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How Does a Deadfall Trap Work?

Wilderness survival sounds extremely exciting and very doable when you are gulping beers with a few friends at someone’s bachelor party. In reality, it’s a matter of life and death – literally. Just take the word ‘survival,’ and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating: You will either survive or not, and if you ever find yourself fighting for survival in the outback/wilderness/veldt, you had better know how a deadfall trap works:

A Deadfall Trap is simply a weight (flat rock or log) balanced carefully on an easily tripped trigger. When a small animal goes for the bait under the weight, the trigger is nudged and drops, causing the weight to fall on the prey, killing or trapping the animal. This deadfall is simple to make.

Wilderness survival presumes you have no rifle or bow of any kind since if you had, you would just hunt for food which is a far cry from fighting for survival.

There are several reasons to find yourself off the grid and needing those survival skills:

  • You go camping or perhaps hiking in a remote area, and your food is lost, spoilt, or stolen by animals
  • You are alone and sustain an injury preventing you from excessive movement
  • Your cabin might be snowed in unexpectedly, leaving you unprepared for a long wait

There are other reasons to find yourself without food or hunting weapons, but regardless of the cause, the fact remains that you will still need to eat, and that certainly means trapping.

Consider the Intended Prey

Setting a trap of any kind should begin with a simple question: “What am I hoping to trap?”

Indeed, you wouldn’t dig a bear-pit for a scrub-hare or similar, but the smaller traps and snares are often incorrectly set regarding the size. A massive rock or log is cumbersome to move, particularly as you should be preserving energy in survival mode, not expending it. Consider a weight around three or four times the weight of your intended prey and use that instead.

Two Go-to Deadfall Traps

  • Promontory Peg – Take a straight twig around four to six inches in length and about the thickness of your baby finger and round off the one end. The longer the twig, the further the log, branch, or rock that we will use as a weight (deadfall) to crush or trap the animal has to fall.

Cut a notch halfway through the stick, one-third from the left. Then, on the opposite side of the stick, cut another notch halfway through, this time one third from the right. These notches should mark the length of the stick or twig into three equal parts.

Hold the left third in one hand and the right third in the other hand and bend downwards until the stick breaks. If this is done correctly, you will end up with two ‘J’-shaped pieces of the twig. If not, you will have to trim the edges, ensuring a flat surface on each of the two pieces.

History Channel’s George Michaud insists this trigger doesn’t work correctly unless the twig is cut with a knife or sharp stone, like flint.

Cut a half-inch off the one flattened section so that when you press the two flattened edges together, there is a half-inch gap and tie thread around the bottom half at the cut. The bottom half is the half with the un-rounded end. You now have the post.

The string’s loose end is tied to a second twig/branch, lying flat on the ground. For want of a better word, this is the base. Take your log, stone, or whatever else you are using as a deadfall, and place it on the string, snug up against the base. The string works best when it is the same length as the deadfall.

Bait the string and then balance the top of the post on its bottom half before resting the deadfall on the rounded post top. Once the prey touches the baited twine, it will dislodge the deadfall, and you can prepare the campfire.

Thread or fishing line might work better than string as they are less visible, but they need to be strong to work efficiently.

  • Paiute – Cut a branch about as thick as an adult woman’s wrist (if you are going for slightly larger game like raccoons, possums, etc.), ensuring that it splits into two smaller branches. You cut these secondary branches off, leaving an inch or two at most and creating a ‘V’ shape, perhaps twelve inches from the other end. These cuts result in a ‘Y’-shaped fulcrum, which is the vertical piece.

Cut a lever stick of similar thickness to the fulcrum, but maybe 20% longer. Round off one end of the lever; cut a notch about as thick as a pencil about 10% from the other end. Cut right around the lever, creating a good gap around which you will tie some string or cordage. Cut the cordage slightly shorter than the lever and tie the other end to a stick (called the ‘toggle) about four inches in length and as thick as your thumb.

Place the rounded end of the lever between the ‘horns’ at the top of the fulcrum, no more than four inches or so past the vertical stick. Bring the base of the lever way down below horizontal to around 45 degrees. Extend the string to the fulcrum, about two inches above the base, and take it (on the toggle) around the fulcrum.  Place the toggle against the fulcrum but below the string leading to the lever.

Place one end of the deadfall on the ground, with the other end resting on the end of the lever. (the end that extends past the ‘horns’ of the fulcrum.) A thin, straight (dry) twig is the trigger, without which the deadfall would not stay up. This trigger rests on the toggle and reaches up to the deadfall, whose weight keeps the trigger from simply falling off the toggle.

Place the bait on the trigger end up against the deadfall before you place the trigger into position; when an animal touches the bait, thus bumping the trigger, the deadfall drops onto the prey.

Premade Deadfall

  • PDF-4 – I’m not sure if PDF is short for Pretty Damn Fast, but it should be! This deadfall trap is made with a combination of 6000 series aluminum, and the pivot points are put together with aircraft-type rivets. The traps are also anodized, and the trap can be set in under three minutes.

Sold in a pack of five lightweight and packable traps, the PDF-4 offers stealth, efficiency, speed, and a humane trapping option due to the quick kill mechanics, and it can also be used for live capture with cage type deadfalls.

When in use, it can be working for you while you engage in other activities and takes up minimal room in your pack, giving you the ability to carry it with you. The design and materials used often result in a clean trap-release, meaning that the trap itself is not caught under the weight as it usually shoots out of the path of the falling weight on release.

This trap is illegal in some states/countries, except for survival (life & death situations), but you can be sure that if you ever need it, you’ll be glad you invested in the pack of five for around U$50.00 or so.

References

Frank Pearmain

As a homesteader, survivalist, and previously a safari guide in Africa, I have extensive bush and wilderness experience. I am passionate about living a self-sufficient, off-grid lifestyle and continuously learn and strive toward that goal!

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