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Learn About a Few Useful Plants for Backpackers


Why do you need to know about wild plants just to go backpacking or adventuring in this age of high-tech gear and lightweight freeze-dried foods? You don't really, but if you do take the time to learn about a few of them you can lighten your pack weight, eat better, and be safer.

Any true wilderness area is inherently risky. Blizzards can come, bones can break, and you can be lost without food. Having a few survival skills and knowing about the plants out there can help you in these and other emergency situations.


MilkweedConsider the milkweed plant in the photo here. Often there are hundreds of these plants in a small area, and even after a long winter there are many with seed fluff still attached to the seed capsule, as in the photo here (this was in the spring). If you have never collected or touched this material, you will be surprised by how silky it is. It's like goose down, and in a can be used as such.

You can insulate a jacket with it, for example. Or, if you are wet and cold and have no gloves, just fill two plastic bags with milkweed down and put your hands in them to warm up (tie the bags around your wrists or tuck the ends under sleeves). I can tell you from experience that this really works. The same can be done to create warm booties for your feet.

Milkweed down also happens to be highly flammable. If you have a fire striker (like one of those magnesium sticks) that can throw sparks, you can usually get a ball of this fluff to burst into flame easily.

A plant that is great insulator and a great source of tinder is a plant worth knowing. Did I mention that the tender new leaves and seed pods can be boiled and eaten? Boil twice in new water; they're not very good, but it's food.


Food is not often the top priority in a survival situation. That's why the most useful plants for backpackers are usually those that can be used for shelter, insulation and fire-starting. One of the most useful for all of these purposes is the cattail. The seed fluff is a good fire starter, just like milkweed down. The leaves can be used for thatched roofing and to make sleeping mats and containers. And there is always at least one part that you can eat in any given season.

For more about cattails, including information on the five edible parts, se the following page: The Cattail - One of the Most Useful Plants.

Food Plants

Of course, even though food is not always the first priority in a survival situation, it is nice to know what you can eat out there, just in case. It is also nice to have some fresh food once in a while, which is difficult to carry when backpacking. Bring a little olive oil, for example, and you can have a salad or two when camping in the spring or summer.

Knowing a few edible plants means you can get the vitamins and enzymes that are often missing in backpacking food. The best ones to know for this purpose are perhaps the wild berries, because the most common ones are found in most parts of the northern hemisphere and are easily recognizable. These three are common and easy to identify:

Wild Strawberry

Wild Raspberry

Wild Blueberry

The wild varieties are generally much smaller, but if it looks and tastes like a strawberry, raspberry or blueberry, it almost certainly is safe to eat.

To learn about a few dozen more edibles, see this page: Edible Plants | Useful Plants.

Lightening Your Load

Once you know a bit about all the plant resources out there you can travel lighter in two different ways. First, when you are confident about the plants which will be available for use where you are going and you know how to use them, you can risk going a bit light on the clothing and sleeping bag, at least in summer. For example, I have used dry thistle stalks to make a warm bed, allowing me to sleep in below-freezing temperatures with a 17-ounce sleeping bag. I'm not suggesting that you do this routinely, but if you know a few survival skills and have some knowledge of how to use plants, you can risk going a bit lighter because you'll know what to do if it gets colder than expected.

To really be prepared, and therefore able to go lighter and be safer, you should read through all the pages of my Wilderness Survival Guide.

The other way to cut your pack weight is to know how to locate and identify those edible plants and bring less food. Be sure you know the environment where you'll be going if you consider trying this. For example, I know that hiking in the rocky areas of northern Michigan and southern Canada in late summer I will be able to find wild blueberries and (usually) wild raspberries as well. I can count on filling my belly with them at least once each day.

To recap, here are the three reasons to learn about all the useful plants you have been walking right past while backpacking:

1. You can be safer.

2. You can eat better.

3. You can reduce the weight you carry.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Useful Plants for Backpackers