Camp coffee making started for me when I was working as a counselor at a wilderness/challenge camp for incarcerated youth in northern Minnesota. As part of the program, we took groups of residents on 3-week wilderness expeditions year-round. Canoeing, backpacking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and the common denominator for all of us counselors was coffee. Back then (this was quite some time ago) we had three main ways to get our morning fix of coffee: cowboy coffee, percolator, and instant. I’ll talk about these three methods and throw in a couple more that I’ve tried since that weren’t options way back when! You can enjoy good camp coffee with just a little planning and prep.
This is the original, the truly old-school, the hardcore coffee-making method that is not for the timid. Cowboy Coffee is about as simple as it gets: boil up a pot of water on the fire or camp stove, throw in a handful of grounds, let the grounds settle, pour yourself a cup, drink it while straining the grounds through your teeth or for extra flavor, strain it through an old sock. Some people swear by throwing a raw egg in the mix to settle the grounds—I’ve never tried that and have no desire to; not sure what the science is behind it and don’t really care to know. One thing that does seem to help settle the grounds a little is to tap on the side of the pot for a while and then pour carefully—and try not to be the one to get the last cup, which will almost certainly be a nasty sludge.
Campfire or camp stove percolator pots are pretty inexpensive and can produce a passable cup of coffee. Percolators work by forcing boiling water up through a center tube and onto the grounds housed in the percolator’s basket. A couple of important points with regards to camp percolators: first, they require prolonged boiling temperatures which can consume a LOT of stove fuel if you’re using a camp stove; 2) if you’re not using a camp stove and instead are using a campfire, the percolator can go from a nice slow perc to a boiling, roiling, overflow disaster in seconds! Trust me on this one. If you are percolating coffee over a campfire you have to keep a very close eye on things and be ready to pull the pot off the heat quickly!
Okay, I’ll be completely up-front on this one. I have a bit of a bias against instant coffee but I’m working on it. Over the past several years, instant coffee has progressed by leaps-and-bounds. I recently tried some instant (review coming in a future article) that put the old Folgers Crystals to shame. The main things instant coffee has going for it are ease-of-use (add to hot water and stir) and portability. For backpacking and ultralight camping, portability is a huge concern and if it means the difference between coffee or no coffee, definitely go with the instant. Do yourself a favor though, and try out a few different varieties to find one that you can live with. If you don’t know where to start, check out Waka Instant Coffee. I think you’ll be surprised at how far instant coffee has come.
Homemade Coffee Bags
I like this one quite a bit—it’s pretty easy and produces a good cup of coffee. It’s also very portable and easy to use. To make your own coffee bags you need: your favorite ground coffee, large coffee filters, butchers/kitchen string. Take your ground coffee (the amount you’d usually use for a pot), put it in a double layer of coffee filters (double-layer for a little added strength), gather the filter at the top and tie it off securely to make a nifty little pouch. I like to leave about 8”-10” of extra string to hang over the side of the pot and use to swish it around—kind of like you do with a tea bag. Heat up your water with the coffee bag in it, swishing the bag around periodically and by the time the water is almost ready to start boiling you should have yourself a pretty good batch of coffee. Give it a sip and keep steeping if it’s not quite as strong as you’d like. Be careful not to let the water get to a full boil—that can scald the coffee and take away from the taste. You should be able to pack several of these in a gallon-sized ziplock. As with any of these methods, give this a try at home before venturing deep into the wilderness! You’ll want to fine-tune your process before it’s at the high-stakes level.
French Press Coffee
French Press Coffee is my current favorite way to make camp coffee. Used to be most, if not all, French Press coffee makers were made of glass. With my discovery of the Coffee Gator all-stainless steel French Press, I don’t have to worry about opening my pack to find a mess of glass shards and dashed hopes. The downside of this method is the portability—the equipment is a little bulky and not super light. Since I don’t do a lot of ultralight hiking anymore, this isn’t much of a concern but it’s something you may want to consider. I am able to put my whole coffee beans and a small hand-grinder inside the French Press pot and keep it all together in one tidy little coffee kit. For overall coffee quality and ease-of-use, I don’t think you can beat this type of setup. Grind your coffee, put it in the pot, pour in your not-quite-boiling water, let steep for a few minutes, push down the plunger and enjoy! One other nice benefit of the Coffee Gator is that it’s double-walled stainless steel and will keep your coffee warm longer than any of the other containers/methods mentioned. This can be a huge plus on those chilly North Country canoe country mornings. Check out my review of the Coffee Gator French Press.
Whatever method you choose, when you’re out in the wilderness—whatever wilderness is for you—take time to enjoy the morning. Get up before the sun rises and get your coffee going. Watch the sun break in the east. It restores your soul and gives some peace in a confused and confusing world.