A liter of nearly pure ethanol in a wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle weighs about two pounds in your backpack. Beyond what I need to stay alive—essentials like shelter, good boots and basic nutrition—I can think of nothing else that weighs two pounds and provides as much utility and joy as a supply of grain alcohol. Whether you know it as pure alcohol, Graves, Everclear, Grain, C2H6O or Ethanol, here are the top four reasons you should keep a liter of this clear and versatile jet fuel in your pack.
1) Ethanol burns
Forget about tinder. Its time to put the blue flame to work. Splash this spirit on some kindling, add a spark, sit back and enjoy your lazy man's fire. This stuff burns hot! Experience has taught me that giving the ethanol something to soak into will increase its effectiveness as a fire starter. Try using toilet paper, food packaging, or even some dry moss so that will absorb your supply of precious fire nectar. Also remember, heat goes up, so add your secret sauce to the bottom of your fire before you light it. Words of caution: Do not keep your open container of ethanol near your fire; it is, after all, flammable.
2) Ethanol is a solvent
Ethanol is great at dissolving grime. Cut it with some water and use it as a powerful cleaner for removing food stains, oil, grease and tar. And when you yourself become dirty? No problem—this is the stuff they put in wet wipes! It will get the oil off your skin and out of your hair. As far as cleaning products go, it is as environmentally friendly as they get. I promise, the fish won't mind a little booze in the pool.
3) Ethanol is an antiseptic and disinfectant
Admit it, you smell. But fear not, there's an angry 800-pound gorilla in this bottle just waiting to stomp all over your microbial stank. Anyone who’s ever woken up with a hangover knows that ethanol is downright toxic. It’s time to use this to your advantage for once. Instead of giving you a lesson in personal hygiene—I'm not going to tell you where to rub—just know that a little diluted ethanol on a cloth will freshen what needs freshening. (Warning, it might sting a little.)
Speaking of stinging, a little ethanol can help sterilize a wound—just dab some on a cut before you bandage yourself up. And diluted ethanol is the main ingredient in most mouthwashes, so don't hesitate to swish and gargle. Finally, you can sterilize your spork, water bottle, knife or even your socks with a little undiluted grain.
4) You can drink it*
When I'm hiking in the middle of nowhere I can do without roofs, beds, showers, shaving, brushing my teeth and changing my underwear...but to forgo happy hour? That would be barbaric. I am of the mind that a good cocktail makes the world a more civilized place. My personal recipe calls for one part Graves to three parts water, and add a few squirts of Mio Energy—a colorful, super-concentrated artificial sweetener that can be bought in most any grocery store. Then just shake, pour if you have a camp cup, and enjoy your ultralight camp cocktail And because it's so easy to pack, it's also easy to share with camping companions, or for making new friends. A couple squirts of Mio, plus some snow if you're winter camping, and voila—your'e a backwoods barkeep. Everyone will respect you for being such a diligent, motivated and practical person—the kind of person who makes camping a civilized affair.
*Disclaimer: Alcoholic beverages are to be consumed by campers over 21 years of age ONLY. At 190-proof, grain alcohol is more than twice as strong as standard 80-proof vodka, and should be imbibed with caution. Over-indulgence can be extremely dangerous.