John Steinbeck, that great literary voice of America’s twentieth century, was also one of the O.G. American overlanders. With his standard poodle Charley by his side, in 1960 Steinbeck piloted his forest green GMC camper “Rocinante” on a grand circuit of the United States, and his 1962 travelogue,Travels with Charley in Search of America is a touchstone of American travel literature.
Steinbeck knew that besides a reliable rig and a trusty canine friend, coffee was an essential element of life on the road. A pick-me-up, the focus of a quiet moment of contemplation, and a social lubricant, Steinbeck peppersTravels with Charleywith descriptions of the magical brew:
“The great get-together symbol is the cup of coffee. I found I often stopped for coffee, not because I wanted it but for a rest and a change from the unrolling highway.”
Long before #vanlife, stainless tumblers, and hazy Instagram filters, Steinbeck elevated coffee to its rightful place as an indispensable part of the overland traveler’s kit. Thankfully, the 21st century overlander no longer has to rely on greasy spoon diners or plopping an egg in their coffee grounds, as Steinbeck did, to get their morning fix. Even in the back of beyond, there’s no reason to suffer with gritty, weak, or bland brews. Let’s take a look at some of our favorite ways to transform that humble bean into liquid gold when you’re on the road or out in the wild.
The percolator is old-school coffee technology, but it’s still a tried and true strategy for brewing up a strong cup. There’s something soothing about the sight and sound of the percolator’s little glass window as the coffee comes to a simmer that can’t be replicated by other methods. With the grounds perched in their own separate basket, clean-up is easy.
Stanley’s Adventure Cool Grip Camp Percolator is a sleek and modern version of the old stand-by, with stainless steel construction, a generous 1.1 quart capacity, and a handle that stays cool while it’s on the burner.
Pros: Reliably consistent coffee, great for bigger groups, easy clean-up, satisfying noises.
Cons: Needs to be watched - nobody likes burned or over-extracted coffee. The last cup can get muddy.
Another standard brewing tool, and one favored by many overlanders, is the French press. Traditionally constructed with a glass jar and a metal plunger, the first few cups from a French press exhibit a quality of taste that is nearly impossible to beat. The French press has also benefited from many modern updates including insulated stainless steel construction and more sophisticated plungers that minimize grittiness. They come in all shapes and sizes, from single serving mugs to two quart monsters for waking up a whole crew.
Splitting the difference is Stanley’s stainless Adventure All-In-One Boil + Brew French Press. With its clever nesting design and 32 oz capacity, the Boil + Brew is a solid multi-tasker that makes a fantastic addition to any overlander’s galley.
A truly creative take on the traditional French press is MSR’s WindBurner Coffee Press Kit. Designed to pair with MSR’s WindBurner stove, the Coffee Press Kit adds a layer of functionality to this high-tech rapid cooking system. It’s a perfect way to take real coffee with you on those adventures away from the rig.
Finally check out Planetary Design's super cool new BruTrek system!
Pros: Fast and energy efficient brewing, top-notch taste, can serve multiple travelers
Cons: Messy clean up, don’t bother with that last cup, you’ll be chewing it
Introduced to the caffeine-craving masses in 2005,the AeroPress is a high-pressure coffee extractor. The idea is a simple one - forcing hot water with a sealed plunger through your grounds via a microfilter yields a coffee that’s not over-brewed or bitter, and free of any grittiness. The process works for cold brews, and you can use it to make espresso, too. The device itself is light and compact, and easy to clean. Brew-times are fast,but each press only yields 7-8 oz, so if you treat your cups of coffee like potato chips, you’ll be plunging a lot, and your companions will be kept waiting.
Pros: Low-acid, low-bitterness brews with a bright flavor, essentially cleans itself, fast brewing times
Cons: Requires a specific disposable filter that’s not always available everywhere, one-cup-at-a time brewing process
Pour over coffee service tends to bring to mind images of cozy coffee houses or bustling urban cafes. But pour over coffee isn’t just a technique for the professional barista, it’s equally at home out in the woods. Whether deploying a reusable filter system, or disposable pods, the slow drip through the filter yields a coffee that’s bright, clear, and smooth. Many embrace the ritual and investment of time of the pour over for those relaxing days in camp when they’re not behind the wheel.
Pour over coffee can serve a crowd or simply one cup for the solo traveler. Round Lake, New York’s Death Wish Coffee Company makes a single-serving pour over coffee that will absolutely knock your socks off. This one is for the real caffeine junky.
Pros: Easy clean up, amazing taste and consistency, creates a thoughtful ritual
Cons: Demands time and attention, can be a challenge to keep the coffee warm on cold mornings
Instant coffee has come a long way since its debut in the 1880s, and the range of instants on the market now are leaps and bounds better than those stale crystals in your grandmother’s glass jar. Starbucks’ VIA changed the game in 2009 with its “microgrind” powder that could be made with specific varietals, and dispensed with much of the chemical taste normally found in instant coffee. It dissolves nearly immediately.
Similar products are now offered even by small-scale local coffee roasters, so you can also support your hometown beanery with your instant purchase. We’re big fans of Montana-based Black Coffee Roasting Co.’s organic version.
We like to think of instant as your back-up plan. It’s perfect for those busy mornings when you’re trying hard to pack up fast and get on the road, or need a quick jolt in the afternoon, but don’t want to go through the hassle of grinding, steeping, and clean-up.
Pros: It’s in the name - ready in an instant and no mess. New instants are getting ever closer to a real cup of Joe.
Cons: Still no substitute for a traditional brew, not efficient for caffeinating a large group, extra packaging waste.
These are just a few of the techniques available to the overlander for getting that rocket fuel going in the mornings. Throw in a burr grinder (pro-tip: the hand-cranked coffee grinder is a great distraction for the kids on early mornings in camp, put ‘em to work!), your favorite whole beans, and some camp mugs, and you’ll have everything you need to enjoy your favorite cuppa on the trail. Be sure to check out the Overlander shop for lots of great brewing tools from Stanley and MSR.
Of course, there are still some of us out there who stick to cowboy coffee over the campfire, or - shockingly - prefer tea to the daily grind. But, no matter how you cut it, there’s no excuse anymore for letting lousy coffee stain your adventures. As Steinbeck says,“Coffee has a special taste of a frosty morning, and the third cup is as good as the first.”
But only if you make it right.
How do you take your coffee in camp? Do you favor one method over another? Any special techniques or tricks to get that perfect cup? Let us know down in the comments.
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We don’t like to get too hung up on labels here at Overlander, but, well… it’s in our name so we thought we’d take some time to think about what overland travel means to us and for you.