“Did you also bring you’re BioLite?”
“No, because I figured you would.”
— A conversation I had 3 times this year.
Must get new gadget
In December of 2011, I stumbled on a little gadget that was being introduced. It was a camping stove fueled by twigs and other small cast-off materials, used a fan to make burning more effecient, and most importantly, didn’t need installed batteries because – get this – it used the thermal energy created to charge the internal battery. AND it stored the excess power so you can even use it to charge your electric peripherals (camera, batteries, cell phone etc.). All this in a unit as big as a large water bottle. I had to get one.
I pre-ordered one immediately. They suggested it would be ready some time early in the next year’s camping season. I couldn’t wait. Then the emails started coming in. Everyone I knew it seemed, was sending me links to this camping stove that could charge your cell phone. At least 8 friends told me they ordered one, usually telling me I should get one as well. We all waited, getting the occasional teaser update by BioLite, and we got a little present for pre-ordering: a wood burned carving of the BioLite logo. What was fun about it was that they suggested that we save it to use the carving as fuel for our stove’s first use. Nice touch, BioLite.
Just how badly I wanted this stove
When it arrived in June, I was in a hotel room in Europe (Arnhem, The Netherlands). I got a voicemail from UPS, saying I owed them some customs brokerage fees (see below) before they could deliver the stove because it was being shipped to Canada from The States. Roaming charges from being in Europe did not deter me from calling them back. I wanted to make sure I got my stove, and paid them over the phone by credit card. I had it re-directed to my mother. I stressed to the lady on the phone to make sure she charges me everything now, even their elevated brokerage fees. I did this so that my non-driver mother wouldn’t need to have cash on hand. In short, I wanted to make sure there was no reason not to deliver the stove, as I was a week or so away from being home. They still wound up charging my mother more money when it arrived, but thankfully she had the extra $27 dollars lying around somewhere. In the end, I think I wound up paying for 3 stoves. This stove better be worth it! (If this is deterring you from getting yourself one, see below for good news.)
How it works
I was really excited about the idea behind this stove. First, it had all the advantages of being a stick-stove, so for example bringing along gas based fuel is not necessary and contains the fire in a small area to make best use of small amounts of twigs and bark or whatever else is lying around. Next, it uses a fan to make fuel use more efficient, accelerating and concentrating the heat (like blowing on the coals constantly, without loosing your breath). And of course its cylinder shape focuses the flames to your cooking surface. These are all important factors in the CampStove design, but BioLite didn’t actually set out to create a neat little gadget for campers.
“If we were to think about the three biggest problems affecting our world. Any socially conscience person would have to include poverty, disease and climate change. And yet there is one thing that causes all three of these simultaneously. That we pay no attention to, even though a very good solution exists.”
Ethan Kay, BioLite’s Managing Director of Emerging Markets at TEDx Montreal. See the full presentation here.
Originally, BioLite set out to solve a huge global issue by making home stoves in developing countries safe and efficient. The full size version of their design is called the HomeStove, and it has been nominated for several humanitarian awards because it has the potential to reduce wood consumption (50%), smoke (95%) and black carbon (source) and most importantly making it safer for cooking. Open fire cooking, which much of the world still practices – 3 Billion people – can be dangerous and is definitely inefficient. Considering in many places how much time is spend just gathering wood to cook (not all the world has our dense supply of trees), I would imagine a stove that uses half as much would be very appealing. Add to this that the HomeStove is basically a big multi-fuel stick-stove, and so can burn smaller material, less material and even residual material, like the unconsumable portions of crops or even cow dung. BioLite is currently working with existing “carbon-credit off-set programs” (in Europe, for example), to make this stove affordable to the poorest of the poor.
Now add to this the fact that BioLite has included a device that converts the heat generated into powering the fan, means that no power is required to run the stove – no batteries or electric outlets required. Great idea, isn’t it? And again, any excess energy created can then be used to charge up electronic devices or stored in rechargeable batteries for later use.
This is a great, helpful idea. I’ll be honest. I would probably buy a CampStove because it stands on its own as a great idea and a helpful piece of gear and a neat little gadget to have. But knowing that by buying one I’m supporting what BioLite is trying to do in distributing HomeStoves and its helpful technology, well, that’s why I was willing to pay the price to get one.
That good news I was talking about
But here’s the thing: Now you don’t have to pay what I did, or go through the same trouble trying to import the stove. Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) will soon be selling the CampStove, currently offering pre-orders. At $130 it’s only $1 more than I paid from BioLite, without the importation, brokerage (and apparently gratuitous UPS) fees I had to pay. AND, they often offer free shipping so watch for that as well.
Using your BioLite Campstove
The CampStove is pretty easy to use. Simply collect some fuel – whatever twigs and sticks are lying around, or even some burnable trash (though avoid anything that would gunk up your stove after burning, like plastic). Pull out the power-pack/fan stored in the cylinder and attach it to the outside by inserting the thermal sensor first, and unfold the stove’s legs (which will also lock on the power-pack/fan). Next, throw in your twigs (or whatnot) and light your fire, and click the power button once to start the fan on low. Once the fire gets going, push the button again to set the fan on high. That’s it. Pretty easy, eh?
You’ll be amazed at how efficiently this device burns. Keep an eye on the amount of fuel you have, because you’ll want to add more well before it burns out so you don’t waste cooking time, especially if you have to re-light your fire. As for charging your device, you’ll need to wait until the energy has built up enough to the point where it has more than it needs to run the fan. A light at the front of the device turns from yellow to green when charging is possible.
***Note: Before you take it into the back-country, charge the stove’s battery (it comes with a USB cord). This conditions the battery for its full capacity. You should only have to do this once per season. I do know however, that it does work without doing this, but not optimally. (In other words, I forgot to do this, and while it’s not optimal, I didn’t have any problems.)
What I like about it
I’ve touched on it already, having the advantages of being a stick-stove, so there’s that. It also works as advertised, which we can all appreciate with other promises made by gadgets and gear. It burns well, boils water as quickly as a gas stove, it runs a fan without a battery and even charges electronics. With the folding legs it’s also extremely stable considering it’s vertical design. (Campers who use a screw-on-top of a butane canister can appreciate this point.)
It’s also relatively light at 972 g (2.14 lbs) and small, around the size of a large water bottle when stored. Is that light and small for ultra-light backpacking? Not at all. It’s only considered light because it replaces some other gear, namely your typical gas powered stove with fuel, plus a battery pack for charging your electronics. Compared to other fan-based stick-stoves, this is actually the lightest one I’ve seen. I’ve taken mine on several trips this year and it hasn’t disappointed. It’s also kind of fun to play with, and a great conversation piece. When I bring it out with a group who hasn’t yet seen the CampStove, a crowd gathers.
Not for nothing, this stove makes for a great emergency preparedness tool. Many other multi-fuel or stick-stoves advertise that, but not only will this stove work independent of power, but might even charge up a flashlight, or get you enough juice to make a call while cooking or warming you up.
What I don’t like
I found that the top of the CampStove can be a little awkward for holding smaller camping pots. You really need to make sure to set it properly because it barely fits my 1 liter cooking pots. And be careful, because once your water boils, the shaking will make it unstable. So maybe don’t leave it to boil unattended. (Also, if you’re charging a cell phone or something, if that pot falls off it could be quite costly.)
The only other negative things I can say would be based around the disadvantages of being a stick-stove: You have to start a fire, even in the rain. It gets a little dirty because of the residue. You need to keep feeding and managing the fire, lifting the pots off each time. I think the advantages outweigh this small problems myself, but you might feel differently. You may even considering bringing one along on trips with larger groups where multiple stoves are needed or more convenient. Take along one gas powered stove and the BioLite, each for their own advantages.
If I had to nit-pick, the only real problem I have with it is the thermal sensor. It sticks out a little when stored inside the cylinder, and I worry that it might get damaged while stuffed down in my pack. So far that hasn’t been a problem. Also, when it gets dirty from burning wood (unlike clean burning gas), the sensor gets some gunk on it making you have to force it into the cylinder a bit, though slightly, which again I worry might break the sensor in the long term.
But what I really don’t like
I don’t like some of the things written about the energy conversion and charging. You may have even noticed I’ve been downplaying this particular feature. I’ve seen the posts and the forum discussions and I started to get a little frustrated thinking people were missing the point of this stove. Sadly, most of what’s been written about the stove promotes it primarily as a device that charges your cell phone, and incidentally cooks your food. It does do this. It can charge your devices. BUT, it’s not the best way to do it. If you need electricity, bring a solar charger. They’re way better. For instance, while boiling 2 liters of water and letting it burn out afterwards, I was able to charge a dead cell phone to barely 10%. (The cell phone was not dead on purpose – that’s another story – but since we had it, we figured this would make for a great test subject.) That used up about five or six handfuls of solid wood (no larger than the device) and about a half an hour all told. In the same amount of time, my solar panel would create twice the energy. It can also be set and left alone to charge away, unlike a stove that requires supervision and feeding. (In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking about electric power and some of the best ways you can manage and create it while out in the woods.)
One problem some have expressed, is that with the creation of this device, people are going to be hacking down forests to charge their iPhones. These people, if they exist, are in for a disappointment. If you’re car camping, paying campground prices for wood, just to play some music or call back home, it’s going to be pretty expensive. This device might not be the best car-camping stove anyway. This device, when used and promoted properly, actually lessens your environmental impact and saves trees (and to a lesser extent, cleans up campsites) by using of all those piles of little supposedly unusable sticks and such.
I think a big problem is that BioLite’s promotional photos have an iPhone being charged. This offends a lot of campers just out of principle – the dreaded “cell phone” in the outdoors, and I guess the thinking is that this kind of device would encourage that kind of thing. Even if it did, that’s really their missed opportunity, and you’re doing it (camping) wrong if you let it bother you. And so, having a CampStove is now pulling you into the debate about being too plugged in, and how it’s all about getting away from it all. On the other hand, other people see that iPhone and don’t understand that BioLite doesn’t put up cell phone towers in the back-country. You can charge your phone all you like, but it doesn’t mean you can call anyone. Either way, I wish they’d emphasize more practical things to charge, like your emergency (weather) radio, your GPS, your flashlight/headlamp.
Let me put it to you like this: Even if this device wasn’t able to charge anything, I would still take it with me. It’s the fan and the cylinder shape that are the key to a high powered stick-stove – which leaves a lesser impact on the environment because you’re burning less material and using up material that wouldn’t normally be bothered with – twigs, pinecones, etc. (So if you’re chopping anything down, you’re SO doing it wrong.) In other similar stoves, you need to keep batteries with you, possibly charge them, and even dispose of them. For example, the Vital Stove (which I’ll review soon) has an external plastic battery holder that is fragile, can easily be misplaced, and makes its features useless when the battery runs out. 3 times I brought the Vital Stove with dead batteries because as I packed it the “On” switch was flipped. Without the fan, it’s just a small, heavy, metal box to burn stuff in, and there are much better ones out there. The fact that I don’t have to manage that, plus all the other features I mention, make this stove worth it. The power-charging part should be looked on as a secondary, bonus feature.
I love this stove. It works great, and lives up to my expectations. Don’t buy this stove if charging is the primary reason, because there’s better options out there. Don’t buy this stove if you either the idea of stick-stoves are not appealing to you, or if you’re into ultra-light backpacking and its advantages don’t seem to be worth the weight. (Oh, and don’t buy this stove if you believe it will somehow force you to update your Facebook status because it has an iPhone in the picture.)
Otherwise, buy this stove for a great piece of gear, a great working stick-stove, and to support a forward-thinking company. Oh, and it’s fun too.