If you are under the age of eighty, then you — like most of us — have not lived through a true worldwide economic depression. Oh, we have all seen economic challenges — layoffs, rightsizing and recessions — but few of us were alive to experience the prevailing effects of The Great Depression of the 1930’s.

During this time, jobs did not simply become scarce, they just vanished. Banks collapsed. Manufacturing stopped. Crop prices were cut in half and virtually overnight the country changed and remained changed for nearly a  decade.

Imagine what happens when a country of men wake up and in spite of their best intensions and efforts, they can no longer take care of themselves or their families. Over time, the strain broke many of these men — because underneath subsistence is survival but underneath survival is hopelessness.

Very few of us know what it’s like to live in a world when money was not simply hard to come by, but for many American’s it just didn’t exist any longer. Bartering became a common method of commerce and many people simply worked for food and shelter.

Ironically, the group of people that faired the best during this time was the  American farmer — those located outside of the dustbowl Midwest. Even with low crop and meat prices, the American farmer had enough food for his family as well as had goods to trade with.

With these farms surviving, migratory workers would travel and seek out the seasonal seeding and harvest work available. This was fueled by the fact that with homes being foreclosed on and with little cash for rent, there were more people living a transitory lifestyle then ever before — moving from town to town seeking what work could be found.

Now, the most colorful group of travelling men during this time was the American Hobo. The term hobo is believed to come from the phrase ho-boy, referring to the great groups of farm and field workers that competed for migratory work. These men would travel light and stay on the move — often by sneaking aboard freight trains — looking for work, a meal and if possible a little adventure.

The modern term hobo is often used when referring to anyone homeless but this is not accurate.

Remember …

A hobo is someone that travels looking for work.

A tramp is someone that travels but does not work.

And a bum neither travels nor works.

The general philosophy of the hobo — and of many American’s during The Great Depression — was simple: waste nothing, throw little away and make do with what you can find.  And from this, the hobo stove was born.

Now, there is no evidence that the hobo stove was actually created during the 1930’s. It’s such a simple design — made simply from old cans — and a stove similar to it was used in World War I. But it was commonly used during this period and often associated with it.

A hobo stove is a simple stove made from discarded food cans — a coffee can is often used but you can build the stove with larger or smaller cans — that allows air to ventilate it and an area to feed fuel in. These stoves are cheap, easy to make, relatively efficient and can be burned at no cost because they burn sticks, pine cones, wood scraps, cardboard, pretty much anything you find along the way. And because they burn pretty much anything, you will never run out of fuel.

In the modern world, Hobo Stoves are great little devices to have. They can be used during power outages, as a camping stove, while hiking or backpacking, to distill water in or as part of a survival kit.

Now there are many designs to a hobo stove, but here is a real simple one — and remember, they don’t need to be too pretty they just need to work.

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1. Find a base can for your stove and a slightly smaller top can. You can make this stove as large or as small as you want. I wanted to build a light backpacking stove here, so I used a spaghetti sauce can for the base and a dog food can for the top, but I’ve seen these stoves made out of large #10 food cans for those wanting full sized camp stove.

2. With a ‘church key’ style can opener, place some holes along the bottom base can. These are to draw air in and up through the stove — it’s important to have some space between holes though so you have stability at the base of the can.

3.  With a nail, punch some holes in the side of the can, center, for ventilation, as well as four additional holes  — an inch from the top — for the support pins. The small holes in the center will add some additional ventilation and the four peg holes need to be directly across from each other as the pegs that will support the top half will rest on it. Make sure the holes are equal distance across, as you want this stove to be as stable as possible so the pot on top of it is centered.

4. Place two pins across the can for support of the top can. Metal tent poles work great for this and you can even use coat hangers but you’ll need to find the thicker, heavy coat hangers to use. A standard coat hanger will be too thin and not work here. Remember, this is where the top can, the pot and a few cups of water will be supported. The ones I used metal from a metal bathroom shelf that I rescued from the trash. I cut off a few tent pole sized pieces, straightened them and bent the edges down.

5. Cut the bottom out of the top-can so it becomes a metal tube. You can try to use a can opener on some cans but this one had a rounded edge so I just poked a hole in it and then used tin snips. Bend the sharp edges in with pliers.

6. Cut a “V” shaped section out of the top can. This will be used to feed the fuel down into the stove as well as allow the opposite side of the can to become a wind screen. Bend any sharp edges back with pliers.

7. Set the top-can down into the bottom-can until it rests on the pins. You want your pins to be across parallel with each other not making an X. Although by crossing them might be more stable, you will be placing fuel down past the pins and don’t want anything to get hung up.

8. Find the pot you will be using. This should really be done earlier in the process, then you can identify the size stove you want based on the pot you will be using — as well as the place it will be stored. But I got lucky here and found this great little coffee pot in my basement — it had a small pinhole in the side that I patched with some J-B Weld and it worked great. The size of the pot was small enough but the right size so the entire stove fit perfectly inside of it — even allowing room for my silverware, fire starters, and other items to be stores. It’s difficult to tell in these photos, but this pot is very compact and is only 6” high. The perfect size for a small backpacking stove.

9. Cover stove and pot with high temperature spray-paint. You don’t have to take this step, but by covering both the stove and the pot you are not only protecting it but making it more difficult for the tars and oils from the fire to build up on the surfaces. High temperature spray paint can be found in any hardware store.

Test your gear. If you need to make modifications it’s easier to do this at home. Try the stove at least once before using it in the field and anything you don’t like, just change and tweak until you have it exactly the way you want it.

I tried this stove and I had water boiling in about four minutes — using just a handful of twigs and leaves from my backyard as fuel. Total cost ended up being zero because I recycled the cans and pegs and found the coffee pot in my basement.

Remember: keep the design of the stove simple as you don’t need a device to simmer a five hour brisket in. These stoves were designed to quickly cook a few  stolen eggs before breaking down camp and catching the next freight out of town.



First recorded by Harry McClintock.


The Hobo Theme song.

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, “Boys, I’m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The winds don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I’m bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.




Everett De Morier has appeared on CNN, Fox News Network, NPR, ABC, as well as in The New York Times and The London Times. He is the author of Crib Notes for the First Year of Marriage: A...