Hobo Stick Stove, Revisited

We’re settled in back home after the pandemonium and ecstasy of a 6 day vacation with little kids. We covered all possible bases– train travel, model train museum; mountain hike, mountain farm museum; camping, deluxe B&B. The mountains of North Carolina were very satisfying. I was worried I would be disappointed, I was not. We enjoyed spanning views of hazy ‘blue mountains’ and deliciously chilly breezes. It was wonderful.

As I mentioned before, in the process of packing the camping stuff last week, I had a dilemma about our stove. Since we’re traveling by train as far as Atlanta, we would need to pack as light as possible. We have a tiny backpackers stove back in Alaska of course, but here in New Orleans with the two itty-bitties in tow, we only ever go car camping, so we just have the family style 2-burner propane monster. I just didn’t want to bring that behemoth for a mere two nights of camping. We’d cook sausages over the fire for dinner, but what about breakfast and most essentially, what about coffee?!!?

DIY camp stove-- first model

I have been wanting to make a new improved hobo stick stove since I made this first one two years ago, and necessity was the mother of my ass-whupping once again. I had a rectangular olive oil can saved for just that purpose, so I broke it out the morning before our trip, with a tuna can and some tin snips, and put together a real beauty. Oh I do love design. I think maybe I was meant to be an engineer. Of small, practical, recycled home stuff. This kind of project makes me positively giddy.

There are lots of ways to approach the stick stove, depending on what materials you’ve got around. My first one was a large size tomato can and although it worked, it was not quite big enough. I had this olive oil can saved, but when I took it out and played around with orientation I realized that it was too big. Then I got the idea to cut it in half. Perfect! Oh joy!

The other main problem with the first model was lack of air flow. As you can kind of see in the photo, I had set sticks across the open top of the can to lift the pot up and create the ‘chimney,’ right under the pot itself. In case anyone is embarking on this project without knowing much about fire-making in general, here’s an important fact. Fire needs a lot of oxygen. To get oxygen to flow through your fire, there has to be what’s called “draw” which means hot air going out (at top) pulls air in (at bottom hopefully). The size of the exit hole is what determines how much air your fire gets. A huge entrance hole makes no difference if the exit hole is too small or otherwise constricted.

My exit hole on the first stove was inadequate. A fire without enough oxygen will never get very hot, and that’s a lot of why it took so long to boil water. This time, I had an idea to use a smaller can to create a grate on top, like on a regular stove. Something to hold the pot well up off of the stovetop, and let the hot air and smoke flow out relatively unimpeded between the tines.

I also added a grate underneath the firebox (where the sticks go) so that air can get in easier too. I was so excited when I finished I almost peed my pants.

Sadly, we seem to have lost the camera cord on our trip, so I can’t add in photos of this fucking adorable stove in use. But at least I can give the full report.

It worked great. Certainly better than the first model, though I feel there’s still lots of room for improvement. Even with the ‘burner’ at top and ‘ash grate’ at bottom, it still had air flow problems. I think that just as important as the design of the stove itself is the knowing how to use it, and just like every other of these homemaking/homesteading pursuits, and maybe life as a whole, practice is the definitive factor.

Here’s a few tips for use I discovered in my relatively brief stint:

  • Use only crackly dry sticks, this stove doesn’t have room for lesser fuel.
  • Size matters. It seemed like a mix of pencil to fat finger sized sticks worked best.
  • Have everything ready and at hand. This stove needs more or less constant feeding.
  • The time to add more sticks is just when the fire is flaring it’s highest and looks like it doesn’t need any. If you wait till it dies down and looks ready, the new sticks will cool it down too much and you will just straggle along never getting hot enough to boil water.
  • Keep the firebox mostly full of wood for the fastest cooking, but don’t pack it in there too tightly or you lose your air flow again.
  • Because of the already difficult air flow, orientation is everything. You have to be catching the breeze, not blocking it. Since morning and evening breezes are often in flux, I had to rotate my stove a lot. Any elevation off the ground will help, but bear in mind this sucker gets hot, so no setting it on wooden picnic tables like I did in that photo up top. Char mark. Bad girl.

Enjoy the primal experience of cooking on a tin can with a bundle of sticks! It’s great fun.

10 thoughts on “Hobo Stick Stove, Revisited

  1. Hi Calamity Jane. Found you via eatatdixiebelles and so glad I did. I hear you – so far I’ve gone through and explored the readers favourites sections but will be back for more I promise! The feminism and radical homemaking you write about about what I sit and talk about with my friends. Will point them in your direction…Go Girl! Alison

  2. Seriously impressed. But for me, it would be WAY easier to just lug the 2 burner jobbie. Glad you had a good trip. We’l be vacationing in NC ourselves before too long.

  3. I adore you, engineer Calamity. I can just see you doing this.. wish I was there to play with it! I’ve always loved that quality of yours — you know, the mad-eyed engineer who squeals with glee especially if things are made from recycled objects… aka didn’t we make a dress out of pink plastic from the burn pile once for a party?

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