Handy Guide to Caffeine Delivery Systems

Because the right coffee prep can be life or death in the backcountry.


In this day of gourmet coffee fetishizing we have so, so many options when it comes to mainlining caffeine in the backcountry. Too many options, maybe, depending on your personal level of indecision. Lately, I’ve been planning lots of backcountry trips for friends who aren’t experienced backpackers. Their kitchen kits, especially their camp coffee choices, seem to inspire the most confusion and frustration. What kind of coffee prep makes sense for what kind of camping? What’s the most efficient coffee system? What’s the easiest to pack? That sort of thing. As a red-eyed caffeine fiend, I steadied my perpetually quivering hands just long enough to put together this little guide to nailing coffee prep in the wilderness.

Single cup pour over filter

This is my go-to. Whether backpacking, car camping, nordic ski hut trip, a tiny and lightweight little cone is perfect when you want good coffee and have the time to prepare it properly. I like the Sea to Summit X-Brew Coffee Dripper—weighs less than three ounces. Folds down to less than an inch it height. Perfect blend of easy to carry combined with quality brewing. Bring pre-ground coffee in a little baggie, and this is a great high-end coffee option no matter where you are.

Aeropress

For the supremely dedicated coffee snob, the Aeropress is the ideal backcountry coffee maker. This plastic syringe/plunger is light enough to cart in a backpack, though it takes up a fair bit of space, and produces brilliant coffee. Want a quick shot of espresso blend or a full cup? It does both. Porlex even makes a hand-cranked burr grinder that fits in the Aeropress if you want to really geek out and grind your own beans. No better coffee option in the backcountry if you absolutely must have the best coffee you can.

French Press

If you’re camping with a group or maybe you just want to chug a liter of coffee yourself, this is your tool. Biolite makes a great french press that fits into their Kettle Pot, even if you’re not using their little wood-burning stove thing—it works great on a two-burner stove. At 1.5 liters, it’ll make enough coffee for 2-4 people, easy. Backpacking and need to make coffee for two people? I like the MSR Windburner pot with their Coffee Press.

Instant Coffee

If my main concern is packing as light as possible and/or moving as quickly as possible, I’m bringing some little packets of instant. Starbucks Via is the gold standard with good reason—I’ll drink these at home in a pinch—but Maxim Original, which comes pre-mixed with sugar and creamer, is also pretty dang good. For a long time I’d only bring Via while backpacking, but as good as it is, it can’t compare with freshly-brewed coffee. This is your thru-hiking, speed-hiking or, as I do, emergency coffee option—I’ll stash a Via packet or two in my first aid kit so if I forget to bring my pour over, which happens sometimes, I’ve got serviceable coffee on standby.

cowboy coffee

Don’t. Just don’t. With weightless pour overs or instant packets, there’s no reason anymore to mix grounds with boiling water and MacGuyver your way through figuring out how to avoid drinking the grit.

 

Showing 21 comments
  • NatefromStowe
    Reply

    What mug is that you’re using? I have yet to find the perfect mug for backpacking. I like the GSI Infinity mug alright, but it holds on to food flavors a bit much (nothing like curry flavored coffee). I like titanium mugs a lot (food flavors don’t linger for coffee and vice versa), but they are too hot to handel and get cold quickly. I’m hoping you’re about to say you’ve found a titanium mug with a neoprene sleeve…

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      Although it’s not a backpacking mug, the best travel mug I’ve found is from Zojirushi. It keeps coffee hot for hours—I actually use it at my desk so I don’t have to keep running to the microwave to reheat—but what I like best (aside from no plasticy taste) is that it’s leak-proof and has a locking lid. I’m such a coffee addict that I’ll brew up a fresh batch with the Jetboil before I go for a dayhike and slip it into my pack. It’s too heavy to haul on an overnight, but for everything else, I’m sold.

      • Cheis
        Reply

        I got a double-walled Stoic a few years ago…. not sure if they make it anymore.

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      Nah, it’s just a regular steel mug. I normally just use a stainless steel pint mug slipped into a beer koozie.

    • Anne
      Reply

      The Snow Peak Stainless Steel Double Wall 330 Mug is great kit at $20. Their double-walled titanium mugs as well but pricier. BackcountryGear.com has a sale on both the stainless steel and titanium mugs now.

      • NatefromStowe
        Reply

        Thanks Justin! Also, I ordered the Maxim coffee to give it a try based on your recommendation. For anyone who traditionally carries instant coffee, creamer and sugar with them (ie: they like their java a bit sweet) this s an awesome was a great suggestion. (Note: we bought all three kinds to try – we travel a lot and sometimes there are no options for coffee. The Maxim Mocha Gold was the easy winner. I punched it up with a Via, my wife drank it straight).
        Great article – thanks!

  • tom
    Reply

    r.e.i. offers a stainless steel French press, from planetary design, Missoula, montana. the bottom of the container stores a subsequent measure of coffee. it has a very comfortable handle. it is somewhat heavy and bulky for a backpack, for me, it is no worry, I hike xclusively with a bureau of land management adopted burro, so weight, and to an xtent bulk is not much concern.

  • James Allen
    Reply

    I like the premise of that single cup pour over, but that mesh looks really large, even for coarse ground coffee. Would an Aeropress paper filter fit in there, under the mesh?

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      The mesh is actually really tight — there’s a secondary filter beneath that screen you see in the photo.

  • Carolyn Krall
    Reply

    awwwwwwwwww <3 I want to hike with a BLM burro, with or without the coffee.

  • CarolB
    Reply

    I carry a plastic Starbucks cup (the ones that look like the paper ones).It’s super light, tall,cheap and keeps my coffee/oatmeal/soup hot fairly well. I also get funny looks when I use it

  • Robi
    Reply

    A combination of the lead off pour over and the eschewed cowboy brew might be your best bet for a proper cup. I don’t see that cone allowing more than a few seconds of steep time for a properly brewed cup. The above mentioned suggestion of adding an Aeropress filter might work, but, the standard for a well brewed batch of coffee is three to four minutes steep time.

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      You get that with the STS cone. It’s a really tight filter and does a great job.

  • robert
    Reply

    i use the aeropress. it is bulky but the coffee can be stored inside the tube part. For longer trips i switch to tea (the horror)

  • Sam
    Reply

    Try First Ascent Coffee Roasters instant coffee. Roasted, brewed, freeze dryed and packaged in Crested Butte. Tastes like a good cup of coffee

  • Taylor Eastburn
    Reply

    Any way you could send a link to the burr grinder you mentioned that fits inside the Aeropress?

  • Steve
    Reply

    Besides producing excellent coffee, Aeropress cleanup is quick, easy, and the resultant compressed puck of used coffee is easy to pack out.
    No soggy pour over grounds/filter to deal with.
    No time and water wasted cleaning grounds out of a frenchpress. No soggy grounds to pack out.

  • Jennes
    Reply

    I love coffee. Love it. And for backpacking, I bring store-brand/knockoff Vivarin and eat 1/4 tablet in the morning. Super light, minimal packaging, no need to boil water, no filters or extra cups, no grounds to deal with. And at the end of my trip the first cup of actual coffee is a lovely consolation prize for having to come back to civilization.

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      Whoa. I would never have thought of that. Interesting.

  • Josh Spice
    Reply

    Justin, you took me from 0-60 with three words… “Dont. Just dont.” You apparently just dont know how to do cowboy coffee correctly. Google Dave Chenault cowboy coffee. I prefer what he likes, pot, grounds, add water, boil, let settle for a few min, pour slowly, dont drink the final half ounce. Easy, zero accessories needed. I do this method at home, daily, even though i have an elite coffee maker, a french press, pour over devices, a percolator, etc. Learn how to do it right and try it before you preach to the world to not do it. Thats shameful.

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