In preparing for my 2014 thru-hike, backpacking stoves have been a new thing for me. Although I’ve backpacked before for a few days at a time, I usually avoid doing any actual cooking. So, I researched the stove options, coming across this helpful article on ultralight backpacking stoves, which outlines the different types available with some examples of specific products. Solid fuel stoves were the lightest and simplest, so I started looking into those. The stoves seemed overpriced for a very simple mechanism ($10 to $30) and solid fuel tablets are shockingly overpriced at $1.60 each for the Esbit brand ones ($7.50 for a pack of 12). Even the off-brand Coghlan’s tablets, which I hear are of inferior quality, cost 25 cents each ($5.30 for a pack of 24). At a tablet each morning and each night for five months, this would rack up to about $150, which I find absurd. So, I decided to make my own tablets, and while I was at it, I made my own stove as well. There are several really great videos and step-by-step instructions I found online for different pieces of the one I’m about to give (such as this awesome video, in which a guy with a beautiful Irish accent uses crayons to make colorful butterfly tablets). However, to simplify the process for you, here is a tutorial that covers the whole process, including hints and adaptations from different blogs, forums, and videos:
- Fuel tab tutorial
- Stove tutorial
- Firescreen tutorial
- Example of use
DIY ESBIT FUEL TAB TUTORIAL
To make the tablets, you will need the following:
- Mid-size cooking pot
- Cotton balls (if jumbo size, 1 for every 2 tablets)
- Old candles or other wax (I’m not sure of the candle-to-tablet ratio, since I used old candles in various sizes and states)
- Cloth scissors (if opting to slice your cotton balls)
- Cookie sheet (cover in foil if you don’t want to scrape off the wax residue)
- Wooden chopsticks or cooking tongs
- Ziploc bags for storage (fancy waterproof bags are unnecessary, since the tablets will light even when damp)
- A kitchen stove
Turn the stove to high heat (7 or 8) and drop the candles inside. There is no need to remove the wick, but if your candles have a metal base, remove it first. Place the lid back on to retain heat and help the wax melt more quickly.
While you wait for the wax to melt, cut your cotton balls in half. By doing so, your tablets will still last 7-10 minutes, which is plenty of time for water to boil. If you want to cook something longer than that, you can always use two tablets, so it will save money and pack weight to use half a cotton ball per tablet.
Once the wax melts, you can use your chopsticks (or tongs) to remove the wicks. (In the picture, the pot looks empty since the wax melted clear, but I promise it’s in there!)
Turn the stove down down to medium heat (4 or 5).
Set your cotton balls up to the left of the stove and your baking sheet to the right. Using the chopsticks, pick up one cotton piece (half cotton ball) at a time and submerge it in the wax.
Wait a few seconds until the wax has soaked through the cotton, then set the piece on the baking sheet. Continue until you run out of cotton or wax.
When the wax is running low, tip the pot at an angle and rub the cotton over the pot to soak up the last bits of wax, which will be much more of a pain to scrape of when it’s hardened.
When the wax has hardened, bag up the tablets. I marked my ziplocs with the number of tablets in each. Using one for breakfast and one for dinner, 42 will last three weeks. Yes, they’re bulkier than the store-bought tablets, but still pretty light and definitely cheaper!
DIY ESBIT STOVE TUTORIAL
The stove will weigh 3.4 ounces, including the pot.
To build your stove, you will need the following:
- Wire cutters
- 20 oz. tin can (the size canned pineapple rings would come in)
- Can opener that creates a clean finish, not sharp edges (I borrowed from my mom. What kind of 22-year old has one of these?)
- Scrap of wire mesh at least 20″ by 12.5″ (I stole from my dad. See a pattern here?)
If you haven’t already opened the tin can and eaten everything inside (unfortunately I missed out on whatever syrupy pears had been inside my can), then the first steps are to open the can, eat all the food, and wash out the can. It serves as a cooking pot, a bowl, and a storage container for the stove.
Using your wire cutters, snip the wire mesh into three pieces: a 4 inch by 4 inch square, a 4.5 inch by 4.5 inch square, and a 20 inch by 4 inch rectangle. I bent the ends of the rectangle to reduce snagging and to help it hook into place, but if you forego that part you only need a 16 inch-long rectangle. Note that you can change the wire mesh dimensions if you are using a smaller or larger can for a cooking pot/bowl. It is pretty sturdy and should hold up for much larger or heavier pots.
Finally, 3/4 inches from right-hand corner each edge of the 4-by-4 square, snip a line 3/4 inches long.
Then, bend the sides of the square to make a little table for your fuel tablet to sit on.
Place a tablet on the table, then curve the long rectangle into an open-ended cylinder and set it over the table. Place the larger square on top, set your tin can on top of that and there’s your stove!
It is very important to use a firescreen for your stove especially in windy conditions! Because the can sits on top of the flame, you should be able to use the stove in rainy weather, but the firescreen is essential for blocking wind so that your flame is not extinguished.
Materials for the firescreen are very straightforward:
- Aluminum foil
- 2 large paperclips (no plastic coating)
Unroll the cylindrical side to your stove and line it up next to a length of aluminum foil. Your foil should be twice as long, plus ten inches (in my case, 50 inches long). Fold the foil in half length-wise and width-wise for added strength.
Curve the folded foil into a cylinder, overlapping the ends about 1 inch. Where the ends meet, secure it with a paper clip on the top and bottom, and you have a firescreen!
USING YOUR HOMEMADE COOKING SYSTEM
Time to test out your tablets, stove, and firescreen! All you need now is a lighter, water, a spoon, and something to cook (I started with oatmeal).
Find a rock or other flat surface on which to set the tablet table and mesh cylinder. You may need to crack the tablet a little with your fingernail to find a cotton-y piece, then light it on fire.
By the time the fuel tab burns up or possibly sooner, your water should be at a nice boil. Pour the oatmeal in and wait a few minutes, then dig in!
I just couldn’t resist this quick and tacky Photoshop job; the picture of my oatmeal just looked too much like a cereal box photo. Fake, drawn-in strawberries not included.
After enjoying your oatmeal, fake strawberries and all, you may want to clean off your can. Paper towels don’t work, but moss does!
It still won’t be completely clean, though, so pack the mesh into a plastic bag and use a bread clip to close the top. Wrap the windscreen around that.
That’s all there is to it. The whole process only took 2 hours and saved me over $150.
Have your own stove ideas to share? Comment below!
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