MESSING ABOUT IN THE MAINE WOODS: Cooking on the trail with a makeshift stove

by Ron Maxwell

Eating and drinking outside are some of my favorite parts of being in the woods. I love a fire but in many places one cannot have an open fire. Without a fire, the easiest way to make water safe, to heat coffee or cocoa or to make food in the woods is to use a small camping/hiking stove. These stoves can be expensive – my favorite cost me $80 – but well made stoves can be created at home from common items and are as efficient as commercial stoves. Read on to learn how to build a stove to heat food, from the can the food was purchased in.

Last school break I commandeered the kitchen table and retested all the various stoves I have made. “Past me” thought them all clever at the time, but “present me” is finding the sheer numbers a trifle excessive. Most are made from food/drink cans, because “past me” did not want to buy an expensive store-bought model. All can be put into one of three basic categories: solid fuel burning, liquid fuel burning and wood burning.

Solid fuel burning stoves burn fuel tablets. I saw some in town in the camping aisle, and a quick internet search yielded many results, like Coghlan’s Solid Fuel Tablets (72 pack for $15.) I have some fuel tablets in a small baggie in the bottom of my pack because they are light to carry and could be put in the bottom of any empty can to be burned. I never got into the habit of using them as a primary source of heat because I was more interested in making stoves that burned liquid fuel. I carry them now for that time when the liquid fuel runs out on trail or to start a fire in extreme weather.

An example of a homemade stove, from Pinterest.

Liquid fuel stoves are an easy build and there are plans everywhere online. (The one pictured came from the Pinterest website.) They are also just plain fun to make and use. You have many options to fuel such a stove, from Everclear (an alcohol of 151 to 190 proof) to Naptha (the off-brand version of the fuel used in zippo lighters). For my stoves I use HEET, the gas line antifreeze that draws water out of your car’s fuel system. It can be bought at most gas stations, burns cleanly and is inexpensive.

It is easy to make a simple stove of your own. Remove the top of an empty aluminum drink can and use a hole punch to make holes at even intervals around the top third of the can. Fill the bottom third with liquid fuel. After setting the fuel alight, wait a couple minutes to give the stove a chance to heat up. Put your kettle on the can, making sure to cover the top of the can with the bottom of your kettle. The heat in the stove will turn the liquid fuel to gas which ignites and exits the holes just like the flame of a gas stove. If you put the kettle on your stove and it goes out, it was not warm enough and you need to let it burn longer before putting the kettle on next time. Be sure to shield the stove from the wind, and it will work great.

I have since moved from using any old can because those designs had no way to extinguish the stove other than allowing it to run out of fuel. The missing piece was a cover that would cut off the oxygen of the burner. What was needed was two cans, one slightly smaller than the other so that I could use the larger to cover the smaller. So I went to Hannaford and grabbed cans, going from aisle to aisle comparing sizes. I found that a Vienna Sausage can fits inside a small tomato sauce can nicely which makes the Vienna Sausage can the burner and the sauce can the cover that extinguishes the stove.

When possible, a small fire is my favorite pastime in the woods, and my cooking method of choice. However, careless use of fire and a need to protect our common land has changed the public opinion of open fires. The result is that sometimes you cannot have a fire. Those times are why I always carry what is called a wood gas stove.

A wood gas stove has a center that is very efficient with fuel so its only fuel is twigs and sticks. It burns in a way that forces the fire’s smoke to be recirculated in the stove, meaning the stove burns without smoke once it comes to operational temperature. Since it is a stove, it can be used where an open fire is illegal. And since it burns small sticks one does not need to carry large amounts of firewood or worse yet, harvest large amounts of any wood. I pick up pencil sized sticks along the way and those, plus an occasional small branch, are enough fuel to run the unit. My stove is a Toaks titanium 750 ml pot and wood stove combo set which I bought because pot and stove nestle together, taking up small space in pack.

You do not have to buy such a stove, because a simple wood gas stove can be made with two cans, one smaller than the other. The smaller is the burn chamber: punch holes in the bottom of the can and a ring of holes around its top rim. The larger can only needs its top removed, a ring of holes punched around its top rim and a hole the size of the smaller can cut in its bottom. Put the larger can upside down on the table, and put the smaller can, bottom first, in the hole in the larger can’s bottom. Fill the small can with twigs and set it alight. After a minute of burning you should see the smoke no longer leaving the stove, but rather being pulled back in to be burnt again. If that last paragraph was too much, you can get a great tutorial on YouTube in a minute of searching.

All three types of stove mentioned above are easy to use, to make and to fuel. The first time you fire up one of your stoves, it needs to be done in the open air. Burning reused cans releases a noxious gas the first time burned. After the first burn the can is safe and you can enjoy the use of your homemade stove. Making and using a stove you have made will satisfy that need to be self sufficient and have a cost effective way to replace broken equipment in the field. And being self sufficient while saving money and looking clever is a great way of messing about in the Maine woods.


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