When you’re backpacking, trekking or mountaineering far removed from the hustle and bustle of civilisation, you always have to do without a few luxuries. No widescreen televisions, no pool table, no massage chair – nothing. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, at least you have one luxury out there, and that’s a good cup of coffee. That’s right! Even if you’re bivvying in dizzying heights, you’ll never have to go without your precious brew!
In the following, we’re going to show you the coffee-brewing options for travelling outdoors or in the mountains, as well as how they stack up against each other. We’re going to go down the line, discussing a plethora of coffee-brewing methods, starting with the super-simple instant solution and ending with an outright coffee extravaganza!
However, in this little overview we are not giving our two cents on which is “really the best” by demonising instant coffee and claiming that dripped coffee “tastes about as bad as your shirt smells after a few days in the wilderness”. Even though some chaps don’t like to admit it and will deny it until the day they die, taste is subjective. Of course, how your coffee tastes not only depends on the coffee you use and the tools you have at your disposal, but also on the coffee-brewing method and how you execute it. Even the smallest changes in brewing time, temperature, water pressure, stirring frequency or “contact intensity” between the water and coffee, as well as how long you let it steep can result in huge differences in taste. Even though most of us don’t really want to think about such nonsense before adventuring outdoors, it’s definitely worth it. After all, there’s nothing like finding your brand and your method after going through a lot of trials and errors.
Even though there are electric “outdoor coffee machines”, we’re going to stick with the stuff that doesn’t require electricity. And, we’re not going to go into any depth about stoves and other heat sources, since it doesn’t really matter how you heat up the water when you’re making coffee (well, at least with most methods).
Coffee pads, packets and pouches: little effort, lots of rubbish
There are so many different kinds of soluble coffee available on the market today that you could go to any supermarket and buy a huge variety for your next backpacking trip without putting much thought into it. Then, after stuffing as many little packets in your rucksack as you like, all you need is a cup and hot water. Brew it, stir it and enjoy!
As an alternative to the little packets, you can even use those coffee pads designed for machines when you’re adventuring. All you have to do is put the pad in hot water, push down on it with a spoon, and the coffee is as good as ready. The great thing about pads is that they are pre-packaged in single-serving sizes.
However, as practical as this method is, there are a few downsides: 1) the packaging waste, 2) the high prices of small quantities and 3) the taste, which, thanks to loads of artificial flavours, sugar, milk powder and other ingredients, can make the coffee taste like the opposite of “real coffee”.
Instant coffee is available in large containers and small packets. To ensure that the coffee powder dissolves in water, it has been freeze-dried. As with pads, all you have to do is put it in hot water, stir it and it’s ready to drink. Because you can easily limit the amount of instant coffee you take with you, you won’t have to worry about lugging around a bunch of added weight in your pack. Even though instant coffee is available in small packets, you can also fill up small containers or re-sealable bags at home to reduce the amount of waste you produce.
The downside to instant coffee is mainly the taste – it just doesn’t taste like a classic cup of coffee, to put it mildly. There’s also an environmental issue with instant coffee, namely the freeze drying. Freeze drying consumes a lot of time and energy, which isn’t particularly environmentally friendly.
Cowboy coffee (aka Turkish coffee)
While this method is nothing for (self-proclaimed) baristas, it’s definitely a viable option for all you (self-proclaimed) “real men” out there. All you need is a pot, a mug and coffee grounds. Then heat up the mud, stir and voilà – it’s almost ready to drink. Since you’re pouring normal coffee grounds into a pot or cup, you have to give the grounds time to settle at the bottom first. So, either wait two to three minutes or sprinkle a little cold water on the grounds. Really! This actually does help the coffee grounds to settle to the bottom. If you prefer milk in your coffee, pour some cold milk in it and then you can call it “Turkish coffee”. After the grounds have settled, pour the coffee into your cup. If you did it properly, the coffee grounds will still be in the pot.
Depending on your preference, you can either heat the coffee grounds with water in a pot (which is the only way to make “genuine” cowboy coffee) or pour them into hot water afterwards. Then stir and let it steep. The advantage of the latter is that your pot will be clean, that is, free of any coffee grounds. If you have a tin mug, you can brew your coffee in it directly over the fire, just like a real cowboy!
Regardless of which method you choose, the taste will convince even the pickier coffee aficionados – and not just because coffee tastes better in the great outdoors anyway!
Since strawberry lattes and caramel macchiatos started calling the shots, good ol’ drip coffee has lost a lot of its appeal. But, when you’re adventuring, filtered coffee can be quite the tasty option. This is due to the simple fact that using a filter opens the door to many different variations, all of which have two things in common: 1) the coffee grounds never come into direct contact with the water; 2) filtered coffee requires very little additional equipment.
The simplest method involves you holding a paper filter filled with coffee grounds. The downside to this is that it does require some skill in order to avoid bending the filter or it slipping out of your hand. You also need some patience and perseverance, at least if you want your coffee to be strong. In order to make a strong filtered coffee, the water needs to drip through the filter very slowly. If you just pour water over it, the contact time is too short, which will result in your coffee being too thin. You can speed up the process by brewing the coffee cowboy-style and then pouring the coffee mixture through the filter.
As a makeshift filter you can use any water-permeable material that would hold the coffee grounds. A great option is textiles, which, of course, should be untreated and clean. So, please clean that old pair of socks before filling them with ground coffee.
You can also make your very own makeshift coffee pad by creating small pouches and tying them shut with thread or floss. When it comes to aroma, this may not be the best method, but it works and it’s clean.
Filters and filter holders made out of plastic
If you prefer filtered coffee on your adventures, you presumably don’t want to deal with flimsy paper filters all the time. To avoid this, your best option is to get yourself a free-standing filter, a sturdy filter attachment or a filter holder made of plastic or stainless steel. Many of these filters have a small hole in the bottom for the coffee to go through, whilst others have an integrated sieve, rendering paper filters completely unnecessary. There is a variety of outdoor coffee filters with different attachments on the market today. Most have plastic or metal clips that clip onto almost any mugs, small pots and insulated flasks. Most outdoor filters are very lightweight and foldable (or collapsible).
You can also use a tea strainer to make coffee. Whilst tea strainers are nice and light, they can be pretty fragile, so it might get squished in your rucksack.
If you just want a fast and easy solution, the Grower’s Cup is a very convenient option. All you have to do is open the bag, pour in boiling hot water, wait and then fill up your cup. The bag replaces the coffee pot and contains an integrated filter in addition to the organic coffee, of course. It brews two cups. The downside is that you have to dispose the bag.
Moka coffee: the Italian way
If you like your coffee strong, you should definitely think about getting a moka pot. Contrary to popular belief, these pots make a kind of mocha, not espresso (since the brew pressure is too low), but the result is still quite satisfying. The pot is obviously more cumbersome than filters and small bags, but it’s indestructible. Plus, the pot has everything you need, so you won’t produce any waste (with the exception of the biodegradable coffee grounds). And, cleaning it isn’t any more difficult than cleaning a filter. You only have to rinse out the pot and filter with water.
Small, compact aluminium pots like the Espresso Maker from Relags are also affordable, lightweight and efficient. These things will brew you a delectable cup of coffee in a matter of minutes!
Moka pot 2.0: the outdoor version
Instead of the screw-on pot, the compact and extra-light outdoor version of the espresso maker has a spout that guides your morning brew directly into your mug. There’s no simpler or faster way to make an aromatic cup of coffee.
Espresso for experts
If you absolutely have to have your shot of espresso in the great outdoors, you can take a portable espresso machine from Handpresso with you. Weighing in at approximately 500 grams, these pump machines are not the lightest, but they are practical. They come equipped with a pump in the handle that can produce enough pressure to make a real Italian espresso (if hot water is provided).
French press coffee
The cafetière is a coffee maker consisting of a lid, filter, plunger and carafe, which makes it extremely easy to use. Coffee is brewed by placing ground coffee in the carafe and pouring hot water over it. The coffee grounds are then mixed with the water and eventually separated by the plunger that holds them at the bottom of the carafe, keeping them away from the coffee itself. This not only makes a delicious cup of coffee but also leaves only the biodegradable coffee grounds as waste. If you wait to press the plunger down, you can intensify the taste and strength of the coffee. The disadvantage of this device, when compared to the moka pot, is that you need a separate container to boil the water in. Fortunately, outdoor enthusiasts usually take a pot along, anyway.
A French press is usually made out of glass, which is not really practical for the outdoors. Fortunately, there are alternatives made of plastics like polycarbonate. Alternatively, you can use your camping pot or mug as a French press, provided you find a matching plunger. Jetboil and MSR are two of several brands that make compatible accessories.
AeroPress: half filter, half press
For specialists, there are other options as well, like the AeroPress. When it comes to flavour, the AeroPress, which is like a hybrid between the immersion and pressure method, is considered to produce the most delicious coffee. Well, that’s according to the German coffee expert Thomas Schweiger (only in German). Schweiger draws a clear distinction between drinking coffee for pleasure and drinking it just for the caffeine: “If I want to enjoy my coffee, I’ll take my equipment with me. If I just want the coffee to wake me up and don’t really care about taste, then I’d use instant coffee.” By the way, if it’s just about getting your dose of caffeine for the day, you don’t have to drink coffee. There are loads of powders, gels and energy bars with caffeine in them as well.
True coffee connoisseurs would probably turn their nose up at that idea and even take it up a notch and pack a portable coffee grinder as well. Yep, nowadays you can buy coffee grinders that hardly exceed the size of the small pepper mill in your kitchen. Of course, they’d also insist on taking the highest-quality coffee because cheap coffee – even if brewed using the best method – tastes, well, cheap. But that’s neither here nor there. Find what works for you and enjoy your brew!