Better Sterno Alternative





Introduction: Better Sterno Alternative

About: I'm a husband, a parent and an 8th grade science teacher.

How you pack for the outdoors depends on how you intend to spend your time exploring nature. Packing light seems to be a common goal of campers, hikers and survivalists. Most also agree that it’s wise to have a compact way to cook a meal, boil water, keep warm, and create light that will keep away animals like wolves. For all of these things you need a reliable source of long-lasting fire, but most of us don’t want to carry flammable liquids or gels in our packs. I will show you a safe alternative: a pocket-sized piece of survival gear that you will quickly start to regard as an essential item to pack for your next adventure — no matter what it is.

Step 1:

The items you will need:

Small tin container (altoids tin)



Disposable container for melting wax

Step 2:

First you will need to cut the cardboard to the depth of the container. Next, pack the tin so the exposed side of the cardboard is facing up. I use a spiraling shape but it makes no difference on how it’s formed to fit. It does, however, matter how tightly it is placed in the tin. If it is so tight that the cardboard’s zig zag pattern within its side walls is flattened then the wax won’t fill the inside and the burn time will be shortened. Having the best ratio of wax and cardboard is the goal.

Step 3:

Next, melt the wax and pour it slowly into the cracks of the cardboard ensuring that it has as little air as possible. The goal is to allow the cardboard to burn slowly. In short, you are creating a candle with a large surface area. The round one is what I am going to use to light a pumpkin!

Step 4:

This burns fast and hot! It will last a few hours and can be hotter then sterno and more “pocket friendly”. Making a few of these at a time will quickly show its value.

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    Maybe use cotton string instead of cardboard. There is Formaldehyde in the cardboard. Not sure if it's going to hurt anything but some people are sensitive.

    2 Questions

    Can i take these out of the tins and store in a bag?


    I bet they would get mushy.

    Can I use these indoors to light my fire place?


    The formaldehyde in cardboard makes it a nonstarter (!) for burning.

    1 reply

    Yes I hear it's in cardboard.

    I made these as a Girl Scout in the 1960s. We used a tuna can instead of an altoids tin. They were called Buddy Burners. We made a "stove" from a #10 can and used the burners to cook hamburgers. I recently made one from a small can that I had used the side-cutting can opener to remove the lid. Now I can use the lid to put out the flame, as well as for transporting the burner.

    steel wool works great for tinder, it will catch a spark readily. A candle can be lit by throwing a spark into a small piece of char laying on the candle and blowing into a flame, takes practice. Most anything can be used as a wick in your tin of wax.

    Can this be lit with a firesteel or do you need matches/ligher?

    5 replies

    Stick some cotton in it on top.
    The cotton will light easily enough from a firesteel. Those flat cotton swabs women use for removing makeup seems to be just made for the purpose...

    Take dryer lint, break it into little pieces, and roll it into little balls with Vaseline on your fingers.

    I prefer to dry my clothes on a line outside, so I don't have all that much lint.

    But Vaseline is good. Both for starting fires, and... well...

    Why little balls?

    Wouldn't a larger, flat piece be better for catching a spark?

    My apologies for the delayed response; I didn't realize you had replied until just now. Balls are more compact and, therefore, are easier to pack.

    It is basically a candle with a very large wick. You need a flame (matches/lighter) to get it going.

    Ello! I have a question. I am wanting to make these little guys as food warmers for my steam pans i use. I dont care about soot at all, just need them to keep food warm. I am either going to use this option or sterno but i dont want to have to keep buying sterno at 5$ a can. Hence why i either want to make ethanol gel or these guys. But i need to know how many hours will they last? im looking for something that lasts at least 4-5 hours


    Once this has been lit, and burned for a moment, does it melt the wax creating a puddle of wax or does the wax burn off with the flame?
    My thought is this; I was at a medieval reenactment event once and a vendor was selling "dripless torches" but I never went and checked them out to see what made them tick. All that I saw as I was walking by was cardboard rolled up inside a larger tin can that was screwed to a wooden stick/handle. I'm curious to know if this was burning and it got tipped over, would wax pour out of it.

    1 reply

    It works like a candle in a jar, more-or-less. The wax, whether candle wax of bees wax, will melt more and more as time goes by and the over-all temperature of the wax rises. Bees wax will thoroughly melt quicker than candle wax, however.

    Can you add citronella essential oil to the wax before pouring onto the cardboard to have it act as a citronella candle?

    We did this way back in the 50s/60s but my concern was that melting aluminum gives off highly toxic fumes, so my question is does this get hot enough to melt the aluminum cans.

    1 reply

    Melting aluminum doesn't give off fumes, vaporizing it does though. You'd need to reach a temperature quite a bit higher than you can achieve on your stove or an open campfire. Aluminum vaporizes above 4566ºF.

    We made these in the 80's when my son was in Cub Scouts. We used empty tuna cans, dryer lint, cardboard pieces and paraffin wax. It was a great family activity to make them and very useful when camping.