Coffee is good. Brain-splitting headaches are bad. If you're a backpacking caffeine addict like me—or you simply enjoy the occasional backcountry brew—you'll need the tools to produce a cup or three of this headache-staving, performance-enhancing, deliciously stimulating beverage. Here are your options, rated for weight, quality of brew, and convenience. Instant opportunities
It's hard to beat the weight and simplicity of instant coffee; simply mix it with hot water and voila, you're done. Problem is that most instant coffees generally taste like the dirt in your hiking boots. Enter Starbucks Via, which offers a much more palatable alternative—for a price. Each individual packet weighs a fraction of an ounce and produces a quality cup of coffee, but costs roughly $1 per—a pricey option for multi-day hikes and multi-cup drinkers.
Hot off the press
A French press system allows you to create a powerful and delicious brew using your ground coffee of choice. Multiple options feature a lightweight press integrated into the lid of an insulated mug; similar lid set-ups are available for canister stove systems produced by MSR and Jetboil (my coffee maker of choice), among others.
If you're already carrying a mug or compatible stove system, the addition of a French press accessory adds minimal weight for maximal flavor and potency. Drawbacks include the fact that you must carry sufficient ground coffee for your needs, and that a few grounds will inevitably escape the press into your drink, adding a little grit to your grin. (A coarser grind minimizes this effect; it also helps prevent the press basket from getting clogged.)
Drip, drip, drip…
You can brew like Mr. Coffee using a cone filter system. Several lightweight and inexpensive options are available, including the recommended Hario V60 Plastic Dripper (3 ounces, $7) and Melitta Ready Set Jet Cone (2 ounces, $5). Advantages are similar to a French press: you can brew to desired strength using your coffee of choice, with the added bonus of avoiding gritty floaters in your cup. However, the process of pouring hot water into the filter—and waiting for it to drip through—is time-consuming compared to other methods, plus you'll need to find, purchase, and dispose of the necessary paper filters and grounds.
Similar options in this genre include the 1-ounce MSR MugMate (1 ounce, $17), which brews coffee (or tea) by steeping rather than filtering; and self-contained brewing systems such as those offered by Grower's Cup, which feature pricey specialty coffees in a disposable single-use (i.e. trash-generating) pouch ($3 to $4 each).
Serious aficionados and caffeine junkies have the option of brewing powerfully delicious shots of espresso in the backcountry. It will cost you in terms of weight, but the potent payoff can be tempting. Options include the stovetop GSI Expresso (7 ounces, $25) and the modified French press design of the Aerobie AeroPress (8 ounces, $30), both of which brew an excellent, brain-tingling cup of caffeinated power.
No coffee maker? No problem.
It's an essential life skill: Knowing how to brew coffee with nothing but grounds and a pot. To cook up a round of "cowboy coffee," add ground coffee to hot water, stir it up, and then let it sit long enough for the grounds to settle. A few techniques can accelerate the settling process, such as adding a splash of cold water or rapping the pot sharply a few times, though patience is mostly what's required. Once the grounds have settled, scoop or gently pour off the brew, taking care to minimize grounds in your cup.
Here's my preferred method for making cowboy coffee:
Matt Heid writes about gear for AMC Outdoors and AMC Outdoors Online. You can read more here.