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Gear List || DIY, ultralight & cheap backpacking alcohol stove system

An oceanside kitchen on Alaska's Lost Coast, using my Dirtbag stove system. The bugs were intense, hence the smoky hobo fire and the headnet.

An oceanside kitchen on Alaska’s Lost Coast, using my Dirtbag stove system. The bugs were intense, hence the smoky hobo fire and the headnet.


This is a multi-part series about my trail-tested backpacking stove systems. Start reading with the Introduction, or view all posts in the series.


Before I upgraded this year, the Dirtbag had been my go-to 3-season backpacking stove system. I used it for the length of the Great Western Loop, during the non-winter portions of the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and for hundreds of nights on shorter outings and guided trips. The stove and windscreen are DIY, and the system is ultralight and cheap.

It’s not perfect, but trust me on this one: It will get the job done.

Gear List

The exact components in my kit:

  • Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised

The case for alcohol

I’ve been a longtime fan of alcohol stoves, as are many other backpackers despite alcohol stoves having almost no presence in the US outdoor retail market, e.g. REI. The advantages:

Easy and inexpensive DIY projects. The Super Cat, for instance, costs about $2 and takes 10 minutes. Commercial alcohol stoves are more expensive, but still inexpensive relative to canister and liquid fuel models.

Inexpensive and widely available fuel. A gallon of denatured alcohol costs $15-20 at a hardware store (look in the paint department), or about $.15 per meal. It’s also available at auto parts stores and gas stations, in the form of HEET (yellow bottle).

No offensive odor. Unlike liquid fuel (e.g. white gas), alcohol does not have a wretched odor. In fact, I sometimes use it to clean my hands, and regularly use it to clean my sunglasses.

Carry no more than you need. Unlike canisters, the fuel can be decanted into a smaller container so that only the exact amount of fuel needed is packed. I recommend rescuing from the recycling bin a 8-, 12, 16-, or 20-oz plastic disposable bottle. Such a bottle also weighs considerably less than a depleted fuel canister or an empty liquid fuel bottle (1 oz, versus about 4+ ounces).

Peaceful. The stove operation is nearly silent, which helps to preserve the tranquility of a backcountry campsite and to allow for conversation over dinner. In contrast, liquid fuel stoves and canister stoves sound like jet engines.

What about solid fuel, canister, liquid fuel, and wood stoves?

Solid fuel stoves like the Esbit Pocket Stove share many of the same advantages as alcohol stoves. The main difference is the availability of fuel — unlike alcohol, solid fuel is hard to find. Without the assistance of mail drops, this makes solid fuel a poor choice for long-distance backpacking.

Canister stoves like the Snowpeak GigaPower (“upright”) and MSR Windpro II (“remote”) are faster and hotter than alcohol stoves, but they are heavier and the fuel is not widely available. They are best for groups of 2+.

Liquid fuel stoves like the MSR Whisperlite International burn as hot as canister stoves, but operation involves more fuss and an offensively smelling petrol-based fuel. They have a single advantage over canister stoves: more economical operation, hence their popularity among institutional groups (e.g. NOLS).

Wood stoves like the Solo Stove Compact are romantic but not user-friendly. They are not as clean-burning (and can be downright smoky); they require constant feeding of fuel during operation; they can be a challenge in wet and/or windy conditions; and cookware becomes covered in soot.

The complete Dirtbag stove system. A DIY alcohol stove + aluminum foil windscreen, an aluminum pot, plus a number of other inexpensive components. The entire system weighs about 9 oz and costs $30.

The complete Dirtbag stove system. A DIY alcohol stove + aluminum foil windscreen, an aluminum pot, plus a number of other inexpensive components. The entire system weighs about 9 oz and costs $30.

Selection discussion & alternatives

Stove

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of DIY alcohol stove designs. I ran with the Super Cat because it:

  • Is among the easiest and least expensive to make;
  • Needs no additional pot stand, since the pot sits directly on the stove; and,
  • Seems to be as fuel-efficient as more complicated designs, or at least close enough to be insignificant for solo use.

Earlier this year I wrote an extended post about the Super Cat’s flaws. Before you adopt this design, read it.

Windscreen

Without a windscreen, alcohol stoves are very inefficient — too much heat escapes, especially if there is even a mild breeze. I landed on the DIY aluminum foil windscreen because it is:

  • Extremely compact (i.e. it folds flat) so it can be stored inside my pot,
  • Cheap,
  • Ultralight,
  • Easy to make and replace.

There are two major flaws with it, however. First, it lacks structural integrity, so it will be blown around by a moderate breeze. Second, it lasts 10-15 meals before needing replacement — it gets beat up by folding/unfolding and by direct contact with the stove flame. For a beefier — albeit heavier and less compact — windscreen, make one of aluminum tooling foil.

With the leftover volume in my pot, I normally add a bag of food in order to prevent pieces from clanging around.

With the leftover volume in my pot, I normally add a bag of food in order to prevent pieces from clanging around.

Cookpot

Squatty pots (short and wide) are more fuel efficient than deep pots (tall and narrow) like the Snow Peak Trek 900, especially when partnered with a side-burning alcohol stove like the Super Cat. If you already own a deep pot and are looking for a stove, find a center-flame design like Roy Robinson’s Cat Stove. If you want to use the Super Cat but don’t yet own a pot, buy wisely.

Avoid stainless steel cookware — it is inexpensive but very heavy. For example, the 1100 ml MSR Stowaway Pot weighs nearly 16 oz, or about 4x the weight of aluminum or titanium pots.

At a minimum, go with aluminum. Pure aluminum pots like the Trangia Minitrangia Saucepan are ultralight and inexpensive. For marginally more cost and weight, hard-anodized aluminum pots like the Montbell Alpine Cooker 14 (800 ml, 7 oz) will be more durable.

My current recommendation for a budget pot is the Stanco Non-Stick Grease Pot. It had been a 3-cup hard-anodized pot from Open Country, but they’re no longer made and Trail Designs recently sold the last of their inventory. TD switched to the grease pot for their budget-friendly Caldera Sidewinder Solo system, and I’m following Rand’s lead.

The ultimate pot material, however, is titanium. It’s about as light as pure aluminum, but it’s substantially more durable. Consider that I’ve been using the Evernew Ultralight 900 ml since 2004 — since which I have spent probably one-thousand nights in the backcountry — and that I’m currently on only my second one. For the Dirtbag stove system to really go the distance, I would recommend this upgrade — in one season of extensive use, an aluminum pot will get annoyingly dinged and bent even by a careful user.

Hot drink container

This is an optional item, but those who enjoy a hot drink with their meal will appreciate the experience and convenience provided by a dedicated hot drink container. Without one, two boils are necessary, which requires more time and fuel than a single boil.

There are many lightweight, durable, and inexpensive mugs made of plastic or aluminum, including the classic GSI Outdoors Baked Enamelware 12-oz Cup.

Pot lifter, utensil, and ignition

These components have already been addressed. Read the Systems Overview, if you have not already.

Can this system be used for groups of 2+?

The Dirtbag can be used for groups of 2+. But it’s not optimal: its relatively slow boil times and inefficient design become more noticeable, and other stove systems start looking more attractive.

I would not use the Dirtbag for 2+ backpackers with large appetites, nor for 2+ backpackers who want to consume a meal and a hot drink simultaneously. In those situations, pack two solo alcohol kits or one group kit that is hotter, more fuel efficient, and has more volume.

If you wish to extend the Dirtbag into group use, I would at least recommend upgrading to a larger pot like the aforementioned Trangia (aluminum, $10) or the Evernew Ultralite 1.3L (titanium, $60) to minimize spillage risk, and adding a pot stand to improve the stability of this larger pot.

What comments or questions do you have about The Dirtbag? If you use a different DIY alcohol stove, share the details and explain your choices.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

18 Responses to Gear List || DIY, ultralight & cheap backpacking alcohol stove system

  1. Nate November 30, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    Can you use Esbit with this stove? Other than a lack of availability, are than other major drawbacks to Esbit? It seems like you wouldn’t have to worry about waiting for the bloom or spillage with Esbit. Thanks for another great blog post!

    • Andrew Skurka November 30, 2015 at 9:09 am #

      I’ve never tried. You should — if it’s a fail, you’re only out $1. Tell me the results.

      Downsides of solid fuel:
      * Fuel availability
      * Fuel expense
      * Unpleasant smell during combustion
      * Leaves a residue on the pot

  2. Dave F November 30, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    I meant to comment when you wrote the post about the SuperCat’s flaws I but never got around to it. I completely understand the desire to continually refine a system to make it as efficient as possible (I do the same for plenty of stuff) but I fall into the “average is good enough” category when it comes to stove usage. I prefer the cat food can setup and I also violate several of the recommendations when using it.

    First, I use a Snow Peak 700 mug, which goes against the advice to use a wider/larger pot. All of the reasons for using a wider pot make sense: it’s more stable, more fuel efficient, more likely to keep the flame underneath of the pot. But really, I’ve never knocked it over, I’ve never run out of fuel (or carried more than if I had a wider pot) and I’ve never burned myself. It’s a compact system and it works well enough that I don’t find myself wanting anything bigger. As far as the ‘handle vs. pot holder’ debate, the cup has a handle and a cheap bandanda works well enough to grab it. There are probably a few singed corners on the bandana but I don’t foresee it ever bursting into flames. The windscreen is standard heavy duty foil folded a few times and trimmed to curve below the handle. I also only punched holes 3/4 of the way around the stove in order to accommodate the cup’s handle a little better. Less fuel efficient? Probably. But I just don’t feel that it’s inefficient enough to make a significant difference 95% of the time, especially for 1 person. That being said, I regularly use this setup for 2 people and it works fine for that too. I’m not actually cooking food in the cup, just boiling water, so there’s enough space and stability isn’t a big deal because I’m not fussing with it.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with a fancier system but I think in this case bare bones is still perfectly usable in a lot of situations. Clearly there are cases to be made for other approaches when accounting for cooking style, environmental conditions, number of people, etc. I’m just chiming in to say that it works for me and that I think the differences are more in degrees vs. it does/doesn’t work.

    • Andrew Skurka November 30, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

      There are probably few who have used this system more than I have, and you’re certainly not going to hear me say that it’s a fail. If it worked all that time for me, obviously it will get the job done. That said:

      1. I’ve watched dozens of clients spill their dinners onto the ground, singe fingertips and coat sleeves, run across a kitchen area after a windscreen, and ask for extra fuel because they ran out (after packing in plenty). The system is not without flaws.

      2. Have you ever used a Caldera system? I finally got one this year, and aside from the sentimental attachment to the Supercat, I have no reservations about the change. Uneven ground or strong winds, no problem. And it cuts fuel consumption by about 50 percent. If you are not the type of person who is willing to work or futz with gear (e.g. tents v tarps), it’s a much better system.

      • Dave F November 30, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

        Ha, well dinner certainly isn’t as fun without a show, right?

        I have not used the Caldera system but not because I think it’s poorly designed or ineffective. On the contrary, I think it looks great and I like the fact that they provide custom wind screens for so many different pots and cups. The main reason I haven’t tried it is because I can’t seem to mentally justify buying something to fix an issue that I’m not actually having.

        The scenario you described about watching people knock pots over and singe their clothes and themselves are things I remember seeing people do with a Whisperlite when I was 15 (that’s not meant to be a “back in my day” type statement; I think we’re about the same age). Every system has a learning curve; people make mistakes and they either adapt or they don’t. If somebody just can’t seem to get the hang of keeping their pot upright on a cat food can then sure, it’s probably a good idea to try something else. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m not judging one way or the other. But for me, the criteria for buying gear (whether it’s $35 or $435) is that what I’m getting either fixes a problem I’m having or at least offers functionality that fills a gap that I can easily identify. In this case, I have a cheap solution that works fine and that doesn’t give me a headache. I still have a GigaPower and a Whisperlite in my closet in case my needs change, but those mostly collect dust now. That’s not to say something else won’t be useful in the future, but for now the cat food can still works so upgrading seems superfluous.

  3. Katherine November 30, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    Cleaning your hands with it? Considering whatever is used denature it, I aim for as little contact as possible.

    I switched to Everclear, legal in my state, to avoid that factor.

    Otherwise it’s a great way to keep the just-getting-out-there budget low.

    • Maeglin November 30, 2015 at 5:47 pm #

      My question too, Katherine. I’ve moved from white gas to canister and plan to try alcohol this next season. I am a little concerned about the toxicity.

      Do you have a low-methanol source for denatured alcohol?
      It looks like you store your stove in your pot?
      Have you been finding it harder to remember names or am I overreacting 🙂 ?

      Methyl Alcohol – “This is also a very poisonous fuel and you should consider the health concerns of this fuel if you decide to use it long term (thru-hikers beware and others may want to avoid storing contaminated stoves in their cook pots or bowls).”
      http://zenstoves.net/Stoves.htm#Fuels

      • Dave F November 30, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

        I typically use Kleen Strip Green; you can find it at hardware stores like Home Depot.

        It’s mostly ethanol according to this:
        http://www.kleanstrip.com/uploads/documents/QKGA75003_SDS-1623.pdf

        Everclear works but that’s a pretty expensive way to fuel a stove unless you’re actually drinking it too.

        I wonder how many people have actually gotten sick from cooking with predominately methanol-based fuel. HEET is probably one of the most popular options for backpackers picking up on resupply and I think it’s predominately methanol-based (http://www.prairielandelectric.com/msds/inbookmsds/HEET.pdf). I’m not aware of any large scale instances where thru hikers got sick from HEET. I probably wouldn’t wash my hands with it, though.

    • Cory December 27, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

      I’ve used Everclear on a trip and wouldn’t do it again. It wasn’t the cost (I found no-name 190 proof for cheap) but the heat output – pure ethanol just doesn’t burn as well in a basic alcohol stove. Hardware-store denatured alcohol has a lot of methanol in it – over 50%, if I remember correctly. Yellow HEET might be almost 100%. Methanol has lower heat value per gram than ethanol, but it vaporizes and burns more effectivley than ethanol. The end result for me was that the methanol really improved stove output. The downside is that it’s toxic, but as a personal preference I’d rather pack and handle methanol over white gas.

      • Howard Hayden, Unit Commissioner August 9, 2016 at 2:03 am #

        My medical friends (MD’s) recommend Ethanol because it is not toxic if spilled on food and can be used to clean surface wounds in the field. One’s rent is low in camping in the backcountry. If one is out for just a few days, Ethanol will work fine. There is a tutorial in which some Engineers carefully measured the boiling times of 1 liter of water at room temperatures. The Ethanol stoves, all Trangias, for the sake of uniformity, were easier to control with no flare-ups, heated the water at an average rate compared to other alcohol fuels..midway for time lapsed for bringing to boil the 1 liter of water. Safety issues are a major concern for me. For medicinal drinking after a long day, I do have a small, plastic flask with decent Scottish distillates as an attitude adjuster and reward.

  4. Greg December 7, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Is stainless steel really heavier? The description of this pot, for example, says it’s 3oz, though doesn’t appear to have a lid:

    Jacob Bromwell Classic Stainless Steel Mug

    Seems fine at a fraction of titanium’s price. What’s the catch?

    • Andrew Skurka December 9, 2015 at 9:01 am #

      All things being equal, steel is heaviest, titanium is lightest, and aluminum is in between. Of course, all things are not often equal, so you can find cookware that an an exception the rule, e.g. an aluminum pot that is lighter than a titanium pot. But to break these rules you must give up something, like volume, features (e.g. lids, handles), or durability. For instance, for a pot you can use a modified Fosters beer can. It’s lighter than any titanium pot I know of, but it’s not nearly as durable. Literally, you can ding it by flicking your finger at it.

      • Brian Blanton January 3, 2016 at 8:18 am #

        Another aluminum option is the Imusa 10 and 12cm mugs. They’re very cost effective and durable enough that you don’t have to worry about them. Easy to make a lid for one, and if you’re not DIY inclined lots of cottage vendors make lids to fit. I’ve got the handle on my 12cm wrapped, so that adds a little extra weight, but mine comes in at 3.75oz.

        Also, based on recommendations from a few friends who enjoy doing the research, I always put my stove in a plastic bag if I’m storing it in my pot. I put my lighter in there as well.

        • Andrew Skurka January 3, 2016 at 8:37 am #

          Good mug recommendations, thanks.

          Why do you put your stove inside a plastic bag? I can understand putting a heavier stove (e.g. MSR WindPro, which is part of the Hot & Heavy system) inside a bag to protect the inside of the pot against it. But I’ve never done that with my alcohol stoves and I’ve never experienced any consequence. The only possible concern I can think of is contamination of the pot with alcohol stove residue. But since the fuel burns completely (to the degree that there is no fuel smell remaining on the stove after use) I question whether this is a legitimate concern or not.

  5. Todd Root January 19, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    Hi, I’ve been using the Super Cat stove, and it works well for me.
    For a windscreen, I tried using aluminum foil as directed, and I found it too delicate for me. Of course, I could extend its life by being super careful with it, but I don’t really like having to be super careful with stuff like that. I like gear that can take a little abuse, even if it’s a little heavier.
    Instead of using aluminum tooling foil, I went to Dollar Tree and picked up an aluminum serving platter (actually a two-pack) for $1. I rolled it flat with a rolling pin, cut it to the desired dimensions, and folded the edges. It fits perfectly inside my pot, tends to winds tightly around my stove/pot combo during use, and cost $.50 to make. Bonus, it has this cool design etched in the material, so it looks all fancy. Thank you, Andrew Skurka and Dollar Tree!

  6. Ola April 2, 2016 at 2:49 am #

    Thanks for a great article,

    Trangia got two lighter and more durable 1 litre pots (2.8 oz) than the one mentioned above.

    They are cheap, light, durable and nests perfectly if you need two pots. I and many other swedes use these pots a lot and they are great! The diameter/height ratio is close to perfect in my opinion. The Mini Trangia handle (0.6 oz) also works perfectly with the pots.

    http://trangia.se/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Weight-and-measure-table.pdf

    Trangia Saucepan – Series 27 1 Litre Ultralight Hardanodized

    Saucepan inner, graded, (no 652713), weight=2.8 oz (80 g), d=146 mm, h=69 mm

    Saucepan outer (no 652712), weight=2.8 oz (80 g), d=150 mm, h=68 mm

    Mini Trangia handle (no 600282), weight=0.6 oz, (18 g)

  7. yoiyok November 17, 2016 at 7:09 pm #

    he he…very nice wind screen, its enough strong ??

  8. Garet Denise May 28, 2017 at 10:49 pm #

    “In fact, I sometimes use it to clean my hands, and regularly use it to clean my sunglasses.”

    Methanol is widely documented as a nerotoxin, with absorption through the skin being one method of exposure. Although you may not have noticed any consequences, I would not intentionally apply it to my skin.

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