If you know me at all, we’ve probably talked about coffee at some point. If it turns out that you like coffee at all, we’ve probably talked about it quite a bit. You may have walked away from one of those conversations thinking something along the lines of “that guy seems like a coffee snob”.
In my defense, I like to think I’m a practical coffee snob. Meaning, sure I’m a coffee snob (no shame in that), but I like to think I’m practical about it. If I’m at my house, I’m most likely drinking my freshly ground single origin specialty coffee that I roasted myself within the last week or two. If I’m at your house, I’ll happily drink whatever coffee you’re serving. If I’m on the road, I’ll drink (almost) whatever’s available. If I’m on the trail … well, it depends what kind of backpacking trip it is.
I’ve got options. What kind of coffee I’m drinking on trail depends how much time I’ll have in camp, and how much weight I’m willing to haul.
ULTRA LIGHT / ULTRA QUICK / ULTRA CHEAP
If time and/or weight are a priority for the trip I’m on, then instant coffee is the way to go - it’s as light as you can get and all you have to do is add hot water (although if you’re truly crunched for time I find it works just as well with cold water).
My go to here is Starbucks Via packets. For a longer trip it’s generally a little cheaper to get a bulk tin of Starbucks Via (although I think it’s different than the individual packets, it works well enough). I have friends who swear by Cafe Bustello, but I just don’t like the flavor. I’ve also tried some of the fancy brands that REI sells, and they were good but I not worth the extra expense to me. I’ve heard that some of the Korean instant coffee is pretty good, but I’ve only seen it in large quantities so haven’t tried it out (yet?).
ULTRA LIGHT / NOT SO QUICK / PRETTY CHEAP
If I’ve got a reasonable amount of time to get out of camp in the morning, I’ll take it up a level and bring some pre-ground coffee with my plastic Hario V60 pourover cone. The brewer weighs a just couple of ounces (3.4 on my scale), and cleanup is super easy. It’s hard to fit neatly inside my pack very well but it’s easy enough to clip on the outside of my pack (bonus points for looking like a real coffee snob on trail). The pourover takes a bit longer than just adding water to some instant coffee, but the taste improvement is … significant. This is probably what I take most often.
An even lighter weight alternative here is to use something called a “coffee filter bag with hanging ears”. It’s basically a filter with a little extra cardboard/paper that gives it enough structure to also function as a pourover cone. I have a pack of these from Kalita (the Kantan drip), I’ll use them if weight is a priority. Their size and weight is a big advantage, but they’re a bit fussier to use than an actual cone, and I find they only work with a smaller serving (~250g of liquid), and your cup rim can’t be too wide. If you want to go this route something like Kuju Coffee has it all ready to go with the filter and coffee included (this is probably what I’ll do whenever I finish up my Kalita pack).
NOT SO LIGHT / NOT SO QUICK / LESS CHEAP
If I’m willing to pack a little extra weight in exchange for the freshest coffee and a relaxing morning ritual I’ll bring whole beans and a hand grinder. This add an extra pound or so, but there’s something to be said for grinding your coffee while your water is heating up. Especially with a couple of friends on the trip this makes for a fun morning in camp.
NOT SO LIGHT / NOT SO QUICK / VERY BOUGIE
This is definitely ridiculous, but sometimes that’s called for. This only rarely shows up on a backpacking trip I’m on, and it’s definitely a time commitment. Swapping out the light weight Hario V60 for a Picopresso espresso maker and keeping the hand grinder elevates your coffee game quite a bit. You may catch some (well deserved) grief from others nearby, but you can take solace in knowing they’re actually just jealous (in which case, you should probably pull them a shot too).
If you’re going to this trouble, why not bring along some shelf stable milk and enjoy a backcountry latte? You won’t be able to make the same type of foam/froth that you can with a real milk steamer, but you’re roughing it remember? Heat up the milk and give it a vigorous stir (a small whisk would do wonders here) and you’ll get something that’s a least somewhat foamy. Bring some chocolate milk and you’ve really gone up scale with a mocha.
Another “espresso like” option here is a classic moka pot. I’ve not used one in the backcountry, but it should work pretty well. Cleanup would still be a hassle, but this is a cheaper way to get something like espresso if that’s what you’re after.
A french press makes excellent coffee with minimal fuss. You could take a grinder or pre-ground coffee, and you can find plastic presses that are lighter and more durable than a typical glass press. I just don’t think this is worth it in the backcountry due to the cleanup. Having to scrap out all of the grounds out of the press and rinse it out is not appealing - especially when compared to the ease of just folding up the used filter from the V60 and adding it to your trash bag.
If you’re really into the flavor of a french press you might want to consider so called “cowboy coffee”, which is basically french press without the press (so, no added equipment). Just add your coffee and hot water into your cup, stir, and then wait a bit. You’ll want to sip slowly so as to let the grounds that have settled to stay settled, and be prepared to leave the last dregs in the cup or enjoy a sludgy last few sips.
An Aero Press also makes excellent coffee with minimal fuss. It’s a lot easier to clean up than a french press, but it’s still too fiddly for me to take into the backcountry. Lots of parts and a bit unwieldy. If you add something like the Fellow Prismo you can use this for your “espresso like” adventures.
James Hoffmann is a great go-to source for all things coffee. He’s entertaining and reasonably aware of when he’s being too pretentious about his coffee preferences. His brewing guides are a good way to get started with your preferred brewing method. I think most of what he has to say in his techniques work just fine in the backcountry.
- James Hoffmann Ultimate V60 Technique (video)
- James Hoffmann The Best Portable Espresso Machine (video)
- James Hoffmann Ultimate Moka Pot Technique (video)
- James Hoffman Ultimate French Press Technique (video)
- James Hoffman Ultimate Aero Press Technique (video)
GOOD TO THE LAST DROP
I’ve tried to cover all of the ways that I’ve made coffee or seen it made in the backcountry. What I haven’t included are specific procedures for how to make the best version of any of these. Checkout a few of the links in the resources section above for more on that.
What do you think? Is there a way that you enjoy coffee in the backcountry that I’ve missed here? What’s your go to method?