Nothing quite beats the feeling of enjoying a fresh cup of coffee in the great outdoors. But doing so can often feel easier said than done. There’s no shortage of coffee-related paraphernalia marketed at campers—and some of it’s good stuff! (Shout out the Snow Peak titanium french press and VSSL JAVA grinder.) But you don’t need a bag full of gadgets and grinders to enjoy a cup of quality coffee on a camping trip.
Instant coffee can offer the same great taste—and pack the same caffeinated punch—that you get from regular coffee. You just gotta know what to get (not Starbucks Via) and how to prepare it (not boiling water) to get the best results.
Read on as we nerd out and break down the ins and outs of instant coffee packets, how they’re made, and what different types of instant coffee you can by. Before that though, we’ve selected the 9 best instant coffee for camping, backpacking, and travel in general. Scroll on and enjoy!
The 9 Best Instant Coffees for Camping & Backpacking
A personal favorite for both flavor and overall brand aesthetic, Voila is our go-to for all overnight outdoor trips. Founded in 2016, the brand rotates their beans seasonally to keep things as fresh as possible. Their new jar option is great for car camping, though best to opt for packets for backpacking, to avoid bringing glass into the backcountry. $14 per 8 pack
2. Alpine Start
A very solid camp coffee choice, Alpine Start is directly marketed towards us outdoor folk, hence the clever name. Their hero product, good old instant coffee, is available in both jar and individual packets. And if coffee isn’t for you, check out their Mushroom infused instant matcha, which we enjoy at FM HQ as an afternoon pick-me-up.
(Use code "FIELDMAG" at checkout to get 10% off your order. Good for one use per reader.) $9 per 8 pack
8. Supr Coffee
Supr is another new brand exclusively offering specialty instant coffees. While their regular instant coffee sticks are worth a taste for sure, their instant coffee with CBD is another intersting, and perhaps counterintuitive choice. But who wouldn't want a buzz sans jitters?
What Starbucks Via lacks in taste, it makes up for in accessibility and affordability. It's arguably burnt and generally not great, but it's also extremely reliable, available everywhere from gas stations and super markets to actual Starbucks cafes, and of course, has caffeine so it'll do just fine in a pinch.
10. Allawake Coffee
If you’re attached to your pour-over ceremony each morning, Allawake is for you. These little pour-over coffee kits may not be instant but they are single serving. A bit bulky for backpacking, but nice for an elevated coffee experience while car camping or just traveling in general.
Another handy pour-over packet, KUJU is an outdoors-focused coffee product retailer that's pretty well received. If you just can’t get into instant, start your day with a KUJU adorable pour-over packet.
OK, so by now you know which coffee you want to try. But that still leaves the curious question of how said coffee is actually made. Below, we'll dive into the actual process of making instant coffee. Plus share some advice on how to make it taste even better.
How Is Instant Coffee Made?
Instant coffee is made from whole coffee beans that are roasted, ground, and brewed. The water is then removed from the brewed coffee, leaving dehydrated crystals. There are a couple different methods used to make instant coffee blends, but they all start off with this same process of removing moisture from the brewed coffee extract to create solid coffee powder, or granules, behind.
One of the most common ways that moisture is removed from the coffee extract is through spray-drying, why sounds a bit like an oxymoron but here us out. The liquid is sprayed into a stream of scorching air, causing the liquid to evaporate, and the coffee to drift down in a powder form. Sometimes this powder goes through an additional process to form it into granules. Because the extract dries very quickly during the spray-drying process, much of the aroma and flavor is preserved.
Another way to remove the moisture is by freeze-drying the coffee extract. In this process the extract is frozen at around -40°F and broken into crystals. These are then slowly dried using low heat in a vacuum. The low temperatures and slow drying process lock in the flavor in freeze dried coffee.
Making decaffeinated coffee involves a few more steps before the roasting process. First, green coffee beans are swollen either by steam or by being soaked in water. More water, a solvent, or activated carbon is then used to extract the caffeine before drying the beans again. Instant decaf coffee will then follow the normal spray-dry or freeze-dry processes.
Different Types of Instant Coffee
Powder, granules, or crystals
This is the most common form of instant coffee. Instant coffee powder or granules (sometimes called coffee crystals) usually come in a cylindrical waterproof paper or plastic packet, or glass jar if you’re going the OG Nescafe or Foldgers route (not recommended, it tastes like burned dirt and will take up a lot of space among your camping gear). Instant coffee packets contain one single serving-sized portion in each packet.
They sometimes even come premixed with creamer and sugar, like this Alpine Start option. The drawback of a single serve packet is the packaging waste and that you cannot easily adjust the strength of your coffee. However, they are convenient to carry in your pack, take up virtually no space, and weigh as little as 0.14 ounces. Just be sure to pack out every little bit of trash you make in the backcountry, even the little tops of the packets that wear off.
Coffee bags are like tea bags, a hybrid between freshly ground and brewed coffee and instant coffee, giving you the taste of freshly brewed coffee without the hassle. Simply place the bag in a cup and pour in hot water for a freshly brewed, instant cup of coffee. You could also place the bag over the opening of your cup and pour the water through it, similar to the pour-over style packets KUJU makes. These bags (along with the coffee grounds that they contain) do retain some moisture, making them heavier and messier, and need to be disposed of correctly to avoid any animals getting hold of them.
What Makes Instant Coffee Good for Camping and Outdoorsy Travel
Instant coffee is easy to carry, easy to make, and leaves little trash.
One of the biggest attractions of instant coffee for a backpacking or camping trip is the convenience it brings to early mornings. Simply empty the contents of the packet into a mug, add water, and stir for a proper cup of coffee.
Instant coffee is extremely lightweight.
Equally as important is the lightweight portability of instant coffee—you don’t need to bring any additional brewing gadgets like a coffee pot, v60 pour over, french press, or percolator. All you need is a container to heat water in, like an aluminum kettle or a single-wall titanium mug. Instant coffee sticks or packets also eliminates the need to pack out spent coffee grounds. While packets make the most sense for fast and light hikers, having a resealable container of loose coffee granules, like offered above by Alpine Start and Viola, allow car campers buy in bulk to save cash, and to make coffee to their preferred strength–shout out all you espresso lovers.
Instant coffee has a super long shelf life.
Due to the processes involved in making instant coffee, the product has a longer shelf-life than freshly ground coffee. Still, you need to store it correctly. The best place to keep instant coffee is in an airtight container, packed away in a cool dark cupboard or gear closet. Direct sunlight or heat could negatively affect the flavor of your instant coffee. Instant single serve packets often have an inner aluminum or plastic layer to keep your instant coffee from being exposed to moisture or heat. When packaged like this, your instant coffee could stay tasty for up to ten or even twenty years.
You can also make instant coffee with cold water.
A clever thing about instant coffee is that it can be prepared with cold water, too, making a nice reprieve during a hot day of hiking. Make iced instant coffee by simply dissolving the coffee crystals in cold water. It might take a tad longer to dissolve than if you were using hot water, but still, it is the quickest way to make iced coffee out in nature—ideal for you fast and light thru-hikers.
Tips for Making a Great-tasting Instant Coffee
When camping, the first step to making an excellent cup of instant coffee is to buy the good stuff. The next step is properly preparing the good stuff to make it even better. First and foremost, let your freshly boiled water cool for a few seconds before pouring it over your packets' contents to avoid burning the coffee crystals.
It’s all about the beans.
Because instant coffee is essentially brewed coffee that has been dehydrated, it should, theoretically, taste nearly as good as the real thing. Buying instant coffee from reputable roasters and small-batch makers is the easiest way to come close to achieving this.
It is true that some of the flavor and aromatic compounds are lost during the brewing and drying processes that instant coffee goes through. Still, there could be another reason for instant coffee’s bad reputation: the beans used in the original brew. Cheaper instant coffee is made from less-expensive Robusta beans instead of their more premium coffee family members, Arabica coffee beans. Robusta coffee beans contain more caffeine, but they also offer a stronger and more bitter aftertaste. On the other hand, coffee (even instant coffee) made from Arabica beans is sweeter and smoother with more flavor and aromatics. Though preference depends on which is “better,” if the original coffee is burning in the roasting or brewing process, prior to being dehydrated, the quality of the original bean won’t save it.
Just as the type of bean affects the flavor of your coffee, so does the region where the beans were cultivated. Weather conditions, geographic location, and even the soil that coffee beans are grown in affect their flavor. Coffees farmed in Africa are generally sweeter and slightly fruity. South America produces coffee that is more spicy and earthy. Smooth and well-balanced coffees usually come from Central America.
Choose the roast carefully.
The roast indicates how long the coffee beans have been roasted before being processed and that influences the final taste. Coffee beans are commercially roasted to four levels:
- Light roast: The beans are roasted for the shortest amount of time. A light roast coffee contains the most caffeine, aromas, and flavors. On the other hand, coffee made from lightly roasted beans could taste slightly acidic.
- Medium roast: The beans are slightly darker than light roast beans. Medium roasted coffee beans have marginally less caffeine but offer a rich aroma without the acidic taste you may find in light roast coffee beans.
- Medium-dark roast: The beans have a small amount of caffeine but have a strong ‘heavy bodied’ and slightly spicy taste.
- Dark roast: The beans are, well, dark in color and contain the least amount of caffeine. Dark roasted coffee beans produce coffee described as ‘full-bodied’ but could taste bitter or burnt.
Instant coffee can also bloom.
You can transform an ok cup of coffee into a great cup of coffee by letting the coffee bloom at the start of the process. When coffee blooms, it releases carbon dioxide that was trapped in the beans during the roasting process. This carbon dioxide restricts the aromas and flavors of the coffee from dissolving in water. Ironically, you can encourage the release of carbon dioxide (and bloom your coffee) by adding a small amount of cold water to your instant coffee granules and making a paste before pouring in hot water. This releases the carbon dioxide and allows the natural flavors of the coffee to be released.
Instant coffee is a less expensive and more convenient option for camping. It makes it possible to have a fresh cup of coffee in no time. Choosing the right product and preparing it well is sure to satisfy even the most devout coffee lovers’ need for a caffeine kick.