Trapping for Survival

traps display closeup
traps display closeup

When you find yourself in a survival scenario, there are several ways to get food.  Protein is always the priority as it is the most difficult nutrient to find in the wilderness.  You can collect wild edibles, but rarely do plants, nuts, berries, and mushrooms have much protein content.  

Hunting is an option, but chances are you would be dealing with primitive, hand-made weapons.  This means stalking prey all day through rough terrain, risking injury, and likely coming back to camp empty handed.  Fishing is an option, but you will need bait, you are probably going to get wet, you will not have a rod and reel, and your odds are still not great.  That leaves primitive trapping as your best option for protein.

Why is Food So Important?

When you consider the four pillars of survival, food appears to be the lowest priority.  You can survive about three weeks without any food at all.  You can survive only three days without water.  In cold or wet conditions, you can only survive three hours without fire or shelter.  So why should you focus on food?  Having food is not just about staying alive.  It is also about being able to function while you are alive.  As your body goes without food, it starts to feed upon itself.  The body starts by burning fat for the calories it needs to keep going.  It then starts to burn the body’s muscle tissue.  At this point you will notice fatigue, pain, and disorientation.  It can become very hard to get up for basic functions such as collecting water or firewood.  It is also more likely that you injure yourself because of a lack of balance and coordination.

As starvation progresses, your body will start to burn organ tissue including brain tissue to survive.  In addition to the symptoms listed above, you will see an intense headache that never seems to go away.  Depression and a general lack of motivation will set in, and there may be days that you do nothing or just sleep all day.  If you do not find food at this point, there is a good chance that you will not survive.  On top of all of the physical effects that can be seen from starvation, having a hot meal can provide a huge boost in morale. You can end up being much more productive and in a generally better mood from consuming just a few calories.

Why Trap?

As mentioned above, trapping is a relatively safe way to collect protein.  A good trap line has a high rate of success and over time requires minimal effort to maintain.  Once you have your trap line set, you can check it just once or twice per day and spend the rest of your time working on other projects.  As you check your trap line, you can be gathering wild edibles or searching for water and firewood.  It is a very efficient way to collect protein.  However, do not think that setting one or two traps will give you a great deal of success.  When I mention a trap line, I am referring to roughly 20 traps.  If you have this many traps strategically placed in your area, you have a fairly good chance of success on any given day.

General Trapping Principles

As you start considering different types of traps and how to set up your line, there are a few rules that always apply.  Think about these points before you start setting traps:

  • Bait is better - While bait is not required for a successful trap, it always helps.  This can draw animals into your trap instead of hoping that they just happen by. If you have any ‘human food’ with you such as granola, peanut butter, candy, nuts, meat, or fruit, these all work well.  In the wild, your best options are items like found nuts, berries or other fruit, worms, grubs, and scraps from any animals you kill
  • Consider your location – Whether you are using bait or not, the location of your trap matters.  A good place to start would be sources of water, food, and bedding areas.  If you have a water source with lots of tracks or scat, this could be a good spot.  Dens or bedding areas are always a safe bet, and you may find a particular area with abundant food sources.  Game trails are paths that have been worn into the ground as animals travel from point to point.  They are always an ideal place to set up traps
  • Know your signs – Animals are constantly leaving behind signs that can be tracked if you know what to look for.  All animals leave scat or droppings.  If you know what scat from different animals looks like, you can judge its freshness and determine how recently the animal came through.  Every animal leaves a different track in the dirt, mud, or snow, so this can be a good clue.  Broken branches and tufts of fur can also help you determine the size of the animal and which direction it went
  • Develop your line – Within limits, you should continue to use a variety of different trap designs to make your trap line larger.  Add a few traps every day until you get to the point that it is difficult to get to all of them for a daily check.  If you cannot check each trap at least once a day, your line has gotten too big.  Also, go after a variety of different prey animals for your best chances of success
  • Disguise your trap appearance and smell – Before you head out to set traps, wash your hands with only water and rub down your feet and clothes with dirt.  You do not want to leave your smell in the area where you will be setting the traps.  You should also use grasses and leaves to cover up your trap.  Any structure that does not appear natural to an animal might make them suspicious
  • Direct the animal into your trap – When completing your trap, use sticks or rocks to force the prey animal into your trap.  Do not just hope that they will go where you want them to.  Make it difficult to get to bait, or give them only one path down their game trail


log deadfall trap

Log deadfall trap - The Biodiversity Heritage Library 

A deadfall is a trap designed to crush your prey animal with a heavy rock or log.  There are several different designs you will see for deadfalls, but I like to stick to the simplest.  It is called the two-stick deadfall.  You can also do your own research to see if you prefer other designs. I typically go after small animals with deadfall traps such as mice or squirrels.  I like to use flat rocks for my trap and try to find one that is at least 18 inches by 18 inches. This size forces the animal to move further underneath the rock to get to the bait stick. You will also need one bait stick that is at least one foot long and slightly curved. Then you will need a support stick to hold up the rock.

Use a knife or rock to shave one end of your bait stick so it is flat on the top and bottom. Sharpen the other end and stick your bait on that end.  Shape one end of your support stick round as well.  As you hold up the rock, place the flat end of your bait stick flush against the rock.  Then place the round end of the support stick underneath the bait stick. It will take some adjusting to get it so that the rock will stay upright and the bait stick will remain between the support stick and the rock.  You want a hair trigger so that the bait stick barely needs to be touched to release the deadfall.  Then leave it and come back later to check the trap.  If the trap has been tripped but no animal was caught, adjust the shape of the bait stick so it has more of a hair trigger.


wire trap

Image credit: el cajon yacht

A snare trap uses cordage to tighten around the neck or foot of an animal.  You can use any type of cordage for this including natural cordage.  I prefer to use either copper wire or the interior fibers from paracord.  Your first step with any snare is to create a slipknot. With wire, I simply tie a loop on one end and then feed the other end back through it. Wire holds its shape well enough that a simple slipknot is all that is needed.  With other types of cordage, I like to use a locking slipknot.  Once I tie the loop in one end, I fold it back over itself to create two loops.  Then I feed the other end through both loops so it will not come loose if the animal struggles.

From here you can make many different types of snares.  The simplest is to attach the snare to a stake, tree, or rock so that the prey animal cannot get away.  You must position the snare so it is at the right height for the head of the animal and so that the loop is just the right size for the head.  Be sure you block all other paths so that the animal must stick its head through the snare.  Also, be sure that the animal will not be able to pull loose from the snare.

If you want to get a bit more complicated, you can build a spring snare.  This uses a sapling to pull the snare tight and lift the animal up off of the ground.  For this you need to find a spot with a sapling close by that has plenty of spring to hold the weight you need.  Attach the end of your snare to the end of a branch.  Then, drive a stake into the ground near where you will set the snare.  Be sure there is a notch or knot on the side of the stake.  Find another stick with a notch or knot and tie a line from it to your spring pole.  Place the notch on your stick underneath the notch on your stake to hold the spring pole in the downward position.  Then, carefully place your snare where you need it.  If you can get a hair trigger, the animal will walk into the snare and then release the spring pole.

You can also build a bird snare if you wish to go after birds. Start with a four-foot pole about an inch in diameter and sharpen both ends.  Use your knife to whittle a hole about four inches from the top of the pole.  Find a stick about four inches long and ¼ inch thick and sharpen one end.  Drive the bottom of your large pole into the ground in an area with no trees.  Run a piece of cordage through the hole and tie your snare.  On the other end of the line, attach a weight like a small rock or water bottle.  Position the snare so the loop is about two inches on one side of the primary pole.  Then shove the small stick into the hole perpendicularly to hold the snare line in place.  Position the snare loop so that it rests on top of the stick.  You may need to use something sticky like pine resin to keep it from falling off.  When a bird needs a place to land, it will land on your perch stick instead of on top of the primary pole because you had sharpened it.  When it lands, it will knock the perch stick free and the snare will close on its foot.  The weight on the other end will pin the bird to your trap so you can come collect it later.

Other Traps

You can expand past these two basic types of traps by looking into cup traps, pit traps, water traps, cage traps, and fish traps.  However, 90% of the traps I set in the wilderness come from these two basic designs.  They are simple and efficient.

Featured image: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Collection of selected images Fur School - 2006 (CC2 license)

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