The Conundrum

If you’ve ever considered putting together a home emergency kit, you’ve probably noticed that most three-day preparedness packs and food bar rations on the market, seem to be light on calories. In fact, about 1200 calories too light.

And that’s just about the time you start to scratch your head. You begin thinking about your favorite health experts on TV, that nutrition article you read last week, and the dozens of food labels you skimmed over on your recent grocery shopping trip.

Your head begins to spin, as you struggle to remember the exact phrasing of those nutrition labels. Fuzzy at first, but then you begin to recall something about 2000 calories per day. You rush to the cupboard, and pull out the first box you see:

“Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs”.

Now feeling triumphant, you rush over to your laptop and immediately start searching online for emergency rations. You excitedly scan over the screen of rolling images, until you find exactly what you’re looking for: 410 calories per serving. 6 Servings.

You do a quick mental calculation, and soon realize that 2460 calories is enough to sustain a person for a day, but three? No way. Then you think about how most emergency kits helpfully suggest just two servings a day. Confused, you continue to scroll through image after image. One in particular catches your interest. You enlarge the photo of another brand of food ration, and see the following:

“Eat three food bars per person per day.”

Thoroughly confused, you let out a sigh as you ponder all of the conflicting nutritional recommendations. 2000 calories, 800 calories, and now 1200 calories. So what gives?

Decoding the Mystery

While it’s true that most people need an average of 2000 calories per day, this is just a general rule of thumb. If you live an active life or maintain an active lifestyle, you’ll require more. If on the other hand, you spend most of your time in an office setting or simply sitting around watching TV, you’ll need somewhat less. Age, gender, and height can vary your needs too.

Nutritional semantics aside, daily caloric intake can be seen from many perspectives. Let’s think about this for a minute. Right now, you’re probably sitting in a warm room, on a comfy chair, maybe even rubbing a full belly. Even if you’re hungry while reading this, your body definitely has quite a bit of reserve energy to spare. Emotions and feelings aside, you’re hardly starving.

Herein lies the mystery of the problem. You’ve been looking at calories through the lens of of an ideal and stable position, rather than seeing things from a survival or emergency perspective. There’s a huge difference between maintaining a healthy diet, and one that will sustain you long enough to be rescued (or for your situation to stabilize again). And guess what? 800 calories a day is just enough to do that.

Coast Guard to the Rescue

You probably assume that the 2000 calorie figure comes from the FDA, nutritionists, and years of research, but where exactly does the 800 calorie recommendation come from then? Would you believe the United States Coast Guard? It’s true. You see, the calories of today’s food bar rations owe their history to the merchant marine, dating way back to World War II. Back then, they were known as Type “C” Biscuits, and the coast guard had strict specifications, regulations, and recommendations for the wartime safety measures of the merchant marine. That’s why to this day, the USCG is responsible for approving food bar rations. Technically, they’re still considered emergency food rations for lifeboat use.

So, where are we going with this you ask? Well, it’s a little archaic. During the second world war, the coast guard mandated that all merchant marine vessels stock 56 ounces of lifeboat rations per person, totaling 8000 calories. It was suggested that 10% of the food store be rationed out daily, ensuring that the supplies would last for ten days (the maximum expected time frame for rescue at sea). This conveniently worked out to 800 calories per person, per day — which just happens to be a sufficient amount to sustain life. And now you see, 800 is mainly an arbitrary number, which just happened to work out as an amount that can support life under dire circumstances.

Planning for Survival

Armed with this information, now would be a good time to plan your own home emergency kit. There are a variety of food options available, from simple food rations (which require no preparation or skills) and freeze dried foods (which are tasty but require plenty of water), to meals ready-to-eat (MRE) which have the advantage of requiring no cooking and little water, but are bulky and costly.

Most home emergency kits are geared for short duration emergencies, and assume that you will have access to at least a minimal amount of additional supplies, services, and comforts. They’re definitely not not built with the expectation of you being dropped from a helicopter into the wild for a month or more. With this in mind, calories per day can be reduced to a few basic factors:

Space + Weight + Cost + Convenience

While 2000+ calories would be ideal in an any situation, 800-1200 per person, would be much more realistic under emergency conditions. Food takes up a considerable amount of space, and can contribute quite a bit of weight. It also has a shelf life, and should be rotated out, which can significantly add to the cost and hassle of maintaining an emergency or survival kit.

For short-term situations (such as 1-3 days), food bar rations are an attractive and economical solution. They are calorie dense for their compact size and weight, and most can be stored for 5 years. They’re also super convenient, as they don’t require additional water for cooking, further reducing any space and weight restrictions you might have.

Although we suggest at least 1200 calories per person, per day, this is more of a psychological and comfort recommendation. In all likelihood, you will have been well-fed prior to any dire situation, so even the basic ration of 800 calories will be more than enough to sustain you with little harm to your health. You might even consider it a dieting opportunity.

For longer lasting or true wilderness survival events, we recommend that you also consider freeze-dried foods. There’s more variety, they’re much better tasting, and yet they take up about the same amount of space. Depending on the brand and packaging, these kinds of emergency foods will last anywhere from 3-25+ years. On the other hand, they do require about one cup of water per serving (which could pose a problem), and tend to be much higher in price per calorie.

If you’re interested in stocking up on emergency food for your home kit now, you might find these shopping links useful: