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7 Advantages of Alcohol Backpacking Stoves

Alcohol backpacking stoves are popular with long distance hikers and with good reason. Here are the 7 reasons why they’re a good option for backcountry cooking, especially if you’re a beginner, looking to soften the up front expense of buying backpacking gear.

DIY Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove
DIY Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove

1. Alcohol stoves are inexpensive

Alcohol stoves are very inexpensive and you can easily make your own with just a hole punch and a cat food can.

You can buy denatured alchohol at any Walmart, Home Depot,or Hardware Store
You can buy denatured alchohol at any Walmart, Home Depot,or Hardware Store

2. Fuel is readily available

Most people burn denatured alcohol in an alcohol stove (called meths overseas), which you can buy in any drugstore or hardware store, making it very easy to resupply during a hike. This also makes them great for international travel, especially in countries that don’t have outdoor stores that sell specialized fuels. You can also burn grain alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or Heet Gasoline Additive in them which you can buy at most gas stations.

Wide Carbon Felt Lined Stove 'Puck' and Narrow Puck (shown burning alcohol)
Wide Carbon Felt Lined Stove ‘Puck’ and Narrow Puck (shown burning alcohol)

3. Alcohol stoves are lightweight

Most alcohol stoves weigh less than two ounces and you can even make some that only weigh a few grams. The smaller QiWiz alcohol stove shown above only weighs 18g.

The White box alcohol stove has no moving parts or hoses and is maintenance free.
The White box alcohol stove has no moving parts or hoses and is maintenance free.

4. Alcohol stoves are maintenance free

Most alcohol stoves don’t have any moving parts and never require any maintenance. There are no hoses or pumps or fuel lines that need to be cleaned, maintained, or repaired. If you want to get fancy, you can buy one with a screw on cap like the trangia shown here.

Vargo Fuel Bottle
Vargo Fuel Bottle

5. No special fuel bottle is required

You don’t need to buy a specialized fuel bottle or canister to carry alcohol. You can use any plastic bottle, including used plastic soda bottles.

Priming flare up on a white gas stove
Priming flare up on a white gas stove

6. Safety

Alcohol is a lot safer to use than other kinds of backpacking fuel because it won’t flare up into an explosive fireball like white gas stove when you fill a small alcohol stove up and light it. Alcohol stoves are easy to put out by snuffing them out and you won’t reak of gasoline if you spill it on your clothes.

You don't need to build an gasoline refinery to make alcohol, which is still made using fermentation
You don’t need to build an gasoline refinery to make alcohol, which is still made using fermentation

7. Environmentally friendly fuel

The creation and packing of alcohol doesn’t have the same toxic by-products that are created during the manufacture of white gas (which is super refined unleaded gasoline), isobutane canister gas, or hexamine solid fuel tablets. Alcohol is still made using a natural fermentation process, although on an industrial scale.

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36 comments

  1. They also work better than gas in windy conditions.

  2. Hmmm…my Whisperlite works great in wind and cold. I agree with the points above but will stick with my well-maintained Whisperlite. I did once go out with a guy who had a leaky MSR white gas stove. I moved about 70 yards away every time he cooked. The guy was nuts.

  3. Where I live (Colorado), alcohol stoves are increasingly seen as dangerous in fire prone areas (that is, nearly everywhere with beetle kill and other factors making our forests prone to big fires). Presumably, this is because alcohol stoves are easy to knock over. One recent fire in Northern Colorado was caused by a camper accidentally kicking over his alcohol stove. Rocky Mountain National Park has recently put into place a ruling that all backcountry users carry stoves that have an on/off switch. This is the same requirement law enforcement uses when we are under fire bans, which is now happening more and more frequently.

  4. I wonder about safety. For instance alcohol burns with a nearly invisible flame in day light which can lead to accidents. Also, if a stove is tipped over fuel and flame can easily spread.

  5. I haven’t used an alcohol stove, but it’s my understanding that you wouldn’t put more than an ounce or so in it at any given time. I would hope that other flammables (dead leaves, sticks etc) would be cleared from the immediate vicinity well before lighting the stove, alcohol or otherwise. Yes?

    • Depends on the stove, but you can put in more than 1 ounce at a time. Yes, you should clear the area around the stove of forest debris before using. Putting the stove on a rock also helps insulate the ground.

  6. Excellent article Phillip! Well said.

    The only one I would contest is the safety aspect of alcohol stoves. A very experienced buddy of mine started an accidental brushfire with an alcohol stove and they are often seen as a liability in high fire risk areas. The main issue is that the flame is very hard to see, so it can be tough to tell if it’s well lit or not. Also, you have to be careful when pouring fuel or re-fueling.

    The main downsides I find with alcohol stoves is that they have longer boiling times and they’re susceptible to wind, so they require a good windscreen.

    Great stuff as always Phillip.

    Dave

  7. After trying diligently, I’ve given up on alcohol stoves. Sure, they work great in my garage under ideal conditions, but in the field they are a mess. More often than not, in even a slight wind, it took two burns to get two cups of water to a boil. Another maddening thing is that you can’t see the dang flame and are constantly worrying if the stove blew out. The weight savings are a myth when you consider the fuel requirements and “safety stock” needed when planning a trip. With my Jetboil, I can predict my fuel usage down to a few grams. If you want an alternative to traditional stoves get a Bushbuddy or Solo Stove. Now those are really cool!

  8. This is where I leave this: SOLO STOVE!

  9. Good article. Alcohol stoves are a great way to lighten up your kit, especially for beginners. I remember when I was starting to go ultralight, and I was very skeptical of alcohol stoves, until I made myself a cat can stove and saw how stupid easy it was to make, use and take care of.

    I rotate 3 stoves in my kit, depending on my whimsy for that trip, but my trusty cat can stove gets the nod more than not.

  10. All alcohol stoves are not equal when it comes to safety. Zelph and others make stoves that don’t spill when they get knocked over.

    This feature saved my ass when a branch fell on my pot and stove knocking over my food but the flame stayed contained.

    Also, I have seen more dangerous situations with other stoves.

    Any stove knocked over has the potential to start a fire but at least alcohol doesn’t have the explosive and/or flame thrower qualities of other stove types when complicated gaskets, valves and tubes, containers, … fail.

    I have gladly stopped using my white gas and canister stoves for three season use.

  11. I carry an alcohol stove and small amount of fuel as my wet-weather backup to my wood-burning Solo Stove

  12. i have just starting using a canister stove this past year after years of cooking over a fire and then using the dreaded whisperlite. I love the canister stove. My cooking style has changed to boiling water to rehydrate meals versus cooking for any length of time. The canister stove is awesome for making a quick meal anytime. I can get 8- 10 dinners out of one small canister. I do have a alcohol stove that I have never fired up. I like the availability of alcohol fuel for thru hiking. Though the longer boil time is less appealing. Maybe I will give it a try. Perhaps my 1 ounce alcohol stove can be used a s back up for the canister when fuel is unavailable.

  13. Those of us on the extremely dry west coast are now required to have a stove with a shutoff valve–and often UL approval–in nearly all jurisdictions, any time there are fire restrictions. It’s not a case of which stove is better but which stove is legal! For those hiking long distance, it’s which stove is legal in all national forests–each one seems to have slightly different rules.

    I do own an alcohol stove and have tried it. It’s not all that bad, and so what if it takes a couple minutes longer to boil water. However, every time I pack for a trip, I automatically grab my canister stove–it’s just more convenient. This year, at least, it’s also legal, while the alcohol stove is not.

  14. I have WAY too many stoves–if P.T. Barnum ever referenced stove suckers, I’d be the one born that minute! Various types of stoves have advantages and disadvantages for me.

    I have the original JetBoil and a SolTi–great for simply boiling water and my grandson knows how to set it up and use it. When hiking with the grandkids, the SolTi works best. My granddaughter thinks ramen noodles is gourmet fare and I hope she never changes on that.

    I also have a couple other small canister stoves. One of the disadvantages of canisters for me is cold weather performance since most of my hiking is in winter and my experience with them is they get finicky once the thermometer dives a few degrees below freezing and that’s when I really need a hot drink or meal. I know the inverted canister stoves are better in that regard but I don’t have one of those since I have to prove P.T. Barnum wrong somewhere! Canisters can also be hard to find, especially on the fly and drive trips my wife and I like to take. Sometimes, there is no store that carries them convenient to our travel itinerary. For fly and drive trips, I prefer one of my alcohol stoves because I can get the fuel anywhere.

    My White Box alcohol stove is quite useful because it has a wide flame and burns about 15 minutes on a fill. That way, I can fry eggs, make pancakes, etc. if I’m so inclined. My wife has gotten used to cooking with it and can prepare some nice meals with that piece of equipment. I built a small aluminum stand the same height as the stove so that a pan will sit on the stand and keep the stove pressurized without knocking things over. The stand fits into an Olicamp pot along with the stove. I also have a small vortex style alcohol stove that shoots a flame pretty much straight up, which works well for boiling water in the Olicamp pot but has too focused a flame for more traditional cooking.

    Late last December, my brothers in law and I spent 5 days kayaking 83 miles on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. One brother in law had an Esbit stove set that had a pot and Esbit and alcohol burners. It all nested in the pot and was very compact for stashing in the kayak. I used my JetBoil and tried out my Solo Stove but was too cold, wet, and tired each evening to mess much with the Solo Stove–I just wanted to get something warm in me! Also, my gear was wet and full of sand, which didn’t stop the JetBoil from working but I didn’t think the environment was too good on it. The wet gear was mainly a function of a leaky spray cover and less than optimal dry bags, not to mention a couple side excursions which involved exploring the underside of the Rio Grande from an inverted kayaking position, something I would not endeavor to try again in winter.

    I liked the way the Esbit set nested and found one online with heat exchanger on the bottom of the pot and a Trangia type alcohol stove included and P.T. Barnum struck again!. I think it will be a go-to piece of equipment for kayak and motorcycle trips in the winter.

    • would like to see a pic of your setup for cooking eggs and pancakes which require a lower flame than I get with my 12-10 and Caldera Cone. OTOH, I love how unfinicky it is to light compared to my White Box.

  15. For all the same reasons that Phil listed above is why I like my super cat can stove. It’s simple and light, did I mention light, it is an extremely light setup. I use the super cat with both an aluminum foil base and windscreen and have never had a problem. Sure boil times are longer but I’m willing to accept that in order to save weight. The downside, as others have mentioned, is the lack of being able to see the flame during the day. I do not use denatured alcohol, only Heet in the yellow bottle. It burns clean and in boil time tests, done by others that I’ve read on the internet, it had one of the best times.

  16. The biggest reason to use an alcohol stove is the overall reliability. In general there is nothing to break like o-ring seals or pumps. The second reason to use an alcohol stove is the performance in cold weather (below 32 F) is better than most canister stoves (invertable canister stoves are the exception).

  17. I have a snowpeak cannister stove and emberlite wood stove. But this post is interesting me in expanding my gear. When heating up 2 cups of water, how much alcohol should one use? Also, when punching holes in a cat (or tuna?) can, what is the best number of holes to punch?

    Thank you

    • 1 ounce will boil 2 cups of water in about 6 to 7 minutes. As far as the number of holes, as you can see in the photo in the blog, you will need to provide two rows of holes in an alternating pattern with about 16 holes per row.

      • Others wrote about the need for a wind screen. If fewer holes are drilled, would this lessen the need for a wind screen?

        Basically, the 16 holes look nice, but is there a scientific reason for the two rows and that many?

      • The windscreen is a must regardless of the number of holes. The windscreen is needed to keep the heat concentrated on the bottom of your pot and not blown sideways, out and away from it. As to why that many holes, I’ve never analyzed this issue, it’s just what I’ve learned from others. Maybe less will work better or more??? If you find out, please post.

  18. In Australia Denatured Alc is called Methylated Spirits (Metho for short). I’ve mainly used canister stoves but availability can sometimes be a real pain away from major centres over here. Metho can be found nearly anywhere. Stoves I have are a MSR Reactor Great for fast water boiling, not so good for simmering but very wind proof and doesn’t need a windshield so quick and easy to set up and use. Also a Kovea Titan Camp 3 stove, good heat control, but needs a windshield so bit more to set up. Both have proved reliable so far. But an Alc stove wins reliability hands down. Only used the trangia set up years ago (too heavy). Have looked at trying the White Box stove… have to get a mate in the States to post it on out also liked the look of the Esbit kit that Grandpa mentioned which I think has an insert to also use Esbit blocks too, or have read of people using twigs, so seems flexible. Another plus to Alc stoves is the ability to reduce fuel taken/ carried for short trips.

  19. ETOH stoves are also great to travel with. 3-5 Oz of fuel and a good cozy = 3-4 days of oatmeal or freeze dried food in the hotel. Preheat the water with the coffee pot to conserve fuel.

  20. Boiled water at an outdoor air temperature of 0 (zero) degrees Fahrenheit on a Trangia as an experiment just to see how it would work. Water and alcohol started at about 65 degrees F — from inside the house — but they could have been kept that warm inside a sleeping bag. Also have cooked on that stove in the Winter. Extreme cold does not have to stop an alcohol stove!

  21. This very rainy year, it has been fine to use an alcohol stove, but a few summers ago, alcohol stoves were forbidden in my state’s parks due to drought. Alcohol stove flame is hard to see, so be careful around it.

  22. And also fun to build yourself! I have about 3 different alcohol stoves I’ve built. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but it’s fun to do when I have time, and it doesn’t cost me anything so she can’t get upset for me buying crazy expensive gear when I can build my own :D

  23. A alcohol stove can be useful, but be sure you master it before you go. A canister stove is easier to use and when you’re cold, hungry & tired it’s probably a better bet if you don’t have experience using an alcohol stove.

  24. I have a Vargo Decagon. It’s super light, tough as titanium because it is, super stable because of the wide foot.

    Lately, I’ve been taking high proof grape ethanol, which is 95 percent pure and drinkable when diluted, as my stove fuel. I can put a tablespoon or so in my Tang, and have a nice screwdriver to celebrate life outdoors. Also, there’s always a bit of alcohol left in the tank on an alcohol stove; I put that in my Tang, too.

  25. If anyone is interested in a good self priming in under 15 seconds alcohol stove I would recommend looking at tetkoba’s capillary hoop stove I made mine out of the new bud light re-sealable cans because they are made of heavier aluminum. mine is super durable almost always self primes in 7-10 seconds and will boil 1.5 cups of water in most outdoor conditions in 5:30 on 15-20 ml of alcohol. its a pain to make but if done right it will be one heck of a stove. you can watch videos on how to make it on tetkoba alcohol stove channel and much more.

  26. By the way you’ll love the music it’s super awsome

  27. Great article. Here’ why I haul around my old, brass trangia: I can store unused fuel in the stove, 2. I can regulate the flame with the adjustable regulator, 3. I can shut it down in the blink of an eye with the closed regulator, 4. It looks cool.

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