How to Trap Small Game – The Basics
Trapping small game animals is a great way to put meat in the pot without lots of effort. Unlike hunting, traps work best when you aren’t around.
You set the trap and go off to do other things, then come back to find your meal waiting. In a survival situation, trapping offers the best return of calories brought in for calories expended.
How do you set traps to catch small game? You trap small game by putting traps in places where the animals will easily find them, then using bait to entice the animal into the trap. The keys to successful trapping are trap placement, trap concealment, and trap baiting.
Trapping animals is a skill. You can learn the basics by reading, but you need practice to get good at it.
Learning how to trap is an important part of preparing for disasters. You don’t want to start learning to trap in a life-and-death situation.
Understanding animal habits and patterns is the most important part of trapping. Once you can predict where small game will go, any kind of trap will work to catch food.
Start learning this skill now so you will be ready when the time comes.
The skills you need to learn are:
- Identify what species are available to trap in your area
- Map out where the animals spend their time and how they travel between areas
- Find the best locations for trap sets
- Identify baits that will work when and where you are trapping
- Set traps and follow up daily
Table of Contents
We often talk about “small game” as if all small mammal species were the same, but they are not.
You will have the greatest success if your traps are targeted at one or two species instead of just trying to catch anything that passes by.
Baits, locations, and even trap sizes need to be adjusted based on what animal you are trying to target.
All small mammals in North America are safe to eat, although some taste better than others.
If you are relying on small game as a food source, target species that are common in your area, good to eat, and large enough to be worth processing. Some species that are easy to trap, good to eat, and common are:
- Cottontail Rabbits, Jackrabbits, and Snowshoe Hares
- Racoons and opossums
- Nutria (in some areas)
You can also target smaller species, such as mice, rats, and chipmunks. These animals don’t offer as much bang for the buck, though – you will be better off targeting larger animals.
(Unless you really in a life-or-death situation where starvation is a possibility – then you should eat whatever you can.)
Carnivores like foxes, coyotes, and bobcats are frequent target species for fur trappers. You can also target these animals as a food source.
They tend to be smarter and more trap-shy than herbivores, so you will need to work harder to catch them. They also have a reputation for tasting awful, although some people dispute that:
To pinpoint what species to target, walk slowly through the area you want to trap and look for animal signs. Tracks, trails, dens, evidence of feeding, and scat are indicators of what species can be trapped.
Look closely at what food sources are available, where there are trails in the vegetation, and other indicators of animal use.
Map Out Habitat
Once you know what you are trying to catch, you need to establish what pattern the animals use each day.
Animals will use two kinds of locations each day: feeding areas and bedding areas. They will travel between these areas along predictable routes each day.
Once you find one kind of area, think about how the animal will provide the other needs. Find the other areas it uses, then identify trails between them.
Understand the preferred food sources for your target game. Rabbits and groundhogs like green vegetation, especially tender plants like clover. Squirrels target nuts in the fall, but like fruit and berries in the spring and summer.
Muskrats and nutria eat aquatic vegetation, often on platforms the make from mud and vegetation. Beavers eat tree bark – their feeding leaves the most obvious signs of feeding.
Raccoons and opossums eat nearly everything, but often favor the edge of water for foraging.
Look for rabbit beds in brush or next to large clumps of grass. Raccoons, opossums, and squirrels sleep in hollow trees.
Muskrats and beavers build lodges in standing water. Muskrats and nutria burrow into mud banks next to water. Groundhogs live in large, deep burrows.
Once you know where the animals are eating and where they are sleeping, look for trails between areas. Small game trails will often look almost like tunnels through brush and high vegetation.
They don’t usually run perfectly straight but wind a little back and forth. Spend some time examining trails for tracks, especially in areas with moist soil and little vegetation.
Tracks will confirm what animals are using the trail. This in turn will tell you exactly how to set and bait traps along the trail. As you find trails, look for constricted points where the trail gets tight and the animals can’t deviate much.
Fence crossings, small gaps between large trees, and entrances to thick cover are good points to locate.
Pick Trap Locations
Once you know the travel routes your quarry is using, you can start picking locations for traps. The best places to set traps are the spots where the animal can’t turn or wander off the trail.
You should have identified places on the trail where the animal’s path is limited by trees, brush, large rocks, or fence crossings. These are the spots to put traps.
For any trap to work, the animal has to notice the bait, approach the trap, and spring the trap. Your odds of success increase greatly if the animal must pass by (or over) the trap and has no way to go around.
Knowing where to set traps it the most important part of the process.
You will have even greater chances of success if you can match the trap location and style to what the animal is doing when it encounters the trap. Snares and body grip traps work best when the animal is traveling and pokes its head through the trap.
Deadfalls and leg hold traps are good for catching foraging animals that will approach and engage food sources. Box traps can work in either situation.
Baiting the Traps
Bait will attract the animals to approach the trap and ultimately spring it. Baits are specific to the target species, location, and season.
A bait that racoons can’t resist won’t work for rabbits, nor will a beaver spring a trap baited with squirrel bait. Knowing what species you are targeting is important for successful trapping.
Don’t bait a trap with a food source that is plentiful in your target area. If acorns are everywhere, animals will be eating them.
They won’t go out of their way to grab an acorn from a trap, though, so acorns aren’t a good bait in that situation. Using something different from the immediate habitat is a good plan.
There are a few baits that work for many species. One good all-around bait is peanut butter. Many different species will come to traps baited with peanut butter.
It has a strong smell so it’s easy for the animals to locate. Since it’s made from nuts, it appeals to omnivores and herbivores. The thick consistency of peanut butter means it’s hard for an animal to grab and go – they must get close and really lick at the peanut butter to get it.
Apples and other sweet fruits are also good all-around baits. Many different species are attracted to sweet baits and will come to apples. However, apples lack the very strong smell and pasty consistency that make peanut butter a go-to bait.
Cottontail Rabbits, Jackrabbits, and Snowshoe Hares
Rabbits and hares are herbivores. They are attracted to vegetarian baits. Good choices for baiting rabbits include peanut butter, apples or apple cider, lush vegetables like lettuce and cabbage, and ripe tomatoes.
Alfalfa and commercial rabbit food are also attractive to rabbits if you have access to them.
We all know that squirrels love nuts. Peanut butter or whole peanuts are great baits for squirrels. Other nuts also work well, especially out of nut season. Sweet fruit is also good for squirrels. Overripe fruit is especially good because it has a stronger smell that is attractive to them.
Racoons and Opossums
Racoons and opossums are omnivores – they will eat anything. Peanut butter and fruit are great baits for these two species. Almost any kind of meat or junk food will work, too.
Many racoon trappers swear by marshmallows as racoon bait for their sweet taste and high visibility. Canned cat and dog foods also attract these non-picky eaters.
The king of racoon baits is fish products. Whether it’s a commercial bait made from fish, leftovers from the kitchen, or canned tuna or sardines, racoons can’t resist the smell of fish. This makes fishy stuff a terrific bait for racoon traps.
Another herbivore, groundhogs are attracted to sweets. Apples, cantaloupe, sweet corn, and peaches are all good baits for groundhogs.
Peas, green beans and broccoli also attract groundhogs. They don’t care much for peanut butter, though.
Muskrats and Nutria
Muskrats and nutria live in similar habitats along the edge of ponds and creeks. They also have similar diets, so the same baits work for both. Apples, cantaloupe, carrots, and parsnips work for these critters.
Bait for beavers is a little different than for other species. Apples will sometimes work, but not always. The best bait for beavers is beaver castor, from glands near the base of their tails.
It can be hard for a new trapper to DIY beaver bait, because you have to catch a beaver to get the bait needed to catch a beaver. Beaver castor is commercially available, however.
If you are trying to learn trapping skills, commercial baits are available. These are usually species-specific and contain a wide array of ingredients.
Professional trappers often sell baits as a sideline to their trapping business. These baits are good at attracting animals, but you should also learn how to bait traps with materials on hand. If you are in a survival situation, you won’t be able to order bait.
Unbaited Trap Sets
It is also possible to catch animals in unbaited traps. Snares, body-grip traps, and sometimes box traps can be used without bait. Unbaited sets are placed in the animal’s travel path in a way that they can’t be avoided.
Trappers usually place a few sticks on either side of the trap just to make sure. These traps are set so that the animal places its head in the trap and springs it by traveling through. If you know what you are doing, unbaited sets can be good producers.
There are two approaches to trapping small game: store-bought traps or DIY survival traps. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
It’s good to be familiar with both, though. When things get bad, the more ways you know to catch food, the better off you will be.
Store-bought traps include leg-catch traps, box traps, body-grip traps, and steel cable snares. Check your local laws before you start trapping to make sure that you are in season and the trap you are using is legal in your area.
Pros of store-bought traps:
- They work, so you won’t miss out on catching game because of a trap malfunction. Professional trappers rely on store-bought traps exclusively.
- Commercial traps are easy to set up, so you don’t waste time trying to figure out how they work
- Legal (during trapping seasons) so you can practice now
Cons of store-bought traps:
- Manufactured traps can be expensive
- They can be heavy and hard to transport – especially leg hold and box traps
- You may not have commercial traps available in a survival situation
Commercial traps let you focus on finding game and placing traps rather than building traps and hoping they will work. You can practice your skills before things get bad so that you are ready in a survival situation. They are a good place to start learning to trap.
Types of Store-Bought Traps
There are four main styles of manufactured traps: leg-hold traps; box traps; body-grip traps (also called Conibear traps after the inventor); and steel wire or cable snares. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
These traps are the classic snap traps that you see in cartoons (minus the teeth – those are illegal now). Leg-hold traps come in a wide variety of sizes depending on the game you are targeting.
For beavers, use a #3, #4, or #5 size. The other animals listed are best caught with a #1, #1-1/2, or #2. The classic leg-hold set is the flat set. To build a flat set:
- Find a spot along the trail where the target animal can only approach from one direction. Make sure there is a tree, rock, log, or other backing behind the set to control the approach.
- Dig a shallow hole three to six inches away from the backing. The hole should be just big enough to hold the trap.
- Stake the trap chain down in the bottom of the hole.
- Set the trap and place a small sheet of plastic over the pan to keep dirt from getting under it. Sandwich bags work well for this.
- Carefully sift soil over the trap, then place a little loose vegetation over that. The trap should be completely hidden.
- Place the bait behind the trap next to the backing. The animal will have to step on the trap to investigate the bait.
Box traps are wooden or wire boxes with a trigger inside. These traps have a door that snaps closed after the animal enters.
There aren’t standard sizes for box traps, but you should buy (or build) a trap large enough for the animal you are targeting. The steps to setting a box trap are:
- Place the trap along the animal’s line of travel. If you have a two-door trap, you can put it into a choke point on the trail and make catches without bait.
- For groundhogs, muskrats, and other burrowing animals, you can put the trap outside the burrow so the animal goes straight from hole to trap.
- Put some bait at the back of the trap, behind (or even under) the trigger plate
- Use some vegetation to disguise the trap so the animal can’t see the metal.
Body-grip traps look like two squares of steel rod held together by a pair of springs. Body-grip traps require the prey animal to place its head into the trap to trigger it.
The squares snap closed quickly around the animal’s neck, breaking its neck and killing it instantly. Don’t set these traps in areas where you might accidentally catch domestic animals.
The standard sizes for body-grip traps are #110, for rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats; #220, for racoons, opossums, and groundhogs; and #330 for beaver and other large furbearers.
To set body-grip traps, place the trap in a constricted place along the trail where the animal will have to pass through the trap.
Among the oldest types of traps are snares. Snares are just loops of cord or cable suspended in a place where the animal will put its head through the loop.
Some snare sets use tension from a bent tree or branch, while modern snares use a locking mechanism that slides only one direction.
Commercial snares are made with steel wire or cable now, but they have been made from all kinds of rope and twine throughout history. Steel cable snares are the lightest and easiest traps to carry with you.
Commercial snares come in different weights for different animals. Most snares are packaged using the name of the animals they are intended to catch. You can also make your own snares from paracord or other kinds of cord.
Snare sets are similar to body-grip sets; the snare loop is propped open in a tight place on the trail just a little above the ground.
The other end of the snare line is tied to a tree, post, or other sturdy anchor point. When the animal passes through, the loop pulls tight and captures the animal.
Commercial snares use a locking mechanism that won’t release the animal after it has been pulled tight.
Do-it-yourself traps are also good for catching small game. These trap designs are ancient and have brought home the bacon since prehistoric times. DIY traps include deadfalls and homemade snares.
They can be made with materials picked up from the environment around you, so you are always able to catch food.
Pros of DIY traps:
- They are cheap or free. Some require a bit of paracord; others are made of rocks and sticks.
- DIY traps can be made any time or place. Even if you don’t have your survival supplies or bugout bag, you can still make these traps.
- Use everyday materials you already have – no need to go shopping before you go trapping
- You must to learn how to build the trap and make it work. Some of these designs are tricky to build.
- Scrounged / repurposed materials less reliable than manufactured. Trap failure is much more likely with a trap made from natural materials on the spot than a manufactured item.
- These traps are harder to practice with – they may not be legal to use in your area, so you don’t have as much time to prepare.
Do-it-yourself traps are great in a survival situation. As long as you have your wits and a knife, you can build these traps. However, there is a reason that the pros don’t use DIY traps – they can be finicky to build and set.
Snares can be made from Paracord or from other types of cord that are strong enough to restrain an animal, but flexible enough to close around the animal’s neck. Tie a bowline knot in one end of the line, then pull the line through to make a loop. That’s all you need to build a snare.
To set a homemade snare, you have to do a little more work than with a commercial one.
Since paracord is loose and floppy, you need tension on the line to keep it tight and keep the animal captured. DIY snares require a spring pole for tension.
The spring pole can be a sapling or a flexible branch from a big tree. You need to be able to bend it down, then have it spring up later. To set a homemade snare:
- Find a suitable branch or tree along a trail
- Carve a trigger stake and a trigger peg from wood. The stake will have a notch facing down, while the peg will have a notch facing up. These two notches should lock against each other while under tension.
- Drive the trigger stake into the ground below the spring pole.
- Tie the snare line to the spring pole
- Pull the spring pole down to put tension on it. Tie the trigger peg to the line and hook the trigger peg to the trigger stake. The peg should catch against the stake and hold the line tight.
- Place the loop of the snare into the trail as with a commercial snare.
- When the animal enters the snare and moves the trigger peg, the spring pole will pop back up and keep the line tight.
Figure Four Deadfall
Deadfall traps are just a big rock or log propped up on a trigger. If you have a knife, you can find everything else you need to build a deadfall in the wild. There are a variety of different trigger designs for these traps.
One of the most popular is the figure four trigger. It got its name because it looks like the number 4, with a post, a diagonal, and a crossbar.
To set a figure four deadfall:
- Find a large flat rock or log. Place is along a trail or near a food source. It is best if the deadfall is built on top of another flat rock, or at least hard ground. The trap won’t work if you build it on sandy or soft ground.
- Start with the post. It should be sturdy enough to prop up the deadfall. Carve a notch in the side of the post to barely hold the horizontal trigger.
- Carve a notch on the top of the trigger that has a flat end and a second notch where the trigger crosses the post.
- Carve a sharp, flat point on the diagonal and a notch where it rests on the post.
- When complete, the deadfall rests on one end of the diagonal, which in turn rests on the post. The other end of the diagonal pulls against the trigger, which pulls against the post. Everything is in tension so that disturbing the trigger causes the whole thing to collapse.
- Place bait on the end of the trigger under the deadfall. When the animal tries to take the bait, the trigger lets go and the rock collapses on the animal.
Another kind of deadfall trap trigger is the Paiute deadfall. This trap was invented by the Paiute Indians of the Great Basin region of the western US.
Like the figure 4, it uses a trigger to hold up a heavy rock or log that will fall on the target species.
There are five parts to the Paiute deadfall trigger: a post, a diagonal lever stick, a string, a peg, and a trigger stick. Follow these steps to create a Paiute deadfall:
- Carve a flat point on the end of the post stick. This will be the opposite of a V – two sides slope together to make a single line at the tip.
- Carve a V shaped notch near the center of the lever stick to rest on the post.
- Tie the string around one end of the lever stick.
- Stand the post stick up with the point up.
- Put the V of the lever stick on the point of the post.
- Lean the weight against the end of the lever stick that does not have string attached.
- Pull the string from the other (non-weighted) end of the lever stick and run it behind the post. Tie The peg to the other end.
- Wrap the string around the back of the post and put the peg across the front of the post.
- The string should put pressure on the pet so that it tries to spin around the post.
- The trigger stick runs from the end of the peg that will spin toward the weight, to the weight.
- The bait goes on the end of the trigger stick against the weight.
Here’s how the trap works:
- The weight of the stone pushes one end of the diagonal down and the other up.
- The end of the diagonal that goes up pulls the string forward, away from the weight.
- The string pulls the peg so that it spins around the post.
- The trigger stick runs from one end of the peg to the weight. The peg pushes the trigger into the weight.
- When the trigger is touched, it releases everything and the stone falls on the prey.
A classic DIY trap is the pit trap. These have been used to catch just about everything that walks, including tigers. A pit trap is just a hole in the ground with a light, thin covering over the top.
The animal starts to walk across the pit, the covering gives way, and the animal is trapped in the bottom of a hole. You can hang bait over the center of the trap to attract animals, or just place the pit in a known trail.
Tips for making a pit trap:
- Make sure the target species can’t escape. The pit should be deep enough that the animal can’t jump out. For climbing animals, make the bottom of the hole wider than the top so the animal can’t climb up the sides to safety.
- You can make pit traps for large animals as well as small ones.
- Try to make the covering match the surroundings as much as possible so the pit isn’t noticeable.
Fish and Bird Traps
Traps work on more than just small mammals. You can also make traps to catch fish and small birds. Fish and bird traps share a similar design. Both consist of a large cage with one or more funnels that feed into the trap.
The target animals can go in through the funnel but aren’t smart enough to escape back out through it. These traps work best to catch large numbers of small fish or birds.
The best traps for small birds are wire cages with a funnel that guides the birds in. These traps work to catch ground-feeding birds. Once the trap is built, you place it in an area where birds often feed.
Bait the trap with birdseed or another grain that birds like. The birds will come to the area, hop through the funnel into the cage, and won’t be able to find their way back out of the funnel.
Fish traps work just like bird traps, but under water. You can make fish traps from wire, or from a clear plastic tub. Fish traps can be baited with bread, corn, or other fish attractants.
Wire funnel traps also work in rivers or streams where the current pushes the fish into a predictable swim path. Place the trap with the funnel facing into the current and the fish will come in without bait.
You can also make permanent fish traps in large bodies of water. Permanent traps use stone walls or posts set closely together to make a holding area for the fish.
These traps are heart-shaped with a funnel leading into the pen. There is a small opening at the point of the funnel near the middle of the trap. Like the wire trap, this lets fish swim in but not escape.
If you build a fish trap in water with a current, the water flow should flow into the mouth of the funnel. This pushes fish into the funnel and helps keep them from escaping.
Permanent traps need to be baited in still water, but you can simply rely on the current in rivers and streams.
General Trapping Tips
There are some universal principles that apply to any kind of trap. Once you learn the basics, you will be much more successful regardless of what kind of trap you use.
- Know the country. The more you understand where dens, feeding areas, and trails are, the more successful your traps will be.
- Know the target. Knowing the habits of your target animal will help you really focus your attention on the right trails and habitats.
- Control scent. Wear rubber boots and gloves if you can. This keeps the human scent off the trap and bait, making it less likely to scare the prey. Some trappers even use a small tarp to kneel on when setting the trap to keep all traces of smell away.
- Check your traps every day once they are set. Since most small game is nocturnal, mornings are the best time to check. Some states set a maximum amount of time the trap can be left alone.
- Know the game laws for trapping in your state. The laws won’t matter in a crisis, but they do apply while you are learning to trap.
- Practice, practice, practice. Trapping is a skill, and the more you use it, the better you get. Remember: in a crisis, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to your level of preparation.
Whether you decide to use store-bought traps or make your own, trapping is a great way to get outside, explore nature, and put meat on the table.
Are you using traps and snares? Share your tips in the comments section below, and be sure to pin this to Pinterest for later!