Outdoors

Campfire Caffeine: The Ultimate Guide to Making Camping Coffee

by Dustin Christensen

camping coffee
Photo: Maddy Baker

Forget cowboy coffee – here are 8 ways of preparing your campfire caffeine that prove roughing it doesn’t have to apply to your morning joe. Our go-to options: the french press, pour over and cold brew.

In my college days, camping mostly involved cheap (see: water-like) beer and equally cheap beef jerky. That was life in general, come to think of it. These days, in my 30s with two kids, coffee now sits atop the altar of things needed to enjoy life, camping or not.

After struggling through years of subpar camp coffee, I finally came to terms with the fact that I’d have to take matters into my own hands. My last camping trip included several mornings of burnt, bitter coffee that tried way too hard to convince itself that it was, in fact, coffee.

coffee  

A breakfast of hardtack to follow would not have been out of place.

When I got home, I did what any good American would do: I Googled things from the semi-privacy of the bathroom, mostly in five-minute episodes until the above-mentioned children went to bed. Then it was off to the races.

Below, you’ll find the fruits of that labor: eight reliable ways to make coffee while camping, including some of the top tools for the job, and expert tips to make your outdoor brew taste even better. 

1. Camping French Press

snow peak titanium french press
Snow Peak Titanium French Press

Today’s common French press design dates back to the 1920s, and has only become more popular in recent years. Because it’s a relatively simple process, the French Press is ideal for camping and outdoor settings that limit your resources and electricity.

Several outdoor brands make solid camping-specific French presses, including GSI Outdoors with their Java Press, and Snow Peak with their titanium version. There’s also a handy backpacker-friendly coffee kit available from Jetboil.

These are great for single-serve or small amounts of coffee, but if you’re brewing for a group, check out a larger capacity press like this double-walled number from SterlingPro, which boasts a 1.75-liter capacity.

For a more general travel press that still works well at camp, consider the Espro Travel Coffee Press.

Best Ways to Make It

Unlike pour-over or drip coffee, the french press doesn’t rely on a filter, which means the coarseness of your coffee is an important factor. 

“Since your water and coffee are going to be hanging out for a while, start with a very coarse grind — the grounds should resemble breadcrumbs,” says Matt Duckor at Epicurious. “Any finer and you’ll end up with a cup of bitter, undrinkable coffee.”

french press
Photo: Rachel Brenner

If you’re used to getting fine, pre-ground coffee, you may want to pick up a grinder and whole beans before your trip, and even practice making French press coffee at home.

After the size of your grounds, the water’s temperature is also a key factor in brewing smooth coffee.

“Water temperature is key to making a good cup, regardless of brew technique,” says Lions Gate Kona Coffee’s Suzanne Shriner. “Don’t pour boiling water over the grounds. Use a thermometer to hit that 195-205F range.”

2. Camping Percolator

Farberware 50124 Classic Stainless Steel Yosemite 8-Cup Coffee Percolator
Farberware Yosemite Percolator

A percolator is cool the way an external frame backpack is cool, a sort of cool that laughs at the idea that camping or cooking things really need to change at all.

If you go this route, we recommend the GSI Outdoors Glacier Percolator, the Farberware Yosemite or the Coletti Bozeman Percolator, all of which get the job done and can deal with getting banged up around camp for years.

The Glacier is ideal for big parties (up to 36 cups), while the other two work great for solo or small group trips. All three are stainless steel models that won’t absorb unwanted flavors or odors over time. 

Best Ways to Make It

A percolator is about as close to traditional cowboy coffee as we’re willing to get, but that doesn’t mean we’d settle for a bitter brew. For a smoother taste, pay close attention to the water and bubbles popping up after a few minutes.

“If the bubbles are more of a constant stream than an occasional pop, your water is boiling, and you need to turn down the heat,” say the good folks at Roasty Coffee. “Too-hot water can make your coffee incredibly bitter. Conversely, your water is too cool if the bubbles aren’t happening often enough.”

If you’re using a percolator directly on a campfire, move it off to the side after a few minutes to keep it warm without being at a too-hot boil. On a propane stove, simply adjust the heat output as needed.

3. Aeropress

AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker

Like Cardi B, the Aeropress “don’t need more press” but here we are. The hype is real, and if you’re camping or backpacking, the Aeropress offers a low-maintenance brew that’s easy to perfect outdoors. 

Don’t believe us? Here’s a video recorded outdoors!

In all seriousness, the Aeropress is as easy as it seems, and its main appeal is versatility: it makes espresso and American-style coffee in just minutes, and because of its microfilter system, it makes a smoother, less gritty brew compared to similar methods.

There’s a reason it’s one of the most recommended ways to brew camp coffee, and with a little practice you can get the perfect Aeropress brew process down in no time.

Best Ways to Make It

There’s not much to say that Aeropress doesn’t cover in their 1-minute demo, but getting the perfect brew sometimes comes down to the coarseness of your grounds, as is often the case with all brewing methods.

camping aeropress
Photo: William Moreland

“You will experience about 30 pounds of resistance here,” says Blue Bottle Coffee. “If the pushing feels too easy, your grind is likely too coarse; if it’s very hard to push, chances are the grind is too fine.”

It doesn’t take long to get a good feel for the best grounds, water temperature and length of time to use with the Aeropress, though all those factors can vary wildly when camping. 

4. Camping Espresso Maker

Bialetti 06800 Moka stove top coffee maker

If you prefer espresso over coffee (and here’s the difference), going with a moka pot or travel espresso maker can make for high-powered brew that tastes just as good outdoors. 

The Bialetti 06800 Moka is small enough to take camping, and makes just over a standard mug of espresso, so it’s great for solo trips or small groups. For something more camp-focused, check out nCamp’s portable espresso maker, or the Nanopresso for a more modernized option.

Best Ways to Make It

Like a percolator, using a moka pot’s an easy way to go, and there are small things you can do along the way to get the best-tasting espresso possible. 

“Wrap the bottom of the pot in a chilled bar towel or run under cold tap water to stop extraction,” says Stumptown Coffee Roasters. “We do this to prevent the coffee from developing a metallic taste. The idea here is to get a relatively small amount of coffee which is very concentrated and rich.”

With espresso, you won’t need as much quantity as regularly brewed coffee, but you’ll still get a caffeine kick, as espresso has more caffeine per ounce than regular coffee. 

5. Pour-Over Coffee

Eureka Camp Cafe Coffee Maker

There are tons of pour-over contraptions out there, but snagging a camping set like Eureka’s is a great way to serve your friends and fam from a set that can take a beating over the years.

Backpackers will enjoy GSI Outdoors’ quick and dirty single serve pour-over, the Ultralight Java Drip, or Tribo Coffee’s hanging single-serve packets. For larger groups, it’s possible to bring a larger 8-cup pour-over, but you’ll want to be careful traveling with glass.

Best Ways to Make It

“The secret to perfect coffee is the right ratio of coffee to water —1:16, or 1 gram of coffee for every 16 grams of water,” says Peet’s Coffee.

This is true with pour-over coffee as it is any other brewing method. Aside from ratio and water temperature (Peet’s recommends 200° F standing for 30 seconds to cool slightly), the coarseness of your grounds should be akin to sand or sea salt.

Where something like the french press needs larger, coarse grinds, the finer grounds used in pour-over make for a quicker, more efficient extraction process.

6. Camping Coffee Maker

Coleman QuikPot Propane Coffee Maker

If you’re camping vibe is more let’s just make sure we have some damn coffee and less let’s spend time making sure our coffee tastes optimal, even out here in the woods, a traditional camping coffee maker can help. 

Coleman makes two reliable models, and both run on propane stoves. The QuikPot is a slick 10-pot coffee maker that’s easy to get started, and the classic Coleman Coffeemaker looks like something you’d see in a cheap hotel but still gets the job done.

Look, these aren’t sexy, but they do work, and we’ve spent many a cold morning with the fam huddled around a small hissing Coleman waiting for that sweet brown java juice to arrive.

Best Ways to Make It

Going with a drip coffee maker for camping means you’re decidedly in the “quantity over quality” game, but you can spruce things up with some top-notch coffee. Splurge a little!

“Since a drip coffee maker already handicaps the flavor a little it’s really important to get fresh beans,” says Lifehacker’s Thorin Klosowski. “If you’re fortunate enough to have a good local roaster near you it’s worth getting your coffee from them because it’s almost always guaranteed fresh.”

7. Cold Brew

Cold Brew Coffee Maker By Coffee Bear

Cold brew is a must-have morning routine starting sometime in May for us Phoenicians. While hot coffee works wonders for those colder camping trips, we’ve been on plenty of desert outings where more heat is the last thing you need.

Most cold brew makers are easily transportable, but for a few camping-friendly options, check out the Coffee Bear or County Line Kitchen cold brew maker. Both work well for campsites, and County Line also has a flip-top version that makes it easier to tote on hikes or side trips.

Best Ways to Make It

For years, I made cold brew the wrong way: with fine grounds also used for our drip coffee maker. First mistake.

“Cold brew requires a specific grind,” says Kitchn’s Meghan Splawn. “A larger grind — something closer to the coarseness of raw sugar — keeps the brew from getting bitter overnight.”

Next, I worried too much about the coffee’s blend, which it turns out, doesn’t matter as much as I thought. 

“Because it’s steeped for such a long period of time (up to 24 hours), its flavor is defined by coarse grinds’ exposure to cold water and the length of exposure, more so than the blend of the coffee itself,” says Atlas Coffee Club.

After making a few adjustments, I’ve slowly worked my way from overly bitter, hard-to-get-down cold brew to a mild, pleasant brew that’s easy to achieve outdoors. 

Alternatively, per our friends over at Moonrise Standard, you can make (or buy) a concentrated cold brew base that’s 3 or 4 parts water to 1 part cold brew base — perfect for rationing out over a long camping trip.

8. Instant Coffee

Café Bustelo Instant Coffee Single Serve Packets

There are all sorts of instant coffee packets out there, but our brand of choice is Café Bustelo and its espresso-style instant java. It’s done us wonders camping and backpacking, and seems a little smoother than some of the other instant options we’ve tried out in the backcountry.

For other options, check out Sudden Coffee, Waka Coffee or Treeline Coffee.

Best Ways to Make It

Once you get past the mental hurdles of instant coffee, you’ll realize it doesn’t have to be so bad. And like those belly fat-busting ads you see plastered online, there’s one weird trick to getting it right.

“What’s the key to making a good tasting cup of instant coffee? It’s simple — mix the instant coffee mix with a little cold water before adding any hot water,” says Sadie Trombetta over at Bustle.

We’re not chemists, but we know effective coffee alchemy when we see it.

“When you dissolve instant coffee directly into hot water, the amylum contained in the granules hardens, creating a powdery taste and consistency,” says PureWow’s Lindsay Champion. “By mixing the granules with cold water first, they dissolve more gently once introduced to hot water.”

Good Eats & Drinks

To further improve your campfire eats and drinks, check out our favorite enamel camp mugs, camp stoves or the best backpacking stoves. Oh, and don’t forget the cheap beer and jerky.

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