2017-08-25

Alcohol Stoves

Why burn it when you can drink it? 'Cause this is the stuff that will make you go blind, in fact, alcohol is so common that much of it contains a bittering agent to make it unpalatable.

These stoves run on "Denatured Alcohol" and are significantly lighter than white gas or Coleman Fuel (naphtha), and the fuel they use can be diluted with water. If your alcohol bottle leaks, you can simply let it evaporate off or flush with water to render it harmless.  They have become a favourite of the ultra light backpacking crowd, and appeal to those who want a simple, no moving parts stove, or who may be on a budget or wish to build their own. 
  • lightweight
  • fuel available worldwide
  • no moving parts
  • no maintenace
  • DIY
  • inexpensive 
Of course there are many commercial models available as well, manufactured from brass, tin, titanium or aluminum, such as:
  • Trangia - perhaps the most famous of all alcohol stoves, and has been selling the Trangia since 1925. A number of clones have been made, including one made entirely of aluminum as opposed to the heavier brass construction. The simmer ring can be used to extinguish the stove, and once it cools down, you can cap it and keep the remaining fuel for use later, a feature that the other stoves don't permit.
The Trangia burner with simmer ring
The Trangia Mini

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  • Vargo - offers a number of titanium stove models with differing reviews
  • eBay search "alcohol stove" will come up with thousands of hits including the "whitebox" stove, similar to the type I review.
Alcohol, propane isobutane/cartridge, white gas/naphtha stoves seem to be used in the following order due to starting weight for hikers:
  • overnight and weekend trips up to three days - alcohol
  • longer than three day trips - propane isobutane/cartridge
  • long trips over a week in duration - white gas/naphtha 
This boils down (pardon the pun) to BTUs per pound of fuel (All figures are approximate):
  • Alcohol = 10,000 BTU per pound
  • Petrol/Gasoline =   19,000 BTU per pound
  • White Gas/Naphtha = 20,000 BTU per pound 
  • Propane/isobutane blend = 21,000 BTU per pound
So the alcohol stove is less half as efficient under ideal conditions as the Cartridge stoves, and of those stoves, the venerable old Trangia from back in 1925 manages to beat most of the competition with roughly 60% efficiency. You need to add wind, temperature and other factors in, so the rule of thumb is one ounce of fuel per meal for 1-2 persons, (I've found I need as much as two ounces under adverse conditions) and at ten meals and with higher efficiency, you now want to pack the cartridge stove as it now weighs less than your alcohol stove with fuel.

I guess on a motorcycle weight is much less of a concern, and the more reviews I read on this subject, the far happier I am with my white gas stove, the SVEA123R which can also burn petrol if needed, and that appeals to me as I can siphon some out of the tank if the noodles aren't done yet when I run out of fuel for the stove.  

I've made a couple of the soda can stoves myself, a side burner soda can stove, and I'll admit that while my first one worked, it wasn't very pretty, and it took a bit more effort to fashion a more streamlined version. I found a great YouTube video from Biker Bits Australia and embedded it at the bottom. All you need is a sharp knife, a thumbtack, a pair of pliers , cotton balls and two soda cans to have a working camp stove. Check out how easy these are to make, and how well it performs for Mark.

Ugly as sin, but it works quite well!
 I made the above with a sharp knife, pair of scissors, straight edge and a thumb tack (later on I went with a drill bit), and a black felt tip marker and two pepsi cans.

Fire!!!
I dropped it into a frying pan on top of the stove, and lit it up. This model takes a minute or two to preheat, and in that time will burn with a lazy yellow flame which turns into a hotter blue flame as it warms up. Note that the flames may not be visible in daylight. I had to turn off the kitchen lights and the camera flash in order to get this picture. 

I find that wire allows enough air flow to keep the stove lit under the pot

I found a vendor on eBay that was selling a sideburner that was well endorsed by ADVRider.com members, and decided I'd join the crowd and order one as I had no access to the aluminum beer bottles it would take to fashion the stove, and was pretty excited when it arrived, so I threw together a wee kit and decided I had to try it at work in about -10 degree weather in a snowbank.

And it tries to escape through into the snow bank.
 I found that as the burner began to heat up, it also had the disturbing tendency to melt the snow beneath it and plummet down, so I grabbed an aluminum plate from the truck to serve as a base, placed the windscreen around it, and was able to set my pot on top of it (to immediately extinguish the flames). *sigh*


I then fashioned a loop of steel wire to set on top of the burner to allow a couple of millimetres of air flow, and lit it again. This time it burned well, although it extinguished before the water was boiling, and I refilled the burner to maximum this time with about three ounces of fuel or more.

Heating up the water for my lunch
It took a lot longer with more fuel than I was expecting to get to a boil in the cold weather, around 8 minutes or so, but eventually I was able to pour in my Cup Of Soup packet and stir it as it quickly cooked.
Soups up!
 Alrighty now. It passed the test, but I was disappointed by how much fuel it took to boil the water, and later on that summer when a group of friends and I chose to ride the Trans Labrador highway, I left this behind in favour of my trusty SVEA123R.

I wasn't about to give up though, and after a bit more research, I found that the "Penny Can Stove" seemed to be favoured as highly efficient, so found another eBay buy that came with a stove, flashlight and lighter! 

You can see in the picture that it is would with rope. The idea is you fill the stove via the hole in the top, then stopper it with the thumbscrew. Now you need to raise the temperature to increase the pressure inside the stove, so you soak the rope with fuel, and set it alight. Once this stove gets going it will put out a ton of heat, and run longer than the sideburner stove I tried, but with flames all over the outside, you need a flame proof surface to rest this on, or you might end up on Smokey the Bear's most wanted list. (Don't STAMP on a grass fire, try to SWEEP it out, or dump water on it. Don't ask me how I know)

All this and more could be yours!
This model also needs a pot stand supplied, and a windscreen as well, and I was able to find a multipurpose one on eBay that I would use with this stove and my SVEA123R. 

If you'd like to build your own Penny Stove, you will find a link here to instructions on how to make one. PDF Format


Another eBay gem
I never really used this windscreen with the alcohol stoves, although it seemed a really neat idea, the SVEA123R comes with a built in windscreen, and the alcohol stove is so lightweight and small that a windscreen this large and heavy is overkill. 

Back to the beer bottle stove and another roadside lunch break, and it was clear that the little stove performed much better in the summer weather, and it seemed to take no time to heat up a tin of chili for my lunch. In fact, I used too much fuel and had to remove the pot from the burner long before it went out!

What's cooking?

I needed to test this in the field, and later on at a Vintage Road Racing Association weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park I was able to put beer bottle sideburner to the test once more, this time on some hot dogs that I was sure Suzi would enjoy as much as I would.

Everything is in here but for the food

What I really love about this setup is how small and light it packs away. This pot set is actually part of a larger 4 piece set, and is the smaller of the two pots, the larger one stores my SVEA123R set. Inside you can see:
  • aluminum foil windscreen
  • j-cloth cleaning rag
  • fuel bottle
  • the inverted stove on top of the fuel bottle
I can easily cram a packet of Cup-a-Soup or some tea bags in here!

Nalgene bottle fuel storage

It's time to get this show on the road, as Suzi is looking longingly at the hot dogs, and beginning to lick her lips in anticipation.



Sorry folks, this is going to take awhile.
I had to bring the water to a boil and keep it there, and the stove was easily up to the task, and in due course I thought the hot dogs were nicely done, although Suzi thought they were too hot.

Note the flames heat the side of the pot? I need a bigger pot.

I learned a couple of things here, first is that your windscreen needs to be close enough so the flames stay underneath of your pot, but not close enough for them to contact and melt or slag the screen itself. Second, those pot handles are HOT! I used my hat to protect my hands when removing if from the stove.
It's about damn time!

Suzi's review would go something like this... "It took forever! I would have been happy eating them stone cold! It's not as if they hadn't already been cooking on the motorcycle all afternoon long! Nom nom nom, please sir, may I have some more?"

It's all about the Heat. Directing, retaining, and reflecting it. 

  • windscreen efficiency and ability to keep heat flowing up around the pot
  • pot size and shape relative to the flame spread
  • reflector base to prevent heat from escaping into the ground
  • Pot Cozy for keeping heat in the pot after it has been removed from the burner. Very popular with the "Freezer Bag Cooking" crowd (dehydrated meals) 
Windscreen: For the DIY crowd, have a look at those heavy foil roasting pans in the supermarket. They are made of heavier aluminum foil and will make a nice roll up screen for your set. If you have more money, you make want to take a look at the "Caldera Cone" system which gets great reviews for speeding up boil times and reducing fuel consumption. I like the look of the tripod style such as that made by Esbit or Clikstand and it gets a good review as both a windscreen and pot stand in one.

Pot Size/Shape: Note that trend for pots to be squat with larger bottoms? This is the reason why. You want the flame spread of the burner to hit the bottom of the pot and spread, not heat the sides as this is inefficient. You might note that my pot is not wide enough for the burner. A trick is to add a bit of water to the burner fuel to REDUCE the size of the flames and keep them under your pot. Suggestions are about 50ml of water added per 1000ml of fuel, or five parts per hundred.

Reflector base: I see many pie tins cut to fit into the bottom of the cooking pot, but larger than the burner base. My main use for my burner base was to prevent it from sinking into a snow bank, and I found it very useful for providing a steady, firm base while using the stove on uneven soil.

Pot Cozy: Most of the examples I've seen have been made out of "Reflectix", basically foil covered bubble wrap found in the insulation section of your hardware store, and rolls of it were under $17 that would provide enough material to make several of them. One blogger suggests using car windscreen reflectors for material. There is also trend for "Freezer Bag Cozy", where a camper would fill their freezer bag in the cozy with the newly boiled water, then leave it in the cozy to re-hydrate and finish cooking while they go on about their over campsite tasks. These are similar to padded shipping envelopes.

Fuels:

In Canada if you are looking for a clean hot burning fuel, you will want to use a refined (think fewer additives) grade of Methanol, and you'll find Recochem Methyl Hydrate located in most paint departments, including that of Canadian Tire and Home Hardware, available in one to four litre containers. I found that a four litre jug is far too much and has been sitting in the garage for six years now. lol. The list below is rated from cleanest and hottest burning down to a sooty, lazy flame from the rubbing alcohol. Basically, the purer your Methanol is, the cleaner and hotter it will burn.
  1. Recochem Methyl Hydrate, along with a link to the MSDS information for it. PDF Format.
  2. HEET (yellow bottle) - available in the United States at most gasoline stations and Wally Mart (avoid the red bottle)
  3. Isopropyl Alcohol 90% or purer USP at any pharmacy
  4. Rubbing Alcohol 




Do not use gasoline/petrol in these stoves, unless your intent is to lose eyebrows and to watch all that lovely aluminum slag down as you set a grass fire at your campsite, impressing both your neighbours and the local fire brigade. Use only alcohol that is Methanol based or Ethanol. Meths will burn cleaner and far hotter.  NOTE: I've learned that you take a risk when using petrol, but it can be done:
Here is a Trangia set that someone is using petrol in, although the flames are very high and the pot is covered in soot.  And Mark from Biker Bits Australia shows you a soda can hack that works with petrol in this video. Have a fire extinguisher on hand or a safe exit strategy or both.

DIY Penny Stove:


Biker Bits Australia - Mark makes it look easy and fun, and does a much better job of it than I did on my first attempt. :P




While I like the penny stove, I favour a modified Starlyte design:


In Conclusion:

While I love the simplicity and weight of the alcohol stoves, I find that I pack the SVEA123R for most of my trips, and have only used the alcohol stoves a few times over the past few years. Still, they speak to me, and I still have half a gallon of Methyl Hydrate aka Methanol sitting in the garage, and that penny stove sitting on my bureau. I keep looking at making a pot stand for the penny stove and thinking of what I have that would make a decent pot stand. This past summer I could easily have used the alcohol stove to heat all the meals I had at the camp site, and thinking of the decrease in weight by dropping to a lighter stove, smaller pot set is very appealing.

If you are interested and want to get started, then I recommend the Trangia Mini set as a great starting place, as it comes with a workhorse of a burner and everything you need to cook over alcohol efficiently for one to two people. Check out eBay for deals and copies.

I think I've got one or two more tours left in me this year before I'm forced to call it quits for the season, and I'd really like to make those runs on a lighter bike with less weight as it really affects wear on the machine and handling in the twisties. 

Resources and Links:

Zen Backpacking Stoves
Adventures in Stoving
Review: Lightweight Alcohol Stoves for Backpacking
Backpacking Alcohol Stoves
The Pika Stove
The Super Cat Alcohol Stove
The Ion Stove
Mini Trangia Mess Kit and Esbit Potstand
Urbanus Magnus - Gear Review: Trangia Alcohol Stoves
My Life on Two Wheels - How I cook on the road
The Best Backpacking Stoves of 2017 - offered for comparison only, and IMHO I don't care for their results, too heavily skewed for MSR products with no alcohol burners tossed in for comparison data.
ADVRider.com - The Stove Thread - 1300+ posts by stove enthusiasts that ride motorcycles and share their gear and success stories (and addiction).
Hobo Stoves
Taiwan Camping - The Ideal Alcohol Stove

Update: I've been playing around with the Super Cat Alcohol stoves made with a hole punch and a cat food can. If you just want to "Boil or Burn" then check out how slick and easy these are to make and use. Windscreen, Super Cat, Alcohol. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

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