Alcohol camp stoves are a popular choice for backpackers and trail hikers because they are lightweight, compact and simple to operate. The ability to pack only the amount of fuel needed for a trip also reduces the weight of your backpack and leaves more space for other gear.
There are many different designs of alcohol camp stoves all with their own advantages and disadvantages. In this article we’re going to cover the different designs in detail to make sure you choose the best stove for you.
What Is An Alcohol Camp Stove?
An alcohol camp stove is a palm sized canister that burns different types of alcohol to cook food or boil water. These are usually used for backpacking and trail hiking because they are very lightweight and ultra compact.
The design and operation of these stoves is very simple, making them an extremely reliable option for basic camp cooking. Alcohol stoves have very few moving parts and use inexpensive fuel that can be bought in almost any store. Assembly time is very quick for these styles of stoves and the fuel ignites easily.
These lightweight stoves are normally made from brass, titanium or aluminum and feature a small reservoir or basin that holds a few ounces of alcohol.
They require very little fuel to cook, a few ounces can last up to 15 minutes. These simple stoves don’t generate as high of a heat as gas canister camp stoves and are generally more susceptible to weather conditions. This equates to a longer boil time than other camp stove options.
Different Types Of Alcohol Stove Designs
There are many different alcohol stove designs to choose from. Some are available at camping stores or from online retailers while others can be made with used cans from your recycling bin. Each design has their own pros and cons to be aware of.
Center Flame: Simplest & Easiest To Use
Center flame alcohol stoves are one of the most popular styles of alcohol fuel stoves because of their simplistic design. They are basically a small can that gets filled with alcohol and lit. There’s no magic here. Many people make their own out of aluminum or tin cans from the recycle bin.
Otherwise they can be purchased inexpensively and many models have a lid to hold the fuel during transport as well as a sliding flap to adjust the flame size between boil and simmer. This style of alcohol stove is used in conjunction with a separate stand or can be integrated into many collapsible woodstove models.
Be careful when using this style of stove as they can spill easily if bumped or knocked over causing a fire to spread quickly. Routine inspections of the seal on your lid will help prevent any alcohol from spilling in your pack.
Trangia Spirit Burner
The Trangia Spirit Burner is the go to center flame alcohol stove that backpackers have been carrying for decades. It’s a simple and reliable design that can be relied on to boil water or cook a meal without fail.
Complete with a simmering ring to allow for control of the flame size this stove makes simmering a breeze compared to most alcohol stoves. Closing the ring completely will extinguish the flame completely saving any unburnt fuel for the next use.
What makes this stove even easier to handle is the screw on cap with o-ring seal to keep any leftover alcohol from spilling or evaporating in your pack.
Side Flame: Best For Cooking With Wider Pots
A side flame stove has small holes around the side wall just below the top of the can. The flame is directed to the outside of the stove where it curls up towards the pot on top. This design doesn’t need a separate stand as you can place the pot directly on top of the stove without putting out the fire.
This style of stove is good for larger pots because the flames are fanned out in a wider circular pattern. This is great if you’re going to cook for more than one person as the heat isn’t concentrated in one area. Rather, the heat from the stove is directed toward the outer perimeter of the pot or pan providing a more even heat distribution.
The Vargo Decagon Side Flame
The Vargo Decagon Side Flame alcohol stove is a sturdy titanium alcohol stove weighing in at 3oz with the integrated stabilizing base.
As a side flame stove the pot can be placed directly on top of the can alleviating the need for a separate pot stand. Because of its simple cylindrical design and wide footprint it’s capable of holding large pots with an even heat pattern. A smaller pot could have the flames curling up the sides so be aware of flames around the handle.
In calm conditions this stove can boil 2 cups of water in around 7 minutes from a bloom and a fill of 1.5oz of denatured alcohol will burn 12-15 minutes.
Open Jet Alcohol Stove: Fast Boiler
Open Jet alcohol stoves have a large open cavity in the center surrounded by small holes around the rim. Fuel is poured into the center hole and lit. once the stove preheats, flammable vapors escape through the smaller holes and ignite producing the jet like flames for cooking.
These stoves produce high amounts of heat and have little adjustment options other than changing the pot hight over the stove. The jet flames are less susceptible to wind however it is always more efficient to incorporate a windscreen when using an alcohol stove.
The preheat time for these stoves can be longer in cold weather making them a little more difficult to operate than standard open flame stoves. However, if the majority of your cooking is geared towards boiling water this stove may be your best option.
The Tomshoo Open Jet
The Tomshoo is an ultralight titanium open jet stove that forces the fuel vapor out of the small holes around the perimeter of the top. This creates a wide cooking area of many small flames. Along with a cross stand pot support this stove weighs only 2.1 ounces.
The Tomshoo stove has a fast bloom time and can boil 8 ounces (1 cup) of water in under 5 minutes. A single ounce of denatured alcohol will keep this stove burning for 7-8 minutes in calm conditions reaching a temperature upwards of 600 degF.
There’s no lid or extinguishing cap and pouring the unburnt fuel back into your storage container is made more difficult due to the holes around the perimeter. However, the addition of graduated markings (oz and ml) on the inside of the fuel bowl make adding only the necessary amount of fuel to cook simple and easy.
The TOAKS Siphon
The TOAKS pocket-sized titanium siphon alcohol stove is “THE ULTRA LIGHTWEIGHT” backpacking stove. Coming in at a miniscule .7oz you can add a tinfoil windshield and titanium pot support and still be the lightest on the trail. The miniature size also allows it to be carried inside a mug or small pot further reducing its footprint in your pack.
The siphon jet design provides a sub 5 second bloom creating a 5 minute boil with only a ½ oz of alcohol. A single ounce of denatured alcohol will burn for 14 minutes in this stove before burn out showing similar results in cold temperatures.
The strength and durability of titanium coupled with its compact cylindrical shape make it unrivaled in toughness among camp stoves. It will however require a cross brace pot support to create an air gap below your pot. The small footprint requires it to be set on a fairly flat and level surface for stability while cooking.
As one of the most expensive options for alcohol burners, The TOAKS is a true example of quality and efficiency. The extra dollars spent will save some money on fuel and some time on the trail. When it comes to this ultra lightweight, fast boiling burner, you get what you pay for.
Side Flame Jet Stove: High Heat, Wide Flame
Side Flame Jet alcohol stoves are a hybrid of the side flame and the open jet designs. Similar to open jet stoves the vapours are forced through small ports producing the small but very hot flames.
The fuel is filled through the top cavity and ignited to preheat the stove. As soon as the side jets ignite, the pot is placed directly on top creating a seal and internal pressure buildup.
This then creates a pressurized cooking system with the heat fanning out from its sides and providing a wide distributed cooking area just like a conventional side flame alcohol stove. The only thing different here is that these are pressurized and come out as jets of alcohol vapor.
Vertical Flame: Efficient & Simple
Vertical flame stoves function just like a chimney creating an updraft directing the flames upwards directly at the pot. This is typically accomplished by using two nested cans. The inner has a narrowed hole for the flame to exit the top and the outer can has vent holes in the side to pull in fresh air.
As these side holes draw in air from below they channel the flame upwards through the chimney. This channeled heat design makes the cooking process more efficient compared to the standard open flame design.
This is very efficient in cooking because the vertical updraft means that all the heat from the fuel is directly transferred onto the underside of the pot letting you use minimal fuel.
Vertical stoves are very efficient at mixing air and fuel and also maintain heat in the fuel bowl to keep the alcohol vaporizing properly. These stoves are more reliable and safer to operate than pressure flame stoves.
Alcohol Wick Hybrid: Compact & Durable
The alcohol wick hybrid stove combines the boiling performance of a jet stove with the simplicity of a wick stove. Weighing only .55 oz (16g) and measuring 1.5 inches in diameter this stove is comparable to a smartwatch in size.
Constructed with durable anodized aluminum and featuring integrated flip out pot stand, the TATO gear AB-13 Hybrid is able to handle heavy cookware with ease. The remote alcohol feed line allows for continuous refilling of the fuel bowl without interruption to cooking.
Pressurized Jet: Fast Cooking and Boiling
Pressurized Jet stoves have small vapor ports similar to jet stoves but don’t have the fuel port found at the center. What these have instead is a fuel port that gets closed off by a screw.
This makes the stove build up higher pressure while heating up, thus forcing fuel vapor streams outward through the jet ports. To create the pressure and ignite the vapor exiting the ports, you’ll need to prime this up by burning up a small amount of alcohol under the stove’s base.
A pressurized jet stove is your best bet if you want to cook or boil water really fast but it doesn’t lend well to simmering. This is a very fuel-efficient design but can be tricky to start and fill with fuel.
Alcohol camps stoves are perfect for lightweight camping and backpacking. To fill out the rest of your kit check out our Guide To The Essential Backpacking Cooking Gear
Advantages of Using Alcohol Stoves
Lightweight & Compact
One of the best things about alcohol stoves is that they are very light and ultra compact. This is why they are so popular with hikers and backpackers. Rather than carrying a gas stove and bulky canister in your pack, alcohol stoves allow you to carry only the amount of fuel required for your trip.
Depending on the style of stove you may require a separate stand to support your cook wear. This creates a weigh penalty but often times these double as wind shields making them dual purpose additions.
Alcohol stoves are very cheap in comparison to gas canister or liquid white gas alternatives. Though you’ll pay a small premium for a titanium version over a standard brass stove it’s unlikely that your bill will run over $30.
The fuel for these stoves is also very cheap. The most common fuels range from 10 to 30 cents per ounce while Everclear will be closer to $0.80 if you can find it. The more common fuels like isopropyl alcohol can be bought from hardware stores, automotive stores, and other outdoor stores, even Walmart!
Another cool thing about alcohol stoves is that they are very reliable. Due to their simplistic design, the chances of them failing or breaking is very low. There’s no moving parts, screens to clog or connections to leak. Just fill one with alcohol, light it, and you’re ready to cook!
Alcohol stoves may be small, but they’re very effective at boiling water. Some alcohol stoves can even boil water in as little as 5 minutes in the right conditions. While many stoves will burn around 10-15 minutes on a single ounce of fuel. As with any camp stove, incorporating a windscreen will get you the most efficient boil time possible.
Many veteran and DIY backpackers create their own custom alcohol stoves out of cat food and cola cans. This can be a great way to experiment with the different designs before deciding on which best suits your cooking style.
Being able to fab up a stove from items out of a recycle bin can also get you out of a situation where your stove gets damaged or lost.
Disadvantages of Using Alcohol Stoves
Minimal Heat Control
Alcohol stoves are great for boiling water because they can pump out a serious amount of heat. The down side to that is there are few good options for controlling the flame. They tend to be all or nothing.
There are some alcohol stoves designs that feature a simmering ring. This functions like a shield which you can use to block part of the flame from reaching your cookware. Outside of this, adjusting the distance between the flame and pot is the only method to achieve a simmer.
Though simple in design, the act of gaging your fuel burn and boil time takes practice. The best efficiency will occur when your fuel burns out as your water is boiled or food is cooked. However, the first few attempts will likely end in either your stove burning on well after your meal is finished or having to add fuel and relight your stove midway through cooking.
There’s a good chance that you’ll use up your entire alcohol fuel supply if you’re not used to cooking with an alcohol stove. This is why it’s good to practice in different weather conditions before you head out on the trail.
Alcohol fuel must be securely stored inside a leak proof container because there’s a high chance of the alcohol spilling or evaporating while bouncing around in your pack. This can end up leaving a strong scent inside your bag that’s tough to get rid of.
You also need to transfer the fuel between your container and stove whether it’s to cook or save unspent fuel leftover after cooking. Some alcohols will evaporate quickly and cleanly while others may leave a residue.
Spilling a stove while lit may cause flames to spread across the table or grass. This can be a disaster if there is a lot of dry brush around to catch fire. Always ensure the area is clear of combustible material before lighting an alcohol stove.
Alcohol stoves are one of the few camp stove types where the flammable fuel is handled directly by the user. Be careful when handling the fuel and stove and make sure that the pot is perfectly balanced on the small cooking area. It’s also important to remember that some alcohols burn nearly invisible making it difficult to gage the flame size while cooking.
If using a wide pot or an open flame stove you’ll likely need a separate stand so that the small stove you’re cooking on won’t become de-stabilized and tip while lit.
Some of the alcohols we mentioned above are toxic to the skin and to inhale so if you are stuck using a dirty burning fuel be sure to allow a lot of airflow around the stove and wear gloves to handle the fuel.
What To Consider When Choosing an Alcohol Stove Design
The first thing to consider when buying an alcohol stove is the surface area of the flame’s coverage and the platform where you’re going to place your cooking pot. This varies by model and design, but most have a diameter of 3 to 5 inches. There are narrow designs that are easier for cooking with small pots, while others have wide designs and are great for larger pots.
Choose an alcohol stove that has a simple design so that you’ll have an easy time cooking food or boiling water with it. You want something simple but but durable with fast bloom time. It’s better for you to choose an alcohol stove that has fewer parts so that there’s less tendency of it breaking.
Alcohol stoves should be light. Most models weigh around 3 to 5 ounces, with some even weighing just 1 ounce. Most backpackers will get by just fine with any option because almost all alcohol stoves are lighter than other camp stove types.
Alcohol stoves need a solid platform that the pot can be safely positioned on over top of the flames. Some styles are available with optional stands while others have a built-in stand.
If you plan to purchase a stand that is not recommended by the manufacturer then be sure to test it out with your stove and cookware before venturing out onto the trail.
Common Fuels Used In Alcohol Stoves
Alcohol stoves are able to use a variety of different liquids as a fuel source. Many of them are easily sourced from local stores that don’t necessarily carry camping supplies. Here are a few options to keep in mind when searching for a fill up:
Denatured Alcohol is an ethanol based spirit commonly used as a camp stove fuel and solvent. To prevent it from being consumed recreationally different poisonous additives are mixed in like methanol which make it toxic to humans. A typical mix is around 90% ethanol and 10% additives but this can vary between manufacturers and regions.
Denatured alcohol is clean burning making it safe to use in tents for cooking and as a source of heat. The flame is virtually invisible in daylight and no smoke trail is produced when burning it.
Ethanol – Grain Alcohol
Grain Alcohol, often branded as Everclear, is 190 proof or 90 – 95% pure Ethanol. The kind of stuff that made bootleggers go blind. This nearly pure alcohol can be difficult to find due to legislation banning high alcohol content beverages.
Some backpackers mix a little bit of water into Everclear to increase the oxygen percentage and reduce the soot so test it out with your stove to get the best ratio. The cost of 190 proof Everclear is higher than denatured alcohol or HEET but it can also be used as an antiseptic and if highly watered down a night cap.
Isopropyl Alcohol – Red HEET
Isopropyl Alcohol is a clear flammable liquid used for many different purposes including antiseptics, solvents and detergents. The liquid evaporates quickly but leaves residue when burned.
Though it is relatively easy to find, many versions are not a very good fuel for alcohol stoves. They are heavily diluted with water reducing the heat intensity of the flame.
If you are going to use Isopropyl alcohol for your stove make sure it is 91% or higher otherwise it won’t burn well.
Methanol – Yellow HEET
Yellow HEET (99% methanol) is a common fuel used in alcohol stoves though it is marketed as a gas line antifreeze. Methanol burns quite a bit hotter than red HEET which is Isopropyl alcohol. The downside to using methanol is that it is toxic to inhale and to the skin.
Be sure to take the appropriate precautions when handling and burning Methanol.
Alcohol stoves have been a popular choice with hikers and backpackers for decades because they’re light, efficient, affordable, and easy to use.
Choosing the one that fits both your cooking needs, skill level and your pack size is important. When you do, you’ll have a better outdoor experience and a full belly.