Cold, tired, hungry and stranded in the middle of nowhere with nowt but your bike for company? There’s more than one way to skin a squirrel, says ABR survival expert and outdoor enthusiast John Fenna
Once you’ve sorted out your shelter, fire’ and a source of clean water, the next survival priority is going to be food.
Humans can last several weeks without any food at all, but your ability to function will become compromised well before then if you fail to replenish the energy you’re burning. Food is fuel and it will help keep you warm, keep you moving and keep you thinking straight if you’re ever stranded while out riding.
If you fail to find food you’ll soon become more vulnerable to illness and the effects of the weather. Your weakened mental state will hamper your ability to think your way out of whatever predicament you’ve landed yourself in, and your weakened physical state will make even the slightest task long and exhausting.
Finding wild foods can be extremely difficult in some seasons and environments, so it’s well worth carrying a good supply of emergency rations in your kit. Try not to have anything too tasty and treat-like, though, or you may be tempted to consume your emergency food before really necessary. I’ve heard tales of ABRs packing tinned pet food in their panniers as their emergency ration – you’d have to be pretty desperate to want to eat that!
In general terms, a balanced diet constitutes a good mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats, sugars, minerals, vitamins, and roughage, but for survival purposes, the most important consideration is measured in calories. The more calories a food has the better its survival credentials. You can always sort out your dietary imbalances once you get back to civilisation.
An example of this would be the famous incident of the rugby players who survived a plane crash in the Andes by eating those who died. A diet of nothing but human flesh kept the survivors alive and functioning until they organised their escape and rescue – though they were on a far from balanced diet!
It’s important to think about the ‘calories gained’ and ‘calories lost’ while hunting out wild foods, too. There’s no point burning up your energy reserves tracking down and killing some tiny, hard-to-catch creature which will provide you with very little body fuel once prepared and eaten.
Eating any wild foods can be hazardous. Any plants and fungi which you plan to eat need to be 100 percent accurately identified as many edible varieties have very similar-looking relatives that are poisonous enough for one meal to kill you.
Plants and fungi can be collected – if positively identified – with the minimum of calorific outlay. You don’t have to work too hard to get enough food to keep you going and if you can learn to identify a selection of common and easy-to-find edible wild plants, these can act as a basic menu.
EAT YOUR GREENS
Nettles can provide a good tea, leaf vegetable or even soup – just watch out for that irritating sting! Although easiest to find and best to eat in spring and early summer, nettles grow year-round. They’re rich in things like vitamin C and can be cooked by boiling or wilting the leaves over an open fire; both methods destroy the nettle’s sting. Only the young leaves are nice to eat, though – the old leaves are tough and bitter. As they come into flower, nettles produce substances that cause kidney problems if consumed, so avoid eating flowery ones!
Dandelions can be eaten – flower, leaf and root – but can be somewhat bitter. They’re also a noted diuretic (make you pee) so not ideal if you’re short of water.
Wild fruits can taste great and are full of natural sugars, which will sweeten less palatable foods. Blackberries, which are easy to identify, can provide a large, effortless harvest. Picking those at the top of the bush will mean your berries are less likely to be covered in animal urine and the like.
Protein can be obtained from meat and nuts. Most folk will be able to identify the likes of hazelnuts and chestnuts and, hopefully, the fishing kit and snares which can be made using the wire in your survival kits will mean you can get protein from fish, rabbits, squirrels and birds.
Bear in mind that wild animals, hunted or trapped, could cause you serious injuries while still alive, pass on disease through scratches or bites, and even pass on parasites when you eat their flesh! Handle and consume all wild things with caution.
Although it’s possible to cook foraged, trapped or hooked protein over open flames, some of its essential fats are lost unless it’s cooked in a container. If you don’t have a pot, then even your helmet can be used to cook in.
To make a helmet cooking pot, rip out all the fabric and padding inside your helmet and rig up some way to suspend the remaining shell. Put your food to be cooked into the helmet shell and add water. Rocks that are dry (do not use rocks such as slate or flint that can explode) and clean can then be heated in your fire until almost red-hot. Quickly brush off any ash (or quickly dip them in another bowl of water to wash them) and drop them into your helmet stew pot. The water will soon boil and by retrieving the rocks and reheating them you can keep the pot boiling until your meal is thoroughly cooked.
Tongs for handling the rocks can easily be improvised from a couple of forked sticks or even spanners from your tool kit. If there are no suitable rocks around, spanners could replace these as items to heat and boil the stew.
If you’re near the seashore, shellfish may appear on the menu – but beware of filter feeders such as mussels and oysters as they can concentrate pollutants in their bodies. Less liable to give you problems are limpets, which are grazers.
Although not the most appealing of meats, limpets are easy to harvest. Sneak up on your limpet (they will clamp tight to the rock if they sense you coming) and give it a sharp tap with a rock to dislodge it. Limpets can be cooked in the ashes of a fire or boiled in their shells. Lift off the shell when the flesh is cooked; flick off the black ‘button’ (the limpet’s stomach etc) and eat. They tend to be chewy, though, and you need to eat loads to give you a useful number of calories.
Not all wild foods taste great, so carrying a pot of curry powder or some dried chillies may make wild meals more palatable.
I will reiterate that you need to be 100 percent certain of your plant and fungi identification before you eat anything, and be aware of any allergies or other contraindications associated with any potential foods, be it animal or vegetable. Do your own risk assessments on any plant or animal food source or cooking techniques before trying them. I accept no responsibility for any injury, accident or reaction to any foods you try!
If you manage to catch a fish, an easy way to prepare and cook it is as follows:
- Prepare the fish as soon as you can after catching it, as fish spoil quickly, especially in hot weather
- With very scaly fish, try to remove as many scales as possible by scraping the body from tail to head with the back of your knife. Remove the fins with your knife
- Remove the fish’s internal organs by inserting the tip of your knife into the anal vent and slitting its belly up to just behind the gills. Open the fish up and carefully remove the internal organs
- Cut through the flesh – but not the spine – just behind the gills, then carefully use your fingers to ease the bones out of the flesh in one piece along with the tail. You should end up with a cartoon-style head, bones and tail and a glorious fillet of fish meat
- The guts can be used for bait; the skeleton for stock and flesh cooked in a split stick as follows…
- Take a long, de-barked hazel rod and split it down from one end to about twice the length of the fish. You can bind the rod at the point where you want the split to stop. Prepare two skewers twice the width of the fish and thread these through the fillet from side to side near the top and bottom of the flesh, to support it in a flat position. Feed the supported fillet down the split hazel and then tie the end of the split closed. You can now cook the fish over an open fire without cooking pots
- This method can also be used for meat and poultry – enjoy!
- Snares can be used to catch animals such as rabbits and squirrels, birds and even fish, and are easily made from wire or cordage from your survival kits.
- In essence, a snare is a running-noose, so by making an ‘eye’ in one end of a cord or length of twisted wire and feeding the other end through this, you have a working snare
- For taking rabbits and similarly-sized game, the snare needs to be set approximately four fingers above the ground and held open to about the size of a fist
- Positioned on an animal run or branch a squirrel may use as a run, the snare needs to be secured to a fixed anchor: a snare can take some time to kill its prey and the prey will be fighting to live
- Spring snares kill faster and can put your meal out of the reach of other predators. A springy branch held by a trigger that will release when the snare is disturbed can be used here. Do not inflict unnecessary suffering on any animal, even if you’re going to kill and eat it
- Be sure to break no laws if, where and when you practise snaring, fishing or foraging. Poachers are dealt with quite harshly by the courts!
John has been involved in outdoor education for over three decades. He has diplomas and certificates in everything from fashion design (he turned it to designing outdoor activity clothing – honest!) to canoe coaching. He’s led expeditions in Eastern Europe, several African countries and Thailand, as well as literally walking the length and breadth of England. John started riding motorbikes at 16 and finally passed his car licence in his late 30s. Married to a very understanding wife, John lives in west Wales, but spends as much time as possible in wild(er) places.
Photos: John Fenna