There are plenty of folks who love the great outdoors and just as many who love a good cup of coffee. One shouldn’t have to choose one over the over! With that in mind, coffee roasters and companies who create coffee brewing equipment have looked for ways to brew coffee for camping and backpacking alike. There are a handful of options with their own lists of pluses and minuses. Here we’ll make a side-by-side comparison of two popular and very different choices: instant coffee and percolator brewed coffee.
The Benefits of Instant Coffee
Instant coffee has been around for over 100 years, and during its lifetime it has come to the aid of many busy coffee fanatics. The product itself is made from coffee, but contains no coffee beans. Instead, it’s created by either freeze-drying or spray drying brewed coffee. This removes the water from the coffee, creating a lightweight coffee powder. In order to make a cup with instant coffee, a drinker needs only add hot water to rehydrate the powder.
With so many freeze-dried meals marketed to backpackers, it’s no wonder that instant coffee is a common go-to for the multi-day hiker. Instant coffee is lightweight and requires no additional brewing methods, so it’s an easy way to add coffee to your pack without adding weight to your load. Whipping up a cup of instant coffee is also such a quick process that it makes coffee for camping outings feel like an easy step, no matter how late you stayed up stargazing the night before.
Another upside to instant coffee are the number of options on the market, and its steady popularity among not only campers and backpackers, but road trippers, busy bees, and anyone who wants a quick coffee option on hand at all times. There are a number of lists out there that showcase popular instant coffees. These often include old-school classics like Folgers and trendier options like Starbucks.
Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s also sell their own versions of instant coffee, some with light sweetener and milk added. A quick Google search can lead you to Fair Trade options for instant coffee while a hashtag search can shed light on small, boutique brands who are producing specialty roasts of instant coffee, like this company: Voila Coffee.
The Downside to Instant Coffee
There are two things that will always be missing from instant coffee: taste and experience. For some people, these things aren’t important. If you’re just trying to get your caffeine fix and satiate the habit of sipping on a cup of joe in the morning, instant coffee might do just fine. But there’s something about the “Just Add Water” element of instant coffee that seems to take away from the experience. It’s like the convenience of an MP3 versus the ritual of flipping a record over.
Sure, the taste of instant coffee has come a long way since the early 1900s. Yet despite the strides that roasters are making towards five-star instant coffee, it’s never going to be the same as a fresh cup roasted by hand from fresh beans.
The Benefits of Percolator Coffee
Where instant coffee lacks ritual and taste, the percolator coffee pot picks up the slack. It’s a classic, old-school way of brewing coffee—much older than the invention of instant coffee. Many adults today likely remember their parents or grandparents using percolators on a campfire during family trips, or even at home on the stove. It’s a traditional way of brewing coffee that’s hands-on, ritualistic, versatile, and delicious.
There are many different types of percolators. With the right one, like our Bozeman stainless steel model, a percolator can be used directly over a campfire. This design and the fact that percolators don’t need filters (though they are beneficial, and can be tossed right into the campfire,) make it a good method of brewing coffee for camping.
Brewing with a percolator also means that you can choose your own beans and really take control over the cup of coffee you’re going to make. Fresh beans from your region of choice brewed by hand with a traditional brewing method? The taste won’t get better than that!
The Downside to Percolator Coffee
There are two things the percolator coffee pot has working against it: space and time. The backpacker who prioritizes space and weight over the taste and quality of their coffee would never choose the percolator over instant coffee. It’s much too bulky and heavy to be a worthwhile addition to the pack. However, a rust-resistant, stainless steel percolator is rugged enough to handle the outdoors, so as a car camper, its size and overall design would be no issue.
Brewing coffee with a percolator only takes a few minutes—hardly any longer than it takes to boil water for a cup of instant coffee. But if you’re craving coffee at your desk and your resources are limited, or if you’re trying to brew coffee on the go or on the trail, you may enjoy having the immediate gratification of instant coffee.
So What’s the Best Coffee for Camping and Backpacking?
The answer to the battle of instant versus percolator depends on an individual’s priorities. If you have the space and time for a percolator, you’ll be guaranteed a fresher cup of coffee with deeper flavors and aromas. But if you’re hitting the trail for a few days, it might be better to leave extra room for headlamps and first aid kits, and stick to the ease of instant coffee.
If you feel like trying out something in between, you can also refer to this “How to Make Coffee While Backpacking” guide by yours truly for a few creative methods that will get the job done.
What’s your take on instant coffee? Have you found a brand that meets both taste and convenience requirements? Let us know!
Katrina Eresman worked for over a decade as a barista in Ohio. Since she left to write full time, she has become a compulsive traveler. If she's not touring with one of her bands, she's scheming her next backpacking trip or a flight to a new part of the country where camping and coffee sipping will both surely occur.