Survival Lessons from Army C-Rations

Doug Williams
A United States Airman's Meal, Combat, Individual ration (also called a C-Ration) - Author: Paul Mashburn - CC BY 2.0

You know how old people have a penchant for saying how things were different “back in the day”? Well, back in the day when I was in the Army, they were different.

The many technologies that have been adapted and applied to the military have brought about many excellent changes… and a few that aren’t all that excellent.

One of those less than excellent changes has been MREs, which the troops say are “Three lies for the price of one. They’re not meals, they’re not ready, and they’re not edible.” I was one of those who wasn’t all that happy to see them come along as I liked the C-Rations we had before then. Actually, I still like them.

C-Rations were canned meals, and they were real food – unlike the freeze-dried contents of MREs. While I can’t say that they were all excellent, they were hearty and nutritious and for the most part, the flavor was pretty good; good enough that we always enjoyed eating them on field maneuvers. Although I will have to say: there were always a few guys that complained.

Those C-Rations, like the MREs that followed them, were intended to provide soldiers involved in combat operations with the necessary nutrition they needed to function and survive. If you look at combat as a severe survival scenario, it’s easy to see C-Rations as survival rations.

About the Food

A survival diet and the normal day-to-day diet we all eat aren’t the same things. If you talk to any nutritionist, they’ll fill your ears with talk about omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and other things I can’t even pronounce.

Apparently, they all think that we can survive off those micronutrients without paying attention to the macronutrients our bodies need.

Carbohydrates – in a short-term survival situation, we’re not as concerned about maintaining health as we are about maintaining life.

Those micronutrients are essential for maintaining health; however, in a short-term survival situation, we’re not as concerned about maintaining health as we are about maintaining life. As part of that, our biggest food-related concerns are providing our bodies with energy and proteins: the macronutrients.

What this means is that a survival diet needs to consist of:

  • Carbohydrates (about 60%), which our bodies quickly break down into simple sugars for energy.
  • Fats (about 25%), which our bodies also break down into simple sugars, but slowly, providing long-term energy.
  • Proteins (about 15%), so that our bodies don’t cannibalize existing cells in order to make new ones.

C-Rations and MREs both provide a good balance of these macronutrients whilst more or less ignoring the micronutrients that nutritionists talk about all the time.

Loaded with calories, C-Rations provide more than the recommended daily allowance of calories because combat is physically strenuous and causes you to burn more calories than anyone is accustomed to on a daily basis.

In order to make C-Rations more palatable, they always came with salt and pepper packets. This is important for survival food, which often lacks in flavor or has flavors that we are not accustomed to. Properly seasoned, almost anything is edible – something we need to keep in mind for our survival stockpile.

The last important thing I want to mention about C-Rations is that they always came with coffee or hot chocolate. Hot drinks are important for keeping us alert, especially on those long nights of guard duty.

If there is a true TEOTWAWKI event, with a breakdown of society, being able to stay awake could make the difference between life and death. While caffeine helps with that, even hot water can help to keep us awake.

About the Accessory Pack

While the food was the focus of the C-Rations, the accessory pack provides us with the best survival lessons. This small pack of miscellaneous “comfort items” really turned C-Rations into survival rations rather than just any other canned food that you could find.

Hexamine Fuel Tablets

Esbit brand Hexamine tablets gave soldiers the ability to warm their food to make it more palatable. – Author: Roly Williams – CC BY-SA 4.0

Warm food is more easy for our bodies to accept and digest. In cold weather, it is important to eat warm food so that our bodies don’t have to waste energy heating that food up.

The hexamine fuel tablets that came with the C-Rations gave soldiers the ability to warm their food to make it more palatable. But soldiers being soldiers, many found other ways of heating their C-Rats – mostly by tying the cans to the exhaust manifold of their vehicles.

The other reason warm food is so important is for morale. Morale is essential for survival. While it may not seem like warm food would make all that much difference, just talk to troops who have come back off the line to get a warm meal at a real mess hall. It does wonders for morale.

Today, it’s hard to find these hexamine fuel tablets, but they are still available. The Esbit company, a German outfit, still manufactures miniature stoves that burn the tablets as well as manufacturing the tablets themselves. Of course, you could always just start a fire.


Matches were an essential part of the survival rations.

The Army recognized the importance of fire by providing a book of water-resistant matches in each box of C-rations. The clear purpose of them was to light the hexamine tablets, but they worked for other times as well like making a cup of coffee. Between the matches and the hexamine tablets, you could count on being able to start a fire pretty much anytime.

Halazone Tablets

Clean water is an even higher priority than warm food, so the Army included halazone water purification tablets in the early issue C-Rations. Later, they were removed and issued separately in recognition that water purified with chemical purifiers really doesn’t taste all that good.

So, regulations were written stating that they should only be used when no other means of water purification was available.

Providing halazone tablets ensured that the troops always had a means of purifying water without having to hunt for it. When it wasn’t convenient or safe to start a fire, the troops could still have purified the essential water they needed for their bodies to continue functioning normally.

Toilet Paper

Just in case you haven’t noticed yet, what goes in is bound to come out… eventually. Being able to take care of that when it happens is important because personal hygiene is important for maintaining health. So, C-Rations came with a small packet of toilet paper, allowing the troops to take care of things.

The big issue here is contamination. A lot of disease spreads through what is known as the fecal-bocal path. In other words, bacteria and other microorganisms leave the body of someone who is sick, when they go to the bathroom. If that human waste is not properly disposed of, it can end up contaminating water supplies or even food supplies and spreading disease to others.


A P38 can opener – crucial for opening ration cans.

I’ve carried a P-38 with me since basic training thirty-something years ago. What’s a P-38? It’s a manual can opener designed to be used with C-Rations.

Each case of C-Rations shipped with a half dozen of these to ensure everyone could get one. Most would hang it on their dog tag chain to make sure they always had it available.

You never know when you might run across canned food, even in a survival situation. Canned food can keep for decades so I wouldn’t be surprised if people were to find it 20 or 30 years after a cataclysmic event. Being able to open that food easily then becomes an important survival skill.


Cellophane-wrapped chocolate fudge, 3 biscuits, 3 pressed sugar cubes, and a small tin of soluble (instant) coffee

Finally, my favorite part of every box of C-Rations was the chocolate. While the Army had more than one form the chocolate came in, it was always there. Chocolate is a great comfort food as well as a great source of quick energy when it is needed.

Most of us would keep it for that: sticking it in our pocket rather than eating it right away. Their chocolate was special and had something in it to keep it from melting.

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