Don’t. Look. Down.

Just kidding.

If you are foraging for woodland nuts or mushrooms, you have no choice. You must look down. That’s where the good stuff is, whether fallen hickory nuts, or maitake growing at the base of an oak tree.

Shellbark Hickory Nuts
Shellbark Hickory Nuts on the Forest Floor

The problem is – particularly if you are new to foraging, or in unfamiliar woods – it is ridiculously easy to get disoriented when you stare at the ground while circling trees. This has happened to me twice (so far) this year. The first time occurred back in June while mushroom hunting (unsuccessfully) after a lengthy rainy spell. The second time was just last week, while collecting shellbark and mockernut hickory nuts (and as always hoping to stumble across edible fungus).

Luckily both times I was in confined wooded areas in an underdeveloped business park. Roads formed natural boundaries so I would have found my way out eventually. Unfortunately the first time, I was so turned around, I went away from the road and stumbled onto a cow pasture and homes I didn’t even know were in the area! It was surreal … and panic-inducing.

Both times I relied on my phone’s GPS to reorient myself and trek back to safety, but this isn’t a reliable solution – phone batteries die; signal might not penetrate remote areas; smart phones fall and break. So as a PSA, here are some approaches to not losing your way in the woods.

Bad idea: Bread crumbs.

Good idea: Know or learn basic orienteering, and carry a compass.

Bad idea: Counting on a smartphone app. For all the reasons mentioned above regarding phone GPSs.

Good idea: Take a friend into the woods, and take turns scouting for forage and staying stationary so at least one person remains oriented at a given time.

Bad idea: Relying on your memory. Unless major landmarks dot the landscape or you practically grew up in the woods, the forest will never look the same each time you visit. Trees fall, undergrowth gets overgrown, excessive rain creates ravines, etc.

Good idea: Use a walking stick stabbed into the ground, flagging tape tied to a branch, or other very visible object to mark the location where you start circling. Periodically re-orient yourself by glancing around for your man-made landmark.

Bad idea: Keep the road (or path or other forest boundary) always within sight, and resist the urge to wander further into the woods. Trust me… this won’t work. Whatever you are hunting is just … a little … farther … in …

There you go! A few more ways to stay safe in the woods while foraging. Personally, I plan to add a compass and brightly colored flagging tape to my kit for future forest adventures.

I will add these suggestions (the good ones, anyway!) to the Foraging Safety page as well.


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