Depending upon the type, alcohol can be used for a beverage, a cleaning agent, first aid or as a fuel when camping and backpacking. For camp stoves, alcohol does not produce as much heat as other fuels, such as propane or white gas. However, it is generally considered safer, more widely available and less expensive than other fuels. When used with care, most alcohols can be a worthy addition to any camping or backpacking trip.
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Also called grain alcohol, grain neutral spirits, ethanol or rectified alcohol, ethyl alcohol can be purchased as an alcoholic beverage of a very high proof. These include brand names such as Everclear and Golden Grain and are typically 95 percent pure alcohol. These can be used as fuels for alcohol stoves, but may be very expensive and illegal to possess in some areas. It can also be purchased in its purest form from chemical or medical supply companies; however, because benzene, glycerin or other chemicals are required to remove the last amounts of water, these can be very toxic when used as fuels for alcohol stoves. While ethyl alcohol can be produced at home using distillation, the process is illegal in the United States.
Methyl alcohol, also called methanol, can be readily purchased in hardware stores as paint thinner and gas stations as gas line antifreeze. It makes a good fuel for alcohol stoves. It is also referred to as wood alcohol, camp stove fuel and methyl hydrate. The vapors of methyl alcohol are toxic and long-term use and contaminated stoves may cause inadvertent exposure. Be careful when stowing methyl alcohol near cooking utensils.
Isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol, commonly referred to as rubbing alcohol, can be found in pharmacies and grocery stores at concentrations of around 70 percent alcohol. This can be used as a cleaning agent and for first aid purposes. Isopropyl alcohol, though not recommended as a fuel for alcohol stoves can be used, if necessary. The concentration for isopropyl alcohol that is used as a fuel should be greater than 90 percent. This will generally burn poorly and incompletely, due to its water content.
When methanol or ethanol are combined with a chemical called calcium acetate, it forms a gel. Sterno is a common brand name of gelled alcohol. This type of alcohol is traditionally used as a heat source for camp stoves. Because it is less likely to be spilled, gelled alcohol is generally considered safer than alcohol in liquid form. It usually comes in a canister with a wide-mouth lid that can be opened to allow the alcohol to be lit directly within the container. It can be replaced later to extinguish the fire.
Denatured alcohol is simply ethyl alcohol that has had some methyl alcohol or other chemicals added to it to make it undrinkable. This effectively removes it from the market as a taxable and legally controlled alcoholic beverage. Denatured alcohol may be used as a fuel for camp stoves, although other toxic chemicals may be added in the denaturing process. Check the label before you use any denatured alcohol as a fuel source.