The Basics of Living Off the Land

Living off the land: Just the phrase has an alluring ring to it. And so does the idea: the notion of utter self-sufficiency, rustling up grub and other resources from the wilderness and prospering free and clear of the grid and the rat-race alike.

The phrase describes the everyday reality of human beings for hundreds of thousands of years, and continues to apply to many around the world who live off the land by necessity or choice.

For our purposes, though, we’re looking at living off the land as a short-term DIY response to an emergency of one kind or another. We’re gearing this general overview toward folks who might find themselves in extended survival situations rather than those who engage in subsistence hunting, fishing, and foraging as part of their lifestyle. Our tips are going to be aimed at the outdoorsperson or the prepper who needs to endure in the backwoods for a few days or a few weeks—after getting lost or injured on a wilderness outing, say, or perhaps because of one of those disaster scenarios bug-out bags are made for.

This article will be focused on foraging and sheltering yourself, but don’t forget that living off the land also means knowing how to start a fire, track down (and purify) water, and perform other essentials of wilderness survival.

For inspiration, here’s a sturdy sum-up from the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, quoted by Bradford Angier in his 1956 classic How to Stay Alive in the Woods:

“Survival is merely a question of knowing where the dangers are and how to recognize them, and how to take advantage of the resources offered by the country.”

Hunting & Fishing

When many people think of how to live off the land, their minds turn to building snares and deadfall traps and fashioning fishing line out of sinew or plant fibers. And no question animal protein can be a valuable survival food.

Not long ago we wrote about survival-mode hunting and fishing with makeshift tools: definitely an appropriate read for anyone interested in learning how to live off the land. We’ll repeat our disclaimer from that blogpost: You should follow all local, state, and national hunting and fishing regulations, and you should perfect your skills to minimize the suffering of your quarry.

Foraging

The most able hunter or angler, the sort who can seemingly muster up meat or fish out of any kind of countryside, doesn’t want to rely on those spoils alone. (For one thing, old-timer frontier types will warn you about “rabbit starvation”—aka protein poisoning.) For anyone truly living off the land, foraged foods—which we’ll loosely define as that category of the wild larder that doesn’t try to get away from you—are a mainstay of the diet.

The harshest-looking landscapes often boast a surprising quantity of sustenance. Cacti in the desert, lichen on the tundra, wild onion on the prairie, shellfish and seaweed on a bleak seacoast: Foraged foods can be life-saving fodder in lean settings, but they can also be downright delicious—equal or superior to (sometimes, anyway) cultivated greens or fruits.

Foraging has its risks, though. Some innocuous, even tasty-looking plants can lay you low, even threaten your life. Knowing what you’re eating is absolutely imperative.

Hone your skills with lots of plant- (and mushroom-) I.D. practice—and just as much caution. There are many good, regionally specific foraging guides for North America these days, both books and websites, but nothing substitutes for a class or one-on-one instruction from a knowledgeable expert.

It’s worth noting, too, that you may have an allergy to an otherwise edible plant, so it’s a good idea to try a small sample of any new (and thoroughly I.D.-ed) species to gauge your reaction. This can be done via a “Tolerance Test” (the basic steps of which we’ve adapted from this Washington University in St. Louis guide):

  1. Nibble a little piece of the plant and spit it out. (Remember, you’re doing this with a plant you’ve confidently identified.)
  2. Give yourself an hour and see how your body reacts.
  3. If you haven’t experienced any adverse effects, bite off a larger (but not too large) portion and swallow this.
  4. If after awhile you aren’t feeling off at all, eat a tablespoon or so of the plant; Washington University recommends doing so cooked in a recipe or mixed with some other food. If you’re still feeling A-OK, you’re likely fine to eat this particular plantlife.

Some Widespread Edible Plants

Basically every environment offers up some kind of edible—maybe even delectable—wild plant for those in the know, while certain species or families are so widespread and easily found they constitute genuine mainstays of the forager’s harvest. The following such contenders are common and broadly distributed, so they’re worth familiarizing yourself with.

Cattail

You can put cattail, along with fellow botanical superstars such as coconut palm, on a short list of the world’s most useful plants. These towering marsh herbs are basically unmistakable and all over the place (you’ll find cattail stands in dry desert washes and little swales in a high-country forest), and besides all the other practical uses of their fibers and fluff they’re mostly all edible. Leaves and young stems can be treated like most greens; the spring-green catkins can be boiled and gnawed like corn-on-the-cob; you can bake with the pollen; and the starch-rich roots (rhizomes) can be boiled or grilled and then eaten ala artichoke—or ground into flour.

Miner’s Lettuce

This distinctive little herb of western forest groundcover is named for its edibility: The leaves are quite tasty in raw salads.

Stinging Nettle

Wait—isn’t stinging nettle the hairy, pungent, big-leaved plant that punishes walkthroughs with unpleasant (if short-lived) rashes or welts? For sure, but this is also one of our tastiest and most widespread wild greens. Young leaves harvested with gloves or even makeshift tongs only need a short blanching for their sting to be obliterated. Sautéed like spinach or arugula, nettle compares well to them in terms of flavor, and it’s rich in vitamins and minerals.

Lamb’s Quarters

Less appetizingly called pigweed or goosefoot, lamb’s quarters—found across most of North America—is a common sight in untended lawns, garden beds, and waste spaces, and many gardeners and farmers consider them weeds. Yet these tall herbs with their toothed, spade-shaped leaves actually make delicious and nutritious eating in both raw and cooked form.

Dandelion

In many parts of the country, you don’t have to look very hard to track down dandelion. Bane of many a lawn owner, dandelion’s a treat for the forager, given every part of this common forb is edible. You can eat the leaves raw or cooked by boiling or sautéing. Some foragers cook the flowerheads, also munchable right off the stem, like pancakes or use them to make dandelion wine.

Watercress

Dainty watercress carpets many rills and streams: the same elegant roughage that garnishes many a fancy dish in high-end restaurants the world over. If you suspect a watercress-gardened stream course might be polluted, though, skip the harvest.

Wild Berries

Some shrubs’ berries are outright poisonous; others are bland and chalky, not worth consuming unless you’re really in dire straits and lacking other options. But many—wild blueberries, huckleberries, whortleberries (grouse huckleberries), thimbleberries, salmonberries, gooseberries, etc.—are as good or better than produce-aisle counterparts. Survival living in late summer or early fall, prime berry season, can be lipsmackingly good—just watch out for bears taking advantage of the same smorgasbord in the thickets and briars.

DIY Wilderness Shelters

To live off the land, you also need to protect yourself from the elements. You can colonize and/or modify natural shelters such as caves and alcoves, though you should always exercise caution when scoping such potential refuges out: You never know what kind of critters may already be calling the place home.

If such readymade refuges aren’t available, you can create your own backcountry abode. A tarp or poncho lean-to, for example, takes very little time to erect. If a pair of trees aren’t conveniently spaced, you can use trekking poles instead. Anchor the loose ground end of the tarp with stakes or rocks. You’ll want the back of the lean-to facing the direction of prevailing winds.

In timbered country, you can fashion a more robust shelter by making an A-frame-style “debris hut.” You’ll often be able to find a tree leaning at a workable angle—which also means angled away from prevailing weather—to serve as the ridgepole; if it’s dead (a snag), make sure it’s sturdy enough for the job. Otherwise you can find a stout but maneuverable log or large fallen branch and secure it at an angle, either by propping it against a stump, rock, or within a tree crotch, or by burying its butt end in the ground (a significantly more energy-intensive process, of course).

Then brace successive layers of branches and boughs against your ridgepole. As Backpacker notes in this roundup of survival shelters, you can integrate a garbage bag as one of the interior layers for at least partial waterproofing. Once the sides are sufficiently layered, pack the interior with leaves and other insulating materials. In inclement conditions, an A-frame interior not much bigger than your body is best, but if you’re going for a long-haul sort of setup you may want a roomier floorplan.

In desert country, a tarp or poncho proves especially valuable for shelter-making. You can form a lean-to with it using a rock outcrop or even a sand dune (or a sand pile you construct). An effective setup for beating the heat involves double-layering tarps/ponchos: whether propped up off the ground for an open-sided structure, or roofing a dugout or natural sand- or rock-edged nook.

What about sheltering in snowy country? Again, natural features can save the day in the short term: In conifer woods, for instance, you can often find the makings of a snug and secure snow pit in the hollows beneath heavy overhanging evergreen boughs, tucked against the trunk.

If you’re looking to live off the land in more severe wintry conditions, or in treeless snowscapes, you should definitely learn how to excavate a snow cave. When properly constructed, snow caves can be lifesavers; they’ve certainly kept many a mountaineer and Arctic trekker toasty during fierce blizzards. They’re best sited in short, steep slopes of deep but well-consolidated snowpack—and definitely outside avalanche-prone terrain.

When temperatures are cold enough, you might consider making an igloo from chopped-out and sculpted snow or ice “bricks,” or heaping snow into a mound and then hollowing that out to form a quinzhee. Such snow structures aren’t safe when temperatures are in the upper 20s Fahrenheit or above (or, again, where avalanches are a risk).

Even if you never actually live off the land, it’s useful to know some of the basic tenets so you’re roaming the woods (or deserts, or tundra) with a little extra confidence. It may not exactly be living off the land, meanwhile, but we strongly advise you to have some Mountain House meals in your emergency reserves…