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a pair of USMC MREs

What’s the Best Bug-Out Survival Food: MRE, Hardtack, & More

What is the best survival food to carry in your bug out bag? This article breaks down the top emergency rations from the military’s MRE to classic survival food like hardtack. Learn the pros and cons of each to help you make the right choice for your needs. 

hardtack is an old school survival food that gives you basic calories with an incredibly long shelf life

Hardtack: Classic Military Sustenance

Hardtack is a very dry biscuit or cracker. Flour, water, and sometimes salt are the only ingredients. But this simple combination results in one of the best survival foods available. 

Hardtack has been around for centuries. It’s a classic survival food with an incredibly long shelf life. Hardtack is lightweight, highly durable, and resistant to spoilage. This led to it being a military staple and common on ships. Hardtack was a common component of the MCI.

The downside of hardtack is the limited nutritional value, primarily consisting of carbohydrates. It can also be hard to eat. It has an extremely hard texture, which can potentially cause dental issues. So it’s often soaked in water, milk, or soup before consumption. 

military MRE meal packs

The Military MRE as Survival Food

MRE stands for “Meal, Ready-to-Eat.” It’s a self-contained military ration that replaced the MCI in 1981. MREs are designed to be nutritious, lightweight, durable, and long-lasting. This makes them ideal as survival food and for bug out bags.  

A variety of food items are included in an MRE. They are pre-cooked and ready to eat, requiring minimal preparation. A few need heating or water for optimal consumption. 

While they are relatively lightweight and compact, MREs can be more expensive compared to other options.

canned vegetables in a root cellar make excellent survival food

Survival Food in a Can

Canned food offers a moderate to long shelf life and a variety of food options. They are pre-cooked and ready to eat, providing balanced nutrition. 

However, canned food can add weight to your bug out bag. Some canned food may lack flavor, and the cost can vary from moderate to expensive.

HardtackMREsCanned Food
Shelf LifeVery long (months to years)Moderate (3-5 years)Moderate to long (2-5 years or more)
Nutritional ValueLimited nutritional value, primarily carbohydratesBalanced nutrition with protein, carbs, and vitaminsBalanced nutrition with protein, carbs, and vitamins
PortabilityLightweight and compactlightweight and compactHeavy, slightly bulky
PreparationReady to eat, may require soaking Pre-cooked and ready to eatPre-cooked and ready to eat
TasteDry and plain, may require flavoring; very hardVaries, some meals are flavorfulVaries, some canned food may lack flavor
VarietyLimited options, lacks varietyWide variety of meal optionsWide variety of food options
CostInexpensiveRelatively expensiveModerate to expensive
Special ConsiderationsExtremely hard texture, may cause dental issuesSome meals require heating or water for preparationWeight of cans may add up in bulk
home made jerky makes a lightweight and transportable survival food

Other Survival Foods Worth Considering

MREs, hardtack, and canned food are the most popular bugout bag emergency rations. But there are others worth considering for your bag. 

Pilot Bread

Also known as ship’s biscuits or sea biscuits, pilot bread is a type of hard, dry cracker that was historically used as a staple food on long voyages. Pilot bread has a similar composition to hardtack but is softer. Like hardtack, it can be stored for extended periods.

Rice Cakes

Rice cakes are compact, lightweight, and have a long shelf life. They are made from puffed rice and provide a source of carbohydrates. However, they may not offer the same durability as hardtack.

Energy Bars

Energy bars, such as granola bars or protein bars, are convenient survival foods that are designed to provide a quick source of energy. They often have a long shelf life and come in a variety of flavors and nutritional compositions.


Jerky is dried and preserved food, typically meat like beef, pork, poultry, or fish. It offers a good source of protein and can be stored for a considerable amount of time. Fruit jerky is also a great survival options for lots of calories in a small package.

Jerky is lightweight and suitable for on-the-go snacking, making it a solid addition to a bug-out bag.

three US military MREs, the ultimate survival food

The Best Survival Food? MREs

Considering the factors mentioned, MREs are ideal in a bug out situation due to their balanced nutrition, wide meal variety, low weight, and long shelf life. 

MREs are the ultimate survival food for your bug out bag. But stocking a combination of items might be the best strategy to ensure preparedness across many scenarios. 

However you prep, the above survival foods are the best of the best when it comes to bug out bags. 

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