'Coke Can' Stove gives Light Weight but Weak Heat

By JIM HODGSON

In the quest to make my pack as light as possible for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I began researching various ways to throw money at the problem. One recommendation I heard time and again from veteran AT hikers was to ditch my regular camp stove in favor of an alcohol-burning unit made from a Coke can.

Yep, people do actually make stoves out of soda cans. There’s even a mass-produced option from Trail Designs, a company that touts itself as the “finest purveyor of lightweight backpacking gear.”

can stove.jpg

Camp stove made of Coke can from Trail Designs

I found instructions online on how to make my own Coke can stove. But I also know that I tend to get annoyed and sloppy when projects get fiddly, so I gave in and simply purchased my stove from Trail Designs.

It came as a part of the company’s Sidewinder Ti-Tri system, which includes the stove, a titanium cone-stand, and a few extras for $80.

The kit arrived with everything I needed, including a collapsible metal cone designed to simultaneously support my pot and keep the wind from blowing out the stove’s flame. I set off on an overnight shakedown trip to give it a test.

ti stove kit.jpg

Trail Designs’ Sidewinder Ti-Tri kit. Note: Coke can stove component is stripped to its silver aluminum shell in manufacturer’s shot

By the time I got to the shelter near the top of a mountain, I was good and hungry. It was eight miles and change to the summit from the parking lot. I dug my pre-packaged meal out of my pack with great anticipation, poured some water into my pot, lit my stove, and waited.

Then I waited some more. Next, I tried waiting a third and fourth time. Some bubbles appeared at the bottom of my pot, but they didn’t seem inclined to turn over into a nice boil. At 20 minutes I felt like giving up.

To use this stove, you first measure fuel with a small measuring cup, then pour that into the stove. Next, assemble the cone-stand by sliding one end into the other. Light the stove, put the cone around it, and put your pot on top. Bam!

Or, not Bam. . . . While I was waiting for my water still to boil, two fellow hikers I’d met on the trek both gathered water, boiled it using their stoves — an MSR Pocket Rocket and a Jetboil — had eaten, and were cleaning up.

I eventually just gave up on my Coke can and poured the warm water into my food. It worked just fine, and I ended up getting to eat a warm, but not piping hot, meal.

ti-tri stove.jpg

Can stove (bottom), cone and pot on top

Since that first trip I’ve been out on the trail again with the Ti-Tri a couple times and with similar results. Users of other stoves — particularly the Jetboil, I find — are able to boil water in what seems like no time at all. I just stand around and hungrily eyeball my pot.

The can-stove system is certainly light and packs small. Everything fits into my 900ml pot, including a lighter, a measuring cup for fuel, small fuel bottle, the stove base and cone/stand, and a handful of Esbit tablets in case I get caught without any liquid fuel. All of that weighs in at around 13oz.

But that weight compares with the Jetboil Zip system, which hits the 12oz. mark without a fuel canister. (Canister adds around 7oz.) Jetboil’s more pricey SOL TI stove is just 8.5 ounces, and MSR’s Pocket Rocket is just 3 oz. (without canister).

Honestly, the Coke can solution, when you include the cone/stand and the other needed extras, is not that much lighter than these “normal” camp stoves my backpacking buddies had told me to ditch. I could get a lighter pot, and that’d make my package a bit more airy, though we’re squabbling on a few ounces here that may or may not be noticeable in my backpack.

That said, I acknowledge some of my problems with the stove may have amounted to some user error. For example, I bought too big of a pot to start with. One person usually doesn’t need 900ml of water; 400ml would have been more than adequate. Every little bit of water adds more time to get boiling.

I was using denatured alcohol, which burns nearly invisibly. Once the stove is lit, it’s hard to know whether it is going or not without sticking your hand near it, which is a bit like checking whether a snarling dog will bite by giving him a kiss. The stove also burns silently, so if it goes out under your pot you’ll get no indication except a lack of forming bubbles in your pot, which might be tough to spot.

The can stoves use a wide range of flammable liquids, from gas to alcohol, which makes finding fuel easier. You can use Esbit tablets or even plain old wood with the cone unit to boil water without the stove. In contrast, the pressurized canisters used on the Jetboil and MSR units are not always easy to buy unless an outdoor shop is nearby.

Another bonus: The can stoves have no moving parts to break, so they are pretty much going to work for months on end without trouble.

With practice, I have no doubt that I could become a master at using the stove, but I think an easier-to-use cooking system suits me much better. I think the Ti-Tri or similar setups have strengths that would appeal to a hyper weight conscious thru-hiker looking to squeeze out every gram and willing to put in practice developing familiarity with the stove.

To me, though, the Coke stove’s slow cook time feels like a high price to pay. When I’m hungry at the end of a long day, a hot meal quick is all that’s on my mind. Even on a long journey I might lug a few extra ounces to pay for the fast-boiling speed a hotter stove can offer.

—Jim Hodgson is based in Atlanta. Find him on Twitter via @jimhodgson.

Posted by Matt - 07/24/2012 11:18 AM

The type of alcohol you use will have a dramatic effect on how well your Coke Can stove works. I use denatured alcohol (found anywhere they sell paint) and I can get 16 oz of water boiling in about 8 minutes. Then again, my homemade stove (technically a Dr. Pepper stove) doesn’t look like the one you bought. LinkText

Posted by Jeffzx9r - 07/24/2012 11:23 AM

In the old days, we just made our fire and cut off the top of a pop can to boil/cook. Not a “big quantity” set-up, but very efficient. Everyone seems to need some (expensive) specialized kit, anymore. Just get out there and do it; don’t get bogged with having exactly the “right” gear!

Posted by Andrew Skurka - 07/24/2012 09:47 PM

Based on my extensive use of alcohol stoves (500+ meals at least), it seems probable to me that the stove’s performance is user error, not a problem with the stove.

My own stove system (stove, pot, wind screen, fuel bottle, and matches) weigh about 6 oz; add .75 oz of fuel per meal. Its boil times are about 2x as the JetBoil and other canister stoves, which weigh and cost substantially more, and which also require specialized canisters that add more expense and create a logistical hassle if you need more fuel mid-trip and/or if you need to fly to your trip location.

Posted by jpea - 07/24/2012 09:59 PM

^ I love it – only Andrew Skurka himself would stop by and give his 2 cents – that’s awesome (and invaluable!)

Posted by Mark Verber - 07/25/2012 09:47 AM

How much water were you trying to boil?

When cooking solo meals (10-16oz) I found that Caldera Cone based stoves were slower than JetBoil, but only 1.5-2x slower. When it comes to weight, the alcohol (or the same system with esbits) is much lighter for short trips, and continues to be less weight / daily on long trips when factoring in the weight of the canisters used by JetBoil and other iso butane stoves.

Posted by AL - 07/25/2012 11:56 AM

My experience with alcohol stoves have been fantastic. The penny stove works great and boils supers fast. Easy to make too.

http://www.jureystudio.com/pennystove/

Posted by BN - 07/26/2012 11:35 AM

I’ve used a simple cat food can burning denatured alcohol to boil two cups of water in 3-4 minutes in spring, fall and summer. I even used it in -1 F weather – maybe 8 minutes then. I used tin foil for a wind screen and a home made pot stand fashioned from an old coat hanger. I’ve lost a few races with the Jet Boil crowd but also spent about $0.55. (Oh and the cat the needed the food anyway.)

Posted by Patches - 07/28/2012 12:52 AM

“use a wide range of flammable liquids, from gas to alcohol” Putting gas in that stove would be a bad idea. It is designed only to burn alcohol.

Posted by Anna - 11/11/2012 04:29 PM

I have never personally owned a petroleum-based stove so my attitude towards the alcohol stove may be a little biased. I originally chose to make a pop can alcohol stove because I wanted a stove that had less of a cost and environmental impact. I was also looking for a fuel that would be less explosive and more easily transportable.

I have worked for over a year on a trail crew and have used my alcohol stove for this purpose on every spike. The first stove I made was a typical top burner stove which I had little luck with because I refused to make a pot stand for months. Later, when I had almost given up on the stove and decided to purchase a pocketrocket (alot of people I worked with had one of these), I decided to give the alcohol stove one more shot. I made it taller than the typical stove to allow for more fuel in case I wanted to cook a more elaborate meal (but only a few millimeters taller). Using an enclosed pot stand that allowed the pot to sit about 1.5-2 inches above the stove and making sure there was just enough air flow for the right amount of oxygen, it completely changed my experience of my alchol stove. Before, I had sadly sat around watching everyone else cook their food. Sometimes, it would be up to 30 minutes before I could get food to boil. Simply changing the insulation, air flow, and space above the stove took that time down to 7 minutes. An alcohol stove can be a wonderful thing, but testing set-ups and finding out what works for a particular pot, etc., will make the largest difference.

Many people have opposing view points on temperature and altitude limitations of an alcohol stove. If you are climbing at 15k feet, a simple water boiler like a jetboil system may be best, but I have consistently used a basic alcohol burner at elevations around 9-10k feet in temperatures barely above freezing, and have gotten consistently excellent results with this alcohol burning stove!

Posted by Tim - 01/11/2013 07:46 AM

What has not been mentioned is that other fuels have twice the heat energy of alcohol. For the same amount of liquid heated, you will need to carry twice the weight of fuel as others. Alcohol performance is also poor at altitude and cold.

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