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 certainly 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 on the road! But how do you choose the perfect brewing device? Read on for a ton of helpful information.
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 best brew on your device. And choose a device that helps the 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 just need a coffee maker for solo backpacking trips, or do you tend to go camping with a big group? Does it make more 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. Also, how packable is the device? Will it work with your current set up?
Types of Coffee Makers
If you require coffee every morning, chances are you probably already have a preference for how you like it brewed. You may already have an idea of what you are looking for, but following is a quick coffee maker run-down. Our Best in Class review gives a more detailed breakdown of the factors we find important when purchasing one specifically for camping excursions.
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 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 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 letting 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 will become — which some people love. Even if you do pour everything out right away, there tends to be some amount of sludge in the last dregs. This is changing though 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, check out this fun tutorial from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
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 in 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. And there are many non-filter options available as well. Check out our favorite, the Editors' Choice Hario V60.
There are dozens of ways to level-up your coffee brewing regimen, but an easy and recommended one to make a habit of is always rinsing 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.
If you want to learn how to take your pour-over skills to the next level, check out how the pros recommend using a V60.
The classic Bialetti Moka Express pot is a portable stovetop espresso maker that has been around for decades and has a bit of a cult following. It's easy to use and delivers a strong brew that you can drink as is or dilute with water to make an Americano-style cup. The Bialetti we tested is large and can fuel a group of sleepy campers, but there are smaller options available inspired by this iconic pot. The GSI Outdoors MiniEspresso Set is similar in design 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? There are even some devices on the market like the Wacaco MiniPresso that can build enough internal pressure to give you pretty good crema. These options are for those that prefer espresso and don't want to sacrifice one bit of flavor.
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. For a run-down of the standard method with great tips for brewing out in nature, take a look at this tutorial. If you'd rather delve into the inverted method, here is a great step-by-step tutorial.
For those of you who are big on flavor, this will probably be your least likely choice. But for those of you concerned with weight, there is no 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 a backpacker or a climber on a big wall, this can be an ideal method. And, to be fair, craft coffee roasters are starting to create high-quality instant that — while still not as good as the real thing — is surprisingly impressive. We were seriously impressed with both the Ethiopian single-origin from First Ascent and a nice blend from Swift Cup Instant.
Gas Grill Coffee Maker
If all you plan to be doing is car camping and you're usually with a big group, this could be a practical option. Essentially, these are pots suspiciously like the ones that sit on your kitchen counter at home, only they use either your gas grill or fuel canisters to power them. You end up with a full pot, just like at home. These systems are bulky and rather expensive, but they can brew easily for groups and are the most similar to a standard at-home apparatus. We tested the Coleman QuikPot Propane Coffeemaker and here's an example of one that sits on a stove burner.
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 and weight, then having your beans already ground 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 quite a few options for portable hand grinders that we recommend.
- The GSI Javamill is a staff favorite. It is relatively lightweight with a slim and durable design, and the handle packs down compactly when not in use.
- A lovely stainless steel option is the JavaPresse manual burr grinder. It's not fast, but the quality of the grinds is exceptional, and it's also slim with a removable handle.
- The Hario Skerton is another viable option, though it's bottom chamber is glass and therefore not as durable.
- The Mini Porlex is preferred by many coffee connoisseurs and also offers ceramic burrs and a handle that removes for better packability.
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:
- Finding a local roaster in your area 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.
- If there isn't a craft roaster where you live, consider an online subscription like this one. 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 beans origin and processing method in their flavor profile.
- What is processing method anyway? This has to do with how the ripe coffee cherries were handled after being harvested, and it very much affects how your final cup will taste. For a rundown on the main methods and what they mean, check out this informative article.
- Try to purchase a coffee that has been roasted within the last three weeks. The beans are good longer than that, but for optimal flavor and freshness, this time window is ideal.
- 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.
- 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.
Whew, look how much you've learned! We hope all this information helps guide you in finding your perfect beans and brewing device.