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Field-Expedient Stove

Anyone who has spent much time outside camping soon grows to appreciate fire.  Fires can be used for cooking, and in cold or inclement weather they can make the difference between being comfortable or miserable.  In some extreme cases, the ability to make a fire can be the difference between living and dying.

Some time ago, I came across plans to build a small stove using a large can.  I was reminded of this during a field exercise with my Army unit in May.  The weather was unexpectedly cold, and I was with a group of Soldiers acting as role players for another company.  There was frequently a breeze, and at times a light rain fell.  It was miserable, and I would have loved to have been able to have a small fire I could light without any danger of setting the woods on fire.

Stoves made from cans are also called “Hobo Stoves”, and the idea of building one was very appealing to me.  Stoves that use bottled gas or liquid fuels are much simpler to light and regulate the temperature on, but I wanted to test the hobo stove to see if I would be able to build a compact device that used twigs and leaves to warm me and heat small amounts of food.  I started with a 16 ounce coffee can, and tools that most US households own.

16 oz coffee can with lid.

16 oz coffee can with lid.

These small can stoves can be made in several different ways.  I wanted to build one that had a closed bottom, with the idea that I would be able to pack the can full and put it in a pack.  The project taught me a lot in a relatively small amount of time.

Always use proper protective equipment for any project. I used gloves and eye protection while I was drilling.

Tools and safety gear for the project.

Tools and safety gear for the project.

I started by marking air holes to be drilled about every inch around the bottom of the can.

Marking vent holes to drill.

Marking vent holes to drill.

I also marked out a fuel door to feed fuel into the bottom of the stove.
3 AUG 2013 015
I used a small bit to make pilot holes before following up with a larger bit, so I wouldn’t crush the relatively thin walls of the can.

Drilling pilot holes with a small bit.

Drilling pilot holes with a small bit.

After all the holes were enlarged with the larger bit, I bent open the holes outlining the chute with a pair of pliers.  (As I was drilling this, I decided I’d made the door too wide, so I decreased the width.)

Twisting open the chute.

Twisting open the fuel door.

I did this quickly and fairly “nastily”, but if this was something you made before you might need it, you could take the time to smooth the jagged edges to reduce the chance of scraping or cutting yourself.  While I made this little stove quickly, I did try to build it in a way that would last multiple uses.  It is clear that one of these could also be made with “field expedient” tools like a sturdy knife, though the maker would need to take a little extra care not to crush the can in the process.

Sharp edges!

Sharp edges!

I then went looking for some fuel. A light rain was beginning to fall as I walked outside, which seemed appropriate. It reminded me how valuable a heat source can be in some situations.  I collected some leaves and twigs in just a few minutes.

Stove and fuel.

Stove and fuel.

I was curious to see how much heat would come from the bottom of the little stove, so I placed a wedge of cardboard underneath it.

I put cardboard underneath the stove to see how much heat came from the bottom.

I put cardboard underneath the stove to see how much heat came from the bottom.

I then lit the leaves and twigs I had placed in the stove.

Lighting the stove.

Lighting the stove.

When going well, the stove was putting out warmth from a couple of feet away.

Potentially lifesaving warmth.

Potentially lifesaving warmth.

It was obvious that the little can stove could put out some useful heat, but could I cook with it?  I got my Bialetti coffee maker to see.

Trying to make coffee.

Trying to make coffee.

I soon realized I needed some air space, since the bottom of the Bialetti pot almost completely covered the top of the can. I got a coat hanger and bent it into a pretzel shape to hold the coffee pot.

"Rack" material.

“Rack” material.

Wirehanger rack.

Wirehanger rack.

Coat-hanger improvised pot holder.

Coat-hanger improvised pot holder.

I then resumed trying to make coffee.

Trying to make coffee.

Trying to make coffee.

I discovered quite a few valuable lessons during this process.  One of the most important is that the tiny twigs I was using to feed the fire burn quickly, so if I want to keep the fire burning evenly, I need to continue to push the twigs into the fuel door as often as every minute.  Another lesson was that I needed a taller fuel door.  The one I made is less than an inch tall.  It should probably be at least an inch and a half.

I finally gave up on my efforts to boil a cup of coffee.  The too-small fuel door, combined with forgetting to constantly push my twigs further into the miniature blaze worked together to make this an exercise in futility.

I’m going to call my hobo stove a partial success.  If I had been somewhere outdoors, I could have generated some valuable heat, but there is a trade-off.  Since I made my stove from such a small can, gathering enough fuel to keep it burning for an hour took almost no time.  The downside to that efficiency is that the little can stove won’t put out the roaring heat that a group of shivering campers might appreciate.

When it comes to using the stove for cooking, the first and most obvious change is the fuel door enlargement.  Next, if I want to be able to set small pots directly on top of the stove, additional air vents should be drilled near the top.  If I wanted to use a wider can to make a stove, I could drill holes near the top of the can, and slide a wire hanger through the holes to support a smaller can or cup while it heats.  The largest drill bit I had was only 1/4″, so I probably should have drilled more air vents at the bottom, and a larger can would definitely need twice as many holes, or larger ones.  If I make another hobo stove and drill more holes, I will stagger the holes between two levels, so as to not weaken the can’s integrity too much.  Otherwise, any kind of pot could potentially collapse the stove.

After 53 minutes.

After 53 minutes.

An hour’s worth of heat.

An hour's worth of heat.

An hour’s worth of heat.

The paint was blackened in some places, but the heat did not appear to have changed the shape of the can.

Results from heat.

Results from heat.

Inside of can.

Inside of can.

Inside of can.

The hobo stove seems like a useful concept. Like many good ideas, I suggest potential users try it out for practicality, and then practice before attempting to use it in any type of survival situation.

Written by

Former infantryman, martial artist, Army Reserve officer, History BA and MAT.

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3 Responses to "Field-Expedient Stove"

  1. RC Whitaker says:

    If you have an old-style can opener/bottle cap lifter, it may be used to make nice triangular vent holes in both the top and bottom edges of the can body, and the “window for adding fuel, too. As I recall, we used to use C-ration cans as improvised stoves along with heat tabs tabs or C-4; the heat tabs may still be available as surplus.

  2. Mike says:

    Try the larger 2 pound coffee can.

  3. Mike, I definitely plan on trying a larger can.

    John