Letter Re: Living Off The Land: Delusions and Misconceptions About Hunting and Gathering

This letter is in response to your link to a post by Ross Gilmore: Living Off The Land: Delusions and Misconceptions About Hunting and Gathering.  It’s a well-written article and I’d like to expand upon it.

I’ve been teaching Stone Age skills for 29 years and I’ve spent most of my adult life in the backcountry of Idaho and British Columbia.  I never purchased meat or fish from a store for about 20 years, though I consumed a lot.  I’ve lived Stone Age for short periods of time, living completely off the land using only the skills and tools of long ago… handmade longbow with obsidian-tipped arrows, stone knife, cordage snares and deadfall traps, etc.

I’ve now moved to the other wilderness, Los Angeles, where I’m sharing my skills and learning new lessons every day… but that’s another story.

Meeting one’s caloric needs directly from the land is an idea filled with Dances with Wolves romanticism.  Most people have no idea what it’s really like.  I have been reduced to such a weakened state from lack of calories that walking 100 yards required stopping to rest, and that was after only a week of living off the land.  That experience occurred in the mountains of Oregon in the Hell’s Canyon Wilderness in May, “springtime.”  Spring in the mountains there meant that I was snowed on, hailed on, and rained on, and water froze solid every night.  I was likely burning through at least 7000 calories per day, and my main source of calories, bisquitroot (Lomatium spp.), provided 2-3 calories per gram.  Now, 2-3 calories per gram is very high for most wild food, but I still required about 15 pounds of it per day to break even!  I couldn’t eat that much.

However, something that Ross Gilmore doesn’t point out is that there is a transition period during which our bodies acclimate to new foods.  Much of that acclimation takes about a week, after which a person more efficiently processes wild foods and more efficiently utilizes the energy.  We adjust.  Part of the adjustment comes from our flexible metabolism: our metabolism shifts to match food intake.  When there is inadequate food, we have a desire to move slower and sleep more.  That’s why “Naked and Afraid” people lay around so much.  However, a person getting close to adequate calories after the transition from conventional to natural food sources will feel more energized after that weeklong adjustment.

Trapping is the way to go for efficient harvesting of calorie-dense food.  My success rate for traps is 1 kill for every 3-4 traps set, per night.  However, most of the survival instructors that I’ve met lack the experience to set traps in the best locations, quickly and efficiently.  Paiute children were reported to set up to 75 deadfall traps in a day, using trap sticks previously made.  Now, at my success rate, that means about 20 critters per day.  The ground squirrels in Paiute country are huge, but let’s figure a mix of ground squirrels, pack rats and mice and estimate half a pound of meat, organs and fat per animal.  That’s 10 pounds per day.  An average adult needs about 2 pounds.

But let’s be realistic.  Most instructors cannot set more than a dozen Paiute deadfalls in a day and their success rate is dismal.  And I’m talking about the people who teach this stuff for a living.

Understanding local resources intimately is key, as Ross pointed out.  So is timing.  Harvesting and storing acorns at the appropriate time means food is always available, and some of the California tribes consumed up to half of their year’s calories via acorns.  However, most tribes did not store huge amounts of food during pre-agricultural times.  They didn’t have to.  The keys are intimate knowledge of the environment, timing, extensive knowledge and skills, and action.  Rise early in the morning to stand hunt, then set traps in the mid-late morning while opportunistically hunting, forage easy items as you go, middle of the day process food/work around camp/make traps and tools, then during the evening hunt or set more traps while opportunistically hunting.  Each day cover 2-5 miles, depending on your environment.

When I lived in areas with chipmunks, setting a deadfall trap resulted in almost 100% success within a few hours.  In the Midwest during summer, a day in the woods covering 5 miles while carrying a bow would yield way more calories than required in the form of snakes, frogs, chipmunks, perhaps a grouse or larger animal, and a wide variety of plant foods that are consumed on the go.

In the mountains of Idaho and British Columbia, one elk provides 350 pounds of meat.  When you include the fat, organs and bones (lots of fat is stored within the bones, which must be smashed and boiled to extract) and take the time to properly preserve the animal, you can leisurely enjoy the rest of your year!  Most of the meat I preserved in Idaho was simply cut thin and laid over bushes where it dried just fine in one day.

In Ross’ example of living off the land, legally, in New York, conditions would be tougher.  Killing 12 bucks is illegal and keeping to the hunting season would be difficult, but there are many other easier sources of calorie-rich foods.  Raccoons, beaver, cats and dogs (during the Zombie Apocalypse), and rodents… these animals are easy to trap in abundance in the right areas.  Remember, 1 success out of every 3-4 traps set by a skilled individual.  Imagine a marsh with muskrats and beaver, plus raccoons working the banks, and an abundance of cattail roots, shoots and seeds (yes, you can fluff up the dry seed heads and flash burn the fluff from the seeds.  Very tasty and high in calories.)  Marshes also have waterfowl, possibly fish and crayfish, frogs, snakes and turtles.  FYI, every animal in North America can be eaten, including skunk.  I’ve done it.  

My point is that living off the land is easy under certain conditions and with a lot of skill, and that it requires specific actions.  My point is also that most survival instructors do not have the skills or experience to teach it well.

What really doesn’t work is the idealized notion that “I’ll just go out and find food.”  I have many years of experience in identifying plants and learning how to efficiently harvest and process them.  I’ve learned by doing.  I’ve set traps that fell down before an animal found it, or the animal stole the bait.  I’ve spent countless days watching deer trails and walking back to camp empty-handed.  You have to put in your time.

I have yet to see a television show in which the participant/s follow an intelligent course of action for long-term living.  Most of the shows are about toughing out the conditions until they get back to the safety and abundance of civilization.  What a shame.  The outdoors are portrayed as a dangerous place to get out of.  That mentality does not provide good information for someone who is serious about meeting his needs directly from the land in ways that are easy and efficient.  Eating a few willow buds, as “Survivorman” Les Stroud did on one of his episodes, and proclaiming, “Mmmmm… this will give me some energy” is inexcusable.  It’s lying.

One last comment about Ross’ article: dried mashed potatoes are nice if you want a tasty conventional addition to your wild foraging, but it’s not the most efficient food to bring.  Fats and oils contain 9 calories per gram.  That’s the food to carry if you are wanting maximum calories.

Get outdoors, get dirty, practice real skills in real situations, and bring a lighter and “back up” supplies… just in case.

Chris Morasky, Ancient Pathways of SoCal

JWR Replies: I agree with you and Mr. Gilmore! In many of my writings over the years, I’ve warned that the “Batman in the Boondocks” approach is foolhardy. Anyone who thinks that they can a carry all that they need in one backpack to survive in the wilds for extended periods is fooling themselves. That would be perilous even in the present day. But to expect to be able to do so in the midst of a societal collapse is just plain laughable. Just think how many other people will simultaneously be attempting to “live off the land.” Except in very remote regions, the streams and rivers will be fished out and the wild game will be largely shot out and trapped out, in less than a year. And what little game remains will be quite spooked. A self-sufficient farm with a variety of crops and livestock, hay cutting ground, and an adjoining woodlot is a much more realistic solution