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What Is a Hobo Stove? (And How To Make One)

A hobo stove is an improvised oven typically created by cutting open a tin can with very specific cuts. Once the cuts have been made, flammable materials are added to the bottom of the can and lit on fire. The can acts as a miniature stove eye. 

Read on to discover more about what a hobo stove is. We’ll also answer common questions about them and discuss how to make one for yourself. This article will be packed full of valuable information, so let’s get started. 

A hobo stove with a fire and a pot on top

Everything You Need To Know About Hobo Stoves

Hobo stoves have been around for a long time – even before they became popular. For years, those without access to normal appliances, such as travelers or people who live off-grid, have been using hobo stoves to heat their food

Hobo stoves were a major innovation when they first began to be seen. After all, no one wants to eat all their food cold. While many of us are used to the warm comforts of a traditional home, thousands of people don’t have this. For these people, innovations such as hobo stoves are a lifesaver. 

While referred to as “stoves,” these contraptions aren’t actually any type of stove. Instead, they are most closely related to a modified miniature campfire. A hobo stove utilizes what many people consider trash to heat food that would otherwise be left disgustingly chilled. 

What They Are Made Of

Hobo stoves are made out of various materials. The main thing is to ensure that the material used is flame retardant. Otherwise, your stove will melt. Not only will you have undercooked food. You will also have a massive mess to clean up afterward. 

Most of the time, hobo stoves are made from leftover food cans or paint cans. This is because the metal won’t melt once the fire below has been lit. Larger hobo stoves can also be made with metal barrels and grates.

We’ll go deep into this when we talk about building your hobo stove.

How Hobo Stoves Work

Hobo stoves work by allowing air to be drawn up from the bottom of the stove. This air continuously fuels the fire burning below and sends heat toward the top of the stove. This heat cooks your food in the same way a gas oven may cook. 

To use a hobo stove, you’ll still need other cooking utensils, such as a frying pan. While you can place food directly on the stove, it’s not a good idea for many reasons – the primary being a lack of sanitation. The exception to this is if you use a grate for cooking, such as in the case of a larger hobo stove. This is similar to cooking on a grill.

To read more about preparing food outdoors, I wrote an article called What’s the Best Way To Prepare Food in a Survival Situation if you want to check it out.

Are Hobo Stoves Safe? 

Hobo stoves are relatively safe when caution is used. Anytime you are handling fire, certain safety measures should be implemented. However, using a hobo stove is equally as safe as building a campfire or similar. 

The main safety concerns with hobo stoves come from the number of jagged edges the cans typically present. The other main safety concern is lighting the fire and going through the cooking process. 

As with any flammable item, keeping other materials out of the way when they are in use is important. You should also use gloves when cutting open your cans. It’s enormously easy to slice open your hand while cutting these cans.

The safest way to use the hobo stove is to place it on a metal table, concrete slab, or another similar non-flammable material. The largest danger in using the stove is that other surrounding areas can easily catch fire if the ground is too dry. Placing the hobo stove on a non-flammable surface will prevent this most of the time. 

How Do You Cook on a Hobo Stove?

Cooking on a hobo stove is similar to cooking on a gas stovetop, except that there is typically a lid on top of the hobo stove. Once you have a fire started, you’ll simply place your frying pan or pot on the top of the lid and allow the heat to do its job. 

Top view of a hobo stove with a fire and a pot on top

We’ll discuss this more when we get into how to make a hobo stove, but here are the basics of cooking on a hobo stove.

Getting the Fire Going

The first thing that you’ll do is place your materials and light the stove. You’ll do this by lighting the materials below on fire. It always helps to have an additional fuel source, such as excess dry twigs or even something easily flammable such as lighter fluid. 

You want to get a pretty good fire going before attempting to heat anything. As with any fire, it takes time to build up enough heat.

Cooking on the Stove

You have a couple of options for cooking on a hobo stove. In most cases, you’ll place a vented metal lid on the top of the can and place your pot or frying pan on top. You also have the option of building a grate on the top of the can.

In either case, you’ll want to ensure that the top surface is prepared ahead of time and that the fire is burning well. Once this takes place, it’s time to add your food

You’ll use the hobo stove the same way you would another stovetop – waiting patiently and stirring along the way. However, remember that hobo stoves don’t have heat control. You will be cooking on an open fire, and this can take some practice and trial and error to do the right way.

Most people burn their food at least once when first starting out cooking on a hobo stove, but with a little practice, you’ll soon be a hobo stove pro.

To help people cook better outdoors, we wrote an article called How to Steam Food On a Campfire | A Simple Guide. You may want to check it out.

How Do You Put Meat on a Hobo Stove? 

There are a couple of options for placing meat on a hobo stove. The best way to cook meat on a hobo stove is to treat it like a grill. This works best when you’re cooking on a larger hobo stove that has been made to allow room for a metal grate on the top. 

To cook meat this way, you’ll simply place the meat directly on top of the grate and allow the fire to move through – thus cooking the meat in a similar way that a gas grill does. This is the quickest way to cook meat, giving it the signature charred flavor so often experienced by meat fresh off a grill. 

Another option is to cook the meat in a frying pan. In this case, you’ll want a lid on the hobo stove. Place the frying pan on the hobo stove and allow the meat to cook like on a gas stove top. Just remember that you won’t be able to control the temperature the same way we discussed. 

Can You Smoke Meat on a Hobo Stove? 

You can smoke meat on a hobo stove, but you’ll typically need other materials to assist in the smoking process. One of the easiest ways to smoke meat is to place it on a rack over the hobo stove and create a teepee structure above it. 

While smoking meat on a hobo stove can be done, getting everything set up correctly is often a challenge. It will also take quite a bit of practice to get to the point where you smoke the meat completely. 

Check out this video if you want to know more about how the smoking process could happen on a hobo stove. 

How To Make a Hobo Stove

How to make a hobo stove will vary slightly depending on what materials you have available. In general, however, it’s the same basic process. 

There are different types of hobo stoves, ranging from very basic hobo stoves to fairly advanced ones, including ash catchers and air dampers. There’s also a range of sizes of hobo stoves. You can make them in a can as small as a tuna can up to about half the size of a normal oven.

Let’s look at how you can make a basic hobo stove. 

How To Make a Basic Hobo Stove

Making a hobo stove might sound complicated, but it’s actually a pretty easy process, especially to make a basic one. This will be a demonstration of how to make a hobo stove from a normal-sized can. 

A can opener just starting to open a can with no label

There are two ways to go about making a basic hobo stove. Each will work, but it’s really up to you which method is most simple for you to do. 

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine how you want to set your can. The top of the can will be open. Traditionally, hobo stoves are made with the top of the can upwards so they can stand right side up. However, evidence shows that it’s significantly easier to create a door if you turn your can upside down.

How you turn the can is ultimately up to you. You should try it out both ways and see what works best, but keep a few things in mind. 

  • Keeping your hobo stove stable will be easier if you place the top of the can facing upwards.
  • Cutting the door in the can will be easier if you put the top facing downwards. 
  • It will be easier to start a fire if you put the top of the can facing downwards. 
  • The bottom of the can will catch additional ashes if you are in a public place if you place the can right side up. 

How you’ve decided to place your can will determine your next step. If you’ve placed the bottom of the can upwards, you’ll need to take the additional step of ensuring that flames can get through the top. In this case, you’ll want to cut additional large holes in the top of the can. 

If you’ve chosen to flip your can, there won’t be a need to do this since the top will already be open. 

No matter how you’ve chosen to turn your can, you’ll want to ensure that you place air vents throughout the can. Hobo stoves allow air to cycle through and push the fire upwards. You’ll want to have a significant amount of air vents throughout the can’s top and bottom. 

The final step is to cut the door in your can. This can be done with wire cutters or sometimes with a heavy-duty pair of scissors. Make sure the door is big enough to stuff materials in without slicing your hand open. 

The door matters less if you’ve placed the top of the can downwards, but it’s necessary in either case. 

That’s it! You now have a basic hobo stove. Now let’s talk about a more advanced version.

Making an Advanced Hobo Stove

An advanced hobo stove typically requires two separate cans, but you’ll always start with creating a basic hobo stove ahead of time.  

We aren’t going to go into great detail about how to create an advanced hobo stove, but I want to cover a couple of key details.

  • Usually, the bottom can of an advanced hobo stove serves as an ash stand. This will require some extra cutting away from the can. 
  • The second can be made with a damper, allowing you to control how much air goes through the cans. This can act as a flame control for your hobo stove to some degree.

For more information about how to design an advanced hobo stove, check out this article written by our friends over at primalsurvivor.net, which contains instructions and drawings of each design. 

A small hobo stove made from a soup can

Final Thoughts

Hobo stoves are a great way to cook food if you are traveling or don’t have access to a regular stove. They can be dangerous if you’re new to using them, but generally, if you exercise caution, they are overall safe and easy to use. 

Making your own hobo stove is a fairly simple process as long as you have a few materials available – usually a tin can of some sort, flammable materials, and wire cutters.

For more, check out What’s the Best Way To Prepare Food in a Survival Situation?