If you found yourself in a tough spot in the wild, imagine how comforting it would be to have some tasty food set aside (for both calories and morale). Even though you could last for many weeks without food—provided you have met your shelter and water needs—in a survival setting, you can never overestimate the power of food.
Coming from a culture that eats three big meals a day, plus snacks, few of us would fare well in an emergency without food. We don’t have to find out how hard that would be either. By squirreling away some meals and snacks, there’s no need to see how far you can go before your buddy starts looking delicious.
What Do We Really Need?
If it just came down to raw calories, a bucket of white sugar would do the trick as survival food (since a pound of granulated sugar provides 1,540 calories and lasts indefinitely). Sure, this tooth-rotting sweetness would provide quick energy, but what we really need is a blend of protein, fat, and carbs—giving us enough calories to do the workload that survival throws our way. There are many foods that can fit these criteria, but there are a few extra requirements that I like “survival chow” to have. To make the cut in my book, survival food should have:
- A long shelf life.
- Plenty of calories, with a broad range of macro and micronutrients.
- The ability to eat it without elaborate preparation.
- The ability to eat it right out of the package, even while walking.
- We’ll start off with food that fits in your pocket and pack, then finish with food that you could store off the grid.
9. Trail Mix
Nutrient-dense and lightweight, people have been using nuts and dried fruit as traveling food since ancient times. Today, we have a mind-boggling variety of prepackaged trail mixes and similar snacks—most of which provide good nutrition right out of the bag. There’s just one major problem with this food, a short shelf life. Most trail mixes contain nuts, and nuts contain a lot of unrefined fat. This fat can go rancid in just a few months, ruining the flavor and potentially causing GI distress. If you don’t mind rotating your stocks every few months, trail mix can be a viable survival food that you can eat by the handful. However, this food would be unlikely to work as long-term-storage food.
Nutritional Summary: Your typical trail mix that’s loaded with peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms, is also loaded with sugar. A healthier blend focusing on various nuts and seeds will generally provide more protein, vitamins, and minerals. One cup of your typical trail mix will provide 700 calories and 40 percent of your daily protein requirement, in addition to potassium, calcium, iron, vitamin B-6, and magnesium. Most trail mixes last three to nine months before going rancid (two to three months in hot weather).
A globally known food, we get our name for this traditional treat from the Quechua word “ch’arki”, which means – you guessed it – “jerky.” The art of turning meat into this dehydrated heritage food has spanned across many cultures, likely going back to our earliest days, and it’s still a common global food today. One delicious example is biltong, an African jerky made with sun-dried meat that has been brined in spices, sugar, and vinegar. The spices not only add great flavor, the traditional ingredient, coriander, is proven to be antimicrobial against 12 common bacteria species that can cause food poisoning. Whether you make your jerky at home and package it for long storage, or you buy some tasty bags at the store – jerky is a great survival food for the pocket, pack, and campsite. When I’ve run out of my beloved homemade jerky (aka “meat candy”), I’ve been very happy with the Krave line of jerky products. Whichever way you go, make sure you rotate it out often, as this is one of the shorte-lived products on our list.
Nutritional Summary: This food is loaded with protein and sodium with a little bit of iron, but it’s unfortunately low in fat, carbs, and most micronutrients. You couldn’t live off of jerky forever. The calories in jerky will vary, based on the type of meat used and any sugars added, but one ounce of jerky is usually around 80 calories. You can expect jerky to last six months or more in cold weather.
7. New Millennium Bars
Hard and oily, these overgrown shortbread bars may not look like much when you first tear open the hermetically sealed package (it takes some effort to open them), but bite off a little corner and give them a taste. Most of my survival students raise their eyebrows in mild surprise and say something along the lines of “not bad” when I ask how they like it. New Millennium Energy Bars are a great survival food for any situation or storage mode. Their five-year shelf life allows them to go into a cache, with only twice a decade rotation. Their packaging is tough enough to handle the wear and tear of pocket travel or being in a survival kit. And they don’t taste bad either. With nine flavors to choose from, including tropical fruit, raspberry, orange, lemon, cherry, apricot, and several others, there’s one for almost every palate.
Nutritional Summary: Mostly fat and carbs, with a good supplementation of vitamins and minerals, you could live on these high-calorie bars for a very long time. Each three-ounce bar provides 400 calories. These last for five (or more) years.
6. UST Emergency Food Rations
Even though the words “ration” and “delicious” are generally not considered to be synonyms, these emergency rations may change your mind. These nutritious bricks of goodness aren’t much to look at—and they’re awfully dry—but they do provide some serious nutrition and a palatable flavor. Rated to last five years, these products are essentially giant versions of the New Millennium food bars (and they pre-date those serving size bars). Vacuum-sealed in thick packaging, these bars are rated to last five years, if the packaging isn’t pierced or damaged. The plentiful carbs and fat are the main players in this nourishing food, but keep in mind that the bars do sit heavy in the stomach. This particular product is apple cinnamon flavored, with a similar texture to shortbread cookies. However, the texture is rock hard, so folks with sensitive teeth or dental issues should beware. They are also very dry, so allow extra water to digest these rations.
Nutritional Summary: These 18-ounce packages are segmented into three-ounce blocks, each one providing 400 calories, and 100 percent of your daily allowance of 17 vitamins and minerals. I’m eating some now that are four years old, which are no worse for the wear. I expect them to exceed their five-year expiration date if kept in a cold place and the packaging isn’t battered.
5. Canned Goods
If that can of Dinty Moore beef stew is your idea of a survival food stash, you’re not alone. People have been stocking up on canned goods for over a century. Their weight is their main drawback, as the foods include their normal amount of water. When this water content is high (like a soup or stew), the cans are also vulnerable to bursting if they freeze solid. Yet even with these problems, canned goods have some real advantages. First, they are insect and rodent proof. A hungry mouse can tear right through the packaging on most of the foods in this list, but not the canned food. Second, this food is cheaper than most of the other choices here. Depending on the brand and entrée, you might get your food for less than a dollar per can. Third, this food can outlast jerky, trail mix, and many other “grocery store” foods.
Canned goods have a “best by” date that is usually 18 to 24 months away from the production date, though most canned goods are capable of lasting five to 10 years. Just make sure you get a diverse assortment of canned foods and read the labels for calorie content. The higher, the better. As a fourth benefit, the food is ready to eat right out of the can. Finally, don’t ever use cans that are swollen, leaking, or otherwise suspicious. Suffering the paralysis of botulism is the last thing you need in an emergency setting. Never suitable for the survival kit or bug out bag, canned goods are well-suited for cool, dry, dark locations that stay above freezing.
Nutritional Summary: Depending on your product choice, canned goods may provide all kinds of macro and micronutrients, with the notable exception of vitamin C. The high heat used in the canning process will destroy most or all of the vitamin C that the food once had. Canned goods will last for at least five years, on average.
4. MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)
These meals-in-a-pouch are almost synonymous with survival rations, and you can’t hit a gun show without stumbling over a few old cases that people are trying to unload. The menu line has come a long way in the past few decades. Rather than every other pouch being a pork slice in a bag, MREs now offer a wide range of entrées and snacks that reflect the changing tastes of today’s armed forces. There are plenty of pros and cons with these meals. They are ready to eat and last over five years when kept in stable, cool temperatures. Yet they are vulnerable to rodents, and break down quickly in hot weather. There’s also a lot of trash left over when you’re done with your meal. More trash, in fact, than any other product or food type listed here. Even so, thanks to their utility, variety, and familiarity, MREs will probably always hold a spot in our framework of survival foods.
Nutritional Summary: MREs are fortified with vitamins and minerals, providing a good range of macro and micronutrients. The average meal kit contains roughly 1400 calories, so two MREs per day should supply an adult with all the calories they need for a day of chores. MREs last for five years under ideal storage, a few years with fluctuating temperatures, and only a few months in high heat (like in your vehicle during the summer).
3. Dry Goods
This was the survival food of our ancestors, and it can still feed us well today—for cheap. Here’s the problem though, you’ll have to know (or learn) how to cook from scratch. Staple foods like pasta, rice, flour, dried beans, and sugar are easy to store and very affordable. Yes, you’ll need plenty of water to prepare the foods, but the best staple foods only require boiling to prepare. From the right supply company, you can purchase these foods pre-packed in plastic buckets with Mylar liners or in metal cans. These should all include oxygen absorbers inside, which will draw out oxygen and create a vacuum in the food container—allowing surprising longevity of the food (30 years or more, under ideal storage) with no significant nutrient loss. You can save even more money by purchasing your own dry goods, Mylar bags, and oxygen absorbers in bulk, then packaging the food yourself. In general, a five-gallon bucket usually holds over 30 pounds of dry goods, which contains more than 40,000 calories.
Nutritional Summary: Dry goods are generally low in fat and lacking in various vitamins and minerals (unless “enriched” or fortified). Their calories will vary a lot, depending on the type of food, but you can generally calculate the worth of starchy or sugary dry goods (like rice, pasta, flour, or sugar) at 100 calories per ounce. Properly packaged, they can last for decades.
2. Freeze Dried Pouches
Mountain House and many other companies provide a wide selection of freeze-dried meals and food items. These are even more expensive than MRE’s, but they may last up to six times longer than MREs. Freeze-dried foods generally require hot water to prepare, and they are as bulky as MRE’s (yet without the weight). They are a lightweight addition to your backpack, but their greatest asset is shelf life. Mountain house recently pushed back their old “25-year shelf life” rating to 30 years, which is a lot longer than we’ll ever need them to last. Just make sure these are in a metal box to block rodents if you’re storing them in a fixed location.
Nutritional Summary: Thanks to the magic of freeze-drying, the vitamins, minerals, and flavor remain intact for this type of food storage. Count your calories though, and ignore the “suggested serving size” on the package. You’ll probably need four pouches per day to reach your daily caloric needs. But the best part is that you won’t need to rotate these products very often, with their 30-year shelf life.
1. Freeze Dried Cans
These are the cream of the crop. My number one recommendation for survival food is freeze-dried food in metal cans. These are too bulky to go in a bug out bag, and they do require boiling water to prepare correctly—but other than that—they are amazing. You’ll never have to worry about bugs getting into them, and anything smaller than a New York City rat won’t be able to gnaw through the can. With a 30-year shelf life and great tasting menu options, you can’t go wrong.
Nutritional Summary: Similar to the freeze-dried pouches, the vitamin and mineral content of the food is locked in for a good long while. Entrées are available in cans, as well as ingredient items and many specialty products. Need some freeze-dried ground beef to make a pot of chili, they’ve got it. Want to treat yourself to the luxury of steaks and salmon? They’ve got that too—but try not to faint when you see the price tag. The entrées typically boast 10 servings in a #10 can, but read the label and do some math. You’ll find that the cans only contain about 2000 calories each, so it’s not 10 “real people” servings, is it? Still, the products are rodent-proof, freeze-proof, and rated to last three decades or more. They even taste pretty good, on average.