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The Alpine Grind: Testing Five Camp Coffee Systems


A quick plunge of the syringe delivers coffee with the Aeropress.

[Photo] Kel Rossiter

Coffee is essential fuel for many climbers, whether it’s trad climbing at Joshua Tree, alpine starts in the Tetons, or iced-coffee afternoons at the Gunks. The problem is that camp coffee methods are sometimes sloppy and cumbersome, often yielding tasteless, tepid coffee.

I spent this past year climbing around the country in Alaska, the North Cascades, Smith Rock, City of Rocks, the Tetons, and the Shawangunks and tested six different coffee systems. I used packets of Starbucks instant coffee, the Aeropress Coffee Maker, the Press-Bot Coffee Press, the GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip Coffee Maker and the Jetboil Coffee Press.

The line-up, from left to right: Aeropress, GSI Java Drip, Jetboil Coffee Press and Press-Bot.

[Photo] Kel Rossiter

Packets of Instant Coffee MSRP: 0.25 to $1.00

Instant packets are the clear winner if you want a quick, cheap cup of coffee with almost no clean-up or mess. Just tear open your sealed packet of Starbucks, Nescafe, Taster’s Choice, or Folgers, dump it in a mug with boiling water, stir and drink. While coffee purists turn their nose up at the 2-gram single-serve packets in your front pocket, they’re the best solution for a quick cup while you’re on the move. The big problems with instant coffee are taste and flavor. Spray drying and freeze-drying, the two methods used to make instant coffee, degrades the flavor and smell. Starbucks VIA, perhaps the best-tasting instant brew, has a roasty, complex flavor for an instant, but at a dollar a packet, is a bit pricey. Other good instant coffees are Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso and Mount Hagen Organic.

Aeropress Coffee Maker MSRP: $29.95

The Aeropress, a plunger device for pressing quick, no-mess coffee, is popular with traveling climbers. The Aeropress, manufactured by Aerobie, Inc., uses an ideal water temperature of 175F degrees to brew strong coffee with good flavor, no bitterness and a flat smooth taste. It’s easy to make a couple mugs of coffee in a minute, with an actual press time of only 20 seconds. The problem in the field is getting the water at the proper temperature since packing a thermometer on a bivouac is as ludicrous as bringing Hexes on a slab climb. When I brewed the coffee with the Aeropress in my kitchen and followed the manufacturer’s specific directions, the brew, with a flat smooth taste, was better than my field attempts. Cleaning the Aeropress is easy. After pouring the coffee, unscrew the filter, push the plunger and out comes the filter and grounds. It’s also easy to pack since it’s rugged 5.25″ x 2.5″ cylinder takes up only 0.4L of space.

Press-Bot Coffee Press MSRP: $24.95

The Press-Bot Coffee Press turns your wide-mouth Nalgene water bottle into a handy French press, letting you easily make coffee on your climbs. Boil water, pour into the Nalgene, brew for a few minutes, press the plunger and presto: flavorful and rich coffee in your mug. The Press-Bot requires nimble fingers to extract the collapsing press system from the Nalgene bottle. Finish by rinsing with water. The unit fits neatly inside the water bottle for storage and packing, occupying a liter of pack space. It’s best to bring a bottle specific for your Press-bot and coffee or your water will taste murky.

GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip Coffee Maker MSRP: $49.95

The GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip Coffee Maker is a compact, lightweight coffee filter system that weighs 4.6 ounces, easily nests with a fuel cartridge in the corner of your pack, and makes a bold, strong cup of coffee wherever you can boil a pot of water. The collapsible design expands to a full-height drip cone unit. It fits over a mug or wide-mouth water bottle. It’s easy to make good minimalist coffee. Simply put one or two spoonfuls of ground coffee into a filter (#2 or #4 coffee filter) and pour boiling water onto the coffee. Let it drip, then drink. To clean the Collapsible Java Drip, dump the grounds, rinse with water, and air dry. It’s also easy to pack since the Java Drip’s collapses to 1″-high x 5.6″-thick disk. The unit’s weight is a drawback if you climb fast and light. A better alternative for bivy coffee is to bring a GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip (MSRP: $12.95), which weighs a mere 0.4 ounce. This filter is lightweight, with a strong, fine mesh, and three legs that clip onto a dedicated cup or almost any other mug you carry.

A quick pop on the Aeropress and you’re ready to enjoy your hot, if somewhat flat, cup of coffee.

[Photo] Kel Rossiter

Jetboil Coffee Press MSRP: $14.95


The Jetboil Coffee Press brews fast quality coffee in the backcountry. The Jetboil stove, using a flux-ring heating system, boils a liter of water in just over two minutes. Add a lid for the French press unit and a neoprene sleeve with a color-change heat indicator along with ground coffee and you will be enjoying a cup of hot java in five minutes. The taste, however, is tempered by the aluminum cup sidewalls; pour into a ceramic mug for a cleaner flavor. The Jetboil Coffee Press is easy to clean: simply rinse the pot and plunger. It’s also packable and weighs only 1.6 ounces. After use, unscrew the plunger and nest it inside the pot. Stick some tissue or a sock with it to keep it from rattling around inside your pack.

Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee Packets

Pros: For easy cleaning, weight, and packability, instant coffee is the clear winner.

Cons: It’s Starbucks, but it’s instant. Taste suffers.

Stars: 3

Aeropress Coffee Maker

Pros: Quick cleaning. Smooth taste.

Cons: Lacks a rich deep flavor. Heaviest of all options. Ultra-durable, but takes up a lot of pack space.

Stars: 3

GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip Coffee Maker

Pros: Good taste if you like smooth coffee. Quick to clean. Durable and easy to pack.

Cons: Weight is a factor for quick and light climbs. No way to control steep time so coffee may be weak. Uses paper filters.

Stars: 3

Press-Bot Coffee Press

Pros: Deep, rich, flavorful coffee. Delivers a hot cup

Cons: Difficult, water-intensive cleaning. Fragile, unless packed in a heavy Nalgene bottle.

Stars: 3

Jetboil Coffee Press

Pros: Rich, flavorful coffee. Hot at serving. Lightweight and packable

Cons: Leaves a few grounds in your cup. Requires use of the Jetboil cooking system (for a Jetboil MiniMo review click here).

Stars: 4

Kel Rossiter is the owner and lead guide for Adventure Spirit Rock+Ice+Alpine, and guides in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Alaska and beyond. He’s a certified AMGA Alpine and Rock Guide, and holds a doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Vermont.