As someone who takes my morning coffee ritual seriously, I wanted to know the truly best option for a cup of joe while lightweight backpacking.
My criteria came down to two critical factors:
1) Taste that would inspire me as much as the tremendous views and wonderful people sharing in the adventure. In my mind, coffee while backpacking should be a highlight of the day, not something you gulp down as quick as humanly possible, just to get some caffeine in your system.
2) Easy to carry, easy to make!
The best way to figure out how to make the most of my mornings in the backcountry seemed to be a blind taste test that sampled premium instant coffees, as well as a pocket pourover option.
I asked my dad, Cleve Schenck, and colleague, Chris “Jigidy” Jensen, to join me for the experiment. Both are seasoned backpackers and both appreciate a mean cup of coffee.
Together, we headed out to a campsite in Teton Canyon, Wyoming to conduct a blind taste test. Over the course of a few hours, we pumped far too much caffeine into our system, as we tested out:
- Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Freeze Dried Instant Coffee
- Voilà Lively & Complex Instant Coffee
- Alpine Start Original Blend & Dirty Chai Latte
- Stoked Stix Medium Roast Organic Instant Coffee
- Starbucks Via Instant Coffee (French Roast, Columbia, Veranda) & Mocha & Vanilla Latte Mixes
- Kuju Pocket Pourover Drip Coffee (Medium and Dark Roasts)
Note: while not included in this taste test, I also tried some samples of First Ascent Instant Coffee after the fact and will share some thoughts on that as well, below.
If at this moment, you're thinking, that sounds fun! I want to do my own taste test! We're offering a sample pack of our top choices for $3.99. See details at the end of the article!
Also, toward the end of the article you'll find our overly caffeinated coffee comedy aka outtakes. Are we actually funny?!? Or did we just drink far too much coffee for this taste test?
Before diving in, I want to give a special shout out to Liquid Hardware, who provided the mugs and cups for our experiment! In addition to its patented magnetic lid that sticks to the side of the bottle, the Aurora mug is AMAZING in its ability to keep drinks hot (or cold) all day long!
Also, thanks to Alite for providing the chairs used in this review. They proved to be super comfortable and versatile.
Now onto the best coffee for lightweight & ultralight backpacking ...
MEET THE TESTERS & LEARN ABOUT OUR COFFEE PREFERENCES
Amy – likes dark roast coffee with milk or cream, no added sugar, uses a stovetop Bialetti espresso maker at home; trying to figure out what to bring with her when she does the Wind River High Route.
Jigidy – likes a light to medium roast with cream, no added sugar, uses a stovetop Bialetti espresso maker at home; trying to figure out what to bring with him for family backpacking trips
Cleve - likes dark roast coffee with milk, no added sugar, uses a Breville espresso machine at home; trying to figure out what to bring with him for a solo backpacking trip in Colorado.
A note on Testing Protocol: Amy wanted to mimic backpacking conditions as closely as possible, so brought Bob’s Red Mill Nonfat Dry Milk Power to use as creamer (along with a Outpost Titanium Spork for scooping and stirring). Jigidy wanted to compare these options to what he drinks at home, so brought the real deal cream (which Amy and Cleve occasionally mooched off of, after first trying out the milk power ; )
MOUNT HAGEN ORGANIC FAIRTRADE FREEZE DRIED INSTANT COFFEE
We described it as smooth, with no weird after taste. While it was marked neither medium nor dark roast, it tasted more like a medium roast. This would prove to be Cleve’s overall top pick among all options (instant coffees and specialty coffees).
ALPINE START ORIGINAL BLEND MEDIUM ROAST INSTANT COFFEE
We described this as a dark roast (even thought it's labeled medium roast), full bodied with a good flavor. This is one we kept drinking more of, and one we would take into the backcountry without any hesitation. For Amy, this tied with Mount Hagen and Voilà Lively in the instant coffee category.
VIOLÀ LIVELY INSTANT COFFEE (KENYA GONDO, KUMA COFFEE)
Tastes like a dang good cup of coffee. Jigidy ended up ranking this one as his #1 choice for instant coffee in the backcountry.
VIOLÀ COMPLEX INSTANT COFFEE (HONDURAS LA PENA, COAVA)
An initially bitter tasted was followed by a sweet finish. We noticed nutty and fruity overtones. It had an instant coffee aroma and mild flavor. Cream helped to smooth it out. In the end, this was one of our lowest ranking choices.
STOKED STIX MEDIUM ROAST ORGANIC INSTANT COFFEE
Bitter and without much coffee flavor, but still plenty drinkable. Proves the taste test was, indeed, blind. At the time of filming, this was the one brand we carried on Garage Grown Gear’s store. (We now also carry Alpine Start and Kuju Pocket Pourover).
STARBUCKS VIA INSTANT COFFEE FRENCH ROAST
Smoky, dark roast, almost tastes like campfire. While not what we would choose to bring with us, it’s exactly what the packaging describes. True to its word, made for the person who likes a French Roast flavor.
STARBUCKS VIA INSTANT COFFEE COLOMBIA MEDIUM ROAST
Not our top pick, but a good, reliable, enjoyable cup of coffee.
STARBUCKS VIA INSTANT COFFEE VERANDA BLONDE ROAST
Lighter, second sip better, fruity and smooth; the great thing about Starbucks is that you know what you’re going to get.
RE-TESTING TOP 3 INSTANT COFFEE FINALISTS: MOUNT HAGEN, ALPINE START ORIGINAL, VIOLÀ LIVELY
Jigidy – gives his points to Voilà Lively
Cleve – a Mount Hagen convert
SPECIALTY COFFEE ROUND: KUJU POCKET POUROVER DARK ROAST
This scored high for all three of us. We said things like ...
“Ahhh, that’s so good!”
“Can’t deny that coffee is coffee”
“This is just drinking good coffee in the woods.”
Overall, we thought the extra ounces and preparation time were well worth the result. Kuju created a clever and unique system for anchoring the packaging to the side of the mug (without excessive waste).
SPECIALTY COFFEE ROUND: KUJU POCKET POUROVER MEDIUM ROAST
Smooth, right in Jigidy’s wheelhouse, reminds Cleve of the Mount Hagen (his top choice). Pairs well with cream. No bitterness. Great for the person who likes medium roast.
SPECIALTY COFFEE ROUND: ALPINE START DIRTY CHAI INSTANT LATTE
We loved this! Delicious flavor. Provides variety in the backcountry. Includes soy milk, so you don’t have to add your own creamer. This will be included on every backpacking trip Amy does henceforth.
SPECIALTY COFFEE ROUND: STARBUCKS VIA INSTANT CAFFE MOCHA
We’re not mocha people, but found it to be a solid option for people who enjoy mochas – again Starbucks wins on consistency. Cleve enjoyed this option more when mixing it with some of the Kuju Pocket Pourover.
SPECIALTY COFFEE ROUND: STARBUCKS VIA INSTANT VANILLA LATTE
Too sweet for us (none of us like sugar in our coffee), but for the person who likes a vanilla latte at a Starbucks coffee shop, you won’t go wrong with the Via version in the backcountry.
Overall, our takeaway is that it’s a great time to be a backcountry coffee drinker. We didn’t taste one truly awful option in the mix.
But if we had to choose an overall winner for the best coffee for lightweight and ultralight backpacking, we’d crown the Kuju Pocket Pourover as the winner.
Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Freeze Dried Coffee, Voilà Lively and Alpine Start – both the Original Blend and Dirty Chai Latte – are all vying for a close second, especially for the truly lightweight crowd or brewing for a large group.
OVERLY CAFFEINATED COFFEE COMEDY - OUTTAKES (INCLUDES SOME PROFANITY)!
Are we actually funny?!? Or have we just had to much caffeine?!?
FIRST ASCENT INSTANT COFFEE
While First Ascent did not respond to our initial request for samples for this review, we did catch up with them at Gear & Beer during Outdoor Retailer. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but may be worth it – a truly delicious cup of coffee. I would have been really interested to see how it performed during our blind taste test. I did bring samples with me on my Wind River High Route trip, and it did NOT disappoint.
GET YOUR OWN BACKPACKING COFFEE SAMPLER FOR $3.99
Want to try some of our favorite backcountry blends? Give our sampler pack a try!