Are You Really Prepared For Grid-Down Cooking?

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It’s not always easy deciding on the best alternative cooking device.  There is a lot that needs to be considered, such as whether portability is important to your circumstances, and if cooking odors need to be considered if you live in an urban location.  There’s always the issue of fuel, and as discussed in an earlier post, Why You Can’t Depend Upon Natural Gas To Heat Or Cook With.

So, today we’re going to hit the problem from both angles…and give you ideas on both “stuff” you might want to have on hand for cooking after the lights go out as well as some high leverage TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) from David that you can use, regardless of what gear you’ve got.  

Let’s start with gear.

Many alternative cooking devices such as camp stoves are dependent upon a fuel source, so although they’re handy, easy to operate and affordable, it can leave people preparing for a potential disaster with a nagging feeling that a crisis could outlast fuel reserves.

The same nagging question applies when running a generator to power an electric range. . . will the fuel last?

(David’s note:  Please, please, PLEASE don’t even consider cooking with an electric range if you’re running on anything other than grid power.  I can’t definitively say the numbers, but am quite confident in saying that you’d be better off putting fuel in an alcohol burner or a multi-fuel stove than putting it in a generator and using the generator to power an electric burner.)

Let’s start with the “master of the obvious” option.  An outdoor fire pit is one solution, but if you live in a dense population where firing up a pot of beans could easily draw unwelcome visitors, this approach may not be the best solution.   

Luckily, the first three cooking alternatives listed below are affordable and reliable and will see you through a protracted crisis, no matter how long it may last.   

Rocket Stoves will burn wood, biomass or charcoal and are extremely efficient.  My favorite is the EcoZoom Versa.  It’s rugged, and it emits very little smoke (and you won’t be announcing mealtime to strangers),  and as long as you have good ventilation, you will be able to use it indoors.  This is a serious stove that uses refractory metal and incorporates a cast iron top in its design.  The cost is around $130 and  Amazon offers free shipping.  

Eco Zoom isn’t the only maker of rocket stoves.  Perhaps you have a particular favorite rocket stove you’d like to recommend?   The important thing about a wood/biomass burning rocket stove is not having to worry about your fuel supply should an emergency be long-lasting.  Plus, a rocket stove can heat a small area of a home or cabin (cordon off an area with floor-to-ceiling blankets to contain the heat).

If you like do-it-yourself projects check out How To Make A Rocket Stove that’s made from a metal coffee can.

Hobo Stoves are designed to burn charcoal, wood, or wood scraps.  They are not quite as fuel efficient as a rocket stove, but they are designed to be lightweight and portable–which makes them ideal for stowing in a backpack for emergency use. 

To make one yourself, check out  Mother Earth News, How to Make a Hobo Stove by Russ Mohney. 

Solar Ovens are portable and can reach temperatures of up to 400 degrees.  Provided  you live in an location that gets plenty of sunshine, they solve the problem of fuel. Another benefit of a solar oven is that they don’t generate high-level cooking odors that some other alternative cooking devices do.  Their drawback is the obvious need need for sunlight, meaning during cloudy or darker times, an alternative cooking method must be planned for. Their temperature is not easily controlled, so cooking with them takes practice and may require modifying recipes. 

You can build your own DIY solar oven. Visit Ivan’s Place article, Making A Solar Oven  

Camp Stoves can be as simple as a one-burner model, or as fancy as a Camp Chef with dual burners with a small oven– but they’re not cheap at around $176.00

Some camp stoves run on gel alcohol or hex blocks, some models use methanol, while other models   are pressurized and run on Coleman fuel, paraffin or even gasoline.  What camp stoves have in common is the need for a good supply of fuel, which in a short-term emergency does not pose a problem.  But if a crisis lasts for months, you’ll thank yourself if you plan ahead with a hobo stove, rocket stove or a solar oven backup.

Propane Stoves are popular with homesteaders and cabin owners who aren’t hooked up to the grid.  A large 300 to 500 gallon propane tank will last for months, a year, or more, depending on whether propane will also be used for heating and refrigeration.    

Wood-Burning Cook Stoves are popular with preppers who have a ready supply of trees nearby and  they are often the choice of preppers who plan to survive in place.  Some models of wood-burning cook stoves come with a water reservoir that will provide hot water for bathing and general cleanup.  A wood cook stove will heat a cabin or a portion of a larger home when a living/sleeping area is cordoned off with floor to ceiling blankets to keep in the heat they generate.   With a wood cook stove, it is also possible to do canning, but it will take practice.

The drawback to wood-burning cook stoves is the need to gather, haul and chop firewood and the smoke and cooking odors they generate.  Wood cook stoves must be vented outdoors and installed to code for insurance purposes. Unless you are comfortable with the idea of firing up a wood cook stove on a hundred degree summer day, you will want to have a cooking alternative in the summer months! 

Wood-Burning Heat Stoves can be used as an alternative cooking method with the use of a cast iron dutch oven when placed over hot coals. The top of the stove can be used to heat water and meals, and if you are interested in generating hot water, some wood-burning heat stoves come with water reservoirs. The negative of wood-burning cook stoves is no different than with wood-burning cook stoves; cooking or heating with wood requires the hard work of tree-feeling, hauling the wood, and chopping it, which is physically demanding. As already mentioned, store firewood out of sight.  A wood-burning heat stove is not your friend on hot days! Have a work-around for days when the mercury climbs.   

Fireplaces are not the most efficient way to heat a home, but if you add a wood-burning fireplace  insert, they suddenly become powerhouses. To cook in a fireplace, it’s easiest to use cast iron cookware placed over hot coals. The negatives have already been mentioned; the physical demands of gathering and chopping wood, the need for a reliable source of seasoned wood, the heat a fireplace generates on hot days, and the smoke and cooking odors that a fireplace generates. Firewood storage should be kept out of sight of passersby to avoid its being “liberated.”  

BBQ’s can be used as an alternative cooking method provided they aren’t used indoors! BBQ’s emit high levels of CO even when indoor spaces are properly ventilated. If you live in a rural location where the cooking smells and smoke coming from an outdoor  BBQ isn’t an issue, they can be used in a pinch. Be sure to set aside several filled back-up propane tanks.

A higher leverage approach to grid-down cooking (from David).

As we’ve talked about before, skills trump gear.  Gear’s great, and the recommendations given above are great, but skills based on solid tactics, techniques, and procedures will win out every time.  I’ve written in depth about the following techniques in the Journal Of Tactics And Preparedness, so I’m just going to touch on them here.

1.  For solar cooking, purpose built solar ovens are good, but satellite dishes covered in mylar or aluminum duct tape or a fresnel lens from a big screen TV will concentrate the sun’s energy and boil water INCREDIBLY fast.  As a bonus, there’s no smoke.  Get a roll of aluminum or mylar duct tape off of Amazon now so you’ve got it if you need it.

2.  I’ve written about enhanced Dakota Firepits in the Journal, but a regular Dakota firepit is a great stealth method of heating and cooking.


The hotter (and dryer) a fire is, the less visible smoke you’ll get.  This design traps the radiant heat from the fire and some of it reflects back, making the fire chamber quite hot.  As the smoke exits up through the throat, it sucks fresh air down the snorkel tube.  This air comes in with a certain amount of velocity which creates turbulence and gets O2 throughout the fire chamber.  The end result is hotter and more complete combustion and less visible smoke.

Want to increase the efficiency?  Line the pit with flat rocks.  Want to increase the efficiency exponentially?  Use the enhanced firepit design that I originally got from Ox that I shared with Journal subscribers >HERE<.

3.  Boil water instead of “cooking food”  When possible, boil water, take the water off your heat source, and heat your food in the water in a covered container.  You won’t get a “grilled” or “fried” taste, but you will limit your smell signature.  If you’re cooking meat this way, the smaller the pieces and the more surface area, the faster they’ll cook.

4.  Get Stoned.  Hot stoned, that is.  If you need to cook stuff longer than your pot of boiling water stays hot, one thing you can do instead of putting the pot back on the stove is to heat up stones and put them in the water to raise the temperature back up.

5.  Pressure.    If you’re at home and have a pressure cooker, use it.  The increased pressure will reduce cooking times and reduce your smell signature.

6.  Bury it.  Whether you’re cooking a pig for a luau, hobo cooking (cooking in enclosed aluminum foil), or Dutch oven cooking,  if you’re trying to do it in stealth mode, do it underground and let the dirt and other coverings absorb the smell and smoke.  In simplest terms, make your fire in a pit, get hot coals, put your food in, cover it up and let it cook.

For more information on smoking, check out our previous post, Smoking and Curing Wild Game, Fish and Fowl .

Have you decided which cooking alternative fits best with your needs, and did concerns over fuel supplies play a part in your decision?  What other alternative gear and TTPs do you have for cooking after the lights go out?  Please post your comments below.

God bless and stay safe,

David Morris and Survival Diva








  1. Pine Needle says:

    Just had a thought.
    If you have a rocket stove; between the inner and outer cans you have the sand and/or clay for insulation. You can dig a small hole into the sand and place a coal there. then bury the coal.
    Alternative is to leave the coals in the bottom and find a way to seal the stove completely. Lid on top and lid on the side. aluminum foil and a rope or metal wire aound the circumference.
    You are going to take the stove with you anyway. Now it can do double duty. a hot coal/fire carrier

  2. Dave I disagree slightly on running a generator to power an electric range. If you need to use it to save the food in your refrigerator/freezer when the grid first goes down. But otherwise it probably not the best use of fuel

  3. left coast chuck says:

    One of the selling features of a lot of houses built in the ’60s in SoCal was a fireplace. Of course, everyone needs a fireplace here in SoCal where it was 85 today and predicted to be warmer tomorrow. In addition of burning wood, most of them had a gas connection so that gas logs could be burned. Wood was a lot more expensive than gas and probably still is here in SoCal. Of course, the fireplaces came with a real chimney. It seems to me cooking in the fireplace with the food odors going up the chimney might mask the location well enough that even starving folks might not find the location of the cooking, especially if one were using a rocket stove or hobo stove. I’m not talking about a roaring fire with smoke billowing out of the chimney sort of cooking fire. The top of my chimney is about 25 feet above grade and probably 30 5o 35 feet above street level. Some houses in the tract are even higher. I wouldn’t broil hamburgers but cooking something with a lid on might provide a variation on stuff heated by dropping it in hot water.

  4. Old-Timer in Florida says:

    I enjoy reading your articles and perusing the comments to pickup additional nuggets from others who have “been there, done that”.
    They are almost all added to my directories on various survival topics.

    Thank you

  5. Joseph-Lee Morehouse says:

    Good Article I have wood-burning cook stove with a water reservoir , firer pit , charcoal grill and a out-door adobe oven .I like the propane grill for a short term crisis but decided it not going to be worth much in the long term it won’t be sustainable and possible high cost to sustain.
    I have also stock pile used charcoal grills for bartering along with firer starting materials , paper , matches , flint, sulfide and potassium chlorate, cornstarch as a gumming agent.
    I am worried about firer wood stock piling space is limited , any ideals would be helpful . Thank you.

    • Survival Diva says:


      Hiding firewood isn’t going to be easy. The one thing that comes to mind is picking up an old shed and filling it with split firewood. Slapping a shed together with used plywood and 2 x 4’s from craigslist materials (you can sometimes find it for free on craigslist) would be another possibility. You’d need to check with your areas building codes/compliance to be sure a shed without a cement foundation/footings would be allowed first.

    These aren’t cheap, but I have one of the camp stoves and am getting the base camp next month – they are wonderful, use only twigs and really small wood, they have a rechargeable (by the heat generated in the stove) usb charger for whatever devices need recharging. A self-admitted geek, I’m also getting the biolite kettle charger for heating water and additional usb charging capability. The availability of twigs and small easy wood where I live is never-ending, no worries about chopping, splitting, and seasoning big wood.

  7. Mark Torrence says:

    Very good article. I agree that very few people in the US are even close to “prepared”. Sad but true. However I would be willing to bet that a LOT more people are prepared than others know.
    I think you might be surprised at how fast you run out of “fuel” for your rocket stove especially in an urban environment.
    It also seems to me you are leaving something out in relation to cooking with an electric stove. You say “David’s note: Please, please, PLEASE don’t even consider cooking with an electric range if you’re running on anything other than grid power.” What if you have your own “grid power”? The weight of water is an awesome and possibly endless renewable fuel supply. It’s all in the planning. You don’t even need to have it set up just have the critical parts and a plan. Of course those of you who are stuck in the city might have a little problem with that but those of us who are planning to shelter in place out in the boonies might have a little more chance.

    • Hey Mark,

      We’re on the same wavelength…we have year round running water. People who have hydro know that a lot of the normal off-grid rules don’t apply to them.

      For everyone else, it doesn’t make sense to use generator power to run a microwave in a long term power outage. We do it in our RV, but we wouldn’t do it if we had a long-term situation.

  8. left coast chuck says:

    In order to conserve matches, a hot coal carrier is very helpful. In colonial days it was a standard household item. You save them from the night before and use them to start the next day’s fire. If you are on the move, carrying hot coals can help start your fire without resorting to all sort of gyrations to get a fire started for the next day’s meal.

    • Survival Diva says:

      left coast chuck,
      Great tip. I did a little research and found the following on how it was done:

      An important task was the transportation of an ember to a new camp. It was from the glowing coal that the fires at a new campsite were ignited. The method for starting fires with flint and steel or the friction method of rubbing two sticks together were time-consuming so the communal fire was a necessary practice.

      Bison Horn Fire Carrier

      The naturally hollow bison bull horn was filled with punky wood into which an ember was placed. Such an ember could burn for over a week. The horn carrier was one of the first to lead the camp procession and he began the fire which was available to the village. Among the seven Sioux groups, each had their own fire horn carrier and thereby referred to themselves as the “Seven Council Fires” (rather than the word Sioux).

      • Old-Timer in Florida says:

        Interesting sidelight on the importance of the firecarriers in the native american culture:
        The person(s) given the responsibiity for maintaining the fire for the tribe were so important that one of the modern day Indian casinos in Michigan is named the ‘Firekeeper.’

        The tribe’s Firekeeper is revered still to this day.

      • Pine Needle says:

        What would be a good substitute (DIY or otherwise) for a bison horn fire carrier? How hot does the smoldering coal get? Does it require ANY oxygen? How often do you have to ‘feed’ it? What is ‘punk’ or ‘punky’ wood? Thanks.

        • Survival Diva says:

          Pine Needle,
          I ran across how to make what is called a “tinder bundle” a while back and wrote down the directions. I wished I would have included the site, but didn’t. I recall that it was difficult to find anything on this, as it appears to be a lost art. Disclaimer: I have never tried this, so I can’t vouch for it’s working, but the principal appears solid. You’ll want to practice it to make sure it’s a workable plan ahead of SHTF. Here’s what was advised:

          Tinder Bundle Instructions

          You’ll need:
          Semi-dry grass and leaves
          Flexible bark like that from birch or cedar
          Cordage/vine/thin green limb

          Roll the bark tightly around the grass and leaves, wrapping as tightly as possible. Keep it in place with cordage or a vine or a thin green limb. Place a coal from your fire in the end of the Tinder Bundle until the bundle starts to smoke. The bundle can then be carried and used to start the next fire.

          Note: It was advised that the bundle be made tight so it does not get too much oxygen because too much oxygen will cause the coal to burn too fast.

        • Of course there is cattle horn. (i.e. powder horns). I would avoid any that have been scraped to make them thinner (prettier) and light weight. Get one as it came from the “cow”. Also you might try your hand at making a horn out of tin but, it might let the ember cool to much and/or get to hot to handle.

        • Pine Needle
          ‘punk’ or ‘punky’ wood is wood that is so rotten that you can stick your knife blade up to handle with very little effort. Also you can usually break it up with just your fingers. You can char it like char cloth and it make a very hard to put out fire starter.

      • left coast chuck says:

        I tried to find a hot coal carrier on line but apparently they died out with the advent of gas and electric stoves. As I recall from pictures (I only look old enough to have used one, I never did) they were like a shovel with the shovel part enclosed and with a hinged lid. They had a short handle to carry them by as they would probably be too hot to handle otherwise. The hot coal carriers I found on line are not for preserving hot coals while traveling but are for smothering hot coals so you do not start a fire. I am thinking a double coffee can arrangement with the holes in both cans. A one pound can inside a 3 pound can (or what passes for 1 and 3 pound cans these days) A wire handle on both cans would enable handling with minimum exposure to burns. Fill the bottom of the inner can with ash, put the hot coals in the ash, put a lid on the inner can, perhaps made out of the top of the outer can. The big question is how many holes, how big and where to locate them. Or, perhaps with no lid holes would be unnecessary. When I have worked out the kinks, I’ll post my results.

        • Survival Diva says:

          left coast chuck,

          I’m looking forward to hearing back from you on the hot coal carrier.

        • Pine Needle says:

          Thanks for all the replies and answers.
          I like the cow horn idea. Quieter and easier to carry than a short handled double shovel or coffee cans. Plus there is a certain “mountain man” look to it. The natural insulation should keep the heat in better without burning your hands etc. How about a TX longhorn? LOL!
          I have heard of many stories about old wooden ships having a “fire” smoldering in the hold of the ship or cargo for part of the journey without people knowing about it. The Hawaiian Imu (underground oven) buries the pig in the ground with hot coals to cook. As mentioned in number 6 in the article. Apparently, a smoldering fire does not require much O2. Thus, it should not require much fuel. And therefore “easy” to tend to. Add the ability to make and use a bow drill to start a fire, you can have fire just about any time you want.

    • You’re right, Chuck. This introduces a few skills that are good to know. Coal identification, punk identification, punk setup and transport, and blowing a coal into a fire.

      Personally, we practice the last step almost every day for about half the year. We heat with a wood stove and my wife and I have gotten quite disciplined about not using matches, paper, or other fire aids whenever possible. We simply look for a remaining hot coal, make a tender bundle, and nurse it into a roaring firebox. Like any skill, the more frequently you practice it, the more effortless it becomes.

  9. samnjoeysgrama says:

    I think you have covered this to some extent, but it bears repeating. Eifferent kinds of cooking methods brings up the next question issue: Different kinds of foods to store. Please give us some in depth information on the 3 or more basic kinds of food to store. It probably starts with the lifeboat survival bars that can be eaten when you have little water. There are other survival bars that require plenty of water for digestion. The backpackers meals only require hot water and can actually be made by soaking them for a longer time in tepid water. The “feed 1 person for a year” types of cans that need to be cooked for a short (15 to 20 minute) time can be eaten if soaked, but aren’t very appetizing that way. And the 5 gallon buckets of plain beans etc. may take hours to cook. People don’t seem to be aware of the danger to their safety posed by cooking smells in a grid down situation. There are thousands, perhaps millions of people in this country with only one or two days of food in their refrigerator or cupboards. After a week, the faintest hint of cooking food puts your family’s lives in danger. I have plenty of bars and backpacker meals for the worst times when unknown or known raiders are in my area. And I won’t plant my garden the first year. There will be fewer people willing to kill you for a tomato the second year and most people don’t understand that a row of immature plants does NOT mean you have food in the garden. Unless you understand gardening and can hide your food crops in weeds or rough areas, you simply paint a large bull’s eye on yourself by having a traditional garden the first year. I also have live traps and snares for meat. As you mentioned, boiling your meat releases fewer smells than roasting it on a spit over a fire, and you don’t loose the fat to the coals if you boil it. God bless us all. I’m afraid it could get really rough and this newsletter is a great resource. Thank you.

    • Survival Diva says:


      If estimates are correct, and only 3 million people in the U.S. are prepared to some degree (some would consider themselves prepared when putting aside a few week’s food supplies), that leaves 318 million UNPREPARED. Hunger and desperation will lead to looting and worse. I agree with your warning about keeping a garden hidden!

  10. Whatever method you use, be sure to have more than one type available! If you have only one type, you’ll be sure to run out of that type of fuel or it will break down. We have a solar oven, a multi-fuel stove, a Coleman camp stove (runs on the small and large propane tanks), the standard outdoor propane grill, and the fireplace in the house. Lots of matches. Strike anywhere matches. Long burning water and wind proof matches. I’m making wax-and-dryer-lint fire starters. And we have over 50 ash trees that are dying from the emerald ash borer so we have plenty of firewood now and for the future.

    In addition to the fire, be sure to have sufficient and appropriate cooking vessels. Cast iron in various sizes for the fire place and some of the other heat sources, and light weight black pots for the solar oven.

    Did I say matches? Lots of matches. Be sure to keep them dry. Humidity is their enemy. Yeah, more matches than you think you will ever need. Starting ANY kind of fire without a match is a real pain and very time consuming.

    • Survival Diva says:

      Bob R,
      Spot on. . . when you feel you have too many matches, buy more! Multiple cooking devices is always wise to have. Here at the cabin, there is a wood-burning cook stove, a wood-burning heat stove, a Camp Chef, several camp stoves, a rocket stove and a fire-pit used year round (entertainment out here in the sticks is hard to come by : ) It is imperative to have several alternative methods to cook with, especially when you plan to cook with bulk food storage. Cast iron isn’t expensive and you can use them anywhere. Many pots and pans have plastic handles or lids that won’t survive fireplace, wood-burning cook stoves, or open-pit cooking. And as samnjoeysgrama warned, the smell of food in a dense population would make for a very dangerous situation! For those who are in a populated location, including the suburbs, practice David’s Dakota fire pit cooking for a time that it may be needed!

    • Old-Timer in Florida says:

      Got a way to cut those ash trees (both – cutting them down and cutting them up :-)?
      I’m sure you have considered how long your chain saw will be useful – an axe and crosscut will last forever.

      I have an old family heirloom wooden tool chest tucked away with all of my Dad’s old handtools. In the right situation they could be pressed back into service and become a lifesaver.

      • Old-Timer;

        I have a gas chain saw, an electric chain saw, and a two-man six foot cross-cut saw. Lots of regular hand saws also. I have a gas splitter, and a maul and wedges. Along with three axes. And a lot of other hand tools (many inherited from my wood-working father). I’m ready! But thanks for the suggestions.

  11. tim mcphillips says:

    you might want to warn people about river rocks if making a fire box of them. wet rocks can explode if they are wet as the water expands and can cause alot of damage and injuries if you are close enough.

    • Survival Diva says:

      Tim mcphillips,
      Thank you for adding this. Yes, river rocks can explode from extreme heat.

    • samnjoeysgrama says:

      Wet limestone is famous for exploding if used around a fire pit. Even if just damp, they can have enough moisture in them to produce steam, which causes the rock to explode. Stones on a beach or stream bank are the worst. So dry surface stones are the best.

    • Old-Timer in Florida says:

      Unfortunately here in central Florida finding any kind of a rock is a near impossibility! On the other hand, scooping out a firepit in the sand is quick, easy, and there is little concern about organic matter being a fire hazard.

      I was intriqued by the Dakota Firepit mentioned in the article. I will be looking into that some more as time permits. I’m thinking a slightly rusted milk can, modified with an air intake, buried in the designated ‘food prep area’ of our backyard would be a good addition. I’m thinking with the amount of rainfall we get, it would be wise to have the pre-assembled pieces on-hand, but not buried until the need arises. Long-term trapped moisture would shorten its usefull life dramatically. Creepy-crawly critters would make intial start up an adventure.

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