It's cold, the sun is setting and you're all alone. As the prospect of an unexpected night out looms, a grumble begins in the pit of your stomach. You dig deep in your bag and pull out ... a granola bar? A bag of trail-weary GORP? Leftover ketchup packets? A hot plate of vegetarian pasta fagioli?
The latter option may seem far-fetched, but the world of emergency food has gone gourmet in recent years. Long gone are the days of military C-rations in which the only palatable items were the fruit cocktail and a three-pack of cigarettes.
Apparently, companies that make freeze-dried or air-tight, long-lasting food realized that people weren't just looking for shelf-life but for a little bit of taste, too.
"In the old days, it was pretty gross. Awful, but it had a lot of calories," said Chris Haunold, general manager at Idaho Mountain Touring. "Now, people are interested in flavor, taste. They want natural products without a lot of preservatives."
Haunold has been camping and backpacking since the '70s and is no stranger to emergency food.
"We would buy that stuff and use it because it was light and lasted forever, but I would be hard-pressed to say it tasted good," he said. "Now, it seems like gourmet."
Haunold rattled off a list of some of the all-natural freeze-dried options available, including spicy pad Thai and curries. Of course, traditional favorites like chili mac are still available, but they taste better now.
"They actually taste like real food," he said.
Emergency food comes in several different forms: the freeze-dried version requiring hot water to cook and vacuum-packed options that are ready to eat and often come with some sort of heating element.
Freeze-dried meals are the most common on the market. IMT carries offerings from companies like the longstanding Mountain House, Backpackers Pantry and Alpine Air, while The Benchmark carries Mountain House, Alpine Air and Natural High. Boise Army/Navy offers Mountain House. [Disclosure: The writer's parents own Boise Army/Navy.]
Freeze-dried options have the advantage of being both light and small, but since they usually require hot water, they may not be the best option for anyone not carrying a stove.
They usually come in a two-serving size, which costs between $6 and $9, although there are four-serving options, as well as single-servings, which Haunold said are becoming increasingly popular. Freeze-dried food typically lasts between three and five years.
While Seth Goicoechea from The Benchmark isn't as big of a fan of emergency food, he admits that it has gotten better. His advice: try it out before you take it out.
Customers at Benchmark favor the turkey tetrazzini and veggie lasagna, while customer favorites at IMT include organic turkey pesto and any of the pasta or rice dishes.
Other meal options available in Boise include Heater Meals, which feature a vacuum-packed entree that fits inside a special bag outfitted with a heating element. Just pour the included package of water on the heating element, roll up the ends of the bag and stuff it back in the box, and 10 to 12 minutes later, you have a hot meal. Refrigeration is not necessary, and the meals have a five-year shelf life.
Of course, there's always the old military MRE, or meal ready to eat. Today's MREs include a main entree, as well as a self-heating bag similar to the Heater Meal. The biggest draw for many to the MRE is the extras that come with it: crackers, jam, instant coffee, breakfast bars. Both Heater Meals and MREs are available at Boise Army/Navy.
Goicoechea has one recommendation when it comes to emergency food: "Always carry antacid tablets."
The Taste Test
With all the options out there, we decided to hold our own highly unscientific BW taste test. We sat down to a feast of freeze-dried beef stew from Mountain House ($6.39), a vegetarian pasta fagioli Heater Meal ($8.97) and an MRE consisting of chicken and noodles with vegetables in sauce and fried rice on the side ($7.97).
None of them looked particularly appetizing, but we were surprised by the flavor of each.
The overall taste winner was the freeze-dried beef stew. Eating directly out of the resealable bag, we found that as long as we didn't look directly into the bag, what came out was quite tasty, although the potatoes were a little crunchy and the overall texture wasn't a favorite. Since this one comes a la carte, either carry some seasonings or be ready to eat it as-is.
The Heater Meal took the award for best texture. The pasta was surprisingly flavorful, although it did have that canned-tomato tang. While we weren't fans of the Styrofoam tray it comes with, we were impressed by the heating element. Just seconds after dumping the water in, steam was puffing out the plastic heating bag and the entree came out hot. The heating element stayed hot long after the food was gone, allowing for the meal to stay warm. We also appreciated the fact that the package included a fork, napkin, salt, pepper and salt-free seasoning blend.
The MRE gets the award for most entertaining. While the meal is warming on its heating element, diners can munch on the crackers and jelly or the fruit-infused breakfast square and mix up the 97 percent caffeine-free instant coffee with a healthy dose of the included sugar. While we missed the miniature Tabasco bottle and chocolate bar that were once staples of the MRE, it scored for the educational reading material printed on each entree box. Our favorite was the directions for heating, which included a diagram of how to lean the meal against a "rock or something."
Flavorwise, the MRE was passable, although we were pleasantly surprised by the size and quality of the chunks of all-white-meat chicken. While the fried rice was a bit too gingery for us, we appreciated the included spoon, salt and pepper, and book of matches.
In true emergency-food style, we decided to finish our meal with a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich, aka astronaut ice cream ($2.29). With joy in our reminiscing hearts, we sucked on the chalky, no-water-required dessert, which was strangely addictive.