Want to keep some emergency food in your car in case of breakdowns, getting stranded, or in case you need to bug out?
Most food – even “emergency food” – will go bad very quickly in your car. But there are still lots of options.
Here’s what you need to know about car emergency food, including the best foods, which foods to avoid, and some planning tips. You might also want to read: Winter Vehicle Emergency Kit Checklist
Requirements for Car Emergency Food
Choosing the right emergency food for your car is tricky because it needs to be calorie-dense and able to survive extreme temperatures.
Heat is a huge problem because the temperature inside your car can quickly get to over 120°F. If the outside air temperature is 95°F, your vehicle can get to 140°F! (1)
Freezing temperatures aren’t as big of a problem with many foods. However, temperature fluctuations are problematic. When foods repeatedly freeze and thaw, moisture pockets can form. Mold and bacteria then thrive in these wet spots. This happens even with low-moisture foods like dehydrated fruits.
Foods You Shouldn’t Keep In Your Car
Surprisingly, many foods which are recommended for emergency preparedness are terrible for your car kit. I’ll go over a few of them here.
High-fat foods like peanut butter, nuts, granola, and some packaged meals are very susceptible to heat.
Even if you store the food in an oxygen-free environment (such as in mylar bags with oxygen absorbers), heat will still cause the fats to go rancid.
For example, one study found that it only took 8-12 weeks for peanut butter to go rancid when stored at 104°F. Eating rancid food won’t make you sick, so it is technically safe to eat. However, it tastes gross and might cause digestion issues. (2,)
Many people recommend keeping animal foods like tuna pouches, beef jerky, and milk powder in the car for emergencies.
These foods are okay in cooler temperatures.
However, you don’t want these in your car in the summer heat. The high-fat content means they will go rancid very quickly. On top of the rancidity issue, animal products are more likely to contain dangerous bacteria, contaminating food if left to grow in high temperatures.
Generally, canned foods are not recommended for car emergency food. In cold weather, the can of food can freeze. The expanding contents can break the seal on the can.
It is safe to eat canned food that has frozen – but only if the seal remains intact. The problem is that you might not realize that the seal is broken and could end up eating dangerously contaminated food.
Whether or not you can store canned food in hot temperatures is controversial. Heat will cause canned food to lose its nutrients, but because canned food is sterile, it should still be safe to eat.
However, as the FDA warns, some canned foods contain thermophile bacteria which only grow in temperatures of 122°F to 131°F. Because the inside of cars easily reaches these temperatures in summer, I wouldn’t risk keeping canned food in my vehicle. (6)
You can read more about canned food shelf life here.
Military MREs are made by pre-cooking food in a pouch while simultaneously sucking out the air.
The result is food that is compact yet still retains its moisture. All military MREs are required to have a shelf life of 3 years at 80°F or 6 months at 100°F. However, they start going bad much faster at higher temperatures. At 120°F, an MRE will go bad in just one month.
Also, bear in mind that MREs contain a lot of fatty ingredients (like sausage, eggs, and cream). Even if the MRE remains safe to eat, it will get a very disgusting, rancid taste when kept in hot conditions like your car. (7, 8)
The 26 Best Emergency Foods for Your Car
I’ve broken down this list of car emergency food into two sections.
The first is foods that don’t have to be rotated. It is still recommended that you rotate the foods regularly, but they could survive even if you occasionally forgot.
The second is for foods that need to be rotated every 6 months. If you live somewhere with extremely high temperatures, then you should probably avoid these items altogether.
Car Emergency Foods Which Don’t Need Rotating
- Survival Frog Emergency Ration Bars: These are United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved to last 5 years in any condition. There are 3,600 calories per bar and are good value. See on Survival Frog
- LaunchPro Emergency Rations (Lemon Flavor): Approved by the USCG, this kit contains six 2,400 calorie food bars with a lemon flavor. They can withstand -40° to 300°F for up to 5 years. See on Amazon
- Mayday Food Bars (Unflavored): These withstand temperatures of up to 149°F for up to 5 years. They are USCG approved and have 2,400 calories per bar. See on Amazon
- Grizzly Bear Food Bars (Unflavored): These are USCG-approved and withstand temperatures of -22°F to 149°F for 5 years. See on Amazon
- Dry breakfast cereals: Because these are almost pure carbohydrates, they will withstand extreme temperatures without going bad. I’d still rotate them, though! Avoid cereals that have oils, such as granola. Cheerios are great for little kids.
- Plain crackers: Like with cereal, these are just carbs, and there isn’t anything to go bad. Store them in a plastic box to keep them from getting crushed.
- Pretzels: Here’s another food that is almost pure carb and won’t go bad in your car.
- Instant potato flakes: Just add water and you’ve got yourself mashed potatoes (no cooking necessary). Admittedly, eating plain mashed potatoes is nasty, but at least it’s calories. Make sure you choose ones in foil pouches without any milk powder or oils.
- Top Ramen/Knorr noodles: Again, I’d recommend rotating these, but ramen noodles are so full of chemical ingredients that they can last a long time, even in extreme heat – read do ramen noodles go bad. The oil packets that come with the noodles will go rancid, though. *You don’t have to cook ramen. It can be made with the cold-soak method.
- Instant coffee: While technically not a food, this is something that will last forever and take the edge off of being stranded in your car.
- Gatorade powder: This is just sugar, electrolytes, and flavoring. You can even eat it instead of mixing it with water.
- Honey: Honey will never go bad, even in extreme conditions. Make sure it is in a sturdy plastic container and not glass so it won’t shatter. Read more about honey and how to store it.
Food Which Needs to Be Rotated
Here are some other ideas for car emergency foods. These will generally last a very long time, but you will need to rotate them every 6 months, especially if you live in a warm climate.
- Freeze-dried fruits and veggies: These will last very long, even in hot temperatures, if you package them in Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers. Heat will still cause nutrients to deteriorate, though.
- Dehydrated fruits and veggies: Just be careful about keeping these in your car in winter. As talked about before, repeated freezing and thawing can cause pockets of moisture to build up. You’ll want to make sure they are very dry before putting them in your car. Read more about expert-level DIY food dehydration
- The Complete Cookie: This is a high-protein cookie. Because it doesn’t contain any eggs or dairy, it holds up in the car better than a lot of other cookies. Check on Amazon
- Cereal-based granola bars: Choose ones that are individually wrapped in foil packages for the best shelf life. They will still get crumbly after a while but taste fine. Nut-based granola bars will go rancid faster.
- Low-fat protein bars: Look for ones that don’t have much fat as the fat will go rancid fairly quickly in hot temperatures.
- Pop-Tarts: Because these are primarily carbs, they could probably survive even if you forgot to rotate them.
- Instant oatmeal in foil packets: Choose ones without dairy for the best shelf life. Plain oats also store well in the car.
- Cheese and peanut butter crackers: Even though they have a lot of fat in them, they are usually loaded with preservatives that help them last a long time regardless of storage conditions.
- Falafel or hummus mix: This is a good healthy food option to keep in your car for emergencies. It’s not ideal for humid climates, though, unless you store it in Mylar or another material that won’t let vapor through.
- Jerky: As discussed in the previous section, jerky is suitable for cold weather but not hot.
- Nuts, seeds, and peanut butter: Remember these will go rancid in hot weather. They’ll be safe to eat but might taste gross. Note that some nuts (like pistachio) go rancid much faster. Almonds are a good bet.
- Freeze-dried meals: Avoid ones that have tons of cheese or dairy as they will go rancid. And also, make sure you have an emergency cooking stove in your car so you can cook the meal.
Tips for Planning Emergency Food for Your Car
- Rotate food during daylight savings time: Many people rotate their car food during daylight savings time. It makes it easier to remember. You can check on your other preps during this time too.
- Protect against humidity: Dry foods like cereals and crackers will absorb moisture from the air. This can cause them to get moldy. If you live somewhere with lots of humidity
- Choose foods you don’t like: If you have lots of tasty food in your car, you might be tempted to eat it as a snack. For this reason, lots of people choose foods they don’t like for their emergency food.
- Or choose foods you do like and rotate: Alternatively, make a point to select emergency foods you actually do like and will regularly snack on (such as granola bars, dried fruit, nuts, etc.). So long as you remember to re-stock, your car emergency food will always be fresh.
- Bring your BOB on more extended trips: For short trips around town, you don’t need lots of emergency food in your car. If you plan on going anywhere further away, though, put your Bug Out Bag in the car. It should have three day’s worth of food in it. Because the BOB is kept indoors, you don’t have to worry about extreme temperatures causing the food to go bad. Read more about BOB packing and supplies.
- Don’t forget water – see this post: How to store emergency water in your car
What emergency food do you keep in your car? Let us know in the comments section below.