When going on a long backpacking trip or any other outdoor adventure, food is one of the most important considerations. Hiking all day consumes a lot of calories, and packing food too lightly can mean a miserable trip. However, backpacking also means carrying everything with you every mile of your trip. Loading up on camping stoves, pots, pans, and fuel, let alone heavily food items like cans, can add tens of pounds to your pack, which will severely impact how far you are able to hike in a day. Finding an answer to the tension between needing quality nutrition and a light pack is one of the most challenging aspects of packing for a backpacking trip. Luckily, there is a great solution.
The United States military also has a vested interest in finding an efficient way to carry quality rations long distances. In the past, troops would carry canned food, but this was not ideal for many reasons. Cans of food are heavy, require tools to open, and often need to be eaten cold if a fire or stove is not available. They also usually do not taste great.
Troops need to eat quite a bit to stay at peak fighting shape, and eating a lot means having food that is warm, tasty, and easy to make. Enter the Meal Ready To Eat, or MRE. After finding in research that soldiers would not eat enough food if they were forced to carry heavy cans of food, the military put a significant amount of money into funding the development of food that is optimal for eating on the go under adverse conditions.
Soldiers need to deal with a lot more than the average backpacker. The military considered soldiers who were stuck in bad weather, or could not make a fire without being spotted by enemy troops. They also considered that the meals may be subject to harm through being dropped multiple stories or crushed under heavy equipment. MRE manufacturing standards ensure that even under the most adverse conditions, an MRE packet will provide all of the tools necessary to create a hot, nutritious meal ready to keep an active soldier going in combat.
One of the best benefits of the MRE is the flameless heating technology. Rather than carrying a heavy set of equipment for cooking while camping, MREs each contain just a few grams of fuel to accomplish the same thing. Flameless heaters include some powdered metal and catalysts, as well as a bit of salt water, which react to oxygenate the metal and provide a lot of heat. To heat an MRE all you need to do is empty the saltwater packet into the heating element, put your meal on top of the reaction, and wait about 12 minutes. The chemical reaction will quickly and safely heat your meal to a pleasant temperature, and then it is ready to eat. No tools required, no extra things to carry; just a hot meal in a lightweight packet.
Flameless heaters are designed to be safe to use in any conditions. A flameless heater can function in heavy rain or snow, at any temperature, and even underwater. It can not be put out by almost any means available. The only danger of an MRE is that it gives off a small amount of hydrogen gas, which means they are not recommended for extremely confined spaces with no ventilation, like the inside of an airplane. However, hydrogen gas is not poisonous and is perfectly safe. No other chemicals are given off into the air from an MRE.
You may be wondering how this helps ordinary backpackers. MREs are military equipment, but they are produced by independent contractors. These same companies make MREs to be sold to civilians as well, for a variety of purposes. MREs are not just great on the battlefield. Meals like XMRE, Omeals, and Eversafe are great for camping and backpacking, as well as keeping on hand to have food in case of an emergency. A quick and efficient way to get a hot meal with no other tools is a very valuable thing to have.
Civilian MREs are produced to the same exacting standards as military MREs, minus a few extras. Military MREs also contains things like razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and the like. MREs for civilians aim to be lightweight by sticking to the basic meal.
MREs are about as good as you can get when it comes to backpacking food. The government put millions of dollars into determining the most efficient way to get a guaranteed meal on the go without adding any more weight than is necessary. If you are backpacking and trying to figure out the best way to carry food with you, there is no better answer than the rations carried by soldiers in active combat. By buying civilian MREs for your next outdoor adventure, you are buying the best travel rations that could be made with millions of dollars of funding.