To MRE or not to MRE
Survivalists are pretty avid users of military gear, and for good reason. The military requires people to be in situations where they may be thrown on their own resources for long periods of time, in hostile environments. To many, this is exactly what the survivalist scenario entails. Firearms, camping gear, compasses, optics, clothing, and cutlery from the military were always very popular; but not food. C-rations, and K-rations were notoriously unpopular with civilians and troops alike, for the very simple reason that they were awful. These were field rations, designed for men in areas where mess halls and even field kitchens were not available. A friend of mine, who had served back in the day (Korea), described a C-ration as the following "Imagine the worst, cheapest, off brand can of food from the grocer - like maybe a can of Vienna Sausages, and maybe a can of the lowest grade cheap brand of beans to go with it. That's what C-rations are." So it was basically canned food, like you could get at the local store, only it was canned food provided by the lowest bidder. A full package, containing a days rations, weighed over five pounds. These were theoreticaly replaced, in 1958 (though there were so many stock piled, that they continued to be used until the mid sixties), by the MCI, which was essentially the same thing with small improvements. The MCI was produced until 1980, and completely phased out by 1986.
The one thing held in common, by all field rations since the Civil War, was that they have all been universally detested by the solders who had to eat them. In 1975, the military began to develop a meal based loosely on the old LRP meals of Viet Nam. The new meals would be lighter, taste better, offer more variety, and be healthier than those that they replaced. Initially offered in 12 varieties, the MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) is now available in 24 different selections. In strict military fashion, these meals are made to spec, just like tanks, boots, and ammunition. A MRE needs to contain 1200 calories, be capable of falling 100 feet without bursting (400 feet if by parachute), and have a shelf life of 3.5 years. No meal must weigh more than 18 ounces - some weight only 13. Shelf live does vary, however, according to temperature, as show on the chart below.
The MRE is only considered to be a viable ration, for 21 days, according to the DOD. Though they are a vast improvement over previous rations they are not ideal, and soldiers are still less than enthusiastic about them (though much less so than with the previous rations). One classic nickname is Meals Refused by Ethiopians. Still, as a developing survivalist, and potential user of the MRE, I had to wonder how good (or bad) they really are.
First off, an MRE is an entirely self contained meal - even the heater is included, though you must provide your own water. It will contain an entree, desert, a snack, some sort of carbs (usually crackers, with peanut butter in a separate foil container), a drink mix, and condiments. These are all neatly packaged, and then cased in a very tough outer packaging. Also included is a heater, and a spoon, as well as towelettes.
Preparing the Entree
The entree is designed to be eaten hot, just like a regular meal. To this end, each MRE contains a chemical heater. The heater uses a trivial amount of water , to set two chemicals into solution, where they quickly react, and produce heat. They also produce hydrogen gas. The heater is a plastic pouch into which you place the entree, in a foil wrapping, and the heater element itself, a packet of white quilted paqper containing the heating crystals. You then pour in a small amount of water, up to a predetermined and marked part of the bag. The bag is then folded shut, and placed within the box that contained the entre.
In truth, the entree was not half bad. It reminded me a bit of Dinty Moore beef stew, though there was a strange after taste. Still, it was good enough, and I did enjoy it. Had I been a hungry trooper out in the filed, I would have enjoyed it immensely. On the other hand - 21 days? I don't think I woudl be so happy after three weeks on such a diet.
There are similar meals available by Hormel at the grocery store, probably with similar shelf lives, though they are designed for microwave preparation, rather than heating by chemical heater. I placed it in a bowl, for a better picture, but out in the field it would probably be eaten out of its pouch. Preparation was simple, and the packet does not weigh that much, making this far easier to transport, than the older style rations. The meal was not quite a good as supermarket; but a supermarket meal is not designed for a 3.5 year shelf life, or to be dropped from an airplane or helicopter for resupply.
What else is in the bag?
Next up was a caramel apple ranger bar. Wrapped in its own little foil bag, with its own little desiccant pack, it was pretty good. I didn't eat the desiccant. The bar was sweet, a bit powdery, and quite good. There were bit of oatmeal, or some such thing to add texture, and the whole thing was quite nice. This would seem to be a substantial part of the 1200 calories that every MRE is supposed to provide. Much of the rest was probably provided by the drink mix, and the raisins. The raisins were packaged in a foil container marked "Raisins Osmotic". I have no clue how osmotic raisins differ from the ordinary variety; but the raisins were nasty. I couldn't finish them. The crackers, on the other hand, were not salted, and were quite good. The package was simply marked "Crackers". Another included package was marked "Chocolate Peanut Butter". The peanut butter had a number of vitamin supplements added, and may very well be the most nutritious item in the MRE.
Everything in the MRE came in little brown foil packets, except the entree itself, and a little condiment package. In future models, this packaging will be changed, because the foil in the MRE will show up on radar. The last foil packet contained a lemonade drink mix, probably pretty popular out in the desert right now. Included is a special mixing bag, with the proper amount of water to add marked.
The final little packet to open is the condiment packet, which is clear plastic. This contains a single serving of instant coffee, cream and sugar to use, if desired, a couple of little pieces of gum, some salt, Tabasco sauce, a little towelette, a pack of matches, and a bit of toilette paper. I suppose in times past, this would have contained some cigarettes, or a chaw of tobacco. All in all, the MRE has the makings of a meal, with a bit of post meal relaxation thrown in.
The big question is, would an MRE be a good bit of survival gear, and in what capacity? Well, everything is of good quality, and it can be seen that a certain amount of thought went into the selection and production of the various items. However, I have to agree with the military on this one. An MRE is a great short term food supply, for the field; but not something I would want to stock up on for long term use. I will probably pick up a couple of dozen, for my bug out bag, and to keep in my van and car; but do not plan to stock up on large numbers to serve as a long term food supply. There are better choices for that, and at a lower cost.
One consideration is the cost of the MRE. They seem to be selling for about $7 each. You can do better, buying them by the case; but this comes out to $21 to feed one person for one day, on food that is adequate, but not great. For a family of four, you are talking $84 a day, to provide sufficient nutrition via MRE. There are way better solutions than this. There are also much better solutions, from a taste and nutrition standpoint. The military never meant for the MRE to be the standard fare of the fighting man. Those living on bases or in camps should have access to mess halls or field kitchens. This is both for morale, and for health. The same factors that make the MRE viable for its role of emergency ration, also make it rather unsuitable for long term use.
The primary requirements of the MRE, as mentioned above, are for caloric intake, shelf life, light weight, and ability to be air dropped and survive rough handling. These requirements make it a bit less flavorful and wholesome than fresh food; but can be great strengths in a hostile environment. In particular, for cold weather survival, those meal heaters can come in very handy. Such uses are not limited to some doomsday scenario either. A stalled or stuck car, on a cold winter night, would be a very good place for an MRE, and a nice hot instant meal.
The ideal role of the MRE, for the survivalist, would be similar to the military role for which it was designed. A few days worth in the bug out bag, and around the house, are the perfect place for the MRE. The cost of eating MREs comes out to $21 per person per day, or nearly $150 per person per week. There are places where you can get a years worth of emergency food for around $900 - $1000, or about the cost of eating MREs for six weeks.
So the MRE does have a place in the survivalists gear; but it is a sharply limited place.