Long backpacking trips can be harsh on your body, and particularly your stomach. With most long-distance hikers relying on dehydrated and freeze-dried food, fresh foods can be few and far between. Knowing even a few edible plants you can harvest while you’re out on an adventure can be fun and beneficial (and addicting). Here are a few common and easy plants you can eat right outta the ground on your PCT hike, or really any hiking trip on the west coast!
Miners Lettuce is an extremely common plant on the west coast, it grows all the way from Canada, down the west coast of the US, to South America (being most populous in central California). It’s a winter annual, so you’ll find it more during the cooler months.
It’s a good practice harvest for the beginning of your hike since it’s easy to identify, yummy and abundantly available. It is low growing, with a round, green and plump leaf. It thrives in shady, cool and moist environments, but it can be found everywhere from along streams in the desert and on the floors of oak and coniferous forests to high up in mountain meadows.
It’s super tasty and nutritious — high in vitamin C, vitamin A and iron. All parts of the plant are edible, raw or cooked, but older leaves can start to taste bitter. Find a young, tender patch and throw some leaves into a burrito, have a little salad for lunch or garnish your pasta dinner with it.
Then sit back, relax and revel in how fancy we can be on trail!
This is something most everyone can identify! One of the most arguably underrated plants out there, dandelions are edible from flower to root, and are really nutritious. Different types of dandelions exist on the west coast, some of which have a more orange flower, but there are no toxic lookalikes!
Dandelion greens have a strong spicy flavor, somewhat similar to arugula. For the best flavor, use young leaves (even better if it hasn’t produced a flower yet). The flowers are also really delicious and have a sweeter (less bitter and spicy) flavor.
Several varieties of the Allium (onion) family are quite common on the west coast. You can find big ones, small ones, ones with round hollow leaves, or flat leaves. Keep an eye out for that classic round purple or pink flower bunch.
All members of the Allium family are edible, so if it looks like an onion AND smells like an onion, you’re generally good to go. Look for the Sierra Onion, growing in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas up to 8,500 feet (and even reported on Mount Ashland and up to southern Washington). Spice up a ramen with it, sprinkle some sliced green onion on anything, or just eat it like an apple because onions are the best vegetable ever discovered by mankind!
There are tons of wild berries throughout the west coast (particularly the PNW), including blackberries, wild strawberries, salmon berries, huckleberries, currants and raspberries.
Wild blackberries are very easy to identify and have no poisonous lookalikes. And, if you’ve only ever had store bought blackberries, let me tell you, you’re missing out!
Wild strawberries are also easy to identify and only have only one non-poisonous, bland lookalike. They can be found in woodlands, meadows and mountains. They’re tiny compared to the strawberries you’re probably used to, but have an amazingly sweet flavor.
Also, blackberry, raspberry and strawberry leaves make a great medicinal tea.
***Do enough research before you go out picking and eating berries. There are a lot of extremely toxic berries out there that can be confused with edible ones. NEVER eat a berry you aren’t 100% certain of.
Because tea is life. The west coast is blessed with lots of delicious and medicinal herbs. I definitely like a cup of hot tea after a long day of hiking before bed. There are lots of herbs that you may even be familiar with already out on the trail. As with all new foods, use caution and try small amounts of any herb before diving in head first (or better yet, try things at home first so you don’t have to jump off trail because of a bad reaction). Some plants can cause allergic reactions or bad interactions with certain medications.
Super easy to identify because, well, it smells like mint. There are lots of different members of the Lamiaceae family on the west coast including peppermint, corn mint, catnip and lemon balm. Mint tea has long been used for digestive issues, colds and so much more. Plus, it is delicious. I like to add it to lots of different medicinal teas to improve the flavor. Some varieties of mint can be slightly toxic in large amounts, so if you’re unsure about the type you’ve found, use it sparingly.
St. John’s Wort
A common flowering plant in drier areas on the west coast, it’s everywhere where I live in Siskiyou county! It’s a delicate plant, growing up to a meter high with clusters of small yellow flowers at the top. An easy way to ID this guy is to pinch the flowers between your fingers; St. John’s Wort flowers will bruise red.
The have been used for a long time to help with anxiety, depression, insomnia and healing wounds. Add some flowers to your bedtime tea to help your mind and body relax after a long day of hiking more miles than you thought humanly possible.
This is another really common plant to the west coast. It's super drought resistant, so look for it in dry areas. Once you know what mullein looks like, you’ll see it everywhere. It's got huge, soft and pale green leaves, with a flowering stock that can tower over any person.
The leaves, although slightly bitter (add some mint to help), can help sooth respiratory problems, which is fantastic when California is having another record-breaking fire season and we’re hiking in tons of smoke. The flowers have similar properties and have a more pleasant and sweet taste.
Pro tip: Teaves also great for butt wiping.
Tips and Parting Thoughts
- Never harvest plants that are along the road
- Never harvest plants on private property without asking permission
- Never take more than you need
- Never harvest and use a plant you can’t positively ID
- Always wash your harvest with filtered water
- If a plant looks unhealthy, best to leave it alone
- Always thank the earth and the plant
- Always check with local rules and regulations before harvesting and consuming any plant
Harvesting and eating wild plants has been the way of life until recently. Having relationships with the plant life around you deepens a person's connection with nature and can develop a more respectful partnership between man and earth. Honor yourself, the plant, the land, and the Indigenous American people who are sharing their home with us.
This article is not meant as a complete wild harvesting guide in any way. As always, do your own research. Read up and get familiar with all the plants beforehand. Buy some books, watch some YouTube videos and practice at home. Happy harvesting!
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