You really don't need a lot of equipment to start foraging - many of us will remember foraging for blackberries with nothing more than a plastic carrier bag! To be a bit more prepared, there are a number of items that you may wish to consider, and these are discussed in more detail in this section.
Foraging Baskets and Other Containers
These come in all shapes and sizes, from the traditional and pretty wicker shopping-style baskets that Maria has over her arm in the Sound of Music, to strapped, lidded varieties that can be worn over your shoulder, and even special foraging backpacks. They all serve the same purpose – to safely store your precious finds, but also allow air to enter the receptacle to make sure your items don't prematurely wilt, or “sweat”, which certain finds will do without ventilation, especially mushrooms. Wicker baskets also allow spores, seeds and pollen, to fall through the cracks, dispersing them as you walk and perpetuating the growth cycle of your foraged plants. Whilst mum may love the idea of a traditional woven basket, dad may not be quite so keen! You'll be carrying this basket wherever you forage, so some thought should go into the ease of wrangling it, the dog, and the kids, especially if you may need to carry them at any point, and, if it matters to you, your credibility on the street!
Having a few small, plastic Tupperware boxes with lockable airtight lids is very handy on a forage. If you come across a wonderful stand of ripe raspberries, for example, and decide to throw them in your basket, they will bounce around as you walk, turning to mush, staining your basket, and everything else in there, bright pink. Placing these in a lockable Tupperware box will prevent this from happening. Tupperware boxes are also handy to stop the contamination of foraged items by strong flavours, such as wild garlic or water mint. There's nothing worse than arriving home to find all of your items all have that pungent garlicky aroma, and placing these in a locked Tupperware box will safely keep stinky items separate from your other finds. Finally, a Tupperware box can act as a vital safety barrier if you come across something you cannot identify there and then, and want to take it home with you for further study. Rather than throwing that weird orange mushroom you've just found into the basket along with everything else, it is far safer to isolate it in it's own container, away from the other items you plan to eat, to reduce any risk of confusion or cross-contamination if it happens to be toxic.
Foldable Foraging Bags are also a great way of keeping your equipment to a minimum and are very handy if you have to take a lot of other things with you (like kids, nappy bags and other essentials!) out on a forage. These ingenious little devices attach to your belt and open out to form a small bag that you can store your finds inside, keeping your hands free for other things.
A Pair of Scissors or a Foraging Knife
A pair of sturdy scissors is very useful on a forage to make a clean break in the stem of a plant you want to harvest. We use scissors a lot, particularly for tall plants, such as Rosebay Willow Herb and the wonderfully honey-scented Meadowsweet, but also for aquatic plants that we want to harvest above the water-line, like Water Mint. There are obviously some safety considerations with this, so perhaps it is better for mum or dad to do the snipping, until the kids are sensible enough to handle a pair themselves.
A very popular alternative to scissors is a “foraging” or “mushroom” knife. These are often used to slice the stems, leaves and flower spikes of plants; the stipes of mushrooms above ground (so the underground parts are not damaged for next year's crop); and to dig out the roots of plants from the soil, such as dandelions. These special knives have a hooked blade (resembling a miniature bilhook) and often have a brush attachment on the hilt for removing mud and debris from the caps of mushrooms, roots and other plant parts. Some foragers are also happy to use a small, non-folding pocket knife instead. As useful as this tool is, it is, at the end of the day, a sharp knife, and it would be sensible to assume that many parents may feel this would be inappropriate for use around, or indeed by, young children. Luckily, a good pair of scissors are just as effective, so however you feel about it, there are alternative options.
Although not always needed, a thin pair of gardening gloves for you and your kids can sometimes come in handy – especially for harvesting nettles or their seeds, raspberries, blackberries, or digging in the ground for Pignuts. Your fingers will thank you for it! If you'll be digging up roots, then a trowel will also be necessary. Please see the section on Foraging and the Law for more information about digging and uprooting plants for their roots during a forage, as permission may be required to do so.
Other Picking Tools
If you're planning on picking hips, haws or firm berries, particularly smaller ones like Bilberries, then a Scandinavian Berry Picker will come in very handy. These ingenious devices make light work of collecting berries, pinching them off the stems and into a small holding space whilst leaving twigs and foliage behind. The berries can then be tipped into a Tupperware box or other receptacle and stored in your basket alongside your other finds.
Extending Apple Pickers can also be extremely useful, particularly for getting into the high branches of fruit trees. They are usually comprised of a long extending pole with a combined "catcher" and sack at one end, and they work in a similar way to a berry picker, pinching the fruit off the branch and storing them safely in a net sack or cloth bag. This prevents the fruit from falling out of the tree and being bruised. These can be used to collect other fruit as well, such as pears, plums and damsons, and are invaluable items to store in the boot of the car for when you drive past a tree full of ripe fruit!
Both of these tools are not essential, and can be a little expensive, but are certainly worth it for the time they save, allowing you to collect a big harvest for a crumble in no time at all.
Field Guides & Books
It may sound unbelievable, but some plants, and most fungi, don't actually always look like themselves! You can hold two Chanterelle or Cep mushrooms side by side and see some pretty big differences between them. There can be variations in colour, shape, size and height. Rosebay Willowherb is pretty easy to identify when it's in bloom, but without those beautiful purple flower spikes on the top, they quickly just blend in with the plants around them and become “green leaves”, and this is true for many plants in your garden, from buttercups to daisies – do you know what they look like without their unmistakable flower heads? As most plants only bloom for a few weeks of the year, we really need to be able to identify them even when some of their major characteristics (like flowers) are not present, such as when they're young, and when they're dormant, otherwise we could only forage “sometimes”, and trust us, when you and your kids get the bug, you'll want to forage “all the time”! The easiest way to do this is with a book. A Pocket variety is essential when out and about, and is always available in the field so you can reliably identify what you're looking at if you're unsure. Larger, more detailed books can be kept at home and used to ID unknown finds that you may have brought back with you.
With the onset of the digital age, Plant and Fungi Identification Apps have become a popular way of identifying wild edible food. They work, quite simply, by taking a photograph of the plant or mushroom in-situ using your mobile phone, and the app then trawls it's database, bringing up a series of possible matches for a positive ID. Whilst this sounds like a dream come true for a forager, these apps can sometimes be very inaccurate, providing incorrect, and occasionally seemingly random identifications that could have serious consequences if you then went on to eat the find based on this information. These apps can't always see the small details that may be required for an ID, such as gill-spacing in mushrooms, or the length of a leaf, stem or cap, which doesn't bode well for a 100% certain ID, which is what you always need with wild edibles.
That is not to say they shouldn't be used - I'm not going to lie - we have such an app, and do use it occasionally, but only ever do so as a starting point for an ID. The app provides us with a narrowed-down list of possible options, which we then use for further investigation using field guides, books and/or the internet to validate it properly. They are therefore handy things to have - and can really help you out if you come across something you've never seen before - providing you have signal, that is!
Other Useful Field Items
- A mini First Aid Kit - for those inevitable bumps, cuts and knee scrapes!
- Wellies (or waders for the kids).
- Thin waterproof jackets – to keep the wind and rain off!
- Hats, gloves and scarves, depending on the season.
- Waterproof trousers would also be useful, especially if you'll be kneeling down a lot.
- A walking pole, staff, or a big stick - handy for checking footing in the forest or the depth of streams and other waterways.
- Insect Repellent and after-bite for those pesky biting insects, especially if you're heading to an area well-known for midges, such as The Kielder Forest or the West Coast of Scotland.
- A Tick Tool or two - handy for removing them from you and your kids (and a separate one for your dog!).
- If you're travelling out to forage with young kids, then it may be a good idea to throw a change of clothes into the boot, as they will likely get muddy or wet, or both!
- A camera for capturing those amazing childhood moments!
As you progress with your foraging, you'll start to wonder how you can preserve your finds so they last longer. Imagine the pure joy that fills your heart when stumbling across an enormous stand of delicious chanterelles, only to then realise that there's only so many fresh mushrooms one can store and eat! Unlike shop bought varieties, fresh wild mushrooms will only last 3-4 days in the fridge, and some plants will begin to wilt after only a few hours. This really limits us in terms of gathering, storage and meal prepping, so if you want to enjoy mushroom dishes or plant or flower-based teas over the proceeding weeks or months, you'll need to look at how you can preserve them. Some people pickle or freeze their finds, but by far the easiest method, particularly if you want to make teas, is to dry them in an electric dehydrator.
An electric dehydrator consists of stackable, perforated plastic shelves that sit above a small motor and fan that together generate hot air. This combination of heat and circulating air removes moisture from anything that is placed on the shelves, making them crisp and dry (just like dried herbs you can buy in the supermarket). In this state, your finds can be stored in glass jars on a shelf for many months. Dried herbs, flowers, plants and berries can be added to dishes as-is to add flavour, or steeped in hot water to make teas. Other items, such as mushrooms, can be re-hydrated by soaking them in warm water before cooking, or alternatively crumbled or ground to a powder in a pestle and mortar whilst still dried before being added to soups and other dishes.
Purchasing a dehydrator really changed the game for us and opened-up so many possibilities for preserving our finds. The many jars of teas and mushrooms that adorn our shelves would likely not have been possible had we not decided to invest in a dehydrator. Of course, an alternative to a dehydrator is an oven on the lowest heat setting with the door open to regulate the temperature, but this often leads to burnt, crispy finds and lots of wastage. Ultimately, if you want to keep your finds, a dehydrator is the quickest, easiest and safest method of doing so.
Foraging Equipment Quickguide
An Essential Item
Small Tupperware Boxes
Essential if you want to pick berries and keep finds separated.
An Essential item - don't leave home without one!
Scissors or Knife
Essential for quickly cutting-off fruit, flowers, foliage and mushroom stems.
First Aid Kit
Essential for the kids - there's always a scrape or two that needs a plaster!
Recommended. Handy for preventing stung or prickled fingers.
Waterproofs & Warm Clothes
Recommended. Weather-dependant, but will always come in handy. Wellies, jackets, trousers hats and scarves will keep the chilly wind and rain off and keep you warm and dry.
Walking Pole, Staff or Stick
Recommended for testing footing in the deep moss of forests and checking the depths of waterways that you may need to enter or cross.
Insect Repellant & Tick Tools
Recommended, especially in areas renowned for midges and mosquitos. Ticks are sneaky little things, and manage to grab a hold when you least expect it.
Change of Kid's Clothing
Not Essential, but will very likely be needed!
Not always needed, but essential if you want to dig up roots.
Berry or Fruit Picker
Not essential, but will certainly speed things up!
Plant & Mushroom ID App
Not Essential. May be useful as a starting point for ID.
Not essential, but great for candid foraging snaps!
Not essential, but if you want to keep your finds for many weeks or months, have the ability to harvest a lot of wild food in one go, or make a range of teas, then one of these is a must.