Do It Yourself

How to Make Gel Fuel: Staying Warm in The Wild

How to Make Gel Fuel
David Dawson
Written by David Dawson

Fire is one of the most essential things that you’ll need when you’re out in the wild. Not only does it provide warmth and comfort to raise your spirits, but it’s also an excellent tool in food preparation, especially if you plan on maintaining protein in your diet. Learning to start a fire on your own can be a bit tricky if you don’t bring a lighter, but there are other methods that you can use.

Rubbing two sticks together has always worked for many people, but the task itself can take a long time, and you may not always have the right conditions to get it to work. For tips and tricks on the best fire starters, see our link to this subject. However, if you learn how to make gel fuel, all of your problems will go away. This fuel starter is essential to have on all of your hiking trips, or if you just want to start a nice fire in your fireplace. Having DIY gel fuel will also save you a lot of money instead of having to purchase started fuel every time you need it.

What to know about gel fuels

Gel fuel is a recently new substance that is taking the camping world by storm. It’s mostly because of how easy it is to make and use, and that it can be stored for a long period of time, allowing you to prepare for any trip properly.

It is an alcohol-based product that doesn’t give off any smoke or noxious fumes that could end up being hazardous to your health. This makes it an excellent source of fire that you can use, even inside your tent if it’s incredibly cold outside.

Gel fuel

And a fire can provide a sense of comfort, especially when the weather is bad and you need a pick me up. A positive attitude can make the difference between survival and giving up, and a nice warm fire may be exactly what you need. See our earlier article on popular and unusual methods of starting a fire to help you.

Be aware that there are commercial containers of gel fuel that you can purchase, but this is more about making your own gel fuel so that you can have your own steady and reliable source of fuel for your fires. One of the best things about gel fuel is that it can be made safely in the comfort of your own home. There’s no need for any fancy equipment, special tools, or a lot of ingredients that you’ll need to purchase in order to make your own gel fuel.

Above is a video explaining exactly what gel fuel is.

DIY gel fuel – different ways to make it

There are several different ways to make gel fuel from the ingredients you already have at home, as well as a few that you can buy from the store. Either way, the basics of gel fuel requires two main ingredients: an incendiary component and a gelling agent.

Make gel fuel with soy wax

Soy wax can be found in candle making stores, and comes in small round pellets. They actually melt quite easily in response to heat and will help in keeping your fire going.

Make gel fuel with soy wax

First you’ll need to add six ounces of soy wax to a pan and then add 1/2 a cup of isopropyl alcohol (70-99%). Stir them together until they are completely combined. Then, pour the mixture into several cans (soup cans or pet food cans work best) and place a wick that touches the bottom, inside the mixture. Then place them in the fridge overnight so that they can harden. If you’d like to make a bigger supply, then simply scale up the amounts proportionately.

How to make gel fuel with calcium acetate

This method is more preferred, as the resulted fuel lasts much longer and it is easier to make on your own instead of buying supplies. You can choose to purchase calcium acetate or you can make it yourself.

Make gel fuel with calcium acetate

To make the calcium acetate, you’ll need calcium carbonate (chalk), and white vinegar (acetic acid).  Combine four parts of vinegar with one part chalk, but beware that the resulting smell will be like rotten eggs, so its’ best you do this in a well-ventilated area.

Once the mixture has settled, you’ll have a solid left on the bottom and a liquid on top, which is used in part of making the gel fuel. Evaporate at least one half to two-thirds of the water out of the solution by allowing it to sit in the sun or cooking it on low fire. If you can’t wait that long, then it can be strained through a coffee filter or other porous material.

In order to make the gel fuel, you’ll need to combine nine parts of the isopropyl alcohol with one part calcium acetate. Mix them together until they start to gel and then pour the mixture into several cans. You want to add 1 part water for every 3 parts of calcium acetate.

Here are two helpful videos to show you how to make gel fuel using calcium acetate:

How to make gel fuel using hand sanitizer

If you want an even easier way of making your gel fuel, hand sanitizer is high in alcohol and will burn just as well. Hand sanitizer is also relatively cheap, so it’s a good alternative to use if you can’t get your hands on the other materials listed above.

Here are two videos on making your own gel fuel using hand sanitizer:

How to make gel fuel using rubbing alcohol, vinegar and antacid

Instead of going out and buying materials that you need, why not look in your own cupboards? You may already have vinegar, rubbing alcohol and antacids in your home, and they can substitute for the acetic acid and calcium carbonate.

This is definitely the best method to use if you’re in a pinch and really need to make some gel fuel quickly.

Above is a helpful video detailing the process of how to make gel fuel out of these materials.

The benefits of gel fuel

Gel fuel is a perfect replacement for fire or wood when you want your fire to burn clean and without leaving any residue behind. These pros of gel fuel may convince you to convert to this fuel source, especially if you’re considering backpacking or hiking out in nature.

  • It is one of the greenest fuels that you can use to start your fire. Actually more so than burning wood or gas. It causes less harm to the environment, as there are no harmful fumes for you to inhale or leaving a residue on the inside of your chimney. The ingredients in the fuel are also made from renewable products, so you’re not depleting any natural resources.
  • It is safe to use inside apartments as well. Apartments don’t really have fireplaces of their own, and it doesn’t hurt to have a little extra warmth during the winter season. Gel fuel doesn’t require venting of any kind because it’s so safe to use within confined areas. In fact, it’s just as safe as burning a candle. And because it doesn’t leave any residue behind, the containers you keep the gel fuel in can be used over and over again.
  • A fire started using gel fuel is very low maintenance. It doesn’t create any ash that needs to be cleaned up and burns steadily for a long period of time. Wood fires typically require adding more wood and turning the logs over in order to get the maximum burn, but gel fire is much easier to use.
  • It doesn’t splash when you knock it over. This makes it extremely safe to use just about anywhere, as you don’t have to worry about your immediate surroundings catching on fire. And if you’re camping in the woods, there’s very little chance of a forest fire starting.
  • It can last forever as long as it’s stored properly. Keep it away from heat, direct sunlight, and moisture and you have a source of fuel that you can use whenever you need it.
  • It is more cost effective than other types of burning material. The cost of getting the materials to make your own gel fuel is outweighed by how much gel fuel can be created. Many of the ingredients in making your own gel fuel are probably already in your home.
  • The fires are very portable, which can be necessary if you’re moving around at night. A stationary fire can make it difficult for you to see the things around you, but if you have a gel fuel fire burning in a container, then you can take it with you wherever you need to go.
  • There’s no special way to out a gel fire. Like regular wood fires, you have to cover them with sand or dirt in order to ensure that they’re really out, but for a gel fire, all you have to do is put the lid on and it outs itself. Then when you’re ready to use, simply light the fuel again.
  • You’ll save a lot of arm work trying to start a fire on your own, using just wood. The wood may be damp, still green, or there are weather elements that make it difficult to light. But gel fuel will always light 100% of the time, as long as it’s been stored properly.

The disadvantages of gel fuel

Although gel fuel is great, there are some things to consider when using it as a main source of fuel.

Keep in mind, however, that these are simply cons that you should beware of. They are still outweighed by the wonderful benefits that gel fuel can provide.

  • Despite it being easy to use, it has a very low heat output. The fire can look nice and add a great look to your camping site, but it’s not going to produce a lot of heat. However, it’s the equivalent of a small electric heater, which is enough for most people. It may take a little longer to heat up a quick meal over the flame, but a warm dinner is better than a cold one.
  • Gel fuel itself does burn very quickly, so in order to keep a steady fire going, you’re going to need to refuel on a regular basis if you don’t want your fire to die out. One can or can-sized container can last about two to three hours, so structuring your schedule around this time in order to maximize the use of your fire is best.
  • The burning of gel fuel does create water vapor in the air, which can make it more humid. This is really only problematic if you’re burning gel fuel within your tent, but otherwise, isn’t much of a deterrent for use.

Knowing how to make your own gel fuel can help you be more reliable and keep more money in your pocket, especially when you’re preparing to be in the outdoors for an extended period of time. You can put that money towards more dried foods to carry with you and better camping equipment in order to make your experience more enjoyable.

Infogaphic about refilling explosion

Having your own gel fuel also keeps you prepared in case of emergencies, when the power is gone and you need some way of getting around in the dark in your home, or even keeping warm for a few hours. It’s easy to make, and you can make as much as you need or larger quantities so that you can store it for future use.

Either way, it doesn’t require that you have a chemistry degree in order to make your own gel fuel, as long as you exercise caution during its preparation. And, as always, be as careful as you would with any open flame when you’re burning your gel fuel. Just because it’s relatively safer than other fuels doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t exercise caution, so take care with it at all times.

To give you more options, see our article on how to make your own biofuel.

About the Author
David Dawson
David Dawson

David Dawson is a retired security specialist with over 20 years of experience. He worked for a secret manufacturing facilities and hospitals in Illinois. David's responsibility was to protect people in case of any disaster or cataclysm that might occur. Now he keeps on doing it through teaching others about how to prepare and survive flood, earthquake or even war.

  • Isabel Jackson

    works best in my fire place and can keep you warm for about 2 to 3 hours! hassle free and crackle like real logs. These are great but maybe they can innovate though, i let it still for 20 minutes because it’s inducing strong scents upon opening.

  • Chris Michaels

    Great article!
    I had a bit of trouble when I tried to make some calcium-acetate for a gelling agent. Would lime (90 percent calcium-acetate) work?

  • Ralph Rodgers

    Very informative. Is it possible to make a little gel fuel burner too? I would like to have something that lasts a while during long winter nights when I am camping. Fire tends to go down, and it can get quite chilly, even in a good sleeping bag.

  • The best you can do is burn off gel fuel in a can.

  • hb

    Thanks so much for this post!! It was awesome! Can I use calcium acetate, instead of the first step of mixing the calcium carbonate with the vinegar?

  • David Dawson

    Yes, you can use calcium acetate when preparing gel fuel. Instead of buying calcium acetate from the store, you can make some. You will need isopropyl alcohol, vinegar, and crushed chalk.

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