In the event of an emergency, the amount of survival food that you have stored away can directly impact your likelihood of making through that situation intact. Food and water are essential to life, and when a disaster happens you don’t want to find yourself fighting mobs for a few cans of food at the grocery store. Most grocery stores only have as much as 3 days’ worth of food within them, so being prepared to make it through the panic that results in the first few weeks after a large-scale emergency can help to increase your chances of survival and increase your overall safety.
But having a good supply of emergency food on hand isn’t just about preparing for a large-scale disaster. Those who live in rural areas or areas where severe weather frequently takes down the power and leaves you isolated will find that being comfortable thanks to a variety of nutritious foods is a much-preferred situation over trying to make limited supplies of perishable and nonperishable foods last for as long as possible.
To help you plan effectively, we’ll take a look at some of the best survival food to have on hand to make it through any emergency. And, just in case that emergency turns out to not be so temporary, we’ll look at how you can later increase your food stores and work toward self-sufficiency and independence.
Basic Survival Food to Have on Hand
Alcohol: While not a food item, alcohol has a wide variety of handy uses, such as cleaning wounds and making medicines (depending upon the type of alcohol.) It can also be used as a barter item and, let’s face it, when SHTF you may very likely find yourself needing a drink.
Beans: Not only can you count on beans to hold up for a good 8-10 years, but they’re also jam-packed with nutrients and come in a large variety. If you’re not a fan of kidney beans or lentils, you can always add flavor variety with split green peas, garbanzo beans, black eye peas, mung beans, and even lima beans.
Coffee: Lasting only 2-5 years, coffee isn’t truly essential. However, if you’re in the habit of having a cup or three every day and have been doing so for years, imagine how difficult suddenly going without can be. For this reason, even if you’re not a coffee drinker, having some stored away as a barter item isn’t a plan.
Flour: A staple food ingredient, flour can easily last 5-8 years if stored properly in a plastic food storage container. You can add variety to your diet with different types of flour, such as whole grain, cornmeal, and even baking mixes that can be easily made into everything from pancakes to cake breads.
Freeze Dried Food: Available as single fruits and vegetables or even as full meals, such as soups and stews. What makes freeze dried foods so important as a survival food is the fact that, unopened, they can last for up to 30 years. But, once open, they can still last for an impressive 6-12 months.
Grains: Hard grains such as millet, wheat, corn, and buckwheat can last around 8-12 years with proper storage. Soft grains such as quinoa, barley, oats, and rye should last up to 8 years if kept below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peanut Butter: While it has a shelf life of only 2-5 years, peanut butter is a great source of protein, fat, and energy. If things really get rough and you need to limit calorie intake in order to make your food stores last longer, a few tablespoons of peanut butter a day will help you to still get enough nutrients, fats, and protein to be functional.
Raw Honey: If sealed and stored properly, raw honey can last indefinitely. It may not be an essential food item, but it can really help with morale by adding flavor to your food. Plus, it also has medicinal value.
Rice: While brown rice is more nutritious, white rice has a longer shelf life (5-8 years) and requires less water to prepare -both of which will have a bearing on your survival food preparations. Store them like you would flour and baking mixes.
Salt: It’s easy to discount the importance of salt, but it is one of those food items that you want to have in an emergency situation. Not only will it help with seasoning food, but it can also be used to effectively dry meat in order to preserve it.
Sugar: This is another food item that isn’t essential but you’ll really appreciate having it on hand for sweetening foods.
Long Term Food Storage
Once you’ve got your non-perishable bulk foods and freeze dried foods put together, you need to make sure that you’re storing them properly. With proper storage, most of your food stores will be able to last for around 10 years. The biggest threats to your emergency survival food are heat, light, moisture, and oxygen. This where having proper food storage containers and storage locations comes into play.
Plastic Food Storage Containers: Many people use 5- or 6-gallon food grade pails to store dried goods in, such as flour, rice, and beans. Ideally, you want a plastic such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and your pail must have a tight fitting lid. Over time, even the best plastic will allow oxygen to slowly seep in, which is why further protecting your food by sealing it in a mylar or vacuum sealed bag first and then sealing the food in the pail is recommended. The mylar is especially good at protecting your survival food from light and moisture. You can also increase the shelf life of the food stored inside with oxygen absorbing packets, diatomaceous earth, or by purging the pail with nitrogen or dry ice prior to sealing it.
Metal Cans: Most people don’t realize that old coffee cans make effective food storage containers. They’re especially good for food items that you will naturally have smaller amounts of, such as salt, sugar, and spices. You can also purchase metal cans for food storage that come with a double enamel coating. If you ever purchase freeze dried food from Mountain House, these are the exact type of cans in which the food will be shipped to you.
Mylar Bags: These are a convenient storage method that protect your emergency food supply from light and oxygen. They can be purchased in a variety of sizes, including pail size.
Vacuum Sealed Bags: These are handy as you can easily seal the bags on your own and can see the contents at a glance. Once food is sealed, placing it within a larger plastic food storage container will allow your food to last longer.
Glass Canning Jars: This is a great option if you happen to garden as it allows you to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables for up to a year at peak nutritional levels. While this won’t help in a long-term situation, it can help as a short-term emergency food supply and make your long-term survival foods last longer. Plus, the jars can be reused once things return to normal or you’re on your way to truly long-term self-sufficiency.
Supplementing with the Wilderness
While your long-term food storage solutions and stash of freeze dried foods are crucial for getting you through any disaster, once the threat of emergency has died down a bit, it’s in your best interest to start supplementing your diet with foods you procure from the wilderness. Not only does this help to make your long-term emergency food last longer, but it also helps to introduce greater variety to your diet -which is great for your health as much as it is for morale.
But one of the biggest benefits to starting to pull your food from the wild while you still have plenty of other foods stocked up is because eventually those food stores will run out and you need to be able to still survive. Wilderness skills such as subsistence hunting and foraging will help you make the switch from surviving a disaster to thriving, allowing you to be self-sufficient and focus your attention on new long term survivalism strategies, such as homesteading and beginning to grow your own food. Plus, knowing how to hunt and what plants are edible are great to know in case of an emergency situation as you’ll be able to get food regardless of how far from your base camp and food stores you may be.
While most people who hunt treat is as an annual affair, a chance to spend some time outdoors, bring in their buck, and drink a few too many beers with the guys, for many people hunting supplies a considerable portion of their food supply. Emergency situations aside, with the available hunting and fishing seasons in your area, you can realistically keep your freezer and belly full year round if you’ve some skill as a hunter.
It’s important to note, however, that for true subsistence hunting -and what you’ll want to focus on when supplementing your food stores and switching your plans to thriving post-emergency- most of what you harvest won’t be large game animals but small game. Not only are small mammals and birds such as rabbits, hares, squirrels, grouse, pheasants, ducks, geese, and even raccoon, possum, skunk, and porcupine more plentiful but they’re also easier to get. The point is, unless we’re talking about subsistence hunting under normal circumstances and you’ve got your license, tags, and are hunting in season, you can’t be picky about what you’re hunting for. After all, your goal is to not starve, right?
And getting that variety is really important for your health. For example, if things get really bad, you cannot survive off of just rabbits, squirrels, and other small lean mammals. This results in a form of extreme malnutrition colloquially known as rabbit starvation. What it is in actuality is a lack of fat in the diet that makes it difficult for the body to not only process the amount of protein one is consuming but to function properly. Forget about how the mainstream diet and health talk about just how awful fat is: you need some fat in your diet in order to survive.
This is why throughout the world, indigenous people have constructed recipes that combine dried meat and fat together, in equal proportions, to create a highly nutritious food that last virtually forever. The most commonly known of these recipes is called pemmican. It originates in Western North American from the indigenous plains people. The name comes from the Cree word for fat or grease –“pemi.” In addition to dried meat and fat, dried berries are also added in order to sweeten the mixture and improve the taste.
A similar recipe called akutaq can be found with the Yupik of Western Alaska. This recipe combines whipped fat with berries, roots, greens, and fish. And in Eastern Russian, there is a very similar recipe called tolkusha that involved dried fish or roe that is pounded together with fat, berries, roots, and greens to make a white paste.
All of these dishes create a food that is high in fat and protein. And thanks to the use of rendered fat (called tallow, which can be stored safely at room temperature) it can last a really long time -making it great for travel.
You can easily make pemmican yourself. You’ll need approximately five pounds of meat for every one pound of dried meat, which you’ll mix with one pound of rendered fat. Great meats to use include deer, rabbit, elk, squirrel (if you can get enough,) and even beef. Lean meats are a better choice simply because using them allows you to save fattier meats for other uses. This is the most health-focused way to use the meat you have in order to get the most nutritional benefits.
- Cut the meat into thin strips and dry it. This can be done in the sun but I prefer to hang the meat over a fire so that the combination of heat and smoke dry it out in about an hour. You can also use a food dehydrator.
- Grind the dried meat into a powder. If you’re fortunate to have electricity, a food processor or blender comes in real handy here, otherwise, you can grind and pound the meat into a powder using two abrasive rocks.
- Add a handful or so of dried berries to your meat in order to grind them really well, too.
- Render the fat. This is a very simple process and can use any fat from any animal (although rendering pork fat produces lard, not tallow. Lard is soft and must be refrigerated; tallow can be stored at room temperature.) Melt the fat, and strain it.
- While the melted tallow is still warm add it to your powdered meat -taking care that you have equal proportions of both. Mix everything together thoroughly.
- Form the mixture into balls while the fat is still warm but beginning to solidify. Allow the balls to finish cooling.
Your pemmican balls can be stored wrapped in layers of cheesecloth, rawhide, muslin, or even plastic food storage containers.
Except in more extreme locations, there are a surprising number of plants that can be used for food. Even in your suburban backyard, you’re likely to have at least a few highly nutritious plants that make great forage. Take, for example, the common dandelion. Sure, you probably fight with it, trying to exterminate it from your lawn but the dandelion was actually deliberately introduced to North American by settlers due to its high nutrition content. In fact, the entire plant is edible. A number of other so-called weeds you’ve pulled from your lawn or garden can also be used for medicine in addition to being a regular part of a foragers diet.
While the exact variety of plants that one finds growing will differ from location to location, based on region and climate, there are a few standbys that can be found growing throughout much of North America that you would do well to be familiar with. These plants can all be eaten raw or cooked, which makes them great to know for an emergency situation. But, they are also available from early Spring to late Autumn -allowing you greater variety for your diet and ways to stretch your food stores.
Burdock: Easily recognizable for its enormous leaves, great stalk, and burs in the Autumn, this plant’s leaves are a highly nutritious food source in the Spring. In the Autumn, dig the root, scrub it clean, and boil it like a vegetable or add to soups. The Autumn leaves can be eaten in a similar fashion. Both leaves and roots can be easily dried and put away for food during the Winter.
Cattail: Nearly the entire plant is edible and presents you with a variety of options. The baby green shoots can be pulled when about 2 feet tall, then peeled to reveal a tender white “heart” that can be eaten raw or boiled. When the adult plants first send up green shoots that would become the brown female flower, that green cob can be gathered, boiled, and then the outside is eaten (much like a cob of corn, discarding the wiry center.) The yellow pollen can be gathered in fairly large quantities and mixed with flour (at a ratio up to 1:1) to add flavor and stretch supplies. The rootstock can also be pulled, peeled, chopped, dried, and then ground into a flour.
Chickweed: Low growing and favoring bright but partially shaded areas, you’ll recognize it by its heart-shaped leaves and tiny white star-shaped blossoms. A great standard green, it isn’t overly bitter and makes a great addition to soups and salads.
Dandelion: As mentioned earlier, the entire plant is edible. Older leaves can be quite bitter, but younger leaves will still provide a highly nutritious food source but with a more palatable taste. The root can be washed and scraped cleaned and boiled, or it can be dried, roasted, ground, and brewed for a drink that is similar in taste and consistency to coffee, though lacking in caffeine. The blossoms are commonly used to make Spring tonics and wine. Note that it is also a diuretic and can be very useful in cleansing the body of toxins.
Plantain: This is every wilderness enthusiasts best friend. Not only does plantain provide a delicious food source, but it is highly effective in stopping bleeding in minor cuts and scrapes, as well as in treating insect bites and stings, rashes, and even warts. To treat skin ailments, bruise the leaf with your teeth and apply the mush to the affected area. Allow it to remain in contact for several minutes, reapplying if necessary.
Yarrow: This plant is recognizable by its height, feathery leaves, and cluster of white flowers. The leaves have a peppery taste and can make a great addition, taste wise, to your meals.
Knowing the basics when it comes to survival food can greatly affect your chances of survival in a large scale disaster scenario, plus they can also make short-term situations -such as loss of power due to tornado, hurricane, or severe winter weather- much more comfortable. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt to have a supply of emergency food on hand just in case. And with the information we’ve covered above, you’ll be able to start taking formative action to building up an emergency food supply to take care yourself and your loved ones.