Prepping 101: Urban Bugout Stove – Burns Alcohol Vapor

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Large Stainless Stove – On Ebay $12
Rucas Stove from Video – On Ebay $21
Not in the video but highly reviewed on Amazon $8.78

I think there is a huge difference between long term “bug-in” survival preparations, and short term “bug-out” survival preparations. Depending on your situation, bug-out might be your only option. As I explained in my bugout pack article, most of what you carry should be food. And though cooking may seem like a luxury for a survival situation, you’ll find that most inexpensive and calorie dense foods need to be cooked. You don’t want to carry a lot of water, when you can pick up water and cook dry food on the road. That means you should also carry a stove, and that stove needs to be light, efficient with fuel, and it should be able to cook your food in a reasonable amount of time. In my travels for this column I have covered a number of great cooking options, but this week I’d like to share my newest discovery that all of those qualities considered, I think might be the best for urban bug-out.

If you are in the woods and you can pick up sticks to burn, there is no comparison to a small rocket stove, which I have covered in other articles. In an urban setting, finding wood, and especially small pieces of burnable wood, will be problematic without tools. You could use one of those micro propane stoves, and it isn’t a terrible option, but to me they are too complicated, and the weight and bulk of the propane cylinder itself I think it’s worth the trouble. Propane has it’s place in a survival setting, but I don’t think it is be the for urban bugout.

The stove you see here in the video is usually called an alcohol stove, or a spirit stove, but it burns neither. As you’ll see in the video, the flame that you cook on is a very pretty blue, and it is burning methyl alcohol gas, or steam really. The fuel is liquid alcohol, available at Walmart, and you do at first light the liquid alcohol, but within a minute or three the liquid in the container starts to boil. That in turn produces alcohol steam, and that steam catches and burns as a steady cooking flame. There are no licking and dancing ends of an irregular flame. It doesn’t carbon up the bottom of your pot. It looks just like a propane flame, or perhaps even more blue.

That is why I didn’t call this week’s column “Cooking With Alcohol Stoves,” because like who cares. Everyone knows you can throw a match into a glass of Vodka and it’ll light. Until recently I didn’t know that it was actually the steam of the alcohol burning, and that the actual function of the stove is nothing like Sterno or just a burning bowl of Vodka. For this first visit I stuck to the suggested fuels, but next time we’ll try actual Vodka as well. 🙂

The fuels for these stoves are actually very specific. Even though any combustible fuel will work, I was only able to get the best results out of what the directions say, which is the yellow bottle “Heet” (drygas) fuel additive, and denatured alcohol, which we used back in the diesel pressure stove article for the spirit cups that get those stoves going. I show you in the video where you’ll find these at Walmart, and they are both over $16 per gallon. This is not a long term fuel storage survival option, but I think it is about the best for that first couple of hunker down weeks after the ATMs go dark, and as I said, for if you have to bug out.

It only takes about an ounce of fuel to cook a pretty good sized pot of beans, rice, or freeze dried meals. Of the two stoves I tested, the smaller aluminum seemed to be the most fuel efficient, but it doesn’t hold much fuel. If you want to cook for longer, because you are cooking for a large group, the larger sized stainless one from China holds a good deal of fuel. If you have a lot of people, with a log of backs for packs, you may want to consider a diesel stove as well.

The two stoves I purchased for this article are by no means inclusive. I had no idea that these stoves were anything more than a cup to pour fuel into to burn, and I wasn’t impressed. Then, because I needed something to write about this week, I figured I’d give them a shot. What a pleasant surprise. So hopefully I’ll return if we have time. This week I bought a couple of the others on Ebay, just to try them, but my guess is that they are all mostly the the same, except in perhaps how long they take to prime.

The “prime” is when you light the liquid fuel and wait for it to boil. Then the sides catch and you can properly cook. On the larger burner with a larger surface area of fuel, it only took about 30 seconds to prime. On the super light aluminum homebrew Ebay jockey beer can burner, it takes about 3 minutes. That stove comes with the tip that if you put some fuel outside the stove and light that, it’ll prime faster. There are now several Ebay jockeys selling versions of these, and there plenty of Youtube videos on all kinds of elaborate designs for DIY, using soda cans, beer cans, and even cat food cans. The great the surface area of the fuel, the quicker will be the prime.

My calculations for BTUs on these stoves are only for relative values, so you can compare them to competing stoves using the same method. One British Thermal Unit, or BTU, is the energy it takes to raise 16 ounces of water one degree. There is no time constant, so when you see an 8,000 BTU burner, that means BTUs per hour.

The easiest way to measure BTUs, is of course to heat up exactly two cups of water. In my experiment, room temperature was 75 degrees. To raise the water to boiling takes 137 degrees, which would be 137 BTUs. On the large burner this took about 3 minutes, so for an hour, you’d multiply that times 20. That comes to just over 2,700 BTUs, which doesn’t sound like much, but compare that to your home stove that is advertised at much more BTUs than that. The calculations for those values are done under perfect conditions, and they don’t factor for heat loss to the air, or the heat to heat the metal of the pot. A relative almost 3,000 BTUs per hour result in the pot contents is a rip roaring burn.

One warning. Don’t use petroleum fuels or even E85 in these burners. The heat is too much for them and the burn gets out of control really quick. They also soot up your pot and clog your jets. At the end of the video I showed you my E85 test. At two bucks a gallon, had that test worked it would have been a huge score, and a strong argument to use these burners long term.

Ethanol has roughly 2/3rds the BTUs per gallon compared to gasoline, and even less compared to diesel. It burns much cooler. The alternative fuel for use in “Flex Fuel” vehicles, called E85, is supposed to be 85% Ethanol, but it can be as little as 60% and they can still call it E85. All versions of E85 are different because of what they claim are climate considerations, but I think it probably just depends on how much ethanol they could get the government to subsidize that week. Regardless, the fuel from Miami I tried was really gasoline-ey smelling, and torched and scorched my burner but good.

Surprisingly you won’t find one of these alcohol burners at Walmart. I have linked above to a few sources on Ebay and Amazon, and don’t discount making one yourself, though I didn’t have time this week. A quart can of alcohol and one of these burners should be in everyone’s bugout bag I think. I’ll try to get back here with them soon after testing them with my open flame baking ovens. For bugout, I think you are better to plan to pancakes, not bread, so I don’t know if it is relevant enough. Nobody looks forward to bugging out, and I don’t suggest that anyone plan to bugout if there is a chance to sit tight for a couple months. But you just never know. As we get closer to what is clearly a reckoning coming at us, I feel bad that a lot of you use this column as “infotainment.” Maybe our benevolent Creator will cut us a break and give us a slow and easy let down. But looking back through history, I certainly wouldn’t count on it.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Rooster June 24, 2016, 9:44 am

    First, in your testing, did you find you preferred one stove over another? Why?

    Second, have you found any stoves that have a greater capacity? Would that even give you long enough? Cooking a pot of beans is going to take a lot longer than 20-25 minutes, which is pushing it for a decent quantity of rice (I have 4 kids…). I suppose a person could have a couple of these and just move the pot to a second/third stove, etc.

    As to drinking this if you spilled it on your food: Just make sure it isn’t methanol, which could blind you, or worse. That might complicate the rest of your bug out. Denatured alcohol (ethyl/ethanol) sometimes has additives that give it bad flavor, make it somewhat poisonous and could make you vomit. (isopropyl alcohol is common and it can do all those things, especially to a small child.) I’d check out what additives yours has in it before I’d be in a hurry to save a half cup of rice.

  • Dr. Nopps June 22, 2016, 11:39 pm

    Also keep in mind another benefit of the alcohol usage is less toxicity. Spill gasoline on your food and it’s worthless & carcinogenic. Spill alcohol on your food and it’s actually still edible, you could even wait out the evaporation process for most of the taste to leave if you had the time. Also it’s not as much of a risk of contamination to whatever drinking water you have with you.

    • Old Clockguy July 25, 2016, 10:18 am

      Additionally, if a point in time comes where we have no electricity, we have effectively removed many of the present day distractions and can focus our attention on properly preparing our food, giving more emphasis on little things like basic safety, not spilling unwanted things like alcohol on our food as it is waiting to be prepare/eaten, and other such daily things in all our lives which we have been rather lax paying proper attention to. How many of us, for example, have almost collided with by someone who is trying to read a text message or send one to a friend, or reading email while walking on a crowded sidewalk?? It seems silly but it happens every day in an urban setting. It will also bring down to a bare minimum the people who have tried to do all these things while attempting to drive a vehicle at high speed only to have, for their legacy, a simple wooden cross along some anonymous highway to mark their passing to those who drive by.

      Maybe it’s back to Willie and Waylon’s song, Luckenbach, Texas. Personally, I get so much more pleasure out of the simple things in life than I ever did with all the plastic glamor and glitch that has taken over our priorities. Many of us will go kicking and screaming back to the simple life but that old guy in the rear of the parade, with a big smile on his face, will be me from the very get go!!

  • Nick June 21, 2016, 10:14 pm

    Very good article. These are super-simple and just work. You can find YouTube videos of people making these from aluminum cans. Not too hard to make I guess. They sell 99% isopropyl alcohol (at least where I live) at medical supply stores, and like Walgreens, Fred Meyer (Kroger for some folks). I’ve used it before for other projects and it burns with a mostly blue flame. I’d reckon it works better than 91% as far as burning cleaner and a lot better than 75%, which makes a yellow flame. It’s also about $1.25 for a 24 oz. bottle.

  • Alan June 21, 2016, 1:49 pm

    Fine and dandy at lower altitudes, but in the high country alcohol stoves are near worthless. The burn is too cool, it takes a LOOONG time to even make coffee.

  • Bertil Wockatz June 20, 2016, 1:34 pm

    Read and liked it! A warning though, to those who aren´t used to alcohol burners: Incidents have happened when the user can not see the flame when the alcohol is almost gone, and wants to refill the burner and pours in more. Wham! Gasoline burns, but alcohol can more or less explode with the hot (blue) flames following the pouring fluid up and into the can. No good!
    Also, after seeing no ore flames in the burner, Do check by holding your hand over what you are sure is a burner no longer burning. It does happen that: Ooh, it actually is burning, hasn´t gone out yet.
    When it has, make sure that the burner is cool enough to pour alcohol in. (If it still is too hot, adding new fuel into it is not a good idea…)
    All this may sound being “too” careful. It is “only” alcohol… Well, those who have that optimistic illusion..
    Still I do swear by the spirit burners, and got used to them in the army and have used them hiking here in Scandinavia as well as in Canada and Alaska.
    The so called storm cookers/stoves from Trangia – http://www.trangia.se (their web page can be read in English too) – are very.
    The burner together with a pot handle is stored in the smallest pot, which in the bigger pot which is within the bottom part of the dismantled stove. And as the lid to the package you use the flat flying pan. It will burn even in a strong gale.
    Thanks and
    Over and out from Sweden
    (You know, Bjorn Borg, Abba and Scandinavia, not Switzerland with the Alps, watches and cheese…)

  • Mahatma Muhjesbude June 20, 2016, 10:09 am

    Good info, Paul. I’m currently doing an analysis article for anyone who wants it comparing the top 5 lightweight compact cooking/heating mini-stoves. There are different fuels but the one i chose for a bug out backpack ‘winner’ was one that burns wood, gel fuels, alcohol, solid fuel tablets, sterno, etc. and doubles as a small tent heaater. And it costs under 15 bucks!

    The ultra-light alcohol stove cooker fits in your pocket and weighs about what an empty beer can weighs! Because that’s what it looks like it’s made out of! Costs one dollar on ebay and actually works well!’

    Now, if you want to further save weight, don’t use regular alcohol FUEL. Use the Super Stuff that also doubles as libation at the evening campfire? 190 proof ‘sippin Shine. Everclear is the least expensive. It’s always better when you can ‘multi-task your supplies/equipment.

    • Paul Helinski June 20, 2016, 11:26 am

      Yea I have that collapsible rocket stove with the cup for solid fuels but it’s like eh. As a tent heater I wouldn’t burn wood lol. This stove is in a class by itself I think, because it has the gasification chamber along the sides, and I have yet to find anyone putting one together and selling it for a dollar. I’m not a drinker and I didn’t know you could buy moonshine proof rate in a store. I do have a moonshine article coming, but it’s a lot of work and energy to make very little fuel in my experience. Plus you need to store the sugar, which animals and bugs love, so you need to protect it. I think for long term, the wick diesel stoves are the best, but for bug out this alcohol vapor stove has no equal in an urban environment. If you want to bring a fuel pump to steal fuel out of vehicles, I think this stove will also work, but it’ll be sooty. I’m going to try it though.

      • Tortoise June 25, 2016, 6:51 pm

        Hi Paul… 1st off.. many thanks to all your many fine articles related to bug out and prepping. This particular piece did surprise me as I thought alcohol was really inefficient for a camp stove. I do have an old stove that I use occasionally that regains it’s cooking efficiency by the way the nestled pots sit on and within the flame. I do keep it as I’ve also experimented with making moonshine and have perfected it to a point of about 1 to 2 qts of 180 plus strength from a mash of (6 to 7 gallons of sweet oats using a commercial mix which includes other grains plus molasses) every 10 to 20 days depending on ambient temperature. Now, as an act of self sufficiency I don’t consider my own time a critical element. I mean heck.. in a survival scenario a couple of batch’s would yield enough for cooking and medicinal use. A good return in the least, and if I want to do a really big batch, I can drive my car around too. So, in a state of self sufficiency I can see an alcohol stove being useful.
        Now, as to a bugout bag I really like an old MSR brand stove I purchased years ago. It can burn all kinds of liquid fuels from unleaded gas, kerosene, and aviation jet fuel (just highly processed kerosene I believe) to others I can’t remember well enough to list. It even came with a conversion to use iso-butane canisters that are quite popular amongst backpackers. MSR still manufactures such a stove that sells for about a hundred and some change. So again, thanks for all your great posts and when things do go south we’ll be talking on to you from my Yaseau 857d and my broadband loop I put up with fence stakes and pvc posts for height.

      • Old Clockguy July 25, 2016, 10:54 am

        I have spent most of my 70+ years outdoors ranging from casual camping to wilderness guiding and trekking up in the Quetico Provincial Wilderness of SW Ontario and I have a simple solution to that “sooty” problem everyone has with metal pots and pans used over most any type of non-alcohol based open fire. There is something else that most of us carry with us when camping, you always have to wash your dirty dishes somehow, be it heating water over the campfire after the meal is over or simply taking a bar of soap and sloshing sand in your pots and dishes with a bit of the bar soap and some lake water. The eventual “cleaning” is about the same. But, it you take some Dawn with you, just the cheapest liquid blue dish soap I have found, and rub a coating of it onto the OUTSIDE of your pots and pans, you will have fixed your problem immediately and have the final benefit of already having soap to wash the pots after the meal. Dawn does not burn off of the metal pans and it “catches” most of the soot that otherwise is bonded to metal camp cooking gear used on an open fire. This is my first hand experience that was passed to me by an old trapper/explorer up North many years ago, about the time that liquid dish soap became popular back in the early ’70’s.

        He bought that type of soap out of necessity of convenience for carrying in a Duluth or Bunyon pack and he told of carrying about a pint of the blue “gold” in a bota bag tied to the outside of his pack. And it was so common sense to me, when I first learned about it, that no group of Metro-explorers who went out on any of my guided trips made it through the first camp cooked meal without being thoroughly “educated” on how to prepare a camp pot for use. Anyone who did not follow this “rule” of the guide, had the dubious honor of scrubbing the soot off the bottoms of all the affected pans with a copper scrub pad or Brillo pad. You only want to have THAT chore one time in your trip with me to appreciate the “Dawn of easy cooking” that I taught. Everyone had a choice of learning, the easy way or the hard way but all who ventured out with me did learn that lesson ……. well. But, don’t take my word for it, try it yourself first chance you get and see how much more enjoyable your camping trips can be if you do REAL outdoors “comfort” camping on the ground in a tent and cook over an open fire and wash dishes and bathe in the nearest cold water lake as we all did up north.

  • Mike D. June 20, 2016, 9:52 am

    Excellent demonstration. Covered all the bases, including using a fire starter to ignite the stove.
    Thanks!

  • davy June 19, 2016, 9:14 pm

    A couple more things:
    1. Alcohol is much safer and cleaner than petroleum fuels. It is almost impossible to get an explosion, and spills just evaporate leaving no residue. That is why it is widely used by blue water sailors. For a serious alcohol stove, look under boating supplies.
    2. Many auto parts stores sell methanol in sealed five gallon pails for less than $4 / gal.

    • Paul Helinski June 20, 2016, 7:52 am

      I’ll check that 5 gallon pail thing out for the next article. That would rock.

      • bulruq June 20, 2016, 8:51 am

        MAYBE in big cities like Indianapolis, but I checked my area and came up dry. BTW: ALL of the generic brands of gas drying fuel additive have now switched to a mostly to completely ethanol based content. Even Heet seems to be adulterating the original pure methanol formulation. Why? Because un-taxed ethanol for fuel use is MUCH cheaper than methanol and they can save a few pennies per bottle that way. Ethanol WILL work in most alcohol stoves but it takes longer to prime, produces taller flames, and needs more space to fully combust. I went to a hardware store to find the real stuff and they have stopped selling it, ALL of them! I’m starting to smell government meddling here…

        • Paul Helinski June 20, 2016, 11:29 am

          Yea methanol is definitely a political entity, because they need the corn for food and the crops are dying due to geoengineering. If you are a regular reader I’m sure you have seen my comments on this before. The whole picture is at geoengineeringwatch.org.

      • oldanddecrepit June 20, 2016, 9:54 am

        I’ve been using Trangia alcohol stoves for “primitive” camping outings for years. I’ve found that the common 91% Isopropyl alcohol sold at your local pharmacy works quite well. It is readily available, comes in conveniently sized containers (some with flip-top caps) and is quite inexpensive. A wind screen is almost certainly required for outdoor use, however, A simple windscreen which doubles as a pot stand can be fabricated from common aluminum roof flashing. Be sure to punch some holes for airflow.

        • Paul Helinski June 20, 2016, 11:27 am

          Yea it’s on my list to try also. The directions that came with the Ebay stove said that it puts a yellow film on your pots that is hard to get off, and it clogs the jets. I’m going to try it, but really it isn’t that much cheaper, so there is little point.

    • Mike D. June 20, 2016, 9:52 am

      Thanks for the info davy.

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