Let’s face it: unless you’re already a culinary mastermind at home, the thought of cooking a gourmet meal for yourself when you’re in the backcountry for days or weeks on end can seem a bit daunting. Indeed, even the most kitchen-savvy among us often opt for freeze-dried meals and nutrition bars instead of cooking up a scrumptious dinner during our camping trips.
While freeze-dried meals and nutrition bars certainly have their place in the backcountry, there’s really no replacement for a quality, freshly prepared hot dinner at the end of a long hiking day. That being said, cooking for yourself in the outdoors takes a lot of pre-planning when it comes to menu organization and buying groceries.
However, if you’re new to the world of backpacking gourmet, you might not realize how many different dishes you can actually prepare for yourself on a single burner stove. In fact, while many people stick to various forms of pasta for their backcountry meals, most campers overlook an incredibly important grain when prepping for a camping trip: rice.
Coming up, we’ll show you why rice is the ultimate backpacking food and teach you how to cook it properly. We’ll walk you through the ins and outs of choosing the right kind of rice for your meals and even give you our top tricks and tips for creating a scrumptious dinner that will blow your buddies away on your next backpacking trip. Here we go!
Rice: The Ultimate Backpacking Food
Okay, okay, we get it: For many people from Western countries, rice isn’t really a staple of our diets. Instead, many European and North American diets focus on bread, pasta, potatoes, and oats as staple grains, so it’s understandable if you’ve never really thought of it when you were planning out your backpacking meals.
But here’s the thing – rice is the little-known champion of the outdoor cooking world. Although it’s often overlooked in the menu-planning process, you should definitely pack it on your next backpacking trip. Here’s why rice is nice:
Advantages of rice for backpacking
Wondering why you should pack rice for your next camping trip? These are some of the top advantages of rice for backpacking:
- Versatility. Rice is a staple grain in dozens of cultures. In fact, one half of the world’s population relies on rice for most, if not all of their meals and this humble grain accounts for more than 42% of all the calories consumed by the entire population of humans around the world. Why should you care? Well, if you consider the incredible diversity of cultures that use rice in most of their dishes, you can imagine the sheer variety of meals you can have in the backcountry, just by using rice. Say bye-bye overcooked mac and cheese and wave a hearty hello to burritos, paella, fried rice, curries, and risotto on your next backpacking trip.
- Nutrition. Rice contains a whole host of fun nutrients, like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, iron, and on and on the list goes. Plus, it packs a decent amount of calories into a small package, so you get more energy for less weight in your pack. Oh, and rice is gluten-free, so it’s a great option if someone in your group has celiac or is gluten intolerant.
- Affordability. As far as food goes, rice is pretty much the cheapest thing out there. Perhaps the simple oat is the only cheaper staple grain you can find. Depending on the kind of rice you buy and where you buy it from, you could spend as little as $0.05 for a full serving of food. Compare that to a $7 freeze-dried backpacking meal. How can you beat that deal?
Disadvantages of rice for backpacking
While we’re big fans of using rice for backpacking, we do admit that there are some downsides to bringing it in the outdoors. Here are a few:
- Effort. Unlike pasta, which many people will happily eat with just some oil and cheese and the end of a long hiking day, plain rice isn’t the most appetizing thing to many of us – even if we’re really hungry. Thus, when you cook with rice, you often have to put a little bit of effort into crafting a quality meal if you want it to taste good. However, that little bit of effort goes a long way, especially if you’re looking for something nutritious and delicious.
- Dirty dishes. Unfortunately, if you over-cook rice or let it burn to the bottom of a pot, it can be a huge pain in the bum to clean at the end of the meal. Since no one actually likes doing dishes, having to scrape burned rice off of a pot when you’re tired and want to go to bed isn’t ideal. The trick? Learn to cook rice properly (we’ll tell you how later) and be diligent when preparing your meals. If that doesn’t work, boil a small amount of water in your dirty pot and let the hot water loosen some of the burnt rice. Then, you can easily scrape the bottom of the pot and dispose of the burnt food appropriately in a trash bag.
The Different Types of Rice Grains: How to Choose
At this point, you probably agree with us that rice is a pretty darn good backpacking food. But, if you’ve ever walked down the rice aisle at a grocery store, you know how many different types of rice there are in this world. With so many options, how could you possibly know what to choose? Thankfully, we’re here to help. Here’s our take on the best rice grain options for your next backpacking trip:
White Rice v. Brown Rice
Basically, white rice is a grain of rice that has been milled and polished to fully remove the bran layer than naturally encloses the grain when it’s growing. Alternatively, brown rice is any rice that still has its bran layer and, thus, contains more nutrients than white rice.
Every type of rice can be processed as either “white” or “brown,” but what you choose affects the taste and texture of your dish as well as the cooking instructions.
In general, white rice cooks faster than brown rice and is a simple carbohydrate, which means it provides quick sugars to your bodies. Brown rice, on the other hand, is much more nutritious, contains more fiber, and other minerals, such as manganese and selenium, which we need in our diets in trace amounts. Plus, brown rice has a low glycemic index, which means it provides more lasting energy throughout the day.
However, white rice (in general) takes less time to cook than brown rice, with some brown rices taking as long as 40 minutes to cook at sea level. This is a long time to wait if you’re hungry and also means you’re using a lot of fuel for your stove. However, you can buy “instant” brown rice, which takes just 10 minutes to cook, saving you time and fuel.
Short v. Long Grain Rice
Perhaps the most confusing part of buying rice is deciding whether to buy “short” or “long” grain rice. Basically, short-grain rice is any rice with a grain length of less than 5.2 mm. Thankfully, rice is clearly packaged to tell you how long the grain is, so you don’t have to carry around a tiny ruler to figure it out yourself.
What does this all mean for you? Well, short-grain kinds of rice generally stick together when they’re cooked, which is why they’re popular in many Eastern Asian dishes that call for “sticky rice.” The category of short-grain rice also includes arborio rice, which is used to make risotto.
Long grain rice, on the other hand doesn’t stick together after it is cooked, which means it stays light and fluffy. This is the most common type of rice found in southern Asia, including in both India and Thailand, where you find Basmati rice and Jasmine rice, respectively.
Why choose one grain length over the other? Well, in general, short grain rice cooks faster, especially if it’s short grain white rice, which is the fastest cooking of them all (save for instant rice).
However, if you’re looking to make a curry or paella dish, you might prefer a long grain Basmati or Jasmine rice, while someone looking to make fried rice or burritos might prefer short grain rice instead. If you’re not too fussed about the culinary aspect of it all, we’d opt for short grain, as it’s easier to cook.
Finally, we have instant rice, which is basically any type of rice that’s been pre-cooked and then dehydrated. Instant rice can take just 1-7 minutes to cook while regular rice requires between 15 and 40 minutes to cook. The main advantage to instant rice is that it’s quick and easy to cook, however it tends to be more expensive than the regular variety. But, if you want a quick meal in the backcountry, instant rice is your go-to.
How to make your own “DIY Instant Rice”
Many backpackers are of the DIY variety and like to prepare their own food instead of buying it at the store. If you want to try making your own DIY Instant Rice, we’ve got good news for you: it’s really quite easy, if you have a dehydrator.
To make your own instant rice, all you have to do is prepare any type of rice in a pot on your stove at home. The only caveat here is that you can’t add any oil or fat into the pot – just rice and water!
Then, when the rice is fully cooked, you simply spread it out on your dehydrator trays and dry at 135-145 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir the rice every hour to prevent it from clumping and you should have a whole lot of instant rice for your next trip!
Re-hydrating rice on the trail
Once you have dehydrated instant rice, you’ll need to know how to re-hydrate it in the field. Basically, all you have to do is either cook it in water on the stove for a couple of minutes or pour boiled water and rice into a mug at a 1:1 ratio and let it sit for 15 minutes. Voila!
Store-bought instant rice v. DIY instant rice
Since you can easily buy instant rice at a supermarket (for a pretty affordable price) you might be wondering why anyone would want to make their own, especially since it does involve a bit of labor. Basically, many people find store-bought instant rice to be quite bland, so making your own means you can choose the variety of rice you like for tastier dishes in the field.
However, if you don’t have the time to make your own DIY instant rice, learning to spice and flavor your dishes in the field is a good alternative that will make tasty food, every time.
Backpacking with Rice: Top Tips
At this point we can all agree: rice is one of the best backpacking foods out there. But, many people still get nervous about cooking rice on the trail. Here’s how to cook (non-instant) rice in the backcountry:
- Use 1 cup of rice for every 2 cups of water. Consider adding in a packet of bouillon for extra flavor. Put together in a pot and place on the stove at a moderate heat.
- Add salt and a small amount of butter or oil to help the rice taste better and clump less.
- After the water and rice, boil, turn it down to a simmer and cover with a lid.
- Don’t remove the lid. Just don’t. The steam trapped by the lid is critical for properly cooking rice.
- Check on your rice after 18 minutes for regular long-grain white rice and after 30 minutes for long grain brown rice. Alternatively, read the rice instructions for more specific guidance.
- Once the rice is done, turn off the heat, put the lid back on, and let it sit for a few minutes before serving.
Spice up your rice
Think rice is boring? Think again. Here are some dishes you can make with rice and the spices you’ll want to bring with you (in addition to salt and pepper, of course):
|Red pepper flakes|
|Spanish Rice||Garlic powder|
|Dried tomato paste|
This might sound like a whole lot of spices to bring with you in the backcountry, but the good news is that you don’t have to bring a whole spice rack to have tasty meals. Instead, you can pre-pack some basic spices into tiny containers and bring these with you into the field. You can also pre-make spice mixes so you have just one container per dinner. What could be better?
Up Next In Backpacking Food:
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.