Rumors, Myths, and Lies of the Alcohol Stove
An alcohol stove is the cheapest, lightest, most reliable stove you'll ever own, but they don't always get much respect. Magazines such as Backpacker get good advertising dollars from companies who manufacture and sell stoves, and those companies wouldn't be happy about the magazine encouraging people to make their own stoves. Any website that sells stoves does not want to you know about alcohol stoves, and they'll willingly tell you misleading facts and flat out lies to scare you away from them. When I found one website selling stoves with people asking questions about the soda can stove, I answered them honestly and completely, and for that I was banned from the website.
So let's discuss the most common rumors, myths, and lies of the alcohol stove.
Yes they do! Ten-thousand thru-hikers can't be wrong! Every stove has limitations, including alcohol stoves, and you must decide if you can live with their limitions or if a commerical option might be better suited for your purposes.
These are 3-season stoves and not suited for extreme winter conditions—doubly so if you have to melt snow for water. It's not well-suited for cooking large amounts of food so if you have a hiking partner or two, a commercial stove may work out better. If you enjoy creating elaborate meals in the backcountry such as pizza or cinnamon rolls, these stoves are not ideal. (It can be done, but it's not easy.)
The light weight of the stove makes it perfect for backpacking, but on rafting trips or while car camping where weight is not an issue, a traditional stove may be more comfortable to use. An alcohol stove also doesn't cook quickly, so hikers who don't want to wait for hot cocoa in the morning or dinner at night, the slow cooking speed may be irksome and a commercial stove might better fit your needs.
But to claim the stove doesn't work at all is a joke. Thousands of hikers use them every year without any problems at all.
Thru-hikers everywhere carry them thousands of miles without trouble. They have no moving parts that might break and no filters that can clog. As a result, they tend to have fewer problems than commercial stoves. I've carried soda can stoves about 7,000 miles (and going!) and never had a failure. Roland Mueser surveyed hikers on the Appalachian Trail for his book, Long-Distance Hiking, and this was the only type of stove with a 0% failure rate. If the worst should happen, however, the stove is easily replaced with materials found at the local hardware store for a few bucks.
All stoves can be dangerous, and alcohol stoves are no different. However, I'm labeling this as a myth since whenever someone says it, they try to imply that a homemade alcohol stove is somehow more dangerous than commercial stoves. Not true.
Treat your stove with respect and take simple precautions. The fuel can easily spill if you knock the stove over or someone bumps the table too hard where you're cooking. Once, while trying to snuff out the flame, I accidentally knocked a lit soda can stove into my lap and my crotch caught on fire. So yes, they can be dangerous, but all stoves can be dangerous if you don't treat them with respect. Remember these simple precautions:
- Don't cook on a surface that can catch fire.
- Make sure there are no flammable materials near your stove when it's lit.
- Always have a full bottle of water nearby as your emergency fire extinguisher.
- In daylight, the flame is nearly invisible—be careful not to burn yourself on it.
- Consider your environment—if it's very windy and controlling the flame is difficult, it may be safer not to use your stove at all.
- Don't add fuel to a stove that's already burning.
- Never use your stove in your tent!
- Don't use your stove in an enclosed area without ventilation. I've heard that alcohol stoves won't cause carbon monoxide poisoning, and maybe it's true, but why take the chance? Regardless, I don't know what kind of chemical reactions occur when the fuel burns, and it seems prudent to not go inhaling the results.
- Never leave a burning stove unattended.
- Alcohol stoves get hot—wait a few minutes for it to cool before handling the stove or putting it away after use.
Ah, well, guilty as charged. They're made of stuff like soda cans and cat food cans, so yes, they crush easily. However, there's a simple solution to this problem: Don't crush your stove. Store the stove in your cook pot or some other hard-sided container when it's not in use.
Many people will claim that alcohol stoves don't work at high elevations, or at least that they don't burn as efficiently. Technically, this may or may not be true—but I've tried these stoves as high as 12,000 feet above sea level (Muir Pass) and they worked just fine. I have little doubt they would work anywhere in the contiguous United States (which tops out at 14,505 feet above sea level at Mount Whitney), so for all practical purposes, elevation is not something you need to worry about. If you are climbing seriously high-altitude mountains, an alcohol stove might not be ideal if only because it's not well suited for melting snow. If you have an appointment to climb Mount Everest, I'd love it if you took an alcohol stove with you and tried it out. Let me know the results and I'll post them here.
But do they burn less efficiently at high altitudes? Again, technically, this may or may not be true—I don't really know—I don't sit around timing how long it takes to boil water at various elevations. However, when I used the stove at 12,000 feet above sea level, I didn't notice any difference in performance than when I use it at sea level. Maybe it does burn less efficiently at high altitudes, but if so, it's not a big difference. One person who e-mailed me said they did some timing measurements and didn't measure any difference between stoves at low elevations and stoves at 7,100 feet above sea level.
I've used the soda can stove in temperatures as low as 20°F (-6.7°C) without any noticeable loss of performance. Perhaps it might stop working at temperatures lower than that, but one person e-mailed me saying they've tried melting snow with an alcohol stove in temperatures as low as -25°F (-37°C) without any trouble. If you're trying to cross Antarctica on foot, there are better reasons not to use an alcohol stove—melting snow takes a lot of energy and the amount of denatured alcohol you'd need would far outweigh the benefits of a light stove. But by all means, if you are traveling to the South Pole in temperatures lower the -25°F, take an alcohol stove and run some experiments. I'll post the results here.
One note about cold temperatures—it can be more difficult to get the stove started. The denatured alcohol doesn't vaporize as easily in cold weather, and when you light the stove, it's actually the vaporized denatured alcohol that burns. If you hold a flame to the alcohol, it will warm up enough to vaporize and catch, but it might take a bit longer and be a bit more difficult to start than it would on a warm, summer evening. Once the stove is lit, however, I've seen no difference in performance for the stove.
I use a simmer ring all the time, and even created a section specifically about how to use a simmer ring. It's not a finely controlled flame, however—the stove basically comes with three settings: full blast, simmer, and off. You could, in theory, have multiple simmer rings with different sized holes for different amounts of simmering, but that seems like overkill. I've been able to bake pizzas with a soda can stove using the simmer ring, but it's better suited for actual simmering.
It's true that the denatured alcohol of an alcohol stove does not burn as hot as a commercial stove; therefore you will need more fuel to generate a given amount of energy than you would need if you used a canister or white gas stove. However, this is a gross simplification of the issue and, most of the time, I think such conclusions are flat out wrong.
If you're on a short overnight or weekend trip, liquid fuel has the advantage that you can take only as much as you need for a trip. The canister stoves are relatively hefty (even when empty!) and you have no control over how much fuel to take with you. The white gas stove does allow you to take only as much fuel as you need, but the system to pressurize the stove is quite hefty, so several days worth of denatured alcohol may still weigh less than the added weight of a white gas stove.
If you're out in the backcountry for an extended amount of time, the starting weight for an alcohol stove and fuel may be heavier, but after a few days of use, the whole system may actually weigh less. Denatured alcohol doesn't burn as efficiently, so you burn it up much more quickly than you would using other fuels. By the time you hike out back into civilization, the combined stove and fuel weight will definitely be lighter than a canister or white gas stove.
When I hike, I consider a unit of measurement called weight-miles. Multiply the weight times the number of miles to get weight-miles. If you carry one ounce for one mile, that's one weight-mile. If you carry one ounce for 20 miles, that's 20 weight-miles. If you carry 20 ounces one mile, that's also 20 weight-miles. Why is this important? Because I think that's the fairest way to determine if your soda can stove is lighter than other alternatives. I'll readily admit that I totally made up this unit of measurement, but it's fair representation of comparing different systems with each other and can be used for any sort of system—not just for stoves and fuel.
Let's say you use, on average, one ounce of denatured alcohol each night for dinner with your stove. If you go out for six days (five nights), you need to start with 5oz of fuel. My cookset weighs in at 9oz, so for me, my starting weight in this scenario would be 14oz on Day 1. Calculate the weight-miles for each day and add them together to get the total weight-miles:
Day 1 = 14 * 10 = 140 Day 2 = 13 * 10 = 130 Day 3 = 12 * 10 = 120 Day 4 = 11 * 10 = 110 Day 5 = 10 * 10 = 100 Day 6 = 9 * 10 = 90 -------- = 690oz weight-miles (43.1 lbs)
This is a very contrived example. Most people don't hike exactly ten miles each day, nor do they use exactly one ounce of denatured alcohol each night for dinner. This is just an example of how to do such a calculation, but this type of calculation is necessary if you truly want to know which cookset system is the lightest. I also believe it's important to consider the weight of your entire cook system—not just the weight of the fuel, but also the weight of your stove, pot support, windscreen, and other cooking accessories.
So ignore what other people have to say about the weight of their systems or how it compares to an alcohol stove. Only you can run these kind of calculations for yourself—assuming you feel it's even worth the effort. Perhaps someone with a canister stove feels my 690oz (43.1 lbs) weight-miles for a six day outing is too heavy, and frankly, when it's written like that, it does sound heavy—it requires the same amount as effort as carrying 43.1 pounds one full mile—but it's still lighter than alternatives I've tried.
If saving as much weight as possible from your back is the ultimate goal, consider not using a stove at all. My cookset weighs in at 9 ounces, which sounds light, until you consider that a thru-hike of the 2,650-mile PCT means carrying it requires 23,850oz (1,490.6 lb) weight-miles. Would you carry 1,490.6 pounds across one mile of rugged terrain? Then why would you use the same energy to lug 9 ounces over a rugged 2,650 miles? It adds up! And this calculation doesn't even include the weight of the fuel which is not trivial, but when you're in the backcountry, those hot meals can be worth the trouble. =)
So if you're comparing the weight of different cooking systems, figure out the weight-miles for each of them. That's the only way to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different systems, and the calculations must fit your situation to be valid. As a general rule of thumb, you'll find the numbers work out particularly well if you're hiking alone (or maybe with one other companion), don't do a lot of cooking, don't have to melt snow for water, and you tend to cover big miles between resupply points.
I'm not really sure why Pepsi seems to dominate conversations of the soda can stove. I've made soda can stoves out of all sorts of cans including Pepsi, Coke, root beer, diet and regular, Christmas editions, and once even made it out of a can of grape soda. I've found no difference in performance among any of the types of stoves.
I have two theories about why Pepsi seems to be the preferred choice—either the first person who made a soda can stove (or at least the first person who popularized it) used Pepsi and everyone copied it under the mistaken assumption that that's how it had to be done, or because the person who created the first Pepsi can stove was a big fan of Pepsi and encouraged people to use Pepsi cans—perhaps offering to help them drink a couple in exchange for information about how to make such a stove. Or maybe the Pepsi company popularized the Pepsi can stove—I always liked a good conspiracy story! =)
One person emailed me to explain that when the soda can stove was first contrived, Coke products came in a different style of can from Pepsi. The can style did not lend itself to manufacturing of stoves since the ridge on the bottom did not exist. I'll be honest with you, though—I don't remember Coke ever using cans that look different from the ones today. The paint jobs on the cans look different, but I swear I don't ever remember drinking from Coke cans that had flat bottoms in my youth. I have seen little mini-cans of Coke when I flew on British Airways where the non-standard-sized cans had flat bottoms. In any case, flat bottom cans, if you happen across any, won't be suitable for this stove.
But outside of that.... drink whatever you like best. It really doesn't matter.
Penny can stoves have a reputation of burning more efficiently than other alcohol stoves. They're pressurized, at least more than other alcohol stoves, and the penny is used to vent the pressure so the stove won't explode. I tried a penny can stove once and didn't really see any difference. I'm not going to label this as a myth, though, because I didn't sit around doing timing experiments. It very well might be true.
But where the penny can stove fails miserably is in easy-of-use—penny can stoves need priming, and it's much more difficult and slow getting the stove fueled up. I've met several people who've tried the penny can stove, and none of them stuck with it for that reason. So I give the penny can stove a thumbs down. However, I will admit, it's largely a personal preference, and there's bound to be someone, somewhere who would genuinely prefer a penny can stove. I just don't know any.
There are soda can stove designs that do not require a separate pot stand, but the one on this website is not one of them. If you attempt to put your cooking pot directly on the stove, you will snuff out the flame.
The cat food can stove does not require a pot stand, however, and if that's your goal, consider making that type of stove instead.
If you plan to cook food with your stove rather than just boiling water, I highly recommend using a stove design that allows for a completely separate support for your pot so you can stir your food without sloshing around the burning denatured alcohol.