Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of stereotypes perpetuated about alcohol stoves. Initially believing many of these myself, experience has taught me otherwise. Some are reassuring, some disappointing, but in the long run, backpackers thinking about getting into alcohol stoves might benefit from a little mythbusting on the subject. Here are some of the the main myths I’ve heard that might mislead an alcohol stove newbie.
1. Alcohol stoves always save weight. This might be true some of the time but it depends on a lot of things. The length of the trip and efficiency of the stove are probably the two biggest factors. If you have to carry two weeks worth of fuel because your stove isn’t efficient, then in might be actually be lighter to carry a butane stove that is faster and more efficient. However, even an inefficient alcohol stove is bound to be lighter on an overnight trip. The best thing to do is to do some testing ahead of time based on your cooking requirements and get a feel for which is more practical.
2. Alcohol stoves don’t work in cold weather. This myth is only partially busted. It’s not the stove that doesn’t “work” in cold weather, rather it’s the fuel. When cold, denatured alcohol is hard to light. Once it warms up though, it will perform fine even in freezing temperatures. If you look on Youtube, you’ll find plenty of videos showing alcohol stoves running in sub-freezing temperatures. If you want to use an alcohol stove in cold temperatures, keep the fuel warm. Keep it in an inside pocket of your jacket and put it in the foot of your sleeping bag at night (just make sure the cap is tight). Do NOT attempt to warm your fuel bottle next to a fire. If you don’t understand why, please drive directly to the nearest psychologist for a full mental evaluation.
3. Building your own stove is always cheaper than buying a commercially available stove. It really depends on the design. If it’s a simple Pepsi-style stove that you can make from a couple of soda cans and tools you already have laying around the house, then yes. But some designs require special tools and materials that could easily put your cost above a butane stove like the venerable MSR Pocket Rocket. Probably the biggest cost is associated with the inevitable addiction that building stoves tends to create in people. Over the years, I’ve spent enough money on specialized tools to make alcohol stoves that I could have purchased one of every stove REI currently offers. Alcohol stove building is a serious addiction. Pfizer really needs to come up with a patch for it.
4. Alcohol stoves are slow. True, some are slow but what they lack in speed, they make up for in efficiency (thus allowing you to save weight in fuel). There are plenty of alcohol stoves out there that can boil the standard 2 cups of water in under 5 minutes. I wouldn’t call that slow. I’ve used some commercially manufactured stoves that had 4-5 minute boil times. Sure, my Snow Peak Gigapower boils 2 cups in about three and a half minutes (on average), but does another minute and a half constitute “slow”? I don’t think so. How impatient have we become? I don’t consider a boil time of around 5 minutes slow at all. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
5. Alcohol stoves are hard to use and unreliable. This is not true at all in my opinion. They’re a lot more user friendly than most butane or white gas stoves. There’s no maintenance, no moving parts to fail, and really just require filling, lighting, and windscreen placement to operate. What could be simpler? There is no priming to be done, no flame adjustment. You pretty much fill, light, and go. I’m not sure where this myth came from. If you step on most commercial stoves and break a valve or pot support, you’re pretty much out of luck. But even if you step on your Supercat stove, you could most likely bend it back to working order with minimal effort. If my life depended on it, I’d much rather have an alcohol stove in the field than a complicated high performance stove with a lot of parts to fail.
Those are some of the common myths I’ve encountered. Which ones have you heard, confirmed, or dispelled?