If you read about light weight hiking on the interwebs, and you look at how to cut back on stoves and fuel, soon enough you’re likely to come across what many seem to consider the uber-stove: Mark Jurey’s penny alcohol stove, which weighs a few grams and can be constructed in a couple of hours from three Heineken cans.
But Jurey has also developed a “Penny Wood Gas Backpacking Stove“, which he says he often carries in preference to the famed penny alcohol stove. I’d planned to try constructing a penny alcohol stove to use on the Naukluft trail in Namibia. But it turns out that Heineken cans in South Africa do not have the ridges they do in the US. This means that fitting the different interlocking components together would be rather less simple than in Jurey’s plans. So I turned to the penny wood gas stove instead.
It took just about an hour to make, from a tinned fruit can and four tent pegs purchased for R13 (less than $2). As it happened, my companions on the Naukluft were all weighed up with MSR rocket stoves and whisperlites – and mostly not in the least interested in using the penny wood stove. But I tried it out one evening to boil water – and had two litres boiling within 12 minutes, all with just a couple of handfuls of dried twigs. I lit it quickly and easily using just a bit of toilet paper as kindling. In future, I might carry a small amount of alcohol gel to assist with starting.
Sure, it leaves the pot a bit black, and is not so adjustable as the hi-tech stoves. But it’s lighter, cheaper, and has a far smaller footprint – a veritable marvel of sustainability. I suspect it may just be the lowest impact method of providing cooking heat there is. It’s a huge pity that development organisations aiming to reduce deaths from indoor smoke inhalation and family fuel bills aren’t promoting this stove construction method alongside wood stoves that cost many times more. Not that I mean to disparage elegant efforts like the Chulha smokeless stove, the rocket wood stove, single pot mud stoves, and others; but surely something like this must have first place before one scales to more permanent solutions?
Of course, hikers can pay close on $100 for a more neatly constructed equivalent, the Canadian-made BushBuddy. But why?
I will also be experimenting with an alternative fuel – dried animal dung. This fuel is in my experience, even more light and efficient than wood, and of course, available in places wood is not.
Note that the penny wood stove should be used with a shield, as Jurey’s plans show, to heat the incoming air before it enters the combustion chamber. In my experiment, I just shielded the stove with rocks – so it should be possible to get it burning even more efficiently with the proper shield.
Postscript, December 2010
Please note, I screwed up a little when I made this – Mark’s design actually has just three tent pegs, which is obviously more stable than my four-legged version. I do suggest you stick with just three. Since writing this original post, I have had the chance to further test this, and happily cooked a meal (curry and rice – after boiling the rice, hot-boxed it to finish off) while camping in the Kouebokkeveld Mountains, three hours north of Cape Town. I did need to feed it fairly constantly with twigs – but it’s definitely a completely viable, lightweight alternative to a conventional camping stove, and more fun too. If you have someone else to feed twigs while you concentrate on the food, as I did, all the better. Sustainability is almost always a little more work, but it’s worth the extra effort.
Also note that as per Mark’s instructions and not as per my photos, it should be used with a wind screen to direct and contain the heat, though I must say, the rocks I used once seemed to do a fairly good job.