A Primer on Camping Stoves
On my bicycle tour from Calgary to Argentina, I experimented quite a bit with different cooking options. I started off with just a Kelly Kettle, then moved to a Kelly Kettle / alcohol stove combination. I then moved to a liquid multi-fuel stove. I used an outback oven with the multi-fuel stove, with varying degrees of success. On my way, I cycled with others who used wood gasifiers, so I've seen them in action. I've also used propane stoves on camping trips in Canada, but never on a tour. I feel like I've learned a lot about what works well for bicycle touring, so I wrote this quick article to break it down a bit.
So, what makes a good stove for bicycle touring? First, the stove has to be small and light. I've seen some stoves that weigh a ton. For the most part, they work great, but mostly disqualify themselves due to the weight. Next, fuel has to be available. If a stove runs on canisters that you can find only in certain large cities, that's not going to do you much good. The most readily available fossil fuel, automotive gas, isn't very good for your health or for your stove, so try to stay away from that as an option.
To my mind, the five most reasonable options are a liquid mutli-fuel stove, an alcohol stove, a Kelly Kettle, a wood gasifier, or a propane stove. I'll go into each of them in this article.
Overview of the Options: Pros and Cons
Liquid Multi-fuel: These stoves are the standby of the light camping world. They work great and put out a lot of heat, but they're complicated, and fuel isn't always the easiest to find.
Alcohol Stove: You can make an alcohol stove out of commonly available bits and pieces (pop cans, tuna cans, etc.) They burn different types of alcohol, some of which can be bought at pharmacies. They're extremely light, but the heat output is low, and high percentage alcohol can be hard to find.
Kelly Kettle: These are volcano-style wood-burning water boilers. They only boil water, but they do it really well; they're the best water boiler out there, so there's no need to carry fuel. They're also light and fast. But they're hard to use for real cooking.
Wood Gasifier Stove: These burn cleaner than normal fires by moving the combustion a small distance away from the solid fuel. This causes them to primarily burn the gases the wood releases after it reaches a certain temperature. There are a number of commercial options available, plus plans floating around for DIY stoves. It's nice that you don’t have to carry fuel, but it takes a bit longer to cook a meal.
Propane Stove: Easy to operate and to cook with. They burn small canisters of compressed gas. The canisters are a one-time use item, and cannot be refilled. And you can carry only so much fuel, so they're not good for long tours in remote areas.
Liquid Multi-fuel Stove
Liquid Mutlifuel stoves are the standby for long distance bicycle tourers. They put out a lot of heat, are easy to use, and run on a number of different fuels. This last is a key feature. Sometimes you'll stumble on some kerosene in a store, or some white gas sold as a solvent. If you're in the middle of the Andes, you'll have to be able to burn what you find. Automotive gas is everywhere, of course, but the additives make the fumes pretty toxic, and the gas will gunk up your stove's internals. I would avoid that stuff unless you have no other choice.
Choosing a stove with excellent simmer control is important. Some stoves operate on full blast all the time. This is fine if you're making coffee, for example, but don't try cooking pasta like that.
As these stoves are complicated devices, it's important to take some time to learn how it operates. You're going to have to take it apart at some point, whether to clean it or maintain the seals. Learning to do that at home with the manual will save you some headaches on the road. You should carry some spare parts as well. O-rings are small and light, so carrying extras won't be a bother. Also, many stoves have pumps which seal by a strip of leather. These can dry out, so it's important to know what oils you can use to bring them back to life. (I'm sure this is not recommended, but when I found myself in a pinch I learned that chain lube did the job well.)
There are some cool accessories floating around for these stoves. I had an outback oven with me, and I had a lot of fun making pizza and bread. As far as snacks go, I don't think there is much that beats warm bread and honey. From southern Mexico to the Andes, the temperature was perfect to get dough to rise, so it was quite easy to bake and I used my oven a lot. Once I started climbing into the Andes, though, it turned into this multi-step process where I had to warm up the oven to get the dough to rise, flatten it out, and then bake it. I didn't use it much in the Andes. (Interesting fact: The outback oven was created by a couple on a worldwide bicycle tour. The first version was made from parts found in a Turkish bazaar.)
Lighting one of these stoves is pretty easy. With the heavier fuels such as kerosene, you'll have to preheat the stove by spraying a bit of the liquid fuel out and letting it burn for about a minute. Other than that it's straightforward.
In a distant second place to the liquid multi-fuel, the alcohol stove was the next most popular cooking option I saw on my tour. For reference, out of the fifteen multi-continent tourers that I met, twelve used a liquid fuel, two used alcohol, and one used a wood gasifier. I didn't meet anyone else with a Kelly Kettle, and nor anyone with a propane stove.
The Achilles heel of alcohol stoves is the alcohol itself. It can be difficult to locate high percentage alcohol, and these stoves work best on alcohol that's above 90 percent. You can find 70 percent almost everywhere; it's workable, but not nearly as good as 90 percent. The couple I met with one in Ecuador said that this wasn't a deal breaker as they were able to cook the whole way down from Alaska. The other point to remember is that alcohol doesn't have as much energy per ounce as a fossil fuel does. This means that cooking will take a bit longer, and shielding your pot from the wind becomes more important.
Alcohol stoves come in a wide variety; some are very heavy, while others are made from lightweight pop cans. I'm sure there are some very good commercial options out there, but one of the beauties of alcohol stoves is that they can be made extremely light for very little money. I would recommend this route. Not only for the advantages above, but if you know how to make one, then it doesn't matter if break or lose your stove. You can just whip up another one.
There are two varieties of homemade stoves, pressurized and non-pressurized. In the non-pressurized versions, the fuel is open to atmospheric pressure. The non-pressurized versions more or less just burn alcohol in some kind of container. The pressurized versions push the fuel outside of the container, and the flame burns on the outside. There is barely any pressure involved, though, just enough to push the vapor out. There are pressurized stoves that use a pump, but these are heavy and made for sailboats, not for bicycle touring.
Homemade Alcohol Stove Designs
One of the best-known designs is the Super Cat. It's made from a small can (cat food, tuna, etc.) and a hole-puncher. It really couldn't be simpler. Find instructions here.
The Penny Stove is popular, and has gotten a lot of good reviews.
Out of the three designs above, I would pick the Penny Stove as my favorite. All of them are easy (and fun) to make, though -- so why not spend an evening building and testing, if you're thinking of going this route?
Note: A fellow cyclist, Pete, has recommended the commercially available Whitebox Stove. He says it burns hot, works great on alcohol down to 70 percent, and can support a pot by itself. On the downside, he mentions that it can be thirsty and unstable.
I am a huge proponent of Kelly Kettles. They boil water quicker than you would believe (especially once you get good at lighting the fire), and you don't have to carry any fuel with you. There are almost always twigs, bark, and sticks lying around that you can burn. The kettle is bulky, but it's actually quite light. The main problem with Kelly Kettles is that you can't cook with them. Depending on how you plan on eating, they might be the perfect fit, or they might be nearly useless.
I tried solving the cooking problem by lighting a fire in the base and placing my pot on top. This worked great for cooking, but the base melted and warped. It wasn't designed to stand up to that much heat. They do have an attachment you can use to cook on top of the kettle -- but in my experience, the fact that they recommend against running them without water in the kettle would make me not recommend this option. (Mine is aluminum, but they recently released stainless steel versions. As stainless steel is much stronger at higher temperatures, this might work with one of the new kettles.)
Things you can make with a Kelly Kettle: Hot water, coffee, tea, oatmeal, instant noodles, dehydrated meals, etc.
Things you can't make with a Kelly Kettle: Full meals, pasta, etc.
I rode from Calgary to Xela, Guatemala, with just a Kelly Kettle. At first it was great. I would whip up coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, get lunch at a restaurant, and eat dry food for supper (trail mix, chocolate bars, etc.). It was easy and fast. After a while, though, dry food for dinner starts to get a bit old. I had my liquid multi-fuel stove shipped to me in Xela, and I used that to cook more interesting suppers for the rest of the trip. I would recommend a Kelly Kettle to someone doing a short trip or to someone who'll be eating at a lot of restaurants and wants to be able to make coffee and a hot breakfast. On a longer trip, you probably want a different solution.
An alcohol stove could be used to complement a Kelly Kettle. You could get the water boiling in the kettle, and simmer your meal over the alcohol stove. Aside from the fact that you're carrying two devices, I think this would work great. I only tried this combo for about a week before I picked up the liquid fuel stove, so I can't really speak from experience.
One final thing to consider is that a Kelly Kettle makes a poor choice for winter touring. As there isn't a pot, melting snow with one of them is time consuming and impractical. Also, if there's snow everywhere, finding dry fuel and lighting the fire is a lot more difficult.
Dr. Ballard's Homemade Wood Gas Stove
Wood gasifiers are pretty cool devices. The seem kind of complicated at first, but they all rely on the same general principal. Any wood will start to release combustible gasses when it reaches a certain temperature (~400ºF to 550ºF). Some of the air necessary to burn these gasses is introduced a small distance above the wood itself. This separation makes the combustion cleaner and more efficient. Not completely clean, however. They will still leave soot on the bottom of your pots and pans, despite their makers' claims to the contrary.
Honestly, the biggest reason for using one of these is the fun of it. Cooking on a open flame is enjoyable; there's just something about it. Getting the stove going and cooking your meal will take a bit longer than it would otherwise, but some people find that time worthwhile.
Even though these are wood-burning devices, functionally they have a lot more in common with alcohol stoves than Kelly Kettles. Both are light stoves that will slowly bring water to a boil and let your meal simmer. The necessity to shield the stove from the wind is the same. They are heavier than an alcohol stove -- but then again, you don't have to carry any fuel.
These instructions from Dr. Ballard at Morrisville State College's Renewable Energy Training Center are quite good.
There are a million other tutorials out there for wood gas stoves. As far as designs go, there aren't clear leaders in the field. If you are serious about using one of these on a trip, you'll want to build a handful of designs and run some trials.
Commercially made stoves are available as well. For instance, a fellow cyclist named Kae has recommended the Bushbuddy as good commercial option. He says it's a bit pricey, but very well made, light, and efficient.
Propane is probably the easiest fuel to design a stove around. It is easy to control and easy to handle. This means propane stoves are great to cook with. They have excellent heat control, and you're able to turn down the heat really low. This is very helpful when trying to simmer a meal. The cost and weight of the stove itself can be quite low.
The main disadvantage is a bit of a showstopper for most bicycle travelers, however. The fuel for these stoves comes in little compressed canisters, which cannot be found everywhere. Even in Canada or the US, they can be few and far between. Obviously, this limits their usefulness.
I would, however, recommend these for Bike Overnights and other quick bicycle camping trips. If you are going to ride into the mountains and spend a couple of days touring around, then a propane stove might actually make a lot of sense.
Also, quite a few companies have created entire cooking systems around propane stoves (Jetboil, for example). These systems are highly efficient and they do have a lot of merit.
Note: A fellow cyclist, Wayne, has added a couple more advantages to this option. He notes that canister stoves can be used indoors, that you can take the stove itself on an airplane, and that -- including fuel -- his setup is lighter than liquid fuel setups. He also says that by carrying two canisters, he can stay supplied on longer tours.
Conclusion: Final Thoughts
Well, now that you know a bit about each of the options, you can start thinking about how they would fit with the type of touring that you're planning on doing. It's pretty obvious that the liquid multi-fuel stove is the easiest option, but there is always more to consider. The wood and alcohol burners will have less of an environmental impact, which is something that most bicycle travelers are conscious of. Also, lighting a fire is an important art to master, especially in inclement conditions -- and I guarantee that you'll improve your skills if you're lighting fires every day to cook.
Thanks for reading. I hope that you found this article useful. I have quite a few more articles on my website, Old Goat Cycleworks.
If you're curious, the blog for my trip to Argentina that I reference above is found here.
Finally, if you know of an option that I haven't covered, please let me know and I'll look at adding it to the list!