Eat & Drink

Campfire Coffee Smackdown: The Best Methods, Ranked

Trying to decide whether to lug that French press across three mountain passes? We tested six brew methods to determine which one makes the best cup of joe the most efficiently.

Campfire Coffee Smackdown: The Best Methods, Ranked

Campfire coffee doesn’t always have to be bitter and unpalatable. Photo: Julian Bialowas

“You brought that?”   

It’s the question coffee connoisseurs have to deal every time they whip AeroPresses out of their packs. The exchange usually happens before coffee, and it usually highlights the irreconcilable difference between the two kinds of people in the world: those who love coffee enough to bear a little extra weight in the backcountry and miserable, under-caffeinated schmucks.

The only way to know who’s right and who’s wrong? Perform a totally unscientific experiment.  

We made coffee using six different methods, then ranked them. The test was blind (our testers didn’t know which mug held which liquid), and we used the same type of grounds (Blue Bottle’s Mixtape Volume 1) for all cups (except for the instant cup, of course). We followed the manufacturer’s package directions for brew time and tried to drink all the samples at about the same temperature, which is tough to do when you’re making six cups of coffee at once. 

Here’s how the methods stacked up. 

#6. Cowboy  

The Product: Grounds and boiling water, prepared in the same pot

The Verdict: It’s easy, but this was the least-liked version in our taste test. You can get a full-bodied cup out of the method, but you can’t avoid the grounds getting into your mouth. Plus, you have to deal with sludge at the bottom of the pot. Also, you’re going to pack out a lot more liquid with your grounds than you would with the other methods.  

Best for: People who like to play cowboy or are otherwise unwilling to consider that maybe there are now better ways to make a cup of coffee. 

#5. Pour Over 

The Product: Snow Peak Pour-Over Filter 

The Verdict: Frankly, this was a pain in the ass to deal with while camping. First you need to heat your water, then you “bloom the grounds,” then you slowly pour a little bit of water at a time, otherwise the bottom of the filter blows out and you end up with a mug of sludge. And keeping the featherlight filter on top of your cup while pouring would be hard in virtually anything more than a breeze. The taste of the cup, all things considered, didn’t justify the hassle—though I know lots of pour-over freaks who would vehemently argue that the four-ounce contraption is worth its weight. 

Best for: Pour-over devotees who absolutely refuse to change their routines and don’t mind going through the great lengths necessary to do it.  

#4. French Press 

The Product: Jetboil Grande Coffee Press  

The Verdict: If you can’t bring yourself to go the instant route but also can’t bear to bring an extra coffeepot and filtering contraption, this method’s for you. First, the press is sized to fit Jetboil’s pots, the largest of which is 1.8 liters, so it can make up to about seven cups of coffee at a time. Plus, you’re already using your Jetboil for cooking and boiling water, so it’s less likely to draw the ridicule of your friends. That said, the French press actually ranked fairly low on our taste test. Of course, that could have been user error—French presses take a bit of knowledge to get the exact grounds-to-water ratio just right. The kit that turns the Sumo stove into a coffee press weighs just five ounces, so it’s a pretty minor weight indulgence.  

Best For: Those who are bringing a Jetboil anyway and want to have more control over their brew than instant affords.

#3. AeroPress 

The Product: AeroPress 

The Verdict: This is my go-to, even when I’m not camping, so I was secretly rooting for it. And it did well, delivering a cup that let the coffee flavors shine through, with both dark and tangy notes in every sip. But it didn’t rank high enough to be a justifiable choice. Considering you’re lugging a seven-ounce apparatus that doesn’t multitask (like a Jetboil), the fact that the AeroPress cup ranked just slightly below our winning method has me rethinking my coffee plan for my next trip. 

Best For: People loyal to the method who can’t come to grips with the idea that less fancy products could be just as good. 

#2. Espresso 

The Product: GSI Outdoors Espresso Pot 

The Verdict: This tiny pot made the best-tasting cup, hands down. It produces a Thumbelina-sized shot of dark espresso that tastes like liquid happiness. (The company also makes a larger, four-cup pot.) You can almost feel it going to work on your foggy brain as you sip. There are, however, drawbacks. Our one-cup test model weighed eight ounces, and the cup it makes is truly small. The pot also stays hot for a very long time after heating. If you like to brew a cup right before hitting the trail, your timeline will be stymied by a steaming pot that’s too toasty to touch, let alone pack.  

Best for: This pot would be ideal for car camping, where a little extra weight isn’t a huge deal and you have plenty of places to stash it while it cools.  

#1. Instant  

The Product: Starbucks Via Instant 

The Verdict: Yep, Starbucks Via instant coffee came out on top—or very close to it—time and time again. One tester described it as “medium-bodied, aromatic, and pleasant,” while another tester deemed it “comforting, balanced, and rich but not too bitter.” The packets weigh almost nothing—a box of eight packets weighs less than an ounce—and you don’t need any special gadgets or have to pack out the grounds. In short: Starbucks has made it hard to justify not going the instant route.  

Best for: Anyone who doesn’t want to sacrifice weight, convenience, or taste.

Filed To: Food and Drink, Camping, Camping-Gear Reviews

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