Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Getting Started on Alcohol

A few of my many alcohol stoves.  L to R:  Cat food can stove (home made), Atomic stove (Mini Bull Designs), open top jet stove (home made), White Box stove (White Box Stoves), civilian Trangia (AB Trangia)
First, let me say that you're talking to a long time white gasoline user here. When I was a kid, dad had an old white gasoline two-burner "suitcase" type stove. We used a white gasoline Optimus 8R when we went backpacking. I bought my first stove, a white gasoline only Whisperlite, in 1986. For all of the 80's and 90's, that was the only stove I had.

But as with us all, increasing age has crept up on me, and carrying a big, heavy pack simply isn't an option anymore. Lately, I've been trying to find ways to lighten up my pack. One of the ways I've tried to do that is by experimenting with alcohol stoves. Let me give you an example: Remember my Whisperlite that I bought in 1986? It weighs 312g/11oz for just the pump and stove (i.e. not including the windscreen, fuel bottle, and fuel). By contrast, my 12-10 alcohol stove from Trail Designs weighs 16g/0.6oz. That's right, my alcohol stove weighs less than one ounce. A Whisperlite is nearly twenty times heavier than my 12-10 alcohol stove.  Speaking of the 12-10 stove, if you'd like to see my pick for a good ultralight alcohol set up, check out my article and post on the Caldera Cone.
The 12-10 stove (in my left hand) from Trail Designs.
Now, in all fairness, alcohol doesn't contain as much heat per gram as white gasoline. One does have to carry more alcohol to do the same amount of cooking, but given that the Whisperlite is so much heavier to start with, unless you're doing multi-week trips without resupply, an alcohol stove will almost always be lighter overall.

Alcohol stoves take a bit of getting used to. They're slower, generally have less flame control (depending on the model), and are more vulnerable to wind. To start, you might try taking an alcohol stove on day hikes.  They're light and compact; you'll hardly notice they're there. A cup of hot tea on a cool fall afternoon is a real delight I must say. Then maybe try bringing an alcohol stove on a "quick overnighter" (one night out).  After you've tried some "quick overnighters," then maybe build up to a full weekend, and then maybe a multi day trip.  In no time, you'll feel very comfortable with your alcohol stove.

When you do start experimenting with alcohol stoves, I recommend an open style.  An open style is the easiest to fuel, easiest to light, and is fairly simple to make.
An open side burner stove (left) and a closed jet stove (right)

Here's a video from renown ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka on how to make a simple cat can stove.

When you start working with alcohol stoves, be sure to match the stove to the pot.  Take a look at the below photo.  Notice how the flames spill up around the sides of the pot?  Those flames are wasted heat and therefore wasted fuel -- fuel that you had to carry on your back.  You want to avoid flame spillage by choosing a low wide pot rather than a tall narrow pot.  Match the pot to the flame pattern of your stove.  You want to avoid any flame spillage.
This pot is too narrow.  Note how heat is being wasted up the sides.

Be sure to use a windscreen. The flames from a non-pressurized alcohol stove have a pretty low flame velocity.  Wind will play hob with your cooking if you don't have a windscreen.  If you've already got a liquid fueled stove, the windscreen from your liquid fueled stove should work fine. If you don't have a windscreen, check out my article and blog post on windscreens.  In particular look at the multi-layered aluminum foil windscreen I made.  For an alcohol stove, you won't need one that is as tall as the one I made for my canister stove, but the principle is the same.

A tip as you experiment with various types of alcohol stoves:  A slow stove is typically a more efficient stove.  Stoves that heat water more quickly usually burn through more alcohol -- alcohol that you just hauled all the way up and over that high pass.  Get a slower, more efficient stove, and you can make your fuel stretch a bit longer.  Alcohol is about lightness and efficiency.  If you're looking for fast boil times, you might want to look at gas or petroleum based liquid fueled stoves.

For beginners, I wouldn't recommend bringing an alcohol stove if:
  • You're cooking for multiple people (too slow)
  • You're melting snow (not enough power)
  • You're cooking a complicated menu (not enough flame control typically)
  • You're headed out in weather near, at, or below freezing (alcohol doesn't vaporize well in cold weather)

Set up on an alcohol stove is a breeze. There's typically no pumping or priming. Just pour in some fuel, light, and go. There's no heavy steel canister with delicate threads that could be cross-threaded as with a gas stove. There's no pump that could break or seals that could fail as with a petroleum based liquid fueled stove. And it's QUIET.

Try it; I think you'll like it.


Related posts and articles:
A classic, old Trangia 25 alcohol burner.  Extremely windproof.


  1. The DIY alcohol stoves makes it possible to match your exact needs. I prefere the results of the stoves with an open center just like the Trangia, and I have to design them with depht at maximum = diameter of the center hole. Higer stoves tends to not burn all the alcohol in cold weather, lower stoves runs out of fuel to fast.

    I have learned a lot, but keeps on using pressurisd stoves.

  2. Interesting! I've been playing with DIY alcohol stoves a lot lately. I've experimented with different heights. That's a really interesting idea that the maximum height shouldn't exceed the diameter of the top opening.

    I too like the open type stove such as a Trangia.


  3. Hi,
    I have just bought a titanium alcohol burner, with a lightweight pot stand/windscreen.
    It seems from one of your pictures above that the pot should sit directly on top of the burner. I was sitting it on top of the stand (an aluminium folding type). If this so I will need to bring some sort of stabilising device. I was also concerned by the black residue I got from the fuel. I have got Isopropyl 100, which claims to be Lab Grade. I just abandoned a hard fuel system I was trying mainly because of the residue. I have got used to clean pots with a gas burner. Am I doing something wrong or am I asking for a different type of experience...
    Many thanks for any advice.

    1. One should generally stay away from isopropyl alcohol if one wants a clean burn. See https://adventuresinstoving.blogspot.com/2011/08/alcohol-as-stove-fuel.html

      Your pot doesn't necessarily have to rest on the burner. In fact, most alcohol stoves will not work well that way.



My apologies to real people, but due to Spammers I have to moderate comments. I'll get to this as rapidly as possible but do understand that I like to hike and there's no internet in the wilderness. Take care and stove on!