Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fabricating Your Own Alcohol Stove System

So you want to build an alcohol stove do you? Well I was faced with this same question a little over a year ago after my son won a Pepsi can alcohol stove at a Scout Fair. I was impressed with the weight but it lacked what looked like any type of self contained useable system so I began to research the topic. For a great resource I would suggest Zen Stoves.

I will save you hours of searching for a stove design and all accompanying items that make the stove a useful tool. It is not just the stove but also the pot, pot stand, windscreen and other pieces that make the system I will describe into a complete cook system. I have used it many times on day hikes as I got tired of eating a sandwich at the summits and wanted more. I have taken it on 4 day backpack trip as my sole cooking setup and been very pleased. When combined with freezer bag cooking you have an ultra reliable and ultra simple system. Best of all, your complete stove and cooking set will weigh in at about 5 oz!

I want to stress that I did not invent any of this. I have taken many peoples different ideas and refined them into this stove system. I have spent hours in my garage on rainy days testing different ideas and concepts to develop this system. There are plenty of ideas out there that sound good and even look impressive but when tested fail miserably.

The Stove and Fuel:

After much research I chose the Super Cat alcohol stove for my design. Please view this link as it provides everything you would want to know about the stove, how it works and excellent instructions on making one. I have used them with holes made from a hole puncher at ¼ inch as well as ones with holes at 3/16 inch from a Whitney punch as described. Both work just fine but I prefer the 3/16 holes as my testing proved a faster boil and less wind interference. While several variants are discussed I just use the basic supercat. I chose it because it was simple to make, does not require a pot stand or priming pan and you can easily see how much fuel you have added to it. Make sure to use the 3 oz. Fancy Feast or potted meat can as the flare fits the pot I recommend perfectly. He also provides lots of great information on fuels. I just stick with SLX Denatured Alcohol from Home Depot but I have used the Ace Hardware house brand and had identical results.

The Cookpot:

There is plenty of info out there to overwhelm you. While you can spent over $60 for a lightweight titanium mug to cook in I have found that a $3 25oz. can of Heineken works perfectly, and you get to drink the contents as well! This can is better than the large Fosters can as it is more sturdy due to the shape and the bottom fits the supercat stove better when built with the Fancy Feast cat food can. All you need to do is use a side cutting or safety can opener and remove the top of the can. It can be a little tricky and some openers work better than others. Save the top you removed for a lid or a little heavier but a great fitting lid is the top from an Altoids Citrus Sours can.

One of the reasons this pot/stove combo works so well is that the thin wall pot absorbs heat all the way up the sides giving a much larger surface area to conduct heat through. There are many people out there that like to wrap their pot with fiberglass wick or other non flammable material to keep from burning their hand when grabbing the pot. I have wrapped one with a fireproof blanket I trimmed down to cover a 2 inch wide section of the middle of the pot and as I had expected, my boil times went way up. While the fireproof material is cooler to touch, it takes away pot surface area that was transferring heat. My suggestion is to either wear a glove or use a handkerchief to keep from burning your hand on the hot pot.


The alcohol stove has a drawback in that it performs very poorly with any type of wind. To counter this you need a good windscreen. For lots of background on windscreens and other wind devices visit here. One can be easily fabricated from thin aluminum roof flashing available at your local home repair store. I use some stuff I picked up at Home Depot although I had to buy a 25 ft. roll. I get the 8 inch wide roll as it covers both the stove and pot. To fabricate, simply cut enough off the roll to form a 4 ½ diameter circle with about a ¾ inch overlap (about 16 inches of material). A good pair of scissors will cut this just fine. Slightly round the corners once cut.

Along one of the long sides of the flashing you will need to punch some holes so your stove can get air to keep burning. Get out your hole punch with ¼ holes and proceed to punch holes on ½  inch centers all along one side about ¾ inch up from the edge. I tested many different openings in calm and wind conditions and found this to be the best based on shortest time to produce a boil.

Now you need a way to hold this in its circle shape as it wants to spring flat. To make this easier you need to remove the temper in the metal itself. Use some old wire (with no insulation) and make a circle with a 4 ½ inch diameter, twist the ends so it holds shape and slide it over your rolled windscreen. Place this in your oven in your home and heat to 400 degrees F. for 45 minutes and then turn off the oven and let it cool with the oven closed. When done it should keep its new curved shape fairly well.

To finish off the windscreen you need a way to hold it together to maintain the proper shape. The wire worked for the oven but needs to be improved upon for field use. I tried combinations of hardware and special slots and folds when I stumbled across a write up for the windscreen beltbuckle. This rather simple device solves the problem and weighs nearly nothing. Cut a strip of flashing about 9 inches long and ¾ inches wide. Slightly round the corners and lay it along the side of your circular windscreen from top to bottom where the windscreen overlaps. You should have about a ½ inch of overlap on top and bottom. Simply fold over the top and bottom to form a clamp and squeeze to pinch the windscreen and hold its shape. Holes can be punched in the buckle to reduce the weight if desired.

The first few times you use the windscreen it will give off a little smoke and smell funny as a coating on the flashing burns off so don’t be alarmed. It will also discolor a little and look burnt. This is normal.


The final item to manufacture is the pot cozy. This is the item that will help your pot retain heat once you have heated your water and keep you from burning your hand when you drink hot beverage from it. This is made from a material called Reflectix and is held together with aluminum tape or duct tape. The aluminum tape is more durable and looks more professional but duct tape can be used. For the background I have provided additional information here under Mods for your Mug, see Mod 3.

Fabrication of the cozy is explained fairly well under Mods for your Mug. You will need an 18” long piece of the 16” wide Reflectix product. Cut a 13” long piece of the aluminum tape and apply half of it to the thin, non bubble section along one edge as shown. Fold the non bubble section over and tape down. Measuring from the folded tape edge, come down 5 ¾” and cut out a piece that is 5 ¾” by 13”. You should now have a rectangular piece with the tape along one side. Fit this to your pot and trim as needed so that the edges just touch, there is no overlap and the pot can easily slide out. The pot will expand slightly with heat so a slightly looser fit is OK. Follow the same instructions to make a second one to go around the first but this time use a 14 1/2” strip of tape and cut a piece that is 14 1/2” by 5 ¾”. Complete the bottoms as shown in the link. Make sure you make the bottom on the end of your circular cozy that does not already have tape on it.

When complete, the smaller cozy will fit the pot and larger one can be either doubled up on the bottom cozy or used like a cover to slide over the top of the pot and smaller cozy to make an insulated chamber.


You now need a few little items to complete the whole package. You need a fuel bottle to store your fuel in. I use a flip top 4 oz. bottle from REI or Sport Chalet but any bottle with a flip top that will fit inside your pot will work. A silicone wrist band (like the Lance Armstrong yellow bands) is another item you need. This is used to place around the mouth of the pot to prevent you from burning your lip when drinking from it. You need a way to light this thing so either matches or a flint and steel (my preference) goes in the pot. Lastly, you need an eating utensil. A plastic spoon is OK but I have broken and melted a few so I now carry an aluminum spork.

That sums up the making of the ideal cook kit. I have provided instructions for the packing and use of your new stove system below. I hope you enjoy it and get as much use out of yours as I have mine. I have had my Cub Scout Webelos Den make these and the kids were very excited. You have never seen a child so excited to boil water! They also make great gifts for your backcountry friends.

I am considering offering the materials in a kit. Please contact me if you are interested.

Alcohol Stove Operating Instructions: 

This stove is a complete cookset if used as described below. No additional pots, pans or other cooking items other than your preferred eating utensil are required ( I use an aluminum spork).


Use denatured alcohol from the hardware store. There are other alcohol based fuels out there and you can read up on those but denatured alcohol is the most consistent from my tests. NEVER USE WHITE GAS OR GASOLINE!!!


Remove all items from the complete stove set. Set the stove (the small catfood can with the two rows of holes) on a non flammable flat surface. You may want to carry a piece of aluminum foil to place under the stove to protect the ground but that is optional. Next you need to get the windscreen ready so open it up to form a 4 ½ circle. You should just have about ¾ inch of overlap when formed correctly. Use the long metal strip to pinch the windscreen at the overlap to maintain the correct shape.  Add an appropriate amount of water to heat in the Heineken pot and place lid on pot.

Getting it started:

Add alcohol to the stove. The appropriate amount depends on many factors including water temp, air temp, wind, quantity of water and desired finish temp. When boiling 2 cups of water in cool weather I would add fuel right up to the lower set of holes in the stove. You may be able to use less but this is a good start point and will let you see how long your stove will run for. If only boiling a cup of water with no wind you may be able to get away with half as much fuel or even less. You will need to experiment to work this out as each stove is a little different.

With the fuel added, light it and observe. The flame is nearly invisible during the day so use your hand to determine if it is lit by feeling above the stove for heat. You need to let the stove burn until you start to see little bubbles in the alcohol forming near the edges of the stove. This priming phase takes less than 30 seconds typically but may take longer in cold conditions.

Add your pot with water and lid on it to the top of the stove and make sure the silicone lip guard is removed. I would suggest wearing a glove when doing this as some flame does come up the side of the pot as you place it on the stove. With the pot in place slide the windscreen over the pot to protect everything. Make sure the row of holes around the windscreen is at the bottom. Sit back and wait for steam to come out around the lid. If you are going to heat a foil packet of meat or a can of chicken you can place it directly on top of the lid for the stove unopened. It will get warm but not too hot to damage the packaging.

Finishing up:

As this stove is very hot while running, it is suggested you let it burn out before removing your windscreen and pot. Remove the windscreen when the stove has run out of fuel and remove the pot and place in the smaller cozy (the metalized bubble wrap) that snuggly fits the pot preferably with a glove on. Once in the cozy, you no longer need a glove as the pot will be well insulated. If you are making a hot beverage, mix it directly in the pot and place the silicone wrist band around the lip of the pot to make a lip guard so you do not burn your lip on the metal pot while drinking. To keep the fluid warm for a longer period of time, add the larger cozy over the top to seal the pot inside.


When finished and it is time to pack it up, make sure the pot is dry. You will first roll up your windscreen and slide it into the pot. Next you need to put the stove into the pot, open end up, and slide it to the bottom of the pot with the windscreen touching the outside of the stove as you slide it down into the pot. Then place your fuel bottle, matches, spork and silicone wrist band into the pot. Place the lid for your pot on top of the windscreen that extends out of the pot. Place the pot lid on the top of the windscreen extending from the pot with the lip of the lid facing down to cover the top edge of the windscreen. Place the smaller cozy over the bottom of the pot and the larger one on the top covering the windscreen and you are all set.


 My typical use of this setup includes boiling water, pouring some into a freezer bag meal I have created (adding a can of chicken I heated on top of the pot) and sealing it and placing in the bottom of the large cozy. I will then place the pot with small cozy on top of my meal to trap it between the two. I will them make a hot beverage in the pot while I am waiting on the meal to rehydrate and warm. I will add the lip guard and drink with the whole setup in my hand. Check out freezer bag cooking or FBC as this method is particularly well suited to this type of stove.

I do not claim to be the inventor of any of this stuff, I just came up with a slick way of incorporating several peoples different ideas into one handy setup. If you like it, share it with a friend. For instructions on building one of these please see my blog at http://hikingandscouting.blogspot.com


Taking Your Child on Their First Backpacking Trip

I still remember my first backpacking trip. My Boy Scout Troop headed to the back hills of Malibu to a place called Circle X. My Dad was on the trip as well so this was our first Father/Son backpacking experience. The weather was hot, my cheap backpack did not fit well and was heavy and it was 5 miles into camp, uphill! Needless to say, I was not very excited about backpacking and it was quite a few years before I did it again.

I love day hiking and have just recently started to backpack. My boys don’t necessarily like to hike but they do enjoy going to remote waterfalls or lakes to fish in. It is all about the destination for them, not the means by which we get there. Being a Scout leader myself and having attended every training course available for a Cub Scout Leader and even some Boy Scout ones, I think I have good platform on how to put on a fun first backpacking trip.

Planning this great day started over a year ago. The family knew I wanted to get my 9 year old son a good backpack. They gave him a gift card for REI for his birthday and said it was for he and Dad to use to pick out the perfect pack. Now his name is Gregory and I happen to really like the backpacks made by…..Gregory. What kid would not appreciate a pack with his name all over it! I selected one of appropriate size for him for a big daypack or light overnighter, about 35L capacity. Now he had a pack just like Dad, although his was a little smaller.

Over the next year, we went on some day hikes and he was proud to wear his pack. The family always talked it up at how impressive it was when he wore his backpack. He did a 7 mile day hike up in Mammoth to Rainbow Falls which was really impressive. He really liked it when we went about a mile to arrive at an alpine lake we had all to ourselves. He carried his own fishing pole and gear and was rewarded with a fish. This made for a perfect day hike and really showed him the fun that could be had on the trail.

We camp all the time so the outdoors are nothing new to him. He has camped in rain, wind and cold, fortunately never all three at the same time. The Spring seemed like the right time of year for our trip as the weather would be mild. I wanted to find a place for our first backpack trip that was a short hike, a mile or two at most but still remote. I needed a place with a water source nearby so we did not have to carry much water and if this place had something fun to do once we arrived it would be even better.

My coworker Clark and his wife Michelle told me about a first backpacking trip they were going to do to Tenaja Falls and Fisherman’s Camp in the San Mateo Wilderness of the Cleveland National Forest. They would do a longer hike than what I wanted but would be visiting the falls and a wilderness camp area that sounded appropriate. I would have joined them but I was in Mammoth that weekend for a snow and ice class.

They gave me their report on the trip and the conditions at the office the following Monday. I looked at the map and figured out how I could combine a short 1.4 mile roundtrip day hike to the Tenaja Falls with a 4 mile roundtrip backpack to Fisherman’s Camp. The whole trip would be following a flowing creek and the waterfall had a great swimming hole. I faxed off my application for an overnight permit and got it back approved. The trip was on!

I invited some friends and Gregory’s Uncle Jeff. They both have dogs and my son enjoys being around dogs, just not picking up after them which is a reason we don’t have one. Our friends would join us for the first part of our trip, the day hike to the falls and back. Gregory and I were on our own after that.

Two nights before the trip I had Gregory sit with me as we both loaded our packs. He got out his clothes. Before putting them in his pack I explained to him that we are not out there to smell good or impress the girls with our good smells and clean clothes. We ditched about half of the clothes he had selected. We would be doing freezer bag cooking so both headed to the kitchen to assemble our meals, some of which we created ourselves and others from some recipes I had recently used myself.  He carried his sleeping bag, clothes, ten essentials, alcohol stove he had made, snacks, a deck of cards and mini chess set. I carried the rest. His pack was around 15 lbs. and mine was, well……more.

After a very scenic drive we arrived at the trailhead to the falls. We all headed up the short trail and enjoyed the falls. The dogs played in the water, I jumped off the rocks into the swimming hole and Gregory enjoyed wading and laying on the rocks. We packed in a hearty lunch and enjoyed about 3 hours goofing off. We headed back to the car and said goodbye to our friends. As they drove off, Gregory and I put on our packs as it was time to start our first backpack adventure. It was about 3:00PM and I figured we could cover the two miles in about 1 ½ hours tops, at kid speed with plenty of breaks.

The hike to Fisherman’s Camp was gently downhill. The trail alternated between sun and shade and several creek crossings needed to be done. We even came across a family we had camped with before on the trail, the only other people we saw on the way into Fisherman’s Camp. We took frequent rest breaks and drank plenty of water. Since I had all the water, I was happy to drink it as it meant a lighter pack for me. We had great Father/Son chat and enjoyed our hike together.

We arrived at Fisherman’s Camp a little after 4:00PM. Other than another father/son group about a ¼ mile away, we had the whole camp to ourselves. As the following day was Mother’s Day I guess this was not a popular weekend. We saw what looked like the perfect camp site. Before pitching our tent we evaluated it under the Leave No Trace principles and deemed it to be an appropriate location. Camped out under a nice oak tree with a log for sitting on and a couple of flat rocks to use as a table with a small meadow surrounding us, we were ready for the evening.

We headed to the nearby creek (100 ft. away of course) and pumped water with our water filter to purify it. We headed back to camp and began our dinner prep. We figured out how much hot water we needed for our meals. We were trying a new experimental recipe we developed, stuffing with chicken. We also had another favorite, chicken gravy rice. We boiled our water in homemade alcohol stoves. I have been using one for sometime now but Gregory made his when I had his Webelos Den make them as a project to earn their Craftsman Activity Pin. We boiled our water and poured it into the freezer bags with our dinner. We waited for them to hydrate properly and dug into them. We both agreed that our new chicken stuffing creation was the best of the two and that with some dried apples tossed in it would be even better the next time.

We played some cards and Gregory did some whittling. I taught him how to tie some new knots. We decided to brew up some hot cocoa for dessert. Out came the alcohol stove for more hot water. We enjoyed our hot beverage consumed from our Heineken beer can we use for a pot with a silicone wrist band at the top to keep from burning our lips. I asked him if he was having a great time and he enthusiastically replied “Yes!” It was now about 8:30PM and time for bed as we had an early morning start ahead of us. We had promised Mom we would be home as soon as possible on Sunday and should be home for lunch.  

Upon crawling in the tent I discovered that the old insulated air mattress from 20+ years ago had a hole and provided about nothing for comfort. Gregory had a ½" closed cell foam mat that I had been using lately but I decided to carry the heavier “more comfortable” air mattress that now did little for comfort or insulation. It was a cool night and Gregory got a little cold but I had him put on his fleece jacket and we snuggled a little closer and went back to sleep.

By just before 7:00AM we were both up and I was getting water going for our quick oatmeal breakfast. By 8:00AM we had camp packed up and checked to make sure we left only footprints behind. We headed out on our 2 mile trip back to the truck. We took some pictures and talked about the fun we have had on this trip. The time passed quickly and I could tell he was ready for this. We got back to the truck at 9:15AM and took our packs off. I asked him if he would like to do more backpacking similar to this in the future. I was full of joy when again he replied with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

My master plan had paid off! It was nearly a year in the making but I now have a child who is happy to go backpacking with me. We discussed possible locations for future trips and instead of the usual frown when I mention hiking I was seeing a smile. Now I just have to repeat this in a few years with his younger brother and I am set! We even made it home by 10:45AM for Mother’s Day and all went out to lunch together and off to my Sister’s for a family gathering that evening. If anyone knows how to get Mom to join us in all the fun let me know as I have not figured that one out yet?

Friday, May 7, 2010

My Foray into Snow, Ice and Mountaineering

As my day hiking adventures continue, I have discovered there is a whole new world out there awaiting me, snow and ice. I made my New Years resolution for 2010 to get more involved in snow and ice adventures other than skiing. I celebrated this by ringing in the new year by climbing San Jacinto Peak on snowshoes on New Years Day. Unable to stop at just that, I needed a new goal.

Over the winter I did plenty of local skiing and even got in a trip to Mammoth. While there I found a few opportunities to cruise the local golf courses in my snowshoes to get more familiar with them. I made a few trips into the local mountains of Orange County during our cold winter and found some snow up there but nothing that required anything special.

I had added new gear to my collection over the past year to prepare for what was ahead of me. I picked up mountaineering boots, crampons (spikes for your boots), snowshoes, mountaineering helmet and lastly, the icon of mountaineering, my ice axe. With all this gear comes plenty of learning. I did not want to be the guy who bought all this stuff only to die on his first trip out as he had no idea of how to use it. I needed some experience and some professional training.

A good friend of mine, Edd, who I met through the Orange County Hiking and Backpacking Club, was already a regular in the winter sports. Edd is an instructor for the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course and was willing to invite me to join him and some other mutual friends on a trip up the Mt. Baldy Bowl. After reading up on winter mountaineering skills and bringing my mountaineering boots, crampons, helmet and newly acquired ice axe we headed up for one of Edd’s famous “Brunch on Baldy” hikes which he tends to host year round. I learned a lot of the basics that day. The glissade down the Baldy Bowl was incredible (sliding on your rear using your ice axe as a brake) and I practiced self arrest, the act of stopping your fall through the proper use of your ice axe and body position. It was a great introduction but I realized I wanted….and needed more.

The beginning of May I attended my first professional instruction. I headed up to Mammoth to attend a course put on by Sierra Mountaineering International, or SMI, headed by two-time Everest summiter and worldwide mountaineering guide Kurt Wedberg. On day one, seven of us were joined by one of SMI’s experienced instructors for the Snow Travel course. This gave us instruction and lots of practice with using our ice axe in self arrest, ice axe travel across snow and ice covered slopes, roped travel with and without running belays and other general topics relating to travel in snow conditions. I chose to stay on for the second day which covered snow anchors and crevasse rescue techniques. When I asked how many other students would be staying for day two I heard nothing but silence. I was informed that it was just me and that Kurt himself would be teaching the class.

Day two was incredible. It is not every day that you get private instruction from a mountaineer as recognized as Kurt. We built different snow anchors all morning and set up crevasse rescue systems all afternoon. I learned a lot. I can comprehend plenty when I am interested in the topic and Kurt crammed in all the information I could hold. He was nice enough to take a few photos to help me remember but we were so busy with just the two of us that pictures were again not a priority.

You must be thinking by now, “Glenn must have something up his sleeve to put in all this training and effort”, and you would be correct. My plan is to summit Mt. Shasta, the northern most fourteener in California on my 40th birthday. I have made such a transformation in my lifestyle over the past 3 years. If I am going to have my “over the hill” birthday then it had better be a hill with a 14 at the beginning of it!

Keep an eye out for my future report on a first timers trip up Mt. Shasta.