March 20, 2020
Food is a vital necessity, but unfortunately it also tends to be bulky and heavy. I know many readers are stocking up on different types of food, just in case. However, please also consider what you’ll do if you and your family end up in a situation where you’re unable to haul large quantities of heavy/bulky food. You might find yourself in a situation where all you have is what’s on your person, or literally what you can stuff in your pockets. What would be ideal is some form of food which is light, compact, filling yet nutritious enough to keep you going. Well there is an entire world of meal replacement, energy bars and performance foods. The question is which ones are best suited to the harsh conditions of a survival situation?
I actually began this project in 1992 while attending the first of many military and police sniper courses. It’s where the criteria for selecting these foods mentioned herein came from. During an extended stalking exercise I became both dehydrated and famished. When I reached into my sniper ghillie suit for a source of energy, both the Payday and Snickers bar I carried had melted and been mushed into mere inedible goo. Subsequent trips to the PX resulted in an arsenal of different types of energy bars being tested. I eventually found one in particular that didn’t melt, disintegrate, nor stick to the package despite crawling on my belly for hours combined with my body heat and the 100 degree heat in June at Fort Bragg. Many lessons were learned along the way.
Years later going on missions in Afghanistan, and then trips all over where a go-bag and worn survival gear is a must, I was more properly equipped with electrolyte mixes and some of the compact performance bars and foods that I had finally settled on for my subsistence. These worked well enough to allow me to subsist entirely on them for over a month. Hassle free energy, finally. Thankfully, you won’t have to go through all of this field testing and exploration.
Since August of 2013, I’ve consumed 119 different types of energy bars, protein bars, electrolyte mixes and drops, energy cubes, powders, meal replacements, all kinds of beef jerky, and other high nutrient, compact, ‘wearable’ foods in an effort to narrow it down to what would fit the needs of most people who go into a situation where they are evacuating, escaping, traveling, on an outing or surviving out of the comfort zone. In many cases, my process of elimination involved consuming certain ones multiple times. I also spoke with nutritionists, endurance athletes, and other experts.
What I tested fell into the following categories:
- Performance Bars (energy bars, protein bars, and meal replacement bars).
- Electrolyte Supplements (powders, tablets, gels, and drops)
- Energy Gels, Disks, Waffles, and Chews
- Some old stand-bys
Selection Criteria For Performance Food on the Go
My selection criteria differ from what you might find in popular sports/health publications. However, they are intended to help you select what best fits the types of situations we might run into as preparedness minded citizens, rather than for sports or recreation. My list of criteria is not what you might think, but does reflect the reality of contingencies that might occur. Here are what I found to be the most important to consider when buying compact performance foods:
- Durability – doesn’t easily melt, disintegrate, or stick to the package. Frankly, many of the name-brand protein and energy bars that I tested turned out to be the ‘sloppy joes’ of performance food, and therefore didn’t make the final cut of what I will recommend here.
- Content – most nutritional bang for the buck – although many of you will be thinking about calories, its protein and a combination of nutrients that you may have the hardest time finding in a survival situation. I sought to find the highest number of grams of protein per ounce.
- Availability – at your local grocery or health food store and on a widespread basis.
- Other factors to consider:
- Compact – as the intent is to line our pockets and get the most that we can into a pack
- No cooking / No utensils needed
- Mixes easily (in the case of powders) or digests easily
- Affordable – the good news is that I found less expensive and store-brand variants that were every bit as cost-effective and nutrient filled as the name brands. Though many of my top picks, as you will see, were not excessively overpriced.
- Taste – please, don’t make this your first choice, especially for survival food.
- Expirations (see below)
- Allergens, Additives, Dietary Considerations, and Pregnancy warnings. This can be a big issue to some, as many performance bars microscopically state on their labels, “manufactured in a facility that also processes other products which may contain soy, tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, and/or wheat (gluten). “ The good news for the Vegan, Non-GMO, Gluten-Free, Organic, and Granola type folks, there are plenty of bars, gels, and powders that I tested which are free of all of that allergic stuff.
- Cost – most of the bars will cost between $1-4 each, even in bulk, and powders $0.20 to $3.00 per serving.
During my explorations and testing, I found that most performance bars weighed between 2-4 ounces, had 120-450 calories, and contained 4-30 grams of protein. I focused on bars which were durable and had the most protein per ounce. The most amount of protein and nutrients in the smallest amount of space. Most are packed with added vitamins, minerals and more. This is a highly competitive market with no shortage of choices. I narrowed it down to 3 to 5 choices for each category that all met or mostly met my stated criteria.
Before going any further, I’ll mention that you may still want to consider some old stand-by items. Certainly bags of trail mix and other food items may be preferred, but what we are talking about are compact, high nutritional value foods that will be stored for only when needed. I have travelled many times overseas with literally a rack of 16 ounce plastic jars of peanut butter. It’s high in protein and energy yielding fat, and doesn’t spoil. I spent nearly 2 months in Asia in the winter living partly off of this stuff. Many outdoorsmen go for Meat Jerky (Beef, Turkey, Buffalo, etc.) It’s lightweight, salty, but not very filling. Despite my exhaustive search for a replacement for meat, beef jerky and some salmon and other meats pack a whopping 7 to 10 grams of protein per ounce. They’re hard to beat. Cans/pouches of Tuna or Salmon and cheeses are great sources of protein and power. The various protein and meal replacement powders have much to offer in terms of their scientific formulations and health benefits.
Another criteria that I’ll come back to – expiration. Most everything listed here and in the photographs have an expiration date. Most of the protein and energy bars on the market have expiration dates that vary from within 2 months to 1 year from when you purchased it. These are not going to outlast the long stay in a trunk of your car, garage or buried deep within a go-bag. The simple solution: Rotate out these items from your go-bag, survival kit, etc.
Regarding my #1 criteria – durability. What I was looking for were performance bars that would withstand not just heat, but time in a pocket or bag. This means they would not fall apart from being bent, body heat or high temperatures encountered while sitting in your pack or in the trunk of a car. If they did, then they needed to be recoverable and not ruined (my final picks fit the bill). There are several manufacturers making bars with powdered rice or whey, coconut and other ingredients that keep the bar together. They avoid the tasty coatings that tend to melt and break apart. A number of these made my final cut. The various energy cubes, chews, and gels that I tested really didn’t fit these criteria too well. They are expensive and more focused on energy for athletes who need a boost. Some have electrolytes built in, so you need less water to get them down, but I would not recommend these for a go-bag or evacuation kit.
A note on electrolytes is also in order. Aside from survival food and all of the many other items that a preparedness minded person needs to have, when it comes right down to it, in a prolonged survival situation, the two most important things that you need are potable water and certain electrolytic minerals known as electrolytes. Drinking water alone won’t do the job. It’s not just water that keeps you alive. Electrolytes are an absolutely essential part of the electrochemistry that makes your heart work. And it’s where the series of heat injuries come from that so many succumb to such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
You have to get electrolytes, and in a certain combination or ratio, either via food intake or the recommended powders shown in this article. Fruits contain many of the electrolytes. All high performance athletes know this, but for an extreme crisis situation, whether it be an evacuation or remote survival situation, by all means pack in some electrolyte mix wherever you go. On the packets or containers of the mixes, look for the following essential electrolytes:
There are more than this and the best answer is to purchase a standalone formulation in powder or liquid concentrate form. A few notes of caution are in order, though. The electrolyte enhanced waters that you see on the store shelves are not sufficient when under exertion. And look closely at the label: many have these ‘salts’ added for taste, often as they are added back to the water following distillation or other processes which strip them out. Not all formulas mix very well, and some of the ones preferred by top athletes tend to settle to the bottom or even form a glob of goo at the bottom of the bottle (a very common complaint of some brands). Further, beware when shopping that you don’t buy one of the sister products to electrolyte mixes. There are exercise and recovery drinks of all manner often filling the same shelves in the store as the hydration specific electrolyte mixes, often coming from the same manufacturer. My advice is to read the package to find at least the first two, if not all four of the electrolytes listed above. Finally, though many of the mentioned performance food bars contain most of the essential electrolytes, many do not have enough.
I use a combination of three top brands of electrolyte mixes, to include Oxylent® by Vitalah, Power Pak by Trace Minerals Research (inexpensive and available at the Vitamin Shoppe chain), Cerasport, and Cytomax. I used Cytomax in giant barrel-like containers on multiple deployments to the war zones and Cerasport is a proven product utilized as an official purchase item by our military. Additionally, the very common Emergen-c brand is sufficient. I tried 11 different formulations while preparing this article and have narrowed it down to the most suitable and that mix easily.
Narrowing it Down
My recommendation is to have the following on your person or in your go-bag when on the go: 3-5 packets of electrolyte mix and 3 or more performance bars per day.
You won’t necessarily meet the 2,000 calorie per day requirements, but this can keep you alive. Choose the ones with the most protein per ounce, that are durable enough to survive months of abuse in your pocket, bag or car, and available locally. If you are on an outing or travelling, line your pockets with them. I like to put quantities of electrolyte mix and performance bars in empty MRE bags and then duct tape them shut. This helps to protect them from the elements and makes them easier to pack. Then put the expiration date on the bag.
Click the links below to see my recommendations for performance bars and electrolyte mixes that fit the above criteria.
Electrolyte Chart / Performance Bars Chart
The most important point I want to get across is years of use (around the globe and in war zones) have shown dense, durable, high protein performance food bars and electrolyte mixes to be the way to go for survival chow. I looked at what a lot of the survival books and schools are now teaching. It’s a great skill set to know what food to forage for. But, many of those plants and such just don’t have enough protein. Or, they won’t be available. It’s even harder in the desert, mountainous or winter time. Consider also that you may have to keep moving. Knowing how to hunt or trap wild animals or fish is a great thing as well. But, both require some specialized knowledge and practice. Unless you spend a lot of time studying how to do this and practicing, you may fall short. But, lining your pockets and space in your go-bag with the two most recommended items of this article seems to be the easy solution.
About the author:
J. M. Peterson is a former U. S. Army Special Forces and Infantry soldier with service multiple places / times in Central Asia and elsewhere after 9/11 both as an SF troop and government contractor.