I first tried a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) a week into joining the Air Force in Basic Training.  20 years later I still remember the entree, Chicken and Rice.  As I tore apart the main package and began inventorying the smaller packages my first thought was around how many different types of sub packaging there are.  As a new recruit I’d heard complaints about MREs but digging into the main course my second thought was this actually tastes pretty good.  Since then I’ve had hundreds of MREs and while I liked some I didn’t have the same experience as my first time.  Here’s what an MRE package contains and some of my recommendations for backpackers who might want to try MREs for their next trip:

  • Entree – the main course, examples; Spaghetti, Chili w/Beans, Chicken Fajita, Beef Ravioli
    Mediterranean Chicken, Beef Brisket, Meatballs w/Marinara, Beef Stew, Chili & Macaroni, Vegetable Lasagna, Ham Slice, Ham and Eggs, Spicy Penne Pasta, or Cheese Tortellini
  • Side dish – rice, corn, fruit, or mashed potatoes, etc.
  • Crackers- salted.
  • Spread – peanut butter, jelly, or cheese spread
  • Dessert – cookies or pound cakes
  • Candy – M&Ms, Skittles, or Tootsie Rolls
  • Beverages – Gatorade-like drink mixes, cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee, tea
  • Hot sauce or seasoning – Usually mini tobasco
  • Flameless Ration Heater– to heat up the entrée.  An FRH heats food without the need for fire – safely and quickly. FRH food heaters are used easily in situations where fire is prohibited or not recommended. The FRH is ideal for soldiers in the fields, campers, hunters, boaters or anyone interested in emergency preparedness.
  • Accessories – spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.


  • MREs last a long time.   Their official shelf life is 3 years but I’ve had 10 year old MREs and didn’t notice any difference between fresher ones and older ones.  Because of this they are also a great option for emergency food.  Personally this is the only reason I like to keep a few around.
  • Durable packaging and seal.  I’ve never had to worry about bears or rodents smelling un-opened MRE packages like my other food.  Also I’ve been rough with un-opened MRE’s in my pack, tossing off trucks and helicopters and only time I had one break was when a frozen box got thrown out the back of a truck and hit a rock.
  • No preparation needed.  You can eat cold or place in sun, hot water, or FRH to heat, but in all except special cases (dehydrated or Arctic MREs) just break the seal and start eating.
  • No after meal clean-up.  You eat out of the packaging; the main courses have multiple cut points so as you scoop out more you can rip more packaging for easy access.
  • High Energy- Each MRE provides an average of 1,250 calories (13% protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbohydrates) and 1/3 of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals.  The military recommends a full day’s worth of meals consisting of 3 MREs.  I’ve never been able to finish 3 whole MREs in a day.  When issued in the field, the first thing we would do is cut open the MREs and take parts we wanted, pack them and get rid of the rest.


  • Hard to get.  Officially true military MREs are only available to DOD or Government personnel.    If you ask the military they’ll say that all Operational Rations are procured by the Defense Logistics Agency with taxpayer dollars and are Government owned until consumed by authorized personnel or disposed of if appropriate. RESALE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.  Having said that you can still purchase through Army Surplus stores, Ebay, or prior service members.  Use your judgment, in some cases it’s a matter of a service member got issued 3 per day but could only eat 2 so he’s getting rid of the extra, in others it could have been procured through less than honorable means.

A better option is to go with one of the many MRE type knock offs also sold through eBay and the internet.  These aren’t the official Military MREs but very similar in packaging, contents, and Entrees.

  • Taste on some Entrees.  If you buy a box (12 MREs) you get a variety pack.  When you’re feeding a group of soldiers this works well since if someone really dislikes one, for me it was the ham slice and Spaghetti, in a group you could always trade for a different flavor.   If you’ve never had an MRE I recommend trying the Entrees at home first before taking on a trip where you want food you like.  I once had a non military friend bring an MRE on a climb and it was his first time trying it; add the altitude sickness, and he’ll never touch one again.
  • Extra weight/bulk/waste.
  • Not always Healthy, Not Organic or Low Calorie.  MREs are optimized for war conditions in the field.  This doesn’t always equate to a weekend backpacking trip in Yosemite.  These days I personally prefer my own healthy meals.  Sometimes I still keep a part of an MRE at the bottom of my pack for emergency food.

2 other reasons to try MREs on your next backpacking trip is they will spark a lot of fun conversation and debate and if you have kids they will have a ton of fun breaking into the different packages and food.

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