Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gear: Homemade Backcountry Alcohol Stove

Being handy is just not my thing. I cannot fix my car, beyond changing a tire or checking the oil. Building things out of wood or metal is as easy for me as is going to Mars. Furthermore, in any incident where pulling a MacGyver is required, I am lucky if I can manage a MacGruber.

Certainly, there is no way I could ever hope to build my own outdoor gear. Yet, I managed to build my a backpacking stove a few year ago. And, it turned out to be the best and most lightweight stove I ever used in the backcountry. Moreover, it has never exploded, or engulfed anything into flames unintentionally – yet.

Unless you are a skilled craftsman, building your own outdoor equipment is not very practical. This is especially true when it comes to backpacking stoves, where dealing with highly flammable fuels, often under pressures, can result in dire, if not explosive, situations. Fortunately, alcohol stoves are easy to build, can be constructed out of lightweight materials, require minimal investment and most of the necessary components are likely to be found in the average person’s recycling bin.

Alcohol stoves have been around for years. They offer the benefits of using a readily obtainable fuel source (any type of alcohol), do not require a pressurized fuel source, are relatively quiet, use an odorless fuel, require no maintenance, and have no moving parts. These qualities make alcohol stoves ideal for backpacking adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond.

Another important advantage of using an alcohol stove is, in a pinch, if the right type of fuel is involved (i.e. Everclear), there is always an opportunity to forgo the cooking completely and just get yourself toasted instead. As a teetotaling backcountry enthusiast (typically), I would not advise doing this, but if you must then please drink responsibly, and remember hiking buddies do not let their companions hike drunk. Since using drinkable alcohol is extremely expensive, it is best to stick to the inexpensive denatured alcohol as fuel, and keep the drinking at home.

Alcohol stoves are not without their drawbacks though. Due to the unpressurized fuel, they do not generate nearly as much heat as the tradition white gas stoves used by backcountry enthusiasts for generations. This makes alcohol stoves inadequate for low temperature adventures, such as winter summiting in the High Peaks. Plus, they often generate an invisible flame, so avoid getting too close, and always test with a twig before handling.

In addition, the unpressurized fuel makes it difficult to control the intensity of the flame produced by an alcohol stove. Just think of them as having two different temperatures: no-holds-barred, and completely off. Although there are ways to cut down on the amount of flame by way of a baffle, this tends to concentrate the flame in a smaller area, increasing the necessity of frequent stirring. Otherwise, prepare to do a lot of scrubbing while cleaning the bottom of your pan. Typically, increasing the distance between the stove and pan is the only sure-fire way of temperature control.

Due to the way these stoves function, I typically try to limit my menu to items requiring short cooking times, or better yet, ones using just boiling water.

A diverse number of different designs for alcohol stoves are available on the Interwebs. The design I used to construct mine was Scott’s Pepsi-G stove by Scott Henderson. The plans provided step-by-step instructions, with figures, clear enough that a total novice handyman like myself could follow.

After using a titanium store-bought stove that continuously leaked (the brand name shall remain nameless), even with multiple patches, I decided to give building my own stove the old college try. A backpacking friend of mine built one the previous year, and its simplicity and low-key style impressed me. Less than a single afternoon was required to build the stove, although drying time required several days to produce a working stove.

The hardest part of building the stove was positioning the holes along the rim; this was where I screwed up the first one I built. The holes ended up irregularly placed on the first one, so although it was fully functional, I constructed a second one. The second one came out much better; practice makes perfect.

Although I never performed a burn test, the stove works great. It is my primary summer-time backpacking stove now, and it has been on many trips, including five days through the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, two weeks on Isle Royale and a multitude of Adirondack trips from several days to two weeks. My attachment to the little stove generates some apprehension when I leave it behind for the few colder weather trips I take each year.

The stove is fairly conservative when it comes to fuel use. Typically, I burn a .5L container of alcohol per week, which includes about 10 cooked meals. I usually store the denatured alcohol fuel in a small Platypus collapsible container, equipped with a closable spout. The utmost care is required while filling the stove with fuel, it is difficult to blow it out (I usually just let it burn out), and pouring excess fuel back into the storage bottle takes a considerable amount of skill.

The stove weighs about a half ounce, making it one of the lightest pieces of equipment I carry. The stove is fragile though, but it fits snuggly in my titanium mug, where it remains protected from being dented or crushed.

Although it is possible to set the pan right on the stove, there is a good reason not to do so. For some stove designs, the risk of snuffing the flame out is greater, resulting in cold and extremely chewy oatmeal. But if the flame continues to burn, with such little space between the pan and the open flame, cooking anything other than water can prove troublesome, and at the very least require constant stirring.

Thankfully, a friend made me a windshield that doubles as a stand for the stove. It is a single strip of thin sheet metal with two slits at each end, allowing the metal to be curved into a circular shape. Along the bottom are two rows of holes for air to feed the flame, while two pairs of four holes are arranged at the top. Two titanium tent stakes worked through two of the opposite holes at the top creates a stand for the pot, and the two sets of four holes allow for placing the pot at different heights from the stove’s flame.

If the skills or courage are lacking, it is always possible to buy one made by an entrepreneurial outdoors person. Many different shapes and sizes of stoves are available on eBay and other virtual locations on the Interwebs. There are many factory-manufactured alcohol stoves as well.

Homemade alcohol stoves offer many advantages for warm season cooking in the Adirondack backcountry. The readily available fuels, reliability, safety and cool factor are just a few reasons for constructing one for your own outdoor adventures. Making a stove might just give you the confidence to construct more of your own backcountry gear, just do not ask me to help, as I will be busy trying to trying to make a radio out of aluminum foil and a shoe lace.

Photos: Pepsi-G alcohol stove and alcohol stove with windshield/stand by Dan Crane.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




6 Responses

  1. Keith says:

    A couple of years ago I looked at buying a hiker stove lighter than my old Optimus and stumbled upon Pepsi can stoves. At the time we were also buying cases of soda. You don’t know how addictive making these little things can be. Eventually, it narrowed down to a couple of effective designs. I keep one in my little day hike coffee/tea kit. A $2 IMUSA aluminum mug/pot, plastic cup from a mess kit, and an aluminum foil windscreen. With irrational TSA regulations, it is appealing to know at the other end I can be equipped quickly buying 2 sodas and a bottle of yellow HEET (from Walmart). My Leatherman tool is the only other thing needed.

    • Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

      I actually packed my little Pepsi-G stove on an airplane to Las Vegas when I went to hike in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains a few years ago. I just placed it in my mug and put it in my checked luggage. There was not a peep from the TSA.

  2. Andy Smith says:

    Thanks for the read, very imformative

  3. Mike Daly says:

    Thanks for the interesting read, very helpful and informative.

  4. […] form the backbone of the last day’s lunch. I try to use the last of the alcohol by firing up my Pepsi-G stove, but unfortunately, boiling a little water does not take all that much. Isle Royale Queen IV Isle […]