I like alcohol-fueled camping stoves because they’re simple, safe, and sustainable. Alcohol stoves rely on capillary action or a priming phase to mix fuel and oxygen in jets.
There are a lot of fuel alcohols, but I exclusively use ethanol. Safety, burn temperature, availability, and price are the factors that determine which fuel to use. My chief concern is the safety of the fuel on skin contact or inhalation.
The alcohols used for fuel are ethanol, methanol, and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol). Methanol and isopropyl alcohol are cheap, but are highly toxic. Pure ethanol, while safer, is a controlled substance and taxed heavily. To make industrial alcohol cost-effective, ethanol is denatured to make it unfit for drinking using methanol or bitterants. I would feel ok with using an embittered ethanol mix, like Bitrex, but it’s not approved for use in the United States. Isopropyl alcohol is sooty and as formulated for medical purposes, contains enough water down to open bacteria membrane pores. Since I’m avoiding toxic substances, that leaves ethanol.
In 2019 California enacted a limited ban on denatured alcohol products for use in commercial applications like paint stripping and thinning. VOCs from alcohol drying contribute to ground-level ozone, or smog, so the California Air Resources Board limited its availability. The ensuing confusion made it scarce for use as fuel and distributors learned to label it as a fuel, instead of just “denatured alcohol.” As of 2021, REI sells denatured alcohol in their stove section, so the brief blip seems to have been corrected.
The most accessible ethanol fuel is Everclear 151, a grain alcohol that’s about 75% ethanol by volume. It’s a drinkable spirit alcohol and can burn, but is difficult to ignite and takes a long time to boil water. Everclear 190 would be better, with 95% alcohol by volume, but it’s not legal to sell in my state, California.
Instead, I’ve started buying from Culinary Solvent, who ship food-safe ethanol across state lines for non-beverage uses. Expect to pay $30-per-liter, a far cry from the $5-per-liter methylated spirits from West Marine or REI.
You can make ethanol at home, but it’s difficult and expensive to reach a fuel-grade concentration. The Mother Earth News has a page about Alcohol as an Engine Fuel and Tech Ingredients shows a full still system for refining ethanol.
With the fuel issues out of the way, the next concern is which stove to put it in. It’s easy to make a usable alcohol stove out of a soda can, and there are a lot of good guides elsewhere:
- Zen Backpacking Stoves
- The Soda Can Stove
- Wikipedia’s beverage-can stove page
- ‘Hop-can’ Stoves: How to Make 5 Ultralight Bikepacking Stoves
Some alcohol stoves in this style are even sold commercially:
I built a penny stove out of a soda can in 2007 and it ran great. Since 2017, I’ve been using an Evernew Titanium Alcohol Stove. I complement it with a Ti Trivet, and I’ve been happy with it, though it can be tricky to light with a butane lighter.
It would be nice to have some kind of simmer control on the stove, which is a relatively rare feature. And an indicator wire like on some isobutane stoves would help tell if the stove is lit.
I may eventually get around to trying these other alcohol stoves:
The Fishbone Bioethanol Stoves come with a simmer knob, like a propane stove. Ships use stoves like these because, unlike propane or butane, alcohol vapors are lighter than air and can’t collect near the (electrical, potentially sparking) bilge. Origo was the most popular alcohol stove option because it can be gimbaled to stay level on rough seas and doesn’t use pressurized alcohol. Unfortunately, their production was bought by Dometic in 2017 and the stoves were discontinued in 2019.
Project Gaia is working with CleanCook and Blue Flame Stoves to provide alcohol-fueled stoves for countries that cook with firewood or petrochemical fuels. If these stoves are ever made available in the United States, they’d make great camp stoves.
In chemistry, alcohol lamps are commonly used to produce a low-intensity heat and light source. Their use is described in How to Make/Modify and Use an Alcohol Lamp.
Never fill an alcohol stove when it’s hot – the alcohol can vaporize and ignite unexpectedly. To light a stove without a long neck lighter, light some alcohol on the side of a knife and pour it into the stove. Never blow out an alcohol flame because it can disturb the liquid and cause a fire. Instead, snuff out the flame to extinguish it. Throwing water to extinguish an alcohol fire can work, as alcohol will absorb the water and become inert, but it will unpredictably spread the flame until the fire goes out. A windscreen improves efficiency and helps control the flame. Practice using the stove at home.
Because most alcohol stoves lack a valve to control the fuel supply, they can be illegal when the risk of wildfire is high.