Friday, May 3, 2013

Fire Safety – Alcohol vs. ESBIT?

Currently, there are three active wildfires burning within a one hour drive of where I live.  None of these that I know of were caused by a hiker, but here's one that was:  The Hewlett Gulch Fire (you might want to turn the sound down if you're at work; he cusses under his breath).

From a newspaper article:
The U.S. Attorney's Office ... announced that Fort Collins resident [individual's name withheld] has been cited for causing timber to burn without a permit. [The individual] is accused of starting the fire on Monday, when a stove he was using while camping along the Hewlett Gulch Trail lit the blaze. The stove was a small, backpacking-style stove that burns alcohol.  [emphasis added]
First, let me lay my bias out on the table:  I like alcohol stoves.  I like that they're ultra light.  I like that they're simple to use.  I like that there's very little on them that can go wrong.  I like that they typically burn cleanly and have very little (if any) smell.  I like that they're essentially silent.  I like that I can buy fuel in bulk.  All my "go to" set ups for solo backcountry travel are alcohol based.
A Trail Designs Ti-Tri Sidewinder with an alcohol stove, one of my favorite UL cooking set ups.
Are alcohol stoves safe?
So, first issue:  Are alcohol stoves safe?  I mean is the fire shown in the video above just a fluke?

I think it depends a bit on the design of the stove.  I've personally never used a "tippy" or unstable alcohol stove -- but not all alcohol stoves are equally stable and safe. Note:  An alcohol stove that uses an absorbent wicking material (e.g. carbon felt or similar) would probably be safer, depending on how much alcohol was added to the stove.

I'm always very careful about how I use a stove.  I've never felt like I was endangering the forest (that I love), but realistically not everyone is as careful, and, even if I'm careful, no amount of care is ever 100%.  What if I knock it over?  What if a strong gust of wind tips it over?  Flaming alcohol everywhere.  Sometimes I'll use a full ounce (~30ml) of alcohol at a time.  If spilled, that could spread over an area that I might not be able to extinguish. Some fellow hikers have challenged me on the safety of alcohol stoves.  I have to admit that I don't have a good rebuttal.

There's another hazard besides simple spilling:  refueling.  The flames of alcohol typically cannot be seen during daylight hours.  Stories abound of people trying to refuel a stove that they thought was no longer burning only to have huge flames burst out as they poured alcohol into a burning stove.  And where does that now flaming container go when things catch fire?   Most of us would drop it or throw it, which could be a real disaster.   Always feel for heat with your naked hand before refueling an alcohol stove.  Do NOT depend on being able to see the flames.  See also this cautionary video:

Are alcohol stoves permitted?
Now, the second issue:  Are alcohol stoves permitted?

From the Sequoia National Forest website:
Allowed are: lanterns and portable stoves using gas, jellied petroleum, or pressurized liquid fuel outside of developed recreation sites or campgrounds, but only with a valid California Campfire Permit (available free of charge).
Other National Forests in California say essentially the same thing, and in speaking with others around the western United States, these seem to be pretty much the standard rules.  In other words, alcohol stoves are generally not permitted in National Forests in the western US.  Note:  Always check with the particular land management agency for the area you wish to visit; there are always exceptions to general rules.

So, canister gas, pressurized liquid fuel, and jellied "petroleum" are allowed, but typical liquid alcohol stoves are not.  By "jellied petroleum," they mean Sterno which is actually jellied alcohol not jellied petroleum.  In other words, non-liquid alcohol stoves are allowed.  See also Appendix I, Jellied Petroleum, below.

Is ESBIT safe?
ESBIT on the other hand cannot spill and cannot spread.  ESBIT does not emit sparks or embers that can float off and create a spot fire.  ESBIT does not smolder and then burst back into flame.  Moreover, ESBIT can blown out easily by mouth, much as one might blow out a candle.  I'm not enthralled by the smell of ESBIT, nor do I like the sticky residue it leaves on the bottom of my pot, but absent information to the contrary, I'd have to say that ESBIT is the safer alternative to alcohol for ultralight cooking set ups.
Burning ESBIT in an ultralight cooking set up
Is ESBIT permitted?
Now, is it permitted?  Well, I guess a strict reading of USFS websites might lead one to conclude "no."  However, I feel it is in the same class as jellied "petroleum" (see Appendix I, below).  ESBIT is a fuel that has a) been chemically rendered incapable of spilling and b) can be readily extinguished -- just as easily as a can of Sterno with it's lid.  It's a bit unclear whether the Forest Service is a) just unaware of ESBIT type fuels b) actually intends to ban ESBIT, or c) permits ESBIT since it has the appropriate characteristics (cannot spill and can be readily extinguished).  From a technical perspective, ESBIT is certainly at least as safe as a white gasoline stove and in many ways is safer.  I think there's a bit of gray area here and that the Forest Service should either state outright that ESBIT is banned and why or should state explicitly that it is permitted.  For now, in keeping with the spirit of the regulations, I believe that ESBIT is generally permitted.

Concluding Remarks
I admit that I dislike the ban on alcohol stoves but, grudgingly, I'm getting won over, particularly in times of high fire danger. And ESBIT seems pretty rock solid safe.

The websites of the various National Forests of the western United States are a textbook example of poor writing.   There is a profound lack of clarity on the topic of fire regulations, which I find somewhat shocking since fire is a subject of great importance.  What I've done is to visit a number of National Forest websites.  Only in the aggregate do they start to make sense.  I've quoted the Sequoia National Forest website above since it is one of the clearest.  I believe that I have faithfully rendered the the "spirit of the law" in the above blog post, but there is some room for question.  In the final analysis, the United Forest Service isn't very clear about exactly what the regulations are.  You should always consult directly the land management agency for the area(s) you intend to visit and use a stove.  I do have a general summary listed in Appendix II, below.

Thanks for joining me on the journey,


Appendix I -- Jellied "Petroleum"
All of the Forest Service websites seem to talk about "jellied petroleum."  Jellied petroleum is commonly known as napalm and is used with great effect as a weapon of war; flame throwers use jellied petroleum.  There are no known examples of backpacking type stoves that use jellied petroleum.  So what is the Forest Service talking about?  Let's look at the San Bernardino National Forest's website which has a helpful FAQ section:
Why are jelly petroleum-fueled stoves okay and campfires aren’t?
Gas, liquid, and jelly petroleum-fueled stoves can be extinguished by turning off the fuel source to the stove. Jelly petroleum-fueled stoves can be extinguished by putting a metal lid over the container. This makes their use much safer than campfires. Ashes or hot briquettes can blow outside of the fire pit; these embers can easily start a wildfire. Also, visitors might discard ashes or hot charcoal briquettes before they are completely cool, which could cause vegetation to ignite later after they are gone. Wood, charcoal, or any solid fuel fires are not allowed within the San Bernardino National Forest outside developed campgrounds, picnic areas, yellow post sites, and special use permitted sites in agency-provided fire rings or designated sites at any time of the year.  [emphasis added]
Looking at the above and at other National Forest websites, it becomes clear that they mean Sterno type fuel, which is jellied alcohol not jellied petroleum.

The Cleveland National Forest's web page on Wilderness areas is even more explicit, mentioning the Sterno brand by name:
Campfire, barbecue or hibachi use is not allowed. Propane or sterno fuel stoves are allowed.  [emphasis added]
Notice that the above only mentions propane and sterno.  Does this mean that butane stoves are illegal?  How about white gasoline?  Kerosene?  This is what I mean when I say there is a profound lack of clarity on the topic of fire regulations. Again, one must take the various National Forest websites in the aggregate in order to make sense of them.

Appendix II -- Key Regulations Summary
As I mentioned in my concluding remarks, above, I've visited quite a number of National Forest websites.  If one reads enough of them, in the aggregate, they begin to make sense.  Regulations vary some forest to forest, but generally the below are true.  These regulations are from California National Forests, but regulations in other western National Forests are similar.
  • Backpacking stoves (of any type) are considered by the US Forest Service to be a form of campfire.
  • In the state of California, a California Campfire Permit is generally required in order to operate a backpacking stove.  In some areas, a Wilderness Permit is acceptable in lieu of a Campfire Permit.
  • Pressurized liquid petroleum stoves with a on/off device or valve are generally permitted.   Example:  An MSR Whisperlite stove is permitted
  • Canister gas stoves with an on/off device or valve are generally permitted.  Example:  A Snow Peak Gigapower stove is permitted.
  • Jellied alcohol stoves are generally permitted.  Example:  A Sterno stove is permitted. ESBIT type fuel is not mentioned.  From a technical perspective it has the same characteristics as Sterno (cannot spill and can be easily extinguished), but ESBIT is a bit of a gray area.  I believe ESBIT is in keeping with the spirit of the regulations.  Ask any two different rangers and you'll probably get two different opinions.  At the very least, it's safe from a technical perspective and won't start a wildfire.
  • Liquid alcohol stoves are generally NOT permitted.  They probably are permitted where wood fires are already permitted, but the National Forest websites aren't particularly clear on this point.
  • Wood stoves are generally NOT permitted except where wood fires are already permitted.

Appendix III -- Other Fire Regulations
  • From the Mendocino National Forest website:  "Permits must be signed by an adult eighteen years of age or older."  Apparently, fires are prohibited unless a permitted adult is present.
  • From the Angeles National Forest:  "During high fire danger, additional fire restrictions may be imposed. Before your visit, check with a local Forest Service office for current fire restriction information."
  • From multiple National Forests:  "Clear all vegetation in a five foot radius" and "a shovel is required to be present."  How much the shovel regulation is enforced in backcountry areas is subject to question.  My assumption is that a potty trowel will be sufficient.  A five foot radius seems a bit excessive for a backpacking stove and is hardly a "Leave no trace" practice, but that's what the regulations call for.


  1. In addition to esbit's non-spillable feature for fire safety, it also doesn't spill in your pack. Further, the Gram Cracker that is made for the Sidewinder pictured above only weighs in at 3 grams, plus you save weight by not carrying a fuel bottle, plus it is easier to cache, plus it packs smaller, etc. Rather than esbit being a reasonable fallback and grudgingly accepting it, personally I prefer it. Yes, it burns a little dirtier and smells, but given all the benefits I much prefer it and will take that minor inconvenience.

    1. Well, that and the fact that it's presumably legal whereas alcohol is not -- and that you're not likely to burn the forest down, then boy does ESBIT ever make sense. Thanks for that perspective.


  2. Jim, I have been thinking about this for a long time. I am going to work on a video to explain my perspective.

  3. NOt sure I read the regs the way you do. Neither alc nor esbit is "gas,jellied petrol, or pressurized liquid fuel". Seems to me neither is allowed.
    That said, I should give esbit another try, I think I have a couple cubes in my ditty bag. Do not like the smell or the mess, and haven't used it in years. But not a lightweight kind of guy, use my Primus 71 and a 123 mostly.

    1. Keith, if you read the regs in a completely literal way, then I suppose yes. But in terms of characteristics, I would argue that ESBIT is in the same class as Sterno which clearly is permitted. Indeed, if you take the regs 100% literally, Sterno wouldn't even be permitted since it is not petroleum at all but is jellied alcohol.


  4. I suppose you could consider alc a "gas" too since it's the vapors that burn...and trying to convince someone that esbit and sterno are the same thing....hmmm, and then sterno isn't "clearly perlmitted" anyway as it is not jellied petrol as you noted. Jeesh, confusion reigns!!!!!!
    Most law enforcement types I deal with take things Very Literally!
    BTW very much enjoy your site, and not trying to be confrontational.

    1. Hi, Keith,

      No worries. I'll be the first to tell you that the regulations aren't particularly clear. I've expanded my section on regulations above. Hopefully the expansion delineates which points are unmistakably clear and which are a gray area. I am obviously stretching a bit with ESBIT.


    2. Hello.

      You mention wick alcohol stoves, then seem to dismiss them for no reason: when they sound like they should offer almost equivalent safety to esbit.

      An alternative to a wick stove might be to operate the stove on a wick (eg plumbers cloth) which would catch any and contain burning flames, which could be extinguished with water. I am assuming you are meant to pick a relatively hard to ignite area for your stove.

      Invisible alcohol flames: isn't the simple rule on being able to hold the burner for 5 seconds to ensure its cool enough? Perhaps some kind of salt could be added to colour the flames? However, when recovering fuel I prefer to extract in to an empty bottle (that has volume markings so it doubles as a measuring "cup".

      The ability to put alcohol out with water seems useful. Perhaps a minimum water requirement? If possible placing a stove on stony ground by a river/stream?

      Gas and petrol stoves may have off switches but a such a malfunctioning stove might be rather scary: requiring reaching the switch through flames (near a pressurised container), Knocking over canister-top stove will cause flaring liquid gas to come out.

      It would seem reasonable if your forest service wanted to stick to the known quantity of commercial stoves and
      perhaps pick an approved subset: eg trangia 2x caldera cone (perhaps with wick burner or mat). Perhaps they should do some experiments with all types of stoves. Allowing petrol stoves seems a bit strange (to me).

      I would have thought the ease of putting the fire out was more important than an off switch which may break/become inaccessable..

    3. Well, I won't try to defend the decisions of the bureaucracy. Gas and liquid petroleum fueled stoves are the most common types, so I suppose they've just gone ahead and allowed those. I suspect that the US Forest Service is generally unfamiliar with "alternative" fuels like alcohol and ESBIT, particularly ESBIT. Alcohol and ESBIT are never specifically called out in the regulations.

      I think the argument in favor of spill proof liquid alcohol stoves (filled with an absorbent wicking material) is a good one and is something I'd like to explore further in the future.


  5. Another positive aspect of Esbit fuel is that it can be shipped (legally) in your resupply boxes. That is not true of isobutane cartridges or HEET type liquid Alcohol. I am not sure if you can ship Sterno.

    1. Ah. Now that is a very good point (that ESBIT can be shipped by ground transportation). Thank you for that. You do need to mark it "Surface Only." ESBIT is not permitted on aircraft.


  6. For "able to hold the burner for 5 seconds to ensure its cool enough" I should have typed
    "able to hold the burner for a count of 3 * 5 long seconds to ensure its cool enough"

    1. I understood what you meant. I hold my bare hand over the stove for several seconds. If I can't feel heat, then it's appropriate to refuel.


  7. If you extend the gelled fuel to include gelled alcohol, then you include the viscous, but fluid, gelled alcohol fuels that are used in chafing dishes and as fire starters. These fuels work in the same way as Sterno, but can be spilled. I use this kind of gelled alcohol to start my old Optimus stoves that don't have a pump. If you can find it, it usually comes in a squeeze bottle.

    If the regs say "No solid fuel allowed outside of developed campgrounds", then I would presume that includes Esbit and all other solid fuels similar to Esbit.

    1. Well, Bill,

      If you want to be absolutely sure that you're not violating any regulations, then, yes, you could assume that "no solid fuel" applies to ESBIT. But if you read the USFS websites, they're really worried about things that can smolder, leave hot ashes, or be wind blown (wood, paper, charcoal, artificial fire logs, etc.) -- none of which are properties of ESBIT.

      As to whether or not gelled but still spillable alcohol fuels can be used, I would say "no," but the Forest Service isn't very clear on this point.


  8. Why are you dismissing wick alcohol stoves so easily?

    They should be unspillable and extinguishable by water: shouldn't that mean your forest service could consider allowing them where other stoves are allowed?

    1. Hedg,

      I agree with you, but I'm not the person who has to make the decision. I imagine that the US Forest Service thinks that it will be too difficult to distinguish between different types of alcohol stoves and therefore bans them all.


  9. I was up at Mt. Baldy today and stopped at the visitors center to get a permit to use a canister stove. When I told him I wanted to use a stove (I didn't say which kind), he told me "You can use pressurized or liquid gas, but no solid fuel. Those little cubes, they're not allowed". Apparently, people have been asking about Esbit, which is clearly not allowed per his interpretation. I then specifically asked about Sterno, which he said is also allowed. I said that its not jellied petroleum, and he shook his head and replied "I know, its jellied alcohol, but its OK". He was never rude or anything, but he was matter of fact. I didn't press any further, as I think he made himself clear. I wouldn't use Esbit around these parts.

    1. Hi, Tom,

      Now that's down right interesting. That ranger is way more informed than most.

      Now why on earth would Sterno be OK but ESBIT not I have no idea. That makes no sense although it is the most literal interpretation of the rules. Maybe it's just my problem that I think rules ought to make sense. :)

      Thanks for the info.

  10. Hi Jim, Nice to see your back posting again, although it looks like you have been for a while. :)

    In 2011 I talked to the Part Service when I was planning on doing the Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainer. (Did not get a permit though) and what I was told was that if the stove could be turned "off" then it was legal to use on the trail. Now this is not the National Forest so their regulations can and I am sure are different.

    I asked about Alcohol stoves and at first he said no, but then I asked it it had a lid or cap that could turn it off would that be OK? Although he never said YES, he said that he though that might be a possibility. He then proceeded to "explain" the regulations, and what they were looking for. Mainly that the stove could be turned off or extinguished quickly and that no leftover heat or fire could persist. Although I never got direct permission that I could use the stove, he also never said no.

    So if you had a alcohol stove that could be turned off, or a way to "turn it off" would this then be OK? And / or what about burning Jelled Alcohol in-staid of liquid alcohol in the stove? It's always so nice to have clear and defined regulations to follow! :D


  11. Jim

    There is another heat source used by the US military called Utility Flame. It is a diethylene glycol-based gel that is non toxic, non hazmat, and burns clean. Check it out at UtilityFlame.us

  12. I am not prefer to use alcohol stove as it is dangerous to use it. Fire related accident is becoming common any many people has been killed due to fire. I prefer you go for health and safety session, it will help you to deal with the tricky situation.

    Arnold Brame
    UK Health and Safety Consultant.


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!