Are MREs Good for Camping?

a 3-pack of MREs, all unopened

Most U.S. servicemembers are all too familiar with the MRE (AKA “Meals, Ready to Eat”). But if you never served in the military and you’re looking for a decent food solution for camping, you might be wondering: are MREs good for camping?

That’s exactly what we’re here to find out! Below, we explain what an MRE is, what’s included in each package, our experience with MREs during a recent camping trip (and at home), and finally, a quick “review” of MREs within the context of camping.

Let’s get started (or feel free to click here to skip right to our verdict)!

Table of Contents

Click on any of the links below to jump to the desired section!

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stylized photo of all the contents of a beef taco MRE spread over a table
All the contents of a typical MRE

If You’re Unfamiliar, MREs Are Military Rations

MREs are military rations—they’re meant to serve as a full meal for servicemembers in the field or as relief meals during a crisis (like Hurricane Katrina). 

an unopened beef taco MRE
Authentic surplus MRE

First, let’s not sugarcoat things (pun intended): taste is sort of a secondary objective of MREs. Their primary goal is to supply servicemembers with the nutrition they need to function. So, MREs contain a lot of calories (around 1,250 per meal) and a decent amount of nutrients (they’re high in vitamin C, protein, etc.). That said, we wouldn’t say they have a reputation for being great otherwise.

Can Civilians Buy MREs?

Yes! 

Civilians can’t buy new MREs anymore but you can generally still find them at surplus stores. Before you say anything: don’t worry, old MREs are usually still safe to eat so long as their packaging isn’t punctured.

There Are a Lot of Options

The Defense Department regularly updates MRE options. At any given time, there are usually around two dozen different entrees to choose from. However, if you’re buying MREs on the surplus market, you should probably expect the options to be relatively limited (most surplus stores sell them in “random” assortments).

So, Are MREs Good for Camping? We Opened One to Find Out!

Last year, our group went camping in Carrizo Plain and we brought a couple MREs with us—partially as an “emergency backup,” and partially because…well, why not? But despite carrying our MREs around all weekend, we didn’t actually use any MREs until we got back from our trip because we planned our meals so well. 

Since that was over a year ago, we decided to open up another one for this article! 

Choosing from an uber-appetizing “beef taco”, “cheese tortellini”, and “chili with beans,” we chose the tacos and cooked them in our home office. Obviously, this doesn’t replicate a real camping scenario, but to create an authentic review, we only used the included heater (we did use normal cups and plates, though).

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What Was Inside of Our MRE?

MRE contents spread over a table
Pro tip: if you’re not too hungry, take a bite or two out of each item to get an assortment of nutrients.

Entree: Beef Taco, “Plain” Tortillas, & Cheese Spread

If we never had a taco before, the beef filling in our MRE might’ve been good. The seasoning could’ve been better, but it also wasn’t bland (so we’ll count that as a victory). As for the oddly vague, “plain” tortillas, they were crumbly but they (mostly) held up. 

To make the meal a little more appetizing, we added the cheese spread and it actually made the whole deal a bit better, if not a bit salty. 

All in all, the entree was decent and about what you’d expect from a prepackaged camping meal.

Side: Santa Fe Style Rice and Beans

cooked Santa Fe-style rice and beans from an MRE
The Santa Fe style rice and beans tasted better than they look.

The Santa Fe Style “rice and beans” tasted a lot better than they looked (ahem, dog food). Okay, we’ll admit that’s a bit dramatic, but they were actually good. The texture left something to be desired but we can’t complain too much.

Dessert/Snack: Nut Raisin Mix

The nut raisin mix was exactly what you’d expect, though unsalted (which we’d say is a plus considering how salty the entree was). There were even a few M&M—sorry, “pan coated chocolate disks” included!

Drinks: Instant Coffee and an Electrolyte Mix

As far as instant coffee goes, the type included in our MRE was actually…decent? We’ll still take our Takeya cold brew maker camping, but we were pleasantly surprised that the instant coffee wasn’t dirt-water.

The electrolyte mix tasted like orange-flavored, sugar-free Gatorade. If you don’t mind (or actually prefer) sugar-free drinks, you probably wouldn’t think twice about this mix.

Bonus: the Hydro Flask mug and bottle in the photos above were featured in our Hydro Flask vs. YETI Rambler article. Oh, and why not check out our Hydro Flask cooler cup review while you’re at it?

A Heater & Drink Bag

MRE heaters are kind of like water-activated ovens. If you’re unfamiliar, each heater has directions (so don’t freak out if you have no idea how to use it). They’re pretty easy to use and, in our experience, seem to work fine even when it’s fairly cold outside. 

The drink bag is sort of like a zip-lock, but you can mix hot or cold mixes in it (e.g., the coffee or faux Gatorade). 

If you’re camping, you don’t have to use either system though we’ve found both to be relatively convenient.

Bonus: these heaters are flameless, which makes them a good choice for areas with fire restrictions such as Carrizo Plain.

Extras: Napkins, Salt, Sugar, Etc.

Finally, our MRE also came with a bag of little amenities like non-dairy creamer, sugar, salt, a moist towelette, napkins (or TP), a spoon, matches, and a couple pieces of (most likely sugar-free) gum—which is pretty much everything you might need for a camping meal.

Sidenote: MREs typically come with the utensils you need, but if you’re looking for a food-safe pocket knife to lighten your camping load, check out our Victorinox Spartan review (it’s extremely corrosion-resistant).

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Here’s the Total Nutrition Breakdown (by Daily Value Percentage)

  • Sodium: 97%
  • Total Fat: 93%
  • Total Carbs: 49%
  • Vitamin D: 5%
  • Cholesterol: 10%
  • Protein: 61g
  • Vitamin A: 65%
  • Calcium: 70%
  • Iron: 46%
  • Vitamin C: 188%

MRE FAQs

Before we wrap up, here are a few MRE FAQs.

Do MREs Taste Good?

opened beef taco MRE

In the immortal words of Darth Sidious, “good is a point of view.”

In our experience, MREs are a crapshoot. We never had one that was inedible, but don’t expect a Michelin Star meal either. That said, the snacks are usually good (and we love the cheese spread; though it’s probably more of a cheese product than actual cheese).

Are MREs Filling?

Absolutely. MREs are packed with nutrients and calories, which makes sense considering who and what they’re designed for.

Do MREs Contain a Lot of Preservatives?

MREs probably have enough preservatives in them to make a person immortal. 

These meals are meant for servicemembers who could be in any number of environments—at any point in time. Naturally, it’s necessary to load each MRE up with a ton of preservatives to make sure that servicemembers are reasonably well fed regardless of the circumstances.

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Do MREs Expire?

Technically, MREs don’t expire, but they do follow a sort-of ‘best by’ system.

The two we tried were made in 2018, with an inspection date in early 2021 and an unofficially-official best by date in 2023. That said, if we ate the same MRE in 2028, we’d probably be fine still.

McDonald's fries spilled out over a table
Like McDonald’s Fries, MRE food will probably outlast human civilization because of the amount of preservatives. (Photo: Polina Tankilevitch)

How Much Does It Cost to Buy an MRE?

If you’re buying MREs as a civilian, you’ll have to go through a military surplus store. Generally, we’ve seen them selling for anywhere between $10–$30 per meal, depending on whether you’re buying them in bulk.

Can You Trust the MREs Military Surplus Stores Sell?

a 3-pack of MREs, all unopened

It really depends on where you find them. Military surplus stores generally receive older supplies, so don’t expect to find MREs made a month or two prior. 

More importantly, it’s really hard to know whether the retailer stored them properly—and even harder to know if the military or Defense Department stored them correctly beforehand. So, there’s always a chance that any MREs you buy have been kept in excessive heat, etc. This can affect the taste and quality of the MRE, but generally, MRE food is safe to eat so long as its container hasn’t been broken.

Do You Have to Cook the Food That’s in an MRE?

Nope! We can’t promise it’ll taste good, but MRE food doesn’t have to be cooked.

How Many Calories Are in an Average MRE?

It changes depending on the meal, but most MREs contain about 1,250 calories.

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Our Verdict: Are MREs Good for Camping? It Depends!

As with many things, determining if an MRE is good for camping really depends on your needs.

You Can Absolutely Use an MRE for Camping…

Too much salt isn’t exactly good for you (Photo: Castorly Stock)

There’s really no reason you can’t use an MRE for camping, but just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should

MREs are loaded with preservatives, sodium, and fat because they’re intended for servicemembers on deployment or training—as in, they’re not super healthy if you’re not exerting yourself. 

If your camping trip is pretty low-key, eating an MRE might feel like an overload. And if you have diet or health concerns, like chronic high blood pressure, the sodium and fat content might be excessive. On the other hand, if you tend to break a sweat on camping trips, MREs are good for replenishing X, Y, and Z. 

Of course, we’re not doctors and we’re not here to preach about health. 

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…But There Are More Effective Solutions

Frankly, ordinary camp food probably makes more sense than MREs. Who doesn’t plan on barbecuing burgers or hot dogs on camping trips (we go all out during ours!)? And like we said, we lugged a couple MREs in our packs during our entire camping trip—and we didn’t eat them until we got home.

Now, if you’re trying to save space or skip the camping stove, MREs are compact and don’t require a cooler. Still, most camping stores sell similar meal kits (or you can make your own), and there’s little chance that the meal you’re eating was made before smartphones existed. A 10-year-old MRE may be safe, but that doesn’t mean it tastes good

Camping should be fun, and eating a crappy meal can put a damper on things.

Bonus: if you want to learn more pro camping tips, check out our quick guide that debunks terrible “camping hacks!

(Photo: Uriel Mont)

Conclusion: MREs Are Probably Better for Emergencies

Overall, we’ll say this: MREs are better for emergency roles than they are for casual camping. If you’re backpacking or needing to save as much space as possible, they make sense—but there are probably better options available at civilian camping stores or even online sites like Amazon and so on.

On the other hand, if you can’t wait to open up a bag of “beef taco filling,” don’t let us rain on your parade! MREs do work for camping and they’re pretty fun, especially for kids.

And with that, we’re done! We hope this quick review provided some valuable insight! Be sure to check out the articles below for more camping gear guides, EDC reviews, and more! Cheers!

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