After my backpacking trip up Mt Lemmon last month I came to the conclusion that I have got to dump some gear weight. Actually, I realized that as soon as I picked up my pack the night before, but I resigned myself to the weight for that hike. Once I got home I went through my gear to start cutting. The first culprit was my stove. I took along my MSR XGK EX, which is an absolutely fantastic stove for backpacking. Multi-fuel, compact, pre-heater fuel line, fast boil times. Great stove for long, cold trips, but an absolute anchor for a couple of nights in the desert. OK, OK, it only weighs about two pounds with a small fuel bottle, but that is a lot of weight and space for an item I only use a couple of times a day. So it was either find an alternative or drink cold coffee!
If you’ve clicked through my blog roll, you’ve probably read about some of the homemade alcohol stoves that are so popular, and I thought the idea might be worth pursuing. For your reference, the two best stove sites I found were Jim Wood’s Base Camp and Zen Backpacking Stoves. Jim is probably the definitive source for information on the use, construction, and theory of alcohol stoves.
Eager to give it a try, I bought some cat food and alcohol, and scrounged up the rest of my supplies from around the house. I fed Saja the cat food (Saja’s Note: Tastes like chicken.), claimed the kitchen table as a temporary man-zone, and set to work.
For my first attempt, I followed Jim’s recommended design exactly. My cheapo paper punch was good for exactly one hole, so into the trash it went and out came the DeWalt drill and a 7/32″ bit. The drill worked fine but did leave some jagged holes. Slow drill speeds produced the cleanest, most uniform holes, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. After a little sanding the stove was done and it was time for testing.
I used two cups of water in both my camp cup and my two quart titanium pot to test the stove. I’m sad to say that my first stove was a complete and utter failure. The stove only burned for 7 minutes and failed to boil the water in either the cup or pot. The flames spread out too far and wrapped up the side of the cup. With a windscreen around my pot, the water did start to simmer just before the fuel ran out.
Back to the drawing board. Obviously the stove was burning too fast, so I decided to reduce the size of the jets and the oxygen flow. I stepped down to a 3/16″ bit for the second stove and reduced the number of holes in the lower row. I also raised the upper row to just under the rim, which of course let me raise the bottom row as well and thereby increase my fuel reservoir considerably.
My results with the second stove were much better. Using a windscreen, the pot began to boil at 8 minutes and the stove ran out of fuel at 11:30. Similarly, the cup began to boil at 9 minutes and the stove again burned out at 11:25. I can live with that. Judging from the boil times, it doesn’t seem that the second design was more efficient in transferring heat, rather the increased fuel supply let it burn long enough to do its job.
A couple of observations:
- Use a windscreen and non-flammable surface. The wind definitely affects this stove and wastes heat. Also, the stove gets hot and the flames jump around a good bit, so you could easily set fire to your cooking surface if you are not careful.
- Alcohol flames are virtually invisible in the day time. Again, be careful.
- Methyl alcohol is hazardous. Read Jim Wood’s article concerning alcohol fuels. Use gloves when filling your fuel bottles and try not to breath too much of the fumes.
- Due to the short burn times, you may consider bringing a couple of stoves if you plan to do extended cooking.
Overall I am quite happy with this project and have succeeded in cutting a couple of pounds of gear. For my next hiking trip my kitchen kit will be the Super Cat stove, fuel, my camp cup, and a spork. Pretty minimal and very light! I’ll mess around a bit with the hole size and configuration, but even if I can’t improve the performance this experiment was a success. Count me in as a new member of the alcohol stove club!
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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!