True North Blog

Survival Question: Should You Eat This?

A few weeks ago, during our previous Advanced Wilderness Survival course, as J.C. and I talked with our clients, we all noticed a very large millipede boldly stroll across a nearby log and scramble down to the ground in front of us.  At that point, one of them asked, “Could we eat that in a survival situation?”  It seemed like a good teaching opportunity so I suggested that, based on the training that they had so far received from us, they were quite capable of answering for themselves whether they could, or should.

Consider taking a few minutes to read the following information, then determine how you might answer.

Your Primary Food Source

In all of our wilderness survival courses at True North, we teach our clients that in a survival situation, their primary food source should not be wild edibles, like berries, roots, and leaves, as is more commonly taught and believed, but rather insects.

There are at least eight reasons that I could quickly list as to why you should not focus on wild edibles, but let me just hit the key ones.  First and foremost, it takes a lot of training to safely master what won’t make you ill or worse.  Second, wild edibles are not plentiful as they are limited by geography and season.  Third, the U.S military has conducted studies that show that the hunt for wild edibles is a net loss of energy — that is, the calories that one expends searching for them exceeds the calories that can be consumed.

By comparison, I could give you as many reasons why you should instead focus your hunt on insects, but, likewise, let me list just three.  First and foremost, insects are extremely plentiful most anywhere on the globe and at all times of the year (as a genus, they are by far the largest life form on the planet).  Second, they are extremely calorie dense (a pound of insects has as much protein as a pound of meat).  Third, learning which ones to eat is easy to master as they’re generally just a few exceptions.

Which insects shouldn’t you eat?  Generally, stay away from any insects that have 8 or more legs; are brightly colored; or which move about in the open, especially slowly.  The short explanation linking the last two criteria is this: these insects have evolved as such because they know that potential predators, like birds, will avoid them due to their toxic or offensive qualities.

That True North recommends insects as your primary survival food source may seem strange (at best) to you, but note that what we teach our clients reflects that which is taught in military survival programs, like the U.S Air Force SERE School.  After all, if you turn your nose at insects as a potential food source, then you are only depriving yourself of an extremely valuable resource.

Eat or Not Eat?

The photograph above is an example of the millipede that we witnessed during that survival course.  It clearly has more than 8 legs; is distinctly colored; and moves about in the open air at a relatively slow speed.

Based on this exclusion criteria, our client finally answered his own question: He decided that he should not this insect.  J.C and I agreed.

American Giant Millipede

But this is where it gets better!

After returning from the course, I decided to do a little research to confirm our finding.  What I learned specifically underscored how important even just a simple, but fundamental, grasp of skills and knowledge will go into helping someone to best deal with a wilderness survival situation.  I’m glad that we didn’t arrive at a different conclusion!

It turns out that the insect in question is called the Narceus Americanus, more commonly known as the American Giant Millipede or Iron Worm.  As a physical description, it typically grows to about 4 inches in length; has “venomous claws” below its mouth; its body segments contain a “range of colors including yellow, purple and pink.”  When it is threatened, the Giant Millipede coils its body and secretes a noxious substance “which contains large amounts of benzoquinones and may cause dermal burns and discoloration.”  This substance can irritate eyes. (source: Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan)

For what it’s worth, this same source states that millipedes in general (though not the American Giant Millipede) “release hydrogen cyanide when threatened.”  I don’t remember too much from my high-school chemistry class, but do recall that cyanide isn’t the best thing to ingest.


While the American Giant Millipede is by no means dangerous, personally, I would keep looking for other insects to eat.  To learn which ones are safe, and how to find them — including how to best protect yourself and others in a wilderness emergency — consider taking one of our Wilderness Survival courses.

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 and YouTube.

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