The family was miles from their car when I found them, tired and sweaty from busting through the bush of Michigan’s Jordan Valley State Forest with three children in tow, one of them an exhausted toddler who had to be carried. These morel mushroom hunters couldn’t recall where they’d parked, but I figured it out from their description of the place. They climbed into the back of my truck, and the kids immediately fell asleep. They’d learned a valuable lesson with relatively little discomfort, and they’d reaffirmed my belief in being as prepared as possible when going into the forest.
You don’t need to be a survival expert to roam the woods in search of ‘shrooms without fear, but you should commit at least as much preparation as you might when taking a road trip. Most essential is the Basic Three, a simple outfit that can virtually guarantee your safe return, come what may.
If you’re off the beaten track, you need to know where north lies. A good liquid-filled compass costs under ten dollars, and should worn around the neck at all times. By providing a fixed point to reference from, a compass enables you to walk the straightest line in any direction. With a sighting compass, a plastic-laminated map, grease pencil, and a bit of geometry, you can even plot your precise location on a map by “shooting” a back azimuth from identifiable landmarks. Always trust your compass, especially when it disagrees with you.
A compass needs a pictorial reference to be most useful. Any map is better than none, but a topographical map from the United States Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov) will provide the most accurate picture. With compass and map, you can always know which direction leads to a road.
The warmth of a fire may be critical for surviving a cold or rainy night. The glow of a fire can be seen from a dozen miles at night; in daylight, coals covered with wet wood generate a plume of smoke. I begin with several disposable lighters in different pockets, augmented by a flint-and-steel ($16). One wilderness rule is that the need for fire increases proportionally with the difficulty you’ll have getting one to burn, so be prepared.
Every animal has cutting, digging, tearing, and stabbing instruments because an ability to do those things is necessary to survival. Simply parting a rope might be impossible without a blade. Many prefer a multi-tool, some like a blade they can chop with. No knife is a bad knife when it’s all you have.
Finally, I carry a light daypack when I’m off the beaten path. In it are a jacket, first-aid kit, water filter, and other useful items. It weighs under ten pounds, and is light enough to carry all day.
The tragic deaths that have occurred even recently were a harsh reminder that there can be a dangerous side to hunting mushrooms, too. Don’t be caught unprepared for the most common hazards.