"Daylight in the Swamp!" When the traditional northwoods lumber camp wake-up call is bellowed out, many of us immediately start craving a hot cup of camp coffee. Problem is, you're a few days out on the trail with no nearby fancy coffee shop selling $5 lattés. No, you've been paddling for days on the most remote waters you could find or are sitting deep in the woods at deer camp. Or maybe you are among the bravest of those backwoods figures, the Scoutmaster, and are in desperate need of a pot of coffee to help you keep pace with a troop of teenagers who have you burning the candle at both ends!
Hot and rich camp coffee is a priority on my outdoor adventures. Check out what I’ve learned throughout my many nights and miles canoeing, hiking, and camping.
Perfect Coffee is Simple Coffee
So, how to make the perfect cup of camp coffee?
There is an array of devices on the market to make camp coffee; however, many of them add unnecessary weight, bulk, and cost to your camp kit. Also, there is no style or tradition in these contraptions—nothing to match the simple robust goodness of basic “cowboy coffee!”
For satisfying camp coffee, all you need is a pot, water, coffee grounds, and a fire.
Side note: I will confess that on quick-start mornings or go-light backpacking trips, I’ll skip the futzing around and bulky grounds (which require disposal) required for cowboy coffee and go instant. I’ve found the instant Via packets from Starbucks to be very good, especially when mixed with hot chocolate.
Brewing Camp Coffee
Delicious and hot camp coffee is a quick and easy process!
Step 1: Start a Fire.
Sure, you can use a stove, but if it's appropriate where you're camping, starting a fire allows you to practice that life-saving skill, and it's just a lot more fun! If you do use a stove, know that coffee just tastes better if it’s being brewed on a classic green Coleman dual burner stove or if the pot was brought to a boil while sitting on top of a vintage brass SVEA 123 that was “chug, chug, chugging” away!
Step 2: Boil water.
“Boil the water, not the coffee.” Bring your water to a boil before adding the coffee grounds. This will bring water to the right temperature to release the caffeinated goodness and will also make the water safe to drink if you’re dipping right out of the lake.
Step 3: Grind Time.
Now, add your coffee grounds. There's usually some advanced coffee equation on the side of the package, but great camp coffee is as much art as it is science. It makes you look like a first-class ninny if you precisely count every bean while living in the woods. Basically, toss in a handful for each cup and another scoop for the pot to round up. If it’s too strong, you can water it down a bit, but you can’t thicken it back up, so don’t be skimpy with the grounds. Nestle the pot near the fire for a low heat while brewing. It is tradition among the Registered Maine Guides to mix their grounds with a cracked egg—shell and all. The egg adds flavor and holds most of the grounds together, which is helpful in the next step.
Step 4: Separation Anxiety!
Okay, the whole crew is waiting for their morning fix. Will you build your legend by delivering hot, hearty, delicious coffee, or will your cup of joe be tepid and full of floating grounds? This is where skill is tested and showmanship is prized. Separating the coffee grounds is the trickiest part of making cowboy coffee.
The easiest route is to simply wait a bit, let the grounds settle, and be very careful with your pour so you don’t agitate and recirculate the grounds. It's always a good idea pour a splash on the fire as an offering to the coffee gods, and also to reduce the potential of that first sip being a mouthful of grounds.
Intermediate techniques include banging the side of the pot, and adding a splash of cold water, or dropping a pebble into the pot. Each of these methods are supposed to break the surface tension and help settle the grounds. Paul Kirtley reports adopting a bent over sawing “pot drop” method he learned in Norway.
However, the advanced bush barista will take the pot by the bail and make full around-the-world one-armed swings to use centrifugal force to settle the grounds. This is my favorite method and has become a trademark morning routine on Bull Moose Patrol trips. Spinning the pot quickly and effectively separates the grounds, allowing you to enjoy the coffee while it's hot. It's also long on style points (check out the video)! Just be sure of your footing and be careful not to shower your fellow campers with hot coffee!
More Camp Coffee Recommendations
If you want more information about perfecting your camp coffee, check out what other veteran outdoorsmen have to say about making camp coffee:
Representing the Pine Tree State and their great guiding tradition is Steve Vose, The Maine Outdoorsman with Maine Guide Coffee.
From the great Ontario canoe camp region, don’t forget your Tim Horton’s, eh? Kevin Callan, The Happy Camper, offers True Camp Coffee advice.
The Godfather of Bushcraft, Mors Kochanski, with his "Alberta Go Juice."