“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
~ Luciano Pavarotti (Opera Singer, Gourmet, Avid Hiker)
Canister. Liquid fuel. Wood-burning. Solid fuel-tablets.
There are no shortage of choices when it comes to backpacking stoves.
For an overview of the options available, see Backpacking Stoves: How to Choose on REI.com.
For the purposes of this article I will focus solely on alcohol stoves.
Uber-light, functional, no maintenance, low volume; if any piece of equipment encapsulates the simplistic essence of lightweight backpacking, it is the homemade alcohol stove.
A trip down memory lane
When I began backpacking in the late 1980’s, I used a Simon Stove – a small and sturdy stainless steel cooker that ran on denatured alcohol. Sometime around 1995, I made the switch to an MSR Whisperlite, a multi-fuel stove which could run on practically anything and seemed perfectly suited for my travels in developing countries; where options for camping stove fuels are often limited.
After using the Whisperlite for the best part of a decade, in search of a lighter weight alternative, I came full circle and once again began using an alcohol stove. This time around it was a homemade, uber lightweight (9 gr /0.32 oz) Pepsi can model.
How do they work?
- Put in the fuel & light up.
- Wait for the blue flames to come out of the “jets” or “holes” around the rim of the stove.
- Place the pot directly on the stove or on a pre-made stand; bring the water to a boil.
- Add the food; stir (make sure the pot is steady) until the flame extinguishes.
- Put the lid on the pot and let it sit for about 10 minutes (giving it a stir after 5 minutes).
- For purposes of insulation, it helps to put your pot in a cozy; a wonderfully simple invention made of either lightweight foil or closed cell foam, which cuts down on both cooking time and fuel required.
What fuel to use?
Denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) can be found in most hardware and camping stores. In the United States, it is also common to use gas line antifreeze (e.g.HEET). In developing countries, the situation can sometimes be a bit trickier, but once you know what it’s called in the local terminology, there should not be a problem finding fuel. See the following link for a list of International Fuel names: http://fuel.papo-art.com/
No simmering or temperature adjustment
For some hikers this is the primary negative associated with alcohol stoves. Your culinary options are thus limited to easy-to-prepare items that require little in the way of cooking. Possibly not the best option for “gourmet” hikers.
Alcohol stoves are generally less fuel-efficient than other stoves, which means you will have to carry a little more fuel than you normally would. That being said, I have found the difference to be negligible in relation to the weight saved by the actual stove itself. In addition, by utilizing a pot cozy once the flame has extinguished, you go some way in negating any weight disadvantage caused by the stoves comparative lack of efficiency.
Altitude / Cold
I have successfully used my pepsi can stove at altitudes above 5000 m (16,404 ft) and in temperatures well below freezing. Note that in extremely cold weather, your boiling times will be a little slower.
How much fuel? How long to boil?
About 1 ounce (28 millilitres) is generally enough to boil half a litre of water. A little more when the water is colder. Boiling time for 0.5 litres (16.9 fluid oz) is between three and four minutes.
Buy or make it yourself?
Personal choice. They are relatively simple to make using recyclable materials. Alternatively, buy them online from companies such as Anti Gravity Gear, who have the alcohol stove making process down to a science.
The simplest alcohol stove model can be made in a matter of minutes. All you need is an empty tuna can and a paper hole punch. Justin “Trauma” Lichter, author of the backpacking book Trail Tested, describes the three step process as follows:
- Empty and clean out the can.
- Using the hole punch, make a ring of evenly spaced holes a little below the can’s rim.
- Below these holes, punch out another ring of holes that are slightly offset from the upper ring. The finished product should resemble the tuna can equivalent of a brick wall!
If you are interested in other alcohol stove designs, see the following sites for step-by-step instructions: zenstoves.net & royrobinson.homestead.com. The former site also includes instructions on how to make your own pot cozy.
Other than the weight, or lack thereof, the thing I like most about alcohol stoves is the sheer simplicity of design. Unlike other stoves, you never have to worry about mechanical parts clogging, malfunctioning or breaking. All of these factors equate to one less thing you need to worry about whilst out in the wilderness.