Why Every Backpacker Should Build an Alcohol Stove

Little satisfies quite like the accomplishment of building your own piece of backpacking gear.  That holds especially true for something that works well.  It wouldn't be very worthwhile to build something, no matter the cost, if it didn't accomplish what you set out for, right?

But in the way of backpacking equipment, the camp stove is such an easy build with so little investment of time and money that it really is absolutely essential that every backpacker out there at least give it a chance.
The Upgraded Cat Food Can Stove

Before we get started, first let me point out that the alcohol stove will deliver everything you need for a successful night out on the trail.  But it may not be everything you want.  For one, if you're the kind of backpacker that enjoys the simplicity of quick fix dehydrated meals, then this stove is for you.

If I could do it all over again, I'd save all the money and time I've invested in manufactured camp stoves and put all that toward equipment that will extend my backpacking season - like under quilts, tarps or cold weather gear.  The most enjoyable part of backpacking for me is just being out there.  And if with those saved dollars I can extend my season that's a huge win.

Here's the shakedown...  Even the simplest of Alcohol Stoves will deliver some amazing meals.  Manufacturers like Mountain House, Backpackers Pantry and Packet Gourmet make very affordable and fabulous tasting meals that come to life with Boiling Water only.  And I'm talking meals like Texas State Fair Chili, Spaghetti with meat Sauce, Beef Stew and Scrambled Egg Tortillas.  Those companies have put all the work in ahead of time so that with minimal effort you can enjoy a really satisfying meal.

And for folks like me who just have to have their coffee in the morning, the alcohol stove gets that does with ease as well. Whether I'm in the mood for French Press or Instant Coffee, I'm about 8 minutes away from bliss.  Now, it is true that canister stoves like the MSR series or Jet Boil Product Line will all beat the pants off your little alcohol stove in terms of how fast they can boil water.  But in the end I'm betting you won't miss those 4-5 minutes extra you'll have to wait.  We're out in the woods to enjoy the sights, sounds and peace anyway, right?  I promise you just won't miss those few extra minutes.

The homemade camp stove is no secret.  In fact there are probably 100 videos on You Tube showing you exactly how to make your own.  I'm here to reinforce WHY you should.  It's easy to get excited about some of those latest products and although I am in favor of supporting cottage vendors, I'd rather do it with equipment that I just can't build on my own.

A very reliable, lightweight, low cost camp stove is just so simple to make that I don't see a lot of benefit in buying a manufactured stove.  Even if there was a stove out there that could boil my water in under three minutes, I'm fine with waiting the extra time and in all likelihood, I'm having such great time out in the woods I won't even notice anyway.

Here are two versions of that super simple stove I'm talking about.  With $5-$20 in your wallet and a trip to the store you can build either of these in under the time it takes to read this blog post.  Note: To keep costs down to about $3, build the Simple Stove first.  Take it out for a few test runs then if you want, build the upgrade later.

Let's get to it!  Here's what you'll need:

Simple Stove:

  • Tools 
    • One Hole Paper Punch
    • Black Sharpie [not super necessary but helpful]
  • One Fancy Feast Cat Food Can
  • Fuel - Denatured Alcohol or HEET in the Yellow Bottle

Instructions:

1) For the Simple Stove, grab any Fancy Feast Cat Food Can.  Empty the contents, remove the label and rinse with water.  There will be some glue residue on the outside of the can.  No worries to remove it all.  It will burn off in time.
2) With the lid peeled off, there may be a relatively sharp edge on the inside of the can. You can knock that down using the back of a butter knife but no need to spend a lot of time there.
3) Now we'll prepare to cut holes in the can to allow the flame out around our boil pot.  To do that you'll need that sharpie.  A few things before we lay out the holes.  
          First, it isn't rocket science so there's no need to worry if they aren't all symmetrical or all in perfect alignment.  If that's your thing then by all means, but just a heads up that you haven't got to be super technical here for a great functioning stove.  
          Second, the one thing that is critical is that the holes are placed just under the top rim.  That's a 3oz can and we'll be placing 1oz of fuel in it so keep those holes up high to keep the fuel from spilling out.
Using the sharpie to lay out the holes isn't critical either but if you have one laying around it's not a bad idea.  With the marker in hand, think of the cat food can as an analog clock.  You'll be laying out holes at 6 o'clock, 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock.  Make sense?  Once those four are laid out, then just add the other hour marks so that you have 12 equally spaced on the can.
4) Using your single hole punch just punch out the holes in the can.  The holes will punch out with a little extra effort and you'll have to fiddle a little to get the hole puncher back out of the hole you made but with a little effort you'll soon have 12 holes in the can.
5) Now you can stop there or you can punch a second row of holes like I did here -->.  I haven't boil tested one set of holes versus two sets but odds are it makes no appreciable difference.

So there you have it.  Pretty simple and super, super low cost.  

Now it's time to try it out.  One very important thing to remember when using this stove: Never cook food directly over the flame unless you are using drinking alcohol as fuel.  Fuels such as denatured alcohol and HEET will deposit toxins on you food. So, no s'mores or hot dogs with this method of cooking.  For those, just light a campfire.  That's more fun anyway.

With the stove on a heat resistant surface [not like me above!!] pour approximately one ounce of fuel in the can.  This amount of fuel should last about 9 minutes and will bring 2 cups of water to boil in most circumstances.  Ignite the fuel with a match, flint striker or other then let it burn for about 30 seconds.  Most fuels will burn blue so they can be a little difficult to see in the sunlight.  Once it's lit and burning, you will notice that after about 30 seconds the fuel will begin to boil ever so slightly.  That's good.  Now it's time to place your pot [filled with water] on top.

Troubleshooting:
1)  Stove/Flame Going Out - Be sure to wait that 30 seconds or so before placing the pot on the stove. And be sure to lower it slowly so the flame doesn't get snuffed out.  It takes a little practice.  Have fun with it an be patient.  After a few tries you'll have it down.
2)  Fuel consumed before Boil - Usually one ounce of fuel does the trick but in windy or super cold temps it can take longer, i.e. more fuel.  One thing to do to maximize efficiency is to keep the stove protected from the wind.  You can buy or build a windscreen which will cut down on boil time.

Upgraded Stove:
  • Tools
    • Hacksaw
    • Scissors
    • Measuring Tape
  • One Fancy Feast Cat Food Can
  • One Tomato Paste Can
  • Soldering Cloth aka Carbon Felt [Home Depot/Lowes/Ace Hardware]
  • Fuel - Denatured Alcohol or HEET in the Yellow Bottle 
Building this stove is almost easier than the basic stove but it does cost a few more dollars.  The biggest investment is the Soldering Cloth which can run about $15 for a 6"x10" sheet.

Instructions:

Clean out the cat food can as stated above.  Repeat with the Tomato Paste Can.  For this stove, the Fancy Feast Can is a must to use.  There are other similar cat food cans but the tomato paste can fits perfectly in the Fancy Feast.

Once both cans are cleaned out grab your measuring tape and measure the inside height of the cat food can then add one inch.  Transfer that measurement to the tomato paste can and using the marker, scribe that line all the way around the can.  Cut on that line either with a hacksaw or a strong pair of kitchen shears.  It's important to keep that cut very straight.  The additional one inch measurement is not super critical but you'll want to be close to that over or under.

Now, taking the measuring tape, measure the outside diameter of the cat food can.  Transfer that dimension to the carbon felt along with the inside height measured previously.  In essence you will be cutting out a strip of carbon felt which will line the inside of the cat food can.  When the felt is cut out, fit it inside the cat food can and make any necessary adjustments.

Next, grab the One Hole Punch and stand up the tomato paste can so that the cut side is on the bottom.  Make one hole in the top of the can just under the rim.  It doesn't matter where the hole is so long as it is just under the rim.  Next, add 2-3 holes in the bottom of the can.  It doesn't matter exactly where - space them out evenly and keep them right at the bottom.

Lastly, remove the carbon felt from inside the cat food can and wrap it around the bottom of the tomato past can [near the cut edge].  You should find that it is a near perfect fit.  If it overlaps, trim accordingly.  If there is a gap no worries.  With the carbon felt wrapped around the tomato paste can, insert the can into the cat food can in a twisting motion [like you are 'screwing it in].  Take your time here and don't get frustrated.  It can be a snug fit which is what we want.  It will take a little coaxing to get the felt and the tomato paste can fully inserted.  After a few minutes you should be all set.

Now, your stove should look something like this --->.  Notice that hole in the top of the tomato past can?  That's important.  You only need the one but make sure it's on the top.

Add one ounce of fuel in the bottom and wait approx 30 seconds.  Don't light it yet.  What we're waiting for is for the fuel to soak up into the carbon felt.  After those few seconds, light the stove on the outside by the felt.  The flame should spread all the way around the can.

Unlike the Simple Stove you don't need to wait for the alcohol to heat up.  Just set your pot on the top of the tomato paste can and off you go.

This stove is much easier to ignite and with a built in pot stand [the tomato paste can] you don't need to wait to put your pot of water on it.

A few notes before we're done:
  • There is no real difference in boiling times between these two stoves.  They boil water typically within 6-7 minutes with a wind screen.  And both use the same amount of fuel.
  • Keep these stoves on a level surface when in use.
  • I always store my fuel alcohol in a separate location from my food and cooking pots.  It's toxic to ingest but completely safe to use.
  • The fuels I suggested for use do not scorch your pots/pans nor are they overly aggressive burners.  That means they won't 'explode' when you light them.
  • Denatured Alcohol and HEET work best when they are reasonably warm.  If you're out in the woods when it's cold, keep the alcohol in a safe, small container next to your body for a few minutes to warm up before use.
  • Don't store/bring fuel in unnecessarily large volumes with you when camping.  Figure you'll use about 1oz every time you need to boil water and plan accordingly.  Keep in separate small containers and be respectful that it is flammable.  Keep unused fuel away from campfires, candle lanterns and any heat source.
Make a few of these stove and have fun!  Save that hard earned cash for other stuff for the trail!

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