Beginners Guide to Mushroom Foraging

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

This guide will help you find and forage mushrooms safely, with some insider tips on how to find edible mushrooms on Vancouver Island (and beyond), without dying.

A Beginner's Guide to Mushroom Foraging

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

How do you start mushroom hunting?

  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.

Best Mushroom Field Guides

These are some of the best guide books for identifying and foraging wild mushrooms on Vancouver Island:

    • A Field Guide to Edible Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest by Daniel Winkler
    • All That the Rain Promises, and More... by David Arora
    • Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest by Joe Ammirati and Steve Trudell

Note: No matter how good, every mushroom book is incomplete, and likely to contain some errors. Conflicting or outdated information is relatively common. So, checking more than one source is recommended. Even better: find an experienced expert with first-hand experience of the mushroom in question.

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.
  • 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.

Find A Friend for Foraging Fun

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.

How To Pick Mushrooms Safely

Closeup of a small fly agaric mushroom in the undergrowth

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 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.

Easy edible mushrooms on Vancouver Island:

  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 and 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

Summary - Foraging For Wild Edible Mushrooms Safely

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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