Monday, February 18, 2013

Guest Review: The Alcohol Stove

by Marc Hutchison

One year ago, I wrote an article for Brian's web page dealing with small stoves for camping, hiking, and survival. Those stoves included wood burning, pressurized canister, and fire tablet. This past year I've had a ton of fun using a tiny stove that is very popular in the hiking/backpacking world. It's called the "Alcohol Stove". This is a non-pressurized stove that you fill with fuel, light it, allow the stove to "prime" (once the stove heats up it will vaporize the fuel and allow the jets to blossom on the stove), then you're ready for business.

Over this past year, I've purchased several alcohol stoves and created a few home made versions. For informational and picture purposes concerning this article, I'm only going to focus on 2 stoves that I've purchased. For the record, I'm not associated in any way with the makers of these stoves. I've just used them countless times and I know I can depend on them without any reservation.

The Venom Super Stove (made by Zelph Stoves):

(Other equipment pictured: ESEE "Izula" knife, Stoic 700ml cup, "Light My fire" fire steel)

Weight - 1.6 ounces

Height - 2.75 "-

Diameter - 2.50"

Fuel capacity - 1 ounce

Cost: $13.00

The following video shows the operation of the Venom Super Stove:

The RUCAS Stove:

(Other equipment pictured: Gossman "WTK" knife, Stoic 700ml cup, LMF fire steel)

Weight - 1.24 ounces

Height - 2.38"

Diameter - 2.6"

Fuel capacity - 4.0 ounces

Cost - approx. $22.00

The following is a very informative video on the RUCAS stove:

Whether you're doing a month long solo trail hike or spending a few days in the woods camping with family, you don't want to experience any complications or failures with your equipment. This being vitally important concerning your cooking gear. The beauty of the alcohol stove is there are NO moving parts, no hoses, no seals, and no computer chips to malfunction and render the stove useless in the field. Case in point: Roland Mueser, author of, "Long - Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail", conducted a survey of stoves used by thru-hikers (one who attempts to hike/backpack an entire trail in one uninterrupted journey) and he found that the alcohol stove was the only type with a zero percent failure rate.

In addition to simplicity, this style of stove is clean burning and odorless. The two most popular fuels to use with an alcohol stove are HEET (in the YELLOW bottle) and Denatured alcohol. Both of these fuels burn clean and will not leave any soot or coating on your stove and cooking gear.

This fuel is non-combustible and is safe to light with a match, lighter, or even scraping a fire steel rod with the spine of a knife resulting in the sparks igniting the fuel. Both HEET and Denatured alcohol are readily available in most stores across the country

Tip: The use of rubbing alcohol (70% and 90% Isopropyl) will leave that nasty black soot on everything. But, they can be used as a last resort in an emergency.

Alcohol stoves can be used in all temperatures. I've read articles where freezing temps will hamper the stove's performance, but in my experience, I've not had any issues when the temps dip below the freezing mark. Here are a couple suggestions that will actually enhance the performance of your stove.  First, if using the stove in windy conditions, always use some kind of windscreen. This will keep the flame from blowing all over the place which makes for a longer boil time.

While in the woods, if I don't have a windscreen with me, I'll try to use natural objects like rocks, wood, or some other item that will block the wind.  For this article, I tried using bricks as a wind screen and they worked just fine at keeping the wind from the stove. In fact, it only took 3 minutes and 45 seconds to bring one cup of water to a rolling boil. The stove went on to burn for 10 minutes before running out of fuel and it was very windy outside (1.5 ounces of fuel was used for this experiment). Note: Before putting the bricks around the stove, the wind actually blew out the flame before the stove had a chance to prime.

My personal "wind screen" preference is to use a small wood burning stove.  Just place the alcohol stove down into the wood burning stove which blocks the wind nicely and also provides a larger area for your cup, pot, or pan. The following pictures illustrate this procedure (Note: the wind was howling, the temp was 29F, and the snow was blowing. I used 1.5 ounces of fuel and 2 cups of water. The soup began boiling in no time).

(Other equipment used: Backwoods "KDC" knife (designed by Brian King), MSR Stowaway pot, "LMF" fire steel, Emberlit "EL Mini" wood stove).

Tip: If placing your alcohol stove on the bare ground, always try to use something like aluminum foil underneath the stove which will reduce conduction (heat being sucked into the ground which will make for longer boil times and waste fuel).

One of the major benefits of this kind of stove is how compact it is along with it's ultra light weight. Most alcohol stoves weigh anywhere from less than 1 oz. for a home made cat food can up to almost 4 ounces for the Swedish made Trangia stove. As you can see from the following pictures, you can carry everything you need for a day hike inside a small cup which doesn't take up hardly any space in a backpack.

(Other equipment in picture: Backwoods "Battle Axe" knife, Stoic 700ml cup, LMF fire steel).

As I mentioned earlier, it's incredibly easy to make your own stove. The following link is an instructional video on making your own alcohol stove by using a small cat food can and a hole punch:

With all the positive attributes of the alcohol stove, there are a few issues that need to be addressed when using this style of stove.  

- You can't see the flame very well during daylight hours. Never look directly into the stove or place your hand directly on top when trying to see/feel if the stove has successfully been lit.  

 - Make sure you have a stable area for the stove. You don't want it to tip over while burning. In addition, make sure your cup or pot is sturdy before you begin cooking.

- The alcohol stove is not suited to make large buffet meals. If you're determined to prepare 4-course meals with the finest ingredients and insist on carrying a professional "Viking" stove system while on the trail, then you will be sorely disappointed in the alcohol stove. It's a small stove that works perfectly for boiling water for dehydrated foods and your trails drinks (coffee, tea, etc.). But, don't let these limitations stifle your imagination. Did someone say blueberry pancakes?

- The alcohol stove doesn't have a simmer control. Some stoves, like the Trangia, have a simmer ring, but generally this style of stove is either on or off.

- This style of stove is not as strong as some of the other stoves on the market, so just use caution when packing them in your backpack or vehicle.   So far, I've never had any issue with the 2 above mentioned stoves. They are very strong and sturdy and I've never worried about them in my various backpacks. Note: If you were to crush your stove while in the woods, you can always look around for a soda/beer can and make your own.

In conclusion, if you'd ask me why I own several alcohol stoves, I would answer by saying they are so light, reliable, and simple to use that it has earned a permanent place in my vehicle bag and backpack. And, I always want a few extra stoves on hand when the power is out at my house. For clarification, I have other means of cooking, but I like having several items on hand to accomplish a task. If you're reading this article and have never heard of these stoves, hopefully you've learned something new in the world of hiking, backpacking, and survival gear. If you decide to make your own or to purchase one, remember this piece of advice..........make sure you're alone when you go out on the back porch in the freezing cold to whip up some pancakes and coffee. You definitely don't want your family or friends to think you're nuts for not using the main stove and coffee maker in your warm kitchen. I speak from experience.


Gail Dixon (Louisiana Belle) said...

Lots of neat camping equipment! Thanks for sharing.

Jan n Jer said...

very interesting...I used to camp years ago...this is a unique compact stove and pefect for hiking. Thanks for the demo..

Debbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie said...

WoW brian, you are really committed. i prefer room service ;))

The Reverend Fowl ™ said...

Thanks Brian, this is an awesome cooking demo. The retail price of gel fuel is nearing $10 and the gel cannot be reliably reused.

Now I want soup and coffee...

TexWisGirl said...

marc, awesome and thorough job on presenting this. great prep, shots and information throughout. good looking knives, too (including bjk's design!)

laughing at your family wondering what the heck you're doing in the back yard. too funny. :) now, pass me a pancake, please!

Coloring Outside the Lines said...

This demonstration took me back to the sterno/coffee can combo stove I made once at girl scout camp. (Don't laugh- it worked fantastic- fried a hamburger on it!) Thanks for sharing the info- very neat!

barbara l. hale said...

Yeah, I'm with Debbie. Room service, please. Maybe I would have tried this 20 years ago but I am all for the creature comforts these days. But great instructions!

MTWaggin said...

This was great information and I have to mention that I have a friend that makes back country cylinder stoves, something different one might like to try as well.....!products

Tanya Breese said...

interesting...i had never heard of these before. it sounds like something my husband would like. i'll have to get him one and send him on a camping trip ;)

Tricia Hays said...

see, this is why you'll survive & i'll be the one to die! =0

Marie said...

This was a very informative post, Brian! My hubby and I always used a Svea 123 white gas stove when we used to camp and backpack. We have never tried the alcohol stoves, but they seem to both be good.