Re-thinking my personal use of the alcohol stove.
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.
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. 🙂
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:
- Fire bans in Colorado (and the west in general). This PDF from a Colorado sheriff’s office specifically says that stoves need an on/off valve and UL designation to be used during such bans. Alcohol stoves are out. A major fire was started by an alcohol stove user in Colorado and many ranger districts have individual interpretations of the restrictions. A recent example is from Oct 2015: Non-Approved fires: Campfires utilizing solid fuel that do not distribute the flame with a wick., Alcohol ultralight stoves, Wood “twig” ultralight stoves. Though there have been debates if alcohol stoves are allowed under these bans or even if the bans are justified, I’d rather not deal with uncertainty and possible fines for the sake of a one ounce stove.
- 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.