Camping survival guide: Emergency food

By: Scott Heiman, Photography by: Scott Heiman

What to pack to get you out of a jam.

Camping Survival Guide Emergency Food

Most of us have done it. We’ve gone out for the day to get some fresh air and to test the latest modification on our 4WD by tackling a favourite track a few kilometres from home. You’ll be back by lunch to mow the lawn, right?  But what if your rig breaks down and you’re not able to get back?

Or what if you’re travelling well off the beaten track and suffer a serious a mechanical failure, run out of fuel, roll-over or become dislocated from your vehicle? There may be no option to phone a friend. After all, in Australia, there’s mobile coverage for more than 90 per cent of the coast-hugging population, not 90 per cent of the country (it’s closer to 65 per cent, in fact). Did you have the foresight to buy a PLB or satellite phone before you set off?

Remote area travellers should become accustomed to having a good supply of tucker onboard. With advances in refrigeration and the science behind packaging and preservatives, camp cooking has come a long way since the days of the Burke and Wills.

The challenge in preparing for any trip is knowing how much food to travel with – and when you’re likely to be able to restock supplies during your journey. Food also becomes an issue for those of us who plan to leave our vehicles and get among the scrub on foot or with a bike or small boat.

While things are going according to plan, there’s probably not too much to worry about. As usual, the issue comes if we’re faced with the unexpected. If you’re an experienced outdoorsman and bush tucker specialist, you’re probably going to be okay. If you’re not, you’ll quickly start to wonder whether the pre-packaged, single serve, one-use food items that you chucked in the rig were the best option. If you find yourself looking at a stale bag of chips on the back seat of your car or in your backpack, you’ll know you should have (and could have) come better prepared.

How many calories you need to survive depends on your metabolic rate, age, height, weight and fitness levels. Regardless, some food products offer you better nutritional options and more flexibility than others. So here’s some simple ideas that can help you out if you get into trouble – whether you’re on a simple day trip, or tackling the Big Lap.


I’ve looked in a lot of tucker boxes in my time. Travelling with friends and thinking about family camps as kids, there’s usually been a lot of pre-packed 1-4 serve ‘heat and eat’ meals and seasonings. Add some high salt/sugar-low nutrient snacks, and that’s probably about it. Many people seem to travel with only enough multiple-use, longlife products to bulk-out one or two meals above the anticipated length of the trip.

If that sounds like you, you might want to start thinking differently about what food stuffs are actually important when you travel. Look at it this way – what would you hope to see in your tuckerbox if you were facing five or more days with no electricity, fridge/freezer and no opportunity to resupply? If we take a leaf out of the books of the early pioneers and explorers in this country, what you should really consider stocking are dry ingredients with long shelf lives and multiple uses.

Better still, get into the habit of stashing emergency supplies away where they won’t get slowly depleted like a box of Band-aids. After all, there’s no point in packing back-up supplies if you’ve used them before you really need them!

We opt for an ex-army ration pack, a bag of flour combined with a bag of rice cryo-vacced by our friendly butcher, wrapped in a towel and stashed in the toolbox or under the backseat. After all, you’re not looking for cordon bleu cuisine in an emergency situation. If you’re a big bloke, you’ll be looking to find up to 2500 calories per day until a rescue team arrives.

Also consider keeping a ‘snack box’ in your vehicle’s cabin at all times. We like to stock this with high energy, high protein longlife products that provide a quick boost on a long day, and can be chucked in a pocket or backpack any time we step away from the vehicle. A simple six-pack Esky in the rear footwell works well.


When you jump out of your fourbie to check out the sights or a fishing hole, always grab a handful of food from the snack box and take a minimum of 2L of water. And don’t forget – once you’ve harvested goodies from your onboard supplies, replenish the stocks at the end of the day. After all, who knows whether tomorrow will be the day that you’ll be relying on them?

Camping Survival Guide Emergency Food 1

If you’re planning on being away from your vehicle for any extended length of time, you also need to increase your water supply and carry some substantial meals as well. Here’s our take on some options commonly used by the military and recreational outdoor sectors:

• Military ration packs: Scientists have already done the hard yards and research into these products so there’s no second-guessing. Military ration packs (Rat Packs) are good-to-go hot or cold straight out of the packet. They also include a prescribed level of fluid. Rat Packs are designed to support soldiers involved in strenuous and demanding work. Whether it’s digging holes, carrying heavy equipment over long distances or staying awake on picket all night, Napoleon was right when he said ‘an Army marches on its stomach’. So it’s not surprising that Rat Packs deliver a massive 13-20,000kJ of energy to help soldiers get on with the job.

While military-issue individual Rat Packs are intended to last 24 hours, the high calorie-loading means you can stretch them out to over seven days, depending on how much physical exertion you’re involved in. And, stored properly, they can last up to 10 years and can be eaten cold or heated!

While you might be able to find the occasional ex-Army Rat Pack in a Disposals Store for about $100, you can buy similar (boil in the bag) civilian products from companies such as Hungerbusters for $45. Funnily enough, this New Zealand company is the main supplier for most items in the Australian Combat Ration Pack!

• Lighter options: While military Rat Packs are calorie rich – they are also pretty weighty, because they include a good dose of fluid. For the commercial outdoors market, freeze-dried and ready-to-eat pre-packed meals are readily available and weigh a fraction of their military counterparts. These products are designed to fill a market niche that’s probably not prepared to carry a soldier’s load. While lighter to carry, the downside is that these options generally need you to carry sufficient water to heat and/or rehydrate the product prior to consuming it. Also, they generally don’t have the same high calorie content of a military Rat Pack and they require supplementation with fresh fruit and vegetables to achieve a balanced nutritional loading.

• Space food: There’s limited room on a space shuttle which is why NASA had Space Food Cubes invented. They were crammed full of carbohydrates, fat and protein and were the forerunners of today’s energy bars. For those of you looking for a calorie-rich food source that you can easily pop into your shirt pocket, vacuumed packed survival bars are commercially available.

These bars are stuffed full of carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. Some taste like an enriched shortbread biscuit while others resemble a quote out of the movie Crocodile Dundee ("you can live on it, but it tastes like sh..").


In the end, as 4WDers, fishermen, hunters and campers, we go to some pretty remote spots.  That’s the whole point, isn’t it? But we should never take our personal safety for granted. The number of ill-prepared outdoor recreationalists who appear in the news weekly on both sides of the Tasman is astonishing. No recovery gear, no fuel, water or food – or all the gear and no idea. When it comes to food, sometimes it’s better to ‘get back to basics’.  We don’t mean ditch the frozen peas and prawns in the Engel – but to think of the ‘what if’ scenarios.

After all, if our pioneering forebears could keep a grip on things when the going got tough, we’ve got no excuse to leave things to chance. The only thing we really need in life is shelter, and a reliable source of water and nutrition. It’s simple really.

Top 10 emergency food stuffs

Powdered milk: No power, ice or fridge required. Powdered milk is a source of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, zinc, potassium and phosphorous. Simply add water or add the powder to a meal. Mix one measure of powder with three measures of water to make ‘milk’, or use it as a meal thickener and for flavour.

Flour: Rediscover the Jamie Oliver in you and see what you can create with flour. Simple stuff like scones, damper, dumplings and roti fill hungry bellies. With some basic additives, flour can form the centrepiece of a real meal. After all, bread is a staple food for many cultures.

Rice: Rice gives your body energy in the form of carbohydrates. It also has vitamin B and other minerals in it. It has little fat and is easy to digest. It’s no wonder half the world’s population subsists wholly or partially on rice. Grains usually have a best-by date and not an expiration date, and can be stored for up to 30 years in the right conditions.

Curry powder: Curry powder eases pain and inflammation, protects the immune system from bacterial infections and increases the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body. This is because it’s high in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. That’s not surprising given that curry powder typically contains a range of spices including turmeric, coriander, cardamom, cumin, sweet basil, red pepper, fennel seeds, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, or mustard seeds, all of which have individual health benefits.

Dehydrated vegetables: Bring on the powdered spuds, dehydrated peas and don’t forget the dried onion flakes and the dried herbs! After all, flavour makes a difference when your morale is down. Did you know that dehydrated food retains more of its nutrients than either frozen or canned foods?

Dried beans and legumes: You need a lot more time, water and a cooking source to take advantage of dried beans and legumes but they go a long, long way. If you have a hoard of hungry mouths to feed, they’re a good source of protein and carbs.

Longlife meals: No one likes a bread and water diet.  And not everyone is a bush tucker man able to procure food from the land. So make things easier on yourself. These are lightweight and good to go. Use them to bolster a meal, not as the only item on the menu. Available in freeze-dried and ‘boil in a bag’ versions.

Sugar: Sugar is blamed for many of the world’s health problems. But, without it, your body would cease to function properly. And when the going gets tough, mix a teaspoon of sugar with a 1/3 teaspoon of salt to a litre of water for a basic electrolyte drink.

Honey: Its acidity, lack of water and the presence of hydrogen peroxide allow this sticky treat to last forever if properly stored. So it’s a great source of energy and is also an excellent barrier against infection for wounds, burns or cuts.

Salt: Salt is essential for life. Without it, our bodies become chemically unbalanced, our muscles and nervous system cease to function and eventually we die. It also makes food taste good.

Added extra – vitamin C tablets or kale powder: More explorers and intrepid travellers have fallen ill with scurvy than many other factors. Because it is water soluble, it doesn’t store well and degrades over time whilst cooking, freezing and dehydrating degrades it further. The best sources of Vitamin C are fresh: rockmelon, citrus, kiwi fruit, mango, pawpaw, pineapple, and berries.