Alcohol Stoves Reconsidered

Re-thinking my personal use of the alcohol stove.


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When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail back in the dark ages of 1998, it was just before lightweight gear became more mainstream. I had a large, 5500 cubic inch pack. Wore beautifully made leather boots that were heavy and very overkill for any well maintained trail.  Boiled water in a  stainless steel cook kit. And my stove was a Whisperlite  International.

Summit Killington Peak in 1997. Wooden hiking stick, old school Nalgene and a ginormous pack!

If someone was to perform a straw poll on 1990s and early 2000s backpackers, esp those who were thru-hikers, Whisperlites would often be the stoves of choice.

A marvelous little device that was fairly durable, worked well and heated up water quickly.  Though there were only two settings (blast furnace and off!), veteran users were able to finagle a low flame and make a reasonable facsimile of a simmer.

But these stoves had their downsides: A bit of a learning curve to use efficiently, relatively heavy overall, expensive, they can get sooty and were a bit overkill for what was often the simple act of boiling two-three cups of water during moderate, three-season backpacking weather.

In the past decade or so, canister stoves have replaced white gas stoves among mainstream backpackers as the “go-to” stove.  Not to be confused with the one-pound propane tank stoves, these backpacking canisters stoves are quite compact and light. The typical backpacking canister stove is only around 3 oz, relatively inexpensive (~$40 for an MSR Pocket Rocket as of 2016), easy to use, efficient and the fuel  canisters can be obtained in many places: Outdoor stores, hardware stores in outdoor areas and even Wally Worlds. Different brands of canisters are interchangeable on different brands of stoves, too. (As long as they use the  Lindal valve for canisters. As most newer stoves do)

If a person wants even more efficiency and “oomph” if mainly boiling water (if with a price and weight penalty), the Jet Boil and MSR Reactor stove systems  really crank out the heat while still using the same canisters as the other canister stoves.

Learning to use a white gas backpacking stove used to be a rite of passage for most backpackers: The fine art of pumping the canister, filling the fuel cup just so,  lighting the fuel, let the flame die down,  open the fuel valve,  ignite the gas, perhaps give another pump or two or three and then have a nice blue flame.   If done correctly, a backpacker would have a hot meal in minutes. If done wrong? Well…more than a few of us burnt some hair on our knuckles while learning to use the stove correctly.  🙂

A slightly exaggerated view of what a flaming Whisperlite may look like! 🙂 (From Wiki Commons)

Today? Most backpackers, and outdoors people in general, would rather not futz with the procedure above and just screw the stove into the canister, turn on, light and go. Easy-Peasy/Mac-n-Cheesy.  The stoves are so popular that many sub-$10 dollar canister stoves  are  now available similar to the more expensive models.  The stoves seem to work well enough based on reviews.

White gas stoves are mainly used by those who winter backpack when snow must be melted and for large group use. Even in winter, inverted remote canister stoves are starting to be used in lieu of the traditional white gas stove.   In a nut shell, the amount of white gas stove users seems to have declined steeply in the past decade or so.

Among long distance hikers and lightweight backpacking enthusiasts, another stove type has become popular in the past fifteen years or so: Homemade alcohol stoves. Something as simple as a cat food can is able to be made into a piece of effective and inexpensive gear. These stoves  will boil two-three cups of water in about five minutes or so, are lightweight (less than a half ounce) and works very well for the solo backpacker making ~10 meals or less between resupplies.

Over the course of my hiking “career” , I have used various forms of alcohol stoves for many miles of hiking. The DIY gear, simplicity and frugality of acquiring the stove  appealed to me.

But,I rarely use an alcohol stove any more recently.  Here’s why:

  • Sometimes on solo trips and/or trips with long hiking days, I’d rather take no stove I find at the end of the day, I just want to eat and keep it simple. Even on shorter trips, esp when it is hot out, the simplicity of going without a stove is nice.
  • For social trips or casual trips in general, I started taking a canister stove because I often find myself heating up more water and spending more time in camp. Since I’m in a casual mode anyway, the sheer ease of the canister stove appeals to me.  Not that an alcohol stove is hard to use by any means, but I found the canister stove to be easier. And when my wife and I backpack, I find the canister stove is easier to use for the two of us esp with a larger cook pot.
  • For winter trips? I am melting snow. An alcohol stove is not as efficient for this task IMO.

The end result is that in the past two seasons (see fire bans above!), I have only used an alcohol perhaps two or three times.

If I were to go on a long hike and absolutely wanted a stove, I suspect I’d take the alcohol stove. Even before I adopted going stoveless, I tended to only do one hot meal a day during longer trips (even when I did the Appalachian Trail).  For longer trips into colder weather, or perhaps even trips back East, I just may mail myself a cook pot and a an alcohol stove.  A hot meal and a hot drink is undeniably psychologically satisfying at the end of the day during colder weather.

Now, these are just my personal preferences.  🙂   I don’t claim this approach is the best for everyone, but it is best for my own style of backpacking and outdoors use.  I have seen the more technical hikers  throw numbers around to prove that alcohol, Esbit or canister stoves are “the best” stove. (aka the spreadsheet hikers or, as I call them, The Excel Spreadsheet Brigade 😉  )

But numbers only tell part of the story. And numbers are prone to researcher bias.

For me, and again this is my own personal use, I find that an alcohol stove has less use in my kit. That does not mean that an alcohol stove will get no use at all for me, just a lot less use versus previous years.  If a season proves to be a better wildfire season than the previous years, an alcohol stove may get broken out a little more often.


20 Replies to “Alcohol Stoves Reconsidered”

  1. Hadn’t thought about that, Mags… is there still a ban on stoves without an on/off switch in CO? I’m heading out there in a week and don’t want to be a problem. I have an old pocket rocket, but haven’t used it for several years and would need a new canister… should I bring it instead?

    1. HA! From reading the journals, I’d say your problem is going to be getting the stove to light in the rain rather than worrying about burning down the forest.

  2. Here in SoCal, we have a near permanent ban on “open fires”, which is usually interpreted as banning both alcohol and twig stoves. As dry as it tends to be here, I can’t really protest the ban. I like my twig stoves better than my alcohol ones, but it’s been awhile since I used anything but a canister stove. I expect they will be the standard backpacking stove for years to come – assuming we’re still allowed off concrete in the future!

  3. I remember starting with a JetBoil. This was a great little stove. Then at some point I switched to an alcohol stove (a Brasslite to be exact). I still use this stove, but often reconsider its use. One of these days I will make up my mind!

  4. Aside from melting snow for water, where a reactor with a big pot is worth it, I generally only bring food bars in all their incarnations. I eat better in the winter cuz I deal with hot water. If I’m guiding and the people have to have hot food, its generally a fire. The people in the winter have their own stuff dialed–40below and ten feet of snow, they know whats up before they ever sign up…

    1. Get the lightest vegetable steamer you can find and line it with tinfoil… Viola, a firepan… metal gold panning pans either/also in case you run into that black sand. found a $400 dollar nugget that way once and went back for years and never got squat… Still worth it…

  5. Whatever stove and pot combo you bring should be based not on stove preferences, but on the style of cooking you prefer. I prefer one pot meals, and a pot with a thicker bottom makes sense with a canister stove because I want to cook longer and need better simmering controls. If you like to eat FBC meals, you can get away with an alcohol stove and a thin bottom pot.

    Your choice on what to bring should depend on the food you prefer to cook and type of cook system it requires, not solely on the kind of stove you prefer. Think about the system as a whole. The stove is only one small part of it.

    1. My style is, overall, one of simplicity. Hence the no-cook solution. And of course the fire bans. Too many variables and conflicting info for me to want to worry about an alchie stove.

      If I were to do longer trips again where I wanted hot meal, the alchie stove would be my stove of choice. But, again, see the fire bans here out West. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the thoughts on alcohol stoves. Until this season I had been using the MSR Simmerlite, basically a Whisperlite that uses gas canisters instead of white gas. It gives the benefits of both systems, and is easy to simmer with, but in all the years I’ve had it I never really used it the way it could be used, I always just boiled water. So, I switched to the Whitebox Stove (I didn’t make my own because I didn’t think I could beat the quality of the manufactured one, especially for the $20 it costs), and I love it. It works for everything I use it for, it’s light, easy, and was the only thing that kept me from ditching my cookset all together. All of that being said, if I go with a group I still take the Simmerlite. (Side note, do you know where to dispose of the empties here in the front range? I’ve called REI, Gander Mtn., etc… and nobody takes them for recycling, but nobody wants you to throw them in the trash either.) Thanks again for the great article.

  7. Mags, I used alcohol on my 2009 AT thru which worked out well, but I’ve since gone back to canisters and my MSR PR. I like having more control and can handle the weight and bulk. Was out your way recently for a portion of the CT and it was beautiful. I leave later this week for an E2E SOBO Long Trail hike and will use the PR.

  8. What’s to be reconsidered? Fire bans are law. Law says no alcohol stoves. We are to obey the laws. Could it be you were in violation and then had a change of heart to “reconsider” ? Again, I ask what is to be reconsidered?

    1. You’d be surprised at the amount of people who disagree with bans. For the matter, even individual ranger districts (and rangers!) interpret the law differently. (see links in article) Not wanting to futz with possible fire bans and interpretations there of, I just go stove-less many times. Now, the claim that I was in violation seems rather aggressive, esp if you see my stance on other forums. Relax. Chill. Take the article FWIW. 🙂 THe reconsideration is that for many years alchie stoves were the go-to for lightweight stove options. For various reasons, I think that has changed in many cases.

  9. No claim was made you were in violation. I asked the question to provoke a well thought out answer to why you were “reconsidering”

    “Since I’m in a casual mode anyway, the sheer ease of the canister stove appeals to me”

    I think you’ve gone the way of the “majority” of common breed of hikers, the ease of canisters and get from point a to point b as quick as possible.

    I would have rather seen you “reconsider” eating warm/hot foods in favor of cold. Being negative towards alcohol stoves is in bad taste.

    1. Dan, your response seems to imply not loving alky stoves in every situation is “negative” and “in bad taste”. I doubt you intended such, but that’s how it reads.

      Paul did a good job of explaining his own experience & point of view. He qualified his opinions several times, and he also concluded with – “Now, these are just my personal preferences. 🙂 I don’t claim this approach is the best for everyone, but it is best for my own style of backpacking and outdoors use. “

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