J is for Jerrican

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

Filling up for the big one

For travellers who don’t expect to be making a lifetime of Sahara travel and haven’t got limitless funds, jerricans provide the simple answer to increasing your vehicle’s range. Available sometimes still unused from military surplus outlets for around £10, they make reliable and robust fuel containers. 

Captured WW2 kannister

The standard steel jerrican is a German design (hence the name) from the late 1930s, developed to support their blisteringly effective blitzkrieg invasions. The fact that the design remains unchanged today shows how well they succeeded with the ergonomics of carrying, pouring, sealing and storing fuel. During the war in North Africa, the LRDG prized the discovery of any jerricans, while the Germans were ordered to destroy them on retreat.

A jerrican holds 20 litres (4.45 gallons; 5.28 US gallons) when filled in the upright position. This leaves an air gap just below the handles which shouldn’t be filled with fuel (by tipping the can backwards) unless you’re really desperate. The air pocket, as well as the X-shaped indentations on the sides, enable the can’s sides to bulge as fuel expands; especially the case with petrol which is more volatile than diesel. Once warmed and shaken on your roof, take care to open the cap very slowly (the cap’s clamp design makes this easy) to avoid a spurt of fuel, which, besides being dangerous, is messy and wasteful. 


A clamp-on spout (some with an integral gauze and breather tube) should make topping-up while holding a heavy can easier. But I find these clamp-on spouts often don’t seal well, fuel runs down your leg and their internal gauze slows down the flow rate, prolonging the effort in holding them up. A wide-bore funnel takes half the time. Rigid funnels get messy with diesel and are awkward to stow, so I prefer the ‘collapsible’ vinyl items with the end snipped off to make the hole bigger. Store them in a plastic bag or flat lunch box. Cutdown mineral water bottles will also do the job. 

Better still, leave the can where it’s stashed on the car and siphon the fuel into the tank either with a simple tube or a manual siphon-pump. Until mastered, the mouth-sucking method to get a siphon going is understandably unpopular with motor fuel. If you have no siphon pump bury the whole hose into a full jerrican (a flexible, clear, thin-walled hose is best). With the other end fully submerged, put your thumb over the end and draw out the tube which should stay full of fuel. Poke the tube into the fuel tank filler and the weight of the dropping fuel will create a siphon. 

Jerricans themselves can be knocked about for years: I’ve never seen a welded seam leak, though cap seals do leak. You can buy spare seals or, failing that, a chopped-up inner tube clamped across the mouth will work.

Once rust or flaking paint begin to come out of a jerry, either make sure you use a fine pre-filter or get another jerrican. Neat ten-litre versions are available and even mini five-litre models, all using the same clamping cap. They can also be robust containers for spare motor oils and other fluids and make good jack stands when working under a car.

There is said to be a small risk from static electricity in the dry desert atmosphere when refuelling vehicles, especially petrol. Earth the car by touching it before opening the cap and pouring in the fuel.

‘Jerricans’ copied in plastic should never be used for long-term fuel storage. The soft slab sides and screw-on caps are unsuited to the expansion and will swell like a balloon before splitting, leaking or bursting. I once drove a car carrying nearly three dozen cheap plastic jerries on the roof. Within a couple of days fuel was running down the sides of the car as the liquid expanded and caps leaked; I even had to use the wipers as it ran down the windscreen. It was very messy and bad for the rubber components.