Summertime is fruit season, and berries are particularly scrumptious treats to enjoy. Better still, wild berries grow on almost every continent, so you have a variety of delicious wild foods to try out!
Below is an explanation of how to get started and a list of all the equipment you’ll need for foraging berries. You’re probably already familiar with some of them, others might be a surprise, but all are invaluable to have with you on your excursions.
Head to our other guide on the types of berries you can forage and how to identify them to learn more.
Equipment You’ll Need
The equipment you’ll need will depend on where you’re foraging, as well as what type of berries you’ll be harvesting. For example, wild strawberries and blueberries don’t have thorns. As a result, you won’t need thick, sturdy gloves to protect your hands when harvesting them.
A good field guide for your region is absolutely invaluable. In addition to letting you know which edible species grow in your area, it’ll also provide you with details on potentially toxic lookalikes.
When foraging berries, take care to identify them properly. Cross-reference the ones you find with your field guide, taking note of the plant’s stem and leaves as well as its fruit. This will allow you to identify them more accurately.
If you don’t want to carry a paper field guide around with you, install something like the PlantID app on your phone.
Always remember the adage: “when in doubt, leave it out.” Some wild berries might look absolutely delicious, but can be deadly if ingested. Unless you’re absolutely certain that the ones you’re picking are edible, leave them alone.
The first time I went foraging for wild blackberries, I ended up with my forearms torn to ribbons. These fruit plants have thick stems covered in vicious thorns. They’ve evolved that way to protect them from herbivorous predators, and that includes foragers, apparently.
I like heavy-duty leather gardening gloves, as they’re so multi-purpose. For example, I don’t just use them for foraging berries: they’re also ideal for gathering nettles, pulling weeds like thistles, and protecting my hands from insects.
Aim for gloves that won’t tear easily if you’re dealing with bramble fruits. If the gloves can keep thorns from penetrating your skin, they’ll protect you from bee and wasp stings as well.
In addition to gloves, make sure you’re dressed properly for the excursion. The weather during berry season tends to be quite hot, but dressing scantily can bring a host of problems.
Long pants/trousers made of denim or canvas will keep your legs from being bitten by voracious insects. Meanwhile, a lightweight windbreaker jacket over a T-shirt will offer the same protection. The aforementioned gloves will take care of your hands, and a hat will protect you from the sun.
As for footwear, avoid open-toed shoes or sandals. Aim for sturdy, comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. If you’re in snake country, however, be more cautious and consider wearing high boots. If you startle a rattler and they strike out, they’ll likely hit below the knee. As such, if you’re wearing tall boots made of a thicker material, you’re less likely to end up bitten.
Note that most rattlesnakes can bite right through standard rubber boots. Aim for tall leather boots, or the thick, heavy-duty green or black outdoor boots that some landscapers and contractors wear.
When you’re out foraging, you need something in which to collect your bounty, right? This is where a good container with a tight-fitting lid comes in handy.
I like to use BPA-free plastic pantry storage containers for mine. This is because they’re tall and narrow rather than squat, which makes them easier to store in a backpack. Furthermore, the lids seal tightly so there’s no risk of berry juice leaking into my bag.
We don’t recommend that you take glass jars when foraging berries. Instead, take plastic containers with lids, and then transfer berries into glass after they’ve been washed. This is because we don’t want bits of broken glass in the forest.
You might be the most agile person in the world, but accidents happen. If you’re carrying a jar of berries and it slips, the shattered glass will end up everywhere. This can injure wildlife as well as other berry foragers. Additionally, sunlight can be magnified through glass jars onto dry plant matter, potentially causing a forest fire.
How long do you plan to spend foraging berries? Is the location just a few minutes walk from your house? Or a multi-hour hike away?
Remember to stay hydrated on hot summer days by taking a water bottle with you. In fact, if there’s a clean water source nearby, take a water purifier along as well.
Whether you use a ceramic filter or a straw filter type device is up to you. Just make sure to drink water regularly, even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty. Once you feel thirst, you’re already dehydrated.
I don’t know about you, but I live in bear country. Furthermore, bears really like berries. Since we don’t particularly want to come face-to-face with bears while we’re out foraging berries, we clip bear bells to our bags.
These aren’t meant to scare bears away, but rather to let them know that we’re around. Contrary to popular belief, bears don’t actually like to attack people. Furthermore, they’ll only attack if they’re cornered, or defending their young. (Or starving, but that’s another article altogether.)
If bears hear bells and loud voices, their “oh no, humans!” alarms will go off. They’ll leave the area, letting you get on with your foraging.
Pepper or Bear Spray (Depending on Your Location)
On the off chance that your bell doesn’t deter bears, it’s good to have a backup plan. You can get bear spray repellent or pepper spray at many outdoor or Army Surplus locations. Just note that laws surrounding these can vary from one region to another. Check the legality of owning this stuff before you venture out into the wild with it.
Also, take note of what species live in your area. We only have little black bears here, so there’s little chance of being attacked. Even if they did get feisty, they’re only slightly more dangerous than pandas. In contrast, if you live in Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, BC, the Yukon, or Alaska, then you run the risk of encountering a grizzly or Kodiac bear.
If you spray these with pepper spray, you’ll likely just make them angry. And season yourself as a snack in the process. Be cautious in bear country, and consider going with a licensed guide if you’re able to.
This kind of spray can also be handy if you’re foraging berries alone. While it’s nice to hope that one can partake in an outdoor excursion and not be harassed, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Again, check the laws in your area to see what is and is not legal to carry.
Foraging for wild foods is a lot of fun, but can also bring its share of potential health hazards. For example, people who are allergic to bee or wasp stings should take precautions when foraging berries. This is because these bushes will have significant insect activity going on.
If you have these types of allergies, then be prepared. Wear protective clothing and take an EpiPen with you. Have your phone fully charged with roaming and GPS enabled. Most importantly, don’t go out foraging alone. The last thing you need is to be alone in the woods with your throat so swollen that you can’t speak to an emergency dispatcher.
It’s important to take an emergency kit with you regardless of whether you have anaphylactic allergies or not. Alcohol swabs and adhesive bandages are ideal for treating puncture wounds and cuts. A standard bandage can be helpful if you trip and sprain your ankle, as can analgesics like acetaminophen or paracetamol.
Familiarize yourself with the poisonous plants that grow in your area. This way, you’ll be aware of potentially toxic lookalikes. Those listed below are some of the most common North American species. They might look tasty, but they can kill you if you eat them.
Virginia Creeper Berries
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) looks a bit like wild grapes or elderberries but can cause severe health effects if ingested. Most commonly, they’ll cause swelling in the mouth and throat, affecting one’s breathing.
Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) fruits can be misidentified as pin cherries or wild currants, which are edible. In contrast, baneberries can cause cardiac arrest in all mammals.
Moonseed berries (Menispermum canadense) look so similar to wild grapes that they manage to poison several people annually. Their frosted purple-blue berries are almost identical, but can be differentiated by the crescent-shaped seeds within (hence their common name).
These bright red berries (Solanum dulcamara) look very similar to their edible Goji berry cousins (Lycium barbarum). That said, unless you live in Asia, you’re unlikely to come across Gojis in the wild. Bittersweet nightshade berries are very poisonous, but an adult would need to eat several of them for them to be deadly.
This plant (Atropa belladonna) is one of the most poisonous species on the planet. The fruits look appetizing, much like dark wild blueberries or Saskatoon berries. But just a few can kill a small child, or shut down an adult’s nervous system.
Use Caution and Have Fun!
Foraging berries can be a wonderful experience for the whole family. As long as you ensure that you’re following good safety protocols and identifying berries properly, you’re certain to have a spectacular time.
Then you can take your bounty home and enjoy it! Eat the berries fresh, or transform them into jam, jelly, pies, galettes, preserves: whatever your heart desires.
Just please remember to harvest ethically and responsibly. Never harvest from the first plant you find, nor the only plant in an area. Ensure that there are also berries left for wild animals to eat, and to replenish the area!
Mother Nature is incredibly generous with her bounty. Let’s make sure we respect and honor her efforts accordingly.