Alcohol Stove

The Ultimate in Ultralight Cooking

The alcohol stove is the ultimate in ultralight efficiency. It is efficient in space taking up only inches, it is efficiency in weight, weighing only a fraction of an ounce and it is efficient in fuel taking only a couple of tablespoons to boil a cup of water. Most of all it is efficient in cost because you can make one in 20 minutes at home with things you have around the house—I’ll show you how here.

Efficiency in Space

An alcohol stove can easily be contained in a quart zip close bag. The stove itself is only 1 1/2” tall and 2 1/2” in diameter. Your fuel will take up less space than your water bottle.

Efficiency in Weight

I can’t think of a single backpacking stove that will come in lighter than an alcohol stove. The total weight of my stove is 0.3 ounces and boils a cup of water in 2 minutes at 7400 feet altitude where I live.

Efficient in Fuel

Fuel is impossible for us to estimate accurately here because of variations in cooking style, elevation and other factors. However, I will use my own style as an example. Your mileage will vary. I highly suggest that you "practice" a typical day of how YOU cook on the trail in your backyard in order to get a good estimate for yourself.

Typically, I drink a cup of coffee for breakfast and use about 1/2 cup of water to rehydrate instant oatmeal. (2 cups of water for breakfast) My noon meal does not require cooking as I typically have pita bread or a flour tortilla and some type of protein. (0 cups of water for lunch) For my evening meal, I usually start with a cup of instant soup followed by rehydrating a protein and starch meal. (2-3 cups water for dinner).

This requires (for ME) 4-5 cups of water per day, plus a little additional for washing dishes/bathing. I can easily get by with 3 ounces of fuel per day. And this is probably on the liberal side. Therefore, for a 4 day hiking trip, I can plan on using 12 ounces of fuel, which weighs 1.3 pounds. Add that to my 0.3 ounce stove and my entire cooking system weighs just over 1 1/2 pounds.

Efficient in Cost

How inexpensive is an alcohol stove? How about free—is that cheap enough for you? All you need to build a reliable alcohol stove are two empty cola cans and a small handful of fiberglass insulation. I’ll show you how later on this page.

Disadvantages

Of course, there is no perfect stove. Alcohol stoves do have disadvantages. For instance, the amount of fuel used in an alcohol stove is greater than the amount used in a white gas stove. However, alcohol is carried in a lightweight plastic container and white gas must be carried in heavy metal. Therefore, as you use your fuel throughout your hike, most of the weight of your fuel for an alcohol stove diminishes. You aren’t carrying out a heavy metal container at the end of your hike.

Alcohol stoves do not simmer. If you tend to cook more extravagant meals that require simmering for long periods, this is probably not the best stove for you. This stove is either on or off—there is no in between. The only way to cook more slowly on an alcohol stove is to increase the distance between your pot and the burner, which can be done with creative use of your pot stand. However, this is not the most efficient use of fuel. If you tend to cook dehydrated meals that only require the addition of boiling water, this stove is ideal.

What Kind of Alcohol Do I Use?

This is important. Use either denatured alcohol or greater than 90% isopropyl alcohol. 70% isopropyl alcohol has too high a water-to-alcohol ratio. It will work the first time, maybe even the second. However, with repeated use, the water left in the stove after the alcohol has burned will dilute your fuel to the point of being useless.

You can also use a product called Heet, which can be obtained from most gas stations or auto supply stores. Its primary use is an automobile fuel line antifreeze. It works well in an alcohol stove, is easy to obtain, and only a bit more costly than isopropyl alcohol. If you choose to use Heet, use the one in the YELLOW can. The yellow can of Heet is methanol and it burns cleaner. The red can is the same thing as isopropyl alcohol.

I prefer 99% isopropyl alcohol. I am a big proponent of multi-use items in my backpack. Isopropyl alcohol, unlike Heet, can be used as an antiseptic for injuries or even to clean a water filter hose that has been accidentally contaminated. Further, 90% or greater isopropyl alcohol can be obtained at any local supermarket, pharmacy and many convenience stores. It is the easiest fuel to obtain. The flame burns a little sooty, which doesn’t bother me at all.

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How Do I Make One?

Now that’s easy. Got 20 minutes? Follow these instructions for the easiest alcohol stove construction that I’ve ever seen. Gather your supplies. You will need:

  • Three soda cans
  • A small bit of fiberglass insulation
  • Scissors
  • A thumbtack
  • Sandpaper

(1) Empty the contents of two of the soda cans.

(2) Measure up 1” from the bottom of the can, mark with permanent marker.

HINT: When marking can, hold pen in a stationary position on a stable surface (perhaps a board) 1" above the bottom of the can and spin the can.
Cut around can on line with scissors.
(3) Smooth edges with sandpaper.
(4) Turn one cut can over onto the bottom of the full soda and twist lightly to slightly stretch and smooth the inside upper edge of the cut can.
(5) Place a small amount of fiberglass in the smoothed cut can. This is now the bottom of your stove.
(6) Use thumbtack to puncture several holes in the center bottom of the second cut can. These are the holes that you will use to fill your stove and is the top.
(7) Turn this cut can over and carefully fit inside the bottom of your stove. Use care, this needs to be a smooth fit.
(8) Firmly press these two halves snugly together.
(9) Use thumbtack to pierce evenly spaced holes around the rim of the top of your stove.
The fuel in this stove must be heated in order to begin the vaporization process before lighting the flame. Place your lighter under your stove and heat the fuel for a minute or so.
Set your stove down and light the vapor on top. Place your pot stand over your stove (you can make one of these by bending a wire coat hanger) and cook your dinner.

DONE!!

Never use this stove for cooking inside your tent. And obviously, the stove will be HOT after use. Be sure to let cool before touching it. You assume all risks associated with the construction and use of your own stove.

If you are looking for an economical, lightweight stove to cook simple meals, or even to use as an emergency back-up stove, you have found it. An alcohol burning stove just might be YOUR best stove.

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