Survival Cooking


At Home In The Wilderness Part VI:
Survival Cooking

by Tom Brown Jr.

from Mother Earth News, Issue #76

After supplying him- or herself with shelter, water, and warmth, the survivalist must give attention to the search for nourishment. However, even after locating food, folks who find themselves unexpectedly stranded in the wilderness aren’t likely to have much in the way of supplies or cooking equipment. For that reason, I’m going to devote this article to describing survival cooking techniques that require no ready-made tools or other manufactured gear. The only implements mentioned in this piece will be those you can easily make yourself, and the rudimentary skills used to fashion them should be within the capabilities of almost anyone.

Naturally, the first thing to consider when survival cooking becomes necessary is how best to prepare the meal with the materials at hand. Stewing is probably the most useful all-round cooking method because it’s simple, a stew can be saved—and added to—from one meal to the next (many pioneers and early settlers kept a pot bubbling on the fire all year long), and the various combinations of food can provide plenty of nutrition. Unfortunately, making a stew does require a cooking vessel of some kind. Pit cooking is a good second choice, but it is both time- and effort-intensive. Spitroasting and frying are adequate, too . . . but not as desirable as the first two options, because much of the nutritional value of the food is often lost in such preparations.

FIRE, STICKS, STONES, AND BONESFire is one of humankind’s most important tools, and its value is magnified in a survival situation (see MOTHER NO. 73, page 78, for tips on starting a fire without matches). Not only does it provide warmth for the body and heat for cooking, but it can also serve as a means of carving, bending, and forming implements that are necessary for wilderness living: And since, when faced with an unexpected emergency, many people are likely to lack even a pocketknife, fire must often be relied on to make the cooking utensils that are essential to assuring long-term subsistence.

With the help of fire, a simple cooking container—a pot, a cup, or a spoon—can be made in the wilderness. Your first task is to find a suitable log or branch. Simply look around the area until you locate a chunk of wood that’s neither punky nor rotten, but big enough to be made into a practicable container. A piece of timber that’ll hold a quart or two of liquid and solids when its center has been burnt out to form a bowl will make a good stew pot.

Take care, however, that you don’t use a variety of tree that’s potentially poisonous. I try to utilize pines, cedars, hemlocks, firs, oaks, hickories, and sassafras for my cooking utensils and containers. And remember: Hardwoods take more time and effort to burn out, but they’re better than softwoods at holding foodstuffs without allowing liquids to seep into the container walls.

Once you’ve selected a suitable chunk of raw material, chip away the bark from one side until you have a flat surface, or platform. Then place hot, glowing embers from your fire in the center of the level spot and blow on them, causing them to burn slowly into the wood.

Because the coals will tend to burn directly down, you’ll find that the process creates a natural bowl shape. Using this technique, you should be able to fashion a one- to two-quart pot from a cedar log in a little less than an hour. (Harder woods like oak can take two hours or more.) With a bit of patience and practice you’ll find that containers of several sizes can be fashioned fairly quickly and adapted to a wide variety of uses in your wilderness kitchen.

After charring the depression to the size and shape you want, use a sharp stone to scrape out the burnt, flaky residue inside the bowl. Then find a rounded rock and use it as a sanding stone to grind out and finish your work. The result will be a vessel that’s very effective for cooking and holding foods.

Fashioning a spoon involves a similar operation. Simply take a piece of wood about 1/2 inch thick and 6 to 7 inches long, and place a single hot coal close to one end. Blow on the ember steadily until a small, dish-shaped depression has been formed. Then scrape out the burned area, and use a rock to sand or carve the rest of the wood to a shape that suits your hand.

Actually, you’ll find that stones are useful for more than merely scraping and carving utensils. In fact, they’re among the best all; purpose tools available to the survivalist. A rock can do just about anything that an axe, knife, or piece of sandpaper can, and the earth provides us with a wide assortment of stone shapes and textures from which to choose.

For more information see