The Perfect Cup of “Camp” Coffee

Sunrise in the Badlands

It was a frosty Sunday morning. I was camping in the North Dakota  Badlands, Slope County. Though early, a clear blue sky surrounded us. Save for the light chatter around the campfire, there wasn’t a sound. With no plans for the morning, I stayed put for a while and enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow campers in the site. Rounding out a delicious breakfast was a cup of steaming homemade coffee. I remember thinking, This is the way to start a day! I’ve been a coffee drinker most of my adult life. While I enjoy drinking coffee in general, a cup of joe just seems to taste better outdoors. What makes a great cup of coffee? Fights have broken out over more mundane issues. Because I’d like to remain on cordial grounds with you and my other readers, I’ll keep this as neutral as possible. Believe it or not, it is possible to mess up a simple cup of coffee. But it is also possible to enjoy a great cup of coffee outdoors. While, I can taste a difference in the first few mouth fulls, I am happy just to have a hot, black, caffeinated cup of liquid whether weak, bitter, strong, smooth or something in between is OK. And it is even better, when someone has it made, when I get up!

Some fundamentals of making coffee

You wouldn’t think there’s much to making a pot of coffee. And, in fact, there is not. But there are some basics to keep in mind for that ideal campfire coffee.

Coffee pot: Make sure it’s designed for use over a campfire. The standard kitchen variety won’t cut it outdoors. Beyond that, any style or brand is fine. One thing to consider is its capacity: Does it produce enough coffee for your entire group? Manufacturers often claim that their coffee pots hold eight cups of coffee. What they don’t tell you is that it’s based on a 6-ounce coffee cup. That is a typical size, but some are larger. In addition, few people drink just one cup of coffee at a time. (I don’t just drink one cup!) Consider those factors when you decide how many and which size of coffee pots to bring.

Coffee: I’ll leave the brand up to you; you know what you like. A key factor is the grind. There are seven categories: extra course, course, medium course, medium, medium fine, fine and extra fine. Course or extra course are good for cowboy coffee; medium is good for drip and perked. Start in the middle (medium) and go up or down to get something you like. If a special grind or mix is required, do the prep work before leaving. Those steps can be challenging at a campsite. It’s all about getting the essence out of the coffee. If the coffee is under extracted, you get a sour, salty taste. If it’s over extracted, the coffee is bitter. Experience will teach you the proper mix of heat, coffee and time to get that perfect cup.

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“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”
French politician and diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) on coffee
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Brewing the coffee:

Coffee is brewed a number of ways. You can make cowboy coffee, perk it, or use one of several forms of drip (pour over, French press, drip funnel). We ruled out instant coffee except for the direst of circumstances. Most recipes I have seen recommend water temperature at about 200 degrees (just below boiling – the acceptable range is 195 to 205) and a ratio of two tablespoons per cup. Remember that is a 6-ounce cup (¾ of an eight-ounce cup). If you don’t have a tablespoon or a standard coffee measure, use a Tequila shot glass. 1 oz. equals 2 tablespoons. If you prefer a particularly robust cup of coffee – add more grounds or change the roast. Cowboy coffee is almost as fast as instant except you use freshly ground (medium grind) coffee. A recipe is provided below. You try to replicate as closely as possible how coffee was made back in the cowboy days. With cowboy coffee you get some floaties. There always are a few grains of coffee that don’t mix in. Adding a little cold water will force them to sink. Worst case, just spit ‘em out.

Handling the coffee grounds

Even though coffee grounds are biodegradable, they must be disposed of properly. There was a time, perhaps, when you just chucked ‘em in the weeds. As good stewards of the land, we four wheelers subscribe to the TreadLightly® philosophy. And as you know, that pertains to all activities while outdoors, not just driving habits. As with all your other garbage, coffee grounds should be placed in the proper garbage bag (Trasharoo, for example). If the smell of the grounds bothers you or you think it might attract critters, first place the grounds in a smaller bag. A used bread bag or Ziploc® bag works well for this. Be a good sport and take your garbage with you.

How to make your cowboy coffee

Cowboy coffee is quite easy to make. There are just a few ingredients and a few steps.

  • Bring the water to a boil.
  • Take the coffee pot off the heat and let set 20-30 seconds. This will bring the temperature down to about 200 degrees (at sea level).
  • Add the coffee, at a mixture of 2 tablespoons for each 6-ounce cup of coffee. Stir briefly and let set for 4 to 5 minutes (you can stir once more halfway through if you want).
  • An alternative is to bring the pot to boil with the coffee already in the pot for only 1 minute. The risk is missing when it started to boil.
  • Let it set another 2- 3 minutes to settle the grounds, or pour cold water on the top.
  • Enjoy your robust coffee in the great outdoors!

Nothing could be easier and you don’t need any special equipment. On top of that, the coffee doesn’t care if you cook with wood, propane or buffalo dung.

Perked Coffee This is a common way to make coffee when camping.

  • Use the same ratio of water to coffee ¾ cup water – 2 Tablespoons coffee
  • Once the pot starts to perk, turn down the heat to providing a vigorous perk but not boiling over.
  • The water that tops out of the percolator will be in the sweet spot of 195 to 205 even if the coffee water in the pot is boiling
  • Perk for 4 minutes and let stand one minute and pour into your cup

BTW, I always make enough for a 2nd cup and to share a cup or two. If I am using a percolator, I believe they brew better with close to the number of cups the pot is designed – just below the holes in the pour spout. I want to keep the coffee hot as possible for that second cup.  The technique I use is to set the hot pot on one dish cloth and wrap a second one around it. The thought that I should have a cozy, passes through my brain but is well forgotten by the time I could purchase one. Besides the dish towel serves multiple uses.

The next time you go camping, take along this recipe. First thing each morning, brew up a pot of rich, full-bodied cowboy coffee. Savor those moments as you watch the sun rise in the distance. You’ll soon realize those are some really precious times. And if we cross paths while on the trail, we’ll enjoy a cup together. #   #   #


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73 KI6FHA I hope to see you on the trails! Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc. 4-Wheel Drive School 310-613-5473 www.4x4training.com Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.


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