Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 6 of the BackpackingLight print magazine (now out of print).
If my years as a backcountry traveler have taught me anything, it’s this: backpacking should never EVER be attempted without coffee. If this statement does NOT ring true as a fundamental fact in alignment with the laws of the universe, then don’t bother reading any further.
Okay, lets review the statement above. If backpacking equals coffee, then ultra-light backpacking must somehow equal ultra-light coffee, right? Right.
As a seasoned backpacker and a coffee drinker, the act of field-brewing the perfect cup is something I have taken to heart and, as a result, I’ve experimented with all-manner of systems and techniques. Over the years I’ve found that there are plenty of ways to make a fabulous cup of coffee in the backcountry, but some systems are decidedly NOT lightweight.
This is serious business and there’s a lot to juggle in deciding how best to approach the coffee conundrum for a given backcountry trip. Factors such as group size, cooking systems, and the extent to which you will ultimately favor weight savings over the aesthetics of the perfect coffee experience will all have an impact on which approach is most appropriate.
As you may have gathered, I’ve got some opinions about this whole coffee thing. So, before we go any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, here are a few of my personal prejudices:
- Strong coffee is good coffee.
- Except for a very few companions, I don’t trust anyone to make coffee for me.
- Adding sugar to coffee is criminal.
- Sometimes I add a little milk in my coffee, but black is just fine.
- Adding flavors (like hazelnut and almandine) to an already perfect drink is sinful.
- Picking grounds out of my teeth is a serious buzz kill.
- Coffee equals joy.
Outdoor boutique shelves are overflowing with every conceivable variation on the humble French press. Some make very good coffee, and some seem designed to simply look good. French press systems becomes a good choice when you find yourself in a group. The more coffee you need (a liter or more), the more the press becomes a preferred option.
There are one-cup French press systems out there (and I even have a few), which make very good coffee, but they are NOT a lightweight solution. For a single cup at a time, the small filters are superior and much lighter.
For obvious reasons, glass (or, more correctly, Pyrex) ain’t an option. There are several Lexan versions. There is a robust 33-ounce (1.4-liter) sized Lexan press made by a company called GSI (they also make other sizes), and it costs about $20. As soon as I took mine out of the box, I used a hacksaw and cut off the handle, then ditched the rubber base and the Velcro insulating wrap. I got the thing down to a reasonable 9.1 ounces - a behemoth by ultralight standards, but a good tool for big groups.
Snow Peak makes a titanium French press (6.5 oz), but - alas - it only holds 24 ounces of liquid, making it just a one-cup (albeit a big one) apparatus.
There are a multitude of stainless steel versions of every conceivable size and design. These are for home use and car-camping applications ONLY.
I typically spend thirty days each summer working on massive glaciers in Alaska with big groups (sometimes fifteen expedition members!), and coffee time is an essential part of the experience. Our success as a well-run expedition is absolutely dependent on a well-orchestrated coffee routine. The French press is the glue that binds our teams together.
There are at least two small filter systems on the market that function well. The MSR MUG MATE, which weighs .98 ounce, and THE PEOPLE’S BREW BASKET from The Republic of Tea. The Brew Basket is actually a little lighter than the MSR, weighing in at an amazing 0.1 ounce! The Brew Basket is a small plastic mesh filter shaped like a cup. It is a simple tool and works great.
There are two ways to effectively use small filters to make good coffee - first, as a filter through which you pour already steeped coffee to keep grounds from ending up in your mug (and teeth), or second, as a way of containing grounds while they steep in your mug or bowl.
Actually POURING already steeped coffee through a filter makes better coffee, and it’s easier, but it requires using a two-pot system - one to hold the hot water and steep coffee in, and a second to drink from. Here’s how it works:
- Make a pot of boiling water with the desired volume.
- Shut off the stove and add finely ground coffee to the water.
- Stir with a little stick and then let this mixture sit for a while. (How long? How impatient are you? Some purists say four minutes, but I’m way too anxious for that; it would be an eternity. Let's just say about a minute.)
- Then pour this mixture through your filter into your cup.
Dang, I can barely write this without getting all excited
For the second approach, using only one vessel, here’s the low-down:
- Boil the water in your drinking cup.
- Shut off the stove and take it off the heat.
- Prep the FILTER with the coffee grounds - a fine grind is essential.
- Carefully set the loaded FILTER right in the cup. This may take some time because the grounds will float (using the MSR with the lid will help here).
- Actively swish the FILTER around in the cup, then let it sit for a few minutes.
- Remove the filter and drink.
SMALL FILTER 2.0
You can take the Republic of Tea BASKET and cut it (and then sew it up again) so it fits PERFECTLY into a 500ml baby Nalgene bottle! This solves some of the hassle factor, and reduces the filter’s weight below its already wispy 0.1 ounce! Scizzor, sewing needle and unwaxed, unflavored dental floss required.
Java Juice is the answer to the ultralight backpacker’s prayers.
For the super zealot, these little packets are the hands down winner for the lightest way to make, drink, and enjoy coffee.
Each packet weighs just 0.5 ounce and makes one 12-ounce cup of strong coffee. Vary the water (and the number of packets!) to find your strength preference.
How do you use Java Juice? Heat up water in a mug. Add contents of Java Juice packet and stir. That’s it! To make sure your hot drink tastes fantastic, heat your liquid before adding Java Juice.
Alas, even Java Juice is not quite perfect.Pros & Cons
(+) The lightest!
(+) The easiest!
(+) Pretty darned good taste.
(+) Single vessel.
(+) After careful instruction, even non-coffee drinkers can make it for you.
(-) Not quite as good as fresh brewed, but close.
Where Java Juice truly shines is when it’s served cold during afternoon coffee time on the trail with no need to pull out the stove. Dipping my humble mug in an ice-cold mountain spring, adding two packs of Java Juice and a pinch of powdered milk... oh my goodness, I’m getting all teary-eyed just thinkin’ about it!
COLD PREPACKAGED COFFEE IN CANS
Austin Powers stumbled on Dr. Evil’s plans for global domination, and it was being masterminded out of the corporate tentacles of Starbucks. This was not just some Hollywood scriptwriters idea of a joke - this is TRUE! So, read on with extreme trepidation.
The Darth Vader of coffee exploitation does plenty of stuff that I worry about, but dang if they don’t make a really good coffee in a can.
Search your local grocery store (or gas station) and you’ll find little 6.5-ounce cans called DOUBLE SHOT. Espresso, cream, and sugar. This may sound terrible, but it is actually a distillation of the three most vital food groups: Caffeine, fat, and simple carbs.
I use these as a caffeine delivery system on short stoveless overnights trips. Two cans per morning are enough to screw my head on plenty tight.
Starbucks also sells an 11-ounce canned product called ICED COFFEE made with Italian roast, and (gratefully) this has less milk and sugar. Also very good.
The obvious drawback of these products is that you end up carrying actual containers of liquid into the backcountry, and then of course shuttle the empty cans around with you once you’ve used them.
Cowboy Coffee is an art, but it requires a little patience. And, honestly, patience is not one of my virtues. Nonetheless, Cowboy Coffee can be very good, and here’s what I’ve learned:
- Heat water in a pot.
- Let the water achieve a boil and take it OFF the stove.
- Add the grounds, and stir ‘em in. The grounds will float and won’t even begin to sink until they are fully saturated, so keep stirring. A little stick works fine.
You need to get the grounds to the bottom of the pot before you can pour the coffee into a cup. This is where patience is a virtue. Now it’s a race against time: if you wait an hour all the grounds will settle out beautifully - but the coffee will be cold. And if you don’t wait long enough, you’ll end up chewing your coffee instead of drinking it. It’s surface tension keeping the grounds afloat, and you’ll need to break this with some simple techniques.
Here’s where everybody has a little trick to get the grounds to settle. These all work fine:
- Tapping the side of the pot.
- Adding a tiny bit of cold water.
- Add a pinch of snow (difficult in Arizona in July).
- Drop a few pebbles into the pot (my favorite).
- Continue to stir with a tiny stick.
Even the best Cowboy Coffee usually leaves a few grounds in the first cup out of the pot, so find out who on your team won’t complain and pour theirs first.
*Important note: You can easily avoid this whole rigmarole by pouring the cowboy brew through a filter and into your cup. This is quick and solves the issue of getting any grounds in your cup. (See “Small Filters” above).
Traditional Turkish coffee is made with a combination of a specialized little cup, called an ibriks or cezve and very finely ground beans. For true Turkish coffee, beans are ground to a dusty powder - a consistency that might be difficult to achieve at home with a counter top “propeller” grinder. A better option would be to use the grinder in your local grocery store (or better yet, ask at your local coffee shop). If you don’t achieve a fine enough grind, the process won’t work. Your ground coffee needs to be as fine as cake flour!
If you are in a café in downtown Istanbul, your artisan host will put a small amount (usually less than you think) in your ibriks and then carefully bring the mixture to a boil. He’ll even let you use a special spoon to stir it. The ibriks has a bell shape, it’s wider at the bottom. This wide area traps the inky black stuff (affectionately called the “sludge”) as it settles, so you don’t end up drinking it. Simple and elegant. The humble backpacker can use a 500ml Lexan Nalgene bottle as a stand-in ibriks. This vessel has a similarly shaped wide rim, and it functions very nicely.
So, mix some Turkish ground coffee with boiling water right in your Baby-Nalgene, no stirring - just put on the lid and shake. Now let it sit for a few minutes so the sludge can all settle. Then drink it carefully! It’s a beautiful thing as long as there is no disruption of the tar at the bottom.
You can combine the best of Cowboy Coffee and Turkish coffee approaches for 1-liter volumes. The standard 1-liter soft-sided Nalgene water bottle (6.1 oz) is a solution that is lighter than the French press and less time consuming than the Cowboy in-the-pot system. It also keeps the pot from making the next meal taste like coffee.
Put a very fine Turkish grind in the Nalgene bottle. Add boiling water, put the lid on, and shake it up. Wait a while (maybe three minutes), tapping the bottle periodically. Allow the grounds to settle to the bottom and decant the mixture into waiting cups. The shape of the “rim” on the bottle effectively traps the sediment, but pour SLOWLY. The last few drops will NOT be drinkable.
Sadly, the Nalgene bottle serves only one purpose, it will hold odors and will not make a very good water bottle - unless you don’t mind the strong leftover taste.
(+) A fairly light way to make coffee for two people (a half a liter each).
(+) Makes VERY GOOD coffee!
(+) Keeps the pot clean of coffee taste.
(-) The water bottle will be unusable as a water bottle.
If you can’t handle your coffee black, you’ll need to add some milk. The powdered stuff is actually pretty good (and there is even some organic milk available).
However, creating high quality milk from a powder isn’t as easy as you might think. Powdered milk is a finicky substance. Don’t be lazy and simply shovel the stuff into your brew. If you add powdered milk to hot water it’ll become a thick glop similar to a full hanky during allergy season and about as appealing.
To make proper milk you MUST USE COLD WATER. When combined with cold water, the powder is transformed into a glop-free concoction. That said, you can make it pretty thick so the mixture doesn’t get your final coffee too cold.
The 500 ml Nalgene is a milk frother's dream tool! Add powdered milk and a tiny amount of cold water. Put the lid on and shake aggressively. You can achieve a powerfully creamy addition to the coffee experience.
Now, I would NEVER put this stuff in my coffee. But, in an effort to inform those who do, here are some tips.
Sugar is a tricky thing to carry in a backpack. It is granular and difficult to pour out of a plastic bag, but dipping a spoon in the bag is an unsanitary solution. Sugar packs poorly in a Zip-loc bag, because the grains clog the zipper, and spilled sugar is a disaster, especially in the rain. Oh Jeeez - the stuff gets sticky!
Brown sugar packs a little better - it stays in clumps for easier travel and serving. It sounds counterintuitive, but actually helps.
The easiest solution is to steal some of those little packets from a diner. Figure out how much you’ll need and count ‘em out exactly before leaving the trailhead.
Alternative Caffeine Delivery System
Jolt Gum is not coffee; it’s a caffeine delivery system completely devoid of the ritual involving the mug and the heartfelt “Ahhhh!” after the first sip. But it does have its place in the true caffeine addict’s backpack.
Here’s a story: I got up early in southern Utah in the rain, it was cold, and we had a lot of miles to finish up before the end of the day. We didn’t light the stove, we just chewed Jolt gum. While hiking I thought to myself, “What a nice morning!” (and this was in the rain!) This was the opposite of a non-coffee morning where my thoughts would be a frenetic spiral of, “Gotta brew up - Gotta brew up - Gotta brew up!”
This stuff works. Two little pieces have about the same caffeine as one cup of coffee. So, this actually IS a viable substitute to bringing coffee into the field.
A Backcountry Coffee Code of Conduct
Here’s an ethical can of worms.
Coffee grounds are trash, and we can’t be adding trash to the pristine backcountry.
I’ve shared a tent with some very devoted and morally pure backcountry travelers. They have watched me carefully disperse coffee grounds in the morning, and they were extremely clear at communicating their disapproval. Fortunately, I had already jacked my brain on the good-bean, so my debating skills were white hot. Unfortunately, they are right. Coffee grounds are actually trash. But, they are a trash that I can justify leaving in the topsoil in a pretty meadow out in the great wild.
The third Leave-No-Trace principle is “Dispose of Waste Properly,” and used coffee grounds are waste. If you feel you need to carry them out to the road-head and throw them in a trash can, then more power to you. I am of the opinion that with just a little forethought, used coffee grounds can be appropriately left behind. Coffee is a boiled and ground up bean (and hopefully you purchase organic beans!), and they will decompose in healthy topsoil.
For what it’s worth here’s my own “ethical” checklist:
- Scatter used coffee grounds in an appropriate area - bushes or brushy areas work wonderfully.
- Do NOT scatter used grounds on rocks or rocky areas. If you are above tree line, pack used grounds with you until you get to a zone with living flora.
- If you are in an impacted campsite, walk a long way from the site before scattering.
- Never dispose of used grounds in a river or pond!
- Don’t be lazy. Do the very best you can when you scatter your used coffee grounds.