So, you think you’ve mastered the art of packing lightly? Strapped to your back is a sack filled with only the essential gear necessary for your survival and enjoyment of the great, wide open. No unnecessary toiletries? Check. Appropriate clothing that shaves pounds off your pack? Check. A stove and propane canister weighing upwards of two pounds? Eek!
If you’re a single hiker (or two) looking for an alternative to this “hefty” cooking mechanism, check the soda aisle at your grocery store. For only a few cents, you can concoct a simplified stove that typically weighs about a half ounce. There are many ways to build a “soda can stove” (some even use cat food or tuna tins), and the procedure is fairly painless. Plus, it translates into less headaches during meal breaks.
“The greatest thing I like about it is that there’s no technical component to it,” says Casey Horrigan, AMC’s backcountry field coordinator. “You never have to worry about it breaking down or cleaning it.”
COKE OR PEPSI? The stoves typically consist of the bases of two 12-ounce cans—one is for the burner, the other is its bottom—and other pieces of the cans that create the inner chamber. Horrigan prefers using Pepsi cans since their base has a sharp crease and they “fit into each other better.” (He learned this trick from George Andrews, a soda can stove connoisseur who has created more than 5,000 stoves and goes by the trail name “Tin Man.”) Start by cutting off the tops of three cans. Fill one of the topless cans with plaster. Once it’s hardened, cut down the side of the can and peel off the aluminum. (This “plaster tool” will help you measure and cut more accurately).
To create the stove’s bottom, place one of the other cans over the plaster and scribe a line around the can’s diameter, three-fourths of an inch from the base. Using a utility knife or scissors, cut around the can then up to the top opening. Save the excess aluminum for your chamber.
Next make the stove’s burner top. Place another can over the plaster plug and scribe a line one-and-a-fourth inches from the base and cut out the base. Andrews recommends expanding the cut can’s opening by placing it atop a filled soda can and then removing and rotating it a few times (be careful not to cut your hands). This maneuver will allow the burner top to fit over the base.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE There’s not much to constructing the inner chamber. Using scraps left over from the base, cut out a piece measuring six-and-a-half inches long by one-and-five-eighths of an inch wide. Next, make a mark that’s half an inch from one end of the strip. Apply an epoxy to this side and bring the edge of the other end to the marking. Hold with tape until set.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED Once all pieces are constructed, place some epoxy onto the inside lip of the burner top. The inner chamber should fit into the rim groove of the burner top. Slowly press the bottom section onto the apparatus, making sure it’s tightly sealed. Aluminum tape also can be placed around the middle crease.
Horrigan recommends using a thumbtack to create holes—spaced a centimeter or two apart—in the burner. (Once it’s lit, this will create a “ring of flames” effect.) Denatured alcohol works best as fuel (poured through the holes), but Horrigan has also used rubbing alcohol and paint thinner in a pinch.
While the small device can boil a liter of water in less than eight minutes, it’s not ideal for group outings. Also, Horrigan has had some difficulty using it in extremely cold and windy weather. Lastly, make sure the flame is completely out before you handle the stove to avoid a serious burn. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs, says Horrigan, especially since the stove he created about four years ago still works. “It’s a great way to lighten your pack, to simplify things, and to get away from all the high-tech gear that breaks.”