MREs or Freeze-Dried Meals?

If you’ve never tried a Meal Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, you owe yourself the experience. If you’re a veteran of U.S. military service and left active duty before the early 2000s you’ve probably not enjoyed any of the many improvements that have been made since that time.

“Real” MREs are hard to come by and are in fact illegal to sell, but there are commercial sources. More on that at the end of this article.

I have served in the military from the early 70s through to the present day. I started out eating C-Rations, I’ve eaten LRP Rations, lived off all variations of the MRE and recently enjoyed a few of the military’s new First Strike Rations ( I’ve seen the humble MRE come a long way over the years in terms of palatability, ease of use, menu variety and quality of contents. Today’s MRE is a refined grab-and-go meal in an easily carried, tough, compact package.

Let’s explore the infamous “meal-in-a-bag” and shed some light on allegations that they are too heavy and bulky for serious backpacking and camping use. I think you’ll see that MREs are a viable alternative to traditional freeze-dried backpacking meals – either eaten exclusively or in combination with supplemental food items – and a great choice for your emergency food cache as I will explain here. They are especially useful for short activities like day hikes, overnight camping trips or a day on the ski slopes where the MRE provides a hot lunch without requiring that you carry additional water or a camp stove.

So here are the facts…

The Mountain House freeze dried meal

According to Mountain House (*) their meals weight in at an average of 5 oz dry in the package, but in order to rehydrate these meals you have to add 8 oz of water per serving, or 20 oz of water for 2.5 servings. 14 of their 19 entrée meals are sold 2.5 servings per packages, but four of their meals (chicken a la king, macaroni and cheese, Mexican style rice and chicken, and regular rice and chicken) are 3 servings per package which require a total of 24 oz to rehydrate. That puts the hydrated weight of the average Mountain House meal at about 22 oz. Have you ever rehydrated just one serving and saved the rest for later? How many of us – especially men – have eaten the entire contents of a Mountain House 2.5 or 3.0 serving bag and hardly thought about it. You get pretty hungry in the woods.

Clean drinking water has weight and must be carried in or purified on site, assuming a natural water source is nearby. The water needed to rehydrate freeze-dried is – or should be – a major consideration for any backpacker or camper.

The nutritional breakdown of the average Mountain House meal is 23{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} protein, 13{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} fat and 64{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} carbohydrates. Their average serving is 235 calories, or 605 calories for the average bag, most of which as noted previously contain 2.5 servings.

In order to create a well-balanced diet with Mountain House meals you’ll need to buy each component of the meal separately; a main entrée, a side dish or two and a dessert. You’ll also want to buy some other small items too, like hot cocoa powder, for example, and snacks like trail bars or fruit-and-grain bars. Some people may find this to be a complication while others will prefer this opportunity to tailor their backpacking and camping meals to their own personal tastes.

When it comes to taste I have enjoyed all of the Mountain House products I have tried. They just consistently taste great.

Bottom line – the average Mountain House meal bag (2.5 servings):

  • Weights 22 oz hydrated
  • Provides 605 calories
  • Are relatively low in fat; fat is necessary for a diet supporting outdoor activity, especially in cold weather
  • Is a single entrée only – no side dish, fruit, etc. – and must be supplemented for a balanced diet
  • Cost about $7.00

The Meal Ready-to-Eat… the infamous “MRE”

MREs (**) weigh between 22 oz and 30 oz, including the thick vinyl outer bag, the interior bags and boxes and the accessories. MREs do not require rehydrating (other than for mixing the beverage powders.) You just rip off the top of the bag and eat.

Prior to leaving home an MRE can be stripped of a lot of ‘unnecessary’ items to reduce both its weight and bulk, then resealed the outer bag with duct tape or a heat sealer ( if you have one, thereby reducing its weight to between 20 oz and 26 oz depending on the meal, or even less depending on what you discard. See ItsTactical’s article at for some thoughts on this. However leaving all that packaging in and the outer bag sealed does make the MRE pretty tough. I’ve never managed to crush an MRE.

An MRE runs between 1,250 and 1,500 calories. The average meal composition is 13{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} protein, 36{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} fat and 51{b574e1a8a36a4026be7062ebcbcf5c65ad3375841f4ab2dc92f844ef77594882} carbohydrates – that’s high in fat, and that’s a good thing. Also MREs are designed to each contain 1/3rd of the U.S. Government’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals.

In addition to the main entrée each MRE comes with a side dish, a dessert, crackers or bread, and a package of cheese spread, peanut butter or jelly. That’s a lot of variety for $7.50. However, unlike the Mountain House system, with the MRE you’re stuck with what’s in the bag, unless you open your MRE and mix-and-match with other components as discussed previously.

Modern MREs have come a long way since their introduction in the 1980s. Today the MRE menu is varied and quite tasty.

Bottom line – the average Meal Ready-To-Eat:

  • Weights 26 oz (less if stripped) and requires no rehydration… only about 4 oz more than a rehydrated Mountain House meal (2.5 – 3 servings)
  • Provides 1,350 calories… more than twice what the average Mountain House entrée delivers (2.5 – 3 servings)
  • Are relatively high in fat content, which better supports strenuous outdoor cold weather activity, but provides less by way of carbohydrates than the Mountain House meal, and carbs are important for recharging your body after a hard day on the trail
  • Provides an entrée, a side dish, dessert and other food items… a complete meal-in-a bag
  • Cost about $7.50… only about $.50 more than a Mountain House main entrée

Comparison of variety

Since 1998 the MRE lineup has included 24 different meals, and numerous improvements have been made over those years. As noted above the current Mountain House offering consists of 19 different main entrées. But the Mountain House line of freeze-dried entrées are only part of a larger line of excellent side dishes and desserts which can be mixed and matched to better suit meals such as breakfast for example, something that is difficult to do with MREs, although there are a couple of “breakfast” MREs that contain items like maple sausage or pork sausage with gravy, cinnamon scones and even a pretty decent French vanilla cappuccino. There are even four vegetarian MREs.

Likely caloric and dietary requirements

While engaging in strenuous outdoor activity most males will want to take in between 2,800 to 3,000 calories a day, and women between 2,100 and 2,300 calories daily. That means men have to eat 4.8 full bags worth of MH entrees, and women 3.7 full bags each day in the woods. Compare that intake to MREs; 2.2 MREs for men and 1.6 MREs for women each day.

From decades of personal experience I can tell you that the average person can easily subsist on only two MREs a day for an overnight or weekend camping or backpacking trip before you start to want for more food. Two MREs gives you a decent hot meal in the morning and evening, and a pockets full of snacks for the trail.

Of course most outdoor enthusiasts will also be snacking on other items throughout the day, but this is a comparison between MREs and freeze-dried meals. You’ll have to evaluate those other food items yourself, but keep in mind that the MRE comes complete with prepackaged items in sturdy wrappers that are easily tucked into pockets for snacking on the trail.

The MRE Accessory Pack

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the MRE is the “Accessory Pack.” In addition to the main entrée and the side dishes each MRE comes with the following useful items:

  • Long handled plastic spoon; incidentally since 1994 the plastic spoon in the MRE has been biodegradable… really! This long spoon is great for digging out those last few mouthfuls of food from the bottom of the bag in your MRE – or for that matter from your Mountain House meal bag as well.
  • Packet of powdered beverage mix; a fruit flavored drink or instant cocoa
  • Water activated Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) for heating your main entrée; more on this great item below
  • Small packet of chewing gum
  • Matchbook of water-resistant matches; these are fairly durable I suppose, but I’ve more often used the whole book all at once to start a fire in wet conditions, frequently with the assistance of a packet of cocoa powder which burns really well
  • Single use portion of toilet paper
  • Pre-moistened towelette
  • Instant coffee packet, creamer and sugar
  • Various seasonings, including salt, pepper and a very small bottle of Tabasco brand hot sauce; I remember when those came on the scene… great success!

The indestructible MRE bag

The outer package of the MRE itself is extremely tough vinyl. Normally I use this as my ‘bowl’ and empty my heated meal into this larger container where it’s easier to mix in other items like crushed crackers, or a cheese packet – that’s easier to do in this larger bag.

If you don’t use this bag to eat from you can use it later to separate and store smaller items in your backpack. Use your camp knife to cut the top off evenly and cleanly, and then fold the top over and use a strip of duct tape to close the bag up again. These bags last practically forever and provide some basic protection against water. Once you get back home if you have the aforementioned heat sealer you can reuse these bags to seal items for long-term storage.

Keep in mind that while some of the components of an MRE may be safely burned in a campfire – the cardboard packaging, any unused seasoning or beverage packets for example – the foil-lined inner packets and the heavy vinyl outer bag must be packed out. The outer bag makes the job of packing up your empty food packets easy. Just stuff anything that cannot be burned back into the outer MRE bag, fold it over and reseal it with duct tape.

Heating your meal

Of course heating either type of meal – the Mountain House freeze-dried or the MRE – will certainly improve the taste. To that end MREs come with a water activated heater that works at any altitude in minutes with almost no effort whatsoever.

With the Flameless Ration Heater (or FRH; meal preparation is far easier than rehydrating freeze-dried meals. For a hot freeze-dried meal you’ll need water heated using a fire or stove. That means additional complication and additional equipment. Of course most of us will be boiling water at out campsites in the evening at the end of our daily activities, and again in the morning for coffee or tea, so this consideration isn’t as important as it would be in a tactical environment. However the FRH is very handy at lunch time when setting up your stove might be more hassle than you want. The FRH takes only seconds to open and set up, and your food is hot in just a couple of minutes.

Once used the FRH itself can safely be burned in your campfire, but the water used to activate the device cannot be consumed; it will contain an electrolyte suspension of magnesium and iron. This water is not hazardous to discard away from natural water sources however, and I just toss the whole spent FRH into my campfire. The bag will burn completely.

Another consideration is that the FRH does produces a small amount of hydrogen gas during the few minutes of full activation. The FRH produces no flame and hydrogen gas is not dangerous to inhale making this heater safe to use in your tent during a snowstorm for example… something you certainly cannot safely do with a camp stove. A word of caution here; a lot of hydrogen gas can displace oxygen so if you should use several of these in an enclosed space make sure you have adequate ventilation.

While hydrogen gas is highly flammable I’ve done my best to intentionally misuse this gas to cause mayhem amongst my fellow Soldiers for years without much success (sometimes things get boring sitting in the defense.) The best I’ve come up with is to pour water into the heater to activate it, quickly seal it up again with duct tape, wait for it to swell up really good and then chuck it into a campfire. The resulting small explosion can shower your teammates with hot water and sparks and embers from the fire (ha, ha, ha, that’s funny!)… but that’s about as bad as it can get. Used as intended this heater is completely safe, especially when compared to all that can go wrong with most camp stoves.

Packets of these heaters can be purchased separately (, and although there aren’t much use heating freeze-dried foods they will work on some other pre-cooked packaged foods like Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice ( and Starkist Fresh Flavor Pouches of tuna ( Look around at the grocery store and you’ll spot many likely candidates.

Food packages work best if they can be slipped inside the FRH itself, as described in the instructions. However for larger items you can use the MRE outer bag:

  • Tear off a small strip of duct tape
  • Tear a small corner off of the food item you will be heating and place it into the MRE outer bag to keep it from bursting during heating
  • Pour a small amount of water into the bottom of that outer bag to help conduct heat from the FRH to your food item
  • Active the FRH and place it in the MRE outer bag next to your food item (you’ll only have a few seconds before it starts to heat)
  • Fold the MRE outer bag over once and hold it closed with that strip of duct tape… do not seal the bag with the tape as the FRH will produce hydrogen gas as it heats and that gas will need a way to escape! All you’re trying to do by folding the MRE outer bag over is hold a bit more of the heat in the bag to heat your food item

Under most circumstances a single FRH produces enough heat to heat two food items at once using the method outlined above.

Buying MREs

Real U.S. Government MREs are illegal to transfer or resell. Anyone who tells you anything different is misinformed. If the Army gives a case of MREs to a Soldier and he takes those home and sells them to his neighbor he is in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and his neighbor has just received stolen U.S. Government property. Period. End of story.

You’ll occasionally see single MREs in surplus stores near large military installations but it’s still illegal. I’ve heard that MREs were offered for sale online for a time on eBay following the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Apparently these were MREs that FEMA lost control of during of the disaster… still illegal to transfer or resell. MREs remain U.S. Government property.

The reality is that instances involving the transfer or resale of only a few MREs are rarely prosecuted, but they do occur. Best to just avoid all that.

Fortunately with all the “prepping” going on there are several MRE clones out there. Some are close copies… others, not so much.

The closest thing I’ve found to authentic MREs are available through ( for about $90 for a case of 12 meals (with Flameless Ration Heaters), or about $7.50 each. These provide a bit fewer calories than real MREs, but are otherwise nearly identical.

In closing

You can purchase a freeze-dried entrée, a couple of freeze-dried side dishes, some trail snacks, and all of the stuff found in the accessory packet in each MRE, and dig all that stuff out of your backpack for each meal, then store it away again… or you can just eat an MRE.

My system includes a mix of MREs which I break down and repackage to suit my own tastes, supplemented with Mountain House freeze-dried menu items, especially for my breakfast menu – it’s pretty hard to beat the Mountain House breakfast entrées.

When it comes to stocking your emergency cache MREs win hands down, in my opinion, as they need no rehydration, provide a complete, balanced meal and are entirely self-contained. If you find occasion to hand over a complete meal to some deserving soul in an emergency situation (and I hope you don’t hesitate if it comes to that) the MRE is a meal in which you can have great confidence.

In closing I encourage you to take a close look at MREs. If you’ve never tried them buy a few and conduct your own trials. They’re all quite good and a few are great.

References and other sources

* Mountain House website, information on all of their 19 primary entrée meals (

** (
See also “Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 7th Edition” (PDF), and Wikipedia’s article on MREs (,_Ready-to-Eat)

See also’s great article, “7 Reason’s Why MREs are Better Than Backpacking Meals” at (

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