I'm 100% addicted to coffee. I start every morning with a hot cup of coffee and if I don't, I get a headache and feel groggy by lunch time. I need my caffeine fix in the morning, especially if I'm going to be hiking with a 40 lb pack on my back.
But what's the best way to get your caffeine fix when you're in the wilderness? There are a lot of ways to get your fix and thanks to a new company, you can actually drink real coffee when you're backpacking. Yes, REAL, good tasting coffee. Let's dig in.
Why You Should Trust Me
I am a backpacking fanatic. I live in Michigan and have backpacked the Manistee River and Manitou Island. I flew out to Colorado last year and spent a week in the Rawah Wilderness. I just got back from a week long trip to Isle Royale in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Whenever I get a chance to get out in the wilderness I take it.
I've spent hundreds of hours reading reviews and first hand testimonies from other backpackers on what they liked and didn't like about every piece of gear.
I'm also a coffee addict and have tried every method mentioned in this article. I've carried my Aeropress up to 12,000 feet of elevation and made a delicious cup of coffee as the sun rose over a mountain top. You can't beat coffee on the trail!
Different Ways to Get Caffeine While Backpacking
You might have noticed I'm not specifying that this is "how to make coffee" while backpacking; I've been careful to note that we're focusing on caffeine here. Why?
Caffeine is the main psychoactive compound found in coffee and it's what your body becomes addicted to (this is a little bit of bro-science but it will work for our needs). So if you want to feel like you normally do after drinking a cup of coffee, you can substitute your coffee with caffeine and get the same effects.
There are a lot of different ways to get caffeine. Some of the non-traditional ways include taking caffeine pills or using Mio's energy blend which adds flavor to your water as well as a dose of caffeine that substitutes a cup of coffee. A brief rundown of the different caffeine sources would be:
- Caffeine pills
- Mio Energy with caffeine and B vitamins
- Energy drinks
Some folks even prefer these alternative caffeine sources because they can take them on the go and they use very little weight/space. Personally I prefer the warmth and flavor of a nice cup of coffee but until recently, that wasn't really possibly when backpacking. I'll unpack that later though and let you know what my favorite instant coffee brand is.
Option #1 - Coffee
Of course the best substitute for coffee at home is coffee on the trail. I love making a fresh cup of coffee first thing in the morning and drinking it while I watch the sun rise. It takes extra time and means you have to filter more water but personally I think it's worth the trade off.
The main issue with drinking coffee while backpacking is that it normally it doesn't taste very great. Until recently, my go-to instant coffee was Starbucks Via. It doesn't taste horrible but it definitely wasn't as good as what I'd normally drink at home. If you're looking for a cheap coffee fix, this will do the job.
[amazon box=”B01LY47F5F” description=” “]
While doing research for my most recent backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park, I came across this fantastic comparison of backpacking coffees. Their top choice was Voila Coffee. I ordered a 5-pack for myself and 1 for both of my buddies who were going with me on the trip.
And the coffee was fantastic. Both of my friends commented daily on how delicious the coffee was. It actually tasted like real, freshly roasted coffee. It was amazingly delicious and I couldn't believe how much better it was than Starbucks.
The only downside is the price. Each individual coffee packet costs $3. That's basically what you'd pay for a cup of coffee from a local brewery so it's not that bad if you compare it to a real cup of coffee. If you compare it to crappy instant coffee then yah, it looks expensive. If you're skeptical, just get the 5 pack and give it a try on your next trip. You won't be let down. This coffee is legitimately amazing.
If you want to make real coffee while you're backpacking, you can bring an Aeropress with you. The Aeropress is my preferred method for brewing a single cup of coffee at home.
In order to use the Aeropress you need to have a filter and the coffee must be ground up. I guess you could bring a grinder with you but I didn't think the weight was worth it so I grinded my coffee up at home before my trip.
The Aeropress is nice for backpacking because it's made of plastic so it's lightweight and unbreakable. It only takes 60 seconds to make a cup of coffee and it cleans up quickly and easily. There's a million reviews of the Aeropress online you can read, but just know that it travels well and works great for backpacking.
[amazon box=”B0047BIWSK” description=” “]
Cowboy coffee is simple - heat up a cup of water and dump your grounds in. No filtering, no extra equipment. Just let the grounds settle to the bottom of your cup then drink it. It's quick and easy but if you're one of those people who doesn't like the grounds in your coffee when using a french press, then you probably won't like cowboy coffee.
You can transfer the coffee to a secondary container after a minute or two which helps to filter out some of the grounds but you won't be able to completely eliminate them without using some type of a filter.
Option #2 - Caffeine Pills
If you need to get your caffeine fix but don't want to mess with filtering and boiling water every morning at camp to make coffee, the next best option is caffeine pills.
Caffeine pills are lightweight and compact which makes them great for backpacking. You can also get caffeine pills that have L-theanine in them which is an ingredient found in tea. If you get jittery or feel too wired from caffeine, you can combine it with L-theanine to cancel out some of those negative side effects. The optimal ratio for caffeine to L-theanine is 1:2, so if you take 100 mg of caffeine you'll want to supplement it with 200 mg of L-theanine.
A regular cup of coffee has somewhere around 100 mg-150 mg of caffeine so I'd look for pills that have 100 mg or 200 mg of caffeine.
And none of this is medical advice....just based on things I've read and on my own experiments with taking caffeine pills. It's also the most common formulation you'll find being sold online.
As far as which brand to buy, it doesn't really matter. Caffeine pills are basically a commodity so different brands are more or less the same. Here's one I've tried before and had good results with:
Option #3 - Mio Energy Blend
If you don't want to mess with making coffee but the idea of taking caffeine pills weirds you out, another option is MiO. MiO is a liquid you add to your water bottle and originally it was intended to make flavored drinks. The company has a range of flavors like fruit punch, cherry, lemonade, etc.
But they also have an energy blend that contains B vitamins and caffeine. A single bottle of MiO energy weighs 1.6 ounces and contains 18 "servings". Each serving is meant to flavor 8 ounces of water and will contain 60mg of caffeine. So to get the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee you'd need 2-3 servings.
The MiO dosing is a little inaccurate because it just tells you to "put a squeeze" of it in your water. They offer it in a variety of flavors, including coffee flavored. But for some reason coffee flavored caffeine concentrate mixed with water sounds gross and just feels wrong. Some of the reviews claim it tastes good but color me skeptical.
Option #4 - Tea
Tea is a great option if you don't want to get as much caffeine as you would in a cup of coffee. You still use hot water so you get that nice warmth in the morning but you can control your caffeine intake. Compared to a cup of coffee that has 100-150 mg of caffeine, a cup of tea will have between 0 to 50 mg of caffeine depending on what kind of tea it is. Here's an average caffeine dose for different types of teas (source):
- Herbal tea has no caffeine.
- White tea has about 25 mg of caffeine.
- Green tea has about 36 mg of caffeine.
- Black tea can have up to 60 mg of caffeine.
As a coffee lover, I wouldn't want to be on half of my daily dose of caffeine while backpacking. Tea is a good option if you want to taper down your caffeine intake or if you just don't like the flavor of coffee. You can either take along your favorite brand or try out a sampler pack like this:
[amazon box=”B075F9Y19M” description=” ” title=”Twinnings 48 Pack Tea Sampler”]
Option #5 - Energy Drinks
Finally, the last resort for caffeine in the wilderness is an energy drink. Energy drinks are fine in normal life (I mean they're not healthy but they're fine for getting caffeine), but they're pretty bulky and heavy for backpacking purposes.
I'd rule out anything like Monster or Rockstar. They don't taste great as is and after shaking around on the trail and being consumed at ~60 degrees F, they'll taste even worse than normal. Not to mention each one will weigh somewhere between 8 to 16 ounces. On a 5 day trip you'd be looking at carrying 2.5 - 5 pounds of additional weight. Compare that with instant coffee or MiO which weighs just a few ounces and packs more caffeine and less sugar.
If you really need some type of energy drink, I'd probably look at bringing a 5 Hour Energy. I don't think you're supposed to drink these every day though and they give you energy through the B vitamin blend alongside 200 mg of caffeine. The effects of caffeine tend to wear off pretty quickly but the B vitamin blend is supposed to provide longer lasting energy.
Caffeine withdrawals are no joke. If you've ever gone from drinking coffee every day to missing a day, you could get some annoying side effects like a bad headache and fatigue. You definitely don't want to be fighting these symptoms while you're trying to hike through the wilderness.
So be honest with yourself and figure out how serious your caffeine addiction is. If you drink 4 cups of coffee every day then you should be prepared to get 400 mg of caffeine every day while hiking.