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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Unmentionable "I" word (when it comes to camping)

Yes, my friends, it's time to talk about "instant" foods.

First, let's talk about coffee. Coffee drinking/drinkers on bicycle camping/touring expeditions can be neatly broken into three categories:

  1. Coffee drinkers who want quality coffee and will take the necessary steps to make coffee on tour.
  2. Coffee drinkers who don't want to take the necessary steps to make coffee on tour so they'll drink instant.
  3. Coffee drinkers who don't want to be encumbered by such trivialities like stoves so they'll buy hot coffee where they can find it.
Obviously I fall within the first category, because I know that option 2 is heresy and option 3 doesn't necessarily ensure "good" coffee. (Have you tried drinking the swill they call "coffee" in some places?) But even as a cheapskate coffee snob, I can think of reasons why one might take instant coffee with them even if they are going to make real coffee:
  • Sometimes you run out of your regular coffee.
  • Or maybe you have a little bit of hot water left over from your other cooking and you still want a little more coffee but don't feel like going through the process of making regular coffee.
  • Or sometimes it's the warm part of the middle of the day, and you want a little caffeine pick-up but don't necessarily want hot coffee nor feel like pulling out your camping kit. (This is what I generally use instant for.)
You can get a bottle of generic instant coffee at any market pretty much anywhere in the world. But I tend to take little packets o' instant because it packs so small. So far there have been three different types of instant that I've used and thought were oo-kay.

The first one is made and marketed by a ubiquitous chain of coffee shops. So ubiquitous that I don't feel like I need to mention their name (nor do I want to give that evil beast any more promotion than I already am giving them.) Their instant coffee is marketed under a name that begins with "V". (Hint: it's the same name as Canada's national passenger rail provider.) You don't even have to go to the non-named store to buy these packets, REI sells 'em. This particular type of instant tastes the closest to real coffee you can get for "just add water" powder, so this is the one most commonly used by the category 2 folks. And I've tried it and think it's okay. The major downside is the cost: it generally breaks down to $1.00 a packet, which gets you about 8 ounces of coffee. Good idea for a night or two, but if you're going out for several nights you'll be spending a lot. Getting a cheap Melitta cone filter with ground coffee will be more economical.

The next one is found at everyone's favorite place to get Two-Buck Chuck, Trader Joes. Just saw this last week and decided to give it a shot. It's also okay, somewhere between East Coast Diner Style coffee and Nescafe. And the sugar and creme is already mixed in, so it's great if you like your coffee "all dressed." A lot cheaper than the above option: 2 bucks gets you a box of 10 packets. But each packet only makes a 6 oz cup, if you have the coffee consumption like I do you'll be going through these packets pretty fast.

The last option that I've tried is Java Juice. It's not truly "instant" as it is liquid coffee extract. Because of this, it does make an adequate cup. The big drawback is its price: $1.50 a packet which makes a 12 oz cup.

There are plenty of  "just add water" options out there when it comes to food. Go to REI, MEC, or any camping supply store and you'll find a big selection of dehydrated food meals. Of course none of them taste that great (though when you've ridden all day you'll eat anything) and they are pretty pricey: anywhere from $4 to $8 per packet which supposedly "serves two" but it's really more like one. We've stuck to the soup mixes you can get in the bulk bins at food co-ops and natural food markets, the likes made by Fantastic Foods. Of course, this gets boring after awhile, as the selection rarely varies from Corn Chowder, Black Bean Soup, and Lentil Curry Soup.

But there is one instant offering that I don't get bored of: beans. Yep, you can buy a can of beans anywhere, but cans o' beans are bulky or heavy. But you can get instant beans, either black or refried. I tend to stick with the refried, which tastes suspiciously like the type you'd get at Taco Bell. Dress it up with a little nutritional yeast, avocado, tomato, meat or meat substitute, and serve with tortillas, you've got yourself tacos or burritos! Fry up some eggs or tofu in the morn and you've got breakfast burrito material! Once I discovered dehydrated beans it's become a staple of my camping food selection.

For someone's take on instant mashed potatoes, check out this post from Velo Hobo.


  1. Reading this post makes me glad to be a tea drinker as it sure saves a lot of effort.

    The refried beans are a great idea. Fantastic Foods also makes a pretty decent Falafel mix that I have used when camping. I pan fry the falafel balls rather than deep fry them, though.

    1. Ah, I figured one of you smug tea drinkers would pipe in on the comments! I almost was going to say something about it in the main post. ;-)

      Still, you need to bring a way to boil water, even for tea. Some "minimalists" eschew the stove, so they can't even do tea.

      And I usually carry a couple bags o' caffeine free black tea in the kit, in case I want a hot beverage at night but don't want the caffeine of coffee.

    2. I pleased not to disappoint you.

      I don't think I could camp for any more than a very short period without a stove or some sort of fire making ability.

  2. "Ah, I figured one of you smug tea drinkers would pipe in on the comments! "

    Be careful now....LOL! :p

    The DC

  3. I'm one of the heretics that can go without fresh coffee whilst camping as long as my instant is as thick as tar! But, try and get me under canvas, after a days cycling, without an Islay single-malt and I can stack a hissy that the most petulant schoolgirl would be proud of. We all have our weakness :-)

    1. Heretic!

      (This Islay stuff sounds interesting.)

  4. When I've been camping in the past (sans bike) I've usually been to the Chinese supermarket and bought a big stack of packets of instant noodles. I'd definitely do the same on a bike tour.

    1. Yeah, instant noodles are good.
      But Dr. C, didn't you see the last post that mentioned Dr. Who and also mentioned you?

    2. I love how this post has revealed all the tea drinkers and heretics.

  5. As for instant coffee...the key is too try to only buy ones that list using Arabica beans vs robusta. The former is what you typically get at all good coffee shops and the latter is why instant coffee has a bad name.

    One of my favorite instant coffee brands is Nescafe dark (sorry I bought it in the Netherlands and cannot find it here so far).

    The other option is Asian supermarkets. Vietnamese instant coffee is better than US but still robusta. It might even include creamer or ginseng. :)

  6. One more option. Read reviews on the Aeropress coffee maker by Aerobie. Incredible.

    1. Anon 9/12/12: The Aeropress has been mentioned in the original post about camp coffee:

      Maybe someday I'll try it, but right now I have too many coffee gadgets.


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