Solid and gelled fuels for Camping and Outdoor Cooking

The following are some common chemical cooking fuels used by campers and backpackers. They are not something to be relied upon to do your day to day cooking on a camping trip as they tend to be expensive and will not put out the same amount of heat as a good gas or propane campstove.

These fuels however can be a useful back up if your stove fails or for those situations on the trail where it would be inconvenient to set up your camp stove just to heat a can of soup.

When I go camping, I usually take along a small folding esbit type stove and a couple extra boxes of trioxane bars just in case.

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Canned fuel

Canned fuel or gelled alcohol is a generally reliable heat source commonly used for chafing dishes and camping.

Sterno is probably the best known brand, but the are other brands as well. Canned fuel can be bought at most grocery stores, drugstores and I have on occasion even bought it at the local dollar store.

These fuels tends to burn slowly which makes them good for simmering and reheating food. The fire can be snuffed out by covering the can opening with the lid to save the remaining fuel. The lid of the can must remain sealed when fuel is not in use or the alcohol will evaporate.

Another type of canned fuel uses gelled diethylene glycol with or without a wick, Coghlans is one common brand sold in sporting goods stores.

Diethylene Glycol Fuel Gel

Heating water in a canteen cup with Diethylene fuel gel. Note the abscence of visible flame.

Introduced relatively recently by the U.S. Military as a substitute for trioxane is "FUEL, GEL, DIETHYLENE GLYCOL". It is a water clear gel that comes sealed in a plastic pouch. It is squeezed out of the pouch onto a fire proof surface or solid fuel stove. It burns more slowly and evenly than trioxane but ignites more readily than esbit. The fuel itself is somewhat toxic but the fumes produced as it burns are not as toxic as those produced by trioxane. Diethylene Glycol burns with a blue flame that is hard to see in daylight. Its main drawback other than its expense is that it produces a powdery white ash that easily becomes airborne. This airborne ash tends to coat cooking utensils and may fall into your food. It is a good idea to cover the container with lid or a piece of aluminum foil to prevent this.

Standard packaging is three 1.25 oz pouches per box. One 1.25 ounce pouch is supposed to heat 14 ounces of water 100 degrees fahreheit above the starting temperature of the water. Instructions on the packaging advise suspending the canteen cup or pot 2 1/2 inches over the burning gel. A six ounce resealable pouch containing the fuel gel is also produced.

Methamine AKA Esbit

Image of folding stove with Esbit and canteen cup stove with Trioxane.

Introduced in the 1930's, Methamine has been used by German troops since World War II. It is a white crystaline solid that is pressed into rectangular tablets of 7 or 14 gram weights, similar in appearance to a sugar cube. It is commonly sold under the brand name Esbit. Esbit is a fairly clean burning fuel with a low toxicity, it is however a bit harder to ignite than trioxane and it may take a few matches in a strong wind. The tablets have a somewhat fishy odor which is sometimes noticeable when they are being burned.

According to the manufacturer's website http://www.esbit.net/solid-fuel-info.html, one 14 gram tablet will boil 400ml (about 13.5 oz) in 9 minutes under ideal conditions. Ounce for ounce, methamine is probably the most expensive stove fuel on the market. That being said, it has been my experience that about twice as much trioxane is needed for a given weight of Methamine to heat the same amount of water. Esbit can be found in many sporting good stores or purchased through mail order or online retailers.

Trioxane

Trioxane is a solid fuel that has been in use by the US Military for decades. As with all solid chemical fuels it is primarily used to heat water. Trioxane will ignite at just about any temperature with the touch of a match. It burns very hot and very quickly so only a third to a half a bar should be used at a time. The most efficient use of this fuel occurs when the heat output is channeled toward the cooking pot or canteen cup. If using an esbit type stove slant the sides to channel the heat toward the base of the pot.

It can be purchased from many camping and military surplus stores or by mail order. You should shop around as the price can vary significantly from retailer to retailer. It is most commonly packaged in a cardboard box containing three bars. Each bar is individually sealed in a foil envelope because Trioxane fuel if exposed to the air will eventually evaporate leaving behind nothing but a little powder of mostly calcium stearate and methyamine blue. If you are purchasing trioxane, check to make sure that the fuel bars that you buy are solid. If they are crumbly and or the envelopes are only partially filled chances are that the packaging has been breached. Trioxane bars are toxic and care should be taken to avoid contaminating food with it. Do not use trioxane in an enclosed area as it can also produce formaldhyde fumes when burnt. Packages with instructions to break the bar into thirds weigh 30 grams. Newer packages instructing the user to use whole bar weigh 15 grams.

The following comparison was done on February 8, 2007 to find out the amount of Esbit or Trioxane fuel needed to heat 16 ounces of water to boiling.

Air Temp 29.0 ºF GRAMS OF WATER BURN TIME
Tea Kettle with 16 oz of water Starting Water Temp 65 ºF Fuel TEMPERATURE ºF MINUTES
Trioxane 45 212 ºF 11.5
Esbit 21 212 ºF 14.5

More on information Trioxane including performance data in cold weather conditions.

Hexamine

Hexamine is often sold as round white tablets and is used in the same manner as other chemical solid fuels. Similar in appearance to Esbit, it is a different chemical. Hexamine does not burn as cleanly or provide the same heat value as Esbit but it is usually cheaper.

Cheese Puffs

Using cheetos as a fuel for a Canteen Cup Stove

Cheese Puffs were designed as a snack food but also work surprisingly well as a cooking fuel. They ignite a little bit more easily than Esbit and burn quite vigorously. Unfortunately cheese puffs produce a fair amount of soot on cooking pots and sometimes an oily black smoke as you may be able to see in the photograph to the left of a canteen cup stove. About 13 cheese puffs are required to heat 8 ounces of water to 212 degrees. They would not be my first choice of cooking fuels however they will do in a pinch. Cheetos are the most common brand name available but any store brand should work almost as well. They also make good fire starters.