Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review: Alcohol Stoves

I love to camp and backpack. The older I get the more difficult some parts get. Bad knees and hard ground are not conducive to outdoor life. But when I can I do. When I was younger I camped a lot. I have been a Boy Scout leader for many years and had the opportunity to camp and hike all over this country. As you may have gathered if you’ve read past posts I am a stickler for weight. SWB I use for size, weight, bulk. Ounces are everything whether you are backpacking, camping, or building a bug out bag or first aid kits. I like light weight and multiple use gear. So when I found a stove that weighs less than 3 ounces, burns in blissful silence, features no complicated moving parts, and uses a low-cost and widely available fuel I was hooked. Plus it is inexpensive, durable, and ultra-simple to use. Meet the alcohol stove, a featherweight cooker that can instantly shave a pound or more off your packweight. Its unique design smokes the competition in many ways—just be prepared to make a few sacrifices if you want a cook system that weighs less than a gulp of water.
The Heavyweights
First let's review the chunky contenders: white gas and canister stoves. White gas stoves feature a burner and separate pump (8 to 16 ounces combined), plus a requisite fuel bottle (3 to 7 ounces empty, depending on size). They are bulky, noisy, pricey, and require pumping, priming, and some regular care and maintenance.
Canister stoves burn a pressurized propane/butane mix from a metal cartridge. The burner itself may be very lightweight (as little as 3 ounces) and inexpensive, but the canisters are relatively heavy (4 to 6 ounces empty), costly, and difficult to recycle. Both stove types do have their distinct advantages, of course, notably rapid boil times.
The Featherweight
Compared to the competition, alcohol stoves represent the ultimate in simplicity and lightness. Pour an appropriate alcohol fuel into the burner, light it, and within seconds you'll be cooking over a silent flame. When it comes to heft and cost, these stoves dominate the field. A wide range of styles are available that weigh less than 3 ounces. Some fall below 2 ounces, and the very lightest hover around only a single ounce. You can build one yourself for minimal expense or purchase a manufactured model for less than $20.
Cook Light, Boil Slow
Patience is a virtue when it comes to cooking with an alcohol stove. Alcohol fuel contains approximately half the energy by weight of white gas or butane/propane. As a result, the heat output is proportionately less—and cook times are a lot longer. Most white gas and canister stoves can boil a pint of water in under three minutes. Alcohol stoves generally take at least twice as long, about six to eight minutes in good conditions. They are also much more sensitive to wind; a windscreen is essential for even the lightest breeze. Some models have an integrated windscreen around the burner, a nice feature that helps fully capture available heat.
Fuel for the Fire
A variety of widely available fuels work in alcohol stoves; clean-burning denatured alcohol and methanol are the most common. Most alcohol stoves won't hold fuel during transit, however. If fuel remains after cooking, you must either burn it off or pour it back into its container—a potentially tricky operation. If the stove goes dry, you must wait for it to cool before adding more fuel. Gauging the right amount for your needs requires experience and practice. Most alcohol stoves also have only one flame setting. This is fine for bringing water to a boil, but suboptimal for gourmets looking to simmer their meal. Compared to highly flammable white gas, alcohol fuel is significantly less hazardous to carry. (Many hikers store it in small plastic bottles to minimize weight.) Its primary risk is a nearly invisible flame, which creates an increased potential for burns. Note that alcohol stoves perform poorly in subfreezing temperatures and are not recommended for winter trips.
Species and Locations
Many commercially-produced alcohol stoves exist, but don't expect to see them in your local outdoor gear shop—most are manufactured by tiny companies or by individuals and can be found only online. Alternatively, you can make your own. Plans are widely available online for converting aluminum soda cans, Altoids tins, and other common products into your next ultralight cooking companion.
A Google of You tube search will bring many different designs and styles that you can buy or make. I’ve bought some and have made some. I am partial to the commercial made, heavier duty stoves. Don’t let the word heavy deceive you. These are still featherweight.
Here's a quick list of the most common stove fuels and where you'll most likely find them:
• denatured alcohol (hardware store, paint department)
• pure methanol from hardware store (paint department)
• pure ethanol (Everclear, liquor store)
• fuel line antifreeze (gas station or convenience store).
• rubbing alcohol (drug store).
Denatured alcohol gets my recommendation for the best all-around fuel for any stove that burns alcohol. It is quite cheap and usually available in hardware stores. Denatured alcohol is mostly ethanol with some methyl alcohol added to render it unfit for human consumption. Often a coloring or smell agent is also added for visual or olfactory cues that the substance is not drinkable. One drawback, though, of this fuel is that you must buy a minimum of 32 fluid ounces. This is probably much more than you want to take on the trail. Go in on a can with some friends, or buy a small container to take what you need with you. It should be noted, though, that denatured alcohol does contain methanol (toxic, about 16%), methyl ethyl ketone(<1%), and methyl acetate(<1%) which makes it less environmentally friendly than pure ethanol.

Pure ethanol also makes a good stove fuel, but is much more expensive than denatured because it is potable. You can find it in liquor stores as "grain alcohol"; Graves Grain Alcohol and Everclear are some brand names. Pure ethanol may be harder to find and more expensive than other fuels, but it is the fuel of choice if toxicity or environmental friendliness are at the top of your concerns.

Pure methanol (wood alcohol) burns very well in a stove. It can be found in the same sorts of places as denatured alcohol (hardware stores). It has a relatively high vapor pressure as compared to ethanol and isopropanol; this means that it will vaporize at lower temperatures. Because of this property your stove will achieve full power more quickly. Many people use this fuel because of this fact; however, methanol is toxic. It is readily absorbed through the skin or mucus membranes. Once in the body it is converted by the liver to formaldehyde, a very poisonous chemical. Short term exposure to methanol is probably not a big deal, but be aware of this drawback.

Fuel line antifreezes are usually pure isopropanol or pure methanol. Look at the ingredients of the bottle to find out which is which. You can usually find these in gas stations or convenience stores, especially up north. A popular brand is HEET; the red bottle is isopropyl and the yellow bottle is methanol. Isopropyl alcohol burns with yellow, sooty flames, indicating that it is not combusting completely. It is less toxic than methanol, though.

Rubbing alcohol is 70% isopropanol and 30% water. Sometimes you can find it at a 91% isopropanol and that is better for fuel. You can find it in drug stores. It has all the problems associated with burning pure isopropanol with the added inconvenience of having 30% of its volume being noncombustible water. It'll do in a pinch, but given the choice I'd go with something else.
I love alcohol stoves and you should too. Make one, borrow one, or buy a cheap one to see if this is good for you. I’ve found many a camper not happy with alcohol stoves. Camping usually is not weight sensitive unless you are backpacking everything in or out, then this kind of stove would really shine. I like them myself.

Semper Paratus
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