Cowboy Coffee redux

Two years ago I detailed my preferred method of making cowboy coffee in the field, and advocated for it as the all around best method.  Plenty of articles about backcountry coffee have come out since, but there is still no new news here.  Via is convenient (especially as it is quite palatable cold), but expensive and for all Starbucks work still has an aftertaste suitable for taking paint off car hoods.  The Aeropress and various french press accessories work well, but for me will always be unacceptably bulky for true backcountry (save something like a canoe trip).  There is also, in my mind, a lot to be said for applying technique to create something beautiful, rather than buying yet another gadget.

The main difficulty with cowboy coffee is cleanup.  If you’re not camping near a water source it’s difficult to not have a big mess to sort out later.  Given my serious coffee habit, and the serious performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine, I never skimp on coffee, and that often means bringing both Via and fine grounds.  The former is for quick mornings and mid-day breaks, the later for sit-down breakfasts and extended stops mid-day.

Regardless, don’t faff about with backcountry coffee.  Bring plenty, and do it right.  Below the photo is my original text on making cowboy coffee, updated.

I grin a little everything some new gadget comes out for making good coffee in the backcountry.  As with many things, the original method is still the best, and in this particular case has the added benefit of requiring no equipment at all, aside from the pot, stove or fire, and ground coffee you already have.  Like pitching a tarp so you’ll stay dry in a storm, digging a cathole, gutting a fish, navigating off-trail, or building a fire after an all-day rain, making cowboy coffee may seem intimidating at first, but is actually quite simple.  Unlike those other things, you can get 90% of the way from cowboy coffee newb to expert without leaving your house.  It’s a skill that, given coffees performance enhancing qualities, should be considered as essential as knowing to piss downwind.

First start with a generous amount of grounds and some cold water.  As many wise folks have said, you don’t need nearly as much water to make coffee as most people think.  Fine grounds are advantageous when making cowboy coffee, they saturate faster and easier, which is the key to their reliably sinking.  I bring espresso ground beans, but there is nothing wrong with turkish either.

Combine grounds and cold water and set it to boil.  You want to give the grounds as long as possible to saturate and get heavy, as well as impart good flavor to the liquid.

Bring to a roiling boil, and keep it there for 10-15 seconds.  On most camp stoves doing this without boiling over will require a less than full pot, as well as hovering the pot over the burner using a grip, pliers, or a glove/sock.  Consensus seems to be that coffee ought to be brought to 200F (+/- 5F) for best results. Given that 200F is the boiling point at around 6000 feet, and the 5 degree margin of error encompasses the boiling point between 4000 and 9000 feet, we hikers appear to be in good shape. The length at which coffee should be held at said temp comes down to personal preference. I have a strong affinity for bitterness, so I go longer. If a triple espresso is not your normal mid-afternoon snack, as it is mine, you might want to boil only briefly or not at all.

Let the pot rest for a minute.  There are many ways, like adding a squirt of cold water or tapping the edge, to help the grounds settle, but if you’ve done the above and have a bit of patience this issue should take care of itself.

Drink.  You can decant from the pot into mugs/cups/bottles, or drink straight from the pot.  Obviously, don’t swirl or otherwise seriously disturb the coffee, or attempt to pour or drink the last ounce at the bottom.

This is the best, and simplest, and lightest, way to get a solid cup of coffee in the backcountry.  And often a good way to impress friends and neighbors.  Practice a bit at home, and you’ll be set to go.


6 responses to “Cowboy Coffee redux”

  1. Very good. I just don’t like the crunchy side of it :-)
    Some times ago I “developed” (out of a lack of material) the following method:
    Be sure to use biodegradable filters if you are in the backcountry.

    Instead of the paper filter I have bought this ultralight filter (, 3g) which is a product from old GDR.

  2. Cowboy coffee is a bit unforgiving, but with modest practice you won’t be drinking grounds.

    I’ve never found a pour-over method that gave me what I was looking for; too flat.

  3. That’s true. Pour-over is not the method for a coffee à la italiana.

  4. Interesting stuff.

    I always add the grounds right off a boil, rather than at the beginning to cold water. Upside of this is there’s no danger of a mess from coffee boiling over but the downside is waiting longer post boil til the beans have sunk. I also find hitting a boil seems to really amp the bitterness compared to adding the beans just off a boil, but this could be my imagination. With a thin light pot in cold weather, my coffee can be colder than I like when I start to drink. Combine that with a single wall mug and you need to stay focused to get the coffee in before it’s cold.

    I’ve tried all the tricks to get beans to sink and found no good substitute for time. I stir every 2 minutes for about 5 minutes and then wait a couple and drink. The only faster method I’ve found is pouring the coffee between containers and discarding the bottom 10% each time. I pour it into mugs, dump the grinds, pour it back into the pot and maybe repeat 2x more. Saves a minute or two but usually more hassle than it’s worth.

  5. I’m fairly impatient when I’m ready for coffee so I’ve found holding the lid mostly on while pouring keeps almost all grounds out except for a few at the very beginning of the pour and you don’t have to worry about sinking. A little bourbon residue left in the cup from night before is also quite nice.

  6. I would find your boiled coffee too bitter for my taste, (but that’s no surprise; most of the rest of the world prefers European-style coffee to the more stewed and bitter American standard). A common method down here is similar to DanDurston’s description; add medium (not fine) ground coffee to water just taken of the boil. Stir, cover and let it infuse for a minute. The medium grind will sink far more readily than a fine grind. Tap the side of the pot once or twice to encourage any floating particles to sink. You have a full-flavoured but not too stewed coffee ready to enjoy. Enjoying your blog, Dave, and looking forward to future adventures with your move. Cheers, John

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