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Advice on Buying Coffee Makers for Camping

Morning coffee set up.
Wednesday April 29, 2020
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While coffee is an essential part of the day for many people, choosing the perfect brewing device for camping isn't nearly as technical, involved, or essential as other outdoor gear purchases. If you pick the wrong camp coffee maker, it won't result in someone getting lost, hurt, or hypothermic. However, it's still of the utmost importance for some and not a choice to be taken lightly. If you are reading this, you are probably thrilled that there are so many options for taking your favorite beans into the backcountry! But how do you choose the perfect brewing device? Read on for a ton of helpful information.

The X-Brew compresses down so flat that you'll barely even notice it in your pack!
The X-Brew compresses down so flat that you'll barely even notice it in your pack!

All of the products in this review are portable and can adequately dole out caffeine for your fix. But the critical factor is this: can they satisfy your refined palette? We know that our team of testers would never settle for just any cup of cheap bitter Joe, so we searched out the best and most delicious ways to brew while outdoors.

How to Choose?


Some things to consider when trying to decide on your purchase:
  • How important is flavor to you?
If this is the most important piece, then focus on that and commit to learning how to brew best with your device. Choose a brewer that helps coffee realize its full potential instead of masking or ruining it. Dial-in a recipe and system before you head out into the woods so that you'll be that much more likely to have the perfect cup every time.
  • How many people do you want to be able to serve?
Do you need a coffee maker for solo backpacking trips, or do you tend to go car-camping with a big group? Does it make sense for everyone to use their own separate brewers or to have one that can accommodate everyone easily and efficiently?
  • How easy is the brewer to use?
Do you care? Paying attention to what pieces you will need to keep track of, how easy the brewing process is, what filters and other accessories you may need to buy, and how streamlined clean up is will have a big effect on how satisfied you are when out in the elements.
  • Do you need the lightest possible method?
If you're looking for a brewing device for backpacking or other weight-conscious activities, be sure to pay attention to this.
  • Do you need a compact brewer because space is at a premium in your backpack or rig?
If you're looking for a brewer that occupies minimal space in your pack or kitchen bin, then take extra note of size and weight. Consider how packable the brewer is and whether it will work with your current set up.

Some compact and lightweight pour-over style brewers ready to duke it out.
Some compact and lightweight pour-over style brewers ready to duke it out.

Types of Coffee Makers


If you require coffee every morning, chances are you have a preference for how you like it brewed. You may already have an idea of what you are looking for, but below we offer a quick coffee maker run-down. Our Best in Class review gives a more detailed breakdown of the factors we prioritize when purchasing a coffee maker specifically for camping and backcountry adventures.

Percolators


Percolators are the old school way of brewing while camping (well, short of cowboy coffee, where you just boil water and throw in the grounds). Typically, a percolator is a metal pot with a basket inside which you fill with grounds. The pot is placed on a burner and, as the water from below boils up through a tube, it bubbles through the ground coffee and into a see-through glass knob. Once percolation starts, if you care about flavor at all, you will need to start a timer. Brewing takes about five minutes and can have a rough or muddy flavor. When coffee is boiled or reheated — especially for too long — it tends to go very bitter and acidic (and we're not talking the "good" acidity of a fruity light-roast).

French Press


French presses are very easy to use, but rather a pain to clean when out in the woods. You make your cup by placing grounds in the bottom of a container, adding water, and allowing it steep. When you are ready to drink, push down a screen to trap the grounds in the bottom and pour your drink out. For the best results, you should keep your brew time to about 4 minutes and pour all the coffee out immediately. With most French presses, the longer you leave your liquid sitting inside, the thicker and murkier it becomes — which some people love. Even if you do pour everything out right away, there tends to be some amount of sludge in the last cup. This is changing with devices like the Espro Travel Press, which has a double micro-filter and optional paper filters, and the Planetary Designs French Press with its patented Bru-Stop filter. These upgraded models remove more particles and stop extraction completely once pressed.

For some great tips on how to brew the best French press, Stumptown Coffee Roasters provides a really fun tutorial.

This insulated and durable press has a double-filtering system to keep out excess particles and sludge. Thanks  Planetary Designs!
This insulated and durable press has a double-filtering system to keep out excess particles and sludge. Thanks, Planetary Designs!

Pour-Over Style Drip


The pour-over is a simple yet refined way of making your morning cup of Joe. True coffee snobs have very particular methods for using these devices such as grinding only with a burr grinder, measuring the exact weight and temperature of the water, and timing how long the water sits on the grounds. For those of you who aren't that particular, it still makes a satisfying cup without much fuss. Since all it requires is a cone and a filter, it is easily portable, though most are an awkward shape for backpacking. There are many non-filter options available as well. Our favorite is the Editors' Choice Hario V60.

Rinse that filter!
There are dozens of ways to level-up your coffee brewing regimen, but an easy way is to always rinse your paper filter before brewing. Not only does this help the water drip through more consistently right from the start, but it also removes trace amounts of paper-flavor that can transfer into your cup.

The v60 is an iconic pour-over cone that produces an excellent cup.
The v60 is an iconic pour-over cone that produces an excellent cup.

If you want to learn how to take your pour-over skills to the next level, watching a video from the pros can really help.

Espresso Makers


An espresso maker pumps pressurized water through coffee grounds to produce highly concentrated servings of coffee with a layer of caramel-colored crema on top. Most backcountry espresso makers cannot get sufficiently pressurized to produce crema, but a few can get close. For folks who never want to sacrifice robust espresso, even in the backcountry, the Wacaco Nanopresso is compact enough for camping or travel, and can build enough internal pressure to give you excellent flavor and nearly expert-level crema. For an espresso maker that is a bit more straightforward and easy to clean, but that makes slightly less delicious espresso, the Bialetti Musa is a fantastic stainless steel version of the classic Bialetti Moka Pot stove-top espresso maker. The GSI Outdoors MiniEspresso Set is similar in design to a Bialetti with the addition of a platform for a little personal demitasse cup that it brews directly into. Who says you can't be classy in the woods?

Pouring some camp espresso from the Musa. Yum!
Pouring some camp espresso from the Musa. Yum!

The AeroPress, in a group by itself


The AeroPress often gets grouped with espresso makers and, while it can produce a very strong cup and even a wee bit of crema, it's more of a hybrid in a class by itself. One part french press, one part pour-over, a nod to espresso, and that's the AeroPress.

There are two main ways of brewing on an AeroPress, regular and inverted, with many coffee pros preferring the inverted method. Online tutorials abound if you want to geek out, from the standard method while out in nature to the step-by-step inverted method.

The AeroPress is durable  easy to clean  and delivers the best flavor of all our coffee makers.
The AeroPress is durable, easy to clean, and delivers the best flavor of all our coffee makers.

Instant


For those of you who are big on flavor, this will probably be your least likely choice. But if you are concerned about weight, portability and simplicity, there is not a smaller or lighter way to go. Instant coffee requires no actual brewing device (just a cup and water, the water doesn't even have to be hot) and hardly weighs anything. The downside is that it never tastes as good as freshly brewed coffee and it's more expensive if you break it down by cup. However, for alpine and big-wall climbers, or ultralight backpackers, this can be an ideal method. And, to be fair, craft coffee roasters are making high-quality instants that are surprisingly drinkable. We were seriously impressed with the Ethiopian single-origin from First Ascent. If you want the ease and featherweight of an instant, but crave a better taste the Premium single-origin options from Kuju Pocket Pour-Over are a great option as well.

Tearing into a Pocket Pour-Over from Kuju. The Kuju is a featherweight alternative to instant. It is easy to use  highly portable  and makes a decent cup of coffee.
Tearing into a Pocket Pour-Over from Kuju. The Kuju is a featherweight alternative to instant. It is easy to use, highly portable, and makes a decent cup of coffee.

On Grinding


One of the decisions you will need to make on this journey is whether or not to pre-grind your coffee. If you need to save on space, weight, and time, then heading into the backcountry with pre-ground coffee is undoubtedly a smart choice. It's also preferable if you want to be able to just roll out of your sleeping bag and brew. Yes, fresh ground is amazing and preferable when at home, but using a hand grinder while camping isn't for everyone. It will add time and labor to your morning coffee-making process, not to mention weight in your bag. That being said, if you're car camping and want only the best, there are a number of portable hand grinders that we recommend.
  • A lovely stainless steel option is the JavaPresse manual burr grinder. It's not fast, but the quality of the grind is exceptional, and it's also slim with a removable handle.
  • The Mini Porlex is preferred by many coffee connoisseurs and also offers ceramic burrs and a handle that removes for better packability.

Grinding up some beans with the GSI Javamill. Some folks want to be able to fresh grind their coffee no matter where they are.
Grinding up some beans with the GSI Javamill. Some folks want to be able to fresh grind their coffee no matter where they are.

What Beans to Buy?


There are, of course, a zillion things to consider when choosing what beans to purchase. It can be highly overwhelming and confusing, but here are a few guidelines to consider:
  • Find a local roaster in your area
This is a great way to support smaller businesses and ensure freshness. If you can visit a roaster directly, you will be able to ask questions, learn more about the farms where your beans come from, and try new things.
  • Consider an online subscription
If there isn't a craft roaster where you live, consider an online subscription. There are lots of options all over the United States and beyond for having fresh, small-batch roasted beans delivered directly to your door.
  • Be open to trying different roast profiles
While many people prefer dark roasts, light roasts retain more of the unique nuances of the bean's origin and processing method in their flavor profile.
  • What is the processing method anyway
This has to do with how the ripe coffee cherries were handled after being harvested, and it absolutely affects how your brewed coffee will taste. For a rundown on the main methods and what they mean, there are many informative articles to be found online.
  • Check the roast date on the bag
Try to purchase a coffee that has been roasted within the last three weeks. Beans are good longer than that, but for optimal flavor and freshness, this time window is ideal.
  • Buy whole bean
If at all possible, purchase your coffee whole bean and grind to order at home. If this isn't feasible for you and you need to have the cafe or roastery grind for you, try to use the coffee within one week. Store tightly sealed in a cool dark place.
  • Store in the freezer? No!
Do not store your coffee — whether ground or whole bean — in the freezer. This destroys some of the more delicate oils that help create lovely flavors in the cup.

Conclusion


Whew, look how much you've learned! We hope all this information helps guide you in finding your perfect beans and brewing device.

Now that you're fully caffeinated, are you hungry too?
For tips and tricks while backpacking, do some recipe research before you head out. If you're car camping and weight is not a concern, consider learning how to use a dutch oven.

The best mornings are spent enjoying a delicious cup of hot coffee in the backcountry.
The best mornings are spent enjoying a delicious cup of hot coffee in the backcountry.

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