The humble hobo stove traces its origins back to the Great Depression. No. 10 tin cans had become a standard package of food stuffs like coffee and fruit before the Depression and so were plentiful. Short on resources, hobos improvised the cans into suitcases, water containers, and stoves. Today, the hobo stove is used by, well, hobos, but also campers on a budget. The can’s light weight makes it a perfect backpacking stove.
The design of the hobo stove is simple but ingeniously effective. The power of convection draws air into the stove through the open door and air vents positioned at the bottom of the can and up towards the open top. The metal reflects the heat back into the fire allowing the stove to generate a tremendous amount of heat in a small space. Once you’ve got the fire going, just place a pan or pot on top of the can and you’ll have dinner in no time.
If you’re looking for a cheap, lightweight alternative to standard backpacking stoves, find yourself in an urban survival situation, or just decide to take up the hobo lifestyle, here’s how to build a hobo stove for all your cooking and warming needs.
Gather Your Supplies
You don’t need much to make a hobo stove — just a can, a knife, and a can opener. Any can will do. I used a big ol’ coffee can here, but other kinds of cans, even a soda can with the top cut off will work. A bigger can is easier to make cuts in and makes a bigger fire/more heat, but you’ll obviously want to go for a compact can if you’re taking it backpacking.
We need to cut a “door” into the can for feeding wood to the stove. Make it fairly large — wider rather than taller. Shoot for about 6 inches wide and 4 inches tall if you’re using a can the same size as mine.
Cut your door so that the metal bottom of the can rests on the ground, rather than orienting it so the open mouth of the can sits on the ground. The former orientation has a couple advantages over the latter: First, it allows you to be discrete. When you leave your location, you won’t leave any burn marks on the ground because your fire burned on the metal bottom, rather than on the ground. Second, the metal bottom reflects more heat which gives you a hotter fire. You don’t get that if the open top is facing the ground.