Common Choices for Alcohol Stove Fuel
Long-distance hikers will
be poking around in trail towns looking for fuel for their stoves. Read
this article to find out about your choices.
stoves are all the rage these days on America's National Scenic Trails. I
can't help but feel good about gear that is readily made for free from materials
that would otherwise end up in a landfill. However, the stove itself may
be free but you'll have to pay for fuel. Moreover, trail towns don't
always have a great selection within walking distance.
a quick list of the most common stove fuels and where you'll most likely find
- denatured alcohol (hardware store, paint
- pure methanol from hardware store (paint
- pure ethanol (Everclear, liquor store)
- fuel line antifreeze (gas station or
- 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 leave what you don't use
in the local hiker box for the next person to use. 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 it 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. You won't find liquor stores many places along the trail, though,
so obtaining it will be a challenge. 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. If you're using
mail drops, you may be able to buy it in bulk and reduce the cost. It will
need to be shipped by USPS Parcel Post or UPS ground to avoid violating HAZMAT regulations.
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. A weekender's short term exposure to methanol
may not be a big deal, but a long-distance hiker should consider this fact carefully
when choosing a fuel.
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. 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.
|A link to a MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) for each of the fuels listed is provided farther down in the sidebar. Each of these links is to an external site.
Treat all fuels as dangerous. By their very nature, they are extremely flammable. Many are also toxic. Homemade stoves in particular tend to flare up in a breeze or when you try to blow them out. Be Careful when handling any fuel or operating any stove!