An ultralight backpacking guide to alcohol stoves and burners - how they work, common designs, pros and cons, considerations and some of the best alcohol stoves.
Published: October 9th, 2018
Photo Credit: Solo Stove
By definition, an alcohol stove is a stove that uses alcohol as it's fuel source. They are most commonly used in the ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking communities as the go-to minimalist and compact stove. They weigh less than a deck of cards, have no moving parts to break and use a low-cost fuel you can find in almost all resupply points. If you are a Do-It-Yourself-er, you can easily even make one at home.
Unlike traditional backpacking stoves that use gas or liquid fuel, the alcohol stove uses readily-available alcohol sources such as methanol, denatured alcohol or ethanol. Usually, they are small stoves crafted out of thin metal and have a small basin or reservoir to hold a few ounces of the liquid fuel. The designs vary, however, the fuel chamber is commonly lined by a series of burner holes that help spread the flame around the edge of the stove for a more even heat distribution. These stoves usually sit on the ground and need a stand to suspend the pot above the flame.
Alcohol stoves all use the same fuel, but they can differ significantly in how they are designed. There are four basic designs with many variations within each style.
Open Flame: An open flame stove is the simplest type of stove. Think of it like a bowl. You take an open vessel like a tuna can, fill it with fuel, light it, and go. They are easy to make yourself and are nearly foolproof to operate. They spill easily, so some models include a non flammable wicking material to contain the fuel for cooking and storage.
Vertical Flame: Vertical flame stoves use a chimney-like design that directs the flame upwards towards the pot. The model uses two nested cans with carefully placed vent holes to create an updraft that makes the stove more efficient than an open flame version. Because they are double-layered, these stoves are a bit more challenging to make and are heavier than an open stove.
Side Flame: A side flame stove has holes on the sides of the vessel that direct the flame to the outside of the stove. This design doesn't need a separate stand as you can place the pot on top of the stove without putting out the fire. These are your basic DIY cat can or altoid stoves.
Pressure Flame: The most complicated to make and operate. Pressure flame stoves use vapor pressure to create a powerful flame for boiling water. They have a center fuel port that you fill and light and an internal chamber with burner holes on either the side or top for cooking. They work by channeling the vaporized fuel and then shooting it out the burner holes where they combust. They produce a flame reminiscent of a home gas burner. They can be finicky to light as you have to prime the stove by burning a small amount of fuel and waiting a minute or so for the jets to ignite.
Ultralight. Alcohol stoves are generally considered to be the lightest type of backpacking stove, which is why they are so popular with thru-hikers and ultralight backpackers.
Cheap. These stoves are extremely cheap and often cost about $20. The fuel is also cheap. It can be purchased from auto stores, hardware stores, Walmart, outdoor stores, etc. Also, as we will discuss below, DIY soda can stoves cost almost nothing to make.
Simple and Reliable. Alcohol stoves are fool-proof. They are probably the least likely to fail or "break" because they don't have any moving parts. You just fill them, light them, and you're ready to boil some water.
Good for Boiling Water. Alcohol stoves may look puny, but they are no slouch when it comes to boiling water. Most stoves can boil water within 5-6 minutes, and some can sustain this boil for up to 20 minutes on a full reservoir of fuel. It's no Jetboil, but it does the job at a fraction of the cost and weight.
Bad for "Cooking". They may excel at boiling water, but alcohol stoves are not great at cooking because they have a fixed flame setting. The stove is either on or off - therefore, slowly simmering your food is not easy to do. Only a few stoves stoves have a simmering ring, which is a shield that can be adjusted to block the flame from reaching the pot. Also, the alcohol vaporizes. This can be helpful by allowing you to easily light the stove. However, it also means you can accidentally burn your entire fuel supply.
Messy. The actual fuel must be stored in a leakproof container. Traces of the alcohol can often still be found around the lid of the container making it smell in your pack. There is also some cleanup after cooking - usually this means pouring any leftover fuel back into the bottle.
Less Safe. Once set up, these stoves are not the most stable and require some careful handling as you try to balance the pot on the small cooking surface area. Because of this small surface area to cook on, most models require an additional stand to elevate and stabilize your pot. Alcohol stoves can and will tip over, sometimes with tragic consequences. A spilled alcohol stove is thought to have started a forest fire in Colorado in 2012. Though they won't explode, they do need to be handled with care.
Photo Credit: GoBag Stoves
Surface Area. The surface area can refer to the size of the flame that is available for cooking as well as the actual surface area to set your pot on. These both vary by model. Some stoves have a narrow design that makes it easy to cook in a smaller cup, while others have a wider design that works best with a larger pot.
Weight. Your alcohol stove should not weigh more than an ounce. Some of the larger ones that store fuel can weigh up to 5 ounces.
Stand Requirements. Almost all alcohol stoves need some type of stand that positions the pot above the flame. Some stoves, like the Vargo Triad and the Whitebox, are built, so the stand is integrated into the stove. Others like the Trangia Spirit burner require a separate stand.
Simple Design. When choosing an alcohol stove, look for a simple design that is easy to light and won't break in the field. The fewer parts, the better. Let's look at some the most popular designs.
HEET: HEET is sold as a gas line antifreeze, but it actually is methanol. It is inexpensive and readily found at Walmart and auto parts stores, especially in the winter. Methanol is ideal for the shoulder season as it has a lower boiling point and burns readily in colder temps. You have to be careful not to contaminate your cooking pot or utensils with this fuel because it is toxic.
Denatured alcohol: Denatured alcohol is ethanol with a small amount of methanol added to make it undrinkable. It is cheap and easy to find in the paint department of most hardware stores. It burns hotter than methanol but loses efficiency at colder temps.
Everclear or grain alcohol: Everclear or grain alcohol has all the advantages of denatured alcohol without the toxic methanol additive. Because it is potable, Everclear tends to be more expensive than denatured alcohol. It also is harder to find in trail towns and is even banned in some states.
Isopropyl alcohol (91% or 99%): Isopropyl alcohol, also known as red-bottle Heet or drug store rubbing alcohol, can be burned in a pinch but it is not recommended as a primary fuel source. Isopropyl alcohol doesn't burn completely and will leave some unburned soot residue in your stove. It also is mixed with water which will decrease the flame strength and efficiency.
Weight: 3.9 ounces
The Trangia Spirit burner is a powerhouse of a stove with a convenient cover that allows you to store the fuel inside the stove for transport. The stove is known for its rock-solid reliability and is the gold standard that other stoves are compared to. It includes a simmer ring that you can use to reduce the heat from the stove and allows limited simmering. The stove does require a stand which you can purchase separately.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 1 ounce
Made from recycled material, the Whitebox stove cranks out a huge flame that'll boil water in record time. This pressurized, side-burning stove is designed to withstand the rigors of the trail. You need to be careful when using the Whitebox with smaller cooking vessels as the flames can lick up the sides of the pan and unexpectedly catch yourself or other nearby objects. It really works best with wider pots and pans.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 1 ounce
The Vargo Triad is a compact, jetted stove that includes an integrated stand to hold a pot and legs to lift the stove up off the ground. The three legs on the bottom can stab into the ground reducing the chance of tipping. Because of its smaller size, the Triad is perfect for boiling water in smaller pots and cups. As a bonus, you can turn the stove upside down and burn solid fuel tablets on the underside.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 2.75 ounces for the cone, 0.6 ounces for the stove
Price: $35 on traildesigns.com
Caldera takes a different approach to the alcohol stove pairing the ultralight Kojin stove or 12-10 stove with a cone explicitly designed to match your pot. The cone directs the flame towards your pot to concentrate the heat directly where you need it the most. It also provides a stable resting place for the pot and adds some protection from the wind.
When you are done cooking, the cone and all its accessories roll neatly to fit into your pot. It is pot specific so make sure you buy the correct cone for your cookware. If you want some added versatility, you can purchase the Ti-Tri stove which includes the cone, stove and some extras that allow you to burn solid fuel or wood.
Weight: 1.2 ounces
The Evernew alcohol stove is a lightweight, compact stove with a dual jet system that creates a robust and stable flame. It burns fast and hot so you can boil your water as fast as possible. It doesn't have a screw top lid so you can't store your fuel inside the stove, but you won't need it as the stove's high heat will blow through the fuel in the reservoir.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 3.5 ounces for the alcohol burner, 9 ounces for the Solo Stove Lite
Price: $20 for the stove , $70 for the Solo Stove Lite
The Solo Stove is more than an alcohol stove. It is a cooking system that burns wood as its primary fuel source but also can use an alcohol stove as a backup fuel. The Solo Stove is designed to optimize airflow around the stove, so you get a hotter fire to boil your water. The alcohol stove portion of the system is a Trangia clone complete with a screw top cap to store fuel and a simmer ring.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 2 ounces
The GoBag stove is a side burning stove that is solidly made and delivers a punch when it comes to heat output. It has a short and squat design that not only makes it easy to pack, but it also prevents it from tipping over. Though safer than some of the taller stoves, this design limits the amount of fuel the stove can hold at one time.
You can quickly boil water for your dinner on one fill but don't expect to get hot water for the entire group.
See on amazon.com
Weight: 0.8 ounce
Price: $16 on woodgaz-stove.com
The famous cat food can stove - Zelph's Stoveworks Fancee Feest alcohol stove features an ultralight aluminum body with an integrated stainless steel pot stand. It's design is simple and easy to setup. A unique feature is the fiberglass material that acts as a wick which helps efficiently channel the fuel up to be burned. Did we mention price? It doesn't get much cheaper than $16 for a stove under one ounce.
Weight: 0.5 ounce
Price: $18 on woodgaz-stove.com
Another stove from Zelph's Stoveworks - the Starlyte Ultralyte weighs a scant 0.5 ounces. The stove can be filled with up to an ounce of fuel, and is "spill-proof" which is a rare feature of alcohol stoves... and addresses one of their biggest problems. Simply cap it off and the unused alcohol won't evaporate. It's body can easily fit into the palm of your hands or pocket. The Starlyte comes in three versions: standard, modified, and slow burn.
Weight: 1 ounce
Price: Cost of a can of soda
In a short amount of time, you can quickly turn an old soda can or two into an alcohol cooking stove. There are a ton of varieties ranging from the simple open can stove to a more complex burner with a simmer ring. In its most basic form, you can cut the bottom off a soda can, pour the fuel into the container, and light it up. For a more elegant design, you can use two cans to create a fuel chamber with a burner.
Just cut the bottom off one can, drill several burner holes in another can and add some JB weld to glue the two together.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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