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It was going to be a long night on the Appalachian Trail.
We were more than 2,000 miles into the 2,200-mile affair, a fraction of Maine’s 282-mile section away from its towering end. My little trail family—my wife, Tina, and our convivial Kentucky comrade, SpongeBob—was in a newfound hurry: If we reached a road crossing by 8 a.m. the next morning, we could catch a shuttle to mammoth-sized pancakes and one of our last chances to shower. The road wasn’t far, really, but a slow and steady and stereotypical New England rain hindered our advance up the state’s steep granite slabs. If we were going to catch the van, we were going to have to lose a little sleep.
So, as the afternoon morphed into evening, while most people back home reached for a beer, we took cover in a little wooden lean-to and pulled out a red plastic hourglass tub of hiker speed: Folgers Instant Coffee, Classic Roast. Tina and I shoveled the silica-like crystals into our water bottles, while SpongeBob dumped them into an old peanut butter jar—a technique he’d honed to sip and stroll without spilling. We chugged until we felt as high as amphetamine reptiles, then raced up another mountain, then another. Long after hiker midnight, we finally pulled over, pitched our tents, and ate frozen burritos that had thawed atop our backpacks. The next morning, the pancakes and showers were ours—thanks, almost in full, to our racing hearts and minds, courtesy of Folgers.
If, like me, you’re either a coffee snob who’s entirely willing to pay $5 for a twice-a-day fix, or simply have functioning taste buds, you may have winced, groaned, or even hurled (sorry!) at the mention of Folgers Instant Coffee. If you’re a sommelier, you might describe the “nose” of those dehydrated flakes as pungent glue meets wet hay; if you’re a barista, you might liken the finished product to battery acid, with hints of coal ash and burnt cedar. Folgers Instant Coffee tastes kind of like coffee, but it tastes nothing like good coffee.
Still, after hiking more than 7,000 miles on long trails, and drinking or eating well over a million milligrams of caffeine on my treks, I’m ready to concede that there’s no better energetic vector than this splendid swill. It’s cheap, ubiquitous, light, and mighty—really, the most ultra-convenient form of caffeine available in most gas stations and grocery stores in the U.S. (Yes, not unlike my beloved Pop-Tarts.) But perhaps as important, Folgers Instant Coffee has—like hiking itself—humbled me by teaching me to be a little less particular. Sometimes, all you need is what you have, and you can always get more Folgers.
Name a way to consume caffeine, and I’ve tried it on a trail with fiendish zeal. I’ve chewed fancily flavored gummies, swigged matcha, and eaten protein bars infused with the stimulant. I’ve packed tallboys of Bang and iced coffee out of towns and stuffed vials of Extra Strength 5-Hour Energy into hip-belt pockets. I’ve slurped it down in chocolate-laced GUs and—yes, at least once—popped a caffeine pill.
And then, of course: Coffee. In recent years, there’s been a bloom of niche instant coffees, with some of the world’s best coffee companies trying to revitalize a market segment that ballooned after World War II but has long been associated with awful tastes. You’ve certainly seen the silver sticks of Starbucks Via. But Intelligentsia, Black & White, Partners? They’ll sell you six cups worth of instant coffee for at least $12. And if you’ve gone through the check-out line at REI and browsed their impulse offerings near the register, you’ve almost certainly wondered whether or not your weekend camping trip required packets of the instant stuff, perhaps from Alpine Start or Verve. I even hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail with tea bags full of coffee from Counter Culture, a fantastic company from my corner of the South. Some days, it was, as the Folgers’ tagline goes, indeed the best part of waking up: sipping legitimately good coffee from my trusty titanium cup.
But by the end of every long trail, I am back on my Folgers B.S., having caved, picked some up, dumped it into plastic bags, and stuffed it in my pack alongside the rest of my food. (Pro tip: Always double bag instant coffee. If it gets damp and loose, it stains everything it touches.) My transition back to Folgers happens for several reasons, each illustrating the untouchable virtues of this very bad but very functional coffee.
Why I Love Folgers Instant Coffee on Trail
First, there’s simply the question of access; you may have a real taste for Intelligentsia’s Instant Espresso, but they don’t stock that stuff in the reaches of northern California, which defiantly calls itself the State of Jefferson. Unless you’ve timed a refill shipment just right, so that the ostentatious beans are waiting for you at a post office, you’ll need to drink what you can buy.
Second, nearly every type of instant coffee I’ve mentioned thus far is prohibitively expensive. An ounce of Partners or Verve costs $16, Starbucks Via about half that. If you spend more than $9 for eight entire ounces of Folgers Instant, you’re probably in a remote convenience store that really doesn’t mind making you pay for the convenience. A broken budget can kill a thru-hike. But, by trail’s end, Folgers will keep you trucking toward the terminus for pennies per day.
And Why I (Maybe?) Hate Folgers Instant Coffee in General
There’s also much to say for how and why Folgers sucks. The Seattle Gummy Company’s caffeinated candies taste like little nuggets of salted caramel or chocolate wonder; each one is equivalent to a cup of coffee. Jelly Belly’s Extreme Sports Beans are actually less extreme, packing half the punch, but they’re incredibly delicious, and hard to stop eating. (Ever eaten weed candy that’s dangerously good, so good in fact that you keep munching until you go full white-out? That’s a little how those treats can work.)
But you know when you drink a cup of Folgers Instant Coffee, because it takes effort to get it down, especially when you’ve gone beyond the recommended serving size of “a rounded teaspoon.” It burns and stings and sours, becoming both catalyst for activity and inhibitor of overindulgence. You’ll stop yourself from drinking too much, because it’s too difficult to truly enjoy. You get just buzzed enough, then carry on.
On that rainy afternoon when we huddled inside that Appalachian Trail shelter, I was only a recent Folgers convert, a relative neophyte when it came to these dehydrated flakes. The least pretentious and particular of my crew, SpongeBob was the first to indulge in inexpensive instant coffee excess. (And, while I’m telling secrets, he also developed that unseemly thawed-burrito trick, too.) He would pick on me for picking up the pricey stuff at every outfitter we could find, while I would lampoon his bad taste and the fact that his choice coffee surely paid its farmers less to grow and wash the beans. I took my trail coffee black, with a sidecar of sanctimony.
But as I recently learned, I wasn’t necessarily right. Kim Elena Ionescu is an officer of the Specialty Coffee Association, a global trade network that is trying to bolster the international coffee industry, from the pay of producers to the sustainability of supply chains. Her group specializes in, as the name says, “specialty coffee”—that is, the side of the market that is not Folgers or Maxwell House but is instead most everything else. She told me she was not an apologist for big brands, collectively called “commodity coffee,” but that the smaller ones weren’t always better when it came to environmental issues or fair wages, either.
“The idea that commodity coffee comes along with bad labor conditions and environmental degradations, while specialty coffee comes along with good labor conditions and environmental benefits is just not true,” Ionescu says. “I wouldn’t know if I could vouch for a specific product, even from my favorite roaster, without looking into it. You need more information.”
Being humbled is a primary reason I love thru-hiking. Every day, you’re navigating something so much bigger than you, hoping to make it far enough to keep going. And so often, it teaches you that your assumptions—about the landscape, about your strengths, about the people around you—are wrong; that many of your beliefs are just pretenses, or stories you tell yourself to feel justified in your choices. Hiking shakes it out of you. It’s good to have standards, and it’s good to be able to let them go. Folgers Instant Coffee, frozen burritos, and the Appalachian Trail reminded me what we should all remember every day: We’re rarely right about most things.
That said, off trail, I’ll still pay $5 per cup twice a day. All the acrid Folgers in the world can’t stop me.