Hobo Stove From Tin Can - Traditional High Tech Camp Stove




About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of www.zcorp.com, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

This is the tin can twig stove hoboes have used for cooking since time immemorial.
It's quick to make, easy to light, and does a lot of cooking with mere handfuls of twigs for fuel.
It doesn't make much smoke or shine much light, in case you don't want to be found.
It also doesn't leave fire scars or start forest fires very well.
That's good for both fugitives and environmentalists.

Another tin can would be the cooking pot for a living-history hobo re-enactment enthusiast. Preferably with a piece of wire through two holes through the lip to hang it like a little bucket.

Here's my favorite can for a hobo stove, a 3 liter olive oil can. I'm cooking salmon heads and giblets into soup on a driftwood pile in the rain in British Columbia. I consumed the olive oil during the weeks it took me to learn to catch salmon. This is a new stove, the paint hasn't all burned off yet, and it needs more air intakes. With just one door there will be charcoal left in the ashes. With three doors everything gets burned, and it's easier to feed fuel.

Step 1: Don't Do This

The hobo stove and some common sense will leave your campsite looking like wilderness.

Here's what bad camping leaves behind.
Please notice the pile of crap and toilet paper just behind the fire scar. Rain has washed the sand off the top of it. The bacteria washes down into the oyster beds and the tribe won't be able to sell their oysters. In this area you're supposed to crap or dispose of crap in deep water in the current, or a couple stone's throws from the water in a > 8" deep pit.

Strange to say, but kayakers are the bad guys in this case, much worse than power boaters even.

In case you're tuning in late and want the current eco-dogma,
shellfish farming is usually good for the environment, whereas salmon farming is usually bad.

Step 2: Pressure Cooker on Hobo Stove

Here I am west of Lake Okeefenokee, Florida, in the swamp along Fisheating Creek.
I'm cooking a Plecostemus South American Armored Catfish I caught with my cast net.
I finished eating the olive oil in this can during the days it took to learn to throw the net. These are aquarium sucker fish that were dumped out and are breeding wild and growing large.
The meat is very yellow and very tasty. The thick scales fit together in a very interesting way but I couldn't think of any use for them.

The pressure cooker is heavy but that doesn't matter so much in a canoe.
It's a joy to use. I can cook all my food for a day at once.
I would boil a dozen eggs with a stainless bowl of bread dough resting on top of that.
All inside the cooker.
I formed the dough into a bagel shape so the steam would cook it better, and it got steamed into a really good bagel. Especially when I used sea-water in the dough. That was the perfect amount of salt.

I just get a roaring fire going until the cooker is steamed up, then I forget about it, fire dies down and goes out. Everything gets cooked perfectly and I don't have to pay attention to it.

This cooker has two more bottom doors on the sides that you can't see, and burns the fuel completely. There's no charcoal in the ash.

If you don't want soot on your pot wipe soap all over it before putting it over the fire. Afterward the soot will wash off easily.

Step 3: Be Your Own Hobo

We're going to make the hobo stove seen here.
The license plate is optional, but something like that, even a folded piece of tinfoil, will be nice so you won't harm the surface under your stove.
This stove is tall and narrow, so you'll need to pound three sticks around it to support your pot, or put it between three rocks, or hang your pot over it.

Get the tallest can you can find.
You need height for convection to give you good airflow.
This coconut juice can is good. It's tall and the steel is pretty heavy for a drink can so it'll last a while.

Food cans had lead solder in the joints until 1993, so don't use old cans.
Pineapple cans have zinc plating inside in case you think you need to breathe more zinc.

Step 4: Make the Initial Incision

Cut an X or asterisk in the top of the can.

Warning from my Granddad: "Don't cut toward yourself and you won't get cut."

These flaps are going to be the pot supports. The bottom on this can is heavier than the top, so I'm turning the can upside down to make them. Also the other end has the pry-tab open, and that makes it hard to make the pot supports turn out right.
Often you'll get a better result by opening the can by cutting the X instead of whatever the vendor intended.

Step 5: Pry Up and Crease the Flaps

Pry up the flaps. Don't cut yourself on the sharp corners.
Crease each flap down the middle as seen in the second photo.
That makes them a lot stronger.

Step 6: Cut Doors

Cut some drawbridge style doors in the sides near the bottom.
Those are the air intakes and stoking doors.

Step 7: First Use

The first time you use it, wait for a while for the paint to burn off it. Stay back and don't breathe the fumes. Leave that for the youngsters who still enjoy the smell of burning plastic.

It's really easy to start a fire in one of these stoves. Start with whispy stuff or paper if you're still that close to civilization. Then work up to pencil sized stuff. Thumb thickness is probably the most you'll want for cooking. Thicker than that tends to smoke cuz you'll put in wet ones by accident.
You can toss it in the top before you put the pot on, and then poke them in under the pot.
You can feed longer sticks in gradually through the doors in Seminole star fire fashion.

It's so quick to start one of these, sometimes I'll pull over and do my cooking at a rest stop or by the side of the road. I'll put an aluminum license plate under the stove so I won't put a mark on the pavement. A folded piece of aluminum foil or a flat rock would be just as good.

I don't worry about hassles from authorities, because it's so easy to move the fire or put it out. But I've never been hassled. The rules about fires are usually about "open fires" and this isn't that.

Step 8: Three Stick Pot Stand and Palmetto Leaf Windscreen

I'll sometimes pound three sticks into the ground to support my pot.
That's good if the pot is too wobbly or heavy on top the stove or if I want to get it a bit higher off the stove.

If it's windy you'll want to put a windscreen around your stove. Otherwise the heat will all get blown away and cooking will take too long.

Here I've made a windscreen from palmetto leaves stuck in the ground and I'm cooking on a three stick pot stand with a can of Mexican "Fuego" brand sterno. I'm in the jungle back from the beach on a biosphere reserve in the Yucatan Peninsula. This is oatmeal with olive oil, cocoa and honey in it.



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70 Discussions


Reply 4 years ago

make sure you have enough little holes to allow the fire to breathe. if you didn't make the top a crown make a stand or holes up top as well.


4 years ago

I'm disappointed. I thought of a mini fire pit in a can. Built it feeling proud, turns out there are thousands of variations of it. Some sold in stores. Sad day. My design has only one little door and holes around the bottom, similar to my trash drum.


7 years ago on Step 3

I just threw away that exact can! Literally- 2 Seconds ago! Arghh! someone just dumped some rotten meat on top! NOOOOOOOOO!

1 reply

5 years ago on Introduction

I love this idea! I bet cooking on the side of the road makes you look like a hobo, haha.


6 years ago on Introduction

Nicely done.

As long as the stove doesn't tip, it should work great.

Good job.

Everett De Morier


7 years ago on Step 2

there's at least one south amearican fish that has scales so large, thick and rough that they are used as fingernail files. I bought one once. I bet the piranha's can't get THOSE. LOL


7 years ago on Introduction

I love coconut juice! I think you could make another stove with that license plate!