We may never be able to prove it in a peer-reviewed study, but we believe all food tastes at least 10 percent better when consumed in the backcountry.
Except coffee. Campfire and cowboy coffee kind of suck. Many of us lug French presses or AeroPress coffee makers around into the woods just to avoid it. Sure, we may be fine packing out our own poop or going days without a shower, but forgoing good coffee? The horror.
The instant stuff is getting better. It’s been ten years since Starbucks introduced the world to Via, an instant coffee that, at the time, was so much better than anything else on the market. Because it was the first to hit the shelves, it became the go-to for a lot of us. But it’s no longer the best. A crop of small-batch competitors is bringing more single-origin and ethically sourced brews to the instant aisle, and many of them are really, really good.
I tried 13 different instant-coffee iterations in an attempt to find the best—and send my heart rate through the roof. For consistency, I made each with eight ounces of water heated to 195 degrees and tested them all black, since that’s how most of us drink it in the backcountry. Amazingly, none were truly bad (though a few were pretty mediocre). Even better: several were good enough that I’d drink them even if I had access to a coffee maker. Here are my picks.
First Ascent Ethiopia Instant Coffee ($19.99 for Eight Packets)
If you need to pack coffee for a crowd, choose this one. It’s nicely balanced, neither too acidic nor bitter, with just a touch of roasty notes in its finish. A few of the brands we tried were just too weak to count as fuel for all-day adventuring, but not this one. It will get you moving, even if coyote howls kept you up all night. First Ascent’s offerings are, however, on the pricey side. But we think it’s worth the price.
Best for Fussy Coffee Snobs
Intelligentsia La Perla de Oaxaca Crystalized Coffee ($20 for Eight Packets)
Freeze-dried in small batches by Sudden Coffee, a Bay Area startup, this is almost as good as the pour-over from your favorite snooty coffee shop. The single-origin roast is floral and has a tangy finish. Our big beef is with the packaging. It comes in a little plastic test tube, which Sudden Coffee markets as sustainable since it’s technically recyclable. However, with recycling markets collapsing, good luck getting that to go anywhere but straight into a landfill.
Best for Dark-Roast Lovers
Trader Joe’s 100 Percent Colombian Instant Coffee ($3.99 for 3.5 Ounces)
Do you think all coffee should taste like Starbucks’s French roast and have notes of burned waffles? If so, this will be your jam. It’s dark, bitter, and easy to mix, in a strength that will strip the enamel off your teeth. But hey, some people like that. Best of all, it’s affordable, and we dig that it comes in a jar, so you aren’t corralling bits of microtrash as you clean up your campsite.
Best for Cream-and-Sugar Takers
Alpine Start Coconut Creamer Latte ($9 for Five Packets)
That nebulous term “nondairy creamer” freaks us out, but this mix is made with powdered coconut milk, not weird hydrogenated oils. It’s also not overly sweet, so it feels like a cup of coffee and not a steaming milkshake.
Best for Those Who Can’t Commit to Instant
Kuju Basecamp Blend Pour-Over ($8 for Five Packets)
Maybe this doesn’t belong in a roundup of instant coffees, but these no-filter-needed pour-over sachets are so easy that they’re practically instant. You will have to pack your grounds out, but that’s a small price to pay for great coffee. Ethically sourced and well-balanced, Kuju makes just about the best no-specialty-equipment-required cup.