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9 Unforgettable Survival Lessons From The Army’s C-Rations

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If you’ve been in the field on maneuvers with the Army, been in combat or even been around the survival community for a while, you’ve probably heard about MREs. MREs are the Army’s current version of combat rations, which the troops refer to as “three lies for the price of one: they’re not a meal, they’re not ready and they’re not edible.” Nevertheless, MREs are actually a good combat ration. They are nutritious, lightweight, and they provide many calories.

Before the MRE, the Army issued C-Rations. We all said that term was short for “combat ration,” but in reality, the Army’s field rations have always been called combat rations, even the MREs they use today. C-Rations were canned foods in a cardboard box. They were bulkier and heavier than the current combat ration, but they were surprisingly popular.

Having served in the Army at the time when they were making the transition from C-Rations to MREs, I look back with nostalgia to the days of the C-Ration. As a survival ration, it was well-prepared, and I recognize how much thought went into its creation.

There are a number of survival lessons we can learn from those old C-Rations, especially from the “accessory pack” that went with them.

1. Always be Ready to Open a Can

You’ve probably seen those videos of someone showing you how to open a can by rubbing it on a concrete sidewalk. I’m not going to say that won’t work, because it will. However, anyone who has eaten C-Rations knows a better option. Like me, they’ve probably carried an Army P-38 can opener on their key ring since basic training.

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The P-38 is the simplest and most compact can opener ever invented. Even though C-Rations are long gone, you can still find P-38s around on eBay. Carrying one on your key ring assures that you can open a can of food during a crisis.

2. Don’t Forget Hygiene

C-Rations came with a small package of toilet paper, so that the troops could take care of other things. Personal hygiene is an important part of survival, and if you aren’t ready to deal with human waste in a safe manner, you might end up contaminating your own water supply.

3. Stay Hydrated

C-Rations always came with some sort of drink, whether it was flavored electrolyte drink powder, coffee with double the normal level of caffeine, or hot chocolate. When you’re out there sweating all day, you’ve got to drink enough. For most people, that’s easier to do if you’re drinking something with more flavor that just water.

4. Be Alert

In combat, just like in a real survival situation, staying awake and alert is important. The double caffeine coffee was developed just for that. Warm drinks are great for keeping awake, and caffeine keeps most of us running. Gum was also included in C-Rations, because chewing gum helps keep you awake and it serves an emergency means of brushing your teeth when a toothbrush is unavailable.

(Earlier versions of C-Rations also included cigarettes, because smoking helps people stay alert. I won’t bother talking about how bad smoking is to your health. Later versions of the C-Rations didn’t include cigarettes, since troops would break into cases just to steal the cigarettes.)

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5. Warm Food is Better for Morale

Morale is a big deal in combat; it’s also a big deal in survival. Way too many people quit and just lie down to die. A lot of success is just pushing through until you get there. That requires a positive attitude — in other words, good morale. Warm food makes an amazing difference in helping maintain one’s morale. While cold food may nourish, warm food makes you comfortable.

The old C-Rations came with hexamine heat tablets, which could be used to warm the cans. These are a bit hard to find today, but the Esbit Company, out of Germany, still produces them, as well as the stoves to use with them. With an Esbit stove and heat tabs, you can warm food anywhere, even if you don’t have wood for starting a fire. I carry one of these in my EDC bag.

You can be creative about warming food as well. We used to tie the main course cans from out C-Rations to the exhaust manifold of our jeep’s engine. After driving a bit, the food would be toasty warm.

6. Keep Your Fire Starters at Hand

You always need to have fire starters at hand. C-Rations came with a book of water resistant matches. They were actually there to go with the cigarettes and hexamine heat tablets, but they provided a means for the troops to start a fire as well. Actually, the hexamine tablets make a good fire starter for times when you have trouble starting a fire.

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7. Make Food Flavorful so People Will Eat It

There’s nothing worse than bland food day after day. That’s why people complain about Army food, cafeteria food and hospital food. It seems like all of these institutions have made a pact to eliminate spices. The one exception is in C-Rations. Those came with salt and pepper packets, so that you could flavor your food. Maybe it wasn’t a full spice cabinet, but it was better than nothing.

8. Always Have a Water Purifier

For a while, C-Rations came with halazone water purification tablets. Halazone is a derivative of chlorine, so it will purify water from all microscopic pathogens. The one problem with it is that it leaves the water with a horrible taste. In recent times, the military has become more technologically advanced in water purification methods for troops in the field.

9. Sugar Gives You That Needed Burst of Energy

My favorite part of the C-Rations was always the chocolate bars. The Army has its own recipe for chocolate that won’t melt. That’s handy when you’re out there in the field. I really don’t want to know what they added, as it’s probably not good for you. Nevertheless, having a chocolate bar to munch on when you need a burst of energy is a great idea.

What survival lessons would you add to the list? Share your suggestions in the section below:

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