Hiking Bag – Plants On The Trail; Safe Or Deadly?

hiking bag
Foraging Is Fun – Beware Of Certain Plants

A hiking bag trip can eliminate the dreaded grocery store or crowded farmers market.  You can get fresh herbs and plants while enjoying your favorite hiking trail or wilderness trek.  This is an awesome time to get excited about plants in nature, but let’s make sure which ones are good for you while others can make you very sick or be fatal.  This is not to scare anyone, but I always say knowledge is power.

Another Phase Of Hiking That’s Totally Enjoyable

Edible Plants Are Nutritious

Seeking out edible plants adds layers of fun to your hiking experience. It is something you can do solo, with friends and even your children.  You’ll enjoy the feeling when your child begins pointing out to you all the recognizable herbs that are safe and good to eat when you hike together. Teaching our children about nature is one of the best gifts you can give them. Adults should learn first and then introduce the wonder of the great outdoors to their kids or friends during a backpack hike.

Hikers; Learn Before You Experiment With Tasting

Learn Before You Go On A Forage Hike

Hiking bag excursions, especially for beginners, should be preceded by learning important aspects of being in the woods or wilderness.  This is not a learn-as-you-go teaching. If you try that, you will have several bad experiences which could have been avoided.  There are many books and field guides to read regarding the safety of hiking and foraging for live edibles.  These guides will help you to positively identify plants.  

Many of nature’s plants are edible and good for you, but look-alike versions could cause you serious health issues such as diarrhea, vomiting or respiratory problems.  Know before you go and be sure before you consume.  Don’t limit yourself to visual ID alone. Lots of wild edible plants have similar look-alike varities. Learn how to differentiate similar plants by smell, feel, texture, etc.  You can use an app on your phone to compare images of the plant in front of you, such as Edible and Poisonous Plants in the Google Play store, to get answers right on the spot.

Trekkers; Learn What Trail Plants Are Non-Poisonous

  • Dandelions – You can eat every part of the dandelion including roots, stems, leaves and flowers.
  • Wild Leek – Allium tricoccum (commonly known as ramp, ramps, spring onion, ramson, wild leek, wood leek, and wild garlic) is a North American species of wild onion widespread across eastern Canada and the eastern United States.
  • Peeled prickly pear cactus is a pain to peel, but oh so tasty! There aren’t big thorns on it, and the cactus it grows from isn’t particularly dense in thorns either. The skin of the fruit, however, is covered in tiny needles. They are hard to see and will pierce your skin yet be almost impossible to remove once you realize they hurt. Watch an online video for proper cutting of the fruit to eliminate their needles in your skin: https://www.cucicucicoo.com/2014/08/how-to-peel-prickly-pears-cactus-fruit/
  • Common Cattail –  You can use the stalks, young shoots, pollen, spikes, sprouts and roots for a variety of recipes. Cattails are considered to be one of the most versatile edible plants in the world.  They are widely found throughout the U.S.
  • Day Lilies – You can use the entire plant. The flowers can be made into fritters and the young shoots can be added to salads.

Backpackers; Stay Away From These Dangerous Plants

Morning Glory:

A beautiful plant that contains the potent hallucinogen LSA, a cousin to LSD. You’ll be a danger to yourself and others if you go on a bad trip with this stuff. Pretty to look at, but don’t consume them.

Manchineel Tree

Your hiking bag or any parts of you should never even brush past this tree. It looks like a regular tree, but the Manchineel can kill you. Everything about it is extremely toxic. If you touch its leaves, they will cause “a strong allergic dermatitis.” It’s so bad that, if you stay under its foliage while it’s raining, the water will cause instant blistering wherever it.  Its native growing range is between tropical southern North America , in Florida Everglades and northern South American Caribbean Coast. This tree is considered the most dangerous in the world.

Poisonwood or Metopium: 

This is a flowering plant in the sumac family, and is also called the Poisontree. This extremely unpopular tree produces a sap that when it comes in contact with skin can cause painful blisters almost immediately. Its gummy sap is very difficult to remove from the skin as it’s not completely water soluble and is spread easily when scratched causing even more irritation. Locals in the Caribbean suggest a bit of WD40 will help dissolve the stubborn sap but may create complications. For that reason, it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Stinging Nettles: 

Hiking bag trips can sometimes bring you in contact with a stinging nettle rash. It occurs when the skin comes into contact with the “hairs” on stinging nettles. Those “hairs” act like needles when they penetrate the skin. Chemicals flow through them into the skin, which causes a stinging sensation and a rash. Nettles can be recognized by their jagged, deep green leaves and greenish-white flowers.

The leaves and stems are covered with stinging hairs, that when brushed up against, can cause a painful, burning sensation. Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, anemia and urinary tract infections. Not exactly poisonous, but total care must be taken when coming in contact with your skin.


Giant hogweed is a very large, invasive and noxious weed/plant that can cause painful burns and permanent scarring. If you have an encounter with this plant, you must seek immediate medical attention because it can cause severe burns. Hogweed can grow up to 14 feet and has ridged stems with reddish purple blotches. Brushing against or breaking the plant releases sap that, combined with sunlight and moisture, can cause a severe burn within 24 to 48 hours. 

Giant hogweed grows along streams and rivers and in fields, forests, yards and roadsides. They produce huge white flower heads that are attractive to look at, with large leaf formations that resemble an oak leaf shape.

Poison Ivy :  

Many nature lovers have dealt with this annoying shrub. It’s best to remember the jingle, “Leaves of three, beware of me!”  Usually found in swampy or boggy areas where it grows as small tree or tall shrub, it is similar to poison oak or poison sumac. These three are grouped together because they share a common irritant; an oily resin/sap called urushiol. This resin is potent and it only takes brushing past it to cause a bad reaction. The resin coats all parts of these plants.

Poison Ivy has a stem with a larger leaf at the end, and two smaller leaves shooting off the sides. The leaves can be notched or smooth on the edges, and they have pointed tips. The plant is reddish in the spring, green in summer, and yellow/orange in the fall.

It’s not uncommon to see clusters of greenish-white berries on poison ivy through the spring and summer, as well as green/yellow flowers.  Poison oak grows basically like a shrub about three feet tall. The tips of its leaves are rounded rather than pointed. Its leaves are bright green in spring, turn yellow-green or pink in summer, and finally turn yellow into dark brown in the fall.

Poison Sumac

Sumac is defined with reddish stems.  It has 7-13 leaves, in pairs, with a single leaf at the tip.  Leaves are oval, elongated, and smooth on the edges and are usually 2-4 inches long. They’re bright orange in spring, dark green in summer, and red-orange in fall.  Sumac thrives in watery, swampy places, mostly in the Midwest and Southeastern U.S., where high humidity is predominant. It grows as a tree or tall shrub, 5-20 feet tall.

Poke weed:  

Common in the American south, this is often prepared as a soul food dish. If eaten raw, however, poke weed can cause convulsions, vomiting, and respiratory paralysis, so if you harvest some, cook it before eating it.

“White Baneberry” 

This plant is native to eastern and northern North America. The whole plant is toxic, but their are severe consequences from ingesting the sweet tasting berries. They contain a carcinogenic toxin with a dangerous sedative effect on cardiac muscles. 


Some beautiful plants can be deadly toxic. Oleander can be found in backyards mostly, but I mention it because many hikes are done on old properties. This shrub-like plant can survive high winds and salt spray from our coastlines. If you hike abandoned properties, you could encounter this shrub left behind that grew in spite of obstacles.

It produces clusters of gorgeous blooms in summer in white, yellow, peach, salmon, pink or red. Don’t let that beauty fool you, it is considered one of the most poisonous plants in the world.  All parts of this beautiful shrub contain poison; a single leaf ingested by a child is known to be deadly.

Choke Cherry:

Also known as the wild cherry, choke cherry plants produce large sprays of white flowers with small cherries that can affect the respiratory system if ingested. Like its name, fatal asphyxiation may occur.

Water Hemlock:

Considered the most poisonous plant in North America, this “poison parsnip” can cause seizures, confusion, and death due to respiratory failure in just a few hours after ingestion.

Backpack Hiking; Forage And Have Fun In The Wild

It is beneficial to learn how to follow wild edible plants through all the seasons.   If you journal your hikes, you can follow wild edible plants through each season.  When you locate perennial plants that you want to harvest, they may not look the same from one season to the next and therefore be harder to recognize.

Some plants can look totally different when they are not at peak flavor for harvest.  Positive identification is paramount to edibles. When you note their location, you can return to that spot in early spring and you’ll know right where to find it when it’s the best eating.

Hikers Beware Of Foraging In These Spots

Whenever you backpack hike, use caution to never forage for wild edible plants near busy roads because plants absorb lead and other heavy metals from toxic exhaust. These toxins tend to settle in the soil even if the traffic no longer exists. Also, avoid areas that are or have been sprayed with pesticides along roadsides. Use tick precautions in areas of high grass.

Any Pack Hiker Can Become Plant Knowledgeable

With some research and experience in foraging, you will soon learn about new plants and how you can even apply their medicinal qualities to your life. Your identification proficiency will improve with each season.  Hiking isn’t always just about pretty scenes and challenging climbs.  It’s soothing to the soul and very much about new discoveries. 

Our customers and fellow hikers at Nature Trail Backpacks would love to learn from other readers any info that would help them forage easier and get excited about hiking.  Please help others by commenting below and sharing this article. Thanks and happy hiking and foraging to everyone.


We love the great outdoors, backpack hiking, fishing, camping and experiencing nature's beauty.

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