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The Long-Lasting, 3-Ingredient Survival Food The Pioneers Ate

The Long-Lasting, 3-Ingredient Survival Food The Pioneers Ate

While working cattle at my in-laws’ ranch recently I caught myself dreaming about the past, running through a checklist of things I take for granted that George – the ranch’s founder who grew up in the 1930s — never had the chance to enjoy as a kid in his small house.

The one thing I kept circling back to was food. I thought about my refrigerator at home, packed with juices, meat, cheese, fruit and everything else the average fridge contains. I imagined how my diet would change if one day somebody disconnected the fridge for good. Not only would it cause some storage problems, but it would drastically alter what foods I actually ate.

These dilemmas were an everyday reality for people of George’s day. Folks today often cite canning as the way our ancestors preserved food. It is true the generations of the late 19th and entire 20th century put excess food away by canning. But canning has only been around for a little over 200 years. How did people preserve food prior to that?

The answer is through a variety of methods. Many foods were dehydrated or salted to extend their shelf life. One food that people, especially explorers, found especially useful was hardtack. It seemingly lasted forever.

The Long-Lasting, 3-Ingredient Survival Food The Pioneers Ate

Image source: Author

Hardtack refers to a type of biscuit or cracker that can last an extraordinary length of time. This bread is made with very little water, no yeast, and will keep in storage for years if kept dry. Hardtack’s ability to stay in storage for years without spoiling or molding was probably its greatest attribute. It is also lightweight, nearly indestructible, and contains an abundance of carbohydrates which makes it ideal for a person on the move.

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Hardtack is one of the oldest known foods we have. If you sit down and enjoy a piece, you’ll be sharing the same cuisine feasted on by Roman legionaries, Egyptian sailors and crusaders — just to name a few. Known around the world by different names, the title of “hardtack” became well-used by the early 1800s. Patriot fighters during the Revolutionary War, pioneers and frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, and mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith would have known the unyielding strength of a hardtack biscuit. In fact, the food was so common to the mountain men they simply referred to it as a “biscuit” rather than differentiating between it and the softer textured bread we know today. In the past, hardtack was generally enjoyed after dipping it in coffee or soup to moisten and soften the bread. In many circumstances I’m sure they were happy to have something to eat.

Making hardtack is extremely easy and only takes a few minutes. If you’ve ever thought about making hardtack, want to get a better feel for what table fare in the past would have been like, or are intrigued by foods that can last indefinitely, give this recipe a try.


This recipe is one I got my hands on after browsing the book Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger. Jaeger was a very experienced woodsman who put the book together after a life spent learning skills we would dub today as bushcraft. His four ingredients are as follows:

  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Water
The Long-Lasting, 3-Ingredient Survival Food The Pioneers Ate

Image source: Author

In the book the entire recipe reads as such:

Mix the dry ingredients, and then add just enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll out the dough to about ¼-inch thickness and cut it into sections. Bake them in a greased pan until the hardtack is bone-dry.

That is the entire recipe for making hardtack. Jaeger doesn’t divulge cooking time in his recipe, but I can attest it will take around 1 hour and 10 minutes to cook at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have your oven preheated, it will help. Simply put the rolled and cut dough into the oven for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes, you can flip the pieces for another 35 minutes. When you pull it out of the oven, you’ll likely be surprised how incredibly hard this stuff is. If you choose to use this recipe, there is one thing to note. The sugar in the recipe should be considered an optional ingredient. By adding sugar to the mix, you decrease the shelf life of the product, since sugar does not store as well. If you leave out the sugar, then you are left with three ingredients:

  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Water

I’m not entirely sure why Jaeger included sugar in this recipe, other than it was probably a recipe he had personally used before. Anyone looking to preserve their hardtack for an extremely long time should avoid using sugar.

Hardtack is a food everyone interested in history, camping or survival should know how to make. It is extremely simple and only takes a few minutes of preparation. Once you have made a batch, it can keep for years at a time and provide you with the energy you need to keep moving forward. It also can offer a glimpse into the lives of those shadowy figures who came before us and struggled to build the world we know today. I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to prepare yourself some of the indestructible camp bread known as hardtack.

Have you ever made hardtack? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:


Jaeger, E. (1945). Wildwood Wisdom. Bolina, California: Shelter Publications. (2014, July 11). Hard to Swallow – A Brief History of Hardtack and Ship’s Biscuit. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from Military History No:

Wier, S. (2014, July 1). Biscuits, Hard Tack, and Cracker in Early America. Boulder, Colorado, US.

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  1. Anybody eat the ‘crackers’ in C rations back in the early 1960’s?
    I now have no doubt those crackers were made with the hard tack recipe.

    • Yes sir, I have. And I dare say you are probably right. No need to gun down your enemy…you could have killed him simply by flinging one of those incredibly hard, tasteless crackers at him. They were my least favorite part of C rations….and the part I’d stow away until I was so hungry I didn’t care WHAT they tasted like.

  2. Michael Hesterberg

    This was a very helpful article. Too many emergency information sites will list these survival foods, but then you find that they won’t reveal how to make them, but they’ll be happy to “sell” them to you!!

    Olden days survivalists didn’t have to rely on a company to sell them food. I’d love to see more do-it-yourself basic food articles. thanks

  3. Very interesting recipe! I’m wondering if Mr. Jaeger used white wheat flour. Since I don’t use gluten grains, I’d like to see how this recipe (the 3 ingredient one) works with non-gluten, whole grain flours.

    • I know it works using the commercial gluten free flour mixes. I’ve made crackers for soup using the GF flours & water…although I didn’t bake mine until they were rock hard like hard tack is supposed to be. Also made GF cheese crackers the same way but mixed shredded cheese into the dough before baking. Keep in mind, though, the addition of the cheese makes them unfit for extended storage because of spoilage.

  4. Yeah, I’ve made hardtack. ‘Hard’ is the operative word here – the ‘tack’ is what you could drive with it. It’s usable if you’ve got something to soak it in before you attempt to take a bite, maybe a little carbolic acid or fresh lava – and yes that’s lava not java. Yes, it’s survival food. And as such it’s thought provoking. It might make you consider whether you really want to survive that badly.

  5. I made my first batch of hardtack about 30 years ago from my grandmothers recipe which does not include the sugar. She started married life in 1888 at age 18 and lived in a dugout for the first 4 years. She knew hard times and what did and did not work. Her recipe differs only in that the “biscuits were “pricked” using a fresh peach tree switch – lol. Meaning she would prick very small holes in the biscuits about twice the diameter of a toothpick. Each biscuit was pricked about 4-6 times. I believe this was done to decrease the cooking time and to insure the biscuit was completely baked throughout. My kids loved them then and they still ask for me to cook up a batch occasionally. Got grandkids now starting to ask for them and I want to keep them grounded in reality..

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • TheSouthernNationalist

      They would prick the biscuit several times to keep it from rising, these were also know as “ship’s biscuits” before the name change.

  6. Leave the sugar out is my advice, unless you’re making sweet tack. Hardtack is useful for thickening stews and gravies (just smash a few chunks up and put them in to dissolve and gel up) and sugar (honey, fruit, whatever you prefer) is an ingredient I’d rather add when the meal needs it than all the time.

    Also, if you want the modern equivalent of sweet tack and hard tack, think Nice biscuits and Saltines. Both are already hermetically sealed, you can pack them further to make sure they last a few years or even decades, and you can still also make and pack sweet and hard tack, it’s good to have choices…

  7. I have a question for you…..did you ever try honey (natural sweetener) rather than white or brown sugar?

  8. My husband and I used to do Civil War re-enacting. I made some hardtack to bring along. We discovered that you can crush it to dust and use it as thickening in stew. We also came to the conclusion that it can be used for plates in your body armor or use it to hammer nails. LOL. My second batch I made I put garlic salt in. Much tastier. I sealed up one batch in a zip lock bag, the other with my vacuum sealer approx 5 years ago. The zip lock batch was not as crunchy as the vacuum packed stuff, but still edible.

  9. Has any one used packets from top Ramen to dissolve in the water to flavor it up a little or any thing like that and will it cut down on the storage time

  10. I have made 125 lbs. and plan to make up to 500 lbs. My mixture is 9 cups bread flour, 3 cups water and a heaping tsp. of salt. this makes 24 3×3 inch crackers. Each cracker needs 18 or so holes to let the steam out so the cracker does not rise. Bake each side 365 degrees (my oven) for 40 to 45 minutes a side. DO NOT GREASE PAN!!! USE PARCHAMENT PAPER ON YOUR COOKIE SHEET, This can be used for several consecitive batches. You can make five hundred pounds of hardtack for less than $125. Costco bread flour is the ticket. Bread flour has a 20% higher protein content than general purpouse. The 25 lb. bags are much handier than the 50 lb. bags. I made a cutter and a punch for the holes. (mine has 45 nails . I do 1.5″ X12 inches each pass. Punching holes with a chop stix of one nail takes for ever.

    If you are investing in red wheat and or hardtack I strongly sugest you research Ghee. This can be kept in the freezer and when removed it has a shelf life up to nine months without refridgeration. easy to make and Costco has cheap UNSALTED butter.

  11. How would brown sugar worke with this recipe? I think it woul add a good flavor to it.

  12. Stick with the 3 ingredient recipe if you want your hardtack for long term storage. Glad to learn it was the steam that made one of my batches rise even though it was still hard and dry. I read somewhere you can soak it a few minutes in milk and fry in some butter in a skillet. Soaking in soup broth is good and adds calories which is what you want in a survival situation. I also read on another site that all the additions to change the taste will shorten the shelf life though they did not have their batches vacuum sealed. The removal of the air probably makes a big difference. Hardtack was often packed in barrels and taken on ocean voyages. Make sure you freeze your flour for the appropriate time to kill any bug eggs that might still be in the product.

  13. When people were consuming this food this food in large quantity flour was not bleached. Bleached flour is not healthy. Residual chemicals from the process damage the pancreas. If you do this you should use all natural unbleached flour.

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