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How to Make Coffee While Backpacking

Updated on October 8, 2017
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Dan has enjoyed camp coffee while sitting on some of the finest logs you'll ever find in a backcountry campsite.

Overlooking the lake with a cup of coffee.
Overlooking the lake with a cup of coffee.

Coffee in the Backcountry

There is something oddly refreshing and relaxing about enjoying a cup of coffee while overlooking a scenic lake on a backpacking trip. Unless your trails have a walk-thru window for java though, you are going to brew your own.

Now for car campers there are a myriad of options, from French presses and percolators to high-speed propane-powered wonders of java engineering. But what is a backpacker to do when size and weight are always a major consideration? Sure Granddad's blue enamelware pot has perked a lot of coffee in its day, but there is no way I'm devoting a third of my pack volume to a nostalgic piece of cookware.

Then again, as an admitted caffeine addict, I may try lashing that monstrosity to the pack. Luckily though, for those of us that count ounces, there are multiple ways to brew a cup of Joe without upgrading our pack suspension.

Adding Starbucks Via Instant coffee to a cup while camping.
Adding Starbucks Via Instant coffee to a cup while camping. | Source

Instant Coffee for Backpackers

Before you hit the back button on your browser, stick with me as we look a little farther into instant "coffee." Now, I know what you are thinking. If you grew up with a jar of Taster's Choice on the counter that nobody ever touched, I understand your misgivings.

The thing is though, instant coffee has gotten better, much better. There are times, when I forgot how my water magically became a brown concoction of caffeine goodness that I forget I'm actually drinking instant. When I did an informal survey among outdoor enthusiasts on twitter, most responded that they used instant coffee while backpacking.

Though I prefer the taste of drip coffee, instant is my choice when I'm going on an ultralight trip. Though it is cheaper to buy a jar of the instant, most users prefer the singles with Starbucks Via being the most popular. The little packs are already measured out for normal caffeine consumption and they won't open up inside your bear bag.

The major pros for instant coffee is that no special equipment is needed and there are no coffee grounds to pack out. Please remember to pack out the packaging though (including the top that most people seem to rip cleanly off and throw on the ground).

Brewing using coffee bags.
Brewing using coffee bags. | Source

Coffee Bags

Coffee bags offer you a way to have finally ground real coffee in a mess-free way. The taste is generally wonderful and full as long as you actually follow the directions. I mean, we all know how a tea bag works, right? Most folks fail to read the box though and end up with either underpowered or overly bitter coffee.

So this is how you are supposed to use a coffee bag:

  1. Start boiling water on stove.
  2. Remove coffee bag from package and place into awesome camping mug.
  3. Pour boiling water over the bag.
  4. Let the bag sit in the water for about a minute.
  5. Dunk the bag in and out of the water for at least fifteen seconds.
  6. Place wet bag into your trash bag to pack out.
  7. Drink coffee!

I've found that the longer you dunk the bag, the stronger it gets. Though coffee bags are an easy way to make your morning brew, the wet bag needs to be packed out. The plus, however, is that the grounds stay contained inside the bag.

The lightweight coffee drip from UST.
The lightweight coffee drip from UST.
UST Collapsible Flexware Coffee Drip
UST Collapsible Flexware Coffee Drip

This minimalist product from UST will allow you to brew drip coffee in the wilderness.

 

Lightweight Coffee Drips

Though personal size coffee drippers with cone filters have been around for years, they've gotten a lot more backpack friendly thanks to silicone construction. These coffee makers are easy to use, need little maintenance, and produce delicious coffee.

To use a coffee drip:

  1. Start boiling a couple cups of water.
  2. Unfold coffee dripper and place it on top of cup.
  3. Insert cone coffee filter into coffee drip.
  4. Add coffee grounds to filter.
  5. Slowly pour boiling water over coffee grounds.
  6. Enjoy your java!

Though I've used a few of this backpacking coffee makers, I've had great luck with the UST flexware coffee drip. It packs down nicely inside my pot, doesn't collapse while brewing and cleans up great.

A few companies like Treeline Coffee Roasters have produced single-serve disposable pour-over coffee packets. These packets clip over the side of your mug so no special funnel is required. These do provide more waste to carry out though.

While packable coffee drips produce tasty ground-free coffee they do have one drawback. When done brewing, you will be left with a wet filter and coffee grounds. These will have to be packed out in accordance with "leave no trace." I carry a small resealable snack bag for packing out this sort of moist trash.

Cowboy coffee in an enamelware mug.
Cowboy coffee in an enamelware mug. | Source

Cowboy Coffee

I've never roped a calf or mended a barbwire fence, but I've made cowboy coffee nonetheless. This was probably the way we first started to brew coffee back in Ethiopia hundreds of years ago. I like to think of cowboy coffee as instant coffee where the grounds don't dissolve.

Though there are entire articles devoted to the fine art of making cowboy coffee, there are a few steps. Basically, mix coffee grounds into boiling water, stir and let it sit and seep. When you drink, you might get a few grounds, though, as traditionally there is no filter or device to contain the grounds.

I've heard though, that some folks have used socks and bandannas as a makeshift coffee bag. If you are going to use the sock method, I highly suggest using a clean pair of socks. Though jam goes great with breakfast coffee, toe jam does not.

The GSI french press produces some of the best camp coffee you'll ever drink.
The GSI french press produces some of the best camp coffee you'll ever drink. | Source
GSI Outdoors - 30 Fl Oz JavaPress, Graphite, Superior Backcountry Cookware Since 1985
GSI Outdoors - 30 Fl Oz JavaPress, Graphite, Superior Backcountry Cookware Since 1985

If you love Fench press coffee, this java Press from GSI allows you to do it anywhere.

 

French Press Camp Coffee

The french press is going to be one of your heaviest options for backpacking coffee; however, for coffee aficionados, the taste cannot be beat. Think of it as grounds-free cowboy coffee, as a plunger with fine wire mesh traps the grounds. For me, I use the French press for car and canoe camping where I have a bit more room for luxury items. If backpacking in a group, though, the keeper of the press is sure to be one of the more popular members of your clan.

Whereas some manufacturers like MSR produce plungers that work inside their reactor cookware, most users will buy a stand-alone press. Though the carafe you have at home is probably made out of glass, backpacking presses are generally made out of a high-impact plastic. The particular press I use is from GSI - it is lightweight and makes two cups (or one Dan cup) of coffee.

To use a French press:

  1. Boil water on your stove.
  2. Add boiling water to coffee press.
  3. Stir in two teaspoons of coffee per cup to the water.
  4. Seal the lid and let it sit for about four minutes. Make sure plunger is all the way up.
  5. Slowly push the plunger down.
  6. Unseal the lid and pour while leaving plunger in down position.

If when pushing the plunger down, you feel resistance, pull it back up and start again. If you push too aggressively you'll either end up scalded, with a broken press, or both. The one situation you don't want in the backcountry is to be burned and be unable to make coffee. Also, whether you grind your own or buy your roast, presses work the best with coarse ground coffee.

Apart from having to buy a sometimes bulky apparatus, the major disadvantage to the coffee press is cleanup. The grounds are pushed to the bottom of the carafe and are a pain to clean up without filtered running water. I find the mesh screen even harder to clean until I return to civilization. If you do field-clean it, carry a syringe (the one that back flushes a Sawyer squeeze filter works great) to force water through the mesh holes.

Making coffee with a percolator on a camp stove.
Making coffee with a percolator on a camp stove. | Source

The Camp Coffee Percolator

The percolator in my gear stash is dented aluminum, with scorch marks form hundreds of campfires and sessions on the stove. It came from my parents and is probably close to fifty years old. The design hasn't changed much over the years and using one seems to channel nostalgic feelings of camping trips in our youth.

To use a percolator:

  1. Fill percolator with water.
  2. Fill basket with coffee.
  3. Place percolator on heat source and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce the heat and simmer for about ten minutes.
  5. Promptly remove from heat when coffee strength has been reached.

As percolators can brew several cups of coffee at once, it might be the best option for large groups of backpackers. If you leave it percolating till it gets black, it is also the best option for a college student pulling an all-nighter in a distraction-free wilderness lean-to.

Watching the knob on top, or the bulb, is the key to brewing the perfect cup of coffee. If the knob looks too light, the product will be like brown tannic water; if too dark, it will be like the stuff that was made yesterday at the gas station. Basically, if you are in a group, someone needs to be in charge of watching the coffee. This, after all, is the most important camp chore.

Twitter Poll on Camp Coffee

Camp Coffee Method
Percentage Using Method
French Press
21%
Cowboy Coffee
2%
Percolator
7%
Instant
35%
Coffee Bags
12%
Lightweight Coffee Drip
23%
I conducted a survey of outdoor enthusiasts on twitter of what their preferred method of making coffee was while camping. Of the forty-two respondents, these are the results.
Brewing coffee while backpacking in the Allegheny National Forest.
Brewing coffee while backpacking in the Allegheny National Forest. | Source

How do you make your camp coffee?

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