilderness, you could really put yourself in a bind. You could get sick or even die from the plants, fungi, and other food you find. If you’re thinking about going out and picking some food for your next meal, take a moment to consider the advantages and the dangers of foraging first. 

What Does Foraging for Food Entail?

Foraging is different from growing your own little garden in the backyard. It’s when you go out into nature looking for edible plants, hunting, or fishing. Gathering up your own dinner from the elements without stepping foot in a grocery store is a little more involved than you might think. 

You can’t just eat any old thing you find in the woods. Some plants will harm you if ingested. There are also plants that will nourish you and plants that will kill you. You have to know the difference before you start foraging. 

Foraging Do's and Don'ts- Etiquette and best practices of foraging

Why Do People Forage for Food?

There are a few different reasons why one might take to foraging. Some people forage for the fun of the journey. Some people forage as a part of their culture, and others do it out of survival, desperation, or poverty. You might be surprised how available edible and nourishing food is when you know where and how to look for it in nature. 

Pro Tip: Find out how long you can go without food in an emergency.

Woman foraging plants in a forest.
Foraging for food can be a fun activity, but if not done correctly it can be dangerous.

Why Foraging for Food Is a Bad Idea If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

The issue with foraging comes when you try to successfully make a foraged meal without the proper knowledge of what you’re about to eat. It’s downright dangerous if you don’t know what you’re looking for as you forage.

Here are a few reasons you should never eat a plant you can’t clearly and confidently identify. 

Picking Toxic or Dangerous Things

It’s no surprise that some plants are toxic to humans. For instance, some berries may look bright, pretty, and appetizing but should be avoided.

And sometimes you don’t even have to eat them to be affected. Poison Ivy is a good example. The plant is well known for the damage it can do to humans, and most humans don’t even know how to spot it. 

Mushrooms are another danger zone for foragers. There are more than 14,000 different kinds of mushrooms. Some are completely safe and edible, and some mushrooms could easily take down a grown man. You have to be 100% sure you know what you’re picking before trying to eat something you found in the wild. 

Woman cutting mushroom off of a tree.
Before you go foraging, make sure you know what berries, plants, and fungi are safe to consume!

Disturbing Local Wildlife

Over-foraging a particular area can have a harsh effect on the surrounding wildlife. Animals and other plants live off the things you may be picking, and too much excavation can leave the wildlife in danger. 

Foraging for food may also take you to more remote places where the wildlife is not as conditioned to humans. Be careful not to place yourself in a dangerous situation with a bear or big cat. Poisonous snakes, spiders, and other predators also reside in the areas where you might be foraging. 

Pro Tip: Protecting wildlife is important! Check out these 5 Reasons to Not Feed the Wildlife While Camping.

Little girl foraging mushrooms in the forest.
Protect the local wildlife by not over foraging and leaving food behind for animals to consume.

Disrupting Natural Ecosystems

Careless or speedy foraging can harm local ecosystems. If the wildlife lives off the plant you are harvesting, you could leave them without a reliable food source.

Everything in nature is connected. If you disturb or disrupt one part of the chain, you’ll also cause trouble in other areas. It’s important to move around when you are foraging so you don’t overwork one particular area of land. 

Violating Local Laws

You need to know the local laws for or against foraging before looking for food. Some places have strict rules against such practices. In general, you can almost always assume that any state-owned land is off-limits for those foraging for food.

Though foraging laws were first put into place after the Civil War to keep slaves from being able to sustain themselves, the laws still exist in some form in many areas of the South today. 

Not Finding Anything, Unreliable

Another risk to consider is that foraging is unreliable in providing sustenance. You may not find anything edible and safe for many days, weeks, or even months when you’re foraging. You may have a day where you find a large bounty of fresh delights.

The point is that you never really know. Foraging is an unreliable manner of providing food for yourself. In a survival situation, you need to manage your energy output and not waste precious calories overexerting on fruitless efforts.

Time Consuming

Be ready to spend some time searching if you want to dig up a meal in the wild. Even hunters understand the value of patience and persistence. Finding a meal out in the throws of nature could take all day. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you may not even know where to start looking.

Person putting mushrooms into a basket while foraging.
Foraging safely takes time and patience to dig up a full meal.

Getting Lost

Careful to notate where you are as you forage. Getting lost is a huge problem when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. If you’re concentrating on the vegetation and other details around you, you may lose track of where you came from.

You want to be in control of the situation at all times. If you plan to forage in a remote area, make sure you have reliable communication and/or a GPS device to help assure your safe return. 

Pro Tip: Being prepared with a handheld GPS system isn’t the only way to stay safe while in the wild. Whether you’re just foraging for food or going camping, use our Backcountry Camping For Beginner’s Essential Guide.

Man picking mushrooms in autumn forest
While foraging isn’t always a reliable food source, it is much more affordable than shopping at a grocery store.

Foraging for Food Has Some Advantages

Foraging isn’t a total lost cause, for sure. There are plenty of advantages when you take the time to do it right. You need to be educated in biodiversity for the geographical region you’re exploring, but foraging can really save you money over time. The price of produce from the grocery store adds up quickly. Foraging is free. 

If you know what foods are good to eat, then you’re likely eating healthier from foraging. Foraging the right way will have a minimal impact on your surrounding environment, and the trek out into the elements is an effective way to manage stress. 

11 Easy Edible Plants for Beginner Foragers- Eating Wild Food

If You Forage, Do So Conscientiously

Foraging for food is not something you should do on a whim. However, it can be quite beneficial when done the right way. Knowledge is key. Learn the lay of the land and the various plants in your local ecosystem before ever taking a bite of something you find in the wild. 

If you don’t have time to dig into the studying you’ll have to complete to forage for food safely, you could take other steps to be more environmentally copacetic and healthy. For instance, purchase your produce from local farmers or farmer’s markets. You’ll put money back into your local economy and healthy, locally-grown food into your belly.

Do you forage for food? Tell us how you do it safely in the comments!

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Mike Reichenbach

Wednesday 1st of June 2022

For those that wish to learn these skills there are reliable sources of information, including the State Extension Service, State mycological associations (folks that know mushrooms). Also connect with someone who is experienced and learn from them. These sources teach what can be eaten and how to prepare it as well as how to collect or wild cultivate food to minimize impacts on the environment.

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