"Daylight in the Swamp!" When the traditional north woods lumber camp wake-up call is bellowed out, many of us immediately start craving that hot cup of camp mud. Problem is, you're a few days out on the trail with no nearby fancy coffee shop selling a $5 "tall" (which actually means small…?) latté and no minivan-piloted soccer mom ahead of you in the drive-thru lane to "pay it forward" and pick up the tab on your mocha chino. No, you've been paddling for days in God's Country, or are sitting deep in the woods at deer camp with Larry, his brother Daryl, and his other brother, Daryl. Or, maybe you are among the bravest of those backwoods figures, The Scoutmaster, who is in desperate need of a cup of coffee after being forced to stay up late because half the Troop chit chatted and giggled in their tents well past taps, while the other half was up banging around wellbefore reveille.
As you wake your senses enough to make your coffee, you’re forced with a decision: How do I make the perfect cup of camp coffee? There is an array of absurd devices marketed to make “the world’s best camp coffee” (and none of these devices come cheap!). Please, let's take a stand here at coffee and try and break the cycle of wilderness technocreep and sissification. There is no style or tradition in these contraptions. You may enjoy their product, but it will not warm you, it will not satisfy your soul like the sight of a simple pot of coffee boiling on the fire.
Even with the simple, elegant techniques of the woods and water, there are interesting nuances and regional styles to appreciate. I’ve tried all of these methods, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes you’re straining grounds with your teeth, practice is necessary, but the result is so satisfying. For style points, it’s a close call: The Maine Guides’ with their “hookaroons” and egg yolk rafts, or the dramatic one-armed, “around the world” with a pot of hot joe? Seems a great woodsman would have booth techniques in his repertoire.
I will confess, on quick-start mornings, or go-light trips, I’ve found the instant Via packets from Starbucks to be excellent, especially when mixed with hot chocolate on a cold morning.
Brew Like Bull Moose Patrol
Step 1: 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!
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 also make the water safe to drink.
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 science. It makes you look like a first-class ninny if you precisely count every bean while living in the wild. Basically, toss in a handful for each cup and another scoop for the pot to round up. 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, aiding 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. The safe route is to simply wait a bit, let the grounds settle, and be very careful with your pour. 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 to help settle the grounds. 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 because it quickly and effectively separates the grounds, allowing you to enjoy the coffee while it's hot, and it's long on style points (check out the video below)! Just be sure of your footing and be careful not to shower your fellow campers with hot coffee!
If you are looking to refine your camp coffee technique, here are a few tips from some old Sourdoughs in Bull Moose Country:
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.
The Godfather of Bushcraft, Mors Kochanski, with his "Alberta Go Juice."