Of all the challenges facing overland travelers, none results in more angst or 50-page forum threads than the problem of how to make a good cup of coffee when you’re on the road. Vehicle breakdowns, border crossings, terrorism, ebola—all pale as insignificant in comparison to that moment when you must crawl out of a warm sleeping bag and jump-start your metabolism.
In this respect, tea drinkers have it easy: Drop a PG Tips bag in a cup, add boiling water, and Bob’s your uncle. Of course, we coffee drinkers might hint that the effort involved is a clue to the worth of the resulting beverage. To which the tea drinker replies archly, “Tea built the British Empire!” To which we reply slyly, “What empire?” And so on . . .
Where was I? Right. As a reformed coffee Neanderthal (30 years ago my ‘coffee’ was powdered General Foods Suisse Mocha—which, to be . . . generous, was easy to make while camping), my first attempt at making quality coffee in the field was simplicity (and economy) itself: a #2 Mellita-style paper filter and holder suspended over a cup, filled with good fresh gound coffee, and poured over with (near!) boiling water. It was quick, waste-free, and with the innocuous grounds dumped on nearby plants, the used filter took up zero room in the trash, or could be burned on that night’s fire. Cleanup was a few tablespoons of leftover hot water to rinse the cup. It was a perfect system for the needs of a camper, even when traveling by motorcycle.
However. The very simplicity of the system made me vaguely uncomfortable as a born-again coffee snob. Sure, it seemed to taste as good as anything I had elsewhere, but was it just the setting that made it seem so? Was I somehow cheating in the elite club I’d joined?
Thus began a rather prolonged binge of consumerism during which I tested every sophisticated coffee-making apparatus on the market: mocha pots, French presses, double-wall French presses, double-wall-double-filter French presses, 12-volt drip makers, the ‘Soft Brew’—a beautiful ceramic thing with a stainless microfilter—the Aeropress, and others I’ve forgotten.
All made fine coffee. A couple even made coffee I convinced myself might be incrementally richer than my original system, although my opinion might have been subconsciously swayed by how much I’d spent on each device. The AeroPress was excellent and lasted longer than most others. But after a while I realized that every single one I tried shared two significant disadvantages for camping: They were bulky, and they were complex and thus took an inordinate—sometimes scandalous—amount of precious water to clean. In Jellystone Park with a spigot at each campsite the latter wasn’t an issue, but in the field with 20 gallons of water (in the Four Wheel Camper) or two (on the motorcycle), losing a pint or more every morning hurt.
It was about the time Roseann stood in front of an open kitchen cabinet and said, “Do you know how many coffee makers are in here?” that I realized I’d been missing the obvious. What I needed was a system that made good coffee, and was also compact and didn’t take a lot of water to clean. In other words—you guessed it—I needed a #2 Melitta-style paper filter and a filter holder, and some good fresh-ground coffee.
So I’m here to say that the ultimate camp coffee maker is also the simplest, and the cheapest—unless you’re a motorcyclist or bicyclist and spring for some titanium bits. Here’s what I use; this list is easy to modify to go lightweight ($$) for bicycling or motorcycling, or weight-be-damned (¢) for four-wheeled travel.
Kettle: MSR Titan. The titanium Titan ($50) is one of those rare pieces of equipment I’ve used over the years that is simply above criticism. At 4.2 ounces it adds little to the baggage. Its .8-liter capacity is perfect for one person. The Titan is as wide as it is tall, making it stable on a micro-stove. Stay-cool handles and lid lifter make it easy to manage. It serves equally well as a kettle, cook pot, bowl, or mug if you’re on a tight weight budget. And a standard isopro fuel canister drops neatly inside, along with several models of foldable microstove. Of course if you’re traveling in a truck any cheap stainless kettle will do—we picked one up in Ushuaia for under $15 for a trip through South America.
Mug: Snow Peak 450 double-wall titanium ($50). The 450 holds a proper cup of coffee (14 ounces worth) and keeps it hot for ages. In fact the only downside to this mug is that it’s essentially worthless as a handwarmer—the thing just does not conduct heat. You could shave off a couple of its 4.2 ounces (as well as 20 bucks) by going to the single-wall version, but the insulated one gives you better excuses to put off packing up on a lovely morning. Driving a Land Cruiser and don’t need a $50 coffee cup? Any Tacky Tourist Mug will suffice.
Stove: There are a lot of really good canister microstoves on the market for motorcyclists. I still like my Snow Peak GigaPower, but their newer LiteMax is excellent as well. Alternatives include the MSR Superfly (and of course MSR’s legendary liquid-fuel stoves), the Primus Express, and the Optimus Crux. Any of these will fit inside the Titan pot on top of a canister. For the Land Rover? Take your pick of larger canister or propane stoves. The Partner Steel stoves are superb, stable, expensive, and indestructible. A smaller option is thesuperb, stable, expensive, and indestructible single-burner Snow Peak Baja Burner. And for those who are rolling their eyes and thinking ‘gear snob,’ I carry in my FJ40 a 10-year-old single-burner propane stove from Stansport that cost all of $12.50 at the time ($25 now), and works just fine.
Holder: Ortlieb filter holder ($12). Made from the same indestructible material as the German company’s indestructible luggage, this filter holder folds flat, takes up zero room, and weighs a scant ounce. You prop it over your cup using anything handy—twigs if need be, your Snow Peak titanium utensils if you got ‘em. Mine came with only one exit hole and was glacially slow, so I snipped an extra hole in the other corner, which worked perfectly. The Ortlieb holder works just as well in a truck kitchen as on a bike, but the standard plastic Mellita filter holder works even better, and costs about three bucks at a hardware store.
Coffee? Well, see here—or, if that's a bit much and you cannot access locally roasted beans, most grocery stores carry Peet’s Coffee Major Dickason’s Blend, which is excellent. And for those who, like me, adulterate their coffee with half and half, I give you the Mini Moo. Single-serving size, no refrigeration needed.