A breakfast spot with a view is ideal when I’m in the outdoors. Actually, it’s not ideal; it’s a flat-out requirement. Even on a simple day hike, I’m the kind of person who will pack all the breakfast food and utensils in, simply to be able to eat my granola overlooking something beautiful. There is no better pastime after all than eating outdoors. Except for one: drinking coffee outdoors.
Fresh air, wind in the trees, a warm mug of coffee in your hand. Breathe, drink, breathe. This is living, and it’s something more and more coffee lovers will get to enjoy as we enter into the warmer months across the northern hemisphere. This is a time for camping, a time for hiking, and if you’re just a little bit dedicated (and/or obsessed), a time for making delicious coffee in some pretty remote places. Coffee lovers’ insistence on brewing outdoors might appear to be because of caffeine dependency, but I can tell you that there’s much more to it.
Backcountry coffee brewing takes your standard routine and turns it on its head. Instead of a water boiler, you have a camp stove. Instead of a Chemex, you have something durable–be it a stainless steel French press, or the more hardcore cowboy coffee method of grounds, cup, water, go. Instead of standing in your kitchen, you’re breathing in and exhaling the outdoors. Making coffee in the open air is about more than just the coffee that’s in your cup, it’s about the process. About bringing your routine with you no matter where you go. And when you get to practice your routine in the unknown, beautiful things happen.
The cup of coffee at the depths of a canyon. The cup of coffee that kicks off a 20-mile hike. The cup of coffee consumed before launching into a river. The cup of coffee before strapping on skis and heading out of the hut. Coffee is the best partner to beautiful experiences, and so many of us wouldn’t dream of not having our grounds with us.
“I would never consider going without coffee in the outdoors,” says Brendan Leonard, writer and all-around adventurer. “I have actually taken beans into the Grand Canyon on a warm-weather rim-to-rim trip, to just chew instead of brewing in the afternoon,” Wait, really? “Just in the afternoon a couple days. Chocolate covered espresso beans would have melted!” And while coffee beans might give him that extra afternoon kick he needs, Leonard will never go without his morning cup. A guy who is most often on the kind of trips that require you to minimize your gear swears by the MSR MugMate, facilitating a versatile backcountry pour-over. Quick and easy, as long as you plan ahead to accommodate all those grounds you’re going to have to carry out.
A few weeks ago I was in Arches National Park. We had a day hike planned, and while I had kicked off the morning with an early run that had left me starving, I refused to eat breakfast before heading out hiking, as per my long-standing Eat Breakfast On The Trail rule. Remember that drinking coffee outdoors isn’t about consuming the caffeine; it’s about drinking it in the best spot possible. Beautiful experience wins over craving every time. We began hiking and scouting an appropriate breakfast spot, and eventually we found it: atop a ridge of red rock, overlooking the park that expanded out to the east. Hand grinder, Melitta filter, go. Normally I swear by a stainless steel French press, but that was stashed back in my apartment in Paris. There’s an old Melitta my mom keeps on hand, and I had snagged it for these purposes. (If you’re looking to invest in a new backcountry setup however, please avoid plastic.)
I asked my friend Shannon Galpin about brewing coffee in remote places, something she knows a thing or two about. Galpin works a lot in Afghanistan with her nonprofit Mountain2Mountain, and she drinks plenty of coffee. My kind of woman. While traveling in Afghanistan certainly is in no way the same as a multi-day backpacking trip, there are similarities: the unknown, being away from creature comforts, being forced out of your routine. I figured she was a good person to ask about her remote brew setup, because she has spent plenty of days in Middle-Of-Nowhere, Afghanistan. “After several trips to Afghanistan sans coffee I learned that I CAN live without coffee, but I don’t want to. One is not meant to survive on weak green tea alone. Now I travel with a stainless steel french press and a bag of dark delicious beans that can fuel me through the dawn patrol excursions on my single-speed exploring new areas of Afghanistan,” says Galpin.
Yes, a single-speed, you read that right. Galpin was the first person to mountain bike across the Panjshir Valley, the exact place where she remembers her best cup of outdoor brew. “My best cup of coffee was in a remote mountain village in the Panjshir valley of Afghanistan in the dark hours before dawn. Everything was quiet and peaceful as I drank my coffee on a low stone wall outside the home I was staying in, and watched as the sun came up and brought the village to life. Moments of public solitude as a foreign woman are rare in Afghanistan.”
Coffee isn’t just a drink, it’s the thread that ties our experiences together, the thing that gives us a baseline no matter where we are. When everything is foreign, be it in a country or in the woods, there is always that well-known cup of coffee. It’s as dependable as a best friend, as comforting as your bed on a rainy day. And if you start drinking coffee outdoors, that dependability also becomes your indicator for adventure. You drag yourself out of your sleeping bag as dawn wakes. You brew and stand there with a cup in your hand, your feet on the ground, and a beanie pulled down over your ears.
You breathe in. Exhale. You know that there are good things to come. There is possibility. The day is bright. Here’s to drinking a cup in the unknown.