Cheap, simple, effective: Choose any three.  DIY alcohol stoves

I prefer a pikau to a pack, a tarp to a tent, and a simple one-piece stove to a pressurised blast furnace. Tiny alcohol burners fit this bill. They are easy to make and don’t require expensive tools or project stock. A couple of soft-drink cans, a craft knife and some patience are all you need.

There are many different designs. Some get a little more oompf from their fuel by slightly pressurising the vapour, some have integrated pot rings, some require two cans press-fit together, some require nothing more than a catfood tin and a hole punch. Several designs I’ve yet to experiment with use some form of flame-proof wicking material. There’s plenty of scope for fun.

A wind shield helps any stove. Some designs require a pot stand. A small fuel bottle can go in a pocket, and avoids the risk of over-filling a stove.

A wind shield helps any stove. Some designs require a pot stand. A small fuel bottle can go in a pocket to pre-warm the fuel, and avoids the risk of over-filling a stove.

The principal benefit of these stoves is their light weight. Tipping the scales at a handful of grams, they are unnoticeable in a pack. An old Sriracha sauce bottle will hold enough meths to last several days.

A meths stove is not your best option if you’re melting snow in a blizzard, or boiling water for a horde of thirsty trampers. If you’re heating a cupful of water to rehydrate your dinner, it’s ideal. If you meet the stove half way with a sheltered spot and a wind shield, a couple of tablespoons of meths will get the job done quietly and fairly quickly.

The fact that they don’t require fossil fuel is another plus. Methylated spirit is mostly made from ethanol, derived from the fermentation of sugars. It is poisonous, however, so treat it as you would any other powerful solvent. I’m careful not to get it on my hands, or douse my cooking pot with the stuff.

When it’s burning well, the flames are difficult to see. This can lead to excitement and burns if you try to refill a stove that you thought had gone out, or go to pour its ‘unused’ fuel back into the bottle. Always check first, or you may take a moment to realise why your fleece is gently liquifying onto your arm.

Once the Penny Stove is good and hot, it blooms up beautifully. It's happier with a pot-stand, as a pot directly on the stove will eventually cool it to the extent that it loses pressure.

The Penny Stove requires priming, with a splash of meths on some foil underneath it. Once it’s good and hot, it blooms up beautifully. It’s happier with a pot-stand, as a pot directly on the stove will eventually cool it to the extent that it loses pressure. Excessive pressure sets the coin rattling before things get out of hand.

Several manufacturers have joined the fray, and offer beautiful titanium designs that are hardy and simple to use. The fact that I can make a similar stove for free has always kept me from pushing the button, but Vargo and Toaks both make them, along with the redoubtable brassĀ Trangia. My Trangia works very well, but at 110g, it’s ten times the weight of my heaviest soda-can stove. If I’m taking a meths stove along, I want all the benefits.

The Trangia requires a pot stand, unless it's piping hot.

The Trangia requires a pot stand, unless it’s piping hot.

Alcohol stoves work better if you start with nice warm meths. It doesn’t have to be hot, but if the fuel bottle has come from your pocket, your stove should bloom up more quickly than if it’s come from your ice-rimed pack.

Here are a few different designs. Some of them develop more internal pressure than others, and need to be primed before they will bloom. Others start cooking from the get-go. Some can be snuffed out when your water is boiled, and you can return the unburned fuel to your bottle. Others have to consume all their fuel in one go.

Some designs are more prone to conflagrations than others.

Priming a syphon-based stove. Some designs are more prone to conflagrations than others. This one is not my favourite stove.

The cat-food stove. Integrated pot stand, no priming required.

The cat-food stove. Integrated pot stand, no priming required. To begin with, the flames draw oxygen into the stove. As it heats up, it starts pouring flames out the holes, and up the sides of your pot. The loathsome little thing is by far the easiest to make and use. Just fill and ‘whumpf’.

The Cat Stove and Penny Stove by night. One is messy to prime then looks pretty, one is easy to prime and never looks pretty.

The Cat Stove and Penny Stove by night. One is messy to prime then looks pretty, one is easy to prime and never looks pretty.

In the pic above, the Cat Stove boiled its cupful of water in about five minutes. The two stoves ran dry within a few seconds of each other.

I used a fraction too much fuel to prime the Penny Stove, and things got a bit tense until it burned away.

The Penny Stove is the one I’m happiest with. It took the most fiddling to make, and blooms beautifully once its fuel heats up. The downside is that it needs priming. I always seem to add an extra splash of meths ‘for luck’, and it ends up being too much. The stove has been on several solo, below-the-bushline trips, and gets the job done. The Cat stove works horrifyingly well. It’s tough, cheap, and couldn’t be simpler. It doesn’t need a pot stand, doesn’t need priming, and there’s no coin to lose. The only downside is that it can’t easily be snuffed out once it’s lit. Aesthetics notwithstanding, the dreadful thing is the clear winner.

Wilderlife