Traditional trail foods

Transportable calories

Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. Frederick the Great defined an army as a group of men who demanded daily feeding. One can imagine the nutritional problems of a large group on the move. Armies through the ages have tried everything from bottling snails to bringing along herds of livestock. It's difficult to keep mess kits and cooking equipment adequately clean under rugged field conditions, so illnesses were rampant. In most campaigns, more troops have been lost to sickness than to the enemy. Sometimes it was impossible to deliver food to the front line troops who needed it most. Hunger has ended many ambitions. The search for transportable calories, the "research and product development" of earlier armies, has finally resulted in the MRE. "MRE" stands for "Meal, Ready to Eat."

Eating pemmican on the mountain

Eating pemmican on the mountain

In accordance with the Office of the Surgeon General's nutritional requirements as identified in Army Regulation 4025, Nutritional Standards for Operational Rations, they will survive a 100 foot drop from a helicopter with no parachute, endure inclement weather and survive temperature extremes from minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and have a minimum shelf life of three years at 80 degrees F and last for six months at 100 degrees F. Now people on the move can have a meal on demand by carrying it with them. Mess kits and pots and pans have been eliminated. MREs set the current standard for traveling rations, but they aren't magic. Those who use them are encumbered and inconvenienced by the weight and bulk of plastic utensils, condiments, heaters and a remarkable amount of packaging. Having to cook them to make them appealing wastes time. (I know, they're designed to be eaten cold if necessary. Have a few dozen that way and then come back and tell me about it.) And if you're buying your own MREs rather than having them issued by Uncle Sam, they're prohibitively expensive.

If you have a need for trail food—storable, transportable, convenient, affordable and palatable calories—maybe we can learn something from the old ways. Jerky, pemmican, hardtack, and parched corn are traditional travel rations that have passed the test of time. They are products that have been produced, relied on, and refined for centuries, even millennia. Just a touch of modern technology and convenience makes them even better today.

Jerky, pemmican, hardtack, and parched corn are ways to put game, livestock, wild berries, and garden produce by in times of plenty. Easily made, transported, and stored, they became frontier staples for travelers, hunters, and warriors. They are still excellent trail foods and emergency rations.

I take jerky, pemmican, hardtack, and parched corn along on wilderness trips. Supplemented by some tea, salt, and rice and whatever I can catch or gather, I can exist pretty comfortably and feel healthy doing it. Even if I take more modern foods along as well, the historical perspective is fun. They're comforting to have in reserve, too, in case the bush plane doesn't show up on time, or the wind keeps your canoe ashore for a couple extra days. (Their only drawback as emergency rations is that I'm tempted to eat them before I'm truly hungry).


Jerky is said to keep for years, but it's so good that around my house it's shelf life is usually measured in minutes. Here's my favorite recipe:

1½ lbs. very lean ground meat—(Any meat that isn't fatty, including fish and birds. Avoid pork or bear.)
¼ cup soy
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Liquid Smoke
½ tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. black pepper

Combine all the marinade ingredients and pour over the meat. Refrigerate until the meat absorbs the solution. (Chilled meat is also firmer and easier to work with.) Roll the ground meat out and cut into strips about 1/4-inch thick and an inch or two wide. The strips can then be dried either on plastic screens or in a food dehydrator. Our forebears often simply draped strips of meat over branches; they built a cool, smoky fire underneath to keep away flies if necessary.


At its simplest, pemmican is only powdered jerky bound together with melted fat. It tastes far better than it sounds. When you're working hard outdoors, especially in the cold, listen to your body. Pemmican will satisfy your craving for calories in ways that a candy bar won't. It's said to provide every essential but vitamin C. The concept of pemmican was borrowed from the American Indians. It begins with lean meat, traditionally of bison, moose, elk, or deer. It was dried over a fire or in the sun and wind. The dried meat was ground and shredded between stones. Sometimes ground dried berries, nuts, or honey were added. Finally, melted fat and/or bone marrow grease were mixed in. Pemmican could be eaten as is, or made into a soup or stew. When available, mint leaves or wild onions could be added for flavor.

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