Sunday, August 15, 2010

Top 5 Alcohol Stove Myths

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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?




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27 comments:

Four Jacks and a Pup said...

Thanks for the information, great to see another post!

stick13 said...

1. As a newb to not only stoves (alky or any other) but to backpacking as well, I am definitely still trying to sort the weight differences out to figure which is better for what or when. However, now that I am using alky stoves, they are too much fun to want to quit... did you say that there was a patch for this... :)

2. I was wondering about this, and waiting for some cold weather to try it out for myself. recently there has been a thread at Backpacker.com about this very thing and it seems that the masses agree with what you have said. Thanks for the confirmation, but I still can't wait to try for myself! (And I use HEET...)

3. I haven't really bought any specialized tools, yet... however some parts can be slightly expensive. I went looking for a tiny piece of hardware cloth for one stove and now have a roll big enough to make thousands! No joke. Hey, it's all I could find, anywhere...

4. So true. I am having fun playing with my cool alcohol stove, and in my opinion 6 minutes is just right.

5. I own 3 manufactured alky stoves and about 8 homemade alky stoves. I own 1 canister stove and it is collecting dust. I must admit though, the canister stove is rather simple to use, but I totally agree about the complexity of the stove to actually function. Plus if I step on my Supercat or Pepsi cans stove I'm not out $40!

Great write up Jason, as usual. Thanks for sharing.

Greenie said...

Another great post. I currently have a Kovea. But each time I read your blog I am more tempted to talk a alcohol stove with me.
Thanks!

a2Eric said...

In my testing, if a trip is long enough to exceed the fuel in one bottle of HEET, using a canister stove is more efficient for overall weight and number of uses.

Anonymous said...

I don't think alcohol stoves are more user-friendly than butane stoves.
How difficult is it to screw the top, open the valve and light it on?

no need to clean or feel. And at the end of the day your hands are clean from alcohol/ gasoline.

Johanne, Vancouver said...

the best to date was, when I bought a Trangia, the shop clerk told me to use white gas, as it would be much more efficient.

I gasped and asked him to find someone who knew these stoves.

Oh, and it was a very reputable store, too.

Lance Milks said...

Hey Jason,
I too have found most of these so called facts about Alcohol stoves to be untrue. I love my settup and I dont believe you can get much lighter. Also six minutes to boil water just lets me sit back and take in the view for a few minutes. It almost makes me stop and relax and remember what im out there for.

Jason Klass said...

Anonymous,
If you're using gasoline in an alcohol stove, you've got bigger problems.

Kathy Handyside said...

Oh, good - another good post, Jason! Thanks! I have a JetBoil, a Snow Peak Giga Power (both, of course, canister stoves),a Clikstand Trangia and just recently bought a Gram Weenie Pro alcohol stove. I love the simplicity of alky stoves: pour in a little fuel, light it, and relax. As you said, no need to worry about parts failing with alky stoves, and thus no need to carry a stove repair kit. Since all I do is freezer bag cooking, an alky stove is all the stove I need.

Anonymous said...

HI
I d like to know if putting fiber glass in a pressurized stove will increase the efficience?
Thanks

Anonymous said...

How about Safety?
I have never had an alcohol stove but I was out with a friend who thought his home made alcohol stove was out of fuel while boiling water. So he squirted more in not knowing it was still lit. The sun was shining on it so he could not see the blue flame. The thing exploded and caught him, his tent and the ground in a 20 ft radius on fire. that's why I use Esbits. Not as much fun as Alcohol but by the time you factor in the container for the alcohol are just as efficient by weight.

Lance Milks said...

A resonse to the Saftey post.

I have been using Alcohol stoves for at least ten years and have never had a problem. Here is a trick to seeing if your stove is out. Grab a twigg and stick it the flame pattern if it lights, the stove is lit if not, well you see. A lot of stove makers have recently started to fill stoves with things like carbon felt and fiber glass so that they cant be spilled once filled either. Im pretty sure that you can get hurt with almost anything that has a flame. Just use a little sense and you should be fine.

Jason Klass said...

Anonymous,
Putting fiberglass in some stoves can increase the efficiency. It depends a lot on the design. But sometimes, it can produce an orange flame which I don't like.

Edgar said...

Jason, yet another great post...
Another myth I often have to deal with is indeed the safety issue (as mentioned above me).
I usually answer that like in any other stove, it depends on the common sense of the user...

Edgar

James N. said...

On a number of winter trips my alcohol stoves have well out performed the canister (butane) stoves of friends. This is not at altitude, but does reveal a limitation of canister stoves.

One thing Jason didn't mention is that while it might take an alcohol stove five minutes to boil water, it is completely silent in that process. No jet engine sounds to disrupt the wildlife or wilderness experience. If you need a hot meal fast simply start cooking your dinner that much earlier.

Clio said...

This is a good review for alcohol stove. It is very informative. I absolutely like it because it is simple,small and handy. It helps to lighten up our backpacks.When you have less, you have more. So I recommend buying products that are light.

Dan said...

This is an interesting discussion. I myself go for alcohol stove that are handy. Going lite is a challenge to campers and small stove is one solution to that problem.

JoeS said...

5-6 minutes? I routinely get 3 minute boil times for 2 cups of water on my home-made alcohol stoves. Always outperforms by brother's esbit stoves. Only now that he bought a Heinigan set up does he even get into the competition!

White gas does make triangula stoves more efficient: fill, light, instantly vaporize water, cookpot, etc. How is that for efficiency? But who can rehydrate their food with water vapor, and who can sit and eat with third degree burns?

Tom said...

I have a MSR pocket rocket and a DIY aluminum can stove. My biggest reason for the can stove was the fuel. My wife and I sometimes fly to a warm destination and camp during the Christmas holiday. Ever try getting a canister of fuel on Christmas? Our plane (no fuel on planes, duh) landed Christmas eve after the stores closed. Then we had a boat to the Channel islands the day after. I was unable to buy fuel, but two coke cans and some booze were easy to find. I made the thing from memory in the hotel before we left.

Bigerrfish said...

wow what a subject!!
great read! I dig gear reviews

www.bigerrfish.blogspot.com

outdoormarc said...

In regards to a previous post. I get a constant 6 min boil with 1oz of heet for 2 cups of water in my gram weenie pro. which IMO is perfect. I call bull on your 3 min. boil time. no way. sry dude.

Anonymous said...

The Swedish military uses alcohol stoves for its troops and I understand that it gets a LITTLE cold and snowy in Sweden. Since the Swedish military is one of the best in the world, and has some of the best equipment, it seems that alcohol must be a good reliable source of heating in the far north.

JoeS said...

Outdoormarc: The weather was warm (late May in Ohio) and so was the water. I used a set up where the pot sat on the stove, preheated with a warming pan underneath and a wrap around wind screen boiled 2 cups of water in 3 minutes. Trials in my warm workshop had similar results. Belive it or not! Ideal conditions of coarse. I have not tried it in cold weather yet but my Svea mountaneering stove takes that long to warm up and stablize in cold temps.

CiT said...

Different kind of stoves have different kind of applications. It all depends where and when. I frankly think alcohol stoves are great use for short hikes as it pack light. For longer hikes or big groups, butane would be ideal.

I have put up a post in regards to different kind of stoves taken off from ZenStoves.net, there is a chart giving you an idea weight vs meals. Also on the post I have made an improve design alcohol stove called CiT MX stoves.
http://www.taiwancamping.net/2011/01/ideal-alcohol-stove.html

lesrust said...

I've had several knee surgeries, back surgery, and am getting a bit gray and long in the tooth. When I discovered how light and cheap alky burners were, I decided that I could get back in the woods again. I love the simplicity and the silence. I'm not out in the woods to win any quick cooking contests. I've surely got time to sit back for a couple of minutes and enjoy. I get pretty good boil times, which means that I won't starve in the mean time and I've got time to feed my soul. All in all, alky burners are a great, light, efficient, effective, and enjoyable way to satisfy my need to eat and explore.

Anonymous said...

I thought the fuel was toxic, is this true? What happens if it spills on your food/gear/hands? What chemicals are given off from burning denatured alcohol?

jason graham said...

Jason my friend is an avid backpacker. However he is planning a trip where he uses gasoline for his stove's fuel. Explain the pros and cons on stoves that use gasoline.