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I made my first backpacking stove in my college girlfriend’s backyard with a hole punch and a can of Fancy Feast. After emptying the cat food in the trash (she didn’t have a cat, and I was a dirtbag but not like that) and removing the label, I marked two alternating lines of holes on the can and punched them out. We inaugurated the stove that night at a primitive campsite in California’s Crystal Cove State Park, boiling up hot cocoa while we watched the city lights twinkle on one side of the hills and listened to the waves lap at the shore on the other.
Years later, I found that stove in a box in my closet while I was getting ready to move house. I spent a minute turning it over, thinking about the miles I had logged with it, in California and New Mexico and Colorado, the coffee brewed and the meals cooked under a clear desert sky. Then, I threw it in the recycling. I’ve never bothered making another.
Alcohol-burning stoves used to be de rigueur for ultralighters, and making your own—whether out of a Coke or cat food can—was a rite of passage. While it’s not clear when hikers started making their own, lightweight alcohol-fueled stoves have been around for well over 100 years, with Swedish manufacturer Trangia beginning to build theirs in 1925. But now, they’ve become a tool on the margins, mostly found in the packs of winter FKT-chasers and die-hard old-schoolers. With tech making them obsolete and a warming and drying world making them hazardous, it’s time to bid a fond farewell to the alcohol stove.
Alcohol burners may have been easy to make, but they weren’t what you’d call easy to use. My design, the “Super Cat,” was probably the simplest: You poured in some alcohol, touched a match to it, and put your pot on top. But it took some getting used to. I singed a few arm hairs lighting mine up or adjusting the tinfoil windscreens I used with it, and the lack of simmer control meant it was pretty much only good for boiling water. (Some more complicated models let you adjust the flame, though not as easily as a canister or liquid-fuel burner.) If you put in more than the exact amount of fuel you needed, extinguishing the flame was tricky; I usually snuffed it out with my empty pot, being careful not to burn myself. Where the learning curve on most modern stoves is gentle, I melted a puffy and spilled burning fuel in a couple of fire rings before I got the hang of the cat food can.
Is it any wonder, then, that modern backpackers are mostly giving them up? Lightweight canister stoves like the Snow Peak LiteMax come in at less than 2 ounces, sip fuel, and turn off with the twist of a valve; direct-from-manufacturer versions can be had for less than $20 on Amazon. It’s the same trend that ultralight gear as a whole has charted over the past few decades: Where going light used to mean sewing a quilt and tarp yourself, today there’s a laundry list of manufacturers big and small using modern materials to create more reliable, durable, and easy-to-use lightweight gear than most people could ever craft at home. What’s more, the most extreme ultralighters have largely cottoned on to the fact that no stove will ever be as light as, well, no stove, and have chosen to cold-soak instead of mess around with alcohol burners.
Then there are the fire restrictions. As climate change drives temperatures higher and causes wildfires to burn faster, hotter, and in areas where they historically haven’t, forests and even entire states are commonly spending months under fire bans. While those bans usually allow camping stoves, they consider alcohol stoves to be open flames and generally prohibit their use. Even if you still prefer your Coke can stove to your Pocket Rocket, you need to either find a backup or potentially give up on being able to eat cooked food in the backcountry during the summer and fall.
Alcohol stoves aren’t completely extinct. Some companies like Trail Designs and Trangia are still turning out commercial versions of my old Fancy Feast stove, and there’s something to be said for having a lightweight device that can burn anything when you’re flying somewhere camping fuel is hard to find. But for most backpackers, especially in North America, carrying one is like making a tarp out of Tyvek: something that you do because you want to prove you can or because you’re too stubborn to change. If you’re still rocking your old spirit burner, I salute you, and please check for fire bans before you light up. If you’re not? Don’t bother.
Counterpoint: Long Live the Alcohol Stove
Not so fast. I won’t be giving up my Caldera Cone alcohol stove any time soon. I’m quite fond of it. It’s a brilliantly simple system that weighs 10 ounces and includes the burner, pot, windscreen, and plastic, lidded, insulated container that doubles as a bowl and cup. True, there are faster, easier cookers out there. But sometimes that’s not the point.
Sometimes I want to lean against a log and listen to the wind in the leaves instead of a roaring canister stove on high. Sometimes I want to wait patiently and gratefully for my water to bubble (about 8 minutes is all), especially when a delicious meal will follow. (Andrew Skurka’s beans and rice with Fritos and cheese is my absolute favorite.) Sometimes I don’t want to lug around multiple fuel canisters and figure out how to recycle them after my trip. Sometimes I just want to go old school–simple, ultralight, and uncomplicated. And when I do, I’ll keep going back to my trusty alcohol stove. —Kristin Hostetter, Head of Sustainability and Contributing Editor