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Bear Canister Bias

Thru-Fishing the JMT

5 x 8 Poncho as Shelter and Raingear

Esbit Stove Height vs Efficiency

Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days

Stoveweight vs Time Over 28 Days

Repairing Gear on the Trail

Washing Down Gear

Common Choices for Alcohol Fueled Stoves

Flying With Fuels

Resupply Options for Long Distance Hikers

MSR Pocket Rocket Tests

Pack Light Eat Right

Debunking Cookware Myths

For a Few Calories More: the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trail Foods

Water Purification for Long Distance Hikers

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.

Can 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.

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 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.

 

Notes
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!
 
Related Links
Fuel Names around the World

Methanol MSDS

Denatured Alcohol MSDS

Pure Ethanol MSDS

Methyl Ethyl Ketone MSDS

Ethyl Acetate MSDS