There are many different ways to cook food on the trail. You could build a fire (hard when its raining and exhausts local fuel supply in crowded areas). You could use a white gas stove (usually heavy, but quite reliable especially in cold weather or high altitudes). You could bring a canister stove (think small propane stove – these are probably the most popular stove on the AT) but sometimes canisters are hard to find and aren’t terribly light even though the stoves themselves are. You could bring an esbit stove (burning tablets – think solid sterno) which are light, but the tablets are hard to find. You could go stoveless, but I like a hot meal when its cold and no-cook foods tend to be heavier because they are not dehydrated. Or you could bring an alcohol stove (the second most popular stove).
In 2010, I decided to try an alcohol stove because they are feather light, super cheap, and you can make them yourself. There are dozens and dozens of types of commercial and home made alcohol stoves and I have made about two dozen myself. They all work, but the one that is the cheapest, simplest, most fool proof, and easy to use is the Super Cat. It has zero moving parts, you made it out of a $0.60 can of Fancy Feast cat food and the only tool you need to make it is a $1.00 paper hole punch you can find at a gas station. Deviled ham is also the same can, so you can make it from that if you want to eat the food and you don’t have a cat handy. Alcohol is very easy to find in trail towns and you can find yellow heet in nearly all convenience stores.
I added an aluminum flashing wind screen, a pot cozy made from reflectix, a pot holder from an old cook set, a 30 year old aluminum pot (that weighs less than modern titanium pots that cost $50), a larger empty aluminum can as a measuring, drinking, and snuffer cup, and more aluminum flashing as a heat shield underneath the stove so I don’t catch leaves or picnic tables on fire. Some picnic tables have an aluminum plate screwed down on them to serve this same purpose.
To operate the stove, you just put the can on the bottom heat shield, put 1-1.5 oz of alcohol in it, light it and let it burn for about 60 secs to heat up the side of the can which cause the alcohol to boil and vaporize, then just set you pot right on top of it and wrap the wind screen around it. In about 4 minutes, you will have 2 cups of boiling water. If I don’t need to simmer or I put too much alcohol in, I can drop the snuffer cup on it to extinguish then our the remaining alcohol back in the fuel bottle. Simplicity!
Other alcohol designs like penny stoves either take more involved tools to make and being pressurized stoves, are a lot harder to prime than the cat stove and are just more finicky all around. If I ever saw a hiker fuss with an alcohol stove, it was one of the more complicated pressurized kind and had to be primed 2 or 3 times before it really got going. Not too many people use the Cat stoves, but every other hiker I have met who does has never had a single problem with them. Laying the pot right on top of the can seals the top and essentially turns it into a pressurized stove after it is primed. But before you drop the pot on top, its just s pool of burning alcohol. I have used this stove on a cliff with 30-40 mph winds with no problems. It did take more fuel because the wind took much of the heat away, but I was able to cook and eat my Ramen noodles just fine, than you.
The other benefit of the alcohol stoves that I actually use is to use the alcohol for other purposes. Some people use Everclear drinking alcohol and do actually drink some of it. I use denatured alcohol and will wash my feet with it. The alcohol will dry out your feet and toughen them up. So after 4 straight days of rain with wet feet, alcohol feels like heaven on them. Anything I can get two uses from is a plus in the hiking world.
If I was out west on the PCT where stoves without a control valve are banned because of extreme fire risk, I would use a canister stove like most other hikers. But for now, I stick to the simplicity of the Super Cat and rest easily at night knowing if I step on it and crush it, I’m only $1.50 and a 7-11 away from getting a replacement (and a free snack, to boot!).
UPDATE: Now that I AM hiking on the PCT, I have had to ditch the alcohol stove and bought a canister style stove that nearly all the other PCT hikers use. You can’t fly with the canisters, so I’ll have to stop off at a sporting goods store in San Diego and pick one up on my way out to El Cajon to catch the bus to Campo. There’s a Big 5 Sports and a Dick’s Sports about 3 blocks away from the transit center. I may have to see about making a wind screen for it that I can stowe in the pot.