Cooking With Denatured Alcohol
What is denatured alcohol?
Denatured alcohol, also known as methylated spirits, is ethanol with additives to make it more poisonous or unpalatable and sometimes dyed to give it color. Since most parts of the world heavily tax and control alcohol meant for consumption, these additives get around those issues.
Where do I purchase denatured alcohol?
You can find it at any hardware store, usually somewhere in the paint section. Paint stores also carry it. (Supposedly, it has other uses besides as a fuel. Who'd have thought?!) Even tiny mom and pop hardware stores generally carry it. Most outdoor stores such as REI, EMS, and Cabellas carry denatured alcohol, and outfitters near popular trails—especially along trails such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail—often sell denatured alcohol by the ounce which is particularly convenient. If you are on a thru-hike of such trails, many trail angels often have denatured alcohol available by the ounce as well, but you shouldn't rely on that.
Sometimes denatured alcohol can be found in camping sections of stores (if they have one) including Wal-Mart, CVS, or Walgreens. Most of the time, you won't find it there, but it's been known to happen and is worth looking for if you're already there for another reason and need some.
Denatured alcohol is usually sold in heavy, metal containers—much too heavy for trail use. Just reuse an old water bottle by pouring only as much denatured alcohol as you need into it. It looks just like water, however, so be sure not to accidentally take a swig of it during your hike!
How does denatured alcohol work?
I'm no chemist, but as I understand it, denatured alcohol evaporates into the air like water. Instead of calling it evaporating, however, they say the denatured alcohol vaporizes. It's this vaporized fuel in the air that actually burns, accelerated by the oxygen in the air that surrounds it. The pool of fuel in the stove doesn't burn at all—at least not until it vaporizes and mixes with the oxygen in the air.
Vaporizing fuel also expands, which is how the jets of the soda can stove work. The vaporizing fuel pushes through the little holes creating jets that catch fire. In theory, smaller and fewer holes increases the pressure and pushes the jets out further. In practice, I don't really see much of a difference. The stove needs to warm up for a minute or so before the pressure in the side walls build enough to push the vaporized denatured alcohol out of the holes fast enough where they'll catch fire and turn into jets.
In cold weather, alcohol does not vaporize as easily which can make starting the stove more difficult. If you're in temperatures below freezing, you may need to hold your lighter against the fuel in your stove for several seconds. This will warm it up enough to start the fuel vaporizing, at which point it will catch fire and burn. Once the stove is burning, the heat from the stove will keep the rest of the fuel vaporizing.
What else can be used as fuel?
You can use pure ethanol in your soda can stove—it just costs more. The bonus, however, is you can also drink your fuel!
Pure methanol will also work in an alcohol stove. Methyl alcohol is also sold in hardware and paint stores as 'wood alcohol' and is the main ingredient in some automotive gas line de-icers such as HEET. In a pinch, HEET can be found in many gas stations, convenience stores, and auto-parts stores if denatured alcohol isn't readily available. HEET comes in two versions: yellow and red—make sure to get the yellow. Neither burn as well as denatured alcohol, but the red HEET creates an enormous amount of soot. The red HEET will heat your food, but you'd probably end up wishing you didn't use your stove at all.
What can I use for fuel outside of the United States?
I live in the United States and don't know much about how denatured alcohol is sold or even what it's called in other locations. So anyone who has information about what can be used in other countries, let me know and I'll add it here. Even if a specific country is listed below, it's almost certainly not a complete list of commonly used names for denatured alcohol, nor are these fuels I've personally tried.
|Canada||Marine Alcohol made by Captain PHAB|
|France||alcool denat, Ciron Alcool a Bruler|
|Spain||alcohol denat, Vivó Alcohol 96°|
In a country not listed above?
In 2012, I hiked through France and Spain and needed to find some denatured alcohol. Not having any idea what it was called locally, I still managed to find something that worked in both countries. In France, I walked into a hardware store. The clerk didn't know any English, and I didn't know any French, so I just started looking around the paint area for anything that seemed 'suspiciously' like denatured alcohol. Soon, another customer who did know English walked in, and I described what I was looking for—a fuel to use in a stove (he didn't understand the term 'denatured alcohol') and pointed out a bottle (in the paint section) that had a picture of a camp stove and a lantern. Ah-ha!
Looking at pictures like this is great if you don't know the language, but you do have to be careful. What if it's white gas? That's also a liquid fuel used for stoves, but it's not suitable for soda can stoves. It would likely explode if you tried to light it! So I looked at the back of the bottle which, not surprisingly, was in French.
Now it's time to look for what are called cognates—words that appear to be very similar to their English-language counterparts. Looking at the back of the French label, I see words such as "alcool ethylique", which I strongly suspect means "ethyl alcohol" (exactly what we want!), and just below that, it reads "Dénaturé à 90% volume" which looks suspiciously like "denatured to 90% volume"" (again, exactly what we want to see). As a general rule, the alcohol content should be at least 90% if it's going to burn hot enough to make a good fuel for a soda can stove.
There's still no guarantee that the fuel will burn cleanly—it might be so sooty that you'd wish you never used it at all, but the only way to test for that is to buy it and try it. In this case, when I tried it, the fuel burned cleanly, and I used it throughout my hike in France.
In Spain, I stumbled onto a small bottle of what appeared to possibly be denatured alcohol. This one said nothing about using the alcohol in stoves, but the back of the label had "Alcohol denat" which I suspected was a cognate for "denatured alcohol", and the "96°" on the front of the bottle suggested to me that it was 96% pure. The ingredient list also had a couple of items that I wasn't familiar with (isopropyl and triclosan), but denatured alcohol always has stuff in it to make it undrinkable. I didn't know if these extra ingredients would burn cleanly or not or if it would make the alcohol unsuitable for cooking, but I went ahead and bought the bottle to try it. Turns out, it worked fantastic as a fuel!
So, in a nutshell, when looking for denatured alcohol in a foreign country, look for pictures and cognates. Make sure it's denatured alcohol rather than white gas, and check that it's at least 90% pure. There's still no guarantee if it'll work well as a fuel until you try it, but at least you'll likely be headed in the right direction!
How much denatured alcohol do I need?
For shorter trips, I reuse a small, plastic water bottle to store my denatured alcohol. For longer trips or thru-hikes, I use a larger water bottle. Keep in mind that you do not have to fill these containers completely to the top if you really don't need that much fuel, and use whatever sized bottle that best suits your purposes.
On my thru-hikes, I'll use a 20 oz. water bottle for my fuel which—when full—typically lasts me about two weeks, cooking one meal per day. Your results may vary. If you need to melt snow for water, you'll need a lot more fuel than you would normally carry for cooking purposes.
Some people, because it looks so much like water, will slap on masking tape with a large X or somehow mark the bottle to indicate that it's not safe for drinking. I don't, but I never use the same kind of bottle for drinking water and for storing fuel so have never accidentally tried to drink denatured alcohol.
What if my stove burns sooty?
The stoves themselves don't burn sooty—it's the fuel that burns sooty. I can't vouch for every brand of denatured alcohol out there, but in my experience, it's usually not an issue.
I once purchased True Value branded denature alcohol, and while it certainly burned hot enough, it was incredibly sooty. I've tried Ace branded denatured alcohol and it worked great, and I've purchased some at Home Depot which worked great. A lot of hardware stores carry the Sunnyside brand which works great. Of my denatured alcohol purchases, that True Value branded stuff is the only one I ever had a problem with. I don't know what sort of additives they use, but whatever it is, it burns very sooty and makes an enormous mess. (At least it did when I tried it in 2005. Their formula, obviously, could have changed since I used it.)
If you find yourself with a brand of denatured alcohol that burns sooty, the only thing you can do to fix this problem is buy a different brand and try that instead. Ace, Sunnyside, S-L-X, and Crown brands have all worked well for me. The True Value brand did not. Outside of that, I have no idea.