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.
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
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.
Selection discussion & alternatives
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.
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,
- 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.
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.
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