Survival Tips From Mountain Men

C. Davis
By C. Davis February 22, 2018 09:11

Survival Tips From Mountain Men

All the pioneers who settled the American West were tough and resourceful, but the Mountain Men were probably the toughest of them all. Trappers and explorers, they more or less lived in the wilderness, only returning to civilization to sell the pelts they’d harvested or maybe sit out a particularly hard winter. Even then they rarely went back to the cities. Frontier forts and trading posts had all the luxuries they needed – a bed for the night, a saloon to buy a few glasses of whiskey, and somewhere to restock their supply of gunpowder and bullets.

The Mountain Men were legendary for their survival skills. Their contributions to American folklore include people like Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead in 1823. Regaining consciousness to find that his companions had taken his gear and abandoned him, Glass – who had a broken leg, and festering wounds deep enough to reveal the bones in his back – crawled and rafted more than 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. It took him six weeks, living on roots, berries and carcasses left behind by predators; after resting for the winter to let his wounds heal, Glass was back in the wilderness when spring came.

Stories like this show an incredible level of willpower and determination to survive, but a tough personality on its own isn’t enough to keep someone alive in the wilderness. Some practical survival skills are needed, too. The Mountain Men came from a variety of backgrounds but the ones who lasted longest on the frontier had usually grown up in physically tough outdoor environments – Hugh Glass is believed to have been a sailor, and briefly a pirate, before taking to the mountains. Others were soldiers, farmers and explorers.

Related: 6 Essential Differences Between the Greatest Generation and The Ones That Followed

They were already familiar with the dangers of bad weather and the environment; they went on to learn everything they could about the hazards of the mountains and how to overcome them. Many learned from the natives; some lived with tribes for years and spoke their languages. Although they often fought the Indians too, they recognized the natives’ survival skills and eagerly picked up every piece of knowledge they could.

Technology has come a long way since the time of the Mountain Men, but the wilderness has a way of stripping away modern life and forcing us back to basic principles. Knowing how the old-time trappers, scouts and explorers survived in their harsh environment is still valuable today. Here are a few lessons we can learn from them.

You can always dig for food

There are many stories of Mountain Men surviving in extreme conditions, and a lot of the time it’s written that they survived on roots and berries. Berries are an obvious source of food – as long as you know what ones to avoid – but roots are often overlooked.

They shouldn’t be, though. Many plants have edible roots, and they can be very nutritious. They’re also available in winter. Even in the hardest weather, when the above-ground parts of a plant are dead, there are often edible roots lurking below the surface. All you need is something to dig with – even a stick – and you can get access to an almost limitless source of food in almost any terrain.

Dead is edible

Nature is brutal, and for a lot of animals death comes at the hands of a predator. Wolves, coyotes, bears and big cats litter the landscape with dead prey, and smaller scavengers will soon be along to eat most of what’s left – but carcasses can still be a source of food. You might not get a prime steak off what a coyote or mountain lion leaves behind but there’s enough nourishment in there to keep you going.

Some mountain men drank the blood or bladder contents of dead animals. That’s not a good idea – it’s salty, and will dehydrate you even more. However, if you break open the larger bones you can get at the marrow in the center. That’s food, and it can be cooked into a soup.

Predators will defend a kill, but not to the death like they will their cups. Hugh Glass drove wolves away from a kill when he was unarmed and crawling with a broken leg dragging behind him. Look threatening enough and they’ll abandon their meal and go kill something else. That leaves you with the prize.

Related: How to Assemble a Flawless Snare for Survival in Just 5 Minutes

Lots of other things are edible too

When they really had to, Mountain Men ate a lot of stuff that we don’t usually think of as food. They knew that getting energy and nutrients was a lot more important than the ick factor, and that’s just as true today. Sure, you don’t want to eat insects – but you can eat insects, and a lot more.

Legendary trapper “Uncle” Dick Wootton, who roamed the Rockies in the late 1830s, was once given some tasty cakes by Yuma Indians. He later learned that they were made from red ants – mashed, formed into cakes then dried in the sun. Around the same time Joseph Walker ate what he thought was crushed dried fish he’d found in an abandoned Indian village. It was crushed and dried, but turned out to be worms.

Most insects are edible. Some, like grasshoppers, are even a delicacy. The usual problem is finding enough to make a decent meal, but an ants’ nest or a tree loaded with caterpillars is a rich source of protein. Insects taste better when dried, but fresh ones also contain water.

Respect the snow

The Mountain Men did many things, but mostly they were trappers – and trapping was a year-round job. In fact the thickest, richest pelts were harvested in winter, so the Mountain Men couldn’t rest when the snow fell. They soon learned that it made life difficult, and often dangerous. Snowshoes helped them get around faster and using less energy, important when long trap lines had to be checked. Avalanches were also a constant hazard, and they learned to avoid open slopes. A good modern rule of thumb is that is a slope looks like people would pay to ski down it, there’s a risk of avalanches.

Related: When the Snow Falls, Make Sure These Items Are in Your Trunk

Keep an edge

A knife is an essential outdoor tool – but it’s also a weapon. The Mountain Men often had to resort to knives; their guns were mostly single-shot, and took a long time to reload. If you were rushed by an animal or warrior, and your first shot didn’t do the job, your next move was to drop your rifle and draw your knife.

Lock blades and multi-tools are great survival accessories, but sometimes there’s no substitute for a big, strong blade that’s ready to go as soon as it’s out of the sheath. It doesn’t need to be fancy; something like a Ka-Bar USMC knife, designed for fighting as well as utility work.

Carry a shelter

If you’re heading into the mountains, even if you’re only planning to be away for a few hours, you need to have some form of shelter with you. You might be able to build yourself one from natural materials – but can you still do that with a broken leg? In that situation, having something to keep the rain, snow and most of all the wind off you can be a lifesaver. Hugh Glass was protected by the skin of the bear he’d fought; many Mountain Men carried a diamond shelter, a simple square of tarp that could be quickly set up to give a windproof refuge. They’d have loved modern Gore-Tex bivi bags.

Related: 3 Quick Shelters (The Last One is Invisible!)

It’s never hopeless

Many Mountain Men were killed in fights with Indians, but others survived battles against incredible odds. They managed that, usually, by being determined to keep fighting to the bitter end. Often the attackers would back off in the face of resistance that never slackened. The same attitude was behind feats of survival like Hugh Glass’s epic crawl – Mountain Men just didn’t give up. If you can muster the same courage and determination, and never lie down if you still have the strength to crawl a couple of feet an hour, your odds of surviving go way up. The next inch you move might bring you in sight of water, food or rescue, so make the effort and find out.

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C. Davis
By C. Davis February 22, 2018 09:11
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13 Comments

  1. Grayhawk February 22, 17:03

    Great article, having been in the US Marine Corp, and read and understand the mountain man way of life, I have read many of the mountain man journals and books, about the life of the mountain men. Hugh Glass, Jedidiah Smith, Lewis and Clark. I am a trapper, and tan my own skins, and teach wilderness survival. Teach bow hunting, snare’s and trapping to the youth in my area. Please keep publishing article’s like this. The more you share with those who don’t have these skills. The more prepared they will be. Keep up the good work you do.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Grayhawk February 22, 17:08

    Great article, having been in the US Marine Corp, and read and understand the mountain man way of life, I have read many of the mountain man journals and books, about the life of the mountain men. Hugh Glass, Jedidiah Smith, Lewis and Clark. I am a trapper, and tan my own skins, and teach wilderness survival. Teach bow hunting, snare’s and trapping to the youth in my area. Please keep publishing article’s like this. The more you share with those who don’t have these skills. The more prepared they will be. Keep up the good work you do. I’m also half blood Mississippi band Choktaw, raised on the Mississippi band of Choktaw Indians by my Grandparents,who where full blood’s.

    Reply to this comment
  3. red February 22, 18:48

    The Mountain Men were Metis! YO! 🙂 I was raised on stories of them and others. They used what they learned in the East, and combined it with what the locals taught them. Those who did not died. Even their bones are dust, today and their stories forgotten.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Softballumpire February 22, 19:36

    I loved the articles and know first hand the value of at least some of the root crops. Some are terrible if cooked incorrectly, but quite tasty when done properly. My experience is with ‘Bitter Root’ from the Yakima Reservation in Washington. I don’t know the specific local to which it is indigenous, though I hear the name ‘Bitter Root’ used in stories of several tribal groups and named for mountains as well.

    This is a root that is much more palatable if not over cooked. If it is boiled in lightly salted water until just tender, I found little bitterness to it. I really didn’t understand why it was called ‘Bitter Root’ until one of my friends, who tended to over boil every vegetable she ever cooked; served me some. It is not as bitter as strait golden-seal, but comparative. With a light tough of mayonnaise, it was great.

    I hope none of the Native Americans are offended by my cowboy modifications to native dish recipes. I have encountered similar opposition from some of the Chinese when eating my stir-fry recipes, so I mean no offense.

    Reply to this comment
    • red February 23, 21:09

      Bro, when a cook takes a recipe, he makes his own. If you like camas root like that, enjoy. Same with the Chinese. If they don’t like how you make their dishes, tell them from a Native American most of what they’re eating is AMERICAN and they modified OUR recipes to fit it into their menus. But, one thing, there never were any tribes, but nations. Tribe was used to insult us, claiming we were savages without the intellect to have a government. Liberals use tribe, conservatives do not, and we’re so conservative we made Reagan look like a moderate. 🙂 One type of camas is toxic, as I understand. Watch out for that. Peace, and may you survive in style!

      Reply to this comment
  5. Speed February 23, 00:59

    You know what I liked the article I am a modern mountain man I hunt and trap 80 percent of my family’s meat we grow most of our vegetables and harvest wild fruit and berries. Many wild roots are a great go to food source if you know what you are doing there are many books or online sources to learn from if so inclined. So I will close by just saying get out in the woods and start trying some wild food it’s all around and have fun.

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  6. Hoosier Homesteader February 23, 02:14

    A fantastic article!
    Could you imagine how great this country would be if the men and women today had this sort of grit?
    When these people passed, America suffered a great loss. Precious and few are the ones today that could follow in the footsteps of the Mountain Men.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Cap February 23, 18:29

    Interestibg approach to mountain, but needs work. Mountain men were in groups, not alone. There were a few trading posts like E Provost’s on Utah Lake and S Ogden’s on Weber River, Utah. Companies, American Fur Company, Western Fur Company brought supplies to rendez vous and picked up furs for about 15 years until the 1830s. Hudson Bay Company, which still exists today, had trading posts all over Canada. For better information check out American Mountain Man Associaton web site or read Mountain Men and the Fur Trade, Hafen 10 volumns, The Fur trade. Phillips, 2 Volumns, History of tbe American Fur Trade of the Far West, Critteden 2 vol. Or any of several single books on the mountain men. They prepared for the winter, often staying with local tribes, and stayed away from SHTF situations when ever possible. They preferred to eat buffalo and did not eat bugs or carrion as a rule. Hugh Glass was left without any supplies and could not carry a heavy buffalo robe which he did not have.

    Reply to this comment
    • Claude Davis February 26, 18:47

      It’s a bit more complicated than that. Mountain Men did work in groups, but many of them also spent a lot of time alone. Some of them lived with the Indians for long periods. They often went off alone to check their traps, hunt or look for a place to settle.

      Hugh Glass was left for dead, covered in the skin of the bear that mauled him. When he started his epic crawl he covered himself in the skin and took it with him.

      Reply to this comment
  8. Clergylady March 3, 07:20

    Learn what’s edible or medicinal where you are or plan to be. Learn to make more than one style of fire, and more than one way to start it. Learn to cook with and without pots and pans. Try to learn ways to prepare wild foods that are safe and tasty. How were they used by the native peoples of that area? Learn to shelter in different areas and at different times of the year. Make your bed off of the ground or on the ground by season and or place. Be willing to eat new things, especially in a survival situation. Learn to keep your fire , move your fire, and be safe with your fire. Learn to be found or not found… mark a trail, blaze a trail, or erase your trail. Learn to watch, really see, and listen. In bear country hang food high and away from camp. Don’t feed wild critters unless you want beggers, raiders, and camp destroying events. Sunchokes are just the roots of a variety of sunflower. Wild potatoes are pretty nondescript above ground and the leaves, roots, and fruit of rasperry, BlackBerry, and roses are all good food and make good teas. Many green plants are good cooked or raw. Easier to learn the few to avoid. The flesh from most critters is edible cooked or dried. Worms, larva, and adult insects are often edible. Ants and grasshoppers are safest bets. Nuts are rich food sources. Green grass is perfectly edible, raw, cooked, or in soups, and makes an ok tea. The seeds of many plants are edible cooked as a cereal or steamed like rice, or added to soups. All the wild grain seeds are edible cooked or raw. They do need to be hauled and winnowed. Rub them between your hands to release the grain. Many cacti are edible, pads and or fruits. Others can at least give moisture on the desert and are good for the skin as well. Juniper berries when soft can be chewed, spit out the seed and consume the bit of flesh but they are also medicinal,along with the green branches, when boiled and drunk as a tea. They are also a seasoning in venison stew among the pueblo nations along with unshelled pinion nuts in the stew. Snakes are edible but beware of the end that bites. Becareful if you decide to eat a porcupine. Clean carefully and I found them to be pretty greasy.
    Mostly eating “wild” is a matter of getting over being squimish or turning up your nose at green things.

    Reply to this comment
  9. TheSouthernNationalist April 4, 19:42

    I believe that movie called “The Revenant” is based on Hugh Glass, I watched it and it is amazing! When he gets attacked by that bear its almost like you are there with the way its filmed and the sounds, its really you feel bad for the guy!

    Reply to this comment
  10. Clergylady April 5, 06:20

    Didn’t see that movie. Sounds interesting. So many are fake sensational junk.

    Reply to this comment
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