Home Survival StrategiesFood & Water Primitive Trapping for Survival

Primitive Trapping for Survival

by Ryan Dotson

fall trap setup to catch two birds in a hole

It is two days before I head into the wilderness for my summer survival challenge. Unlike all my previous challenges, a larger burden rests on my shoulders for this one. Two of my nephews are coming with me. Jay is 12 years old and Dre is 10. Neither of them have ever done anything like this before.

I promised their parents that I would take good care of them, and that I would make sure they are fed, hydrated, and warm. That is a tall order for a survival challenge. I am both excited and scared to death. They are just excited. They have no idea what they are about to endure.

In any survival scenario, there are four pillars of survival. These are food, water, fire, and shelter. Without any of these priorities, long term survival is impossible. However, there is a different sense of urgency for each of these pillars. You can only last three hours in cold weather without shelter or fire for warmth. You can only last three days without water. You can last three weeks without food. In terms of time frame, this makes food the lowest priority. So why so much emphasis on finding food?

Why Food?

It seems like every survivalist on television is seen fashioning a spear and hunting for meat. Is this for ratings and entertainment or is food more important than we think? Survivalists appear to spend time searching for food from day one. Why is this? If you can survive for three weeks without food, shouldn’t survivalists be spending their time on the other pillars of survivals?

Food has so more value than just keeping you alive. The first fact to understand is what happens to your body when you do not consume calories. When you burn more calories than you take in, your body is in a state of caloric deficit. Initially your body will burn fat to give it the energy needed to keep going. However, very quickly the process of your body cannibalizing itself progresses. It starts burning muscle and organ tissue in order to survive. This includes attacking brain tissue.

As your body starts to eat itself, several side effects set in. You will first notice a general weakness and lack of coordination. A constant, splitting headache is a common symptom of this process. Memory loss and confusion are also noticed as the body starts to dwindle. As the brain drastically reduces in size, an overwhelming depression sets in. These symptoms can have dire consequences in a survival situation.

Being weak and uncoordinated makes the physical nature of survival very difficult. It becomes much more likely that you injure yourself with these symptoms. Confusion and memory loss can lead to a victim getting lost while working away from camp, and can make it difficult to even remember what needs to be done. Depression and cause a person to lie around all day and avoid needed tasks, or can cause the person to give up entirely. Food has numerous benefits other than keeping you alive.

In addition, food is vital to the morale of a survivalist. When you spend your day working to the bone trying to stay alive, a hot meal is a great way to wind down before bed. When you are stressed to the max and on the verge of tears, food can keep you going. When you have hiked for miles and do not think you can take another step, eating can replenish the energy you need to push on. This may be even more important than the physical benefits of finding food.

Why Trapping?

There are several different ways to collect food in the wild. Probably the easiest is gathering wild edible plants. However, this provides a limited amount of calories and almost no protein. You also have to have the knowledge to not eat poisonous plants.

man holding a primitive bow getting ready to draw back the arrow

Bow hunting is NOT your best option in a survival situation

Hunting with a spear or makeshift bow is what we all envision ourselves doing, but in most cases it is not a good idea. Tromping through the woods all day burns a huge number of calories, takes up all of your time, and risks injury from the terrain or the animal itself. Your odds of success are very low as well. Fishing can be hit and miss, plus many forms of primitive fishing require you to get wet. This does not work well with staying warm.

That leaves trapping.

When you are in a survival scenario, you really need protein to keep going. In addition, you need a way to collect it that does not burn up all your time and energy. Trapping allows you to set up several traps and then simply check them once or twice a day. The rest of the day is yours to work on your other priorities.

However, trapping is a skill that takes years to hone. In addition, more is better. Many people set one or two traps and are surprised when they do not get any meat. For regular success, I suggest 20 to 30 traps. You do not need to set them all at once, but eventually that should be your goal. Once a successful trap line is established, you can count on having meat on a regular basis.

How to Set Traps

There are a few general rules that apply for any type of trap. One is that bait is always a good idea. No matter what animal you are trapping, adding an incentive for the animal to come to your trap is a good idea. For land animals, there are a few options that always work well. For most small animals, peanut butter, cheese, and fruit are a hit. Do not get too hung up on what you choose for bait. Any bait is better than an un-baited trap.

a game trail in a grass area with spots marked on where to set traps

via tipsforsurvivalists.com

If you do not have bait, the location of your trap becomes that much more important. Locating a game trail or other sign of activity is vital. Game trails are paths worn into the floor vegetation showing that animals travel that path on a regular basis. You can also look for the home of that particular animal. Tracks and scat can tell you what animals are around and where they like to walk. With or without bait, these are the best areas to set your trap.

When setting your trap, it is important to make it look and smell as natural as possible. Before you head out to set or check a trap line, you should mask your scent. In the wild, you can use the oils from evergreen trees. You can also use soot from your fire to cover up your human odor. Pay special attention to your hands as they can leave a scent on the trap itself. In addition, use leaves and twigs to cover up the appearance of your trap. This will ensure that your animal does not get spooked.

It is also important that you funnel your animal into approaching the trap in the right way. Your trap is often only designed to hold or kill an animal if it approaches a particular spot from a particular direction. By using sticks and leaves, you can block other paths and force the animal to approach in that way. This ensures that you have the best possible chances of catching an animal.


When setting primitive traps, there are a few basic designs that make up the majority of your options for construction. Snare traps are one of these. A snare works by using a slipknot to tighten a loop around the neck or limb of an animal. You can use cordage, wire, or natural materials. The advantage of wire is that it allows you to mold the shape and position of the loop for optimum performance. In addition, it is harder for the animal to wriggle free or chew its way loose.

Snare trap with white looped wire

Small game snare trap

A basic snare is one of the easiest traps to set. It starts by creating a slipknot in your line. On one end of the line, fold over two to three inches. Then tie an overhand knot to create a loop. Feed the other end of the line through the loop and you have your slipknot. You can then secure the loose end to a rock, tree, stake, or any other structure.

With these snares it is vital that you get the size of the loop right. This type of snare works best to target the head of your animal, so the size of the loop should be just larger than the head that animal. In addition, you want to position the snare so that it is perpendicular to the ground and at head height for your target animal. You may have to use sticks to prop it up and achieve this position.

traps running up a tree to catch squirrels

Squirrel pole via realitysurvival.com

One effective way to use basic snares it to build a squirrel pole. For this trap you will need to find a large tree preferably near a squirrel nest. Find a pole that is about four feet long and a few inches thick. Tie several snares to the pole with wire and lean the pole against the tree at 45 degrees. Then position your snare loops so that they sit vertically on top of the poles. Squirrels are prone to take the easiest path, so when climbing a tree they will often choose to run up your pole. As they do, one of the snares will catch its head. When it falls off of the pole, it will hang itself ensuring that it cannot get free.

You can make a more aggressive version of a snare by adding a spring pole. This sets up a trigger mechanism that breaks loose when the snare is moved. The spring pole jerks the animal up into the air tightening the loop and preventing the animal from getting free.

To build this trap, find a springy sapling and either set the trap next to it or cut it and drive it into the ground near your spot. Find two sticks of reasonable thickness and cut ‘7’ shaped notches in the side of each. Sharpen the other end of one of the sticks and drive it into the ground. Use cordage to connect the other stick to the end of your spring pole. When you pull down the spring pole and fit the two sticks together at their notches, it should hold everything in place. You can then tie a standard snare to the end of the spring pole and place it on your trail in an optimum position.


While snares snag an animal and hold it in place, deadfalls are designed to injure or kill an animal until you can reach it. Deadfalls normally use bait to draw an animal underneath a large, flat rock. Then when the trap is tripped, the rock comes free and crushes the animal. For this trap I prefer a rock around two feet across and only a few inches thick. Get two sticks with one having a slight curve. The straight stick needs to have one end rounded, while the curved stick needs one end sharp with the other end flattened. Use a knife to make these adjustments.

big rock held up by a stick as a fall trap in a sandy woods area

To set the trap, shove your bait onto the pointed end of the curved stick. Lift up the rock and press the flat end of the curved stick against the underside of the rock so it positions the bait towards the back of the trap. Then press the rounded end of the other stick against the flat part of the bait stick, and use the stick to prop up the rock. When an animal goes for the bait and moves the bait stick, the prop stick will come loose and the trap will fall. Test it out a few times to ensure that the sticks to not get caught up preventing the trap from falling.

Final Thoughts

The one thing I must emphasize about primitive trapping is that it takes a great deal of practice to get it right. While it is very possible to have success in the wild with primitive traps, you need to learn what works and what does not before your life depends upon it.

Find an area near you that allows trapping and get a line set up. You will probably notice at first that traps will be tripped, but with no catch. This is very common and means that you need to adjust your design and how you are setting your trap. Make the needed adjustments and try again. If you are able to become proficient at trapping, you will have the confidence that food will not be a problem in a survival scenario.

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