The best energy drinks for life in the military
Because getting adequate sleep is not an option.
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Let’s be real: energy drinks are the lifeblood of the U.S. military. Generals and politicians (but I repeat myself) can say all they want about decentralized command and the latest gadgets from the defense industry, but we know that it all comes down to 20-year-olds pumped full of enough stimulants to put a horse in cardiac arrest. How else are you supposed to shake a night of drinking in time for unit PT? What else is going to keep you awake during the 3 a.m. firewatch? Not your inner passion for general orders. No, you need pure, unadulterated caffeine in amounts that push the limits of FDA regulations and human decency.
But which one should you choose? We brought the Task & Purpose gear team together to round up our favorite energy drinks. Pick up one of each and have a little tasting one evening to find out which one suits your palate. Which is your favorite? Did we miss any? Drop your favorite energy drink in the comments section and share the wealth.
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I’m old, so I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the evolution of energy drinks from when they were just amped up sodas with in-your-face names like Surge and Volt. I started my energy drink journey like most others my age, with the occasional Red Bull for the extra oomph to get across the day’s finish line. It wasn’t until the introduction of Monster Energy that I became a true addict. More specifically, I became addicted to the low-carb variation lovingly referred to as “The Blue Monster.”
I can hear some of you gagging from here, but hear me out. I’m also old enough to be from the generation that believed “low carb” meant healthy. So from where I was sitting, the Lo-Carb Monster was a pretty sharp deal. High energy and low calorie? Sign me up.
As a student who hated coffee as much as I hated studying, energy drinks were a must in college. How else do you pack a semester’s worth of learning into one 24-hour pre-exam study binge? Energy drinks, that’s how. But as an Army-bound ROTC student, how does one do it while also staying fit and trim? The answer: low carb, baby.
So regularly was I seen with these liquified-Smarties flavored heart-rockers in hand that my roommates bought me an entire flat of Blue Monsters as a graduation present, which I gladly loaded into my ‘97 Grand Prix and took with me to Fort Knox, Kentucky for the Army’s Armor Officer Basic Course. The Blue Monster was a monkey on my back for the next two years until I finally deployed to Afghanistan, where the only options were squat cans of Rip-It or the dreaded black-tar coffee. I’m now addicted to coffee, but I’ll always remember with fondness my days as a slayer of Blue Monsters.
—Brett Allen, Army veteran and contributing writer
- Size: 16 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 140 milligrams
- Flavors: Classic lo-carb flavor
My relationship with sugar-free Red Bull varied from casual to abusive in the course of my 20s, and although I’ve since put energy drinks behind me in favor of more socially-acceptable caffeine sources (like, say, Dunkin Donuts iced coffee), the carbonated, slightly-sour taste of sugar-free Red Bull mixed with vodka stands out as one of the most vivid memory triggers in my life.
With 75mg of caffeine, Red Bull is actually on the tamer side when it comes to the energy drinks popular among U.S. service members, boasting just half the caffeine content of Monster but more than twice that of Coca-Cola. According to AAFES data, it was also the second-most popular energy drink brand sold on exchanges around the world in 2021 behind Monster. It is, for lack of a better descriptor, the bottled water of the energy drink world: ubiquitous, instantly recognizable, and eminently drinkable.
The major perk of Red Bull is that, if I’m being totally honest, it mixes slightly better with alcohol than other energy drinks (please, for the love of God, don’t ask me how I know). The downside is that this is an extremely basic practice normally reserved for sorority girls and aging bloggers and it will not make you look cool in any way, shape, or form. Feel free to consume with reckless abandon, but just know that no matter how hard your heart starts fluttering, it’ll take consuming something like 125 cans in a single sitting to OD from the caffeine alone.
—Jared Keller, managing editor (and nasty civilian)
- Size: 8.4 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 75 milligrams
- Flavors: Natural and artificial bull flavors
It seems like a lifetime ago that I was working late night shifts with an eight-hour turnaround. At that time I was young, dumb, hooked on Copenhagen Mint, and a full blown caffeine junky due to a severe lack of sleep. My roommate bought me a Bang Energy to help me survive a night shift while working in a jail in north-central Iowa. It had me hooked on the first sip.
With a powerful 300-milligram caffeine dose that seems to be tamed by the lack of sugar, the energy provided is a smooth rise and a slow fall, limiting the crash when the caffeine leaves your system. This zero-carb, zero-calorie, zero-sugar energy drink provides a healthier option compared to sugar-filled energy drinks. The flavor variety is so vast that by the time this article hits the public there will probably be seven more flavors released.
I know there are plenty of low-calorie, low-sugar energy drinks out there, but Bang Energy was there for me when I needed it and I will always be in its corner when the fight is on. Bang Energy changed the game for energy drinks and how caffeine is appreciated by myself and millions of other people, and I will always love an ice-cold Bang Energy in the morning before work or before a workout.
—Alex Muhlenburg, contributing writer (and nasty civilian)
So there I was, standing around one hot Fort Benning early afternoon in 2017, waiting for the next course of fire at the Army’s Marksman Master Trainer Course, when I heard one of my fellow attendees say, “I need a Bang.” Mind you, I was surrounded by a bunch of crusty infantry E6s and E7s, among whom nothing is sacred. That combination of words shouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but the sheer randomness of the sentence did catch my attention.
“You need a Bang?”
“Yah bro, I’m dragging.”
Using context clues, I deduced that a Bang was some kind of pick-me-up. He informed me it was a new energy drink and I should try one. Energy drinks have never once worked for me. The only thing Red Bull and Monster ever left me with was a bad taste in my mouth and gut rot. Coffee is good, but I wasn’t sure if the caffeine actually did anything, or if I just drank it out of habit. So, skeptical, I picked up a Bang.
The next day we just finished a stress fire, I was dripping sweat and I was toast, but we had more shooting coming up. I grabbed that Bang from my lunch box and took a sip. Holy mother of God, what combination of chemicals did they use to flavor that thing? It was like I just got kicked in the mouth by a lab accident on HGH. I have no idea what flavor I tried that fateful day, but I’ve since learned that it doesn’t matter – all flavors of Bang elicit the same reaction. But the day was hot and the Bang was cold, so I drank away. About ten minutes later, I hauled my butt off the bleachers to get my kit back on, and I realized that I wasn’t tired anymore. Actually, I felt like I could run stress shooting drills all day, then hit the gym and actually not skip leg day.
It’s a call-the-Catholic-Church miracle that I haven’t devolved into a strung-out energy drink addict. The energy is almost immediate, it lasts for several hours, and doesn’t let you crash and burn on its way out. Do they taste good? No. Do they secretly put amphetamines in there? Probably. Do I care? No. Until the FDA forces the company behind this foul beverage to change its formulation (because the government will screw up anything that works this well), Bang will be my best friend when I’m dragging on a long drive, when that 2 p.m. crash hits, or any time I just need to be on point.
— Matt Towns, Army veteran and contributing writer
- Size: 16 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 300 milligrams
- Flavors: Six flavors chosen at random
Reign and Bang are two sides of the same caffeinated coin, but if you held me at gunpoint and made me choose, I’d probably go Reign. Not to crap on Bang, which I used to consume a lot of between stints at the gym and college lecture halls, but Reign just comes off as the tastier, more refined choice.
From the flavors I’ve tried, they’re a smidge frutier, a tad less sweet, and hit just right. The Bangs I’ve tasted seemed no less diabetic than a Mountain Dew and left behind strong aftertastes. If you have a sweet tooth, then by all means, have at it. But to me, Bang gets old quick whereas I haven’t grown weary of Reign’s palette of flavors just yet.
Want to try something a little different from the rest of the crowd? Go snag a can of Orange Dreamsicle, pretty much Gigachad’s cream soda, or Reignbow Sherbert, which is described as a blend of orange, lime, and raspberry. To me, it tastes like what a real rainbow would taste like – sprinkled with preworkout and a dash of citric acid powder. Weird? Yes, but never knock it ’til you try it.
Not that the military is full of health nuts, nor am I saying energy drinks are what I’d call healthy, but Reign has a decent edge to it. Like Bang, it’s sugar-free and armed with 300 milligrams of the good stuff, but it also has a higher concentration of B vitamins, potassium, and sodium – although there’s no trace of Vitamin C or Magnesium.
So, yeah, I’m a Reign evangelist. It has that just-right taste while giving me the go-juice I need for my active life without leaving me feeling like my skin is vibrating. I probably can’t convince others to jump ship, but I certainly hope you take a can for a spin.
—Jeric Jaleco, Air National Guardsman and contributing writer
- Size: 16 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 300 milligrams
- Flavors: Cherry limeade, lilikoi lychee, mango matic, melon mania, orange dreamsicle, razzle berry, Reignbow sherbert, strawberry sublim, white gummy bear
This one is for the young officers. The ugly truth is that walking into a field grade’s office with an oversized can of liquid amphetamine will draw side-eyes and judgment. As far as they’re concerned, that stuff is for junior enlisted and you must not be exhibiting conduct becoming an officer if you need that kind of stimulant. Of course, you and I both know that almost nobody above the rank of captain does any work, so you need all the help you can get.
Canned caffeine from Starbucks slips under the radar because old fogies don’t realize that it’s anything more than black coffee. They’ll think it’s odd that you’re drinking from a can and not the communal coffee pot that was last cleaned in 1985, but they’ll let it slide. The fact that you’re shooting 225 milligrams of caffeine – more than double what you’d get from a cup of coffee – into your body can be our little secret.
In addition to a shock of energy that exceeds the recommended single-dose limit according to Healthline, you can choose from sophisticated flavors like caramel, French vanilla, and mocha. During my earliest days in the Marine Corps, I learned to pair one of these with some grocery store scones to feel like a fancy gentleman while I partook in bathroom humor and bitched about the Taliban sympathizer responsible for designing the M249 SAW.
These come in packs of 12, which should last several days. Enjoy the delicious flavors and moral superiority over all the mere mortals who need energy drinks to keep up with you.
–—Scott Murdock, Marine Corps veteran and commerce reporter
- Size: 15 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 225 milligrams
- Flavors: Caramel, French vanilla, mocha, zero sugar milk chocolate, zero sugar vanilla
Finally, a sugar-free energy drink that doesn’t taste like garbage, and in fact is really good. I first discovered this while doing my Joint Fires Observer primer at Fort Campbell and, while marveling at how the Army gets an actual PX complex instead of the Marine Corps’ military Target, I stumbled upon this and several other flavors; all of which tasted like something I’d actually enjoy drinking.
Ghost’s energy drinks have much less of a pucker-inducing effect than other brands, and they lack a lot of that signature caffeine aftertaste. Their lemon-lime flavor actually tastes like more lemon-y Sprite, so consider that my runner-up. The caffeine content isn’t as high as the 300 milligrams that Bang and Reign sport – and maybe that has something to do with the better flavor – but that’s not to say that this doesn’t wake me up in the morning. Crucially for field use, it doesn’t have some nasty aftertaste that’s revealed by not being ice-cold, so you can stick a box of this in the back seat of a Humvee or a few cans in your pack, and drink a can here and there when you need a pick-me-up.
—Matt Sampson, Marine forward observor and commerce reporter
- Size: 16 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 200 milligrams
- Flavors: Citrus, orange cream, Sour Patch Kids Blue Raspberry, Sour Patch Kids Redberry, Swedish Fish, tropical mango, Warheads Sour Watermelon
With all due respect to my Task & Purpose colleagues, there is only one energy drink for veterans: Rip It.
Every veteran who deployed to a combat zone from 2003 to the present has enjoyed the delicious glory that is the Rip It Energy Drink. Available for free during deployments in little eight-ounce cans, Rip It is the fuel that drove the wars of the GWOT era.
So what happens when the veterans come home and do the ‘Hurt Locker’ stare down the giant American grocery store aisles of plenty? Well, listen closely, my filthy animals, because I have the solution for those homesick for war.
If you look closely, you can find 16-ounce Rip Its in the various bodegas, dollar stores, and sketchy gas stations in the not-so-great parts of your town. In fact, I suspect this may be part of some 3-D chess marketing plan on the part of the Rip It executives: sell their products in the places where one is more likely to hear gunfire because it will subliminally bring combat veterans back to some of their scariest and most fond memories, most of which were fueled by – you guessed it – Rip It.
Unfortunately, this is where nostalgia and reality come careening at each other and crash in a burning wreckage of twisted metal and spoiled memories. The reality is that Rip Its just aren’t that good. I’m sorry to have to be the tough love parent who tells you this, but it’s the cold, bare reality we must face.
I remember my first CONUS Rip It. I was working as a street cop in a high-crime area in Florida and I stepped into a generic gas station convenience store – the kind of place that sells beer, off-brand chips, 305 cigarettes, glass one-hitter pipes, an abnormal amount of steel wool scouring pads, and non-prescription boner pills. As I scanned the refrigerated display cases for an energy drink that would help me make it through the rest of my shift, I saw it.
Sitting on the shelf, bathed in the angelic light of cheap fluorescent bulbs, was a 16-ounce can of power-flavored Rip It. I stood in awe. I had never seen Rip It in such a large receptacle. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. As I stood staring at my old friend, my mind and soul were awash in a flood of memories: an IED destroying a vehicle in my convoy on Highway 1 in Baghdad, long hours submitting status reports in a TOC, clowning with my friends as they competed to see who could do the best impression of our sergeant major – it all came back.
I knew this was a powerful moment I could not pass up. I purchased the beloved beverage. It felt weird. It felt dirty. It felt wrong. I had never paid for a Rip It in my life but I did it anyway. Outside, I took selfies holding the familiar black and red can for veteran friends: “Guys, look what I found!”
—Paul J. O’Leary, Army veteran and contributing writer
- Size: 16 fluid ounces
- Caffeine: 200 milligrams
- Flavors: Achievement award
FAQs about energy drinks
Q: Are energy drinks bad for you?
A: They’re probably not great in large quantities, but they sure are good for productivity.
Q: Do energy drinks work?
A: Yes. Good heavens, yes.
Q: How many energy drinks is too many?
A: Oh, you’ll know when you get there. Probably two. Maybe one.
These are all great picks, but I have to agree with Paul O’Leary that Rip It holds a special place in military history. It’s the official energy booster of a generation and multiple wars. It’s questionably fit for consumption and definitely not great in the flavor department. But it will jack you up (in a good way) and I love it for that. Every service member should be issued one Rip It a day and receive a lifetime discount. Until that happens, you know where to get your fix.
Identifying the best energy drinks for life in the military couldn’t have been easier. I rounded up our motley crew of active-duty, veteran, and civilian gear testers to see which caffeinated concoctions they reach for when their eyelids get heavy. The result is a greatest-hits list of energy drinks that spans our combined decades of globe-trotting for Uncle Sam. The beverages you see here have been enjoyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other foreign lands. They’ve been sipped in Air Force transport planes, Army tanks, and holes in the dirt the Marine Corps calls forward operating bases. There’s a chance that (off the record, of course) they’ve even been mixed with liquor for levels of debauchery we’re not at liberty to describe.
The result of all this brainstorming is a great shopping list for you and a whole lot of wild flashbacks for us. Crack a cold one and raise it high, because you certainly need it. Cheers.