I lived on army rations for a day as research for Alaska Wild

When I’m writing a book, I like to try to get a feel for some of the things the characters do. For Dance For Me, I learned ballet stretches. For In Harmony, I spent a lot of time around classical musicians. For Alaska Wild….

Well, it was kind of a process of elimination. Dangle from the edge of a cliff? Nope, not doing that. Spend a night in the wilderness with wolves? Nope. Bathe in snow-melt water? Nope, definitely not. Are you kidding?

But the characters do survive on army rations for a while. What do those things actually look like and taste like? How much do they weigh? OK, that I could do.

So I set myself a task. I’d buy a one-day army ration box and, for twenty-four hours, anything I ate or drank had to come out of it. This is what happened.

The first thing was to get the rations. US troops use MREs: “Meals, Ready-to-Eat.” You can buy those on the internet but there are a couple of reasons why I didn’t.

Firstly, the US government doesn’t really want you buying authentic military MREs because those things are paid for by taxpayers and they’re supposed to go to the troops. If you want to do this yourself, the best thing to do is to buy the civilian version of the MRE, made by the same company (in this case, SurePak). This is pretty much identical and Americans can buy them here.

However, this presumes you’re an American. I’m a Brit. And MREs come with chemical self-heating food heaters and airlines are very nervous about shipping boxes full of those, so it’s tricky to get even the civilian versions of MREs outside the US.

So in the end, I decided to go for what British troops use in the field, which is something called a “BTBT Day Feeding Pack.” These can be bought in the UK from a company called EVAQ8 and a day’s pack costs about £12 ($15). Want to try this yourself? Brits can order theirs here. This is what it looked like when it arrived.

It’s hard to get a feel for the size so here’s a picture of the box with a 5″ x 8″ paperback of Saving Liberty on top of it.

Small, isn’t it? But heavy (1.38kg – about 3 lbs). This contains 3000 calories which – brace yourselves – is only meant to sustain a soldier in the field for 8 HOURS. But they sellers do say that that means for “vigorous activity,” i.e. marching with a heavy pack and a gun for eight hours. For the rest of us, it’s more than enough for 24 hours and given that I spend most of my day doing nothing more strenuous than typing, I was going to be well fed.

Let’s open this baby up.

SO MUCH STUFF. The big silver flat pouches are the main meals, of which there are three. The plastic bag in the top left is your “sundries” bag which basically means tea, coffee, sugar, creamer, napkins and the all-important spork. Let’s take inventory.

Yeah. I’m not going to be hungry.

The first shock was the teabag. Teabag, singular. I’m a Brit: how am I supposed to survive on one teabag for 24 hours? I generally go through at least four mugs a day. How’s a soldier supposed to survive? My image of a squaddie crouched over a campfire enjoying a brew is completely blown.

Eventually, I decided I’d just re-use the teabag. I managed to squeeze four mugs out of it over the course of the day but let me tell you, there was tea-anxiety towards the end.

In the field, you’re supposed to either empty the food into a mess tin and heat it over a fire or submerge it in a pan of boiling water. I went for the boiling water option. First meal of the day: Beans, Bacon and Potatoes.

After boiling it in the bag and opening it up, it looked like this:

Imagine getting greeted by that first thing in the morning. The things I do for research…

I thought it was going to be awful. I was envisaging fatty bits of bacon. But actually, it wasn’t bad at all. The beans tasted like any other canned beans. The cubes you can see are the bacon and they weren’t fatty at all. There was some potato in there, too. And there was a LOT of this stuff: it was definitely a filling breakfast. The only thing I wished for was some toast to pour it onto. I ate it with the first use of my one precious teabag and about half of one of the “beverage whiteners” in place of milk because two little packets had to last me all day. This made what we in Britain call “builder’s tea” (i.e. super strong).

The other thing that occurred to me as I was eating this was: these are ready to eat: you can eat them hot or cold. Eating this hot wasn’t too bad but cold?

So I chalked breakfast up as a success. Next up: mid-morning snack. I broke out the ginger crunch biscuits and used the coffee and some more beverage whitener. Almost felt like a normal coffee break. The biscuits were delicious. Om nom nom.

OK, lunch. This was the Tuna Puttanesca which turned out to be actually quite nice, once heated up and I think I could just about handle eating this one cold if I really had to. It looked like this:

Apologies for the photo. Sunlight + reflective silver foil packaging isn’t a good combination.

I followed it with the Mince Pie Slice. I’m not sure if mince pies are a thing in the US so…this is what we think of as a mince pie.

This is what I found when I unwrapped the Mince Pie Slice:

The white thing on top is some sort of chemical package designed to keep the food fresh.

The pastry was sort of dry, squishy, bready stuff and the filling was kind of like a normal mince pie, maybe a bit sweeter. The whole thing was very dense: as with all this food, it really felt like the makers had tried to cram as much energy as possible into the smallest space. It sort of tasted like Christmas.

That evening, I went to see a movie and, since the rules said I couldn’t have anything that didn’t come from the ration pack, I forewent the popcorn and ice cream and broke out the ration pack’s candy bars. The Cookies and Cream one was heavy and stodgy but satisfying. The Date and Peach bar and the Apple and Cinnamon cereal bar tasted like snack bars you’d buy from a health store. The only real difference was the packaging: everything’s functional, not pretty. When you’ve spent your whole life around packaging that’s designed to make you grab things off the shelf, seeing a plain wrapper with “CEREAL BAR” printed on it feels sort of like being in a dystopian sci-fi movie.

For dinner I went for the main meal I had left: Chili Con Carne and Rice. I’d been looking forward to this all day because I thought it was going to be the best but it turned out to be the worst.

Yes, I did eat with the spork for added authenticity.

It wasn’t bad. But it suffered more than I thought it would for being preserved in a packet. The taste was a bit bland (I don’t mean “not spicy enough,” I mean the meat didn’t taste of meat). But the main problem was the greasy, sticky texture. A disappointment.

I hadn’t used the fruit puree yet, so I opened up that. This is literally just liquidised fruit that you squeeze into your mouth. It was okay. The taste was fine but swallowing mush took some getting used to.

My day finished with a last use of the teabag, the last of the beverage whitener and the Mixed Berry Oat Biscuits, which, other than being super-hard, were really nice.    

And that was it. The only thing I didn’t eat was the powdered fruit drink and the caramel hot chocolate drink. They would have made a good alternative to re-using the teabag four times but, y’know, I need my tea.

Thoughts:

  • I could really feel that I hadn’t eaten anything fresh all day.
  • The food wasn’t half as bad as I’d been expecting, at least when eaten hot. Just as I have Kate say in the book, I’ve eaten worse stuff as a college student. Not sure I’d want to tackle Beans, Bacon and Potatoes cold, though.
  • This is easily enough for a day, unless you really are carrying a huge backpack and walking 20+ miles.
  • Having a few of these boxes under your bed might actually be a good idea in case of emergency. These things last a long time, they’re easy to prepare and they’re better than starving if there’s a flood/blizzard/some other disaster. Americans can buy packs of rations really cheaply on Amazon: here’s a pack of 12 meals with heaters for $129.95 – and when I say “meals,” each meal is a three course meal with entree, side, dessert, bread and spread, cold drink mix, hot drink mix, condiments, spoon, napkin, wet napkin and a heater. That’d keep a family of four fed for at least a few days. Brits can buy five meals (just the main courses, without all the other stuff) with five heaters for about £25.

Questions? Comment below and I’ll do my best to answer 🙂