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Trapping for Winter Survival or All Around for Food, Fur and Fun. Part 1



Trapping can be a huge topic. There are many reasons one might construct different traps for any living thing. I began my trapping research because I see that, for winter survival, trapping skills and equipment could be a huge asset. It can supply supplemental income to a homestead. It can supply insulation, in the form of fur clothing and bedding. But the amount of food you can put in the freezer or storage, when you combine trapping with hunting and fishing, could be incredible and the difference between starving and surviving. One man could certainly feed several people to even supplying a good amount to a community. Trapping items could make great barter goods. One might want to live trap and release just to see the inhabitants of his property up close and to learn more about the animals. Finally, one might trap to get rid of nuisance animals.

This will be the first article of about five in this series. Some of this series will seem basic but it’s to set a frame of mind. Some will seem simplistic to those that already know trapping to some extent. I base what I say in this article on research, not experience. Feel free to comment and correct me, if I’m wrong. Mainly, in this series, I want to lay out an outline or guide in which to introduce and give the reader a good starting point on where to begin his own research. I want to give you some clues and make you think. Hopefully I will entertain a little, as well.



Traps are devices that kill, injure or hold your prey, or any combination thereof. A trap appears to have several basic components. A) Holding/Injure/Kill component B) Trigger (Pan) (C) Force Mechanism (Springs) D) Latching (Also called a “Dog”).  In general, a force is applied to trigger, which unlatches some potential force causing a hold, injury, or kill. Many traps can be made with scrounged materials and simple tools. Using only deadfalls, for example, a man could enter the forest with only a good knife and, using only wood and stone found in the forest, eat quite well. If he had on him a bit of cordage and a few nails, even better. A few fencing staples would make another kind of deadfall or snare. Carry a bit of wire and cordage and snares are a cheap and easy way to procure food. For modern trapping most cheap and homemade trapping methods are illegal for the protection of some animal species or for protection of neighborhood pets. Anything you may want to trap probably is regulated, though there are exceptions in cases of nuisance animals. So be very well aware of the trapping regulations in your area or you would be poaching. In a real survival situation you would, of course, poach. Heck even in an economic downturn you might poach. Of course, if I’m not starving, I’m not poaching and I don’t recommend it.

Traps are called sets based on an arrangement or placement. A trap in water is a water set, for example. A trap on land is a land set or perhaps dry set. We have log sets, trail sets, pole sets, mound sets, pocket sets and such. A cubby set is a pen made from any materials such as sticks, logs, stumps, rocks, usually roofed with evergreen boughs. There are limbs sets, and hollow log sets. There are den sets. There are also lucky sets that are spur of the moment improvised sets that might do better than a standard set.  A set with no bait or decoy lure scent is called a Blind Set.

A pit style trap might be an exception to the way most traps work where the creature merely falls into the pit or container. There is a plant in the Philippines that traps rodents in its cup shaped flower and then consumes or digests the rodent. Snares and deadfalls are common types of traps. Snares and deadfalls are illegal in most locations. Deadfalls are totally illegal in the state of Arkansas, but snares may be permitted for certain animals if you use a specific type of snare. The main reason these are illegal is because they are mostly indiscriminate. That is, they catch and or kill species they are not intended to be caught. If someone’s pet or livestock ends up in the trap, then you have accidentally killed or injured their property. Deadfalls specifically are kill traps where something heavy, usually wood or stone or a combination, falls on the victim, crushing it. You might recall Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Predator killing the alien with a log deadfall (Actually the log was a weight that operated the spike trap, but it had the same function as a deadfall in that instance).


Though snares can be set to hold and not kill many times, they do kill. A snare is a lasso style loop of wire or chord that closes around its victim on a leg, neck, or a combination.  The cool thing about snares and deadfalls is that they can be made with very little investment in tools or materials. Materials for deadfalls, in particular, can be found entirely in the woodlands. What little you may need, such as wire or nails, weighs very little and are easy to pack. However, the deadfalls require a lot of work. This is work that can be done in the off season. It’s good to let these traps sit for months so that they look more natural when trapping time comes along. The wait means that human scent is eliminated until you set them and, at that time, you will be careful to leave as little scent as possible. Leghold traps are another type. These are spring loaded traps that have a jaw which clamps the leg when the animal steps on a pan (flat round trigger). The jaws of these traps are made in different ways. Some have had spiked teeth. Some have had flanges that hand down to prevent the animal from chewing his foot off. Modern jaws have rubber pads that keep the traps from causing too much, if any damage, and thereby only holding the animal until the trapper shows up.


The larger the trap and the stronger the spring makes setting without tools difficult. The best thing to get is a C clamp shaped tool which will compress the spring and hold it until you get the trap set. A friend told me a simple method for keeping springs compressed. Wrap a chord or rope around the springs and keep it wrapped tight as you compress the spring (by standing on the spring). Do not attempt to set traps for larger animals with only your hands, as you might get your hands caught in them.

Kill traps can be a trap, such as deadfalls or snare; however, many are simply spring loaded wire or rods that mash its victim by concentrating a force in a small area. A modern brand is Conibear and some have forces of 650 pounds per square inch(psi)! A tractor trailer fully loaded might only load the road surface with 200 psi or less. This kind of trap is similar to the standard mouse trap everyone is familiar with. A poison might be another kind of kill trap but most likely is illegal, unless used for pest control. Common poisons have been cyanide and the metal arsenic. Poisons or intoxicants have been used for catching fish. Green walnut shells mashed up and ground make a good fish poison. Clove oil has been used as an intoxicant but it’s not cheap in the quantities needed. Net traps are well known to be used in fishing, mainly commercial fishing. Netting is very effective and can be illegal in many cases, such as using gill nets. In Arkansas, if you are on your own land and it’s your lake or pond, you can do what you want with your fish. Fish nets may be used to effectively catch most any living thing.

Nets can be dropped on animals or can be pulled upward and around the animal. A net is a mesh or grid made from some type of strong material that the animal cannot get through or break. In many cases, the animal becomes entangled. This net grid is commonly based on squares but can be of any shape. Nets are generally flexible but do not have to be. Chicken wire is, in effect, a netting. Fencing itself is a kind of netting. Have you ever thought about how a farm is where we keep animals in a 24/7 trap? Constantly trapped and when we need one we just go grab it and kill it. The homestead is a much improved method of trapping and hunting. The animals are born within the trap with little means of escape.

Container traps are box, tube, can, jar,  bucket or barrel traps. These are live traps usually. Make sure when in use you check them often enough so that critters do not die in them from exposure and lack of food water. In Arkansas we can use up to 8 box traps for rabbits with or without a trapping license.  A cage is a stiff net container trap that can be in any shape. Trap walls and doors can be solid or partially open with netting of some kind. Gravity can be used as the trapping force but most especially in the pit style trap. Often a surface is baited and gives under the weight of the animal allowing it to drop into the container. In the case of some pit/container traps the animal risk falling in an attempt to get the bait. Otherwise there are various mechanisms for trigger, latch, spring forces. In one episode of Survivorman, Les Stroud used wide mouthed jars or cans to make pit traps to catch scorpions. He used a tube to catch a large centipede. Pen or corral type traps work good for animals that can be held by fencing such as hogs. An auto feeder can be placed in the pen. Once the animals get used to entering and eating for a period of time all that is needed is to show up and set the trap door or doors.



There are common concepts and themes in my research on trapping that I have encountered, which I will relate to you. A decoy is anything that attracts the prey (victim) to the trap. Decoys may also be called Lures. Bait could be a decoy but it’s usually just called bait and can be something the animal wants to eat or is otherwise interested in or curious about.  Though bait could be dragged from trap to trap spreading the baits scent in a trail fashion. In hunting a decoy might be a sound such as dying or suffering sound, or a mating call or feeding noise. A decoy in duck hunting is fake wooden or plastic duck. But in trapping it’s referring to a scent or smell. Scents are kept in oil or alcohol. Scents mixed with oil or honey tend to slow evaporation and last longer after application. Some scents are oils such as fish oil or skunk oil. These are rendered fats of the animal. Some scents are from herbs such as oil of anise which is similar in flavor of black licorice or black jelly beans. Honey is another good scent or bait especially for the bear family. In some cases, a scent oil is made by rotting something (meat, fats, commonly fish) in a loosely capped bottle for a few weeks. Then the oil/liquid is poured off into another container and filtered for applying a few drops at a time about a trap. Urine and feces can also be used as decoys. Animals are attracted to their own kind. Household pet urine and feces could be spread about a trap for example. Dog for dog family and cat for cat family. Or an animal that you might want to trap could be held captive where its feces and urine could be collected and then used to trap members of its family and kind. Some scents are from glands of an animal such as beaver castor, skunk scent or musk of Muskrats. As you might imagine coming up with your own scents is dirty smelly work.


Just as you want scent to attract the game, you also want to eliminate, or at least reduce, human sign and sent. As far as elimination of sign, you should leave the area around the trap looking as natural as possible and use a limb to brush out your tracks. Traps should be covered for many types of game though some game pay no attention to the trap and readily step right on the pan or into it. Dig a hole level with ground putting dirt in a sand bag to be removed from trap area. Place some type of soft material under the pan to keep lighter animals from triggering the pan. This can be leaves, moss, wool or cotton balls, hair/fur etc. Place a piece of scrap paper over the trap and pan and lightly cover it with dirt from the sand bag. If it is too clumpy or heavy you might need to bring in something that is lighter. Use leaves, grass, straw or feathers as well to cover the trap.


To eliminate human scent, observe some strict rules in regards to not spitting or urinating near the trap areas. Some scents can be smeared on shoes/boots that overwhelm human scent such as skunk scent. Rubber soled shoes may hold less scent or not allow your scent to leave the inside of the shoe or boot. Also shoe or boot could be wrapped with a skin of some kind such as buck skin or practically any fur from a fur bearer. If you have to get down on your knees a skin such as buckskin can be laid out near where you will dig. Use buckskin gloves when handling and setting traps. Even with all of this effort you may not want to return to the traps the next day as nothing will go near them until all scent fades. Near water areas and water sets you can sprinkle area where you may have left scent with water to wash the scent or dilute it. Using a mount such as a horse/mule/donkey when traveling from trap to trap might be best as well since any sign you leave will be minimal and wild animals are not suspicious of  the scents these animals produce or at least are not as suspicious.


The metal traps have scent as well especially when they are new. They have scent of metals and oils. Trappers for ages boil their traps. They usually make a stew of bark and evergreen leaves and needles or acorns crushed up. Green walnut hulls are good too. These ingredients have an acid in them called tannin. And this is called browning the trap. The traps can also be coated with bees wax which not only covers up scents and protects from rust but lubricates the traps. Blood is also used to coat the traps.


Traps are attached to clogs or grapples which are generally buried along with the trap and chain. In this way the animal is less likely to chew its foot/leg off or injure itself because a clog or grapple acts like a hobble and gives the animal only a little freedom to move about. The clog or grapple usually leaves a trail the trapper may follow to find the victim. A steak can also act as a clog if it is pulled out of the ground and if it is heavy enough. A branch limb can also be used as a clog. The length of chain is sometimes important. Shorter chain is more difficult to yank therefore the animal does less damage to the trap in trying to get free. Yet in water sets the weight of the chain aids in drowning the animal. In water sets a ring on the end of the chain is placed around a pole such that when the critter is caught it immediately tries to swim down and away. It doesn’t realize it can’t go back up and therefore drowns. Its generally preferable to drown animals caught in water sets. This protects the fur and prevents the animal from cheanchorswing his foot off. In situations where you don’t want the stake pulled up an earth anchor is used. Stakes or cables with earth anchors are used. In some cases these anchors pivot 90 degrees when the stake is pulled on. A buried clog can serve as earth anchor as well.


Traps should be sized according to the animal you intend to catch. Metal traps are numbered from 0 to whatever the manufacture decides to use. Lower numbers for smaller and larger numbers for larger animals. One size of trap may work for several species and its often that while trapping for one animal you will catch another one. For food or fur this could be a better catch than what the trap was intended to catch. Many times one trap will catch similar types of animals as well. For example when trapping for beaver you might catch otter, mink, muskrat etc. When trapping for coyotes you might catch fox or wolf. When trapping for raccoon you might catch mink, weasel or skunk. And when trapping for bear you might catch a human!  Some traps and trap setups discriminate more than others depending on size, kind and placement etc. By the way its illegal to trap game as large as bear or deer in Arkansas and probably most states.


Traps should  be baited based on the species you intend to trap. Some species such as skunks like tainted (rotted) bait. While others like the cats prefer fresh meat. Fish rotted or otherwise is good bait for coons and bear and other critters. Salmon, sardines and about any fish can work. Bait is not always placed on the pan or trap. Sometimes its placed beyond the trap so that the animal must cross the trap in order to reach the bait. Sometimes it is hung in the air or nailed to a tree. In most cases its best to tie the bait to something so that the animal must struggle with it in order to try to obtain it. In doing so the odds are greater that they trip the trigger. One can trap without bait or with only decoy scents. Or you can use decoy scents and bait in combination.  In the case of no bait usually the trap is placed in a path so that the animal in its normal routine steps on or enters the trap. In the case of decoy scent the animal may be curious and try to sniff the scent thereby stepping on the trap. In some cases vegetable is a better bait. Honey comb for bears. Apple, carrot, cabbage for rabbits. Seeds for birds and squirrels. Young shoots or sticks of certain species of trees for beaver.

In many cases with certain kinds of traps it would be good to lift the prey off the ground high enough that nothing but you can get to it. This keeps other animals from eating it and tearing the hide. A spring pole is a green sapling or small tree where the main trunk/branch is bent over almost a full 180 degrees. It should be large enough and strong enough to lift the weight of the prey and the trap off the ground to the desired height. A test could be performed using a sand bag of appropriate weight. Have the trap lift the sand bag as a test. A balance pole is tree trunk or log long where the heavy end is placed beyond a fork in another tree such that when the trigger is released its weight lifts the opposite end via leverage off the ground. Think of the play ground seesaw, fulcrum and lever. A weight such as a sand bag or heavy piece of log or stone could be tied and lifted over a tree limb as a counter balance such that when the trigger is tripped it pulls the prey off the ground to the desired height before hitting the ground itself. Another interesting fish trap that is spring loaded that lifts the fish out of the water is a fishing yoyo. And don’t forget any of these methods could be used to catch and lift fish out of the water.

There are different kinds of triggers and they are difficult to describe in text. “Figure Four” is a common type in setting up deadfalls but there are more types for deadfalls. If using a nail as part of the trigger it should be a finishing type nail or headless. Triggers can be made to trip more easily or less easily depending on how you make them. Ever heard of hair trigger? Like many things this is probably a matter of balance when tweaking the trigger. Not too light a force or heavy a force needed to trip the trigger. Learn some basic types of triggers and then begin learning on variants. In the case of some types snares and deadfalls small nails and fencing staples can come in handy. Your spring poles, balance poles and weights also come in handy as a force applied to the trigger to keep it set. In the metal traps a spring force is applied to the trigger. Just like when the trigger on a gun is depressed causes the gun to action, same for traps. Guns have springs that direct a firing pin or hammer. In the case of the traps the victim is the one depressing the trigger.

The next in this series will be on tracking and and more on trapping.


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      2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute's warning.
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