Coffee is a backcountry controversy best approached with care. You may lean toward ultralight, stoveless travel while your tent-mate needs her daily cup of java just to function. Perhaps you feel smug about your ability to choke down a tin cup of boiled grounds to save yourself the trouble of bringing a filter, but your partner may never speak to you again if he was expecting a grit-free option. In other words, anyone who travels through the mountains with a caffeine-jonesing companion knows these exact feelings.
Plain and simple, never try to convince coffee lovers they can do without. Luckily, there exists a bevy of useful travel gadgets geared toward producing a quality cup of joe on the trailhead. Be it a set of instant coffee, which requires just a pot of hot water to produce that sweet morning nectar, or a fancy French press, the options for weekend warriors are far from limited. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean each variant boasts a quality suitable for the road. To ensure you pack something that will appease every kind of caffeine lover, we’ve compiled a list of the five best options currently available.
Cowboy coffee requires no gadgets other than a pot. Simply place grounds in water and heat it up — don’t boil, which is certainly hard to avoid on a camp stove — until you have the consistency you want. This method has its adherents but downsides often include bad-tasting coffee and the chores of straining back the grounds and finding a way to dispose of them. If you want the coffee to taste OK, you have to heat it very slowly, so it’s the slowest of the methods we recommend.
Camp coffee makers for drip coffee are simple devices, sometimes weighing only a few ounces. They all perform the simple function of holding grounds for the maker to pour hot water over, thus making coffee like you might enjoy at home. The best of the bunch include the GSI Outdoors Java Drip, a three-clawed tripod with a mesh cup for the grounds. With this model, the mesh stays so tight, you won’t need a filter, however, you do need to find a way to clean up the grounds once finished. It also can be tricky to disengage the feet and remove the Java Drip without dripping at least a little coffee on your hands.
A little easier on the cleanup side, though slightly heavier, is the GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip. Comparable to the coffee funnel you may house in your kitchen’s emergency cabinet for when the power goes out or your electric coffee maker won’t work, this model works just the same. Simply put the filter in your cup, fill it with coffee, and pour in hot water. The GSI funnel collapses into a small disc shape for easy packing, too, and is made of silicone rubber instead of hard plastic so it won’t accidentally break in your bag.
For cleanup, take the filter out, roll the top down so the grounds don’t escape, and drop it in your trash bag. Pro tip for summer trips: Roll up the filter and leave it out in the sun for a bit to dry the moisture out of the grounds. This makes cleanup easier and lightens the trash load.
The aficionado’s choice, a French press is a popular but more inconvenient option given that bulkier equipment is required. Put grounds and water in the pot, place the device’s plunger over the top, wait five minutes, plunge, and drink. A French Press doesn’t filter out the beans’ natural oils so it lends a fuller flavor and stronger kick to the coffee. Camp presses run the gamut from simple (re: plastic) like GSI’s Java Press to the fancy ESPRO Travel Press, a tiny powerhouse constructed of stainless steel and high-grade silicone. ESPRO’s model also comes standard with a host of accessories for tea making and tiny filters for those who like French press coffee but not the oils.
Too complicated? Splitting the difference is the Snow Peak’s Titanium French Press, a tough little device that won’t break in cold temperatures like plastic models sometimes does.
Some mountain guides won’t let clients bring anything but instant coffee because of the hassles associated with disposing of the grounds. It’s a fair assertion, particularly in alpine environments in which the only options for disposal are dumping the grounds down a crevasse (we don’t recommend or condone this), burying them in the snow (not an option either), or carrying them out (correct answer).
If you don’t want to lug sopping coffee grounds around in your pack, instant coffee is the way to go. Instant is simple, easy, and remains the speediest and lightest option with no cleanup required. If you have a bossy guide, or just prefer to go light and fast, check out AlpineStart Instant, a viable alternative to carrying a gadget. Starbucks’ Via line of instant coffee is also a feasible option.
Don’t be surprised if you see a dramatic uptick in the use of percolators on the trail soon. Popular in the ’70s, before automatic drip makers were invented, percolators are likely a millennial’s — or hipster’s — dream coffee maker. The percolator holds the grounds above a pot of hot water, which cycles up through the grounds and back down into the pot. Automatic percolators stop the heat cycle when the water is on the verge of boiling, however, manual percolators like camp-specific models from Snow Peak and GSI Outdoors require a watchful eye to avoid boiled (and spoiled) coffee.
Percolated coffee boasts a delicious flavor if made correctly, but the percolators themselves remain the bulkiest option of the bunch for campers. Because of this, they’re best for car camping or RV trips.