"I'm convinced that more craft breweries are canning so that I can get their beer into the woods easily, not because it's sustainable," jokes Steve Hitchcock, founder and executive director of UpaDowna. The local nonprofit and Indy Give! beneficiary, which focuses on empowering individuals through outdoor adventures, gets its name from the common practice of enjoying a drink after a hike, hence: "Up a mountain, down a beer."
As Hitchcock suggests, you need not wait to get home for that satisfying sip. So we consulted with the man, who also writes beer and gear reviews at UpaDowna, on the goods necessary to conveniently saddle our suds into the great outdoors.
All equipment picks below, as well as the strategies expressed, are Hitchcock's; I simply played the role of drinking buddy, later gathering the respective product specs and elaborating on the craft connoisseur's rugged ramblings.
Before anyone's beer gets warm, let's get to it — first with some general rules of thumb, next with specific shopping items, and last with a few hypothetical drink itineraries.
First question: Is your sojourn in the frontcountry or backcountry? If you're just car-camping or float-tripping, your limitations are few. You can haul coolers, plug into generators or dashboard cigarette lighters, and buy any bottle of sauce you desire, sans concern over its dimensions, weight or material structure. You're practically at home, so you won't earn any sexy points for being gourmet here, but yes, we would like a sip of your seven-ingredient cocktail served in real glassware, with ice, next to your barbecued whatnot.
In the backcountry, if you don't hoof it in yourself you won't have it, unless you score sage, mint or another infuser while foraging. (Bring an edible-plant guide if you're a newbie.) Pack weight acts as your master, and creativity will be limited by what you're willing to carry without risking pack rash, blisters or being that guy constantly making your friends wait for you to catch up.
Reminder: If you are that guy, you aren't sharing your hard-earned campfire refreshment with anyone who busts your chops too hard.
A key question to ask before packing is if you're drinking, and thereby dividing weight, as a group, or if your journey is an every-lush-for-herself jaunt. Especially if the former, strategize your drink needs as you plan your food menus, and seek redundant ingredients for maximum efficiency.
For example, if you're going to have a taco night, bring cayenne pepper that could also inform a vodka-based hot chocolate. Citrus fruit will lend both grub and liquids a freshness much appreciated when days into dried-food rations. A whole separate article could be penned on coffee gadgetry under the stars, so we won't delve in too far here, but suffice to say mini Bailey's or Kahlúa bottles make for easily packable and pourable java boosters, fireside.
And powdered anything will be your best friend (see "Powdered Alcohol 101" on p. 27). Powdered milk or cream informs everything from breakfast granola to coffee to a creamy cocktail. Many commercial electrolyte blends can carry spirit flavors as readily as they'll dilute in your water bottle, delivering the one-two punch of hydrator by day, enabler by night. Tang, for example, satisfies when cold, hot or spirit-loaded. (I had a buddy who wished they'd make a prune flavor. You'll get that joke later ... sound it out.)
Frontcountry camping is literally littered with portable options for everything, but backcountry voyages tend to rely on a niche market of gourmands gone wild. These are just some of the products UpaDowna has tested thus far, from companies aiming squarely at hopheads, oenophiles and hooch hounds.
• Hydro Flask (hydroflask.com) sells wide-mouth, double-wall, vacuum-insulated bottles that maintain heat for 12 hours or a chill for 24. Twelve- to 40-ounce sizes run $24 to $35, but most awesome is the 64-ounce Hydro Flask Growler, at around $50. It does weigh a little over a pound and a half (a lot, in pack terms), but holds nearly a six-pack's worth of brew and is "designed principally to keep beer chilled, carbonated and optimally contained between destinations." Once empty, use it as a community water or coffee jug.
• Innate (innate-gear.com) gifts the world a stainless steel Saison Beer Sleeve (around $15) that weighs just under half a pound and sports the same insulation specs as Hydro Flask's. A lid would turn one into a handy tumbler, but you could buy two with the idea of pouring between them for mixing, sans stirring rod. As with other insulated vessels, the nice part is not having your hand get hot or cold when holding, or having it affect the drink's temperature.
• Stanley (stanley-pmi.com) vends yet another array of insulated bottles ranging from 16 ounces to larger-than-quart sizes ($25 to $50) that also keep liquids hot or cold for long hours. But take special note of its 7- or 8-ounce flasks ($15 to $28) in either recycled plastic or stainless steel models. Features include a wide mouth for filling and an "integrated lanyard" so you won't lose your cap like a dumb-ass.
• GSI Outdoors (gsioutdoors.com) could almost be your one-stop shop with its thoughtful product line. The stainless steel or BPA-free Copolyester wine and martini glasses (around $12) are probably more frontcountry, but its 25-ounce plastic Highland Fifth Flask (around $10) flattens and rolls up, adding only 1.2 ounces to your bulk. The Soft Sided Wine Carafe (around $10) holds the same quantity, with a cool "cork embellishment" on its cap adding just a tenth of an ounce of burden. "The bota bag steps into the 21st century," reads the tag line. Traditionally, the Spanish constructed those using goatskin with horn nozzles; we're glad to skip the whole curing and hide-sewing process.
Lastly, GSI also makes a hand-crank JavaMill coffee grinder (around $30) for punishment gluttons averse to pre-powdering their caffeine, and a hand-crank, 50-ounce Vortex Blender (around $100) weighing in at 4 pounds, 12 ounces — maybe just light enough for an overnight adventure.
• Pat's Backcountry Beverages (patsbcb.com), of Golden, sells "nearly waterless" beer concentrates (a black IPA and a pale ale; around $10/four-pack, each pouch weighing 2.1 ounces), which require activator packets (12 for around $6) and a Carbonator Bottle (around $30) to bring beer into the beyond more efficiently.
Walk this way
Drink and thereby pack your bag to suit your own tastes. Each person's rations should represent him or her as a unique little snowflake in the world. But consider this advice:
• As your trip time increases, so should the ABV of the beverage you're bearing; beer obviously offers the least punch-by-the-pound. An overnight, or maybe a two-day trek, will be the only time we'll ever consider slogging glass beers into the backcountry, mainly because of the wider variety offered and ability to get into some great specialty bombers. Cans are welcomed, too, and will crush down for easy pack-out. Camp near a stream for natural refrigeration. Enjoy a spirit neat, transferred into one of the above flasks — no need to conserve when you'll be home in the morrow.
• If you must have beer on a trip that's longer than a couple of days, purchase Pat's products above. Otherwise, for ventures in the three- to five-day range, start doubling your ABV with your favorite vino transferred into the GSI carafe; oxidation will begin, but you'll have a few days to enjoy. You can also buy existing box or bag wine; some creative campers have been known to blow the empty bags up to double as pillows. Haul spirits in with the larger bottles or collapsible plastic containers, all of which can hold water later.
• For trips five to seven days or longer, you'd be a beast to bring beer, and likely even vino, for anything other than Night 1, considering your terrain and potential altitude gain. Let's just say the majority of level-headed forest wanderers will look to spirits alone for their backcountry buzzes. Again, transport wisely, rely heavily on powders as mixers, and be thinking about that ingredient redundancy. Sample pairings: bourbon or vodka lemonade; Tang and rum; whiskey and coffee; and tequila with lime and honey. On an earlier night or morning, serve The Wake Up Call (recipes online), made with vodka, coffee, triple sec and milk.
Powdered Alcohol 101
You've likely heard the hubbub about the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's decision not to green-light Palcohol, a powdered alcohol product, with legislators calling for Food and Drug Administration intervention as well.
Welcome to America — the land where our cohorts will snort all things powder, apparently. But, it happens to also be the land of DIYers who're more than happy to satisfy their own needs when the leadership acts like the ones crazed by wowie-sauce.
While compiling this feature, Hitchcock and I ran into Blue Star Group chef Andrew Sherrill, who shared with us a method for powdering your own booze for the backcountry, also recently featured by Popular Science.
The recipe is based around a brand of tapioca maltodextrin called N-Zorbit, which quite simply absorbs the liquid into its powder form. It's available at willpowder.net and modernistpantry.com. The recipe works like this:
Place 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of N-Zorbit in a mixing bowl and slowly whisk in 30 grams (1.05 ounces) of your drink of choice until it's completely absorbed. Then pass the clumpy powder through a sieve for a finer consistency. If making a larger batch, use a blender instead.
Warning: When using 100-plus-proof booze, this powder will be extremely flammable.
Bonus recipe: To the Lemon Hart 151-proof rum suggested by the Popular Science writer, Sherrill suggests adding powdered fruit punch mix before reconstituting with water, to make a packable Mai Tai.
— Matthew Schniper