The ultimate guide to choosing food for your bug out bag. Learn what to look for, what to avoid, and see what we chose for our own personal BOB’s.
Do you like to be hungry? Does a growling stomach and crashing blood sugar inspire you to walk 10 miles with 60lbs on your back? Yeah, me neither.
That’s why it is so important to add some food to your BOB. You don’t have to throw the whole refrigerator in your your bag, you just need energy rich foods in your bag.
You may be thinking, “well, no duh”, but you would be very surprised how many preppers believe a simple snare trap and a can of spam is all they need in their Bug Out Bag or 72 hour kit.
Trapping game is unpredictable to say the least and it’s a lot harder when you’re on the move and, if you’re using your BOB/72 Hour Kit, you will most certainly be on the move.
A few heavy cans of over-salted soup from the grocery store isn’t the answer either. Nor is a ziplock bag of trail mix going to provide enough calories for extending hiking, especially if the terrain is rough.
- Why Food Is Usually An Afterthought
- Your Unique Calorie Needs
- Choosing The Best Foods
- Water Needs
- Overall Winners
- The Alternatives
- Final Thoughts
Why Food Is Usually An Afterthought
So why does your average prepper expect little more than a couple of cans of beans and some picture frame wire to provide something so important and so basic as food?
Overconfidence in their situation and skills for one. Bad information on how “easy” it is to trap game and forage food is another. Both can be done, but not reliably and not while you’re constantly moving.
Sure you might snag a rat or two (yum…), or maybe find 30 calories (a handful) of berries as you go, but that’s nothing compared to the hearty meal you could have if you prep.
The problem is that most food is heavy (or is in heavy containers) and it takes up a lot of space in a bag. You can only carry so much stuff.
For some reason many preppers believe the answer is to simply not carrying much, if any, food with them. A classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
If all of your food is in cans your pack is going to get very heavy very fast. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen five or six cans of food on the side of a trail, left by a backpacker who learned their lesson the hard way.
Likewise, if all your food looks like something a squirrel would eat you’re going to have a hard time carrying enough of it to sustain a high calorie diet and you will be hungry and exhausted after the first day.
It’s simple: a prepper must maximize the amount of calories and nutrients of their food, not only per ounce but also per cubic inch.
- We must find the best calorie dense foods, meaning that each ounce of that food contains a significant amount of calories compared to other foods, that also provide an ideal (or as close as we can get to ideal) percentage of fats, carbs, and protein.
- Then we must look at these foods objectively and choose the smallest sized portions that will meet our daily calorie needs.
Only then can we truly compare foods for our BOB and declare which are the best bug out bag foods and which should be left on the shelf.
Your Unique Calorie Needs
Before we can begin we must define how much calories you need. Without going into a whole lot of scientific reasoning (but trust us that it is backed by decades of serious science), use this calorie calculator by Active to determine your daily calorie needs.
Be sure to check “active” under the activity level because you will be very active. The number you get is how many calories you need to maintain your current weight under moderate activity.
Here’s the catch, “moderate activity” doesn’t include hiking through the woods for days with 40lbs on your back. Since bugging out is indeed extreme on your body physically and mentally you will burn roughly 25% more calories than someone who lives an active lifestyle.
So, to compensate for how tough this will be, add an additional 25% to your calorie needs.
Choosing The Best Foods
For everyone who wants to skip the how and why and jump straight to the best bug out bag foods, here they are….
For everyone else, let’s get to the details. When choosing the best food for your bug out bag there are several things we must consider about the food themselves. These are:
- Shelf life
- Calories & Nutrients
- Water Needs
Always check expiration dates. Remember, food for your bug out bag should last at least several months (or years preferably) before going bad. MRE’s, emergency food bars, Dried fruits and nuts, and some packaged foods fit the bill.
These sorts of items have long shelf lives, keep well in most climatic conditions, and provide tasty and nutritious meals when needed.
MRE’s and emergency food bars last years, sometimes decades, but you should at least check them every now and then. Ideally you should rotate your food every few months.
MRE’s and food bars will be ok as long as the package is still sealed. Also remember that expiration dates are not a true indicator of lifespan, it’s a “sell by” date for stores.
Use common sense and don’t waste. Emergency food bars, for example, are good for several years after their expiration dates. Amazingly, they’ll still taste about the same too.
That doesn’t mean you can pack it and forget it though, you should still rotate your bug out bag food preps every now and then, twice a year during daylight savings time is a good plan, or at least check the dates around News Years Day.
Where you store your bug out bag also matters. Is your food going to sit in your hot car trunk every day for two years? You need to only pack foods that won’t spoil, or plan to store your bag elsewhere. Heat is the biggest enemy of food preservation.
Rule Of Thumb: Don’t buy anything under a six month shelf life.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (8-10 years) tie MRE’s (8-10 years).
Calories & Nutrients
Walking on flat ground with a 30-50 pound pack on your back is going to burn more calories than anything you do in your daily life now.
If you hiked for 8 hours you would burn close to 5,000 calories (see Your Unique Calorie Needs above to calculate how many calories you’ll need). A heavier pack (or heavier belly) or hiking through hilly terrain will burn more calories.
For instance, running from people with machetes will use much more calories than walking across a parking lot.
Plan to replace roughly 25% more calories per day than you use now.
The food you eat should put back those calories and nutrients each day, or else your body will begin cannibalizing itself. First your body taps into your fat stores (which is good), but if you’re not feeding your body a proper mix of fat and proteins by day two or three you actually start eating its own muscles.
What muscles you ask? Surely it’s your legs or arms, right? Nope. One of the first places your body cannibalizes for protein is your heart and intestinal muscles. After that it’s your liver and kidneys. Genius, I know.
That’s why people who haven’t eaten for long periods of time get very constipated when they do find food. Their intestinal muscles are just too weak to work. Don’t let this be you.
Pick foods that have complete macro-nutrients – carbs, proteins, and fats.
Again, there’s a catch (the body is a complicated thing). After reading that you might decide to focus on high protein foods, but for our purposes (bugging out) we need a lot of straight energy more than anything.
For that reason you should pick items that are high in carbs and calories first. then focus on high protein foods with a moderate amount of fat.
Carbs will give you the energy you need, calories will keep you going, proteins will let you rebuild your muscles (and keep your body from cannibalizing itself), and fats will make you feel fuller for longer and are very necessary for organ health.
Vitamins and minerals are good to have, mostly to relieve cramps, but in reality your body isn’t going to care if you don’t feed it a perfect balance of vitamins for two to three days. That said, packing a bottle of multi-vitamins is a good idea since they are cheap and weigh little.
MRE’s and emergency food bars are both nutritionally balanced but MRE’s weigh a lot (we’ll talk more about that in a minute) and food bars are lightweight and cheaper.
An Important Note On Emergency Food Bars And Calories
There are two ways to eat emergency food bars. You can ration the entire pack over a three day period if you’re staying in once place, or you can eat the whole pack every day if you’re on the move. Since we’re talking about bugging out, and that means a lot of walking, we’re assuming you choose the latter throughout this guide. Let the situation dictate how you eat them, but pack for a worst case scenario.
Secondly, emergency food bars are one of the most calorie dense foods on the market, but they can still leave you wanting more (about 800-1,000kcals per day). You can either stick with one pack and maybe lose a couple of pounds but you’ll be fine and should not feel hungry, or you can get one extra pack over what you’ll need and eat an extra 1,200kcal bar every day.
Rule Of Thumb: Plan to replace 4k-5k calories per day, and do it with nutritionally balanced foods.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (1,200kcals / meal) tie MRE’s (about 1,200kcals / meal).
If you took everything out of your bag and weighed it I bet food and water are your heaviest items. Obviously the more your food weighs the heavier your bag will be, so food with a high calorie to weight ratio is a must have.
A common misconception is that MRE’s are lightweight. They’re not.
Remarkably, many MRE’s weight more than caloric comparable foods from the grocery store. MRE’s are made to be complete meals, but lightweight they are not.
MRE’s average about 1.3lb to 1.5lbs for each meal. That means that MRE’s would add a whopping 14lbs to your pack for three days of food. Compare that to food bars which add less than 5lbs for the same three days.
Again, food bars are made to hold as much calories in as little space as possible, so they are usually the most lightweight food by design but they can leave you wanting a little more if your’e really hiking it.
Whatever you choose, avoid anything in a can. There are better foods in better packaging with a comparable cost.
Rule Of Thumb: Look for the most calories per oz, then look at the macro-nutrients.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (4.8lbs for 3 days)
So we’ve covered weight, but what about size, or how bulky an item is?
For example, a 1 gallon ziplock bag of G.O.R.P. is kinda lightweight but it’s bulky and you have to worry about it coming open.
Save the space at the top of your bag for things you need to get to quickly, not for things that might spill easily.
MRE’s might seem like a good choice because they are flat and will not spill, but when it takes about eight to ten of them to meet your calorie needs for three days you end up with half a bag full of MRE’s. In the end they take up a lot of space in your bug out bag.
Again, cans of food are a no-go because they take up a lot of physical space and adds a lot of unnecessary weight.
Rule Of Thumb: Avoid cans and look for calorie dense foods in flat packaging.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (most packs are 4 3/4″ x 4 3/4″ x 2″)
Don’t take taste for granted! Sure, it’s easy to say you’ll power through pomegranate and fish flavored protein powder for a week, and it is possible if you’re hungry enough (ok, maybe not), but you’re going to hate it and you’re going to hold back vomit with every bite.
After a day or two of eating a food you don’t like your taste buds rebel big time. Your brain starts shutting down and refuses to eat any more. Don’t put yourself in this situation.
Always test your preps, food included!
Don’t ever buy survival food and stick it in your bag without tasting it! We highly recommend buying a couple of different flavors at a time too, that way you can alternate the flavors and keep your taste buds from committing suicide.
Pro Tip: Our favorite tactic is to combine emergency food bars with great tasting workout bars like the kind body builders use. Treating yourself with a workout bar throughout the day will keep your energy and spirits up, and your taste buds will thank you. Plus they are high in protein and carbs that you need.
You could even put your food choice to a serious test and live off them for an extended weekend. You’ll know by day three if it’s right for you.
MRE’s taste pretty dang good, about like a microwavable meal. Food bars usually taste somewhat bland by design but most of them taste something like a sugar cookie. Trail mixes taste good, but they can get boring after a few meals and they don’t pack enough calories per oz.
Rule Of Thumb: Buy many flavors to mix things up, and always put them to the test.
The Winner: (let’s be honest) Store bought groceries, and taste is objective anyway.
That being said… our personal picks are (in order): MRE’s, pemmican, emergency food bars, G.O.R.P., workout bars, bean & rice mixes, and peanut butter.
Your food costs won’t be a big deal, but it is still something to keep in mind. Some foods, such as MRE’s, can really add up, but even the most expensive food bars would only cost a grand total of nine bucks a day.
Compare that to what you pay to eat per day right now and you’ll see it’s actually a bargain.
MRE’s are the most expensive option, averaging about $6.50 per meal. The second most expensive is prepackaged survival food in bags.
You could do what many of us do and make your own food too. You could easily eat for under $5 for the same 3-4 days if you make your own foods.
Survival bread, pemmican, high protein and carb food bars, and G.O.R.P. are so easy and cheap to make that you’ll wonder why you haven’t been making them for years.
They’re great daily snacks around our houses and also excellent emergency foods to have on hand.
Rule Of Thumb: Calculate the price per calorie on nutritionally balanced foods for a baseline number to compare foods, but remember that calories per oz is far more important for a bug out bag.
The Winner: Making your own (varies, but about $1.50 per day for our examples), followed by emergency food bars if you want something pre-made (about $3/day if rationing, about $9/day if not).
Prepping food is the enemy of efficiency for anyone bugging out. Preparing food puts you off guard, wastes daylight, can give away your position, and burns calories. Any serious prepper will immediately recognize these as major problems.
The best bug out bag foods will require no prep time, or be as minimum as possible. The worst foods for a bug out bag, like cans of food and other grocery store items, usually require a fire and clean water which may be outright impossible to handle two or three times a day (or ever) if you’re bugging out.
Prep time is usually a trade-off with cost. While a food bar costs about $1-2 per serving and has zero prep time, something like our Super Easy Survival Bread costs about $0.15 per serving and takes about 30 minutes to make four servings.
Fire is an OPSEC issue, so is the smell of cooked food. This isn’t a camping trip, staying hidden might mean not having a fire or the time and ability to cook. Fresh food over a campfire smells great and an unwelcome guest (human or animal) might want to join you for dinner. Keep this in mind when choosing your food.
Cooking food could be impossible for a dozen different reasons. Don’t make it your only option.
Finding and purifying water is another issue, and so is bringing an extra half gallon or so just to prep some grocery store foods or just-add-water survival pouches.
The best bug out bag foods will require no prep time, or need minimal prepping (like mixing pouches together) right before you eat them.
Rule Of Thumb: Prep your food now and keep it rotated, or get zero-prep foods.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (zero-prep) and MRE’s (minimal prep)
When it comes to bug out bag foods your water needs are two-fold:
- How much water it takes to make the food
- How thirsty your food will make you
Shockingly (sarcasm), you will have to add water to just-add-water survival pouches, usually about a cup. Other powdered or dehydrated foods may also require water.
Some MRE’s are notoriously over salted and will make you drink a lot more water, so will nuts and dried fruits. G.O.R.P. will also make you thirsty, and foods like peanut butter will need some water to get them down.
Cans of soup and meat are way too salty and cause you to waste a lot of unnecessary water compared to if you has simply packed something better.
Non-thirst provoking foods
There are special “non-thirst provoking” foods that were specially designed to prevent any feelings of thirst after eating them. They do this by carefully balancing their salt and moisture content, among other things. Simply put, they don’t dehydrate your body and they don’t dry your mouth out.
What are these miracle foods you ask? You guessed it, emergency food bars!
Any water you find must be purified, either by boiling (which will not remove chemicals) or with a very good water filter like a LifeStraw, or a Katadyn Vario, or a Sawyer Mini.
Rule Of Thumb: Stick with foods that do not require water to prep and look for foods labeled as non-thirst provoking.
The Winner: Emergency food bars (non-thirst provoking & require no water) and MRE’s (require no water, but some will make you very thirsty).
The Best Bug Out Bag Foods
- S.O.S. Rations Emergency 3600 Calorie Food Bars
- Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE’s)
- Super Easy Survival Bread
Given everything above, and extensive field tests done by many expert survivalists spanning decades…
….There is one food product obviously far above the rest: Emergency Food Bars.
Food bars pass every test with flying colors. Not only do they store well for at least 5 years or more, but they also have scientifically perfected calorie and nutrient ratios that are spaced out into many bars that can be rationed out to meet the unique situation you’re in or eaten in a single day to provide maximum calories for heavy hiking.
They weight little, are easy to pack, take up minimal space, taste pretty dang good, cost very little, have zero prep time, are non-thirst provoking, and require no water to eat.
They are not messy, they don’t melt, they don’t smell, they don’t need a fire or water, yet they do fill you up. You actually feel full after eating a food bar, and that’s the best part.
In short, food bars are the perfect bug out bag food.
MRE’s come in second place. They are full meals ready to go and will last about 8-10 years depending on the temperature you store them in, but they are heavy, can be overly salty, and by far are the most expensive choice.
Canned foods come in dead last for reasons that I hope are now very obvious to you.
Pro Tip: Don’t pack canned foods, but do bring a can opener so you can eat all the stuff everyone else leaves behind!
Life is all about choices. The food in your bug out bag is very personal and you should consider all the alternatives. Try living on a few different foods for a weekend and make the best decision based on your own wants and needs. Just be sure to keep calories and nutrition in mind.
Alternative bug out bag foods include things that no normal healthy person should eat exclusively on your average day (college students not included).
Here are some alternative ideas for your bug out bag food supplies.
Pemmican is a traditional Native American food that dates back to time forgotten. It’s a complete meal nutritionally and extremely calorie dense, supplying upwards of 2,500 calories per pound depending on the types of meat and fats used.
Native Americans would eat pemmican exclusively for weeks at a time on long hunting trips with no ill effects, just don’t plan on eating it for years at a time because it’s high fat content has lead to plaque buildup in the arteries in native tribes who live off of pemmican.
Traditional pemmican is dry jerky, fat tallow, and berries mixed thoroughly together and packed into a sausage. The final product resembles bratwurst.
Modern DIY pemmican is made with the same ingredients but skips the packing into sausage step to save money and trouble. It can be stored in ziplock bags or old butter tubs just as easily, there’s nothing special about the packing. Many times it is rolled out into strips.
The taste has been described as anything between a cookie (what?) to a fatty meatloaf or a hearty beef stew (this is typical).
In truth the taste depends heavily on the type and amount of meats and fats used as well as how the fat was rendered. It can be an acquired taste and there is absolutely a fatty grease flavor, so sometimes salt and spices are also added to taste.
Pemmican can last upwards of 50 years without refrigeration if made properly and joins hardtack on the list of longest lasting survival foods. However, poorly made DIY pemmican may only last a few days before going rancid, so follow the directions.
While pemmican can make a decent bug out bag food, the cost of buying pre-made pemmican is extreme, around $35-$50/lb. The cost of DIY pemmican depends on your local meat costs but will be significantly cheaper, around $9/lb for the finished product.
You would need about 2lbs a day to meet calorie needs, or about 6lbs total for a BOB/72 hour bag. That means pre-made pemmican would cost upwards of $300, and homemade pemmican would cost about $54 for a three day trek.
With its high cost and possibility to go rancid if not made properly, and with the current cost of emergency food bars around $27 for a three day trek, it’s hard to score pemmican higher on the best bug out bag food list.
Just-Add-Water Survival Meal Pouches
These include things such as the mountain house and coleman pouches. They last about five years and have about 600 calories per pouch. They cost about $5-10 each and weight about 1/2 lb.
They work best with boiling water so you may want a fire, and a pot to boil the water in…which basically defeats the purpose of eating out of a pouch…and even if it says on the pouch that you don’t need to boil the water before adding it you’ll still have to have purified water (either by boiling or filtering) before using.
“Good Old Raisins and Peanuts”, also known as G.O.R.P., has been a hiker’s go to trail mix since pretty much ever.
G.O.R.P is full of calories and nutrients and is simple to make. The problems with G.O.R.P. is it feels like more of a series of mini snacks than a meal and all the salt can make you thirsty. You’ll go though it by the handfuls quickly so packing enough to last 3-4 days can get heavy.
Some people swear by it, but most get tired of it when it is the only food available.
Cheap (six for a buck and change!), full of carbs, some protein, and tastes good. The calories per oz are pretty good too.
You could do a whole lot worse than ramen soup, and you could do a lot better too. You need more fat, and the seasoning packages will just about kill you with salt if you eat them day and night.
Only use half a packet and bury the rest (it smells strong and will spill in your bag). You’ll need a fire, clean water, and a pot, so this is a meal with serious prep time compared to everything else. It works ok on paper but in a real life emergency you might be stuck with a bunch of useless hard noodles.
Just don’t. It will melt, it will be messy, you’ll get ants in your bag, the sugar rush will die as fast it comes, and you’ll be hungry an hour later. No, a snickers isn’t a complete meal despite what their ad agency says. Just don’t.
Pro Tip: If possible, don’t pack all your food in one bag and if you’re with a group have everyone carry a little food. You could also use molly pouches and a tactical vest to secure food directly to your body. This way you will still have food to eat if something happens to your main bag.
Gooey, sticky peanut butter is a great food item for your pack. It has a high calorie to weight ratio and 1 tbs of peanut butter provides 190 calories. It’s also high in fat and moderate in protein, and it tends to stick to the ribs so you feel fuller longer. Bring some high carb foods and you have something to work with.
Not to mention peanut butter makes a great bait for small critters.
The down side is a jar of PB is bulky and doesn’t last very long (one to two days max for your calorie needs), you’ll eat way too much saturated fat if you down a whole can, you’ll drink a lot of extra water, and high temps will ruin it.
Whatever you do don’t get the natural PB for a bug out bag, it’s too runny.
Yes, I said pop tarts. Are they healthy? No. Are they a complete meal? Hell no. Will they give you some energy and a fun motivation after two days of straight food bars? You bet your favorite knife they will.
I always include a foil pack of two pop tarts in my bag to give my taste buds something to look forward to after a hard couple of days on the trail.
Workout (Protein) Bars
These are not emergency food bars, they are the kind of snack bar you would eat before (or after) a day at the gym. They are usually way overpriced and have too much of one macro-nutrient or another.
They are not made to be full meal replacements, even the so called meal replacement bars.
Most are light on calories to help you cut weight, the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.
Don’t pack them as your exclusive food, but do include one or two as a treat for yourself. Motivation comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a granola bar.
Let’s stop here and pretend for a minute. Let’s pretend you’ve ignored all the advice and decided to buy a bunch of canned soup and meats anyway. Maybe some canned beans too because every prepper packs beans and rice, right?
Not only is your pack way too heavy and bulky, but even the low-salt soup and meats are way too salty (hope you have lots of water to drink) and the veggies and beans equal little calories and almost no macro-nutrients so you’ll need a half dozen or so cans every day to meet your calories. Does your back hurt yet? It’s going to!
“No problem”, you say, you’ll just abandoned some of your food to lighten your pack… and now you’re trying to hike through the woods on 1/8th the calories you need. But hey, at least it was easy at Wally World to fill the buggy with all those cans, that are now laying in a pile by the trail….
You’ve screwed yourself because buying off the grocery shelf was easier. Now let’s go back in time to where you read this article (hey look, here you are) and make a better decision. Suddenly, now you’re a better prepper.
Bean and Rice Mix
Rice is cheap, so is red beans. if you buy a bag of both and mix them together you get a high calorie and nutrient rich meal. You can’t store brown rice for long, the fats go rancid, and exclusively eating such high carbs for every meal is going to mess your insulin and sugar drive which means an eventual energy crash.
A big bag of rice and beans will weigh several pounds and ziplock bags can get spilled. It requires clean water, a pot, and a fire. Oh and don’t forget to soak the dried beans overnight before cooking…. while you’re hiking through the woods and maybe dodging people with guns.
This meal might look good on paper but in reality it takes a lot of prep. Don’t fall for the rice and bean trap, look elsewhere for bug out bag food.
Spam, vienna sausages, tuna, chicken breast, sardines. Except for sardines in oil, canned meat provides a lot of protein but that’s about it. The calories and other nutrients are low compared to other more lightweight meals.
While sardines may be natures nearly complete miracle food, their smell attracts every animal (beast and man) for a half mile or more, and some people will never eat a sardine no matter how hungry they are.
Most canned meats are high in salt, which means you’ll be thirsty. Even the low-salt options are packed with too much salt, especially spam.
Mac & Cheese
Mac and Cheese is probably the easiest food you can make on a campfire. It’s not a complete meal and it requires a fire and clean water.
If you can’t cook it you’re stuck with useless food. It may be a fun pick-me-up and worth throwing in a box if you have kids who are addicted to it, but realize it’s just a snack.
Watch out for too much sugar. Foods with too much sugar and carbs make you hungrier about an hour after eating. Avoid white carbs (breads, rice, potatoes, etc) and look for foods that are a complete meal in one to avoid energy crashes.
Don’t keep anything with fats or oils for more than 3-6 months or it will go bad. Avoid salty food to save water and literal headaches from blood pressure spikes.
Don’t overdo the calories in one sitting, spread them out over the day. Look for a food with a balance of calories, carbs, protein, and fat that spreads the calories out over 3-4 daily meals.
Avoid overly spicy or sweet smelling food or it will make all your other food smell just like it. Seriously though, avoid spicy food altogether when you’re out in the field, your back side will thank you.
Realize that nature wants you to eat a variety of foods. Getting everything you need in a single product that is lightweight and small in size rarely happens in nature. Look for a man-made alternative such as emergency food bars for the special needs of bug out bag or 72 hour kit.