Great coffee is … essential. To me, it’s up there with fire, water, and shelter. And honestly, I’d often take it over shelter. But when you travel, whether home to your parents or on a long-distance flight, it can be hard to get the good stuff. Here’s what you need to bring—and brew—your own.
What to Look for in Your Travel Coffee Gear
There’s a lot of stuff that claims to be travel coffee gear out there, but not all of it is particularly useful or good. Whatever option you decide to go with, make sure it’s up to scratch.
Also, it’s worth noting that travel coffee gear is inherently a bit ridiculous. Coffee is one of the most important crops in the world. It’s available everywhere. I’m not sure I’ve ever been somewhere I absolutely couldn’t get a coffee. Bringing the equipment required to brew your own requires a special kind of caffeine addiction. With that said … good travel coffee gear should be:
- Able to Brew Better Than What You Can Buy: There is zero point lugging a kettle and big tin of cheap instant coffee with you unless you’re truly going off the grid. Airplane coffee is barely drinkable, but it is still drinkable. Unless you know you’re going to be able to brew something significantly better than, say, the average gas station coffee, it’s probably not worth packing.
- Compact: More than anything, travel coffee gear needs to pack down small. No one is going to sit beside you silently on a train or plane if you’re taking out a giant Mochamaster to brew. Similarly, you want it to fit easily in a carry-on bag or other small backpack. You’re not looking for the best coffee setup of all time, but a good travel one.
- Lightweight: As long as your coffee gear is compact, it should also be reasonably lightweight, but it’s still worth considering. You need to be able to throw your brewing gear in a bag and forget about it—not develop lower back pain.
- Durable: On the subject of throwing your gear in a backpack, it also needs to be durable. Look for plastic and high-quality metal gear, not glass. You don’t want someone bumping into you on the subway to shatter your carafe—and your dreams of good coffee.
- Easy to Use: You can almost always get boiling water and a paper cup wherever you are. You can’t count on a lot else. Whatever travel coffee gear you bring, it shouldn’t be a lot of hassle to use.
- Just Make Coffee: I’ve yet to see someone successfully make a latte on a cross-country road trip. Any travel coffee gear is just going to make straight-up black coffee. If you’re looking for cappuccinos or other milk drinks, the nearest Starbucks will always be your best option.
So, with all that said, let’s dive in and look at some of the best travel coffee gear—as well as my personal travel kit.
The Obvious: Great Instant Coffee
Instant coffee gets a bad rap—for a good reason. Traditionally, it’s been made with low-quality ingredients, especially cheap robusta coffee beans, resulting in a really low-quality end product. Now though, there’s been a move towards high-end, single-serve, instant coffee sachets made with good quality Arabica beans—like what you get in a good café—for people on the go. Sure, it’s still freeze dried, but it doesn’t taste like muck.
Starbucks’ own Via Instant Colombian coffee is worth a look if you’re a fan of (or can tolerate) its coffee. It’s roughly equivalent in quality to an Americano from one of its cafés.
But, to my mind, the best instant coffee going is Waka Coffee’s instant coffee. It’s smooth, easy to drink, and way better than anything from a vending machine. You just add 8 oz of hot water, stir, and enjoy.
Or, if you’re a real coffee addict, double up.
The Weird: Single Use Pour-Over
I’m a huge fan of pour-over at home, so I was pretty delighted when I found out I could brew it on the go, too.
The Treeline Geo is a single-use, paper, pour-over filter. To use it, you open it up, hang it from your cup, and slowly pour 8 oz of hot water over the real, non-freeze-dried, ground coffee beans. Bam! Stash a few in your bag, and you’ve got near-instant better-than-instant coffee.
The Capsule Option: Wacaco Nanopresso
If you like your coffee like Tom Cruise (short and strong), there are still ways to get it on the go. Portable espresso makers struggle to get the pressure necessary for a true espresso, but they get close enough in a pinch.
The Wacaco Nanopresso is the best of them (check out our full roundup here). It can brew espresso with either ground coffee or, even more conveniently, Nespresso pods. You pour hot water into the top chamber and then, with a good bit of pumping, force it through the coffee to brew something approximating an espresso. Everything’s self-contained, so cleanup is a cinch, too.
A Great Travel Mug
If you’re brewing coffee on the go, you don’t actually want an insulated thermos that will keep it too hot to drink. You can get by with a regular KeepCup or something similar, but if you’re going over the top, a hardwearing, heat-resistant, titanium camp mug fits the bill perfectly.
This one from Toaks holds just under 15 ozs. It’s got a gradiated scale, which is handy for measuring out hot water. And, because it’s made of titanium, it’s lightweight and can take a beating.
The Best Travel Brewer: AeroPress
Just ignore everything but the brewer. That’s what I do. AeroPress
The AeroPress is the best way to brew real fresh coffee on the go. Hell, the AeroPress is one of the best ways to brew real fresh coffee at home—it’s just a bonus that it’s plastic lightweight construction makes it super portable. (You can even get an end cap so you can store stuff in the middle of it.)
With the AeroPress, you put a filter in the holder, screw it onto the brewer, place it over a mug, add ground beans, then add hot water and use the piston to push it through the “puck” of coffee—in the end, a perfect mug of coffee.
The AeroPress is definitely the most involved option on the list, but it’ll repeatedly deliver the best results. Personally, I bring mine with me whenever I travel. I’ve used it out in the wilderness, on trains, and in hotel rooms. There are even people who’ve used it mid-flight—although that’s probably a step too far.
The Best Travel Grinder: Knock Aergrind
To make a great cup of coffee, you really need to grind the beans fresh. Pre-ground beans have more surface area, so they oxidize (and go stale) faster. If you’re prepared to go totally overboard, you can get a portable travel coffee grinder.
If you’re bringing an AeroPress, the best travel grinder is the Knock Aergrind. It’s specially designed to store in the barrel of an AeroPress, so it won’t take up any extra space. Because it’s a hand grinder, you do have to put in a bit of work for the conical burrs to do their magic—but the pay off is totally worth it.
If the Aergrind is a bit pricy, there are cheaper options out there like the Hario Mini Slim Pro. It just won’t stow as nicely.
The Best Travel Scale: American Weigh Scales Blade
To consistently make great coffee, you need to use the right ratio of ground beans to water. A small scale is the ultimate overkill your travel coffee set up needs.
We like the American Weigh Scales Blade. It’s just 3.8-inch by 3.8-inch by 0.8-inch and accurate to a tenth of a gram. It’ll fit in your pocket and weigh your beans perfectly.
A Way to Store Coffee: Film Canisters
If you’re bringing your own coffee, you need a way to keep it safe. For all the containers and ziplock bags I’ve tried, the best thing I’ve found is super simple: film canisters. They’re cheap, lightweight, waterproof, and best of all, hold an easily measured dose of coffee—about 13g of whole beans, a little more of grounds—so you can brew consistently without a scale. Here’s a 50-pack for next to nothing.