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Why Do Backpackers Like Alcohol Stoves?

Why Do Backpackers Like Alcohol Stoves?

Alcohol backpacking stoves are popular with long-distance hikers because they’re inexpensive and lightweight. They’re also a good option for beginners looking to soften the upfront expense of buying backpacking gear. Here are the main reasons why alcohol stoves can be a good option for boiling water and backcountry cooking.

Note: Some areas of the United States, often out west, ban the use of stoves without an off-switch. Check the local regulations before you assume that alcohol stoves, wood stoves, or solid fuel stoves are permitted. 

1. Alcohol stoves are inexpensive

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

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

2. Fuel is readily available

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

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 many gas stations.

3. Alcohol stoves are lightweight

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

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.

4. Alcohol stoves are maintenance free

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.

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 classic Trangia, which lets you burn unused fuel at a later time.

5. No special fuel bottle is required

Vargo Fuel Bottle
Vargo Fuel Bottle

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, although the Vargo Fuel Bottle is by far the most popular fuel bottle carried by backpackers and thru-hikers.

6. Safety

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

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.

7. Environmentally friendly fuel

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

The creation and packing of alcohol doesn’t have the same toxic by-products that are created during the manufacture of white gas, 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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51 comments

  1. On last years section hike of the AT, I discovered none of the hostels I visited had alcohol fuel available, but they all carried canisters. Also, the church hostel that I stayed at in VA getting off trail was none too pleased to find my leftover alcohol in the hiker box. I didn’t see any other hikers using alcohol stoves in 200 miles. Back in 2010, these stoves were much more common.

    • And the year before no one carried canisters because there was a world-wide shortage.

    • I used a White Box alcohol stove on the PCT in 2011 (I know, it was a while ago) and every stop had fuel that would be sold by the ounce. I’m not sure if one can be used now, but mine did seem to get the job done every time without fail. I may go back on the trail in 2024 and I hope I can still use the stove.

  2. When my wife and I do a ‘fly and drive’ vacation, the fuel issue helped convert us to alcohol. Once, we took a trip to Western Canada and stopped at 23 stores over the next few days and never found a canister for my JetBoil. Other than the large city we flew into and drove away from late at night, we were never near a big box store. On our last day, a kindly park ranger gave us a partial canister. Since that trip, an alcohol stove is our travel cooking device.

    The White Box stove has a wide flame and lasts 15 minutes or so on a fuel charge so my wife can do ‘real cooking’, which she enjoys.

    Some airlines’ official policy is that they will only allow canister stoves that are ‘new in the box’. They worry about fuel vapors that possibility could come from any tiny amount of fuel left in the inner workings of the stove–likely not an actual safety issue in my opinion, however it could become another kind of problem if they confiscate your stove.

    I think a way to possibly satisfy airline personnel is to open the valve and completely vent your stove after use and perhaps find a way to give a blast of air thru it before closing the valve and putting it up for the next trip. That may reassure them your stove is safe to fly. After making sure you’ve done that, repacking it in the original box might help you completely avoid the issue.

    I once saw an out-of-fuel thru hiker put some twigs in his alcohol stove, light them and cook with those. The holes in the side turned it into a nice wood burner. He was so quick about it that I could tell he’d done it often.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

    • That said, I suppose you could have a alcohol stove and a small vial of fuel as a backup, if trip planning shows possible canister issues. Light enough, taking up little space.

    • The TSA site states Camp Stoves are allowed in carry-on baggage only if they are empty of all fuel so that no fuel vapors or residue remain. Wrap and layer in bags so officers can get a clear view of the items. TSA officer makes the final decision.

      • When I fly east to section hike the AT, I go Southwest because their fares are reasonable to my destinations and I can check two bags free.

        I just reread Southwest’s regulations and I had misunderstood their policy on canister stoves. It’s the liquid fuel stoves that have to be new-in-the-box, not canister stoves. Regarding canister stoves, their website says they “…will be subject to limited release as checked or carryon baggage. The stove burner and/or lantern filament may be carried, as long as there is no fuel cylinder.”

        Thank you for pointing my attention to that. It does help my trip planning for my next section hike from Harpers Ferry to central Rockslyvania in April.

    • reading through some of the comments following this very good article and your comments concerning carrying on various flights within the US I wondered if you had ever seen some of the numerous videos on YouTube showing how to make your own alcohol stove?

      Hiram Cook and Tektoba are two I could recommend; lockdown here in Europe meant supplies could be very difficult to come by during the pandemic. simple soda can types are easy and simple to make and should you be forced to jettison one by overzealous airline rulers, cheap to throw away.

      of course you may be an old hand in all this.

  3. Great article. You did forget an important reason they are popular for some, as explained to me by a guy named Chef who hiked the AT during Baltimore Jack’s era. This was my first introduction to what seemed like whole crazy subculture, and it made an indelible impression. I was an inexperienced backpacker at the time, and when he I asked what an alcohol stove was he said this:

    Alcohol stove? Oh, they’re great! Weigh nothing and cheap! You make them yourself with your Leatherman. For fuel, you use this stuff called HEET, just make sure to get the yellow bottle, not the red one. You can also use rubbing alcohol, but that doesn’t burn as well. If you’re in the a state that sells it, the best fuel is Everclear. Multipurpose item and you can make a pretty decent version of jungle juice with those little fruit punch packets they sell at the dollar store.

    As for the can, you can find those lots of places. You can go through the trash if you need to. Make sure you have a penny. You just cut the bottoms third or so off of two of them, kinda push them together, and use the awl on your Leatherman to make some holes in the top one. You put a hole in the middle of the upside down dome and cover it with the penny. You can use soda cans, but I prefer beer cans because, well, then you get to drink beer.

  4. Alcohol stoves are also great for International travelers. Since Covid, hand sanitizer with 70% ethanol is pretty common and standard. It tends to burn a bit slower but works well in most stoves (except stoves that use wicking material). My 2 cents.

  5. Drop-N-Roll (because I set myself on fire with an alcohol stove)

    Umm, what rock are you living under? No responsible hiker carries alcohol these days because of the fire danger. It is not as safe as you claim. In fact, alcohol stoves are often banned by mid-hiking season in the western US during times of high fire danger because they do not have an on/off switch and therefore are not easily extinguishable. It’s very easy to knock an alcohol stove over, spilling the fuel and spreading the fire (I speak from personal experience, and know others who’ve had incidents). Multiple wildfires have been started by hikers from this exact scenario. Please update your article to include information about precautions and when it is actually appropriate to use an alcohol stove instead of the blanket praise.

    • Thank god I backpack in the east. No permits, no stove bans, a greatly diminished National Park Service (dictators), no drought, etc. Rain is a wonderful thing.

      • As I said on your Facebook page, that’s some inaccurate info.

        Calling NPS “dictators” seems a bit of a stretch, too, when BAH runs the permitting system for 13 Federal Agencies (and Reserve America for state agencies) and collects the Ticket Master-like upcharge fees. But that’s another ball of wax.

        In any case, to paraphrase my response to your paraphrase here –

        Joan and I got out ~90 bag nights this past year and needed a permit for (generously) a quarter of those nights. And, frankly, much more public land to see and experience within 3-4 hours of our home than when I lived not far from you currently do now. And with fewer people.

        • I don’t know about that. The publically and privately accessible lands in NH, VT, NY. and Maine, not to mention eastern Canada and its Provinces are simply VAST. You may have grown up in NH but I don’t think you really tapped into all that’s available. I know I won’t be able to visit a fraction of it in my lifetime. Not may people up here either. No fees worth mentioning, no constant forest fires or droughts. I think it’s paradise.

        • Hmm, your replay button is disabled for this one post. Odd…. But facts are stubborn things.

          And, esp for New England, your “vast” numbers are suspect –
          https://www.nrcm.org/documents/publiclandownership.pdf

          >>Not may people up here either.

          The Boston metro area has 5 million people
          NYC Metro 19 million
          Montreal metro 4 million
          heck even NH itself has 1.4 million

          Speaking of Canada…

          If you want to play a magic trick and go further afield to places more than 3-4 hours away that neither you nor I frequent, I’ll count parts of Canada and Mexico further away in the “West” as well. Unless you plan on recreating in Montreal and nearby itself.? And not much public land there. See the 4+ million people just over the border.
          https://clss.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca/…/CL-MAP-TC-CARTE-QC.pdf

          Unless you drive or fly further than ~3-4 hrs, of course. In which case, I’ll play the same magic trick, too.

          And Canada, as you know, has been stricter about entry vs. the US esp in recent times. And could easily go that way again. And you still need the mother of all permits -a passport and going through customs. Not a problem, but some people call permits tyranny from what I understand. ?

          >> I think it’s paradise.

          I can’t argue that as that’s a chocolate vs. vanilla argument. And neither view is incorrect.

          But I can point out your incorrect information esp in regards to “Tyranny of the permit system, NPS, bear canisters and all the rules you have to follow out west.” That’s not our experience.

        • Just limited levels nested comments Paul. I live 3 hrs north of Boston – 6 hrs from New York. True we see some people up here during ski season and on major holidays, but most of the north country land use is by local folks. I suspect that one difference between the east and out west has to do with private property. The vast amount of private property in the east (mainly lumber companies or the old college grants) is open to public use. If it ain’t posted, you have access, respectfully of course. Since I live 15 miutes from Maine and about 40 minutes from Vermont, the state borders are pretty meaningless to me and everyone else up here. The only visible authority up here, in terms of land use, is DEC in New York State (Adirondacks) and they’re pretty mellow as long as you wear snowshoes in winter and use a bear canister in the high peaks regions which is a fraction of the Adirondack Park. The users of the eastern National Forests are largely self-regulating, since the Forest Service is so under funded here. I suspect that private property use is much more limited out west, but I defer to your knowledge of such things.

    • That said, whiskey and a canister don’t mix either! Also cost me a little extra when I had to repair the hole I’m my dynamo tent. Just sayin that both are just as nasty if ya don’t drink and camp! Winter works great as summer for a light clear gas stove!

  6. Alcohol burns suck because you can not see the flame very well and underappreciate what is happening until too late. Having said that… make it a rule to pick up your burner and feel that it is cold before you “top it up” with more fuel. Have a canteen of water near the stove. Unlike gasoline, alcohol fires can be put out with water.

    I can not speak to all areas but last year in Sequoia they seem to have relaxed about alcohol stoves. They are low risk and frequently used by the PCT hikers. I think over the years they have seen few problems.

    I feel as safe with alcohol as it do with any of the other options.

    • Alcohol stoves don’t cause fires, people do. I’m not against fire bans, but I suspect campfires, cigarette smokers, chainsaws, power companies, and lightning cause more forest fires than backpackers using alcohol stoves. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Smokie (that time I almost burned my tent with a canister stove)

      I’ve tipped over my canister stove and nearly burned my tent to the ground because any source of fire is potentially dangerous. Canisters are great when there’s a ban on sources without a on/off switch. Alcohol is a sustainable fuel, has multiple uses, and in most cases it’s ultralight. So are Esbit stoves. I’m going to use those options whenever I can so I can enjoy the peace and quiet knowing I’m not using fossil fuels.

      • I have an Amicaus Soto Canister stove. I also was using an Esbit gizmo which held a pot over it and folded down to nothing. But I nearly set a picnic table on fire with that little number. But I like having two burner options because it means I can boil water for my coffee and use the Soto for cooking where I want to be able to regulate the flame. So for my next excursion I now have the Vargo duel fuel stove. Still small and light, but much more stable than the folding tripod base. And it can use both the Esbit fuel and alcohol. I like having options.

  7. Loved this article. And I have to imagine Philip is correct on the stats for causes of fires. I wonder if gender reveals gone wrong cause more fires than alcohol stoves too?

    On the subject of fire safety, I think it’s also important to distinguish liquid alcohol stoves from wicking alcohol stoves. And to call out that an on/off button on a canister stove isn’t magical, despite what NPS seems to think.

    If I knock over my Trail Designs Kojin, with its alcohol wick/batting, it goes out. Knocking over my TD 12-10 liquid alcohol stove would of course create a rapidly spreading pool of invisible death fire. And if I knock over my tippy canister stove, I have a blow torch pointed at the ground until I can get to the valve.

    One other rarely-mentioned alcohol stove benefit: they’re dead silent.

  8. I agree with the assessment of whether the stove or people cause fires, but will note as another datapoint that Scouts BSA bans use of alcohol stoves by Scouts for safety reasons. No “off switch” and a hard to see flame are the two reasons I’ve heard mentioned. That and a culture of playing it “extra safe” on everything they do.

    • Sometimes when we are teaching the scouts about the different types of camping and backpacking stoves I will light up one of my homemade alcohol stoves as a demonstration. Then explain why the BSA has prohibited them.

      Doesn’t prevent me from taking that stove on non-scouting backpacking trips, however. :)

    • Sending a 15 year old into the wilderness with a bottle of everclear would also be frowned upon….

      Yes, I’m sure it’s positioned as a safety thing but if someone came out with an ultra-safe alcohol stove BSA would continue to say it’s a “no”.

  9. I don’t use a gas stove. I understand the dangers of an alcohol stove, can someone educate me on a gas stove? Do they have an automatic off switch in case the stove is tipped over? Is it assumed, if it’s tipped over and there is no shutoff, a person can reach over and shut off the fuel supply? Is that why it’s safer than alcohol, because the alcohol would stay lit until burned off?

    If that’s true, even gas stoves have a chance of starting fires. Maybe its more prudent to say a gas stove is safer than alcohol stoves, but gas stoves are not fireproof.

    There seems to be, “my way is right, your way is wrong” finger pointing going on in this post. So, maybe this is a great post to have as maybe we can all get a better understanding and or education regarding stoves. I doubt you meant to poke the bear on this one, but maybe moved the dialog further along. Or maybe this post has a bad case of “Trolls.”

    • Not trolls Cheri – I know most of these people or they’re frequent commenters. I stomp on all spam anyway since I read all the comments on the website and I have zero tolerace for it.

      When people on this tread talk about gas stoves, they mean isobutane canister stoves, like pocket rockets and jetboils. of course, you can’t see those flames in the daylight either, but the scouting authorities think they’re safer for children (and their parents) because they have an off switch. They’re VERY easy to tip over however, unless used with one of those plastic folding canister stands.

  10. Another big plus for alcohol stoves…. They’re quiet!

    While I can appreciate the roar of my old JetBoil or Optimus stoves the relative silence of an alcohol stove is appreciated in early morning camp.

  11. For people new to alcohol stove, gel alcohols are a great way to get started. Gel alcohol does not spread out like denatured alcohol and IF there is a spill, the locations stays small and containable. As Phillip says “Alcohol stoves don’t cause fires, people do”. If you are not competent to operate an alcohol stove safely (and in a safe environment), then don’t use one.
    There are two ways to know if your stove is still burning, place your hand about 10-12 inches above the stove; you can feel the heat coming off. Second, you can add a little salt to the fuel; it will then burn with a yellow tinge. My 2 cents.

  12. Another plus for alcohol stoves is it is generally easier to recycle the containers alcohol comes in than finding a place that can recycle fuel canisters. Personally I rotate between alcohol stoves, twig stoves, and cold soaking, depending on the season, regulations, and other criteria.

  13. When you state “denatured alcohol – commonly called meths overseas” precisely where are you referring to?

    You may not have noticed, but a lot of ‘overseas’ to Americans is not English speaking. Don’t ask for meths in France, Germany or most of the rest of Europe.

    Alcool à brûler is what you’ll need to buy in France & parts of Switzerland. Buy the 95° rather than the smelly 90°… it burns cleaner and is cheap.

    Each hiker should do their own research for elsewhere and note also that, certainly here in Europe fire bans can be severely enforced

  14. One big positive about alcohol stoves that no one has mentioned is that they are MUCH quieter than other stoves.
    Regarding the fire danger in the western states mentioned by a previous coomen: I’ve not heard of any fires caused by alcohol stoves in CA over the last 35 – 40 years that I’ve been backpacking here and other western states. Any “cooking” method other than cold-soaking is a fire risk, but with proper care and caution, alcohol stoves are safe.

  15. I have 3 alcohol stoves but for my Trail Designs Caldera Cone titanium Sidewinder stove I much prefer ESBIT tablets.

    • I am glad I brought my diy Fancy Feast last spring. My Jetboil Mighty mo burner wouldn’t vaporize because of the cold. I kept the canister in my bag too. The extra eight ounces of stove and fuel saved the day. I will bring my diy Caldera cone next time. I also use my Trangia 27 for some trips. You won’t burn a spot on the picnic table with it either. I also use a MSR Whisperlite but I don’t get much snow here anymore

  16. It’s been mentioned but one bit to add is that the stabilizers for fuel canisters made by Jetboil (orange plastic) and the metal universal version made by MSR do a very nice job of making the canister stoves much safer to use as far as tipping them over is concerned. I prefer the Jetboil version in warmer temperatures as it stores easily inside most pots used these days. The MSR version is easier to mount and remove from the canister in cold temperatures (below freezing) but will not store in pots similar in size to the MSR Titan Kettle (850 ml). The alcohol stoves that are positioned lower to the ground such as the Evernew Titanium stove with the DX stand/windscreen or the cross stand are relatively stable and not easily tipped over. However, without an added external stand, the Fancy Feast alcohol stove (a good MYOG project by the way) is easily tipped over if care isn’t taken with site selection to cook (level ground free of combustible debris) and placement of the pot on the integrated stand (tomato paste can). I’m not sure that alcohol stove systems are that much lighter than canister stoves if you’re out for more than about three days and they aren’t necessarily more compact (depends on the alcohol stove system chosen) but they are certainly quiet which in group camping situations makes an early start less disruptive for the late risers. This has been a great dialogue.

  17. i think noise from my stove is a plus. I can tell it’s doing it’s thing. I generally camp away from others and I also stay near to it in case it tips over, starts a fire, or my meal starts boiling over.

  18. You can’t beat the boil time for canister stoves.

  19. can we add Esbit tabs to the discussion?

  20. I have an old Pocket Rocket and have done some homemade alcohol stoves. Never used Esbit. I’ve been no-cook for my summer solo trips for a while, but I’ve been considering getting a Caldera Keg with Kojin, and Esbit to try as well, for shoulder season trips.

    If I am actually cooking/simmering in my pot when family camping, I’m taking my canister, but if I just want to boil water, I’d go with alcohol (or Esbit – TBD). For a lot of hot food and drink, I don’t need to bring the water to a boil – hot enough is fine: “hot soaking” food. :)

  21. I have a Kovea and Vargo alky stoves and the Kovea works best. I use them in my Trail Designs titanium Sidewinder Caldera Cone stove, which came with its own alky stove as well.
    BUT… I much prefer using ESBIT in that stove with the BGET burner that captures the liquid burn residue and burns it as well for a longer burn time.

  22. Oops, a little late to the party…
    I REALLY WANT to like alcohol, as my main fuel, for all the reasons mentioned above. But, in the few times I’ve used it in the field, it seems to take a lot of time and alc to boil each liter of water. Time I’ve got, but it feels like I need to carry a greater volume of alcohol, when using that fuel. It would be nice to see a comparison of how much water an ounce of alcohol can boil, and how much an ounce of white gas could boil (not sure if we could pick a different unit that would allow the comparison to stretch to include butane and esbit). Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to how much water is boiled for each ounce of carry-weight for each fuel, or what is the carry-weight of each fuel required to boil a liter of water.
    Thanks.

  23. Y’all east coasters are missing a significant factor about alchohol stoves. At high altitudes and low temps, they are MUCH more difficult to even light. At 9000’ and 30F, I couldn’t get an alcohol stove to light with preheating the alcohol.

  24. I love the simplicity and *quiet* of an alcohol stove. For anyone looking for some temperature control, Trangia makes one that comes with a simmer ring. (It’s not as a light as many of the DIY ones, but it’s still lighter than a lot of non-alcohol stoves.)

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