Life Skills

There are some skill sets that were valuable back in the pre-industrial world and could be very useful indeed in a post-industrial world, or just if you like having fun and collecting useful stuff and honestly free-range edibles in the great outdoors.  In this series, we’ll take a look at some of those skills.  Disclaimer:  In these articles I’m presenting a thumbnail view of activities one can spend decades learning.  More reading and practical experience is (and will be) recommended.

Incidentally, I think this series should be expanded – any Glibs who have any useful skills in any area, please share!

Advantages of Trapping

If you’re after meat and other usable items (hides, fur) the trapping has several advantages over hunting:

  • When you hunt, if you use a round of ammo to take a game animal, it’s gone.  If you use archery tackle, well, arrows likewise don’t last forever; friends who bow-hunt tell me that an arrow is good for two, three uses on big-game animals.  But traps and snare wire can be used over and over.
  • While traplines have to be checked and maintained (the accepted term for this is “running the trapline” at least once daily, the advantage here is that the traps are out there working 24 hours a day; if you hunt, the game harvesting can only take place with you actively engaged.
  • A trap doesn’t make noise.  Neither does an arrow, true, but even a .22 rifle can be heard for some distance.
  • So, you don’t have a string of traps or a supply of snare wire?  No problem.  You can improvise a trap in lots of ways.

So, let’s take a look at traps and trapping.

Types of Traps

There are three main types of purchased traps used on lines these days; I’ve used all three back in the day when I was actively trapping.  I still have my traps and wire and may look into trapping again in the Great Land, but more on that if and when.  The three types or purchased traps are leghold traps, killer traps, and snares.  There are a few others, but these are the ones that are most widely available and are in most widespread use.

Then there are the improvised traps – things like deadfalls and spike pits.  We’ll talk about those as well.

Leg hold traps

Leg hold traps are just what they sound like – traps that catch an animal’s leg and hold it.  These are the most common types of traps used by fur trappers, even today.

These traps are routinely derided as inhumane, and there’s little doubt that they can cause an animal some distress.  But, properly used, these traps won’t break bones or tear flesh; unlike the portrayals in cartoons and bad TV, they don’t have “teeth,” except for the very largest examples used to trap animals like bears and tigers.  They catch and hold, as a broken leg would enable the animal to simply twist free and get away.  I’ve personally found racoons in a hole set actually curled up asleep with a trap on a front paw.

The key is using the right-sized trap for your quarry, and we’ll talk about that.

These traps come in several variations.  While the main functionary part – the jaws – are pretty much the same across the range, the difference lies in the spring used to operate the jaws.  There are a few varieties:

  • Long-spring traps, which have one or two long flat springs on one or both sides of the trap.
  • Coil-spring traps, which have one or two coil springs underneath the trap.
  • Flat-spring or “jump” traps, which have a flat spring under the trap that, when triggered, propels the trap upward to get a grip higher on the animal’s leg. As far as I’m aware this type is no longer manufactured.

Leg hold traps are assigned sizes by their manufacturer, generally from 1 through 4, but the actual jaw spread varies some from manufacturer to manufacturer.  In general, a #1 or #1 ½ trap is good for muskrat or mink sized animals, #2 for fox and raccoon, #3 for coyote, and #4 for beaver or wolf.

There are disadvantages in a trap which captures an animal alive, as the animal does suffer some distress and some will attempt to free themselves by chewing off a leg, leaving them crippled.  But there are other alternatives; some traps are designed to kill an animal instantly.

Killer (Conibear) traps

The best-known killer trap was originally made by Conibear, but the type has become so ubiquitous that “Conibear” has become a generic term for a body-gripping killer trap.  These traps consist of a pair of square loops of heavy steel wire with springs on either side that, when tripped, snap shut on an animal’s neck or body, killing by crushing and/or strangulation.

No, it’s not pretty, but it works.

Possible suffering of animals caught in leg hold traps aside, the Conibear type trap does have some advantages.  It’s ideal for trail and cubby sets (more on that later), and there’s essentially zero chance of an animal chewing or twisting free and escaping.  Animals caught in these kinds of traps are slightly more prone to being scavenged by other animals, though; a live, otherwise healthy boar raccoon or coyote in a trap is far less likely to be scavenged than a dead critter.

These are not, however, the only traps designed to kill rather than capture.  One of the other killing setups has a long, long history.


A snare is one of the simplest forms of trap – just a loop of cord or wire, set in a place where an animal will enter the loop, with some mechanism to tighten the loop around the animal, either capturing the animal or, when properly set, killing by strangulation or suffocation.

The key to the snare is the mechanism to tighten the loop.  In wire snares, this is done by a little gizmo of sheet metal called the “running eye,” which allows the loop to tighten but not loosen, so as the animal pulls, the loop will get tighter and tighter until the animal dies.  Yes, I realize that sounds awful, but the process is usually pretty quick.  In cord snares, a loop knot can function as a running eye; or you can rig the snare so that a falling weight or a springy tree branch can trigger to yank the animal off the ground, like a felon on a gibbet.  Either way works, although the second requires a trigger mechanism, which generally has to be made on the spot.  Which brings us to:

Improvised traps

There are as many of these as there have been trappers with bright ideas, but the most common one is probably the deadfall trap.  This trap has a few big advantages:

  • It can be set up with no tools other than a pocketknife.
  • They kill instantly, reducing the chance of an escape or a crippled animal.
  • They tend to cover the trapped animal, reducing the chance of a scavenger stealing your quarry.
  • They scale up.

These traps were well-known and commonly used long before Arnold Schwarzenegger improvised one to kill a Predator.  The design is simple:  A very heavy object, suspended in the air or propped up on one end, held in place by a trigger mechanism, with some kind of bait to entice the animal to trip the trigger and be crushed by the heavy object.  Said heavy object might be a large rock, a section of tree trunk, or almost anything.  The origins of this kind of trap are lost in the mists of time, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.

Anyone who has ever seen a Vietnam war flick is familiar with the stake pit trap, which is simply a pit with sharpened stakes planted in the bottom and some sort of flimsy, concealing cover.  Not only is this simple and requiring few tools, like the deadfall it scales up very readily; the downside is that there is a great deal of work involved in digging a pit big enough for a deer, bear, or other big game.

The real trick to trapping, of course, is how to place the trap for maximum success, which leads to our next topic.

Types of Sets

First, a bit of trapper lingo:  The method of employing a trap, specifically, where and how the trap is laid and what measures are taken to conceal the trap and entice an animal into it, is called a “set.”  So, let’s talk about a few basic types of sets.

Dirt Hole sets

Dirt hole sets are pretty simple.  It’s just a concealed trap, on one side of a small hole containing bait, with the surroundings arranged to guide the animal over/through the trap as it tries to take the bait.  These can be very effective for animals prone to scavenging, like raccoons and coyotes.  Using a scent bait (like anise for muskrats or castoreum for beaver) they can work on other furbearers, although there are better ways to take those animals.

Cubby sets

A cubby is pretty simple; it’s an enclosure, designed to blend in with the environment, with a bait inside and a single opening through which the animal has to pass over or through a trap.  Back in the day I used these sets a lot for raccoons, as they are inveterate foragers who will not shy away from entering an enclosed space.  I took a few gray foxes with these sets, but the only red foxes I ever caught were in the aforementioned dirt hole sets, for reasons I was never able to ascertain.

Drowning sets

For aquatic animals like muskrat, beaver, mink, and otter, drowning sets work well as they kill fairly quickly and shield the caught animal from many scavengers.  The key to a drowning set is that the trap is set on the bank near deep water, and when an animal is caught, either a weight or a drowning stick (see illustration) ensures that when the animal dives, it can’t resurface.

Trail sets

Trail sets work best with Conibear traps or snares, where you can place the trap or the snare loop at about head height for your intended quarry and encompassing the trail.  Leghold traps can be placed in a small depression in the trail and covered with leaves or a very light layer of soil, but any disturbance of the trail will make many animals suspicious; concealing the trap or snare is vital here.

Trap preparation

Traps can’t be used as sold; the smell of metal and oil, not to mention the shiny steel, will make them too detectable.

Most folks boil their traps in a dye bath, rendering them black or dark brown.  This takes the shine off the metal and makes them more concealable.  Then, traps should be dipped in a wax bath for lubrication and protection against rust.  I used to boil my traps in an old oil barrel, but at this distance in time I don’t remember what I used to color them.  I’ll have to look into that when I start the hobby up again in the Great Land.

The purpose of preparing traps thusly is simple:  It reduces the chance of the trap being detected by the target animal, by making the trap less likely to be seen or smelled.

Running the Line

Another bit of trapper lingo:  Checking, maintaining, and collecting from your traps is known as “running the trapline.”  (Personally, I always just “walked” mine, but whatever.)  Ideally this should be done twice a day, although (especially in cold weather) once a day will work; bear in mind that this leaves more time for scavengers to raid your line.  Raccoons, minks, weasels, and their relatives will form the habit of following your line and scavenging the trapped animals, robbing you of fur and food.  The more often you check the line, the less chance there is of this happening.

When running the line, besides collecting your take, you’ll want to examine each set for interference, replace baits as necessary, and remove traps from sets that aren’t collecting for movement to some other site.

As for where to place your sets, well, that’s the real trick to trapping, and a bit of education that’s beyond the scope of this article, so…

Resources/Further Reading

Recommended reading:

The Trapper’s Bible, by Eustace Hazard Livingston

The Complete Book of Trapping, by Bob Gilsvik

Fur, Fish & Game, a monthly magazine still published by the fourth generation of the family of the magazine’s founder, Arthur Robert Harding.  This is probably the best periodical published for the practical outdoorsman – no flashy ads, no expensive guided celebrity trips, just good common sense, practical advice and regular-folks stories.

In Extremis

When I was a kid back in Allamakee County, trapping was a fun pastime that kept me in pizzas and shotgun shells.  It’s been a long time, but I still have my trap string, and I may take the hobby up again once we’re fully settled in the Great Land.  We’ll see.  But I can see circumstances where it would be handy skill to have.

In a true SHTF situation, trapping can go well beyond the bounds of the recognized, regulated taking of furbearers, which is its primary use today.  A snare that will take a rabbit or a raccoon will scale up to take a deer.  It’s not pretty but it works and could mean the difference between enough venison to feed a family for a few weeks or an empty stomach.  A deadfall can kill a bear if you’ve the strength (or the help) to set up something big enough.  A stake pit can kill damn near anything, but it takes a lot of energy in the setup if it’s big game you’re after.

Fair chase?  Maybe not.  But the basics of trapping small animals scale up pretty well to bigger ones, and if you’re in a situation where starvation is at hand, knowing some basic techniques for trapping might literally be a lifesaver.