Coffee is one of those things that if you like it, you have a relationship with it: it must be made your way, you need it at the right time and if you skip your first coffee of the day, all is ruined. When we are outdoors, coffee seems to take an even bigger role – we have a ritual for it. Get up in the morning, leaving the tent (or not if it’s pissing rain/snow), get the kitchen quickly sorted and start boiling water….. We need that coffee. Coffee is also part of the greater moments when outdoors: a well-earned break, at the summit, or at the bottom when we are back in civilization, there is almost always a coffee.
I know I struggled to find my best coffee making system while outdoors – there are just too many variables! So what do you really need when making coffee outdoors?
- A heat source (read: stove! open fires are terrible for a morning coffee)
- Lighter (we tend to forget that)
- Fuel (liquid, gas, solid, they are all options here)
- Boiling vessel (pot/kettle)
- Drinking vessel (pot/cup)
- Brewing tool
- Extras that you might fancy (sugar, milk powder, biscuits)
I personally drink my coffee straight – black, no sugar and strong (3 espressos short Americano style strong), so below you won’t find any references to any extras, just kits to make the plain strong black gold – coffee.
The Ultralight Kit
In today’s age, outdoors gear is all about being light, simple and compact – your pack is under 10lbs and smaller than your kid’s school bag – this is how we hike in the 21st century. Coffee making is no exception and is all about small and light – cutting out all the fluff and comfort and leaving nothing but function. In this kit we have:
- A small folding stove like the MSR Pocket Rocket (85g), Alpkit Kraku (45g), Optimus Crux Lite (72g), Fire Maple FMS-116T (48g) and more. They are also pretty cheap: £20-35 ($30-50) making them ideal emergency stoves.
- Ignition to light the stove. It can be a simple lighter or matches, or you can opt for better options such as piezo (electric ignitor) or flint. No matter what you choose, make sure you don’t forget it as the tiny stoves have no ignition systems!
- Boiling/drinking vessel – with weight an issue it is all about having something multi-functional; your cup is also your pot and the kit’s container. Most choose to go for the pricey yet light and durable titanium options such as the Vargo Ti-Lite Mug 750 (139g), MSR Titan Kettle (118g) or the Alpkit MytiMug 650 (85g). Those all come with lids (important in boiling water quickly) and are pretty pricey; probably the most important thing to remember is that these cups get really hot, so something like the Snow Peak HotLips is a must for easy coffee drinking.
- Fuel here is only gas, and it is a good option. Gas for cooking is clean, burns hot and burns fast. Go for a small 100g canister to fit in your mug and remember to have extras if the trip is longer.
- Coffee – the reason we are all here. The lightest way to have coffee outdoors is instant, and here there is an absolute winner: the Starbucks Via. Yes, the instant coffee made by the coffee conglomerate is well known to be light and good. It comes is single serve packets, and is very good for such a product. Just make sure to pack it all back together to throw away, not leaving the tips of the packets out – put it straight back in the packet so you don’t lose it and accidentally litter.
Light and simple, you can have a coffee making system for the lightweight in under 200g if you play it right.
The Survivalist Kit
In either a survival situation, bushcraft or just a long-distance thru-hike, the ability to make coffee anywhere is vital and reviving. This kit aims for robustness, sustainability, and self-reliance. With this kit your only perishable is the coffee:
- Solid/wood burning fuel. The new wood burning stoves such as the Solo Stove, Bushbuddy Ultra or the Vargo Hexaon are very light, compact and robust while also being extremely efficient and in providing hot flames. Some come as a full kit (like the Solo) and some require a pot.
- Lighter/matches. Here a flint will be a real pain to use (but carry one in any case); a simple lighter can make the process much easier and lighting twigs a breeze.
- Pot – get a robust 1-2 liter (stainless steel/titanium) pot that can fit your whole kit (including the stove) to keep it all tidy and easy to find. Remember that the pot will turn black from the fire pretty fast, so a mesh bag to cover it can be useful to keep the inside of your pack cleaner.
- Fuel – Wood: it is out there and everywhere, no need to carry much with you. The advanced wood stoves today can use very little wood and twigs to run; they also run hot enough to dry any damp wood that is laying around. If you know that you will be facing wet conditions, carrying some dry wood with you is useful. Another little trick is to carry some esbit cubes to start the stove quickly or to help damp twigs catch.
- Coffee – go rough and strong, cowboy style. Cowboy style coffee is simply cooked in the pot and left to rest to allow the grains to sink to the bottom. The process goes like this:
- Boil water to match the number of drinkers (3/4 a cup each)
- Add a heaped spoon of coffee (coarse grind) to the heating water
- Let boil – but not over boil!
- Take off the fire and let sit for a couple of minutes
- Pour 2/3 a cup to each drinker
- Give the leftover grinds and liquid a swirl and dump under a bush
- Rinse the pot quickly – done
Wood stoves and cowboy coffee is almost like going back to the days of campfires and well, Cowboys, but with the 21st-century edge of leaving no trace and pack-ability.
The Expedition Kit
Expeditions usually have a few things going for them: a large group, going through rough terrain/high altitude in a remote location and with poor resources over a number of days. For this kind of situation, you want to be able to make a lot of coffee, make it strong and have an extra use for it. To make a coffee (or do any cooking) in your average expedition’s conditions, nothing beats the liquid fuel stove: robust, works with any liquid that burns and doesn’t flinch when it is too cold or too high for the people who use it.
- Liquid fuel stove. The heart and soul of the expedition’s food and heat (and coffee), the new stoves today can use liquid fuel and gas canisters. Primus has been offering this for years with their Omni line, but MSR came out with the Whisperlite International (I have the old Whisperlite) or you can go for the Optimus Polaris. Either way, make sure you have enough fuel for the whole trip and then some. A little trick to keep things cleaner: I use a little rubbing alcohol (97%) to prime the stove instead of the gasoline – it keeps things much less charcoal-y.
- Pot – here it is all about size. You want a good 3-4 liters pot (think 1 liter per person in the group) that is also light – aluminum tends to be a good solution.
- Accessories and repair kit – liquid fuel stoves sometimes work with nasty fuels and good maintenance is key. Take the stove apart at the end of every day while on the expedition to make sure all is clean and to avoid clogging. Another good addition is a windshield and a ground shield to allow increased efficiency in exposed conditions.
- Lighter, preferably a waterproof “turbo” lighter like the Turboflame; but make sure to also have a backup.
- Fuel – gasoline, kerosene, white gas and more, your expedition stove can take most things (even moonshine sometimes) and give you heat. Make sure to have enough bottles and keep them away from everything else – it all stinks!
- Coffee – drip will give you the best flavor but it requires some time. The GSI H2JO for Nalgene is a great solution to hasten things up: pour the water through the coffee in the filter, close the Nalgene bottle (yes you can make 1 litre/32 oz of coffee!) and let sit. To make it even nicer (and multifunctional), let the coldest person in the group stuff the bottle in their jacket while packing camp – they will feel much better. Step by step instructions are just below:
Being on a rough and challenging expedition doesn’t mean roughing it out and giving up on good coffee, it is just about making the right one using the right tools.
The Rapid Kit
If you are as impatient as me when it comes to your coffee (or food or anything) then you want a fast solution that still makes good coffee; there is only one solution: a fast integrated stove and a good pour. But if you want more control over your coffee (though with a weight penalty), Aeropress is the way forward: strong and crisp coffee in seconds – the perfect solution. For this coffee you need:
- Integrated or rapid stove system such as the MSR Reactor, MSR Windburner, Jetboil Sumo or the Primus ETA Lite. These systems are all about boiling water fast: the heating unit is integrated to a designated pot that has a heat exchanger to increase the heat and efficiency. Be warned – these stoves are faster than your home kettle, but that also means no simmering.
- As always, make sure you have an igniter for the stove (though the Primus has an integrated Piezo) – flint works best here.
- Aeropress with enough filters for the duration of your trip.
- Gas only with the integrated stoves, but make sure to get a higher propane ratio in the canister for a better and faster boil in colder and higher conditions.
- A sturdy cup to drain the Aeropress onto (also good for just letting it sit for a minute or two to make the coffee stronger).
- Coarse ground coffee, preferably pretty freshly ground. You can even go one step further and have a grinder (like the GSI JavaMill) for a really, really nice and fresh coffee.
The rapid kit is my go to kit, using the MSR Reactor and the Aeropress, for pretty much every trip. When I’m with my family or other people I have the 1.7l pot, but when I’m alone the 1l pot is perfect. This kit is heavy by lightweight backpacking standards, weighing around 750g (26.5oz) before gas and the actual coffee – but I think it’s worth it for that perfect cup of coffee. I think it is worth it enough that I’ve carried it over 230 miles for 11 days on the Cape Wrath Trail and numerous other trips.
No matter how you drink your coffee, finding the right way to make it outdoors will be a huge booster for your mood. The kits above are not set in stone, and any combination can be made to get the perfect cup of joe for you.