Making Coffee in the Mountains: The Best Ways To Get Your Backcountry Fix

Making Coffee in the Mountains: The Best Ways To Get Your Backcountry Fix - Alpine Start

By Guest Blogger & Alpine Start Ambassador BRIANNA TRAXINGER

The problem with being a millennial and living in Seattle is that I need good coffee all the time, and this requirement holds true whether I’m grinding out work on my PhD or waking up at 8,000 feet on a glacier somewhere in the Cascades.

My early outdoor trips were casual enough to allow for a heavier pack (I used to think it worthwhile to carry a can of coconut milk for backcountry curries) but as my activities have become more technical and less forgiving with pack weight, I’ve paired down my load to the essentials. Obviously, coffee is an essential, so my caffeine preparations have evolved alongside my other gear. My first backcountry coffee setup was the GSI drip system that I originally thought was brilliant because it is super light, clips right to your cup, and doesn’t require you to remember to carry in and then pack out soggy paper filters and grounds. I’ve found it disappointing as the filter gets super messy with coffee grounds and cleaning it wastes water, plus it doesn’t attach to all cups and you still have to pre-grind and carry beans. Moreover, I prefer coffee with cream, so I’d pack in single-serve half-and-half containers, which get smashed, create unnecessary plastic waste, and are easy to forget. Overall it was more of a hassle than I wanted to deal with in the backcountry.

I then transitioned to a lightweight plastic pourover setup, but I still had to remember to pack in paper filters, beans, cream, and then carry out the grounds. After getting fed up with sorting through baggies via headlamp on alpine starts, I even went through a phase where I forewent coffee altogether and regressed to the mocha CLIF shot energy gels which contain 50mg of caffeine. I’m not proud, and cutting out the flavor and experience of the coffee itself exposes coffee for what it is: a drug. However, I climbed out of this trench via an unlikely savior- instant coffee- which many view as an even lower low than a CLIF caffeine shot to the bloodstream. But let me explain.

My personal instant coffee journey actually began back in 2010 when I discovered a supermarket brand of instant coffee while traveling in Peru. It didn’t taste remotely like real coffee but I liked it and drank it every day. This ephemeral relationship tragically ended when I became horribly ill and the smell of that coffee and my misery were so neurally intertwined that I left my tin behind in my sickbed hostel as a peace offering for holding up the single bathroom.  I didn’t touch instant coffee again until this year. 

Many of my outdoor partners have long relied on Starbucks Via packets for their alpine coffee needs, and although I don’t harbor the hipster hatred of corporate coffee companies, I just think that Starbucks brews their coffee with charred dirt instead of beans. I’d honestly rather have no coffee than Starbucks coffee so Via has always been a hard no from me, but I instead discovered Trader Joe’s 100% Colombian Instant Coffee. This originally caught my eye because of the price point: it costs $3 for 3.5 oz and I’m a grad student; however I found that it was actually quite good and started taking it to the mountains with me. With the TJ instant, transporting the freeze dried-looking “grounds” proved difficult as it comes in a glass jar, necessitating that I divvied up portions pre-trip. As I’m aiming to eliminate single-use plastics from my lifestyle I tried to carry it in questionable satchels that led to it getting wet and coating my bag in concentrated coffee paste. My relationship with Trader Joe’s instant was good, but not great, but I didn’t realize I was settling until I discovered the eponymous Alpine Start coffee line.

Photo by Andrew Dougherty

Alpine Start was started by pro climber Matt Segal and business woman/foodie Alex Hanifin, both Boulder, Colorado residents who understand the necessity and challenges of bringing coffee to the mountains, or in Matt’s case, portaledges. I got stoked on Alpine Start because it tastes like real coffee (it is real coffee), you can brew it with cold or hot water, and comes self contained in single-serve packets. It is available in three versions: Original, Dirty Chai, or Coconut Creamer Latte, the latter of which makes superfluous my plastic thimbles of half-and-half and feeds my obsession with all things coconut. Best of all, it isn’t sweet, as I’m in the camp that believes sugar ruins coffee. It’s really the best instant coffee I’ve ever had and has changed not only my mountain but car camping and work coffee game too, as sometimes I don’t have time to grind and brew coffee in the Aeropress. Never again will I stoop to Via or go caffeine-less in the mountains (or at school) again!

Read the rest of the blog post and see commentary from other adventurous souls about their backcountry coffee of choice on Brianna's blog:

A bit more about Brianna:
Brianna is an outdoors-obsessed Alaskan currently pursuing a PhD in infectious disease research in Seattle. She balances life in the lab with getting up and down mountains in as many ways as possible and writing about it.


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