How to make a simple tin can stove while off the grid

This story was originally published on OFFGRID. Words by Patrick McCarthy.

A key tenet of survival is working with limited resources, and making do with what you have or what you can find quickly. In urban scenarios, this may mean scavenging or even dumpster diving for supplies.

Such a simple little contraption. Photo: OFFGRID

Obviously, unless you’re desperate, you probably won’t want to eat food directly from a dumpster, but there’s another important resource you can find in trash heaps: empty tin cans. One or two of these items can be used to create what’s known as a “hobo stove” for heating food or boiling water efficiently.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Don’t be afraid to scavenge to survive. Photo: OFFGRID

The hobo tin-can stove is about as simple as it gets. Find a large tin can, such as a coffee can or can of beans. If it’s not already open, you can remove the top easily in most urban environments with the concrete can opener method. Then …

• Cut a hole in one side of the can near the bottom. You can use a knife — or better yet, tin snips — to do the cutting. This hole will provide access to add fuel, and also allow oxygen into the stove.
• Next, poke or drill smaller holes around the top of the can. These will serve as exhaust vents, and you’ll want plenty of them so your fire isn’t smothered.
• Optional: Poke more air holes around the base of the can. These will provide additional oxygen to keep the fire burning.
• Insert some tinder (such as char cloth) and kindling, then light it up. Have more sticks on hand to keep the fire going.
• Set some tent pins or wire mesh on top of the can to prevent your pot or pan from tipping over or falling in. Start cooking.

To some, a rusty old can is useless garbage, but that’s not true for a survivalist. Photo: OFFGRID

Here’s a video that demonstrates the basic hobo tin-can stove. The host uses power tools to cut the fuel hole quickly, but you can easily do it with a knife or tin snips and a little patience.

The one downside to this simple tin-can stove is that it creates a lot of smoke and may give away your position to others nearby. If you want to avoid the smoke, you can modify the design to create what’s called a “gasifier stove.” Gasification causes the fuel to burn at a higher temperature, leading to cleaner combustion and less smoke.

To create a gasifier stove, you’ll be nesting a small tin can inside a large tin can, and drilling the holes more strategically. Here’s a demonstration of how to make a wood gas stove:

Regardless of how far you take this simple design, the fact remains that it uses only a discarded tin can (or two). That means it’s easy to create in the field, and even if you can’t build a full campfire, you’ll be eating hot meals again in no time.

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