Do MREs Make Sense For Backpackers?
MRE stand for Meal, Ready to Eat and they're most commonly used as single serve meals for U.S. soldiers who are deployed in active duty. But lately they've taken on another use: as an alternative meal for backpackers. MREs have a lot of calories in them which makes them appealing for backpackers who can burn upwards of 500 calories per hour. If you're on along through hike, putting in 12 hour days means you'll be burning 6,000 calories per day which can be hard on your body if you aren't replacing those calories with food.
In this article we're going to take a look at the MRE options that are on the market and do a side by side comparison to the most well known backpacking food option, Mountain House meals.
Are MREs Good For Backpacking?
There's a lot of debate on this but the general consensus in the backpacking community is no, MREs are not the best option for backpacking.
Can they work for backpacking? Sure, MREs are basically a prepackaged meal. They're easy to throw in your backpack, they taste OK (different flavors vary from gross to pretty good), and they'll get you through your hike.
But there's no reason to settle on MREs. There are other options out there that taste better, weigh less, cost less, have a longer shelf life, and have more variations in flavor. We'll get into some of these options later and discuss each of the pros/cons for these areas.
What's In An MRE?
MREs are different from traditional backpacking meals like Mountain House. They have way more items in them than just the main entree. This is one of the reasons why MREs weigh so much more than a dehydrated meal.
According to MREinfo.com, a standard MRE would contain the following items:
- Entree: the main course, such as Spaghetti or Beef Stew
- Side dish: rice, corn, fruit, or mashed potatoes, etc.
- Cracker or Bread
- 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: in some MREs
- Flameless Ration Heater: to heat up the entree
- Accessories: spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.
MREs are meant to be used by soldiers in warzones so they have to include a bunch of extra stuff that you probably wouldn't need if you're backpacking. Even if you do want to have an entree, side, cracker, spread, dessert, candy, drink, and hot sauce with your backpacking meal, you probably don't need the extra utensils, seasonings, wipes, etc.
You're much better of getting a titanium spork that you can reuse at every meal. This lets you carry less weight and means you'll be creating less trash.
Are MREs Healthy?
Haha, no. MREs aren't meant to be something that you eat every day for extended periods of time. They have a lot of processed food in them and are packed with sodium and preservatives to keep a 1+ year shelf life.
If you're just looking for food to last you on a 3-5 day trip, then MREs are probably fine. After all, Morgan Spurlock lived off of Big Macs for 30 days and he was OK, so you can basically eat anything for just a few days without any long term effects.
If you're going to be doing a through hike and you'll be relying on trail food for months at a time, then you'll want to avoid MREs for long term sustenance. Even if you eat prepackaged meals like Mountain House, you can still mix in some other food that's healthier and will keep your body running in tip top shape which will help on long trips.
The Best MREs for Backpacking
Individually packed MREs are pretty expensive. If you're going to buy MREs then you'll want to buy a bundle pack of at least 12.
There are a lot of different flavor options, you can view all of them here. The best MRE for backpacking is going to be whatever tastes best to you. MREs are meant to be military grade standard issue so there isn't going to be a lot of difference between them other than the flavor of the entree. There are a bunch of different options from BBQ sandwiches to chicken tacos.
All MREs are going to come with the same items in them that we mentioned earlier; entree, side, utensils, etc. If you're going to use an MRE for backpacking then it makes sense to open up the MRE and only bring with you exactly what you need. This will help reduce the weight you have to carry and also means less trash that you have to pack out with you.
How Much Does an MRE Weigh?
Because of all the things that come with an MRE, they're extremely heavy compared to Mountain House meals.
The average MRE weighs about 16 ounces. Compare this to Mountain House which on average weighs just 6 ounces.
If you're bringing food for a 5 day trip and you pack an MRE for both lunch and dinner, you'll be looking at 10 pounds of food.
While Mountain House meals for 5 days would only weigh 3 lbs 12 oz.
MRE vs Mountain House
I've spent a lot of time in this article referencing Mountain House's dehydrated meals so now I'm going to dive into them a little bit more and talk about some of the difference between MREs and Mountain House meals.
I'm a big fan of Mountain House just because I don't have a dehydrator and I'm not into making my own food. I'm not much of a chef at home so I'll happily drop $5 at the grocery store to get a tasty dehydrated meal when I'm backpacking instead of trying to cobble together some form of tuna, peanut butter and tortillas to just get me through.
Hydrated vs Dehydrated
The main difference between MREs and Mountain House meals are that MREs are NOT dehydrated whereas Mountain House meals are.
This one difference is the main reason that the two meal choices differ so much on weight, shelf life, etc.
One of the pros to having an MRE is that you don't need any water to make the food edible. For soldiers deployed in the Middle East, this is a huge bonus. Water can be scarce and if you're in combat or making a trek through dry climates, you won't always have plentiful water for cooking.
Additionally, MREs contain a self heating element that you can use to cook the meal. Mountain House meals require you to find water, filter it, boil it, and let it sit in the pouch to fully cook your food. MREs just require you to activate the heating element and wait for your meal to cook; no messing around with finding water or making sure it's purified.
Because MREs contain water, their shelf life is much shorter than Mountain House meals and the shelf life is further impacted by temperature. The average shelf life for an MRE is about 1-2 years, depending on the type of food in it and the climate.
In hot conditions, like storing MREs in the trunk of your car in the desert, the shelf life on an MRE can be as short as 30 days.
Compare this to Mountain House meals where the shelf life is listed as 3-5 years, with some people reporting that the food remains good 10+ years past this expiration date.
The main enemy of shelf life is water and since Mountain House removes all of the water, there's nothing in the food that can go bad. This is another differentiator that makes Mountain House meals far superior to MREs not just for backpacking, but long term survival/prepper situations.
If you're stocking food for an emergency situation you'll likely want at least 2 weeks worth of supplies. For a family of 4, eating 3 meals per day, for 14 days, that's 168 meals.
Even if you can find MREs for the same price as Mountain House meals, say $6 per meal, that's about $1,000 in food. If you're MREs are expiring every 12 months vs every 3 years for the Mountain House meals, you'll be spending an extra $2,000 every 3 years just to replenish that food that's expiring.
There are two reasons that MREs weigh significantly more than Mountain House meals.
The first reason is the included water that we touched on earlier. Water is heavy, about 8.3 lbs per gallon. Since an MRE doesn't require you to add water, that means the water is already inside the food. We touched on some of the pros in an earlier section, but now the cons are very obvious. Hauling around that extra water adds up quickly and if you're backpacking, you usually have access to plenty of fresh water which means there's no point in keeping the water in your food. It's more efficient to just add water as you come across it on your hikes and rehydrate your meals when you're ready to cook them.
The second reason that MREs weigh so much more than Mountain House meals is that they include a TON of extra items. Some of them are good, like crackers and dessert, and you'll end up eating them. But there's also a lot of extra packaging included with MREs and the utensils, napkins, wipes, etc that you just don't need when you're backpacking.
It's possible to open your MRE up before hitting the trails and separating out exactly what you need and don't need but if you're going to do that much extra work, are you really saving yourself any time or convenience by using an MRE? It's easier to just get a Mountain House meal and grab some crackers and dessert separately at the grocery store. You'll have a much larger selection and you'll probably be able to find some tastier food to bring with you instead of being stuck with whatever the MRE has included in it.
This is one area that MREs win when compared head to head against Mountain House meals but it's not quite a fair fight.
The average MRE has about 1,200 calories and the average Mountain House meal has about 500 calories. But these averages can be misleading so let's dig into them a little bit more.
MREs include all of the items we listed earlier which means the calorie count is including the entree, side, dessert, etc. Typically a Mountain House meal is only going to be an entree, so you wouldn't expect it to have as many calories as a full "meal" that you'd get in an MRE. Once you pick out your own side and dessert to go with a Mountain House meal, you'll find that the calorie count is similar to the MREs.
MREs are not optimized to be stuffed with calories. They're goal is to hit a target of 1,200 or so calories and a certain percentage of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. This is where the flexibility of Mountain House meals come in. If you want to optimize for caloric density you can choose meals that pack in more calories per ounce and you can specifically choose sides and desserts that are known for being high in calories like peanut butter or chocolate.
At the end of the day it comes down to control. With MREs you are giving up control over the individual parts of your meal for convenience.
How Much Does an MRE Cost?
If you decide to use MREs for your backpacking food choice, I'd highly suggest buying in bulk. The individual MREs for sale are usually around $15 but if you buy 12 meals at a time you can get them for $6-$7 each.
Mountain House meals can be bought individually for $5-$8 at the grocery store so they're much more affordable if you are just looking for a couple of meals.