Search and Rescue

Low-hassle Hot Food and Drinks on SAR Assignments

from Volume 4, Number 2 of Lost ... and Found

by Mike Dugger

Why Carry a Stove?

Some think the luxury of hot meals and beverages in the outdoors should be reserved for the casual backpacking trip, where the responsibility for carrying a stove and fuel can be divided up among participants. Few would argue that a multiple-course hot meal, prepared fresh and accompanied by coffee, tea or hot chocolate adds a refined air to a backcountry experience. But is such luxury really necessary, or even appropriate, during the high anxiety and urgency of a search and rescue assignment? Consider the following. Dry wood and kindling is not always readily available from which to start a fire. You may be asked to bivy in a remote location until dawn, in cold weather. Sure, you can survive on energy bars and water, but you would probably be more fit to carry out a physically challenging assignment after a hot meal and a good night's rest. Also think of the subject. Warm drinks offer an excellent means of slow core warming and providing necessary fuel to mildly hypothermic subjects. Warm, sweetened gelatin is one of the best drinks to offer for its protein and carbohydrates. Even if you can warm your MRE with a chemical heater (or in your armpit or other unmentionable places), a stove comes in handy for hot beverages that can really make a difference when temperatures drop.

Types of Stoves

OK, so maybe you SHOULD carry a stove. But what kind? For the kind of use a stove in your SAR pack is likely to get, the most important factors are reliability, ease of use, compactness, and low weight. Kerosene stoves have come a long way in recent years, and very compact models are available. Carrying liquid fuel can be a hassle for a couple of reasons, though. If you have ever spilled, or had a friend who spilled liquid fuel inside their pack, you have an appreciation for one of the reasons. It is oily and evaporates slowly. They can also be hard to start in extremely cold weather, because the generator must be heated sufficiently to vaporize the fuel before it reaches the burner for optimum performance, and this takes longer the colder it is. Another hassle is that the highly refined kerosene for these stoves can be tough to find between Carrizozo and Capitan at 2 o'clock in the morning. Some can burn gasoline in a pinch, but this tends to clog the generator if you're not careful, and then you are without a stove again. Finally, compact kerosene stoves can be expensive. Stoves that burn compressed gas such as butane get around the liquid fuel problems, but the gas canisters can be hard to find, and you have to carry the empty canisters until you can dispose of them properly. Aside from all of these considerations, SAR packs and the gear inside take a beating during bushwhacking and getting hauled around in vehicles with other packs and people piled on top. Most kerosene and compressed gas stoves have rather delicate structures that don't stand up well to someone sitting on them over a four-wheel drive road. Below I'll describe good fuel sources for SAR emergency stoves, and provide instructions on how to build a pot stand for little more than the price of a campfire song.

Types of Fuel

There are obviously many ways to apply heat to the bottom of a pot, but for a serviceable emergency stove you want a fuel that burns hot enough and long enough to boil water within a few minutes, as well as one that is rugged and not messy. The two most effective and convenient fuels I have seen used are solid fuel tablets or bars and sterno cans. The most popular solid fuels for backcountry cooking are hexamine (hexamethylene tetramine, (CH2)6N4) tablets and trioxane (1,3,5-trioxane, C3H6O3) bars. Both burn with a smokeless flame, and much hotter than wood. Trioxane melts at 61 degrees C, and hexamine melts at 280 degrees C, so either would be OK to carry in your pack. Fuel tablets and bars are solid and hence quite rugged, without the mess of liquid fuel. They can be hard to find, but are cheap so you can buy a case and keep a supply stashed in your pack. They are totally consumed during the combustion process, so there is no trash left to be hauled out. The tablets get charred and messy once used, so it is not very practical to extinguish and reuse the fuel.

Some sources for these solid fuels are: Armed Forces Merchandise Outlet (, (800) 282-3327), 18 bars trioxane for $4.50, or 6 hexamine tablets for $1.49. IMS Plus (, (618) 655-0383), 3 bars trioxane for $1.00, case of 250 boxes for $150, or 5 hexamine tablets for $1.75, case of 500 tablets for $145.

Sterno cans are the same kind of heaters used under those big dishes of food at a buffet. It consists of a little sealed can of wax, which is solid when not in use so it stores easily. These are cheap but can be hard to find, so buying in quantity is probably the answer here too. For heating, simply open the can, light the top of the wax, and place it under your pot. When you are done cooking, they can be blown out to allow the wax to solidify, then closed up and stuffed back in your pack. These are also quite rugged and convenient since they are solid except when in use. I suppose on a really hot day, if the lid were to come off you could end up with a mess inside your pack. But a sealed bag around the can would solve this potential problem. When all the fuel is gone, you have just a small can left to haul out to the trash.

Alcohol has been used as fuel in emergency stoves for decades. It does have the difficulties of transportation and potential mess of other liquid fuels, but it is not as oily or smelly as kerosene, and evaporates quickly if spilled. I found instructions to build a simple alcohol stove by M.M. Brown, American Survival Guide, Vol. 21 (1999) pp. 70-73. The basic idea for the burner is to cut off the bottom of two aluminum soda cans about 1.25 to 1.5 inches from the bottom. In one of the bottoms, drill 4 or5 holes in the center with a 1/16 inch bit, and then 16 to 32 holes around the outer edge where the can would rest on the table. Cut 4 to 6 slits in the side of this piece so it will fit down inside the other piece when inverted. The other bottom becomes the lower half of the stove, which is filled about 1/2 full with a porous material (ideally pearlite) and denatured alcohol. The top is put on, and the stove can be lit by passing a match over the top. It apparently burns for about 20 minutes. The author says that in a pinch, a rolled up piece of cotton can be used as the porous media, and rubbing alcohol as the fuel. I tried to build the stove this way, figuring that if I have to hunt up pearlite and denatured alcohol this was no more convenient than the solid fuels. When I built the stove this way, I could not even get it lit. Perhaps I did something wrong, and I invite the interested person with a little time on their hands to give this a try, but my rationale was that if the stove was this touchy in my kitchen, it was not reliable enough for SAR use.


Stands can be purchased individually from outdoor equipment providers and military surplus stores, typically for a few bucks. These all consist of some sort of metal plate and/or wire frame that can hold a pot off the ground, and a space to put a heat source under it. I purchased a simple stamped-and-riveted metal frame a few years ago at a local discount store that folds into a thin box (about 1" x 3" x 4") for storage of my solid fuel, and folds open to provide a pot stand in use. I have seen other metal frames which fold completely flat for storage, and then similarly open up to provide a pot stand. Either of these types of stands will work fine, or you can make one easily. Find a coffee can or other large can that is 1-2 inches larger in diameter than the pot you plan to carry for heating water. Cut off the top of the can so you are left with a short cylinder about an inch taller than your burner (solid fuel, canned fuel, or whatever). Bend over about 1/8 inch of the edge all the way around to get rid of sharp points. Drill some holes near the top of the cylinder just large enough for a coat hanger wire to go through. The holes should be drilled so that you can put several parallel wires across the top of the can close enough together to hold your pot. Cut lengths of wire about 1/4 inch longer than required to go across the can, put through the holes and bend the ends over to hold the wire in place. It is also a good idea to cut some notches in the bottom of the cylinder so air can get to the fuel. Now you can get your fuel going, set this cylinder over the top of your fuel, and cook away! Good luck, and bon apetit. Back to the Minilesson Page
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