When I started backpacking, there was only one kind of stove to take along: liquid petroleum fueled. In the USA, naphtha, also commonly called white gas or Coleman fuel, was used. In Scotland, when I lived there, white gas was scarce so kerosene (known as paraffin oil there) was burned instead. Then, canister stoves and prepackaged cans of isobutane went mainstream. But, some outdoor enthusiasts sought stoves that were lighter, simpler to use, and more environmentally friendly. If this kind of stove sounds interesting to you, you’ll want to read more about alcohol stoves, and the unique advantages they provide backpackers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts.
How They Work
Alcohol stoves burn different varieties of alcohol, namely: ethanol, denatured alcohol, or methanol, which are all readily available at hardware stores and many gas stations. Most alcohol stoves are simple, consisting of a metal container into which the alcohol is poured, and an internal pressurizing chamber from which there are small holes or jets through which the vapor passes out, ignites, and then burns. Variations in the shape and configuration of the stove offer different advantages and disadvantages.
Thru-hikers are all about cutting weight and have to resupply in small trailside towns; since alcohol stoves are smaller, simpler, and lighter, weighing in at ounces instead of pounds, they are ideal for long-distance hiking. The fuel can be carried in light plastic bottles instead of heavy metal containers. There are no jets to clean or pumps to oil like white gas stoves. There are no heavy, expensive bulky canisters to cart around, even when they’re empty. Alcohol stoves are quiet, and most importantly, alcohol is a renewable resource—unlike white gas or butane!
Alcohol stoves do have limitations. They aren’t as powerful in terms of heat output, which means that you’ll need to carry more fuel for less heat than if you were using a white gas stove (although the stove itself is much lighter, nearly evening the score). The flame itself is gentle, which means it is less resistant to wind; so you’ll need a windscreen to keep the flame going in windy conditions. The nature of an alcohol stove makes it harder for them to light when it’s cold outside, so they are typically used as a three-season stove.
Like any open flame, ventilation is essential—and the flame is nearly invisible, so care must be taken handling the stove, lighting it, and especially when refueling. Most alcohol stoves, like white gas stoves, require some priming—the flame takes a few moments to bloom after it’s lit.
A Word On Fuel Alcohol
The word “alcohol” is a generic term for which there are several varieties, with some important differences:
- Ethanol (drinking alcohol). The most expensive fuel alcohol is high-proof (greater than 190) ethanol. It’s expensive, but it burns cleanly, with little soot or aroma, is very efficient, and is non-toxic. Bonus: You can dump excess stove fuel into your drinks!
- Denatured Alcohol. Inexpensive, this is mostly ethanol with a toxic chemical added to denature it—which makes it unsuitable for drinking. It’s sold as stove fuel or solvent, and burns fairly cleanly. Though it may resemble drinking alcohol, it is TOXIC to drink.
- Methanol (wood alcohol). It’s often sold in a slim yellow bottle as a gas line de-icing compound at hardware stores and gas stations. It is furiously toxic when ingested, though.
What to Look For
Finding the right alcohol stove can feel like a challenge. Lucky for you, Vargo has the best ones on the market, and they can be found at major outdoor retailers. Here’s what to look for in an alcohol stove:
Start With the Pot
This may seem backward, but start by deciding what kind of pot you’re likely to use. Short and wide? Tall and narrow? This is critical because different alcohol stoves have different flame patterns. Stoves with the flame output concentrated in the center will work better for narrower diameter pots. Stoves with holes on the sides create a wider, more dispersed flame that will heat a wider pot better.
A wide flame on a narrow pot will waste a lot of heat out the sides, reducing fuel efficiency. A narrow flame on a wide pot could create a hot spot in the center that can burn food. Picking a flame pattern that matches the width of your pot will ensure the best cooking experience.
Almost every alcohol stove you will see is pressurized. This means the stove has an internal chamber which pressurizes heated alcohol into a vapor, then forces it out through holes, creating a powerful flame. Since it burns vapor under pressure, it’s a very efficient system with fast boil times. After lighting, alcohol stoves require a minute or so for alcohol to begin vaporizing and reach full heat output.
Backcountry users are hard on gear—packs get dropped, gear gets tossed roughly into cars, and gear is inevitably abused in the course of a long hike. Look for something that’s rugged without being too heavy, and made of a strong, rust-resistant material like titanium.
If there are any moving parts—like pot supports or stove legs—make sure that the mechanisms are solid. Even better, get a stove which has the pot supports integrated into the stove itself, like Vargo’s Triad Multi-Fuel Stove. The Triad has legs going up to support the pot and legs below to keep it anchored into the ground.
Part of the beauty of alcohol stoves is their simplicity, and many users opt for a stove with no moving parts whatsoever. Vargo’s Decagon Alcohol Stove is a prime example of a stove without any moving parts; compact, strong, and simple, it’s perfect for trips where durability is a key concern.
Stability is critical in all stoves, but even more so in alcohol stoves because of the open, near-invisible flame. Look for an alcohol stove with a solid base that provides good stability or can be anchored into the ground, and a way to keep the pot a proper distance above the flame.
Vargo borrows some tricks from tent stakes to increase stability. The Triad and Converter have legs going down to stick into the ground keeping it secure and legs going up to support the pot. For extra security, stick those legs into the ground like tent stakes to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere. The Decagon has a flat base which makes it difficult to tip over, and it’s made with a solid top on which you can safely rest your pot.
And always be wildfire-conscious. Place your stove on a stable, level surface. Clear out debris below and around your stove, and beware that local fire restrictions can apply to alcohol stoves.
Easy to Refill
You want to make sure that you can easily get that precious fuel into the stove and not all over the ground, or your hands. Keep in mind that doing this in your garage when you’re warm, dry, and relaxed is one thing; it’s a lot harder when you’re tired, your hands are cold, and you want to start dinner miles from home. The best way to make sure of this is to use a fuel bottle that’s designed for dispensing alcohol fuel. Vargo’s bottle features a flip-top nozzle that dispenses fuel cleanly into the stove, without making a mess and wasting fuel. Make it easy on yourself and bring the right gear for the job!
Wind and Windscreens
For your stove to work well, you’ll need to protect it from the wind. Alcohol stoves are more easily put out by wind than their gas counterparts. Windscreens need to protect the flame but also need to fit around the pot you’re using—so once again, take inventory of the pot you want to use.
Windscreens should have enough space between it and the stove. First, you need to allow sufficient oxygen to keep the flame burning optimally. Second, if you put the windscreen too close to the stove, you’ll concentrate too much heat within the stove. Rather than helping, this can cause your stove to burn too rapidly and inefficiently.
Vargo’s Aluminum Windscreen is made specifically for their stoves, with a sturdy build and enough ventilation for efficient cooking!