After spending the past several hours trying to wrangle a particularly pesky piece of writing into shape on the subject of Craterellus mushrooms for my series on chanterelle hunting in North Carolina and beyond (the first three posts can be found here, here, and here), I’ve decided to delve into a simpler subject that won’t give me such a headache: what to bring with you when you go wild mushroom hunting.
As I have explained before, I am a mushroom fanatic because my encounters with humble and mysterious fungi enchant me. Also, I am very fond of minimalist hobbies that require little investment (I am a notorious cheapskate), and wild mushroom hunting fits that preference to a T. I was reflecting on this the other day when I was wild mushroom hunting with a friend, and we got to talking about deer hunting. Evidently, one of the North Carolina hunting societies had arranged an educational weekend to help encourage people to get into the hobby, and my friend was intrigued and looked into registering for this inexpensive event…and promptly made other plans on account of the disastrously long list of gear that was required in order to attend. It wasn’t just a matter of guns, let me be clear, evidently there was a colossal list of other items that were required for prospective attendees: scopes, hanging apparatus, and all sorts of other things that tallied up to about $3,500-worth of equipment.
Both of us had a good chuckle about this, because mushroom hunting is one of the world’s cheapest, simplest hobbies (note: I mean simple to do, not simple to comprehend fully…there are plenty of things in the world of mycology that are hair-raisingly confusing, as any splitter will tell you). Anyway, read on for a few recommendations of things you might wish to have on hand when you go wild mushroom hunting!
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
Wild Mushroom Hunting Gear List – A Few Must-Haves
As long as you have a pair of eyes, a pair of shoes, a couple decent books (or an internet connection…but preferably both), and a sense of curiosity, you can enjoy the delights of wild mushroom hunting for years without spending much money at all. Perhaps this is one reason (subconsciously) that I got into this hobby…at the time I picked up wild mushroom hunting, I was working in the juvenile justice system and didn’t make much dough, and what cash I had was dedicated to the essentials. So when I discovered that I loved wild mushroom hunting, it was a secondary pleasure to realize that I didn’t need to buy a bunch of stuff to enjoy it! Nonetheless, there are a few things that I have found to be exceptionally handy when I am out wild mushroom hunting. So with no further ado, here are a few tips on what to take when you’re headed out on a mushroom foray!
Backpack With Bags Inside
Although I have carried a wild mushroom hunting basket on many a foray, at this point I usually don’t bother anymore. The reason for this is threefold; first of all it’s a bit bulky, and if I am traveling through some steep, sludgy, or otherwise challenging habitat, I like to keep my hands free save for a walking stick. Secondly, nothing screams “MUSHROOM HUNTER” like carrying a basket (OK, except maybe wearing a mushroom-themed tee-shirt). As I have discussed before, sometimes it’s best to keep your wild mushroom hunting on the down-low for one reason or another, and I find that carrying a light day pack with a few bags (paper, waxed paper, and a plastic bag to pick up trash I find in the woods) inside is an ideal solution. Thirdly, the wide-open top of a basket can be a problem, both for things falling in and falling out of your collection of awesome mushrooms. For instance, the first time I found shaggy parasol mushrooms I accidentally nudged my basket off a hill and almost lost the whole shebang (I will always remember the image of those beautiful mushrooms rolling like perfect little wheels down the hill). If you’re wild mushroom hunting in dense forest, having an open collection basket can also be a pain because of the things that fall into your basket, such as leaves, those little green worms that drop out of nowhere during the spring, and whatever else.
Some folks opt for a slightly more elaborate setup, especially those who enjoy taking home very small or unusual specimens that they find while wild mushroom hunting. For those who want to collect everything for mushroom identification purposes, a small tackle box will mostly do the trick, although when it comes to large mushrooms, you’ll need a different solution. A small backpack is also advisable because almost all of them have little zippered pouches for important stuff like car keys, phones, and other objects that you really don’t want to lose in the woods! Trust me. There was one mushroom foray I attended in a very wild and dense forest, and someone managed to drop their keys out of a pocket on a steep hillside, and we considered it no small miracle that it only took the (rather large) group 45 minutes to find them!
Even if you don’t own a fancy camera for nature photography, take a camera of some sort when you go wild mushroom hunting! If you are trying to identify specimens you’ve found, a photo of the mushrooms in situ can be critically important! Now, I am all for wonderful, high-end mushroom pictures, but it is entirely feasible to take great photos of fungi with the camera on your phone! Just get a good angle, adjust the exposure so that the picture is neither too light nor too dark, and take a bunch of shots so you can sort through them and find the best ones later! For tips on how to take good mushroom pictures for identification purposes, take a peek at this post from a few weeks ago.
GPS or Other Navigational Device
I believe that this one is really important. I cannot tell you how sore my heart becomes when I hear of people getting lost while mushroom hunting and suffering dire consequences. Of course, sometimes getting lost is no big deal because you’re never truly in any danger, but there are plenty of horror stories out there about experiences that did not have happy endings. Wild mushroom hunting is one of those activities where you can get lost exceptionally easily, because you’re looking at the micro-forest, not macro-forest. Given that wild mushroom hunting often has you looking at the ground a lot, and taking a sort of meandering, cross-hatched walk through the woods, getting turned around is almost certainly going to happen from time to time.
There is a huge benefit in carrying a GPS because you can set waypoints when you find awesome mushroom patches! Since many wild mushrooms that are edible and choice are mycorrhizal and perennial, waypoints for great mushroom spots can pay off year after year. In addition, topographical maps are of great help when trying to figure out where to go. For example, if you’re hunting for North Carolina yellow morel mushrooms, you’re going to want to find some low-lying territory near a creek, and GPS topo maps can give you a very good image of what the lay of the land is.
If you’re like me and don’t wish to spend a lot of money, you don’t need to march down to REI and get yourself a Garmin, because there are some very good GPS apps out there that work perfectly in areas where you don’t have service. For instance, I purchased Back Country Navigator for Android for a mere $11.99, and with this app I am able to do almost everything that you can accomplish on a traditional GPS unit!
Knife and Brush
When you’re harvesting mushrooms, it’s usually best to slice them off at the base of the stem. That way you’re not disturbing the mycelium that produced your lovely specimens (although, honestly, it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether you cut your mushrooms or uproot them, at least with certain species), and you’re also minimizing the amount of dirt and grit that ends up in your mushroom collection. Of course there are some wonderful knives out there, but you don’t need anything fancy to harvest mushrooms. In fact, I went through several knives over the course of a single wild mushroom hunting season a few years ago (I get excited when I am finding cool things, and when I’m excited I tend to misplace stuff in the woods), and so I decided to take a break from buying fresh pocket knives. Instead, I used a plastic knife for months, just to prove that I was capable and careful enough to actually own a knife again.
A brush is also helpful, though not strictly necessary, if you want to field clean your mushrooms. Sometimes, field cleaning your catch is a great idea, and cuts down on the amount of work involved with processing your mushrooms once you get home. A small paintbrush works well, and in the past I’ve also brought along a super-soft toothbrush for this purpose.
There are some awesome, specially designed mushroom knives that have a brush on the end, and they even come in bright, day-glo colors that will keep you from losing them. Although it’s a bit of a luxury and certainly isn’t necessary, those dedicated wild mushroom hunting knives are awful nice.
One of the oddest things about the forest is how sound travels when it bounces off the trees and other obstacles that make the woods the woods, and sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell where a voice is coming from when another person in your wild mushroom hunting party calls out. Safety whistles don’t have that same problem. Most mushroom hunters I know have different combinations of whistles that they use for different situations, which can also help if you just want a way to communicate something to another person who is some distance away from you.
One toot is just a check-in, a little howdy to tell your fellow mushroom hunters that you’re nearby. Two blasts is an excited “Hey come here, I just found something awesome,” which is super cool if you’re wild mushroom hunting with collaborative and congenial people who don’t mind sharing their discoveries. Three blasts is an emergency. Safety whistles come in all shapes and sizes, and they are quite inexpensive and light, and it’s a good way to assure that if something goes wrong, you can pretty accurately communicate your location to others.
Water and Snacks (And If You’re That Kind of Person…A Tasty Beer)
This one is obvious, I am sure, but bring along some water with you when you go wild mushroom hunting. Also snacks. Lots of snacks. Wild mushroom hunting is thirsty work sometimes, so if you’re not driving, also consider bringing along a beer! I remember quite fondly going on a foray one time and stopping at the co-op with my buddy to get the required snacks and other essentials. I asked my friend if he needed anything, and he vigorously shook his head. “No, I think I’ll do OK, I’ve got everything I need…I packed two beers!”
Good Shoes…And At Least One Extra Pair of Socks
Although again it’s not necessary to get high-end hiking boots when you go wild mushroom hunting, a bit of ankle support goes a long way, especially if you’re out hunting for a long time or you’re in rough terrain. Water-proof footwear is also pretty nice, especially in boggy territory. I also believe that it’s extremely smart to bring along an extra pair of socks or two, just in case you get soaked in some way and don’t want soggy toes the whole way home!
Bug Spray, If You’re Visiting Tick Territory
I am not a huge fan of bug spray in general, but when you’re wild mushroom hunting, it’s often a good idea to be prepared and bring along something to keep ticks at bay. I hate to be a fear monger, but Lyme’s Disease really sucks and I take pains to avoid contact with deer ticks, including applying some DEET (especially around the tops of my boots/pants-leg area). Also, in case you have not heard, lone star ticks, which are very common in North Carolina and other southeastern states, can cause people to become allergic to red meat. These allergies vary from mild to life-threatening, so it’s yet another reason I am not bashful about using bug spray when I go wild mushroom hunting.
A Few Things That Are Nice to Have While Wild Mushroom Hunting
These are a few objects you might want to bring along when wild mushroom hunting that are not what I would consider absolute essentials.
Sometimes it’s great to have a handlens in your pack so that you can look closely at different specimens you find. In particular, if you’re interested in the dainty mushrooms like mushrooms in the Mycena genus, a handlens can be a terrific thing to bring along on your next wild mushroom hunting adventure!
Although not strictly necessary, walkie-talkies are a fantastic tool for wild mushroom hunting as a group. They’re particularly handy when you’re scouting a large bit of habitat for mushrooms that are rare enough that you want to spread out, keep track of everybody, and communicate about your finds! Be warned, however, walkie-talkies can increase the competitiveness of wild mushroom hunting, because everyone can give one another real-time updates about all the cool things they are (or are not) finding.
A Few Things You Don’t Necessarily Need to Bring Wild Mushroom Hunting
Mushrooms Demystified and Other Bulky Identification Guides
OK, I’ll just go ahead and say it: you should not bring Mushrooms Demystified when you go wild mushroom hunting. Bring it along in the car if you like, but schlepping the mushroom bible around all day is a daunting task, and mushroom identification work can wait until you have gotten out of the woods, more often than not. Of course, this does not mean that a small, convenient field guide isn’t handy to have on mushroom forays, but bringing along the big guns will probably just be an annoyance!
Believe it or not, this happens a lot more often than I ever thought possible: you show up for a mushroom foray, and there’s some poor kid there with a huge framepack stuffed with things like water filters, camp chairs, fire tinder, and about a week’s worth of clothes. I do think it’s a good idea to bring along a spare pair of pants and obviously a shirt or jacket if you don’t know what the weather is like, but nonetheless, if your pack is any heavier than a few pounds, you’re overdoing it!
If it’s going to rain, you’re much better served by wearing a wide-brimmed hat while wild mushroom hunting than an umbrella. First, umbrellas are hugely annoying in the woods and they’re always getting caught on stuff and turning themselves inside out. In addition, most forests that are great for wild mushroom hunting are dense enough that you get a good bit of shelter from the trees above, making an umbrella a somewhat (in my opinion) silly choice. Moreover, wild mushroom hunting is one of those hobbies where it’s almost certain that you will get wet from time to time, more often from coming into contact with wet undergrowth than getting rained on, and in this regard an umbrella will not save you. Remember kids, umbrellas are for the weak!