True North Blog

Bugs, It’s What’s for Dinner

Bugs, It's What's for Dinner

As a wilderness survival instructor, every so often I have the sense that a client believes that I’ve let him down when I fail to cover wild edibles as a food source.  Such an expectation, though, is understandable since the general consensus certainly seems to be that a knowledge of wild edibles is vital to properly dealing with an emergency outdoors.  After all, consider the millions of television viewers who tune in each week to watch a wide mix of survival reality shows as their hosts and contestants busily forage for plants, berries, and mushrooms during their scripted emergency.  In turn, there are countless books, articles, and websites that vigorously promote the topic.  But the actual reality is that I truly would be letting down my clients if I continued to foster this notion.

That’s because in a survival situation, wild edibles should not be your primary food source.  In fact, at the risk of further appearing a heretic, wild edibles as an emergency food source is a myth.

So, if not plants, what should you eat in an extended survival situation.

Bugs.

I can hear a few groans now, so let me explain.

The Myth of Wild Edibles

Let me begin by stating that I am not against eating wild edibles.  In fact, I believe that it is a terrific skill to learn and develop.  It’s just that in a survival situation, this skill won’t functionally serve the purpose that you expect.

Let me give you just five reasons why:

  1.  Identification Isn’t Necessarily Easy:  Identifying edible plants, berries, mushrooms, and nuts is trickier than you may think, especially by yourself, or under stress.  Finding edibles that won’t make you, at a minimum, ill, or worse, kill you, requires expert, hands-on instruction and lots and lots of practice.  You just can’t expect to take a day-long course and then remember the information a year, or even three months, later.  And don’t expect that a wild edibles handbook in your backpack will be a sufficient crutch: there exist countless news articles where people misidentified edibles using a book … Sadly, just consider Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame.
  2. BerryLimited by Seasonality:  What may be ripening in July, like wild blackberries, won’t be growing  in December.  The growth of edibles are naturally framed by the seasons of the year.  There is a reason, then, why some survival instructors refer to Winter as the “dead season.”  And keep in mind that in many parts of the country, as a practical matter, Winter starts long before, and ends long after the solstice and equinox dates that are technically printed on your calendar.
  3. Limited by Region:  Like any other skill, it’s difficult to be an expert beyond some particular niche.  So, for example, even if you are highly knowledgable regarding the edibles of Pennsylvania, you probably would still have trouble finding something to eat if you got lost hiking in Alabama, or, worse, Alberta, Canada, since the number of wild edibles decrease the farther you move from the equator.
  4. Not Abundant:  Wild edibles are simply not as abundant and sustaining as some may proclaim.  I don’t know about you, but rarely do I find on my outdoor adventure vast swatches of wild edibles.
  5. Effort Expended exceeds Calories Gained:  In addition to the fact that wild edibles aren’t as abundant as many perceive, the U.S. military has conducted research that concludes that foraging for wild edibles is a net loss in a survival situation.  That is, the calories expended foraging for wild edibles exceeds the calories actually obtained.  Basically, then, it makes better sense to stay put.

Put Insects on the Menu

By contrast, let me give you a few reasons why you should consider eating bugs as your primary food source in an outdoors emergency.

  • Bugs are Abundant:  The statistics and references to the amount of insects on the planet is absolutely mind boggling.  One representative source estimates that on average there are 4 million insects per acre of land.  Another representative source states that insects are adapted to every land and freshwater habitat where their food is available, from jungles to deserts, and glacial streams to hot springs.
  • Identification is Easier:  Most insects are edible, with far fewer “rules” or “exceptions” governing what you should, shouldn’t, eat than wild edibles.
  • IMG_1923The Rest of the World Can’t be Wrong:  While insects are generally not part of the European and American diet, in the rest of the world, they represent a significant component of their cuisine.  A few years ago, I had a Korean client who shared a happy memory from her childhood when she and her sister would gather grasshoppers to supplement the family dinner.
  • Calorie Dense:  Insects are calorie dense and very nutritious, containing not just carbohydrates, but protein and fat … which are better for sustaining an even energy level.
  • Minimal Effort Required:  You can start to look for insects just by kicking over stones, or, better yet, squatting down next to a rotting, fallen tree and start to dig into it with your knife.  Consider, too, that staying in a confined area may be the better choice anyway … You might already have a broken leg (making wild edible hunting impracticable); you might want to avoid getting further lost; or you may fear loosing site of your emergency shelter.

What Insects are Edible & Which to Avoid

Here is just a partial list of edible bugs, much of which, quite literally, you’ll likely easily find in your own backyard: grasshoppers, locusts & crickets; caterpillars; ants & eggs; termites; cicadas; spiders; grubs; bees & bee larvae; and worms.  All of which I see and find in greater abundance in the outdoors than I do wild edibles.

IMG_2774At the same time, you should avoid altogether certain groups of insects.  For example, it’s best to avoid brightly colored insects, or slow moving ones, since there is likely an evolutionary reason why they’re bright or slow … Typical predators already know that they are poisonous or otherwise unpalatable, which is why these bugs aren’t worried about remaining hidden.  Also, avoid disease carrying insects like flys, mosquitoes, and ticks.  After all, you wouldn’t want your survival situation to be made more difficult than it already is by becoming violently ill, or worse.

Even with edible insects, consider cooking your insects, particularly larger ones, over a fire, which can help overcome that “Yuck!” factor.  The flame will also help remove the any fuzz or pricklies that might catch in your throat, and it will help to kill its parasites too.  Don’t forget also to first remove any stingers.

So Place that Order

Look, I agree, my recommendation isn’t exactly the most palatable food choice, especially since I admit that I would probably prefer to eat wild blueberries over grubs.  However, my mission at True North is to help you best deal with a wilderness emergency so that you can return home as soon as possible to your family and friends with a sense of pride.  And, for what it’s worth, I’m not just advocating this position by myself, the various U.S. military survival programs do the same.  So, just as the U.S. Air Force Survival Handbook recommends to its Airmen, if there ever is a time when you should overcome an aversion to food, and ignore the commonly accepted wisdom about wild edibles, it’s when you turn to insects as your primary food source.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook.

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