Home / Inner Journey / Reminitions on the Alcohol Stove: Embarrassments and Triumphs Never Before Revealed by Will Reitveld

Reminitions on the Alcohol Stove: Embarrassments and Triumphs Never Before Revealed by Will Reitveld

Homemade Photon Alcohol Stove
My first alcohol stove, a hand-made Photon pressurized stove, made from instructions posted on the internet by Don “Photon” Johnston.

Although backpacking ultralight is easy to accomplish today, I remember back to 1999 when my wife Janet and I first adopted ultralight gear and techniques. Although both of us have backpacked for many years, our retirement opened the floodgate and we were finally free to hike and backpack as much as we wanted.

Thanks to Ray Jardene’s book and the ingenuity of thru-hikers making their own gear to lighten their packs, ultralight backpacking became “popular” in the late 90s and the movement was on. Truly lightweight gear was scarce then, and hikers had to be resourceful to find existing lightweight items that would fill a need (remember the “grease pot”?), make their own gear, and share information on the internet.

One of those first items was the “Photon alcohol stove”, invented by Don “Photon” Johnston, who posted construction details on the internet. At the time Janet and I used a Snow Peak GigaPower canister stove (we called it the “GigglePower”), but we had issues with its weight, reliability (we had one quit on us), and warnings about using a windscreen with a canister stove. But we also had some trepidations about relying on an alcohol stove to cook our meals. At the time, no one seemed to know for sure if an alcohol stove would work at high altitude, which is where we hike.

So I made one and it turned out pretty nice. After testing it at home (it worked beautifully), we took it on our next backpack, a three-day trip where we camped above 12,000 feet. On our first blustery evening in camp I fired it up under a pot stand and cook pot, then wrapped a windscreen around it to shield it from the wind. Well, it didn’t work quite as well as it did at home. The stove heated very slowly and it emitted a strong alcohol smell. We ended up eating undercooked lukewarm food on that trip and Janet was not real pleased with me and my funky alcohol stove.

Field Made Alcohol Stove
My crude Cat Stove, constructed from a beer can I found along the trail using a single edge razor blade. It worked just fine.

Back home, some research and consulting disclosed the probable cause: the stove was starved for air because the windscreen was wrapped too tightly. At higher altitude, where the air contains less oxygen, I needed to raise the windscreen a bit at the bottom and allow more space between the windscreen and cook pot.

With this remedy, all went well on the next trip and we were quite happy with our ultralight Photon alcohol stove. A few years later, in 2004, I joined the Backpacking Light Magazine staff and became the Cooking Systems editor. That position gave me the opportunity to test and review lots of stoves and learn a lot about them, but the alcohol stove has always been my favorite – it’s lightweight, clean burning, versatile, and elegant.

Another spectacular goof I made was on a backpacking trip in Arches National Park for three days where on the first night I discovered that our cooking system was missing the alcohol burner (I had taken it out to use with another setup). We had everything except the burner. As Janet was getting concerned about another cold dinner, I had a light bulb moment. I had noticed a beer can a short distance down the trail, so I went back and got it. With a single-edged razor blade from my pack I converted the lower part of the can into a “Cat Stove” which is simply a cup with holes just below the rim. The stove worked perfectly and the crisis was over. This time I was praised for my brilliance, which was a big improvement over my ignorance on our first alcohol stove experience.

Trail Designs Caldera H
The Trail Designs Caldera H utilizes a 24 ounce Heineken beer can for a cook pot. The burner is protected from wind by an aluminum cone that suspends the pot. This is state-of-the-art for an alcohol (or Esbit) cooking system.

With the introduction of the Trail Designs Caldera Cone cooking system a few years ago, the alcohol stove has been transformed into a very efficient, lightweight, reliable, and inexpensive cooking system. I love my Trail Designs Caldera H, which is a system based on a 24 ounce Heineken beer. The whole system – cone, burner, cook pot, cup, fuel bottle, and cozy — weighs just 6.2 ounces. But I still find that I need to elevate the cone a bit at high altitude to make sure the stove gets enough air.

About Will Ritveld

Will (aka Willi Wabbit) and and his wife Janet (aka BOS, which means Buns Of Steel) have been life-long backpacking enthusiasts. When they retired and moved to southwestern Colorado in 1997, they were released into a vast area of backpacking opportunities – at about the same time ultralight backpacking became popular. They quickly got involved in the movement, making a lot of their own gear at first, and helping to spread the ultralight philosophy. Will got involved in gear testing originally with the BackPackGearTest Group, then joined Backpacking Light Magazine, where he published hundreds of articles on lightweight gear and technique over 8 years. Janet played a supporting role as co-tester on numerous projects and as Will’s photographer and photo editor. Will served as Senior Editor for Gear and Apparel at BPL until his recent “second retirement”.

Will’s blog is Southwest Ultralight Backpacking Ultralight Updates.

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  1. As always, I enjoyed the article. My first alcohol burner was the venerable Trangia. Heavy for what it is, and, a real fuel hog, but it burned almost as hot has my old stove . However, the 32oz of fuel carried for 4 days out was a real killer. The Aluminum stove pipe worked real well as a windscreen/cone with a piece of wire, and, it created a vortex directing the heat directly under the pot. I still use the old grease pot, having dificulty with fragile nature of the various beer can pots I tried.

    Anyway, the one heavy luxury I allow myself is the old Swedish SVEA. I dropped from ~24oz (two 12oz bottles of fuel) for 5 days to one 12oz for a week. But, of course, I am always carrying the bloody “pound-plus” stove. (While they are listed at various weights the stove itself weighs about 17oz. The cup weighs about 2.5oz.) With a taller piece of alum foil and on low, it is simply the most fuel efficient stove I have ever used in my 40+ years of hiking. More efficient (considering canister weights) than cannisters or alcohol. I carry a Miniposa for loads up to 25 pounds, sometimes a bit more, but not as a general rule. The small size helps me to pack 10-14 days of food for longer hikes, It is about the same as the CC-H system. for 10 days, but far easier to use.

    I generally reserve the CC system for short trips, where I can fit 12oz of fuel into my pack and still have a small reserve (about 2oz.) at 2-3oz per day. Using a 12/10 with simmer attachment (made from aluminum foil…similar to a Brasslite,) I can get 4 cups in the morning (I LIKE mocha and oatmeal) and 3 cups at night (supper and mocha.) It works out real well.

    I really enjoy your writing, a good blend of practicality and technicality. Thanks, Will and Janet!

  2. I love reading stories like this about DIY home made gear. I have been obsessed with trying different types of alcohol stove designs lately. I have a mess of soda cans and tuna cans that are all cut up differently on my work bench in the garage. My favorite design, and probably one of the easier ones to build, is the hybrid jet alcohol stove made from two soda cans. Seems to be a pretty efficient design so far.

    Being able to adapt and overcome while out in the field is what differentiates different types of outdoorsmen.

  3. Will, maybe, just maybe, you’ll push me over the edge. I’ve suffered a quandary for years: alcohol or canister? The canister won out on the AT, but I always had this nagging guilt, the canister itself. I’d look at it and feel guilty, I’m generating more landfill with it. If they at least made them rechargeable I wouldn’t feel so guilty.

    The weight of carrying a spare canister on the longer sections didn’t even bother me all that much. One trick I came up with early-on was to put a small scratch in the paint on the canister each time I used it. This way, I had a record of how many times it had been used. I hate surprises, especially running out of fuel to cook a meal. With the scratches, I could gauge the use and judge it I would need a spare.

    Back to the alcohol. Many of my hiking friends along the AT used the soda can/tuna can stoves with great success. Granted, the meals took longer to cook, and the weight of the fuel did offset the stove weight advantage. The big plus was being able to find fuel anywhere. Canisters can be difficult to come by, and they can’t be shipped by air.

    My last long hike was on the Camino de Santiago, Spain. I didn’t even carry a stove there, and most don’t even carry a tent. We walked 800 km, ate in a café every night, with a bottle of wine and slept mostly indoors. Don’t try to assemble the tent AFTER a bottle of wine. We did carry a tent and camped six times. I’m a ham-radio nut and liked to camp so I could put an antenna wire in a tree and get on my Morse code set. In fact, some of my ham radio gear is built in tuna cans. There’s even a web site that carries a line of gear in tuna cans ( QRPme.com )

    I think I’ll follow your example and build a stove here at home, work out the bugs and then take it on my next trek. “Hey honey, guess what? I have something I want to try on cooking our Thanksgiving Turkey!”

    You’re an inspiration Will and Janet.

  4. Maybe I missed the point of the article because I am only on my first cup of coffee. In my younger days, (early 70’s ) I backpacked but also did winter mountaineering in the lower 48. I have owned and used the Svea 123, Optimus 8R, the Phoebus, MSR Whisperlite,several Bluets, and various more modern cannister stoves including the Jet boil Helios system. On the picnic table I have used the 16.4 oz propane cannister stoves and the Coleman stoves including the small GI variety. (Of course dismal attempts with sterno and solid fuel and hobo stoves)
    Several years back I became aware of the alcohol DIY stoves spawned on the AT. I tried to make them and failed miserably as sheet aluminum is not my media but rather concrete and steel. I finally became aware of Minibull Design stoves I now own an elite, a BIOS and an M2-SB. I just wish my friends would return them after I loan them out. They work so well that they grow legs. I doubt I will ever be on the Lambs Slide on New years day again but if I did attempt Longs in the winter again I would take the MBD stoves without hesitation.

    • Actually yes…. the fire rings I helped build for the Boy Scouts work fine. I built bridges, tunnels and mine shafts for a living.

  5. Dave, I just have to ask: did you have any success with the concrete and steel stoves?


    Now that would be a fun piece for an April Fool’s article…

  6. Ignoring warnings of addictiveness, I got sucked in and spent a summer drinking V8-Fusions and eating horrible potted meat and vienna sausages to build various alcohol stoves. Beware!

    Once I’ve emptied a couple more 2 oz. travel shave cream cans I’ll probably be at it again; glued to a priming pan from a vienna sausage can bottom they make neat little burners.

  7. I love your engineering and creativity in designing new stoves. I recall hiking the White Mountains in NH with a Coleman Stove. I also used that stove for more than a year when I lived in a tent and then in a log cabin. It was stable and quick to heat.

    Now that I am older and looking for more compact and lightweight gear, I will check out these alcohol stoves. Thanks for writing about it and getting me thinking.

  8. Nice article! I went from a super heavy stove and 16oz propane canisters (the Wal-Mart ones :) to the other extreme, a flimsy tiny Esbit contraption that I bought in Germany and that was working surprisingly well. Esbit fuel was too annoying to come by though, and couldn’t be taken along on airplanes either, so I started experimenting with various cat food tins. This worked okay enough, but living in a high rise, I didn’t have access to the tools needed to bring my toys to the pro league. Thus, for the past two years now, I’ve been trying and using some of Zelph’s contraptions. I like the ingenuity, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Alcohol stoves rule!

    Funnily enough, my cooking vessel, a cobalt blue enamel cup, stayed the same throughout, and has survived about 10 years or so of ever changing stoves. Maybe it gets replaced by a titanium cup one day .. but so far, this cup didn’t need no messing with. I like it the way it is :).

  9. Philip, thanks for posting this article by Will Reitvelt, the Dean of lightweight backpacking. I’ve been packing in the northeast for 55 years, so at 74 years old weight has become a big concern if I want to stay on the trial. Most of those years I used a Svea 123 in a Sigg Tourist cook set. However to educate myself on going lighter, I joined BPL. By using their information supplied by a sophisticated membership, my base weight has dropped a startling 15 lbs!!! But using an alcohol stove is the crowning glory. Instead of attempting to make a stove, I bought a Mark Jurey Penny Stove; a masterpiece. For me, the best part of using an alcohol stove, besides the weight saving, is the sound. It’s virtually silent, so I can enjoy the sounds of nature.

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