I won’t sugarcoat this. Winter survival is extremely difficult. You will face a level of hunger like you’ve never felt before. But it’s not impossible to make it through if you know where to find supplies and how to prepare in advance. Read on for my top tips for winter foraging in a survival situation whether you’re in the city, the suburbs, or out in the wilderness.
Survival Food Challenges in the Winter
All survival situations will test your mettle, instincts, and innovation. But none more so than the dead of winter after a major disaster. The following factors make finding food in the winter more difficult and sometimes downright dangerous.
- Supplies will be severely limited. Fellow survivors will likely guard their stashes like rabid wolves. That’s going to make trade and bartering difficult once your own stocks get low. They won’t be willing to part with their food supplies even if you happen to have a highly coveted item for trade such as dry firewood, bottled water, fuel, ammo, or warm blankets. There is also the danger of looting. If you go around flashing your bartering items too often, you may find yourself out of food and everything else.
- Food prep will be difficult. When the grid goes down, having a warm meal every night will be a luxury you may not be able to afford. Unless you have batteries, a generator, or chemically-heated food packs, your meal choices will be limited to cold and uncooked items. I know what you’re thinking, but fires are tough to keep going in the dead of winter. Even if you can get a big enough blaze going to boil water and cook raw meat, dry firewood will be hard to replenish. It’s better to conserve your firewood for small fires to ward off the worst of the late-night chills. If you’re serious about surviving the winter, the reality is that cooking over a campfire isn’t going to be the smart choice on most days.
- Rodents will destroy your stocks. Though you may not see them as much of a threat in the warmer months, rodents become an increasing problem in the winter. As their natural food supplies dwindle, they’ll be forced to enter your shelter and steal your supplies. In addition to losing precious calories with every pilfered bite, rodents bring diseases, parasites, and injuries to humans. Imagine a rat infestation in your carefully rationed dry goods. I don’t care how hungry I am, I won’t be eating my rice if there are rat turds in it.
- Dampness, mold, and destructive freezing can destroy your supplies. Even if you manage to avoid the other problems listed above, you’re still at risk of losing your food supplies to Mother Nature’s whims. Aside from freezing temperatures rupturing storage containers and leeching nutrients from your food, winter is notoriously damp in most regions. The smallest bit of moisture can speed spoilage, even in the bitter cold. Despite common beliefs, mold spores still thrive in winter months. Mold spores are everywhere, just waiting for the right conditions. If there’s condensation, there’s going to be mold or mildew before long. For example, a single warm breath into your main stock of dried oatmeal can blow enough mold spores and moisture into the bag to start a chain reaction of dampness and mold growth. It’s unlikely you’ll have enough heat in your shelter to dry it all before the mold spreads.
- Shorter days mean less light for foraging. When winter hits, daylight hours decrease drastically. If you don’t have a plan for your winter survival foraging, you could be caught wandering in unfamiliar territory when it gets dark and temperatures drop. Know the lay of the land, understand what resources are available, and make a plan before you head out at daybreak.
- Caloric requirements increase in cold weather. Your body burns calories to stay warm. The process is called non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) and it kicks in around 64 degrees Fahrenheit. In a winter survival situation, it will probably be much colder and your body will begin to shiver. You will need more fuel to keep you warm the colder it gets.
I know that list of issues can seem daunting, but I promise there’s hope. Winter survival is not easy, but it’s definitely possible if you’re aware of the potential problems and you know where to find food.
Foraging for Winter Survival Food
After a major disaster, there are two main types of foraging you might need to do to feed your family. They are:
The types of food you can forage in the wilderness during the winter will depend heavily on your location. Obviously, I can’t tell you specifically what to look for since I don’t know where you live. However, I have a lot of experience foraging all over the U.S. and Canada, so there’s something here for everyone. Wilderness survival requires some knowledge about the local wildlife and native plants.
Urban foraging will require knowledge of the general layout of your town, including local restaurants, stores, and gardens.
Wilderness Food Sources
These are the best types of foods that are typically readily available in the wilderness, even during harsh winter conditions. In some cases you may have to dig through the snow a little, but finding food in even the worst of winter conditions is still very possible!
Cattails are edible, just wash and peel them first. They’re a lot like potatoes, so go ahead and prepare them the same way if you have heat. You can dry them and grind them into flour if you have the time, patience, and ability to keep them dry in these wet months. Otherwise, slice them thin and boil for a few minutes with a couple slices of beef jerky for a nice stew.
The nuts from inside pine cones are readily available in most areas of the northern hemisphere. Get the seeds from closed pine cones still on the trees. If you can’t find any, check below the tree. Though it’s likely that animals have already scavenged the ones on the ground, it doesn’t hurt to check.
Milkweed seeds can be eaten raw, plus the fluff makes great tinder, stuffing for sleeping bags, and insulation for clothing and shelters. Break open the pods to release the seeds and fluff. The dried pods burn well, too.
Acorns can be found on the ground. They often get buried under snow, so if you recognize one of these trees, it doesn’t hurt to dig a little. They can get pushed under fallen leaves and dead grass, too, so don’t give up too quickly if you don’t find them right away. These need to be soaked for three days and the water changed at least three times to remove tannins. If you have a water shortage, skip the acorns. They’re not worth the wasted water.
Watercress is found in large, dense clusters in springs and creeks and grows year-round. It’s edible raw, which makes it extremely useful for winter survival when cooking heat can be scarce.
Crabapples may not be the tastiest fruit, but they are fairly cold-hardy and pack a nutritious punch. They are often still hanging in their trees in winter. You can still eat fallen crabapples, though. Just look for signs of decay or vermin activity. Don’t eat crabapples that are full of unidentified insects. It’s not worth risking parasites.
Berries are good winter foods. In the Pacific Northwest, I love heading into the forests in the middle of November, December, and January to find the last black huckleberries and salal bushes. The cold weather preserves them quite well. Don’t eat berries you aren’t familiar with as they could make you sick.
Mushrooms can survive in winter. However, unless you know for certain that a particular mushroom is safe, skip them. They’re a good source of nutrients, but they can kill you if you don’t know what you’re looking at. There are many varieties of mushrooms that grow well in cold weather, but the exact varieties will depend on your location. Look for them in rotting logs and vegetation, especially after a brief thaw. A good place to start, is to learn these 5 basic edible mushrooms that grow in the wild.
Grubs and Bugs
Grubs and bugs tend to stay underground in freezing weather, but with a little digging, you can usually pull enough up to keep your body fueled. Look for rotting logs, heavy vegetation, and signs of insect activity in living trees. Ants, termites, and crickets are widespread and usually safe to eat. As a general rule, I boil all insects I find. It will kill most bacteria and parasites and can neutralize the acid in ants. I never eat bugs I can’t identify. It’s also always a good idea to avoid the brightly colored insects. There’s an old survival saying about eating bugs, “If it’s brown, swallow it down!“
Trapping and Hunting
Trapping and hunting are viable ways to get your nutrition in the winter. All the wild foods I mentioned above will attract animals, so it’s good to know where they’re growing. Set your traps or lay in wait to take your shot. Unless you’re carrying a suitable rifle or powerful bow, you won’t likely be able to take down a deer or elk.
Watch for rabbits, raccoons, beavers, and rats. As unappetizing as rats may sound, it’s better than starving. They’re also the easiest to trick into your traps as they tend to have less fear of people than other wild animals. As I mentioned in the winter food challenges section, rats will often come to you hoping to steal your supplies. Make use of their sneaky, greedy, natural behaviors. Be sure to cook all meat thoroughly to kill parasites and bacteria. And, of course, never eat a random dead animal that you stumble across.
Video: Winter Foraging for Survival Food
This video is a great place to start. It offers some great winter foraging tips, including a little help with identification and nutritional information.
The Scouts Guide to Wild Edibles
This the top rated foraging guide on Amazon, and the one I have in my bug out bag. It makes identifying edible plants easy and you can eat them with confidence if you have this book with you.
I love that it has very clear pictures and step by step directions for identifying each plant. I never have to guess if a plant is edible or not.
Urban Food Sources
Don’t fret if you’re a city-dweller and your stocks are low after a major disaster or you were caught unprepared. You still have a pretty good chance of finding food in urban and suburban settings. Be sure you’re not breaking and entering or stealing from another survivor, though. The world might be over, but you don’t need to be a jerk. An altercation with an angry survivor may result in injury and drastically reduce your chances of surviving.
- Abandoned grocery stores will have the best options for food right after SHTF. You’ll need to be quick to get any food here, though. Everyone will be heading to grocery stores as soon as the dust settles. Be sure to check the back rooms, break rooms, and staff lockers for any hidden treasures. Many looters will pass up the frozen foods section, but this is a huge mistake. Frozen foods are already preserved and ready for transport. Additionally, since it’s winter, you won’t need to worry as much about keeping them frozen. There are many foods at grocery stores with an extremely long shelf life.
- Abandoned restaurants are a decent place for restocking your food. Their items are usually perishable, so pickings will be slim after the first few days. You may be able to find some dry goods in the pantries or suitable things still in the walk-in freezer if you’re fast and lucky. If it’s been more than three days since SHTF, I’d avoid the refrigerators as the food is probably close to spoiling.
- Community gardens are popular in cities and a boon to survivalists. Many city-dwellers grow potatoes because they’re so easy and don’t need a lot of care. A good number of city gardeners underestimate the number of potatoes that will grow; they tend to leave a lot of them still in the ground after the harvest. Root vegetables can survive underground for months in the coldest temperatures. Even if the community garden looks picked over, it doesn’t hurt to check for potatoes, turnips, carrots, and other root veggies.
- Empty vehicles often have leftover fast food containers and stashed protein bars or granola hidden in the glove boxes. I’d aim for minivans and other family-type vehicles for the best haul, though. Kids are messy creatures, so you’re apt to find errant Cheerios and juice boxes in back seats. Check the floors, in the creases of the seats, and the pockets on the back of the front seats. It’s not terribly appetizing noshing on backseat toddler food, but it’s better than starving in the streets.
- Dumpster diving in winter is so much better than in the summer. The freezing temperatures will have stopped any rotting and helps to reduce the smell. People in urban areas throw out a lot of perfectly edible foods, so don’t be shy. Dive in and find dinner. Restaurants and grocery stores usually have the best Dumpsters. The ones near apartment buildings can hold some good finds, too.
A word of warning. I don’t suggest going into houses to search for food. Even if the homes look abandoned, you don’t know if there’s another prepper in there with her rifle aimed at your face. It’s not worth the risk. If you must enter homes, at least knock and give people a chance to answer. But don’t say you weren’t warned if you end up bleeding out in the snow.
Winter foraging for your survival will take wits, creative thinking, and killer prepping skills. By now, you should have a pretty good idea where you could look for food in your area. Take some time right now to go outside and scout out the best spots within walking distance of your bug out location or shelter.
Have some other ideas for winter food foraging? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!