Alcohol Matters: My DIY Backpacking Stove


The only camp stove I’ve ever personally owned is the “Fancy Feast Model” I made with the instructions on the blog of well-known adventurer Andrew Skurka. I wanted to make my own for a few different reasons:

  1. COST: It cost a couple of bucks for a can of cat food. Oh, and I had to buy a hole-puncher.
  2. SIZE & WEIGHT: It barely weighs anything and is tiny, especially compared to other stoves I could have bought.
  3. COOL FACTOR: There is just something really sweet about making your own functional device.

I followed the directions and easily made mine earlier this year. I could not wait to use it.

FIRST USE

This little stove lost its virginity on the Oregon Coast Trail back in April. After reaching our camp, I pulled the stove out, poured in the alcohol, struck a match and felt delight as it burned. But then the flame went out. I lit it again. The flame went out again, and over and over and over again. (I guess you could say its first time wasn’t so hot)

“I don’t get it. I followed the directions. Andrew Skurka uses it! He boils water in 5-7 minutes! Why won’t it work?!”

Granted it was a cold, windy, rainy night, but I was bummed that it hadn’t worked like I had imagined.

SECOND USE & THIRD USE

Trial 2 came in May, on the infamous bear trip. There was no wind, and the stove stayed lit longer this time, but the flame still went out more than seemed right. I was not satisfied, and we ended up using the fire to boil our water.  I couldn’t imagine depending on this during extended trips, especially in places with no wood or where fires are prohibited, and I started to think more about buying one of those expensive stoves.

DIY Camp Stove
2nd Attempt: Photo taken during a short-lived flame

I used it again in July in the beautiful Enchantments, and it worked okay for coffee and oatmeal, but I ran out of fuel quickly and it still didn’t seem right. Throughout the summer, I relied primarily on campfires or Jon’s stove for cooking.

FOURTH USE

DIY Backpacking Stoves
My fancy feast stove on the left. Jon’s DIY stove on the right.

In August, Jon and I trekked up to Cutthroat Lakes. I brought my stove but this time, I just happened to use some of Jon’s alcohol instead of mine. It was then that I accidentally found the reason my stove had not been working properly. The stove was not really the problem. In fact, it wasn’t the problem at all. It was the alcohol.

Silly me, I had originally picked up some 90% isopropyl alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol) and thought it would do the trick. Nope. It didn’t. The trick is to buy the denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol burns clean and hot, and can be extinguished with water. Crown Alcohol Stove Fuel is a common choice.

Boy was I happy when that flame stayed hot and my water boiled in no time. Success!

A STOVE FOR KEEPS

Look at that flame!
Look at that flame!

Last weekend, I was able to easily boil my water using my little fancy feast stove, even though it was cold and snowing.  I have no plans to use anything different now that I know what fuel to use. Andrew even mentions in the instructions to use denatured alcohol, but I guess I just overlooked that key detail.

Out in the middle of the wilderness, when I see my water boiling using this device that I made from scratch, I  feel a rush of excitement, satisfaction and self reliance. If you’re interested in a lightweight stove and enjoy making things yourself, I recommend trying your hand at one of these. It’s super easy and pretty damn cool. Just be sure to use the right fuel!

[ Jon’s two stoves are different models than mine, both of which he made himself and also work great. He’s on the quest to design something even better, with a faster boiling time and less fuel usage. I’ll keep you posted on what he makes.]

What type of backpacking stove do you use? Any tips?

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