Beginners Guide to Mushroom Foraging

Picking wild edible mushrooms is fun and rewarding, but it has its dangers too.

If you want to learn how to get started foraging for wild edible mushrooms, this guide will help you find and forage mushrooms safely.

This page includes information that is specific to Vancouver Island and British Columbia, so consult local guides and resources for your area.

Also, check out our information on the best mushroom guide books and easiest mushrooms for beginner foragers.

Note: This page contains affiliate links. If you use them, I could earn a commission. Thanks!

Hands holding edible mushrooms, including pigs ears, hedgehog, winter chanterelles and bear's tooth.

How To Start Mushroom Foraging

  1. Open your eyes and look around. You can find mushrooms anywhere, and learning to spot them is a skill.

  2. Take it slow. Get confident identifying one or two types of mushroom.

  3. Most importantly: Don't consume any mushroom that you're unsure about.

  4. Team up! Find some mushroom buddies, an expert, or an established group of enthusiasts to help you.

  5. Consider taking an offline or online course on mushroom foraging & identification.

Note: No matter how good, every mushroom book is incomplete and likely to contain some errors. Conflicting or outdated information is relatively common. So, check more than one source.

These are some of the best guide books for identifying and foraging wild mushrooms in British Columbia 👇

Mushroom Foraging Groups & Communities

Connecting with a community of like-minded enthusiasts and experts is important for foraging mushrooms safely and effectively.

If you live in British Columbia, or Vancouver Island, here are some suggestions:

For a complete list of mycological clubs in North America.

Mushroom Foraging Kit

What to Bring When Hunting Mushrooms

Hunting for mushrooms often requires hiking old roads and forest trails. As such, make sure you bring all the regular outdoor gear for enjoying the great outdoors: rain jacket, water, emergency items, etc.

Looking for mushrooms also involves some extra challenges. First, you'll likely have to do some bushwhacking, and second, you'll be doing so while collecting and carrying some new treasures as you go.

Here are some recommended items, or items you might find useful.

Equipment and Gear for Hunting Mushrooms:

  • A small, regionally appropriate guide book. Buy a book recommended by foragers in your area.

  • A notebook. For information, and to track your finds for future reference.

  • Navigational aids. Maps, a compass, or a reliable GPS device.

  • A knife. This is perhaps the most consistently useful item for mushroom foraging.

  • A brush. Good for cleaning debris from mushrooms before placing them in your basket.

  • Gloves. To protect your hands from the knife.

  • Basket. Your main collecting basket, especially if you're expecting to collect mushrooms in large quantities. Old fashioned baskets are doubly good. Their rigid structure helps to keep mushrooms from crushing each other, and breathable walls allows them to start drying while you forage.

  • Extra containers. Bring a few small containers (plus wax paper) for collecting samples of mushrooms for later identification. Paper bags are excellent for storing mushrooms.

  • Waterproof boots and rain pants. You can get away without these on well-worn paths, but wading through damp undergrowth is a different story.

If you're in a rush, your essential foraging kit should include: A bag, a book, and a knife.

Below are some foraging kit items that I like to use...

A typical hawkbill knife

There are "mushroom knives" with curved blades and attached brushes. However, these tend to be a bit small, so I pack a larger knife and brush as separate items.

The type of knife shape I prefer is known as a "hawkbill".

They are variously listed as wire-stripping, flooring, or pruning knives - so you know they're versatile!

Garmin Etrex 10 GPS unit

Getting lost is perhaps the biggest danger in foraging. So, it always helps to carry some kind of navigational aid., whether it be a phone, map, or GPS device.

The eTrex 10 (left) is Garmin's entry-level unit with limited capacity and map detail. With its default base map, the eTrex 10 is mostly intended for tracking coordinates and routes.

However, if you look it up online, there is a way to install a more detailed map.

Mushroom hunters use many kinds of containers. It all depends on how much you're collecting and why.

In general, you'll want a container that has structure and is breathable. Like the traditional basket (right).

Synthetic mesh bags are another type of item you could try. For example:

  • "Stuff sacks" for camping

  • Diving bags

  • Reusable produce bags

I haven't tried all of these - but they should give you an idea of what to look for.

A foraging basket on a forest floor

Woven baskets, the traditional option

A good guide book is essential. However, packing one on a trip is another matter. You have to factor in the extra weight and the potential wear and tear on the book. Check out the link on the right to read more about the best mushroom books for British Columbia.

Above: My recommendation

Closeup of a small fly agaric mushroom in the undergrowth

How To Pick Mushrooms Safely

Mushroom Foraging Can Be Dangerous...

Although relatively rare, British Columbia is home to some of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.

Many non-deadly mushrooms can cause severe gastro-intestinal upset.

Even choice edible mushrooms can trigger unpredictable reactions, or accumulate contaminants from their environments.

There are no simple tricks for identifying poisonous mushrooms.

That's the bad news. The good news is that British Columbia and Vancouver Island are also home to many of the world's most sought-after edible mushrooms. Many of them can be easy to identify, if you pay attention to the right characteristics.

Furthermore, there are zero mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest that are poisonous to the touch.

However, every season, stories emerge of injuries, near-deaths, or deaths as a result of mushroom foraging. These are almost never caused directly by the mushrooms themselves, but rather by outdoor-related accidents and mishaps.

The best way to stay safe when foraging for mushrooms is to practice the safety measures often associated with camping or hiking. Make sure to let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return, and prepare to spend the night in the woods if you have to. Do this even if you're going out with a buddy or a group.

Walking through a forest foraging for mushrooms

Common Dangers in Vancouver Island's Forests

The most dangerous part of mushroom foraging isn't the mushrooms, it's the foraging. Here are the top dangers to watch out for:

  • Getting lost. Don't wander too far from the trail, or your hunting buddies. Use a GPS device to be sure.

  • Forest terrain. Slippery logs, hidden pitfalls, unsteady ground, and wayward branches. Watch your footing and pay attention.

  • Hazardous plants. Thorny bushes, poison ivy, and stinging nettles.

  • Wild animals. Read the BC Parks guidelines for encountering bears and cougars.

How Do You Identify A Poisonous Mushroom?

Are there poisonous mushrooms in British Columbia? There sure are! Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to identify any and all poisonous mushrooms. Undertake identification with care and diligence, and learn how to identify the most common poisonous mushrooms, as well as the edible ones.

To avoid being poisoned, keep the following points in mind:

The top reasons why people misidentify or ingest poisonous mushrooms

  1. Wishful thinking. The easiest person to fool is yourself, especially when you want that mushroom to be edible. Don't rely on just one or two identification criteria, and don't take "close enough" for an answer.

  2. Only using photos for identification. Effective mushroom identification requires attention to features beyond just general size, shape, and colour. Individual species, and even individual mushrooms, can vary in size, shape, and colour. Spore prints, bruising, veil appearance, and smell (to name a few) are all important identifying characteristics.

  3. Careless collecting. Edible mushrooms and their poisonous lookalikes often grow side-by-side. Pay attention to what you put in your basket, and keep different types of mushrooms apart from each other.

How to Identify Edible Mushrooms

  • Use more than just photos.

  • Combine general visual identification with an up-close inspection of the gills, veil, texture, smell, bruising, and spores.

  • Positively match ALL criteria

  • Consult an expert

  • Only eat a small portion to test for adverse reactions or allergies

As a beginner, stay away from small brown mushrooms and white-gilled mushrooms. Also, avoid mushrooms that are overly bug-eaten, smelly, or clearly rotten, or ones that are growing in potentially contaminated areas, like roadsides or industrial sites.

How to make a spore print: Place a mushroom cap on a piece of paper with the gills facing down, moisten the cap, place a bowl over it, and wait.

Safe Mushroom Foraging - Tips For Beginners

  • Stay clear of white-gilled mushrooms when you're starting out.

  • When in doubt, throw it out!

  • Identify in the field, and then again at home.

  • Find a checklist of identifying features and tick off every one.

  • Do not rely on Google images. Images online are often mis-labeled or mis-matched to search terms by Google's algorithm.

Some easy-to-identify edible mushrooms

  1. Pacific Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus)

  2. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sp.)

  3. Lobster Mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum)

Looking for more "easy" mushrooms to get started? Read our list of 6 mushrooms that are great if you're learning and new to foraging.

Sauteing oyster mushrooms in a pan

Cooking & Eating Mushrooms Safely

When collecting a mushroom, check it for bugs, slugs, mold, or rot. Some bugs can be dealt with (this is up to your own taste), but they may indicate rot or could make you sick.

Check again when you get home. Small worms can often hide in mushrooms.

Clean your mushrooms and cook them well.

If you have never eaten a type of mushroom before, eat only a small piece to start with. Wait some hours to check for a reaction. You may have an unexpected reaction, even to an otherwise widely eaten mushroom.

Save a small sample and set it aside. This could aid in identification should you become ill

Some mushrooms must be cooked before being eaten (like morels) and should be cooked in a well-ventilated space to avoid inhaling their toxic fumes (again, morels).

Avoid mushrooms growing in potentially toxic or contaminated areas, including roadsides, industrial facilities, or dump sites.

Mushroom Picking Etiquette

Tread carefully and try not to disturb the forest floor as you forage.

Leave beautiful mushrooms growing next to a path for others to enjoy. If you do pick them, throw the castoffs into the bush.

Bring an extra bag to collect any litter you find (or produce).

Where Can You Harvest Mushrooms in British Columbia

  • Private, leased, or reserve land: Only with permission.

  • Provincial or National Parks, or other protected areas: Not allowed

  • Crown lands: Have at it

Handfuls of slippery jack bolete mushrooms

A Summary: How To Forage For Mushrooms

Want to start foraging but concerned about the risks? Here's what you should do:

    1. Get a good mushroom book, a knife, and hiking gear.

    2. Prepare as you would for a hiking trip.

    3. Go with a friend.

    4. Keep collected mushrooms of different types separate from each other.

    5. When identifying: be thorough and over-cautious. Check multiple sources. Do not depend on photos alone.

    6. Discard rotten, bug-eaten, or moldy mushrooms, or those from potentially contaminated areas.

    7. Stick to a few, commonly eaten and collected mushrooms.

    8. Identify again at home.

    9. Cook thoroughly and consume cautiously.

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