Why Living Off the Land Isn’t a Great Survival Strategy

If you listen to many people who talk about bugging out, it appears that their plan is to get out of town and head for the wilderness somewhere, living off the land. While I can see some definite advantages to getting out of town, especially in times of social unrest and general lawlessness, attempting to live off the land may not be the best plan. It’s going to be much harder than those people think.

Part of the problem is the sheer romanticism of living off the land, which hearkens back to the pioneering spirit of our forefathers and the westward expansion. I get it, Kit Carson, one of the more famous mountain men, is hiding somewhere on my father’s side of the family tree. There was a time when I was young, where I had the same thing in mind, sure that my buddies and I could outdo Grizzly Adams and live off our hunting and our wits.

But I’ve grown in wisdom and knowledge since then. I’ve also been on a few hunting trips and seen how hard it is to come home with even one deer, let alone enough to keep feeding my family for months or even years. Hunting is great, but it’s not a stable source of food.

The Problem with Hunting

The basic problem is that our nation’s population has increased incredibly since those early pioneering days, while the population of game has decreased. There is no shortage of game in the woods, but there’s no way that there’s enough to feed 320 million hungry people, or even the 16 million or so hunters that there are in our country.

Living off the land means bringing home game every night if you’re living off small game and birds, or brining it home every three or four days if you’re living off big game. And it’s not like anyone is going to be able to hunt full time either. There will be firewood to cut, water to haul and a thousand other survival tasks that need to be completed daily.

We also have to assume that we will have to get to our favorite hunting ground without the benefit of our trusty Jeep or pickup truck. If things get so bad that we have to bug out and live in the woods, then chances are that there won’t be gas for our vehicles; nor will the money in our wallets be worth anything. Rather, the only way to get gas will be through barter, which probably means bartering food in order to get it.

Only a very small percentage of our nation’s population lives within a day’s walk of someplace where they can hunt. Those are mostly people who already live in rural areas. Those people are going to be contained within the 19.3 percent of the population who live in rural areas. But not everyone who lives in rural areas lives in areas where it will be possible to hunt.

While people hunt all across the United States, the majority of the least populated wide-open hunting areas are in the western parts of the country. However, there are still areas in New England, through the eastern mountains, and the northern Midwest, that are sparsely populated, which are probably good hunting areas, if people will be able to get to them.

Gathering isn’t Much Better

There are still edible plants growing all across the country. But few people know which plants are edible and which are poisonous; meaning that those plants can’t do them much good. Unless they have the references on-hand to help them recognize the edible plants and know how to cook them, if the grid goes down, they won’t be able to look it up on the internet.

But most plants don’t provide a huge source of calories for our bodies to burn. They will provide important micronutrients, but the ones which provide the greatest number of calories are either root plants (potatoes, carrots, etc.) or grains (wheat, rye, barley, etc.). Those are even harder to find in the wild, than other edible plants.

Since we are unused to gathering plants for food, we overlook much of what nature provides. I’ve stayed in hotels where there were wild raspberries growing at the edge of the parking lot and nobody knew they were there. Gathering food from nature requires more than just knowledge, it requires a change of mindset, so that we will recognize what is growing right around us. Otherwise, we could starve, while being surrounded by plenty.

The Problem of Timing

Another major problem with living off the land is timing. The growing season is very short in many parts of the nation, especially the northern ones. If we are forced to bug out, outside that small window, there will be little to no food available in nature.

Even during the warm growing season, our options are limited. Assuming that we can find food in nature to harvest, we will only have a very limited window of time in which to harvest that food. After that, the plants will stop producing and the food that is not harvested will rot, falling to the ground. We would have to gather enough food to get through the winter in a few short weeks.

But our problems wouldn’t be over with that. Once we find the food and harvest it, we have to preserve it in some way, so that it will last through the winter months, feeding us. That either means canning it, dehydrating it or digging a root cellar to keep it cool. While all of those are very real possibilities, chances are that we won’t show up, fresh from a bug out, ready to can the food you gathered along the way.

A Nation of Farmers

The main reason why mankind moved from being hunters and gatherers, to raising livestock and farming, was due to the difficulty of harvesting food from nature. The American Indians face hard times every winter, because they were pronominally a society of hunters and gatherers. When the white man came, he had a superior system, cultivating the land and growing his own food, rather than seeking for nature to provide it.

This is not just true in modern society. Many ancient people cultivated the land, raising their own crops. The Mayan people of Mexico were mostly farmers, growing corn, fruit and other vegetables to augment their hunting and gathering. Likewise, many of today’s more primitive tribal people are farmers, even without modern farming equipment. They are able to raise more food, even doing so by hand, than they would be able to hunt and gather from nature.

While modern farming may very well go by the wayside, especially in a grid-down situation, farming will still be a much more effective way of providing ourselves with food, even living out in the wild. Clearing an area of land and planting crops is a much more sure way of feeding yourself and your family, than counting on your ability to hunt, fish and gather.

This is not to say that we should totally ignore the possibility of hunting and fishing for animal protein. Last I checked, you can’t raise beef steaks in a vegetable garden. You need beef on the hoof to provide beef steaks. But raising animals for food is a part of farming as well.

Rich Murphy

Rich is a long-time survivalist, having gotten started in his youth, during the latter part of the Cold War. Yet the collapse of the Berlin Wall didn’t put an end to his survival instinct. He has since added military experience and a career as an engineer to his survival knowledge. This has allowed him to design and build his own survival equipment. He is an accomplished author, who has written over 100 books on all aspects of survival.

3 thoughts on “Why Living Off the Land Isn’t a Great Survival Strategy

  1. Rich,
    You’re quite right about the realities of ‘living off the land’. It was a lot more possible for Kit Carson because there weren’t thousands of Kit Carsons trying to do the same thing in the same hundred square miles.

    As you mentioned, nature isn’t ‘naturally’ super-productive. Wild game tends to be scattered and elusive. Wild edible plants (also rather scattered) produce only a few leaves or a few seeds. That’s why hunter-gatherers had to migrate over long distances all the time.

    Ancient hunter-gatherers could see the poor return on (energy) investment and figured out a better way. Plant a bunch of those wild edibles near the camp. Why wander all over? Fence in (and tend to) a herd of those wild beasts. Why run all over the woods looking for one?

    Yes, it’s good to have hunter-gatherer skills as a backup contingency, but it makes a poor Plan A. Better, to accept the wisdom of the ancients and plan on agriculture.

    For the romantics, however, ego often gets in the way. Farming isn’t romantic or “cool.” Bagging an 8-point buck has bragging value. Harvesting 8 bushels of corn, not so much. Of course, following one’s ego isn’t such a good plan either. 🙂

    — Mic

  2. LOL people that think they will run to the woods and survive will be dead within weeks. First 90% of them have no idea how to hunt,fish,gather at all let alone for survival, or how to build shelters,find water ect. Then you need to take into account the locals that already live in those areas. Do you think they are going to welcome with open arms a bunch of strangers coming in to try and use the resources they figure are theirs? Do yourself a favor and stay in the city’s where maybe FEMA or someone else may be able to help you or at worst you can starve to death in your own home.

  3. living off the land is a very short term solution to what could possibly be a very long term problem. game however is not shrinking, I see twice as many deer as 10 years ago and they are even in the city now, we never saw that 20-30 years ago. bears are moving back into Ohio and I have personally seen a wolverine here in north central Ohio. I really don’t expect the entire population to become hunters but I will survive.

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