Leave the cowboy coffee to the cowboys

Cowboy coffee tastes a bit like blackened kitty litter.

Any serious coffee drinker like myself is willing to take down a cup or two of the caffeinated sludge when left with very few options.

What is cowboy coffee, you ask?  Great question.

According to our good friends over at the always reliable Wikipedia, “cowboy coffee is made by heating coarse grounds with water in a pot, letting the grounds settle and pouring off the liquid to drink, sometimes filtering it to remove fine grounds. While the name suggests that this method was used by cowboys, presumably on the trail around a campfire, it is used by others; some people prefer this method.”

In other words, gross.  I’m not sure who these “some people” are who “prefer this method.”  Come on folks. Backcountry coffee preparation has come a long way!  There is no need to suffer anymore.

So it was with this concept in mind that I sought an acceptable alternative.  Enter Starbucks Via Ready Brew.

Now before you rightfully question my manhood, let me just say I’m not a devoted “must go daily” Starbucks freak fan.  In fact, the place scares the crap out of me.

I don’t know if it’s the annoyingly peppy baristas, or the price point, or because I can never remember which drink and in which size I prefer, thus having to sheepishly rely on my wife to order for me—whatever it is, Starbucks just kind of gives me the creeps.

But there we were standing in line one day, ordering a ventiwho vannila whatchamacallit, when I found the solution to my cowboy coffee dilemma.

We tried the Italian and Columbia roasts on our backpacking trip through Rocky Mountain National Park, and honestly, I was impressed.  This isn’t your average, watered-down instant coffee.

I won’t bore you with a vague flavor profile, mostly because I have no idea how to describe a cup of coffee. Just know that this a tasty, compact alternative to kitty litter sludge.

Have you made any similar “outdoor” product discoveries? Please tell me you have, and that it was instant beer.



  1. Eons ago when I was 20, I worked one summer in a camp in Maine, half waterfront and half camp craft. I was assigned to accompany the camper who wanted to try to achieve a teenage level in the Maine Guide camping evaluation. I applied. She barely failed and I barely passed, but I am proud to say I am a Junior Maine Guide. (Just don’t hire me and I won’t disappoint. LOL)

    We had to make coffee for our guests, the judges who joined us for each meal we prepared over a campfire, even though none of us drank coffee. Guide Coffee was prepared in a similar fashion to Cowboy Coffee with one addition….drop an egg into the liquid….the egg cooks while the water heats and the grounds stick to it. It does NOT flavor the coffee (much) and you need not chew on the grounds while you drink.

    1. Oh yes, I have seen coffee prepared this way. And while I normally do not pass on trying something new, I guess I just didn’t need coffee that bad. I think the egg method presents one of two problems on the trail: (1) it just sounds gross to me, and (2) carrying eggs in a backpack could be interesting. Good story, by the way!

  2. The one step to the cowboy coffee that’s missing is the spinning of the can, to help the grounds settle. This is a French press without the press. Done right, and with desperation, not bad.

    I own the JetBoil French press which 90% of the time I love. The other 10% usually involves the times when I can’t remember which way the press goes, and I get all the grounds in my drink.

    I also like the idea of being able to drink the coffee in the same mug you prepared it in (JetBoil’s claim to fame) but adding some type of cream or sweetener seems odd.

    I’m equally afraid of Starbucks and probably the most boring coffee drinker ever to walk foot into the place. But I do like the atmosphere quite a bit. I’ll never say “ho-hum” to a cheery barista.

    Other great “on the run” coffee ideas are using one of those plastic coffee things that rest on the mug – you pour hot water directly over the grounds (small filter required) and it brews directly into your mug. Easy clean up (compared to French press) and very light weight!

    Sorry no “instant” coffee ideas!

    1. The thing I like about Via Ready Brew is how simple it is. All you need is boiling water. No parts. No gadgets. No gizmos. No dreaded coffee grounds boil over, or waiting for the grounds to separate.

      Back in the day we would use a French press while camping near the car at the trailhead, but over time I kind of got annoyed with cleaning the thing. It does make great coffee, though.

      About the only thing I’m not too stoked on with Via Ready Brew is the price. You can easily pack a week’s worth of coffee, but it will probably cost you more than alternative methods. Personally, I’m willing to pay for the convenience factor.

      I’ve never heard of the plastic coffee things you mentioned. Where can I find one?

  3. I agree with you 100% about Starbucks. I get intimidated walking in. I just pretend I don’t know what I’m doing, which I don’t, so I order a medium regular black coffee. I even have them dilute it a little with water because it’s too strong for my liking. Then I just fix it the way I like it. As far as cowboy coffee goes, I suppose in a pinch I would drink it, but again, it would have to be diluted a bit. Isn’t that the stuff they say puts hair on your chest? Hmmm… better stay away from that!

    1. I’ve actually become more confident with Starbucks lately. Only because I officially memorized one drink and one size, and I’ve stuck with it! Otherwise, I’m just as lost as then next guy.

      If I’m really in the mood for a hot cup of joe, and cowboy coffee is the only thing available, I’ll drink it, hairy chest and all.

  4. Hi,
    I love my coffee, but much prefer to come home and enjoy a good cup of coffee the way I like it, some coffee shops are OK, but nothing like relaxing at home with a cuppa. 😀

  5. First of all, Cowboy coffee is great. I love the stuff. Coffee filters take the grounds off and are nothing as far as weight and bulk, AND can double as strainers for dishwater (which an environmentally consious backpacker should be packing out all food scraps from anyhow).

    Second, instant coffee has been around for eons (ok, since like the 50´s). Folgers, Nescafe, etc. You can save money by buying a cheap brand of instant coffee elsewhere.

    And my backpacking food suggestion semi related to coffee: On my last trek I discovered that powdered milk is AMAZING for backpacking. It adds creamy taste to instant potatoes and other such camp dinners and helps with the cowboy coffee taste as well. It´s light and instant! Wonderful.

    1. We’ve tried all sorts of different backcountry coffee combos, and this one actually makes the most sense. It’s quick with little to no clean up, there is only one part to it (as opposed to filters, grounds, presses, etc.), and it actually tastes pretty good. I hear what you’re saying on the cost, though. That has to be the one reasonable Ready Brew “con” I can come up with.

      Great tip on the powdered milk!

  6. I’m amazed at how few people like Starbucks….yet they are freaking all over the place. I’ve no opinion of them, as I’ve never been in one. I am, however, a coffee junkie. At home it’s strictly Community (a Louisiana Brand) Dark Roast in a French Press. I do enjoy meeting friends over coffee in an actual coffee shop….and if it has a drive-through window, it’s not a coffee shop.
    While camping I’ll admit to drinking just about anything as long as coffee beans are somehow involved and it has at some point been near a source of heat. I’ll definitely give up a little coffee-goodness in exchange for ease of use/transport.
    I’m a great cook in the kitchen, but a lousy cook in the wild. Knowing this I’ll leave this task to others more skilled and cheerfully eat whatever I’m handed. It’s all part of the adventure.

  7. I am so weird – I do not drink coffee…but, I have been almost run over by Starbuckers trying to get in there and get theres! (lol) I laughed at your instant beer – my husband and I actually, attempted to make some home-made beer once…it was a long process – we bottle capped it and everything…(my dining room smelled like a brewery for weeks!!) then neither one of us would drink it…(it was a wasteful shame)..

    1. You’re not weird! You’re just a rare, non-coffee drinking breed! It’s probably better for you, anyway.

      I am all too familiar with my entire house smelling like a brewery. I brew, too! It’s been awhile, but it’s always a lot of fun. Bummer you guys wouldn’t drink it! Funny thing is, I have a case of stout I brewed out in the garage I won’t drink. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out too tasty.

      Can you recall which kind of beer (stout, IPA, pale ale, etc.) you guys tried brewing?

      1. It’s been a few years but, I want to say it was a pale ale…that sounded very close…It had a lot of sediment (?) looking stuff at the bottom of the bottles so…I can’t remember if we strained it enough or not..hope that makes sense…we have thought about making home-made wine, too….and you truly are an adventure man! love it.

      2. I think I’m an easily bored man who dabbles in everything! Ha!

        Yeah, there are various methods you can use to strain the yeast sediment from the bottom of the bottle. Or you can just leave it in and gross out your friends. Still tastes the same!

        You should make wine! I bought my sister a kit for Christmas a few years back, and she loved it! With starter kits, you basically pour grape juice and yeast into a 5-gallon bucket and let it ferment for a few weeks. Then you bottle, let it sit on its side a little longer, and you’re done! Bam! Instant winery! Next thing you know, you’re growing grapes in the garden and hosting tasting parties.

  8. I had to search through many posts to find this one. I wanted to respond because I just got back from a 3-day rafting trip and I have a report on coffee!

    I originally tried to tell you about Melitta Ready Brew but I could not remember the name. http://www.drugstore.com/products/prod.asp?pid=334610&catid=186076&aid=338666&aparam=334610 (this is a link to one.. just so you know what I’m talking about).

    I had everything packed and ready to go for the trip and realized I forgot the actually Melitta!

    So I remembered this post and swung by Starbucks and picked up a 6-pack of the instant coffee. Yes, a little expensive, but not terribly bad (a little more than $1/cup) and VERY good.

    I use a JetBoil to instantly boil my water and it was super easy and fast to make coffee in the morning.

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I don’t think I ever would have tried the Starbucks instant coffee without your recommendation. My additional recommendation is the JetBoil, because it makes boiling water so easy and fast, and it uses way less fuel than a traditional camping stove, even a backpacking stove.


    1. A coffee report from the field! Excellent! Glad you liked the Sbucks instant coffee. I wish they’d bring the price down a little, but hey, it sure is convenient and tastes good. Do you remember which blend you went with? And I totally agree, JetBoils are awesome! Which river were you on? Do tell!

      1. I thought it seemed a little pricey and for homemade coffee it is .. but it’s really only about $1/cup. Not too too bad. I will definitely use these backpacking. I used the Mocha flavor – delicious. No half & half needed. (or sugar, as it is pre-sweetened – I normally don’t use sweetener but didn’t mind it). I love my JetBoil! Lives up to the name every time. I was on the Deschutes River in Oregon .. we went from Warm Springs to Maupin. I feel lucky to live here and have a great friend who wanted to take me along.

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