Camping & Survival

Emergency Fire — Anywhere, Anytime, Under Any Conditions

Completed DIY emergency furnace

How to Make a Portable Heat Source

Let’s say you are tent camping in the pouring rain, and you are soaked to the skin. Your commonsense tells you to make a fire quickly, but every available stick and kindling you find is equally soaked. What would you do? Not a fun situation to find yourself in, especially if the temperature begins to fall. If you are not careful hypothermia can set in quickly, so it goes without saying, making a fire as fast as possible is vital to your well-being.

DIY Furnace
Ingredients: Coffee can, matches, toilet paper and isopropyl alcohol.

Hopefully, you will never find yourself in this circumstance or countless other scenarios where you need to make a fire fast. However, if you do, here is one speedy way to craft a small portable long burning heat source. An added bonus is it also provides plenty of light, it’s cheap, and super easy to make. You could even cook over it if needed. However the best part about this little device is you do not need any wood or kindling to get this fire burning, and keep it burning, making it ideal in many situations. All you need is four household items. All are readily available, inexpensive and relatively lightweight, making them ideal to carry on a camping trip, or to store in your vehicles emergency kit.

Items Needed

Store Your Ignition Source
You’ll need a handy ignition source. Strike anywhere matches are quick and easily stored.

You will need a medium-sized metal coffee can with plastic lid, one regular-sized roll of toilet paper; the quality multi-ply seems to work better than the generic single ply paper-thin variety. One or more bottles of isopropyl alcohol also referred to as rubbing alcohol. Finally, you will need matches or a lighter to light your homemade heater. I keep a stash of strike-anywhere matches in a plastic baggy tucked into the center tube of the roll of paper.

Easy Assembly

Start by placing the roll of toilet paper into the metal coffee can—ideally the roll will fit perfectly into the canister. Second, pour the entire bottle of alcohol over the toilet paper let it soak in completely. The final step is to light the alcohol-drenched toilet paper and let it burn.

Completed DIY emergency furnace
One bottle of alcohol can burn for hours providing you with emergency heat, light or as an emergency signal.

A 16 oz. bottle of alcohol can burn for several hours. If you need more burn time, wait until the flame goes out completely or suffocate the low flame with the lid. Turn the toilet paper over, slip it back into the can and saturate the same roll with another bottle of alcohol. This process can be repeated numerous times, as long as you keep the paper wet with alcohol—a good reason to carry a few bottles of alcohol with you.

As with any flammable liquid, do NOT pour any alcohol on an open flame, wait until the fire goes out completely before you add more alcohol. Be extremely cautious when handling as the can maybe hot to the touch. Flames may go above the top of the can, especially if it is windy, so be sure to place your homemade furnace away from flammable items such as clothing and place furnace on a safe surface while burning.

When you need a fire in a hurry, this quick and cheap furnace provides a heat source ideal in emergency situations and works well for an extended period of time in smaller spaces.

How would you use your homemade furnace? Tell us in the comment section.

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Comments (32)

  1. I’m Canadian and only need birch bark or some balsam, spruce, or pine bows from the bottom section of the trunk, there’s little dry dead branches with all kinds of sap dried inside tgat when enough is gathered and is bunched up, they will catch even when raining. For good dry wood, look for “Standing” dead wood that has died while still upright and is perfect for firewood. I love cedar and pine for kindling, and ash, maple, and hard woods for heating up my camp. Ash burns very hot and is quite abundant in my area.
    I always carry a good folder pocket, a multipurpose machete, hatchet, and a 18 inch bow saw minimum. One or two stones to keep things sharp. And a compass and magnesium with Stricker.

  2. If your going to survive out in the wild, a smart Idea is to keep about a pound of lint from a dryer, a little at a time will work, use it with kindling. Once you use it you’ll know how much on the next fire, rule of thumb start small. The lint will flatten down to nothing, and weighs nothing in a plastic ziploc, also smart Idea is waterproof matches, buy a waterproof match holder to use as a container, again another item that weighs close to nothing, next lighter fluid comes in all sizes for lighters, the small can can be carried, is light and will again not weigh you down, now if a emergency item is ever a necessity you can get this at any Walmart or Cabela’s is a (Coghlan’s Magnesium Fire Starter) a block of Magnesium, in which a knife or a rock will cause this item to spark and start your fire, and with all the items you have if the matches won’t work the magnesium block will, and if you carry a lighter or have it included, and it’s new. if you can’t start a fire, you have to be a idiot, and here’s your sign. also you can carry aluminum foil to make a device to put your fire products in tho keep from getting wet when lighting, you can use as much as you want to form about almost anything, again another item that weighs next to nothing.

  3. Zach… article reads that it is pouring rain.. I guess you could just use wet soggy leaves and hope it doesn’t chap your a$$. LOL

  4. The coffee can and TP info will be a great addition for my emergency box, but too big for a bugout bag or purse. I have an old mint tin that I keep in both that has cottonballs, muslin strips, lip balm and a lighter. The larger tins holds everything nicely and works well as a ember carrier if necessary. There is a reason women carry large purses…we truly can survive on what’s in them, when stocked properly.

  5. Jim Bob,
    Apparently you didn’t read the #7 comment completely thru. The use of regular gas, as stated, should be an emergency action only. There is no question that its a dangerous solution, however, if its an emergency situation one may have to consider and weigh the options for its use. Appertently you have never had to make decisions of this nature or been unlucky enough to find find yourself in such a position where such decisions were nessessary. Make no mistake, I am intemently aware of the dangers and the consequences of the unsafe use of highly flamibile fuels and Do Not suggest them lightly. They are an extreme emergency fuel consideration ONLY and should never be considered for normal use. I appreciate your comment and concern but I also presume that the majority of readers here have the common sense to make the right decisions for the right reasons. The heat solution discussed here its and should be considered first and formost an emergency action and not an everyday solution by any means.

  6. I would also point out that at places like Harbor Freight Tools you can get pocket size Magnesium fire starter blocks for about $3 each. You can use one of them to start 100’s if not 1,000’s of fires. Magnesium powder will burn at several 1,000 degrees and start a fire on even very damp tender. Just scrape a little Magnesium dust off the large block onto your wet / damp tender and then run the supplied metal scraper down the flint to make a spark and ignite the Magnesium. It is extremely simple. I’ve got several of these fire starters scattered about for emergencies. This is the cheapest way to go for starting a fire in an emergency …. and you never ever have to worry about it not working.

  7. I use something very similar for about the same price and it is a heck of a lot easier to get… its called “STERNO”! It comes in a full metal can, it is very cheap and in a gel form so you don’t have to worry as much about knocking it over & spilling it. Spilling liquid alcohol could cause a massive virtually invisible fire inside your tent or other shelter.

  8. Regarding comment number 7, gasoline should never be used to start a fire under any circumstances, even in an emergency. It will cause an emergency and you will be a burn victim if you survive. Ask anyone who has ever done it to show you their scars, or ask any burn ward doctor or nurse.

  9. Another good fire starter is ChapStick or another similar lipbalm, also hand sanitizer since most are alcohol based.

  10. To the question of “use in a confined place . . . ” ANY!, ANY, open flame in an enclosed space is dangerous if there isn’t a proper fresh air supply and a proper exhaust for it. THIS IS COMMON SENSE. So if your going to use this device consider HOW and WHERE your going to use it and do it SAFELY!
    In consideration of “Be Prepared” and the perceived value of TP in the field, I would offer this solution to both. As the TP is really nothing more than a wick in this project and has other rather . . . Important . . . uses! Give this a try. . . Go into your rag bag or even to you local thrift store and pull out and tarry cloth bath towels . I would think two or three should do it. Cut them leant wise in 4″ strips and roll the strips together until they fit snugly in the bottom of a 1lb coffee can. . . . .. now put your TB back in the zip lock bag to keep it dry and for its . . . proper use. This also makes for a longer term wick then a roll of TP anywho!
    So. . .be safe, use your common sense, and only use that TP for “other” uses only if you need to! After all, it is worth its weight in gold!

  11. Question how safe is this in regards to dangerous toxic fumes. If used in a small confined space. Please I’m only asking about carbon monoxide fumes or any fumes that could kill you in a confined space. I understand open air is safer for all fires.

  12. I’m sorry but, TP is worth it’s weight in gold. I would almost rather use anything else to burn. There’s a lot of other stuff in the wild you can burn, even when everything is wet. Also, the high-% alcohol has many other uses and so is probably a better choice than other types of accelerant.

  13. This is actually known as a “Poppa Bear Stove”. I’ve been using them for years…mostly for car camping when night temps dip below 40°F/5°C. However, I keep them handy (both in my vehicle and home) for emergency use. They work well in small confined spaces, but not to heat up large rooms. Cooking with one is a near impossible frustrating chore at best.

    All it is is a roll of TP paper, with the cardboard insert taken out, stuffed inside a 1 qt coffee can or a new unused 1 qt. paint can from Home Depot, a hardware store, or such. I like the paint can option the best because of the metal air tight lid which avoids evaporation and deterioration of the plastic coffe can lid from the alcohol (also keeps the can from rusting out fast).

    I burn 70% unscented isopropyl alcohol in it. You can burn 70-90% alcohol, but 90% will burn near invisible and it is hard to tell if it is out. 50% alcohol is NG…too much water.

    Don’t ever pour alcohol into hot cans. Rotate them and let them cool off first.

    I put 2 inside a spare GI .50 cal ammo can (and burn them in the ammo can, just in case of a spill…alternating the burns one at a time) and take several bottles of cheap alcohol. The ammo can also will warm and radiate the heat, but not get so hot as to present a major fire/melting danger. I also place the can on an insulating surface for use (like a small cutting board or such) as additional precaution (especially if used in a tent or potentially easily flamable location).

    You can burn this in an inclosed space without fear of carbon monoxide poisoning. They are not meant to be burned continuously through a night as a major heat source, but rather to take the chill out of a tent (or other small enclosed space) for creating comfortable temps to change in and out of clothes, getting set for crawling into your sleeping bag and to stave off hypothermia. They will keep your pretty toasty inside a snow shelter. I’ve used these while car camping in Yellowstone in early May (below freezing temps at night, in 3 feet of snow)…they made a big difference in comfort levels.

    Here’s a video demo:

  14. back in the days of the boyscouts, before it was the more…liberal organization then it just became, I learned a similar trick. This provides heat and light but you have to make it before you go, hence the “Be Prepared” motto. it became a purposed tool rather then then the multi purpose toilet paper, metal can and Tp. Anyway, take corrugated cardboard cut into strips 1/4-1/2″ in width then the height of a shallow can, say a tuna can. roll the cardboard up tight and completely fill the tuna can with the rolled up cardboard. now pour melted paraffin over the cardboard, let it soak in as much as possible, the more paraffin the better as it acts as the fuel and the cardboard acts as the wick. after it cools and solidifies you can carry it with you anywhere, it takes up little room and when lit provides about 3-4 hours of heat and light.

  15. Excellent idea. The only question I have is about the fumes given off. Are they hazardous? Is this fire method useable inside a closed tent with the limited ventilation that implies?

  16. Good idea. Just a word of warning though to anyone who is not familiar with alcohol fires, be extremely careful! When alcohol burns it can be almost invisible in the daylight.

  17. In our Army life support equipment we were issued a small medical kit, and matches along with other equipment. I was taught to use the petroleun jelly soaked bandages to use to start a fire in an emergency. You can even wrap the bangage around a stick to make a torch…

    Worth considering

  18. Years ago before so many nice portabl heateers were available I made a heater fro my deer blind, I carried a large can of “Sterno” with me and I used a Metal coffee can, I used the church key and made multiple holes along the side of the bottom of the can, 6 or 8 would do, and I also made holes around the top in the “side ” of the can as well, I would remove the ,id from the sterno can and light it then invert the coffee or similar prepared as mentioned can over the sterno can and it made a OK heateer for those cold mornings iin my deer blind, in addition I could pour coffee from my thermos as it got cold into a small clean bean can and set on top of the heater to reheat my coffee. If you were ready to leave the blind before the sterno was burned up then simply replace the lid on the sterno and snuff it out, be sure and carry some small pliers to handle the hot cans, I used a offset pair like channellocks to accomodate easier pouring of my coffee from the can into my coffee cup, in those days I could just afford the sterno and the coffee, the resst were free from the trash at home, worked pretty good and the venison fed us lots of meals.

  19. Doesn’t everyone always carry an empty coffee can, a spare full roll of TP, and a quart of rubbing alcohol when they are backpacking? Why, I always do! And I never knew why! till now… LOL!

    If you are car camping, and you get too cold and wet, you just get in the car and run the heater for a while.

  20. This works great with 70% or higher alcohol percentage ,, but often these days Rubbing Alcohol is only %50,,, so look and pay attention and get the higher content alcohol,, most store offer both low and high % percentages bottles.

  21. Just a couple of additional suggestions . . .
    Take a large coffee can , 2 or 3 pound, and with a “church key” can opener put in 6 or 8 holes at the bottom SIDES of the can do the same at the top of the can but make it 10 to 12. Place the smaller can into the larger and proceed as so well detailed above. You ma wish to place several rock a or the like between the two cans to keep the smaller one centered in the larger. In effect you now have a small single burner camp stove on which you may set a pan while cooking.
    Also if you have the cut out top of the larger can or a second can to get a top from, take a pair of tin snips and cut it into a shape that can sit on the top of the small can without cutting the air supply and you will capture a greater amount of heat.
    Also, get isopropyl Alcohol in the highest % ratting you can! Best if between 91 an 99%! Wood Alcohol, White gas, and even regular gas in an emergency will work but be VERY careful and EXTRA safe with these flammable liquids!!!!

    As an add . . . If your trying to start wet wood . . . . Take a Tuna can put about fall an inch of gas in it an put it into the center of the fire pit. Place a Loose pile of small and medium kindling around and over the can then light. You will have a good fire in short order!

    Be safe out there!

  22. I used to hike and camp with a man who was both a mountain climber and a timber cruiser, as well as an inveterate hiker, and later an attorney.

    When he expected to be out for an extended basis and would need to make coffee/tea, or heat food, he would take an old paper bag and a couple of clean tin cans. He favored the larger canned fruit can instead of the “number 10” can for beans, vegetables, etc. He would poke a couple holes, one on each side, near the top and make a bail out of bailing wire. Do not use plastic coated copper wire for obvious reasons.

    A forked stick will let you lift the can out of the fire. No need for a set of tools. A leatherman tool or pair of pliers work, too.

    Aluminum cans do not work, for obvious reasons. As to aluminum cans, they will not dissolve or rust out in a short time like steel cans. Aluminum cans last almost forever and should not generally be carried in the woods unless you intend to carry them out. Aluminum cans also do not heat well unless completely full of water at all times.

    He could boil water, or heat a can of food using a very small, almost smokeless fire, very quickly. He could even use a smaller can nested in water in the bigger can to make a crude double boiler. He would use his double boiler arrangement to cook his can of food and afterwards, use the water in the double boiler to make coffee or tea. The can containing the food would be burned out afterwards in the fire and crushed. If you use the right twigs, there is virtually no smoke and no small embers floating on the rising hot air to fall back in your food or tea. You have to use a small, concentrated fire. Beware of fuel that has bark left on it. The bark is what causes the embers and “floaters” that end up in your food or tea/coffee.

    It necessitated carrying cans of food, or you could just heat water and use it to make a meal out of freeze dried pouches for longer trips. When we started freeze dried food had not yet been invented and so we carried canned food. It usually contained some water and made for reduced carrying of drinking water or boiling stream water. Still it was weight to carry.

    He used a shallow pit, only slightly larger than the can and used small, dead branches and twigs. They burned very fast but hot. Small fuel is easier to ignite than larger diameter fuel. Further, it was easy in the forest to pick up an inexhaustible supply in a matter of minutes. No wood to cut, no wood cutting tools to carry and you just break the fuel between your hands. No fuel bigger than a 1/4 inch was necessary.

    If you choose to break dead branches off a tree, always remember to break the branch upward, toward the top of the tree and never down towards the ground. Breaking upward breaks the branch off close to the tree truck and does not leave sharp projections to poke holes in you or anyone else. Try it if you do not believe me.

    When done, the last morning, make a bigger fire and throw the now empty cans on it. Get them hot and either let the fire burn down as your prepare to break camp or pull the burnt cans out of the fire with a branch. If you used the right, small fuel, the fire will burn out quickly. When the cans are cool, crush them and bury them in the last fire pit. Once burned at high heat, and crushed, the steel cans rust out quickly.

    Small fires in a shallow pit reduce the danger of a forest fire and are infinitely easier to control. A small pit can be dug with a knife or even “kicked out” with a boot. Still, we always had a used GI entrenching tool with us. One was enough and it served a number of purposes besides digging the very small fire pit.

    If things go wrong, you can either just brush dirt on the fire to extinguish it, or, in a bad situation, you can even stomp it out with out much damage if you are wearing heavy 10″ hiking boots. Remember, it is supposed to be a very small fire. Since the fire is small, the heat is concentrated and easily extinguished. Also, if you took the folding entrenching tool, it was more than enough tool to put the fire out quickly. Also, a small fire of dead wood doesn’t throw off a lot of embers and doesn’t “pre-heat” the surrounding area.

    When out for several days, after each use to prepare food, make tea or coffee to clean the can, if you cooked in the main can instead of using the double boiler method. When done, let the food can cool and put it in the paper bag for transport to keep your pack clean. Any pitch/soot on the can from your fire stayed in the paper bag and not your pack. Usually, there was very little pitch or soot on the can if you made the fire right. With a bit of moderate care, a paper bag will easily last a week or two.

    We would elk hunt and go for 10 to 12 days with no other cooking gear than a big spoon and our cans. Further, when done, no mess to carry out. No dishes to clean. Of course, each person uses only his/her own cans. Costs virtually nothing.

    Takes a very small fire. No smoke and no visible flame more than a few feet from the fire.

    Most healthy coniferous trees have dead branches low enough down to reach, especially if you are in a fairly young lodge pole forest. Those small, dead branches are usually dry, even in a downpour, and can be broken off to make your cooking fire even if all the wood on the ground is wet. Using small fuel means it often lights with just a match and no need for any fire starter.

    Advantages are a minimum of tools, minimum of expense and minimum of fuss. Did it for years. Craig, my friend, did most all of the Pacific Crest trail with arranged canned food drops about every 200 miles or so. He even climbed Everest once with his father, who taught him everything he knew.


  23. A good idea that works, buuuut… here’s an improvement, go to Home Depot, Lowes, etc. and get an empty gallon paint can that they mix paint in for this, then you’ll have a handle and a metal lid to snuff the fire with.
    (I didn’t always have a propane heater in the deer blind)

  24. I love this tip, and I think I’ ll buy a small cooking pot to
    Keep in the emergency bucket with the TP / alchohol.
    I kept the alchohol bottles for itheir medicinal value, and it’s good
    to have other use for it. Thanks for the tip!

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