The pill bottle stove is a new type of alcohol stove with some impressive claims. This ultra-lightweight stove claims to boil water in 5 minutes which is faster than most alcohol stoves. In addition, the design of the compact stove allows it to support your cooking pot without an external pot stand, which saves weight in your backpack. So is this stove a significant innovation in backpacking cooking, or is it just a gimmick?
While I believe this stove is truly innovative, this is a first-generation design with some limitations. I can only recommend this stove to experienced backpackers who are willing to experiment and build a reliable cooking system around it. You will probably want to replace the windscreen. It’s not a general use stove for most campers. Read on for the testing I performed, my results, and suggestions for improving the performance.
What is the Pill Bottle Stove?
The pill bottle stove consists of small round porous “bricks” or tablets that absorb liquid fuels. Unlike real bricks, these round tablets are made of a lightweight and highly insulating refractory material used in pizza ovens. The product I purchased included four round fuel tablets, a plastic pill bottle, two fireproof fabric squares, a titanium foil windscreen, and a small paper label with limited instructions.
While I paid $49, the price is now $44 with free shipping in the US. You can’t purchase the stove without the windscreen at this time. The product is typical of the US cottage backpacking industry – no retail packaging and all papers are printed on a home printer. I purchased it from the inventor’s website NeoTrekk. The stove is also sold on Etsy.
Before I cover anything else, I feel it’s important to point out that this stove has a unique safety risk that is different from any other camping stove I’ve encountered. It requires you to touch the liquid fuel with your fingers when you handle the fuel tablets. The recommended fuel of denatured alcohol usually contains methanol (up to 60% for some brands) which is poisonous and readily absorbed by the skin. HEET also contains methanol. While coming in contact once is unlikely to hurt you, repeated contact can cause blindness or be fatal. During the pandemic, 5 people died from using hand sanitizer which contained methanol. I opted to use gloves while handling the fuel-soaked tablets for my testing.
Pill Bottle Stove Details – Size and Weight
Each fuel tablet is about 1 ⅝ inch in diameter. This is fairly small, especially since you will usually be supporting your pot on top of two of the bricks. I’ve taken a photo of it next to a simple homemade cat food can stove for comparison. Everything fits in the plastic pill bottle for easy storage, and it will easily fit in most pots. Here are the weights and dimensions:
The entire bottle with 4 tablets, 2 patches, and windscreen: 70 g (2.47 oz)
Bottle: 13 g (0.46 oz) – 2 in diameter x 2 ¾ in tall
Tablet (dry): 13 g (0.46 oz) – 1 ⅝ in diameter x ⅝ in tall
“Stove” (two tablets and fireproof fabric base or patch): 27 g (0.95)
Windscreen: 3 g (0.1 oz) – 2 ⅛ in tall x 11 ¼ in long
Pill Bottle Stove Fuel Options
The pill bottle stove is a liquid fuel alcohol stove designed to be used with denatured alcohol. All of the claims for cooking times and burn time are based on denatured alcohol fuel. Pure ethanol such as Everclear grain alcohol (190 proof is 95% Alcohol) will give you equivalent or better performance. HEET (yellow bottle) and isopropyl alcohol may also be used but they have a lower fuel efficiency and will cook more slowly. Note: Ethanol and isopropyl alcohol do not contain methanol so these are perfectly safe to handle.
Unlike gas canister stoves, you won’t need to carry a heavy container (such as isobutane canisters) for the fuel. You can use a lightweight plastic bottle to store alcohol-based fuels. For short trips, you can also carry only the fuel you need while gas fuel canisters are less flexible. On longer trips, the lower fuel efficiency of alcohol becomes a more serious disadvantage and you may want to look at other types of stoves such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, or solid fuel stoves.
How to Use the Pill Bottle Stove
To use the stove, you first need to “charge” the fuel tablets. You do this by soaking the tablets in one of the listed fuels above for at least 10 minutes. While the tablets are absorbing fuel, air escapes from the pores in a stream of tiny bubbles and you will hear a fizzing sound. They are mostly charged after 10 minutes – longer charge times don’t make a big difference.
While the tablets charge, fill your cooking pot with water. Once the fuel tablets are charged, stack 2 on top of the fireproof fabric on a hard flat surface and light them immediately. Carefully set the pot on top of the tablets and center it as well as possible.
No instructions were provided for the windscreen, so I experimented with different configurations. The results were disappointing – see my testing below.
If you need to put out the flames, you can blow them out or drop a metal cup/pot over the flames. I found them easy to blow out if you get close to them.
Pill Bottle Stove Claims
The claims for this stove are impressive but inconsistent. One photo on the Etsy listing suggests you can boil water for 4 dehydrated meals in 5 minutes using two pots with 2 tablets each. This requires you to heat 24 oz of water to 200F (not quite boiling) in one pot in 5 minutes. The text in the instructions says you can get 12 oz of water to 200F in 5 minutes. The text also claims the flames will burn for 15 minutes. While the advertised cook times for this stove are still slower than most gas stoves such as integrated canister stoves, they are a nice improvement over most alcohol stoves.
Pill Bottle Stove – My Testing
To test the claims and the practical use of the stove I used 12 oz of water in my 750 ml titanium pot. Under perfect conditions, the water boiled in about 5 minutes. In one test it was just over 5 minutes, in another, it was several seconds faster, so the 5 minute claim is fair. Here are the conditions for my test: in my garage with NO breeze, 75 deg F temp, tap water, lid on the pot, no windscreen, and denatured alcohol for fuel.
I also allowed the flames to continue burning after I removed the pot of boiling water. I was never able to get flames lasting 15 minutes. They typically last about 12 minutes. The flames and heat output starts to die down after about 8 minutes and for the last 2 minutes, the flames are tiny. So you really only get about 8 minutes of good heating time.
Real World Conditions
Unfortunately, the performance gets worse in the real world where you want to use this stove – outdoors. The instructions say “wind slows heating, use the windscreen if outside”. This is accurate – with even a very gentle breeze I was unable to boil water before the flames went out.
So I tried again with the windscreen. This is a simple strip of thin titanium foil with holes along one edge that will roll up without support. With no instructions or support options, I first wrapped it around the outside edge of my pot. If you place the holes on top, they are above the pot edge, so I used it with the holes on the bottom. The screen is too short to wrap around the pot completely, so there is a gap of about 2 inches on one side. With the gap away from the breeze, I was able to get the water to 190F before the flames died.
PIll Bottle Stove Wind Screen – Setup is Critical
So it’s clear the stove is highly susceptible to the use conditions and the windscreen design is too simplistic or the wrong size for my little pot. I wanted to make it work, so I found some wire to hold the windscreen open wider and allow a gap between the edge of the foil and the pot. When the stove works properly, the flames cover the bottom and lower edge of the pot. I suspect a good windscreen needs to allow space for the flames to fully transfer heat around the bottom edge.
While this setup was crude, it did help considerably. On my last test, I got close to boiling water at about 8 minutes – the temperature reached just over 200F which is enough to heat up a dehydrated meal. The temperature held steady after that point (the heat output of the stove drops off after this time).
If I needed to use this stove, I would test it with different windscreens which are taller and long enough to fit fully around my pot. I suggest you test the stove outdoors in different conditions before relying on it.
Pill Bottle Stove Issues
In addition to the windscreen design (which clearly needs work), I found a few other issues with the stove. Most are minor, except for the time it takes to charge the fuel tablets.
Fuel Tablet Recharging Time
The real issue with this stove is the recharging time for the fuel tablets. If you need more cooking time, you must wait 10 minutes before the fuel tablets will absorb fuel and can be used again.
To make using the stove more reliable, I would charge all 4 tablets, then cook with 2 at a time. If you need more burn time, swap the used tablets with the charged ones so you can continue heating. This means you can only heat one pot at a time and need to carry more tablets for multiple people. Perhaps a better windscreen design may make this precaution unnecessary.
The stove includes two small copper color patches to place between the fuel tablets and the surface you support the stove on. They are fireproof, but will not prevent the flames from scorching the surface. I used a scrap of pine wood under the stove to protect the table I used for testing, and you can see the marks if left in the photo below. During one test, enough fuel spread that the pine caught fire so I added some aluminum foil as an extra layer of protection.
Unstable Pot Support
The minimalist design of this stove allows you to support your cooking pot directly on the fuel tablets. Unfortunately the small size of the tablets makes the pot easy to tip over. If you are on an uneven surface, it may help to use both sets of tablets to support the pot and give you a more stable base.
Fuel Tablet Handling
As I mentioned before, you need to touch the fuel-soaked tablets to remove them from the bottle and stack them for lighting. The top two are easy enough to take out of the bottle, but there isn’t enough finger space for the bottom two. You need to dump them out which is a problem if there is liquid fuel left in the bottle. I ended up using a screwdriver or unfolded paper clip to flip them sideways so I can grip them.
Pill Bottle Seal
In order to fully charge all 4 tablets, you need to turn the bottle on its side while full of fuel. The instructions recommend spreading vaseline on the edges to help with sealing. While this will help, you will quickly end up with “grit” in the bottle as the corners of the tablets flake off from handling. You will need to bring something to wipe this out to maintain the bottle’s seal.
Is the Stove a Fire Hazard?
Some of the comments online suggest this stove is a fire hazard risk. This is partly because the setup is very top-heavy with such a small support area. On the other hand, this stove has no alcohol to spill if knocked over, so it might be safer. I decided to compare the pill bottle stove to a “standard” alcohol stove where the burning fuel can spread the fire.
For this test, I lit the different stoves on the ground in an area covered with leaves and knocked them over. I compared the pill bottle stove fuel tablets to a simple DIY can stove with holes punched in the side (which spills all the fuel immediately). This is on private property a few days after a rain. The ground below the leaves was damp, plus I had extra water available to put out any fire which spread.
Fire Testing Results
The DIY alcohol stove spilled as expected and lit the surrounding leaves quickly up to several inches away. I let it burn long enough to use up the fuel and then stomped out the fire. Note: The high temperature from the burning leaves burned through the thin aluminum can in one spot.
The fuel tablets from the pill bottle stove continued to burn after falling over. No fuel spread so the flames lit the surrounding leaves slowly and burned a smaller area. I did notice the tablets are difficult to blow out when surrounded by burning leaf bits.
My opinion is that the fuel tablets are safer than liquid fuel if you clear the ground surrounding the stove.
Design Improvements and Final Thoughts
As a mechanical engineer, I can’t help but offer some ideas to improve the performance and design. My first recommendation is a better windscreen that protects the flames, allows enough airflow to the fire, and maintains the effective flame shape present without the windscreen. A double wall design seems likely to work well and could remain light if it’s made from two pieces of metal foil.
I’d also suggest making the tablets donut shaped to maintain the low weight but add some stability to the base with a larger diameter. This also opens up other options for handling the tablets without touching them.
Lastly, I’m curious how the fuel tablets will burn if they sit in a reservoir of additional fuel such as a shallow can. This might extend the burn time for larger pots or bad weather conditions.
Interested in other Camping Stove Types?
Check out these other articles to learn more about camping stoves and find the best choice for you.
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Best Indoor Emergency Stove: How To Use Camping Stoves Safely