Best Canned Beer for Hikers: Taking the Party Outdoors

Sherpa drinking beer
Written by Bradley Page

Have you ever climbed a mountain on a hot day, reached the top covered in dust and sweat, and wished you had an ice-cold beer to wash the trail out of your throat? I have. Quite often, actually. But I rarely pull the trigger. It is a question of logistics.

A transportation and refrigeration problem. And it is a dilemma of choices. If I haul it up a mountain, keep it cold for hours in my pack, it better be the ultimate beverage. The best-canned beer for hikers possible.

Yet the idea sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t want to end a day this way? So, I have done a little research. After all, this is an important question that needs, demands even, an answer.

See also: Best Outdoor Beer Growler: Choosing the Right Growler for You

Conducting research into quality alcoholic beverages is tough but rewarding, a labor of love. It also takes a while. I learned early in the process, this type of work is best accomplished in small doses, over time.

I’m methodical and wanted to at least appear scientific so I devised a method for this landmark study. I am fortunate that a beautiful trail system ends steps from my front door so I have an accessible proving ground. I decided to hike to the same mountain peak at the same time each day and consume twelve ounces of beer.

Temperature can affect the enjoyment of beer so I decided to cool the beer to the same temperature for each hike. And I needed to come up with test beers. A group from which I would choose a champion. This is the trial I conducted.

  • Step One Find Beer to Test
  • Step Two Hike to Top of Mountain
  • Step Three Drink One Beer
  • Step Four Take Careful Notes
  • Step Five Compare Results
  • Step Six Declare a Winner

First, I Took a Poll

I have a lot of friends who love to hike. I also have a lot of friends who love to drink beer. Fortunately, these are the same people. To determine my sample pool, I asked each what their favorite canned beer was while hiking or camping. These are the results

  1. Rainier
  2. Bud Light
  3. Molson Canadian
  4. Coors Light
  5. Labatt Blue
  6. Tecate Light
  7. Heineken
  8. Beck’s
  9. Pabst Blue Ribbon
  10. O’Douls

Not a bad list but not a perfect one either. On the surface, none of these choices stood out to me as a great beer. Something that I would order at the bar or choose at the store while shopping for a big BBQ on a holiday weekend. But this is what my friends drink when they are out in the wild. So, I went with it.

I organized a calendar and randomly drew beers to fill the next ten days.  It seemed the most objective way.  I was excited.  In ten days, I would have the answer.

How Cool is Cool?

Have you ever carried beer up a mountain? It is not very fun. Even one can. The biggest problem is keeping the beer cold. I conducted this experiment in Arizona. Cooling the beer was important. I started off by trying out a few small, soft ice chests. You’ve seen them. Insulated nylon boxes closed with a zipper.

At first, I covered the beer with ice. Great idea. Thirty minutes into my hike I felt cold water running down the back of my leg and into my boot. Not pleasant.  I quickly made a list of possible solutions.

  • Loose Ice
  • Ice in a plastic bag
  • Chemical ice blocks
  • Frozen water bottles

Undeterred, I switched to chemical ice packs. The blue plastic brick kind. No leaking occurred. But no cooling either. I drank the beer but didn’t count it in the study. Back to the drawing board.

To clear my mind, I watched some beach volleyball on television. Suddenly, I saw it. Some shirtless guy in the crowd had what looked like a rod holder slung across his back with a single strap. I looked more closely and made out the words “Bud Light” emblazoned on the side. I grabbed my keys and headed out to the store. I was on a mission.

What I found was a miracle. A testament to the ingenuity of man. One of the world’s most perfect things. It was a cooler in the shape of a long narrow tube. Reinforced insulated nylon. Long enough to hold six beers. It came with a wide strap that does not cut into your chest when fully loaded. The perfect hiking accessory for a canned beer drinker.

After some trial and error I found that loading my beer mortar with one frozen water bottle, followed by one can of beer, and then topped with a second frozen water bottle was the perfect recipe for my needs. The beer was kept icy cold for hours and ergonomically the cooler was a perfect fit for the curvature of my spine. Industrial design at its finest.

I had my refrigeration solution. Now it was time to begin the trial.

The Great Taste Test

Skeptical, I bit the bullet and conducted a taste test. For a few weeks, I laced on my boots, grabbed a day pack, and trekked up the hill. One solo can of amber deliciousness packed securely in my super cooler.

At the summit, I sat on my favorite rock and drank. Big gulps of ale, small sips of pilsner. I drank until the can was empty. Finished, I crumpled the aluminum flat under my heel, dropped it into the pack, and returned home.

Ten beers tested. Ten pages of notes scribbled on my yellow legal pad. I pondered what I had learned, sorting through the merits of each brand, each brew, until I had my answer.

O’Douls is Out

O’Douls is not the best beer to take hiking. There, I said it. If you don’t know, O’Douls is a non-alcoholic beer. It is marketed as premium and it might be. I have no intention of tasting the other non-alcoholic beers available to decide which is at the top of this rather suspect pyramid. I don’t see the point.

When I drink beer, I expect and want the alcohol part. It is intrinsic to the process. I get it if you need this type of beverage in your life. I don’t.

This leaves us with nine other candidates for trail beverage supremacy.  Exciting. I even fashioned a small championship belt out of gold aluminum foil for the victor. It is a pretty big deal after all. But I digress, back to the beer.

Tecate Light is Not Very Good

At my age, I try to learn something new whenever possible. It is the key to staying young and feeling vital. During this experiment I learned I do not like Tecate beer. It did not hold up well to the other contestants.

It was not smooth, not refreshing, and it left a strange aftertaste that stayed with me all the way down the mountain. Ladies and gentlemen, Tecate has been eliminated.

Cheap American Beer is Interchangeable

Bud Light and Coors Light might be the same liquid in different cans. Add water and you get Pabst Blue Ribbon. They are not bad, especially served ice cold on a sunny day. But none are worthy of a title like greatest, or even best.

Rainier falls in the same category. Although distinguishable from its larger cousins, with more body and a sharper finish, Rainier did not set my world on fire. Disappointed, I moved on to the remaining imports.

Pretenders not Contenders

I have to admit, I made short work of the rest of the list. Becks and Heineken were okay. Labatt Blue gave me a headache and Molson did not stand out from the crowd in any exceptional way. Just like that, my quest was over. And I had no clear winner. Nothing to show for my efforts.

The small shiny belt lay lonely on the workbench, no waist to encircle. So, I went to the store.

Canned Beer Has Come a Long Way

Undaunted, I went straight to the subject matter experts. A superstore specializing in alcoholic beverages of all types. And, quite frankly, I was amazed. I marched up to the counter and informed the clerk that I was seeking the finest can of beer in the world to take with me on a hike.

Smiling, he took off down an aisle, little red vest flapping in the wind. In an instant, he returned with a can of Rogue American Amber Ale. I was amazed.

Taking the beer, I wandered in the direction from which he’d come. And that’s when my life changed. I stood gazing at an entire wall of premium brews. Amber Ales. Stouts, IPAs. Any and all types of beer from around the world. IN CANS! I had no idea this existed.

Grabbing a cart, I found ten amazing brews. Quickly, lest something disturb the dream and wake me. Within minutes I had assembled an all-star team of craft libations. Elated I headed home, eager to resume my research.

Quality Does Come in a Can

For the next ten days, I had the time of my life. Each afternoon, I watched the clock, like a child on Christmas morning, waiting for his parents to wake. Precisely at the stroke of three I set off, my metallic companion nestled against my back. I raced up the hill, barely containing my enthusiasm.

And at the top, I claimed my reward. Beer. On a hike. Delicious and refreshing. Everything I had been hoping for.

The time flew by and soon I was at that inevitable point. The day I had been dreading. The end of the beer. I walked a bit slower, trying to extend the joy. Ensconced on my now familiar rock I hesitated before cracking the can open. I trickled the liquid down my throat, savoring every last drop. And then it was over.

Saddened, I strolled back down the path. Thinking about what I had learned and trying to decide the winner.

Once home I came to a startling conclusion. There was no best. No clear champion. I looked at my notes and saw nothing but 5 star ratings. Each beer had impressed me in an equal but distinctive way. Left with no choice, I declared co-champions. Ten of them. Here they are in no particular order.

  • Black Lager New Belgium Brewing Company
  • Pod’s ESB Blue Blood Brewing Company
  • 3 Gear Robust Porter Tin Man Brewing Company
  • Ace IPA Wing Man Brewery
  • Alteration Hops and Grain Brewery
  • American India Red Ale Black Shirt Brewing Company
  • Winter Warmer San Tan Brewing Company
  • Halcyon Unfiltered Wheat Tallgrass Brewing Company
  • Driftwood Ale Montauk Brewing Company
  • Bodacious Bock Wildwood Brewing Company

Then I took another look at my data.  One entry was written in a more authoritative style.  More exclamation points and double underlined superlatives. There was a clear winner.

Winter Warmer from San Tan Brewery

Dark and rich, this is the way a beer is meant to be.  Full bodied with notes sweetness and citrus.  It finishes with some spice.  Perfect for my tastes and perfect on my now familiar rock.  It did not blow away the rest of the field but for me it was the right choice.  Too bad it is a limited release.  Finally, the contest was over.

Even Better Ways to Enjoy a Can of Quality Ale

Excited to share my new-found wisdom I called a friend to arrange a group hike along a local river. The night before I carefully filled my water bottles and popped them in the freezer. The next morning I loaded my sling/cooler and headed out. Soon I was joking with my friends, secretly waiting to unveil my surprise. Cold canned quality beer!

We headed out. I noticed my friend had a large daypack but thought little of it. An hour in we reached the river and I turned south to follow its bank. My friend hung back, fiddling with his pack. I watched him pull out a mesh bag containing several cans of a high-end IPA.

Smiling, he dropped the bag into the river and tied it off to a tree with some light line. The lazy river swirled around his beer, chilled from the snow melt.

I was impressed. By the time we returned to that spot the beers were ice cold. Much colder than mine, consumed at the turnaround with little fanfare in the face of this new development.

Don’t Like Beer? Have a Margarita

In the time since I conducted my study I have been much more aware of what people are drinking on the trail. I have seen wine in re-purposed plastic bottles. Schnapps in hip flasks. And even a margarita in a steel insulated cup. To be honest, it was pretty good.

Plenty of options exist for those that do not care for barley and hops. And sometimes even a beer drinker feels like a change of pace.  Here are my favorite alternative alcoholic drinks while out in the woods.

In Cold Weather

  • Fireball Whiskey
  • Irish Coffee
  • Peppermint Schnapps

For Sunny Days

  • White Wine
  • Sangria
  • Mojito

To Stiffen Your Spine

  • Bourbon
  • Rum
  • Vodka

Hike Responsibly

It goes without saying that I am making the assumption that hikers and campers are drinking alcohol responsibly.  This is the reason I tested a single can each day.  There is nothing worse than getting in over your head on the trail.  Except maybe trying to drive home after having a few in the woods.

That’s why designated drivers are my favorite hiking partners.

A Life Lesson Learned

What I learned through this process was more important than simply discovering the best beer. I discovered that amazing beer now comes in cans. This has never happened before, in the entire history of beer drinking.

Cans have always been for the value suds. The mass producers and international distributors. The really good stuff was bottle only. No exceptions. But that has definitely changed. For the better.

Check out: LNT Principles: A Backpacker’s Guide to Leaving No Trace

Think of the freedom this grants. Those no glass bottle signs? Who cares? My hefeweizen is in a can. And you can take a can anywhere. The beach, the river, even a national park. Everywhere!

Let’s face it, cans are better than bottles in the wilderness. Sure, the real connoisseurs can taste the can in their winter bock. But I can’t. Cans are durable. Highly droppable. Cans are easy to pack out. Crushed, they take up almost no room. Cans are fun to shoot. They don’t make a mess when hit. The container was never the problem. It was the contents.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this selection process was heavily influenced by my own personal taste. 

See more tips on camping safety in our earlier must-read article – do check it out!

Featured Image Source: “Sherpa Drinking Beer at Renjo La Pass (5,345m), Nepal” by terbeck is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Bradley Page

With several decades of experience as a backpacker and outdoor adventurer, Bradley is an open encyclopedia when it comes to gear, clothes, and other items that matter on the trail. He tested hundreds of shoes, pants, jackets, and backpacks in his long career and is always up to date with the new appearances in the niche. His experience makes him one of the authority figures in backpacking and he can help anyone to get prepared for a great adventure!