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My Choices for Cooking Fuels; Part 1

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I believe this is the ideal cooking setup for the majority of vandwellers. A Coleman 1-Burner stove, adapter hose, and bulk bottle.

I believe this is the ideal cooking setup for the majority of vandwellers. A Coleman 1-Burner stove, adapter hose, and bulk refillable bottle.

We’re going to continue our look at advanced techniques for vandwelling that are also preparing us for survival in the event of an extended depression-recession or natural disaster. We’ve already looked at 1) alternative transportation 2) using your van for shelter from heat and cold, 3) finding and purifying water, 4) food, storage and building an emergency food pantry. The next thing we need to look at is cooking. Earlier my friend Lesa gave us an introduction to different types of cooking fuels we have to choose from and in this post I want to give you my specific recommendations.
I believe the cost of all kinds of cooking fuel is going to skyrocket in the near future because 1) Peak Oil will drastically increase all their prices and increase their scarcity, 2) we’re entering a period of very high inflation caused by our countries unbelievably high level of public and private debt. Because nearly all of us are on a small, fixed income we are extremely vulnerable to inflation and the increasing price of oil. During inflation the cost of everything (especially oil) will skyrocket but our income won’t go up. Since we all need to cook in order to live, we need to  choose  cooking fuels that will work with high inflation and scarcity. I think they need to meet these qualifications.

  • Be reasonably cheap now and be able to store well for when it gets very expensive.
  • Be from a renewable source that is free and abundantly available.
  • Stoves that use it should be commonly available.

There are only four fuels that meet these requirements and they are the ones I think every survivalist vandweller should have on hand:

  • Propane: While propane is not renewable, it will store forever and is fairly cheap. Because it is so cheap and easy to find and use I think most vandwellers should be using propane right now and have some stored up for bad times.
  • Solar Ovens: in many places you can cook with a solar oven much of the year. It’s also true there are also some places where it is only works a small percentage of the year because of frequent rain and cloud cover, but even there it can be used often enough to make it well worth having.  City vandwellers can use their solar ovens at any park. Because of their simplicity, they are extremely durable and will last forever.
  • Wood: it’s free, cheap and available nearly everywhere I’ve camped. But it’s dirty, cooks fairly slowly,  and susceptible to getting wet. (We’ll cover wood stoves in depth in my next post.)
  • Alcohol: also has a very long shelf life and there is an abundance of commercial and Do-It-Yourself stoves for it. But it’s a very expensive fuel; I bought a gallon of denatured alcohol at Home Depot for $16 but Amazon has a 5 gallon can for $45 ($9 a gallon). (We’ll cover alcohol stoves in depth in my next post).

For many vandwellers, a solar oven is a great investment for now, and it will become invaluable in the future.

For many vandwellers, a solar oven is a great investment for now, and it will become invaluable in the future.

“Two is one and one is none.”

The Navy Seals have a saying: “Two is one and one is none.” What that means is that when your life is on the line you never want to be totally reliant on just one thing. Murphy’s Law says that one thing will fail and then you’ll be in a world of hurt! For critical items you need redundancy and back-ups and being able to cook and prepare your emergency pantry is critical. Every type of fuel has a problem that at some point will make it unusable and so you need another cooking method to back it up:

  • Propane is great for now but at some point it’s going to become so expensive we can no longer afford it;
  • Solar is perfect but it only works in the middle of the day and sometimes it’s rainy and cloudy so it doesn’t work at all;
  • Wood is free but during and after a period of rain may not be usable or, you could be unable to find any;
  • Alcohol is a great fuel but eventually you’ll run out and it will be very expensive or simply unavailable to replace.

Because there is no one perfect fuel I recommend you carry one of each of these types of stoves. Use your renewable fuels (solar and wood) as much as possible but if for some reason you can’t use them you’ll have propane and alcohol there as a backup while you wait for the weather to clear and the sun to shine again or you travel to gather more wood. Let me give an example from my life. I spent a summer in the Coconino National Forest and it rained so much that there was a full month where all the wood around us was soaked and there was too little sun to use the solar oven. If I didn’t have a propane stove, my life would have been very difficult.
On the other hand, if you only use propane to cook with, a 5 gallon bottle might last 6 months. But if you primarily use wood and solar to cook with and reserved propane and alcohol to use only as a back-up, then your 5 gallon bottle could last 6 years. And when it was gone you could start using the alcohol you have stored.
This post has gotten too long so I’m just going to cover propane and solar in it, in my next post I’ll cover wood, alcohol.

In this photo you see a 2 1/2 gallon and 1 gallon propane bottle, an adapter hose, and a small, green 1 pound bottle. I've since replaced the 1 gallon bottle for a 5 gallon bottle in preparation for Peak Oil.

In this photo you see a 2 1/2 gallon and 1 gallon propane bottle, an adapter hose, and a small, green 1 pound bottle. I’ve since replaced the 1 gallon bottle for a 5 gallon bottle in preparation for Peak Oil.


Propane has an indefinite shelf life and will probably never go bad no matter how long you store it. That makes having extra on hand for an emergency a very practical plan. It’s also relatively cheap. That combination makes it perfect for a vandweller who is preparing for hard times that may be coming. It’s only disadvantage is that the full bottles are fairly heavy and take up space. However, it’s advantages far overcome that disadvantage; unless you have a specific reason that you can’t use propane (some people are allergic to the perfume in it and others have an unreasoning fear of it) I think nearly every vandweller should have a propane stove and a bulk bottle. I have both a 2 ½ gallon bottle (for cooking inside the trailer) and a 5 gallon bottle (hooked up to the Weber portable grill for cooking outside). I keep them both full all the time, ready for an emergency. But I have more room than most people so if you are a prepper with limited space, I suggest you carry a single 5 gallon bottle and fill it every month and that way you can be fairly sure to have about 5 months of cooking fuel with you all the time.
Coleman Two-Burner Propane Stove
Buying a  stove, 20 pound bottle and adapter hose will cost about $90. You may be thinking, “That’s too much money, it’s not worth it; I’ll just buy the green bottles.” But that’s false economy! Bulk propane is so much cheaper than the green bottles and will quickly repay the $50 for the bottle and hose; let me prove it to you. Refilling a bulk bottle costs about $3.50 a gallon but buying the green bottles at Walmart costs over $11 a gallon (4 bottles equals’ one gallon). If you buy it anywhere but Walmart it will be $16 to $25 a gallon.  Assuming you burn a gallon of propane a month for cooking (a pretty good guess) refilling a bottle will save you $7.50 a month versus buying the green bottles at Walmart. If you are somewhere where you can’t shop at Walmart, it could easily save you more than $12 a month. No matter what, they will pay back your initial cost in 7 months or less and from then on they just save you money.
Coleman 5-Ft. High-Pressure Hose & Adapter
Here’s what I recommend:

  • Coleman propane stove. Either a one or two burner depending on your needs. Realistically the majority of us won’t ever need two burners, so a one-burner is just right. I use mine for heat as well as cooking because I am seldom in extreme cold. It’s served me for many years of trouble free service and if anything ever does break, replacement parts can easily be found. There are other brands but I think Coleman is worth the little bit of extra money.
  • 20 pound (5 gallon) bulk bottle from Wal-Mart or Home Depot. The bottle will cost about $30 to buy but it will last for many decades. Filling it will be another $17 but it should last 6 months of daily cooking so it costs less than $3 a month to cook a meal every day. If you use it for heat it will burn a lot more fuel and may only last a month, depending on which heater you have and how cold it is.
  • Adapter hose to connect the stove to the bulk bottle. A hose will cost about $20 but is invaluable. I recommend you carry at least one backup. I once had one that I used for many year and then one day I was cooking and it suddenly started to leak around the crimp on the end. Very quickly it was a blow-torch in my camper! Fortunately, I reacted swiftly and closed the valve at the bottle and the torch burned out without doing any harm. But that was a lesson to me that cheap hoses don’t last forever and ever since then I’ve marked the date when I bought it and replace them every 2 years even if they were working fine.

Camco 12′ Propane Extension Hose
Coleman PowerPack 1-Burner Stove
Propane Safety:
I store my propane bottles inside the van with me even though that is a violation of the safety rules. I think the risk is so small I’m not very concerned about the risk. Another thing you will want to do is keep a small spray bottle full of water with a few drops of liquid soap in it nearby. Every time you reconnect the hose to your bottles, give all the joints a quick spray with the soapy water and look carefully for bubbles. Bubbles mean there is escaping gas and you are in extreme danger! Either tighten the joint until it stops bubbling, or leave the bottle turned off and take it to a propane service center to find out why it’s leaking.

Here I'm making a meatloaf in my solar oven. You can see in the meat thermometer that it's reached 160 degrees so it fully cooked. It took about 2 hours in February and was delicious!

Here I’m making a meatloaf in my solar oven. You can see in the meat thermometer that it’s reached 160 degrees so it is fully cooked. It took about 2 hours in February and was delicious!

Solar Ovens

In the event of a depression, economic collapse or a grid down situation, you will be very glad you own a solar oven! You can cook without using any fuel every time there is a sunny day. With a quality solar oven you can:

  • Bake bread or anything else you can bake in an oven,
  • Cook any meal that you can make in a crock pot or Dutch Oven.
  • Make stews, soups, roasts or any other one-pot meal you would make on a stove-top.
  • Boil water.
  • Dehydrate foods.

I’ve owned a Global Sun Oven (GSO) brand solar oven for about 5 years now and I love it.
All American Sun Oven – World’s Best Solar Oven
If it’s a sunny day I can cook a meal in it year around, summer or winter. It’s the most expensive model on the market at about $250 but it is so well designed and constructed that I think it’s a bargain. There is no doubt in my mind that it if I take care of it, I can still be cooking with it in 25 years and that means it only cost me $10 a year to own it. I already did a post on the GSO so I’m not going to repeat it here. To find that post, go here:
But you don’t have to spend that kind of money to own a good solar oven/cooker. There is a large variety of already made ovens on the market for not very much money. And, if you can’t even afford those there are tons of plans on the internet to show you how to build your own. The simplest use a basic cardboard box and aluminum foil but when you are done you will have a fully working solar oven that can cook you some great meals in the summer. To make a solar oven that works well in the winter is a little harder though and will require something a little more sophisticated. Vandwellers who live and work in cities will find the solar oven a little more limited but all they need to do is go to a park and set it up and start cooking. You’re only problem will be all the people who gather around and are intrigued by it! Sunflair #1 Portable Solar Oven Deluxe, Cookware Included

My solar oven making biscuits.

My solar oven making biscuits.

This is one of the best pages on the net for finding a commercial solar oven:
The next best place to start researching solar ovens is at the Yahoo group “Solar Cooking” Join it here:
Once you’ve joined go and check out the photo gallery where you will find one of the largest collection of homemade solar ovens in one spot. When you find one you are interested in post a question to the group about it and you will get a lot of help with it. The group has been quiet lately, but if you start a thread as a newcomer you will get lots of responses. Here is another good source of plans:
Here are two very good cardboard box plan:

Thanks for shopping from these links.

I make a little money (even if you buy a different item) and it costs you nothing.


  1. jonthebru

    I approve this message.
    Propane is self explanatory your paragraph on how expensive the small green bottles really are is spot on. Solar ovens really attract my interest. I have a version of the CooKit that works OK, but frankly, its a hassle in the wind so I set it up on a lawn chair attaching it with clothes pins. You must have dark sunglasses to direct the brightest point to keep the temp as high as possible. The one you feature, the All American Sun Oven, is probably the best style to use and a reasonable facsimile can be homemade. One thing I have plans to do is put the oven on a turntable of sorts so it can be directed easily to the hottest point of light. Westerners usually dabble in solar ovens, but in some rural areas around the World they are the serious way people cook every day the sun shines. is an amazing resource to witness what is going on.
    Hang in there everybody!

    • Bob

      jonthrbru, I really love my Global Sun Oven (GSO). It’s the same thing as the All American but it’s a slightly improved model. There are plans on the Yahoo group for a very similar oven. They are expensive but they really are incredible!

  2. Al Christensen

    Another backup solution is a supply of food that doesn’t need cooking. I’ve eaten a lot of cereal, crackers, energy bars and sandwiches lately.

    • Bob

      Al, in my list of foods I have lots that don’t need cooking:
      3 #10 cans of Pilot Crackers (Mountian House) 10,000 claories
      6 #10 cans of Almond Cinammon Granola (Provident Pantry) 28,000 calories
      4 #10 cans of instant milk (Proident Pantry) 23,000 calories
      So I can go 2 months at 1000 calories a day without cooking. And like you I have a lot of crakcers, peanut butter, and bars on board for my regular eating. I only cook once a day and anymore more days are just cold foods.

  3. m.a.

    I’ve been full time for over a year now & average only one green bottle of propane every 4 – 5 weeks. I’m a ‘conserver’- I get something like rice or pasta started & then take it off & stick a towel around it so it keeps cooking while I do veggies, etc. The canisters are more expensive but lovely when you want to keep things clean & simple.

    • Bob

      I agree m.a., if you work at it you can stretch a bottle a long way. And even if you cook more it just may not be worth the extra space and hassle of the bulk bottle. It isn’t for everybody.
      But if you ever use heat in your van then you really will want a bulk bottle and i do use heat so there was never a doubt in my mind I would get one. I want to be able to sit around in the evening in the van and be warm and comfortable and that means having a heat source of some kind. Then the green bottles get very expensive and fill the landfills.

  4. Ming

    thanks for another great post, Bob.
    Years ago, I experimented with solar and made this quick and easy solar funnel with a windshield sunshade, plastic bag, bucket and black pot.
    It cooked rice quite well, I see it as being of more value further south than in BC, where I’m often camping in the woods and/or in the rain.
    You make a good point with carrying more than one fuel source. That’s why I use the Kelly kettle with an alcohol stove. I recall reading a full timer’s blog post where she drove hours into the night looking for somewhere to fill her propane tanks. With the right gear, she could just have picked up a bottle of HEET from any gas station and be cooking dinner.
    How does the dehydrator work with your solar oven?

    • Bob

      Ming, I agree, it’s very easy to make a working solar oven, but some parts of the world don’t lend themselves to it very well. And I agree about redundancy of important things.
      I’ve never used the dehydrtor, but I have heard form others that it works really well. With the GSO it is easy to control the temerature by turning it into or away from the sun. so it can give you an easy, gentle heat of whatever temperature you want to use.

      • Ming

        ah, so that’s how the dehydrator works. From your reviews of it, this oven definitely sounds like something to have if your vehicle is big enough to carry it. Right now I have to be choosy about what I can fit in my little Fit.

        • Bob

          Ming, yes, it’s size is a problem. I have more room than most people so I can fit it but many people can’t. There are smaller solar ovens.

  5. Linda Sand

    I didn’t put a propane system in my new RV because I got tired of driving around looking for a place that could fill a built-in tank. Portable tanks are easier. I use electric for most things that used propane before. My solar panels keep up most days but when they don’t I can run my engine to recharge the batteries. Diesel fuel is easier to find than propane–at least for now–and I usually need to buy groceries or find a laundromat when I need to charge my batteries anyway.

    • Bob

      What are you using for heat in it Linda? I know there are diesel heaters but I don’t know anyone who has one.

      • Linda Sand

        I have a diesel furnace. It works just as well as the previous propane ones did but I don’t have to buy special fuel for it. Because someone is sure to wonder, the fuel intake sits high enough in my diesel tank that it can’t use up the last of the fuel leaving me stranded. It uses so little fuel I don’t seem to need to fill up anymore when using the furnace than I do otherwise but I have not actually tracked that.

        • Bob

          I knew there were diesel furnaces for RVs but you are the first person I’ve known with one. That would be a great thing to have it come right out of the vehicles fuel tank!

    • Al Christensen

      For those who don’t have built-in RV propane tanks and use 5 gal tanks instead, you don’t need to find refill stations. There are tank swap stations all over the place — grocery stores, convenience stores, home improvement centers, U-haul stores, etc. — serving the world of barbecuers.

      • Linda Sand

        But be aware there is one brand, blue rhino I think, that uses a different type of fill connector so once you swap for one of their tanks you cannot get it refilled.

        • DASA

          I bought/swapped, out of need, a Blue Rhino pre-filled 20 pound tank at a Winn-Dixie supermarket after my usual propane filling station had closed for the night (didn’t check my backup bottle, it was empty and dinner guests were waiting!). I can confirm that the Blue Rhino branded 20 lb bottle I purchased has the same connector as my other bottle bought at Sears. I have refilled both many times.

        • Bob

          Linda, are you sure of that? Propane bottles are under strict Federal control and you can’t just put any valve you want on one. It’s hard for me to imagine they could stay in business if no one else could fill their bottles.

      • Bob

        Good point Al, they really are everywhere.

  6. Corky Deeds

    As CNG come forward as an automobile fuel it will also be available for use as a cooking/heating fuel, and at likely a cheaper rate. I have a friend who has converted both his motorhome and all it’s equipment to run on CNG, not really legal, but it is doable. lower BTU’s per volume and not easy to find yet, but likely to be around and cheap in the future.

    • Bob

      Thanks for that info Corky. It’s something to watch.

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