Necessity ignites hiker’s fascination with alcohol stoves
Mark Stambaugh’s wife peeks into the garage, smiles, and says, “Nothing captures a boy’s attention like playing with fire.” Then she closes the door and leaves her husband to answer my burning desire for his insight on homemade alcohol stoves for backpacking. “She’s comfortable with all the flames,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time out here testing designs.”
The payoff: Stambaugh can look along almost any road and find the free material he needs to make an efficient disposable camping stove that weighs less than an ounce.
All he needs is an aluminum can and the Leatherman tool he carries.
The fruits of his trial-and-error research plus step-by-step instructions are boiled down on his Web site for anyone to see.
“I started experimenting with alcohol stoves after a camping vacation where we flew out of town to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail,” he said. “We had mailed our stove ahead because of luggage restrictions, but once we got there we had a heck of a time finding the white gas.”
Alcohol stoves – aside from being free and ultralight – have other advantages, he said, including a variety of fuel sources, such as:
•Denatured alcohol available in paint and hardware stores.
•Heet gas-line antifreeze (methyl alcohol in yellow bottle) available at auto service stations and mini-marts.
•Everclear grain alcohol found in liquor stores (doubles as a potent base for cocktails).
•Rubbing alcohol available in supermarkets, but recommended only as a last resort because of poor performance.
Stambaugh demonstrated how he could use a knife to score the circumference of an aluminum pop can and break the container cleanly in half. He used the pliers his Leatherman to fold and bend down the sides to form an aperture about the size of a quarter. The awl was used to punch exhaust holes every three-fourths of an inch or so around the can just below the folds.
“This is the simplest version,” he said. “Very serviceable.”
For even more efficiency, he makes several other designs. The smallest, made from an apple juice can, weighs only 6 grams, but requires the user to come up with some sort of pot stand.
“You could use rocks,” he said. “But I’ve made a nice stand out of bicycle spokes that weighs only 16 grams.”
That’s a virtually weightless total of three-fourths ounce for the set.
The largest of his preferred stoves is made from two cat food cans stacked together, the bottom punched with exhaust holes and larger burner holds cut in the top.
Other refinements include adding a piece of fiberglass insulation (optional) to help wick the flame and using various hole sizes to produce a hotter flame.
In his home shop he simplifies the process with minimal tools:
•Utility knife blade fixed in a 2-by-4 board to form a jig for scoring the cans.
•Paper punch for forming the smaller exhaust holes.
•Hole saw for cutting the larger burner holes.
•JB Weld (high-temperature epoxy) or RTV high-temp silicon for fastening cans together in more sophisticated designs.
•Sandpaper for fitting joints.
Stambaugh, a member of the Spokane Mountaineers, clearly had a blast testing and perfecting his noiseless, odorless stoves. He didn’t want me to miss any of the fun.
We made a stove in a few minutes and put it to the test.
Under indoor conditions, the tiny apple-juice can stove used only one tablespoon of denatured alcohol to boil a pint of room-temperature water in 3.5 minutes.
“I use aluminum oven liner for a windscreen to increase its efficiency outdoors,” he said.
“The only situation where it’s not a top choice is for snow camping. Alcohol doesn’t burn as hot as stove fuel, so you’re at a disadvantage when you have to melt snow.”
He notes that denatured alcohol is more expensive than Coleman stove fuel, but it has the advantage of being packable in used plastic toiletry bottles (with a tight-fitting lids) sized to the fuel needs for the outing.
“Other than the cost of the fuel, everything else is cheaper, more available, more travel friendly and lighter,” he said.
Becoming comfortable with home-made alcohol stoves has been liberating, Stambaugh said.
“I can make one in minutes in my garage, and then after a trip I toss it in the garbage and fly home.”