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Backpacking Food Basics

Master the Art of Camp Coffee With These Tricks

Whether you want gas station-fast or cafe-gourmet, there's a way to do it right.

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For most of us here at Backpacker, camp coffee falls somewhere in between a habit and a sacred ritual. The smell of a fresh cup is a wake-up call—a transition between the part of the day where we’re bleary-eyed and blinking in our sleeping bags and the one where we’re striding down the trail. We’ve tried making camp coffee any number of ways, from instant shaken up in our water bottles to full-on miniature espresso makers.

There really is no “right” way to brew your morning Joe: It comes down to what you’re looking for. Ultralighters (and most backpackers, honestly) will prefer instant, which has gotten better and better over the years, while aficionados might be willing to carry a few extra ounces for a higher-quality cup. Below, we break down tips on ingredient selection as well as five of the top ways to make your camp coffee on the trail, and suggest a couple of hacks for making the most of it.

ground coffee
Ground coffee for camp coffee (Photo: Carmen Martínez Torrón via Getty)

Picking Your Beans for Camp Coffee

For the most part, what kind of coffee you use is up to you. Most people will go for a 100% arabica, which most coffee aficionados think has a more nuanced, smoother taste. Robusta is used mostly in cheaper blends, but some drinkers actually seek out higher-quality robusta beans; Vietnamese coffee, for example, typically uses robusta. Unless you’re hardcore enough that you’re willing to carry a grinder with you, you’ll have to pre-grind your beans; you’ll want a coarse grind for methods like cowboy coffee or a French press, with a finer grind for an Aeropress or pour-over; we’ve listed the ideal grinds for each method below.

The Best Methods for Brewing Camp Coffee

Instant

instant coffee

The benefit is right there in the name: Instant coffee is easy to make when you’re bleary-eyed and crunched for time, and you don’t need to clean up any mess or carry out the grounds afterward. While instant coffee drinkers have traditionally had to sacrifice a lot of taste (hello, Nescafé) newer, small-batch brands mean that you can actually enjoy your morning cup.

Best for Ounce-counters and hikers in a hurry

Drawbacks It mostly tastes like instant coffee.

Brewing tips Try Alpine Start ($9 for 8) or Stoked Roasters ($9 for 8).

Cowboy Coffee

cowboy coffee

Of all the coffee-making methods out there, we’re willing to bet that this is the one you’re least likely to use at home. Simply toss a few spoonfuls of grounds into your pot and brew away. It’s easy and doesn’t require any extra equipment. Downside: It’s also pretty gritty, especially while you’re still getting the hang of it.

Best for Big groups who don’t want to carry brewing equipment

Drawbacks You’ll pick grounds out of your teeth.

Brewing Tips Boil water first, then remove from heat and add grounds (2 Tbsp. per 8 oz.). Stir briefly and cover for 4 minutes. Uncover, then sprinkle with cold water or rap the side with a spoon to settle grounds. Pour carefully to avoid disturbing the sludge.

Grind Medium to coarse

French Press

french press coffee

This multi-step method makes for a strong, flavorful brew, and if you’re an aficionado then you probably know how to do it. But it also means you need to drag a single-use kitchen device into the backcountry with you, and then clean it afterward. Is it worth the trouble? We’ll let you decide that.

Best for Groups with more refined taste

Drawbacks Cleanup is a water-intensive pain.

Brewing Tips We prefer GSI’s JavaPress ($45; 14.6 oz.) for its weight and 50-oz. capacity. Add coffee and water to the press (2 Tbsp. per 8 oz.), stir briskly, steep for 4 minutes, then push filter slowly to the bottom. Serve.

Grind Medium to coarse

Pour-Over

pourover coffee

This simple brewing method produces a great cup without the weight and the moving parts of using a French press. But like the French press, you’ll need to carry a little extra equipment. On top of that, you can only brew one cup at a time, making this ideal for solo hikers or small groups at most.

Best for Coffee snobs who like a little ritual

Drawbacks One cup at a time.

Brewing tips Set a dripper—like Snow Peak’s Collapsible Coffee Drip ($30; 4.9 oz.)—over a mug. Rinse your filter, then add coffee. Skip the bloom phase; the wait time will cool your water. Pour water (just off a boil) in a slow spirals until your mug is full (about 3 minutes).

Grind Medium

AeroPress

aeropress coffee

Now we’re really getting fancy. If you’re used to drinking a double shot or a latte in the morning, this is the easiest way to brew strong, espresso-like coffee on the go. Again, you’ll need to tote in a single-use device, but if you’re a true coffee snob, this might be for you.

Best For Connoisseurs

Drawbacks It’s not espresso, but hear us out: Portable espresso makers are expensive, not to mention bulky for the quantity of coffee they make. As an alternative, the AeroPress ($30; 6.4 oz.) brews similarly rich, strong coffee in under a minute. Bonus: easy cleanup.

Brewing tips Follow equipment instructions.

Grind Fine

What’s the Best Kind of Milk for Camp Coffee?

If you drink your coffee black, you can skip this section. If not, picking the right kind of cream to add to your morning cup can make or break it. You have a couple options, all of them powdered: Powdered milk is the most obvious, dissolving nicely in hot coffee. Vegans might opt for dried coconut milk, which has a high fat content for a creamy mouth feel. Powdered non-dairy creamer is an easy option that you can find without trouble in any grocery store, and adds sweetness and flavor for hikers who usually go for a mocha or flavored latte; on the other hand, many drinkers don’t like the artificially-sweetened taste, and adding it to a cup of high-quality grounds filtered through an Aeropress might feel, well, kind of heretical.

Recipe: Lazy Hiker’s Creamy Mocha

Missing your normal coffee shop order? Make a sweet morning drink the easy way by adding a tablespoon of hot chocolate mix and a dash of French vanilla creamer to your morning brew. Pack the ingredients in a zip-top bag, or pre-mix with your instant coffee before you leave.

Read More: 5 Fancy Coffee Drinks You Can Make on the Trail

Originally published December 2017; Last updated January 2022