make a self-contained micro cook kit

Want fresh ideas for simpler more economical ways to cook when you're living off the grid?

Look into the cheap and powerful homemade backpacking stoves used by inventive campers like this guy. They're made to be easy to assemble from common items in your recycling bin for just a few bucks at most, and they run off alcohol or free wooden twigs you find lying around. All in all, much quicker and more efficient than setting up a whole campfire just to boil some water!

But what if you live in a camper like me?

As a matter of fact, my truck camper's cooking system is designed around backpacking principles exactly like the ones you see in the video!

When building a small camper, you want to keep things small and light. There's so little space inside that you'll do yourself a huge favor if you can find ways to eliminate unnecessarily bulky items. And when you apply backpacking principles to your cooking, you can really boost the overall efficiency of your operation.

For instance...

  • Small lightweight cook pots will heat up much faster than your standard household pots, saving you lots of fuel. I personally use an anodized aluminum backpacking cook set that fits inside a 1 lb. coffee can sized ditty bag (about the same size as in the video). While I often use "bowls" (that are actually just those little plastic "Twist n' Loc" food storage containers), I'll just as often eat straight out of the pots.
  • While I do have a small homemade "range" made out of a portable propane burner for when I need to cook inside, I'll more often cook outside on my mobile workbench using a wood gasifying version of the Hobo Stove from the video. And likewise, it's made to compactly nest together into a 1 lb. coffee can sized ditty bag for storage.
  • You might not think you have any use for a "wind screen" when you're cooking inside your camper, but you'd be wrong! A metal "wind screen" serves double-duty as a heat-reflector, containing the heat close to the pot so as to dramatically improve your fuel efficiency, allowing you to get considerably more usage out of every ounce of fuel, whether it be propane, butane, alcohol, white gas, or wood.
  • Use a lid! Even a simple lid made from a tin can or cut of aluminum foil will improve your cooking time and conserve more fuel.
  • Little alcohol burning stoves like the DIY Pop Can Stove in the video are really handy to have around as clean-burning backups that can be used indoors (with proper ventilation of course). Backpackers love them because they pack light and tiny along with a few ounces of fuel (denatured alcohol from the paint section), so you can easily use them for day-hikes.
  • There are even great lessons in backpackers' food choices. When prepping for long trips, ultralight hikers focus on foods that are lightweight, easy to prepare, and don't require any special storage arrangements like refrigeration to stay edible. So they'll typically pack 1) dry foods that can be eaten as is, like trail mix and crackers, 2) dry foods that can be cooked or reconstituted with water, like noodles or freeze dried foods, 3) heat-and-serve meals like MRE's -- which are basically the same as canned meals but in a pouch rather than difficult-to-pack tin cans. The lesson is that by focusing on these types of foods, along with vegetables and other foods that don't require refrigeration, you can dramatically reduce your energy requirements. (ex. Vegans have it easiest, because animal products almost always require full refrigeration, whereas uncooked plant-based foods generally do not.)
  • The pot cozy in the video isn't just for keeping your coffee warm. You can also use a good cozy instead of "simmering", saving a lot of fuel. (Not shown: You can use a thermal food jar stuffed into a sleeping bag when you need to simmer for a really long time. I do this all the time to cook rice. It's called "thermal cooking." Instead of boiling and then simmering for a half-hour, I just spend four minutes boiling, then stuff it all into the center of the roll and pull it out a few hours later completely done and still steaming.

The Takeaway Lesson (Big Hint!):

If you're a vehicle camper and want to reduce your boondocking expenses, look into what backpackers do. Not necessarily the ones who spend thousands on equipment (though you can get ideas from them too), but specifically research "DIY backpacking gear". What I've learned has been invaluable.

P.S. That chair he's sitting on, the one he calls the "Amazing Wilderness Camp Chair", is also part of it! It's a clever piece of fabric that takes up zero space in his pack, but is designed so that he can use it to quickly construct a tripod hammock chair out of four branches wherever he goes. Gotta love it!


make char cloth tinder

Never worry about starting a campfire again!

If you've ever experimented with alternative "survival" fire-starting methods -- like rubbing sticks together, focusing a magnifying glass, flint and steel, etc. -- you know that no matter how "dependable" the method, it can still take a while to get a spark to catch your tinder and get it glowing enough to actually get a fire going. Heck, if it's wet and rainy, it can be difficult to get a fire going even if you're starting with a lighter!

The key is in your source of tinder. Out in the wild it can be really tough to scrounge up the perfect combination of thin and light and totally dry. That's why those with Bushcraft experience always carry an emergency kit (like the famous "Altoids Kit") and always include in their supplies a pack of dependable all-weather fire-starters. One of the favorites is Vaseline-soaked cotton balls. Another is Char Cloth.

What's Char Cloth?

It's a funny word, right? Char Cloth is just cloth that is turned into charcoal. Why? Because charcoal burns very hot, and compared to ordinary wood, paper, or cloth, it's a more pure concentration of volatile carbon. And the great thing about using cotton cloth for your charcoal source is that your charcoal will be made of very thin fibers which will catch a spark even faster!

You can easily prepare your own quick lighting emergency "char cloth" with just a tin can, a cotton T-shirt, and a large source of heat such as a barbecue grill, campfire, or if you want to be tricky, by using the sun and a big magnifying glass like he does in the video below. The idea is to place your cloth in the can, heat up the can enough to release and burn off all the cotton fibers' biogases, and then simply collect what's left -- ie. pure charcoal.

If you're already pretty schooled in Bushcraft, you might be thinking ahead... What if we substituted cotton balls for the T-shirt? Would that work even better? Watch the video to the end! (He has you covered.) 

Digging Deeper...

As cool as this is, I find it fascinating to think about what's "wasted" in this process.

What if you didn't just burn off the escaping gas and actually used it for something useful? Like, say, cooking?

Essentially the video above describes the same principles used to make a DIY wood gasification stove -- like the ones many backpacking survivalists use to cook food, and which I personally use when I'm out boondocking in my camper. But rather than use the gases to cook dinner, the focus of the char cloth project is simply to get at the valuable leftover charcoal. 

The process in each is the same, though. The idea of a wood gasifier is to separate the natural combustion process. Contrary to the common assumption, wood doesn't actually burn. When you make a campfire, what you're actually doing is heating up the wood to release the gases (a stage called "pyrolysis"), then burning the released wood-gas.

Pyrolysis (gas release) happens in the absence of oxygen. That's why he puts the cloth in a tin can, leaving only a small hole for the gases to escape. A gasifying cook stove (like the SoloStove) uses the same idea to separate the pyrolysis process from the combustion process, first heating up wood in the central chamber to release the hot gases, then introducing "secondary air" from side chambers to combust the gases at the top of the stove. The result is a very clean-burning wood-gas stove that can cook dinner very quickly using only easy-to-find twigs.

To circle back around to char cloth...

If you already have a charcoal-producing gasifying camp stove -- like the SoloStove or another homemade version -- then you can make your own emergency kit char cloth without even being wasteful! All you have to do is use a cotton T-shirt or cotton balls in your fuel chamber while you're heating up leftovers, and you'll be ready for your next out-of-lighter-fluid emergency. (Helpul note; To get the purest charcoal you need to make sure your gasifier stove restricts oxygen to the fuel chamber and lets in plenty of secondary air.)



make a pop can alcohol stove

(Yep! It's Yet Another Article + Video About The Iconic 'Pop-Can Stove'!)

Since I first learned about backpackers making lightweight cooking stoves out of aluminum cans, I was hooked. And probably like other "stovies," the one that really caught my attention was the "Pepsi Can Stove."

No doubt the appeal is that it's not only ridiculously cool to be able to fit together a couple of recycled cans that way, but because the end result is so compact, lightweight, and burns exactly like the burner on your home stovetop!

While not one of the simplest alcohol stoves to assemble -- that honor will go to simpler open-flame stoves and the "SuperCat" Cat Food Can side-burning style -- it's also not one of the most complicated. Depending on which one of the several-dozen methods you choose, it's possible to have one made in 20-30 minutes.

In fact, this video could have been a lot shorter had I chosen the popular and dependable "crimping" method to fit the two halves together.

But I was interested to try a few methods I'd seen in videos that allowed you to very elegantly fit the two sides together perfectly, one inside the other, without any glue/epoxy and avoiding the slightly tedious task of crimping one of the halves neatly all the way around the sides so that it could fit into the other half. In the end, I eventually succeeded, but it took some experimenting with different fitting methods to make it work.

Conceptually, it's pretty easy to make and use a "Pop Can Stove."

Construction:

  1. Cut the bottoms off of two aluminum cans (about 3/4")
  2. Drill a small hole in the center of the "top" for refilling with alcohol
  3. Fit them together tightly
  4. Make tiny holes around the upper ledge

Lighting It Up:

  1. Fill with alcohol and plug the fill-hole firmly (ex. a screw or "penny")
  2. Prime the can by dripping extra fuel onto the top and bottom (using a priming pan or wick) and light the priming fuel
  3. Once the can is hot enough to boil the alcohol inside, the side burners will light themselves, and it will behave like a familiar stove burner.

From a birds-eye perspective, it's not too complex. But each of those steps has quite a few variations you could experiment with.

sucrets tin pocket stove

It's tough not to be totally enchanted by elegant simplicity of DIY Alcohol Backpacking Stoves!

For quite some time, backpackers and teenage troopers have been using these little devices -- made from assorted recycled cans configured in clever ways (like the iconic Pepsi Can Stove) -- as lightweight and clean-burning cooking gear, that despite their size, can cook up a meal as well as any full-size kitchen range. But outside of "ultralight" backpacking circles, it seems a lot of campers don't know about these amazing little stoves that you can easily make yourself.

While I love taking them on backpacking excursions, by far the bulk of my own interest in compact cooking isn't for out on the trail, but to completely replace the kitchen in my "tiny house", i.e. my homemade truck camper.

Unlike a full-size RV, I'm limited to the space in the bed of my truck -- about 5'x6' or 30 sq.ft.! Why take up that space with a "range" or even a relatively bulky "Coleman stove" type setup? By using my backpacking cook kit, I can condense my entire kitchen to fit in a large camp mug!

This video explores a variation on one of the simplest alcohol stove designs. Essentially, it's nothing more than a "tin can" filled with alcohol, with an absorbent wicking material to hold it in place and regulate the burn, and a screen to hold it all in place. (The Starlyte (by Zelph Stoves) is a really nice implementation of this idea.)

This project is a quick-and-dirty implementation of the same concept. 

The main variations I used in this project are:

  • a Sucrets tin (compare to an Altoids tin)

  • mineral wool (aka "rock wool") as the wicking material (instead of fiberglass or Perlite)

  • a simple pot stand made from a coat hanger, cut and bent into shape

 

While not as ridiculously simple and elegant as the SuperCat stove design (which doesn't even require a separate pot stand), the Sucrets Stove is about as simple as it gets. It also has the benefits of stowing its own pot stand and being easily "turned off" by shutting the lid.

You could just as easily use an Altoids tin (or any other similar candy tin), but depending on the size of your cook pot, the dimensions may change the way the integral pot stand needs to be bent in order to both support the pot and fit neatly into the tin for packing.

Watch the video to hear my commentary and see how it all fits together!

Hey Mini-RVers -- Ever thought of downsizing your camp kitchen?

Seriously, why have a cooking range taking up valuable space in your tiny house? Even if you're "just" using a portable camp-stove sitting on a countertop, it's possible you can downsize even more. By taking tips from backpackers, you could conceivably condense your cooking equipment into the size of a large mug, and better, maybe even finally reclaim all that storage space where the propane tank lives!

mini backpacking alcohol stove from cat food can

The simple fact is... you can cheaply and easily make your own tiny pocket-sized stove burners from nothing more expensive than recycled aluminum cans!

Check out the video below to learn about one of the simplest and most effective micro-stove designs in existence, which -- if you have a cat -- you can make "for free" in under 5 minutes.

The "SuperCat" backpacking stove design by Jim Wood is one of the most powerful mini-stoves you can make, with hardly any work at all.

All it takes is

  1. A 3oz aluminum cat food can (ex. "Fancy Feast")

  2. A hole punch

  3. Fuel in the form of alcohol

Cat Food Can Camp Cooking Stove QUICK INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. To make a cat-can stove, all you need to do is punch 2 rows of holes just below the rim of the can.
  2. Pour an ounce of your favorite cooking alcohol (denatured, ethanol, HEET, etc.) into the can.
  3. Light the fumes and wait for the alcohol to boil.
  4. Then set your cook pot right on top of the can and watch the flames shoot out the side holes across the bottom of the pot.

This stove is amazingly efficient -- even too efficient! It burns really hot, so it's best with a wide pot that wants to heat up fast.
While not the absolute simplest DIY alcohol stove design -- you could actually just pour alcohol into an empty open can, light it afire, and call it a stove -- the SuperCat is an elegant blend of being ridiculously simple, ultra-lightweight, very powerful, and standalone, since it's also its own pot stand! Among the dozens of creative and inexpensive designs to try out (ex. a simple "altoids can" style mini-stove or the iconic pop can stove ) -- many of which are much more complicated to build and use -- the cat can stove, especially using Jim Wood's formula, is still one of the all-around "best" designs by many measures. Especially with large pots, it's hard to beat -- which is ironic, because it's so small and uncomplicated!

backpacking stove alcoholThe type of alcohol I use is clean burning Denatured Alcohol. You can also use ethanol, methanol, and even isopropyl alcohol, all of which you can find in the automotive section or (more cheaply) in the paint section of any large department store. While nowhere as cheap as propane -- (it runs about 12-50 cents per boil) -- it does have the advantage of being a lot more convenient to purchase and transport, without the hassles that come with handling and refilling those huge pressurized tanks. To save cash, you can buy it by the gallon and portion it into handy-sized bottles, which you can store right in your cook pot, or on a shelf with your condiments. (Note that methanol is poisonous, so avoid spilling it and wash your hands well.)

GOING ON A TANGENT: If you're really after the "full-time camping" experience, then there's a great way to cut cost of cooking fuel below what you'd spend on propane.


What you might really be looking for -- which will allow you to cook essentially for free -- is a wood-burning stove. (Keeping your tiny alcohol stove around as backup, ex. for when it's rainy.) While a lot messier than alcohol stoves, wood burning stoves fun to build and play with, and tons more efficient than trying to cook over a traditional campfire. (You can easily cook a meal using a handful of twigs!) I'll be covering how to build a cheap and highly efficient DIY wood burner (like the Solo Stove Wood Burning Backpacking Stove in future articles, so watch for that.