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How to Brew Delicious Coffee on Trail

The perfect camp coffee — can it be done?

Coffee tastes even better when enjoyed from a cozy camp or first-rate alpine view. Part of the joy of coffee is the ritual: boiling water, setting up a filter, letting the coffee brew. If all you need is a jolt of caffeine, instant coffee will do the trick. If, however, you’re looking for a bit more from your backcountry coffee, here are tips and tools to get the perfect cup.

To brew the proper cup of coffee, there are four main things to keep in mind: how hot is the water, what is the water to coffee ratio, how long to brew the coffee and grind.

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Photo by Michael Burke.

Water temperature: Under nearly all circumstances, the proper temperature for brewing coffee is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees. If you’re brewing at sea level, you can either stop heating your water just before it boils or let your water cool briefly before pouring it over your coffee. At higher elevation, water will boil at a lower temperature that’s just right for coffee. Water boils at 203 degrees at 5,000 feet. At 10,000 feet it boils at 193 degrees. Much higher than that and it can be challenging to brew a decent cup of coffee — you might be better off with instant coffee. Note: The water you start with matters. Some water treatment methods (such as chemical treatments) or water sources (minerals, tanins, etc.) can affect the flavor of your coffee.

Water to coffee ratio: This a matter of taste. You’ll need to experiment. That said, 1 to 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water will do the trick in most cases. Obviously, add more coffee for a stronger brew. Use a cup with a measuring mark, or make a mark on your cup, to measure water. To measure your coffee, eye-ball it or bring a light-weight measuring scoop. (Or, use our “scientific” method of two heaping sporks equals one tablespoon.)

How long to brew the coffee: For French-press style systems, a brewing time of between 2 and 4 minutes will usually be about right. However, like with the water to coffee ratio, experiment to get the flavor you like best.

Grind: How fine or coarse your coffee is ground makes a big difference in your outcome. In general, the longer your coffee will brew, the coarser grind you will want. (For example: Use a coarser grind for French-press methods and a finer grind for pourover methods.)

Storage: For longer trips, try to keep your coffee away from light, moisture and heat (as much as is feasible).

Pack it out: It’s important to pack out your used coffee grounds if you’re backpacking or camping somewhere without trash service. Letting the grounds sit a bit to cool and dry makes it easier to get them into your trash bag.

Note: Making coffee generally requires two containers: one to boil water in and one to brew your coffee in. If you use your cooking container as your drinking mug, you’ll need to bring a second vessel. (Any small mug will work. Or, with some cook systems, the lid can work as a drinking vessel.)

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Photo by Melanie Pappas.

Fancy up your coffee.

If you prefer to not drink your coffee black, you can of course bring options to suit your taste. While car camping, this is easy. Bring a bit of sugar and put some cream in sealed container in your ice chest.

For backpacking, here are a few suggestions:

  • Powdered milk or powdered coffee creamer (plain or flavored)
  • White sugar, either in packets or a small container
  • Brown sugar (easier to transport than white sugar, because it tends to stick together)
  • Dehydrated coconut milk (is both creamy and sweet)
  • Small bottles of flavored syrup
  • Hot cocoa mix
  • Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.

gsi coffee rocket.jpgGSI COFFEE ROCKET

This tiny coffee maker gets big points for its affordable price point — $9.95 — and light weight — 2.1 ounces. To brew a cup, coffee grounds are scooped into a small basket, and the larger, plastic funnel is attached to the top of the basket. The whole filter fits onto the top of a mug using small plastic legs that swing into place. Simply pour water into the funnel and you’ll have coffee quickly.

To get strong coffee with this filter, we found it worked best to have a reasonably fine grind. When you’re done, knock the grounds into a trash bag and the filter nests together compactly. It will stash away neatly in most mugs. $9.95, rei.com.

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VARGO TITANIUM TRAVEL COFFEE FILTER

This elegant little coffee filter is a perfect addition for backpacking coffee lovers who want great coffee, simply. The Vargo weights just over an ounce and it’s cleverly designed to fit cups with a wide range of sizes. The legs’ sturdy attachment to the filter means it fits solidly on a mug. The coffee is simply scooped into the basket and then you slowly pour hot water over it. The filter has two layers of mesh, so you don’t end up with gritty coffee.

We found this filter made consistently delicious, strong coffee. It makes a single cup at a time, so it works great for solo trips — but of course it could also be shared among a group. And while all coffee filters are bit messy to clean out when you’re done, the Vargo is one of the easiest to get clean by simply swiping a finger around the inside and scooping grounds into a trash container. $49.95, rei.com.

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ESPRO TRAVEL PRESS

The Espro is a French-press style coffee brewer, in the size of a standard travel mug. To use, you simply dump coffee grounds into the container, pour over boiling water, wait and then put on the lid and slowly press down. The double-layered press filters all the grounds out of the coffee. And, due to a clever design, the coffee stops brewing once you’ve pushed down the press. So, your coffee won’t get bitter if you don’t drink it right away. You can drink straight from the Espro, or pour it into another cup.

If you like to add sugar or cream to your coffee, you can do it in the Espro, but you do have to pour a bit carefully to get through the slotted lid. The travel lid on the Espro is excellent. You can toss it in a backpack with confidence — it won’t leak. The Espro makes 10 ounces of coffee. Espro is probably too heavy for most backpackers, but works excellent for car camping or for making coffee at a trailhead to start off a day hike. $34.95, rei.com.

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GSI GOURMET POUROVER JAVA SET

Do you REALLY love coffee made with freshly ground beans? Then this is the coffee gadget for you. The set comes with a coffee grinder, a collapsible drip cone, a re-usable filter liner and a stir spoon. The drip cone includes a lid for traveling, which doubles as a place to rest the filter after brewing. Unless you’re an excessively dedicated coffee drinker, you’ll probably keep the grinder for car-camping trip. The rest, however, would work equally well for backpacking.

The filter easily brews one generous cup of coffee or two smaller cups at a time. The filter liner is a nice addition — it makes it a bit easier to dump the grounds into a trash container, although getting the liner perfectly clean in the backcountry is hard. Just learn to live with a few grounds. $39.95, gsioutdoors.com.

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CAULDRYN

The Cauldryn is, at its most basic, a super-easy way to heat up water or to keep a drink at a specific temperature. It’s powered either by a battery, a standard wall plug-in or a 12V or 24V outlet in a car or boat. The nice thing about the Cauldryn is it allows you to safely heat up water in an enclosed space such as a car or tent. (You can’t do that with a stove.) If you want to start off a cold morning by brewing a cup of coffee, you can do it right in your car.

While Cauldryn is probably too heavy for most backpackers, it’s great for day trips or car camping. You can brew coffee in the Cauldryn with a percolator accessory. Or you can simply use it to heat water for your standard coffee setup. It will also work as a thermos — you can choose the exact temperature you want and the battery will keep your drink perfect. $129.99, cauldryn.com.

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KUJU POCKET POUROVER

These ingenious little coffee packs have the advantage of easy cleanup but with the flavor benefits of a pour-over coffee. The coffee packs includes fold-out legs that fit over the edge of a mug. (Note: These will work with wide mugs, but you’ll have to set the bag off center with the legs at an angle, not straight across from each other.)

While you still have grounds to pack out, they’re easy to just dump in your trash bag. Kuju offers several varieties of high-quality coffee, and a variety of roasts. $2.50 per packet, rei.com