The Ultimate Guide to Camp Coffee

Share on Tumblr

I’m an admitted coffee snob. But even if you’re happy to get your caffeine in the most convenient possible format, damn the taste, so long as the mud is hot, if the potential exists to brew something that offers great taste as well as convenience, you’d probably prefer that to mud. And if the goal is yummy, especially if you’re car camping rather than lugging equipment on your back, just how much are you willing to spend, and how much effort will you put into getting to “good?” Would you spend $150 on Presso’s self-powered espresso maker, shown above (and reviewed below)?

And what exactly is “good coffee” in the first place? A friend of mine thinks Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is great. I disagree. Further, since this is a story about brewing in the backcountry — whether that’s on the tailgate of your pickup for a post-surf/-bike/paddle/bouldering java hit — or five days into a 10-day, 100-mile through-hike, just what do I mean by “convenient?”

Hmmm. So while this review will cover the beans themselves (and their relative goodness) as well as the machines you need to make decent brew in the wilds, it’s important to break down terms before diving straight in.

For our review of America’s most outdoor-friendly coffee suppliers, click here.

First, Good.

“Good” coffee to me goes farther than the subjective part of the question: taste. It has to do with the roaster, and their intentions and relations with the farmers and whether said farmers are getting screwed, or are being helped as part of a sustainable program of investment and cooperation so that they can earn a decent livelihood. Coffee doesn’t come from anywhere north of Mexico. It’s grown, largely, in third-world countries around the globe and just as you’re slowly getting to know all the farmers in your own backyard at summer farmers markets and eating local, etc., you should respect the tremendous dedication and brutally hard work of farmers who grow the beans you love.

Also, “good” means good deeds. For happy reasons coffee roasters and store owners are often athletic, adrenaline junkie types, and they tend to like to give back to causes of sustainability in their local communities, and also to sponsor everything from individual athletes to races and events. To the extent possible I tried to connect to as many such smaller players as I could around the country, and to taste their coffee. The regionalism was on purpose: My hope is that you can frequent/patronize a coffee roaster/brewer in your own community who appears on this list, posted here. If not, there’s always mail order, as most of these folks will ship. And, you bet, I’m sure I missed more good baristas, brewers and roasters than I nailed. Feel free to pile on with those peeps and their info in the comments section.

Second, Convenient.

Coffee making can demand both heavy and bulky contraptions. No big deal if you’re car camping, although even there, you don’t want serious mess to clean up, especially if water is scarce. Depending on where you park on the X axis of mess vs. the Y axis of taste/quality will pretty much determine how you define convenience, and this comparison aims to cover the spectrum of ease vs. barista-snob joy.

COFFEE CONTRAPTIONS

Presso
The 3.68 lb. Presso is about as convenient to bring into the woods as lugging a large-format camera on a wooden tripod to capture some snappies of your assault on Denali. But the Presso is here for anyone who road trips and simply will not put up with drip coffee as a substitute for espresso. It’s also here because it doesn’t rely on either non-recyclable pods for coffee, or litter-making CO2 canisters to create pressure.

Instead, here’s how it works:

After filling the porta-filter (that thingie with the black handle) with finely ground coffee, (not quite the fineness of climbing chalk, but reasonably close), tamp the grounds with the back of the provided scoop. Go ahead, tamp hard. Wipe away any grounds around the lip of the filter.

Replace the portafilter and thread on tightly.

With the arms of the Presso in the down position, pour just-boiled water into the plastic top of the device.
Lift the arms, wait a few seconds for the water to infuse the coffee, and then lower the arms.

Voila, you have a double shot of espresso, extracted via your own “steam,” as it were. The shocking thing is that while the coffee doesn’t come out with the syrupy richness of a “real” espresso you might get at Stumptown in NYC or PDX, for an espresso extracted in the wilds it’s pretty darned impressive (see photo), although I learned a few quirks that can make it more pleasurable.

First, the biggest limitation of the Presso is that it’s hard to get a really hot shot. So fill the plastic top of the contraption with hot water and let it sit for a few minutes to heat the top element. Dump that water before brewing, replaced by just-boiled water. You should also pre-warm the porta-filter in some hot water in your coffee mug, heating both simultaneously. Also, you can pull a tighter shot by overfilling the Presso to beyond the double-shot line, which adds extra pressure to the extraction, just stop squeezing when you’ve pulled enough of a shot, because the dregs at the bottom of the pull will be a bit watery.
$150 LINK


Bialetti Stovetop Espresso Maker
If I’d had a little Italian grandmother rather than a tiny Moldovan one, she would have made coffee with one of these. And this little Bialetti is as close to a personal heirloom as anything I might bequeath to subsequent generations, as it’s sure to outlive me. I’ve had it for nearly 20 years already and it’s survived countless trips to the crag, banging off rocks, falling out of my pack and tumbling down crevices, laughing it all off and only needing an occasional replacement gasket. Mind you, even my little two-cup Bialetti is both too bulky and too heavy (1.1 lbs.) for me to lug on more than an overnight mission hiking, but if I’m going to be parked by a cliff for a day of climbing or doing a multi-pronged mountain bike expedition based out of a single base camp, I don’t hesitate. The coffee? It’s not espresso, but slightly more supercharged than drip. Tip: Don’t over-tamp, as just a little compression is all you need, and don’t go overboard with too-fine a grind.
$35 LINK


Primus LiTech Coffee Press
French presses are inherently finicky. It takes some trial and error to get the grind just right, and then if you only use one occasionally for hikes, you forget just what that “right” grind was and your brew comes out as silted as Turkish coffee dregs or as thin as brown water. For this press the sweet spot is coffee ground to about the consistency of fine rock salt, or slightly finer. Trial and error is your friend here: do a few dry runs at home so you’re not bummin‘ on the trail. Also, even if you don’t nail the grind exactly, a little more or less extraction time can save the day: sample after 2-3 minutes, no more, to get the status. This press is also a hair finicky to pour from, but if your grind is right that problem is minimized, or you could bend the spout out a little with a pair of pliers. The bonus with the Primus is that you get a 240-gram, one-liter pot for cooking, just unthread the French-press screen and use the plastic lid on its own for quicker boiling.
$41.95 LINK

Planetary Design Double Shot 2.1
I wouldn’t take this French press deep into the woods with me, because it’s relatively heavy, at .91 pounds. But more, it’s bulky and cannot double as a pot on your stove, like the Primus LiTech. Then again for car camping or brewing at the trailhead/base of the crag, it’s a superb French press. For one thing, you can vary the grind of coffee much more than with most French presses, and although you want to stick with a coarse grind, even slightly finer-ground coffee won’t become a huge issue, as long as you don’t let the coffee over-extract before imbibing. Thumbs up for a secondary screen at the sip spout that prevents any grinds from slipping down your gullet, and for the nifty storage compartment that screws right into the base of the mug and seals tight, so your beans are always right with the press (it’ll hold about four tablespoons of ground coffee). A carabiner hole in the handle is also smart, and this mug insulates all 14 ounces of brew for a good half hour (although by then your coffee is going to have sat on the grounds for waaaay too long, FYI).
$30 LINK

GSI Ultralight Java Drip
I don’t know why, but something about this widget is slightly…lewd. It just screams, “Desperate Man Strains Coffee Through Underpants!” Nonetheless it’s easy to use, weighs a mere 20 grams, and has just about no footprint in your pack. Some forum folks have whinged that it drains too slowly, but the key is in the grind, which can’t be too fine. And just as with the hotel-room coffee maker, don’t hesitate to stir your grinds with a spoon to speed up the action. As drip goes, the GSI does just fine, but as with everything listed here, it always pays to experiment before you hit the trail.
$10 LINK

MSR Mugmate
The 30-gram Mugmate is shown here with the Innate Doppio Tumbler because the MSR filter happens to nest perfectly inside this beautiful, insulated cup. Nope, MSR doesn’t own Innate or vice-versa, but I found this was about the lightest, simplest way to make backcountry coffee that’s seriously strong and stays hot the whole time you’re brewing. Add fine-ish coffee grounds to the filter (more for stronger, less for weaker), pour in hot water, let steep, extract Mugmate, drink. Ahhh! The Mugmate cleans up in a jiffy, too, just bang the extracted grounds out, return to the water you’re using to clean your coffee mug and rinse both.
$17 LINK

GSI Mini eXpresso
I’ll admit to bias here: When people say “express-oh” when they mean “ESS-press-oh” I get concerned. (I already told you: I am a coffee snob.) So my armor was raised before I even tested the GSI. And unfortunately I wasn’t too shocked that it didn’t hold up well against my Italian-made Bialetti — the GSI is made in China. Some of this comes down to craft, as the GSI refused to thread cleanly, allowing some pressure drop during brewing, so the extraction wasn’t quite strong enough no matter how I fiddled with the grind, even though eventually I managed to get serviceable coffee. But more, it’s about the limitations of this kind of design, which is in fact a rip-off of an extant Bialetti. The Mini eXpresso is heavy (.91 lbs.), just like the Bialetti, and too bulky to bring backpacking for more than an overnighter, but for me the biggest drawback is that it’s a serious heat sink as well, so it takes a looooong time to cool back down. If you have to break camp quickly you’ll still be waiting for the Mini eXpresso to chill enough to pack away. Also, that design requires a triple balancing act: coffee maker on top of stove, mug on top of coffee maker. And that thing about the heat? You must bring a metal mug; a plastic one will cook on this thing.
$25 LINK


Starbucks Via
I know, I know. My coffee snob friends are screaming to Facebook as I type this. Starbucks? Starbucks?? Starbucks is the devil! They over-roast. Blah freakin’ blah. It’s coffee, people, not the crisis in the Middle East. And don’t forget that without Starbucks there might not be Intelligentsia, or Stumptown — and you can sure bet that there wouldn’t be incrementally better coffee everywhere had there never been a Starbucks. And oh, by the way, VIA, an instant powder you just add to hot water, kills it. KILLS it. This brew comes in individually sized packets that take up less space in your pack than a lip balm and each weighs 5 minuscule grams. And the taste is exponentially better than any other instant on the market. I know. I have the bitter beer face to prove it having sampled a dozen other instants, not one of which I’d dare drink black, nor would I recommend a single one of those other brands. But this stuff, which comes in several roasts and varieties, is truly palatable. Nope, it’s still not as good as real, freshly ground coffee, but in seconds you get hot, strong, fast, and convenient java. Until your local barista works with Willy Wonka to come up with espresso in jelly bean form, Starbucks wins the hearts and minds of minimalist backcountry coffeenistas.
$10 (12 servings) LINK

Share on Tumblr

{ 40 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Laidlaw

    Starbucks Via is the only coffee I bring into the backcountry these days. I have a Mugmate too, but it hasn’t seen any action since close to 18 months ago when I started with Via. The convenience of instant far outweighs the effort to try to reproduce something “as good as at home,” especially when nothing else I cook while wandering the outdoors is “as good as at home,” you know? Not to mention- after a long day, it always tastes better than anything I could have made at home. God bless the effects of the outdoors on a person’s mental state!

    • steve casimiro

      i’ve tested the handpresso extensively. it makes a great cup of espresso, but the seal has blown on two separate units and it only works with pods.

  • fitz cahall

    Another vote for via. I used to rock the mug mate(or something similar), but after we got a given a box of via I will never take anything else into the backcountry. I just wish it didn’t have to be individually wrapped and just in a tin or bag. But that stuff is the bomb if you are in the backcountry. If you think about, coffee grounds are the only item in your pack that gets heavier on the way out. Via eliminates that.

  • Safety Joe

    Great article Micheal. Anything that will fit in a saddle bag for a road bike!? Remember that when you all get out of the woods there is a machine always on here that is happy to supply you with some solid, great shots…..

  • Aimee

    The GSI Ultralight Java Drip is just a standard-issue coffee maker in Costa Rica. Yep. everyone strains their coffee through their underpants there. Apart from being a little cooler than I like it, it’s not even half bad.

  • neil

    I use a Handpresso Domepod (as opposed to the Wild) so I can just grind what I need for a trip and use freshly ground coffee. It’s not particularly light though it is small enough for bike or backpack.
    For trips that require a pot of coffee then I use a lightweight stainless steel percolator, similar to these http://www.touring-gear.com/categories/Camping-Kitchen/Camping-Kettles/
    This doubles up as a kettle, pan and storage for the utensils and coffee. It also can be hung over or sat directly in an open fire.
    Still looking for a bean to cup device small enough for a lightweight expedition though.

  • Craig Rowe

    I’ve done almost all of these and nothing is more simple or lighter in the pack than the Starbucks Via. And don’t I even like their coffee that much.

    Outside of that, cowboy coffee all the way.

  • theresa

    ok….. soo had I known that this article was going to be written I would have submitted our product called Little Delights, The Original Coffee Cube. This is the alternative to other instant coffees out there. Our product is made of 100% Colombian Arabica bean and comes lightly sweetened with raw cane sugar. It comes in over 30 flavors with some 14 all natural flavors from fruit and tea extracts. I urge & challenge you to try this on your next outdoor adventure.
    You do have to prepare it with hot water (or milk). If you want it cold, simply heat up enough water (1/2 or less) to dissolve then fill the rest with cold water or milk.
    Many Many Many have described it as rich, smooth, bold and perfectly light sweetness to their coffee. If you drink it straight without any sugar, you may find it a tad sweet for your taste, but for the rest you will find this your SAVIOR, especially when on the TRAVEL~.

  • Irene LeClaire

    I have a JetBoil that essentially works the same as the Primus, so the only addition to you pack is the screen, lid and post. Very light!

  • Jaki Spencer

    Jet Boil makes an add-on that is nearly identical to the LiTech. Same type of top. Works great and you can pour your coffee into a cup or drink it right from the pot. I used mine on a 5 day hike on Isle Royale. Perfect!

  • Amy

    If you’re traveling with other coffee drinkers, cowboy is the way to go! My coffee’s got to be HOT…methods like the Mug Mate and the Java Drip result in too chilly a brew for my tastes. I agree that Via is actually pretty good, as well!

  • Katie

    I agree with Peter! Although the aeropress isn’t perfect (paper filter being the only con I’ve found) it makes the best backcountry espresso I’ve tried! As a former barista, I’m a coffee snob too. Give it a whirl, you’ll be glad you did. Great article!

  • rogue trail

    you nailed it. just spent 5 weeks on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia bicycle touring & camping. self supported. ended up in El Chalten staring up at Fitz Roy on a cloudless day. priceless. i digress. Starbucks via was the bomb. quick n easy n tasty. my euro snob friends were even impressed. as we ran low i used the coffee packets to barter for chamois cream and beer. my only concern is the environmental impact of the wrappers. we disposed of them appropriately but wonder if they are recyclable….

  • SoCal Hiker

    After reading this, I realize that I’m not a coffee snob at all. I actually *like* Starbucks coffee. And the gadgets shown, while amusing, won’t make it into my backcountry kit. Starbucks Via, on the other hand, is always coming with me. I brought Via on my JMT trip last August and it kept me smiling every chilly morning.

  • Michael Frank Post author

    Ding Ding Ding! JC, you are RIGHT. That IS a Black Cat espresso cup! You win the prize (of being 100% correct)….. Now let me just guess that you are about the geekiest coffee person to have read this piece…. save the baristas weighing in from every edge of the weeds….. And Roger, I’ll ask Starbucks about the VIA packaging. As with PowerBar wrappers, the aim is probably forever freshness, but the icky downside is forever landfill… Then again, if you’re bartering for chamois cream (and especially, beer) you do want to guarantee freshness, right?

  • Jake

    No mention of a coffee sock! Cheap, light, durable, and makes the best coffee., hands down Similar taste to the current Japanese pourover craze. It takes a bit of practice, but anything worthwhile does.

  • Andrew

    I too am a Via Italian roast convert for backcountry travel. The only downside for me is that they’re a little tough to open and I fear sometimes that every single micro-grain doesn’t make it into the cup. I also sometimes go for a one and half shot if I really need a kick in the pants–which is often.

  • Joe L.

    Great useful info from the post and comments as well!

    Just wondering – will you be covering how you prepare/bring/grind your coffee on such trips? Except the VIA, all needs some work to be pre-ground. I suppose that’s acceptable on shorter trips… But for us snobs with a burr mill at home??

    By the way, are coffee grounds OK to dispose of as compost in garbage heaps?

  • Michael Frank Post author

    Joe L, presuming I know which Joe L. this is, both questions are excellent. I have tried one “outdoor” grinder and wasn’t best pleased with the results. But it raises a big conundrum for us coffee aesthetes and I will be following up with more research. Can you say that this coffee story is as bottomless as the bottomless cup at Denny’s?! Re grounds, I will also do more homework. I know that they’re dandy for composting for your garden, etc.,, but dumping your grinds beside a clear running trout stream is probably seriously bad karma protocol at the very least. More as I know more, or the peeps that do weigh in here.

  • Dave

    I’m fixing to hit the road (again), heading for the badlands of NM. My Rapid Brew 3-cup stovetop percolator is coming with me (again). Done right, percs can make great coffee.

  • anders

    I know this is an old post, but I was just amused to see that people apparently hump their used coffee grounds out of the backcountry. I’m a fanatical proponent of leave-no-trace use of the outdoors — and usually return from trips with a few pounds of trash and beer cans from previous visitors who are not — but to be clear: You’d be hard pressed (pun intentional) to find something more suitable to composting than coffee grounds. They’re moist, fragrant, plant-based, and rich in nutrients. My worms love them. In the bush? Just bury them like (or preferably *with*) your poop, a reasonable distance away from water. They’ll be gone in a month and the soil will be healthier for it. Really. It’s ok.

  • john hannon

    How can you completely neglect a standard percolator? People have been making a fine cup of coffee on campfires and stoves with these forever.

  • Brenda Hébert

    When I bicycled down the Pacific Coast in 1993 I actually brought with me Folgers Singles (I don’t know if they still make those). Basically they were teabags with coffee grounds in them, and you’d steep them in a cup of hot water. They were lightweight and they weren’t instant coffee. Now I’d probably bring VIA.

  • Michael Surowiec

    First comment, AeroPress, is spot on. It’s light and makes the cleanest cup of coffee ever. The proportions of coffee to water can be adjusted and a demi-tasse of thick, crema topped espresso is yours. For a cup tending more towards regular drip, simply increase the ratio of water to grinds. It’s an incredible device. I’m amazed that more coffee geeks don’t know about it. Especially since it costs under $40.00.

  • Dennis Bours

    I saw someone use the word ‘Folgers’… Where is this world going to?! Climate change, Folgers…

    And I agree with the taste of Via being ‘not that bad’.

    But well, have to agree with Robi that you probably need a handmill. I am currently thinking about buying the Porlex Mini Stainless Steel Coffee Grinder: http://www.amazon.com/Porlex-Mini-Stainless-Coffee-Grinder/dp/B0044ZA066/
    I read good reviews, but anyone has experiences with this one?!

    Other than that, though I like the Handpresso, it is hard to justify the price. I am going for the Aeropress. Also, my trip is mainly by airplane and would use it when stuck in airports, not camping.

    Great post!

  • Steven

    I made an earlier post about my OXO stainless steel mug’s superior ability to maintain optimum java temps.

    I just got off of a 14 day self-support kayak trip from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry. The mug made the packing list. The contents were a tough one. I test a bunch of the suggestions above and went with Starbuck’s VIA.

    At the put-in, a buddy who’s wife has famously quoted me saying “Danny, real men french press!”, threw me a mystery packet.

    The contents was a bag a dehydrated coffee from a brand called Hula Girl. The great part was that the resealable bag had 30 cups worth of gold inside. No nonsense of single-use packets and excess waste (except I now had 14 days worth of VIA.

    Hula Girl is easily the best dehydrated coffee I’ve ever had, it will definitely be on the menu for my expeditions from here on out. The price is right. It’s Kona, so it’s good quality. The waste is low, the caffeine and flavor are high.

    http://www.hulagirlthestore.com/cpage/products?cid=1246819137

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>