Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Cooking in the Wilderness Part Two: Alcohol Stoves

I had never heard of, let alone cooked on, an alcohol stove until a couple of years ago. My husband started saving (read: hoarding) tuna cans. Then I bought a rare 12 pack of Coke, and he kept those cans every time one was used. Then he saved V-8 cans. Then little cans from sliced olives or mushrooms.  All the while he and my boys were making these stoves--and cooking on my nice countertops when there was a perfectly good gas range right behind them.

Needless to say, I wasn't into the can cooking thing at first.  But, I have seen the light (no pun intended---alcohol actually burns invisibly unless it's dark out--so there's no light to see...hahaha).  With multiple multi-day backpacking trips with my family now under my belt, I LOVE these little homemade stoves.  I decided to make a list---


  • They are FREE to make; they are made from used food cans!
  • De-natured Alcohol is a clean, cheap, easy to store fuel.
  • They are light-weight. Every ounce counts when your packing your own stuff!
  • My kids can each pack their own, and they can help make our food!
  • If they wear out over-time or get lost, no problem--just make more!
  • The varied sizes of cans make customizing stoves to fit specific pots easy.

I have nothing against some of the backpacking stoves that are out there.  We have friends who use the MSR Whisperlite Stove and are quite happy with it.  But if evaluated on the same points I outlined above, I would (and do) choose the alcohol stove route.

Tutorials abound on making these stoves. I will link to a few, and then I'll share some helpful tips we have learned through putting these stoves to real use in the wilds of Washington.

  • About a year ago, my oldest son made a post: How to Construct a Camp Stove from a V8 Can
  • This post from Andrew Skurka first taught us to make alcohol stoves. 
  • This post from Indefinitely Wild does an informative side-by-side comparison of alcohol stoves to expensive backpacking stoves.
  • This post from ZenStoves is the most comprehensive instruction on alcohol stoves we have found.


1. Paper hole-punches are meant for paper, not steel. Most tutorials tell you to punch holes in your cans using a regular old  $3 hole-punch (pictured on the left).  What they don't tell you, is it is VERY HARD to get enough torque to actually punch holes, they dull quickly, and they often break in the process. If you know someone who sews or scrapbooks, they may own a heavy-duty hole punch. This one (pictured on the right) is used for setting snaps and grommets. It has a variable-size hole punch and it ROCKS the other paper-punch's world. 

2. Wider cans for wider pots.  Since these stoves don't have variable settings (no high or low--just ON or OFF), you can adjust the power of your stove by the size of the can.  These are side-burner stoves so the flames jet out the sides. You don't want the flames going beyond the circumference of the pot they are heating. For larger pots, use a larger stove; smaller pots, choose a smaller stove. 

3. Wind Screens 4-1-1.  We used to pack a stiff aluminum windscreen made from roof flashing. It worked well, but it took up quite a bit of room and has sharp-ish edges, which isn't good for backpacking. Then my husband and boys used heavy aluminum foil and folded it into 3-4 piece thick rectangles about twice the diameter of their pots.  They folded those accordion style. Voila! Collapsible Wind Screens! 

4. Collapsible Stove / Pot Trivet: I began to wonder about my husband's hoarding problem when he started saving the heavy foil seals from my peanut cans. Then I saw them put to use on the trail. Brilliant man I married!  These stoves don't have little feet that put them an inch or two off the ground like store-bought stoves. So the flame is less than an inch from the ground. And here in Washington it is often muddy, and often cold or snowy up in the mountains. Other areas may be so dry, a flame that close to the ground could pose a fire-threat. The foil reflects heat back up into the pot, making the heating process more efficient. This simple foil trivet is an excellent piece to add to your alcohol stove repertoire. 

5. Fuel Storage and Use: We store our cans of fuel in a cabinet in our kitchen. It is odorless, so no big deal when we open it to fill smaller bottles to take camping.  We have found that any thicker-plastic bottles with tight-closing lids work well for carrying fuel on trips. Empty honey bears have been a go-to staple. The taller bottle pictured is from one of those Sparkling ICE Carbonated Waters

We bring along a little medicine measuring cup to measure the fuel as we use it. When you are depending on that fuel to cook your food, you don't want to waste a single ounce.  We have found that 20 milliliters will burn 7-8 minutes.  If we are boiling 3 cups of water for a meal, we will use 40 milliliters. This is enough to bring the water to a boil, and continue the boiling for about 8 minutes--long enough to cook most pasta, quick rice, or vegetables. 

6. Priming your pot: These are side-burning stoves, but in order to push the flames out those little holes in the side--and not just out the big opening in the top of the can--you need to prime your pot before setting it on the stove. This is done by holding the pan a couple of inches above the burning (invisible) flame. Hold the pan there for about 60-90 seconds (longer if it's really cold outside), allowing the bottom of the pot to heat and the flame to begin to move outward instead of upward. Then gently place your pot directly over the stove. 

The great and spacious internets are teeming with information on cooking with these homemade stoves. I don't claim to be an expert--we are definitely still learning as a family every time we go on a trip! But it has been so exciting to have had success with these stoves, I wanted to share our positive experience. I'd love to hear about any adventures you have cooking in the wilderness!

Be sure to check out my first and third posts in this series: 
Part 1: Cup and Pot Cozies

And another related post: 


  1. Helpful information for cooking in the wilderness! Sounds easy to do and it's good to know. Thanks for sharing at the #HomeMattersParty

  2. Great information! I can't wait to share this with my older boys. They are big time campers. Time to start saving those food cans. Thank you also for sharing this with all of our Let's Get Real readers.

    1. Thank you for a great party. I hope your boys enjoy this info as much as mine do!

  3. My husband has made these out of soda cans! Great idea. Thanks for linking up #HomeMatters Linky Party. Hope you will be back this week! Rhonda

  4. Thank you so much for linking up to Merry Monday this week! I am sharing your post today on Pinterest! Hope to see you next week for another great party! Have a great week!

  5. How awesome! My name is Nicole, and I'm one of the co-hosts for the Merry Monday linky party. I wanted to stop by and thanks for sharing this at Merry Monday's! Have a great week!