Review: 10 Instant Coffees for Backpacking

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We review 10 single serving instant coffees to find out which one you should take on your next backpacking trip.

We review 10 single serve instant coffees to find the best instant coffee for backpacking trips.

If you are like us and can’t start your morning without a cup of coffee, backpacking can present a real dilemma. Do you pack a bunch of extra gear just so you can enjoy a well-brewed cup of coffee in the backcountry? Or do you go with instant coffee packets and save yourself a bunch of weight and space? It’s the devil’s choice. We might be coffee purists at the start of a hike, but after lugging a portable hand grinder and bag of whole beans up the side of a mountain, we become a lot more open to compromise.

The problem is that, despite being lightweight, instant coffee doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. (Especially in our current age of coffee 3rd wave enlightenment.) But there’s been a lot of advancements in “coffee tech” over the past couple years and there are a bunch of new players on the instant coffee scene. So has instant coffee gotten any better? We decided to find out for ourselves.

While there are a lot of people far more qualified to give a coffee review than us, we know what we like: a nice, well-balanced cup of black coffee. And for instant coffee, we think we have pretty reasonable expectations. We don’t need our coffee to transport us on a spiritual journey. We just want a solid cup to get us going in the morning without a bunch of hassle.

So we sat down and tried 10 different single serving instant coffee packets to see which one we’d bring along with us on our next backpacking trip. Here’s our report on the state of instant coffee.

Full disclosure: We received samples of Stoked Stix, Alpine Start, and Voila, though received no monetary compensation for including any of these brands in our review. All completely subjective, non-expert opinions are our own.

Method

We tried all 10 instant coffees in a single sitting. We mixed each packet with roughly 8 ounces of nearly boiling water, stirred, and tasted. Between coffee tastings, we cleansed our palettes with unflavored seltzer water.

Was this the most scientific way to conduct a taste test? Probably not. Could our rating be altered by the order in which we tried them? Absolutely. But this was the best we can offer in terms of first impressions.

Cafe Bustelo Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Cafe Bustelo

Type: Espresso Style
Weight: 2.5 grams per packet

Tasting Notes: “Non-offensive with a slight aftertaste of wet cardboard.” This was a very “meh” cup of instant coffee. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but that’s about all we can say. Its flavor is pretty muted overall and drifts out with a strange wet cardboard aftertaste.

The Verdict: We would drink it over nothing, but we wouldn’t be excited about it.

Where to get it: Amazon

Starbucks Via Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Starbucks Via

Type: Medium Roast (Pike Place)
Weight: 3.1 grams per packet
Specs: Mix of freeze dried coffee and microground coffee

Tasting Notes: “Unequivocally Starbucks.” These Starbuck Via packets successfully capture that signature Starbuck’s taste we have all come to love/hate. While it’s thinner and more muted than an actual cup from Starbucks, it has a lot more depth than most instant coffees. Its aftertaste holds together fairly well and goes out strong, unlike many instant coffees.

The Verdict: If you like Starbuck’s coffee, you’ll be happy with the relative fidelity of this instant version.

Where to get it: Amazon, REI, Starbucks, and most grocery stores.

Stoked Stix Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Stoked Stix

Type: Medium Roast
Weight: 3.2 grams per packet
Specs: 100% Organic Arabica, USDA certified organic

Tasting Notes: “Solid offering” vs “Sour aftertaste.” We had split decision on this one. I thought it was a simple yet well-balanced cup of coffee. Not particularly vibrant or showy, but it definitely earned above average marks in my book. On the other hand, Megan picked up on a sour aftertaste that she found to be pretty detracting.

The Verdict: Hard to say. Who do you believe more? Me or Megan?

Where to get it: Stoked Stix

Target Archer Farms Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Archer Farms Donut Shop Blend

Type: Medium Roast
Weight: 3.3 grams per packet

Tasting Notes: “Total Horse Sh!t” You don’t need to be a coffee connoisseur to appreciate how much this coffee sucks. It had so many undesirable qualities we didn’t even know where to start. But our main observation was this ammonia flavor that reminded us either of manure or some astringent cleaning product. We couldn’t reach for our palate cleansing seltzer water fast enough.

The Verdict: Bear Grylls wouldn’t even drink this stuff.

Where to get it: Target (But don’t. Seriously, it’s not good)

Alpine Start Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Alpine Start

Type: “Premium Italian”
Weight: 3.1 grams per packet

Tasting Notes: “Well balanced, yet relatively weak.” This was a nice, mild cup of coffee that avoided a lot of pitfalls of traditional instant coffee. Its flavor composition holds up for the most part and the aftertaste doesn’t devolve into strange weirdness. During our initial testing, we were under the impression this was supposed to be an Italian roast, which is why we were underwhelmed by its intensity. But we now see the box only claims to Premium Italian. We have no idea what that means, but if you’re looking for a heavily roasted Italian coffee, this is not it.

The Verdict: A decent cup of instant coffee we would be happy to enjoy out on the trail.

Where to get it: REI.com

Jiva Cube Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Jiva Cubes

Type: Black
Weight: 8 grams per packet
Specs: Non-GMO, certified Gluten Free, Kosher, certified Vegan, Fair Trade

Tasting Notes: “Sweet.” Unlike the other instant coffees, the Jive Cube is a solid cube of granulated instant coffee and sugar. When mixed with hot water it creates a flavor similar to a cup of coffee with a cube of sugar. The coffee flavor is smooth and mild yet somewhat obscured by the much more pronounced sweetness. (We don’t typically drink our coffee with sugar.)

The Verdict: If you like sugar in your coffee, this kills two birds with one stone.

Where to get it: Amazon

Maxim Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Maxim AGF

Type: ?
Weight: 3 grams

Tasting Notes: “Weak and ineffective.” We don’t know much about this instant coffee – because all the labeling was written in Japanese – but we do know it makes absurdly weak coffee. It tasted like weak coffee flavored tea water, which just wasn’t cutting for us. Even after adding a second packet, it somehow didn’t increase the intensity of the flavor either. There was just more assertive thinness.

The Verdict: If you’re looking for a pick-me-up in the morning, this coffee is guaranteed to disappoint.

Where to get it: Amazon

Mount Hagen Organic Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Mount Hagan

Type: Organic Fair Trade
Weight: 2 grams per packet
Specs: USDA certified organic, Fair Trade

Tasting Notes: “Mellow diner-style coffee.” For a freeze-dried instant coffee, this one did a pretty good job of replicating the taste of classic diner coffee. Based on the packaging they might have been aiming for something more exotic, but we felt this one hit the mark on producing a mellow, well-balanced cup of coffee with a smooth aftertaste.

The Verdict: If we were out on the trail, we would happily look forward to this coffee in the morning.

Where to get it: Amazon, Whole Foods, and even some Walmarts

Trader Joe's Instant Coffee - Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Trader Joe’s

Type: Coffee + Sugar + Creamer
Weight: 12 grams per packet

Tasting Notes: “Sugar and cream with a hint of coffee.” We were not quite sure what to make of the swirl of non-coffee related flavors this packet produced. Lots of sugar, lots of creamer, but we couldn’t seem to locate the coffee in the mix. Again, we usually drink our coffee black so this was all a little much for us. However, we did start to pick up on an unpleasant dairy aftertaste (burnt milk?) that lingered around long after we finished drinking it. We would definitely need to brush our teeth after drinking this out on the trail.

The Verdict: Definitely not for us. But if you take your coffee with sugar and cream, perhaps all that extra nonsense makes sense to you.

Where to get it: The one and only Trader Joe’s.

Voila Instant Coffee - The Best Instant Coffee for Backpacking

Voila

Type: Variety of roasts
Weight: 5 grams

Tasting Notes: “An exceptional cup of coffee. Full stop.” This instant coffee completely blows the competition out of the water. It is hands down the best we’ve ever tried. In fact, it was better that a lot of brewed coffee we’ve purchased from actual coffee shops. We couldn’t believe that such a robust, full-bodied cup of coffee could be produced from a packet. It had a vibrancy and dynamic range to its flavor that puts it on par with a cup of coffee from a local roaster. It’s that good.

The Verdict: This is the one you have been searching for.

Where to get it: Currently fulfilling Kickstarter backers. Check here for more details.

Michael’s Top 5

1. Voila
2. Mt. Hagan
3. Alpine Start
4. Stoked Stix
5. Starbucks

Megan’s Top 5

1. Voila
2. Mt. Hagan
3. Jiva Cube
4. Alpine Start
5. Stoked Stix

 


PIN FOR LATER ⟶

We review 10 single serve instant coffees to find the best instant coffee for backpacking trips.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this review. Honest thoughts from regular folks! I appreciate the feedback as I have been looking for a good instant coffee for camping and for a quick cup on the go.

  2. Thanks for this review. With my kids getting older we are wanting to start down-sizing our equipment. Going are the days of heavy tents , we have found the hammock!...lol....With that being said we are also down sizing the percolator. This list give us a great place to start trying instant coffee to see what we like.....
    Next you should do a review of pack-able creamers......

  3. Good review, very helpful. My opinion: Nescafe 3in1 is the best of all products of that kind, worldwide (hope it is available in the USA...). This is a mix cafe/milk/sugar. You can even 'eat' it without water (perfect in a 'survival' situation). Regards to all.

  4. Thank you guys sooo much!!! We are preparing for a short trip on the AT. One of my biggest worries was "what about my morning coffee?" I now have a couple of new choices for my husband to acquire for our adventure.

  5. This is awesome. I typically prefer to bring my coffee beans and hand grinder when I go camping. But instant coffee certainly could be a good alternative.

    The Voila looks really good. *mouthwatering

  6. This is super helpful, I agree the worst part about backpacking is not having coffee in the morning, and ahem, in the evening too.

  7. i really loved coffee and I oftenly used in Nepal mountain.

  8. Good review, and nice video (I subscribed to your channel too :) ) -- And Voila sounds great.

    Oh and if you're ever in Thailand, pretty much avoid ALL instant coffees in single serving packs as, after 14 years living there, I have yet to find one that's remotely drinkable ;)

  9. hahaha I loved watching the video, your reactions were gold :p I've packed those VIA packets before and every time I end up choosing tea over starbucks. The Jiva Cube and the Viola sound really good! I normally drink my coffee black but a little sugar kick before starting off on a hike might be kinda nice :) You mentioned Bend in the video, did you guys move? If so pretty rad since you seemed to really like that place when you visited it last year!

  10. I'm planning on doing a decent amount of camping this summer, so I'm bookmarking this page! I'm a caffeine addict so this is indispensable!!

  11. This is so great! I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015 and for most of the trail I drank instant coffee. It was more of a way to get me out of my hammock and have something to warm my hands. I eventually became numb to the awful taste of Folgers instant coffee sludge and was envious of anyone who had a Starbucks Via instant coffee. I even met a couple of boys who would take whole beans and wrap them in a handkerchief and smash them with 2 rocks and then use a jetboil French press, but they'd take hours to get out of camp! Needless to say it's the little things that make you happy and a good cup of coffee is essential to my morning ritual. I will have to try the voilà coffee on my next backpacking trip. Life's too short to drink shitty coffee!

    • "Life's too short to drink shitty coffee!" Do sell t-shirts? Coffee mugs? We'll take two please! Also, Folger's Instant for the entire AT? We could barely drink it once on an overnight trip. Good on your for getting through it. But now you've got much better options.

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