Survival Skills We Can Learn from “C Rats”

Of all the possible survival situations, open warfare is probably the most extreme. The military recognizes this and trains soldiers in the necessary techniques for surviving that environment. Those who might end up isolated and needing to survive, like pilots and snake eaters, get specialized survival situation. But survival of our troops shows up in everything to the weapons they use to the meals that they are issued.

Before the existence of the current MREs (meals, ready to eat), which the troops call three lies for the price of one, the military had C Rations (the “C” is short for “combat). These were canned meals, invented before World War II and used all the way up through the Vietnam War. A C Ration consisted of one can with a main course in it, a second can that contained bread (crackers), desert and drink mix, and an accessory packet.

The contents changed slightly through the years, but the general idea stayed the same. While this doesn’t seem much like a survival kit, it was actually well thought out and intended to ensure the health and survival of the troops in the field.



To start with, the nutrition of the C Ration was carefully balanced to provide the soldiers with the right balance of macronutrients, ignoring for the moment the need for micronutrients. However, these are survival meals and micronutrients are not needed for short-term survival. Rather, a high carbohydrate diet, supplemented with fats and proteins is needed. The C Ration provided that.

C Rations were never really popular with the troops, much like the current MREs aren’t. However, when the MREs came out, they all said they wanted the C Rations back. Some horded C Rations in the end, and would take their own C Rations on field exercises, rather than eat the MREs.

Warm Drinks

Throughout the life of the C Ration, the drink offerings changed slightly, but by the end, they all contained instant coffee as the drink of choice. The coffee provided had double the caffeine normally found in consumer coffee. This was done to help soldiers stay alert in the field, where sleeping at the wrong time could cause premature death.

Staying alert is an important part of survival, not only in combat, but in any survival situation. Things can happen in a moment that put you at risk.

Warm drinks, like coffee have two other important purposes in survival. First of all, they are one of the best ways of combating hypothermia. Warm drinks help raise the core body temperature when consumed. They may not provide a lot of heat, due to the small mass, but it is some. The other feature of warm drinks, especially coffee, is that it is a comfort food. While that may not seem important, it helps in keeping a positive attitude, an essential for survival.


Salt and pepper were contained in the accessory pack. While that may not seem like much of a spice cabinet, it allowed the soldiers to make the food in the C Rations more palatable. Spices are important in a survival situation, as much of the food which we store for survival isn’t the same as what we eat every day. Having some spices on hand can go a long way towards making them palatable to our families.

For a while, salt tablets were contained in the C Rations as well, to combat the loss of salt through sweating. This was especially important during the Vietnam era, as that war was fought in a tropical climate.

Gum & Candy


Sugar can give one a quick burst of energy when needed. They used chocolate for this, as chocolate is universally the favorite candy there is. Chocolate provided in C Rations was specially formulated to resist melting. In doing so, the planners took into consideration the environment that the soldiers would be in.

While sugar is frowned upon by nutritionalists everywhere, the fact is that it will provide you with energy when needed. It’s also a lot safer for your body than energy drinks are. Gum, like cigarettes and coffee, can help keep one alert when needed. Chewing it also helps relieve stress.


Fire starting was a recognized need for survival, in this case, for heating the meals. By including matches in each ration, soldiers always had a means of starting a fire. It also helped for lighting their cigarettes.

The matches provided in C Rations were paper matches, but they were chemically treated to make them water resistant. While not as perfect in the water resistance area as some of the matches available today, they actually did a very good job.




Hexamine Tablets

Hexamine is a solid fuel, which was intended for heating up C Ration cans. While the C Rations could be eaten cold, some of them tasted much better warm. These provided an easy way for the soldiers to heat their food, without having to take the time to build a fire. In this sense, they were also safer, as they did not produce any smoke to show the soldier’s location, nor were they likely to start a forest fire.

Hexamine tablets weren’t actually included in the C Ration, but were made available with it. When I was in, our favorite way of heating our C Rations was to use commo wire (communications wire, for field telephones) to attach the cans to our vehicles’ exhaust manifold. After a short drive, the cans were nice and toasty.

These are still available today, commercially. The Esbit camp stoves, manufactured in Germany, use hexamine tablets. I carry one of their stoves, as well as some tablets, in my bug out bag. That way, I always have a means of cooking food, even if I can’t find wood for a fire.



While cigarettes have passed from fashion, during World War II and the Vietnam War, people weren’t as aware of the health risks of smoking. Cigarettes were provided in C Rations up until 1954. By doing so, the Army was doing more than feeding the soldiers’ vices. Cigarettes helped them to stay alert, especially when on guard at night. They were also a comfort item for many, helping them to deal with the stress of combat.

Toilet Paper

What goes in must come out, right? How would you like to be caught in a survival situation, without toilet paper? While one could survive without it, using leaves to clean themselves, having toilet paper is much more convenient and much more comfortable. It also makes great tinder for a fire.

Don’t forget about little things like toilet paper and sanitary napkins in your survival supplies. Survival is difficult enough as it is, without making it harder. Taking along these small items will increase your comfort in a difficult situation. Is that worth it? Well, try going on a camping trip for the weekend, without toilet paper, and you can find out for yourself. Even better, take your wife along, she’ll be sure to tell you how bad it is not to have toilet paper around.

Halazone Tablets

Halazone tablets are essentially the same as today’s water purification tablets. Two in a canteen of water will kill off any creepy crawlies, making the water safe to drink, even if it doesn’t taste good.

Water is an essential for any type of survival. By including halzone tablets, the military ensured that soldiers could always purify any water they found. This was never intended to be their primary water purification method, as they were usually provided with purified water to use. But it was included as a backup method, when needed.

P-38 Can Opener


I’ve carried a P-38 can opener on my key ring since basic training. Many a time, when I didn’t have any other can opener or the kitchen can opener broke, that P-38 saved my bacon. While not as easy to find nowadays, you can get them on eBay. I’d recommend everyone have one on their key ring, in their survival kit, in their get home bag and in their bug out bag, even if you aren’t carrying canned food.

There have been a number of articles around, talking about opening a can by rubbing it on concrete. With a P-38 on hand, that’s unnecessary. The P-38 fits well with the old Boy Scout motto of, “Be prepared.”

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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