BioLite Campstove

“Did you also bring you’re BioLite?”

“No, because I figured you would.”

— A conversation I had 3 times this year.

The BioLite CampStove

The BioLite CampStove

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.)

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

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.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

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.

Feeding the BioLite

Feeding the BioLite

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 like my BioLite CampStove

I like my BioLite CampStove

Final Word

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.

What Happens To Butane Canisters

A few days ago, I got into some conversations about those butane canisters for camp stoves, and wrote a post about it. I’ve been phasing them out on my trips, and have been actively encouraging others to do the same. One question I couldn’t answer at the time was when properly handed over to a local waste management center, what happens to those canisters?

My worry was that because of the gas inside, the canisters would simply be labeled as hazardous waste and just be buried “somewhere”, meaning the metal wouldn’t be recycled. So I sent an email to my local waste management center asking about it. Instead of an email, I got a call from the Supervisor of Waste Management, as he felt it would be easier to discuss over the phone, and give me the ability to ask further questions. I was pleasantly surprised with the information he provided me.

The good news is that the metal of these canisters does get recycled. From the waste centers, they get transported to a processor, who hooks up the non-refillable fuel containers so that the gas can be removed, then the metal gets recycled as it normally would. The better/unexpected news is that the gas and fuel that is extracted is also used. Who knew? Since I had him on the phone, I figured I’d bring up a couple of other questions.

First, he made very clear that you shouldn’t just throw your fuel containers in your normal recycling  as you would with other metals. Because of the gas, they won’t take it, and in my area you get a little no-no sticker – the recycling opposite of getting a gold star. You should instead take your canisters to your local waste management center that takes household hazardous waste. I then asked about the canister recycling tools that they sell and whether or not the canisters would be accepted in regular recycling after being treated. (The tool basically vents then punctures the canister to allow the gas to escape.) I was told that while they may in BC, they do not in Ontario, and does not recommend the use of these tools. I can understand that. How would they know the gas hasn’t been removed properly. And besides, if the fuel is collected and reused, no sense just wasting it. (As a minor but valid point, he also mentioned that you should be careful where and how you release the gas for your own safety.)

Of course this is all information based on Hamilton (Ontario), so I can’t speak for all municipalities, but I’m happy to hear all this. And just as I said in my last post, I’d still rather use a refillable gas solution (“Reuse”) but it’s nice to know using butane canisters isn’t as harmful as I suspected it may have been (“Recycle”) – and I’m still going to look further into some less impactful options (“Reduce”).

5 Reasons Not To Use Butane Canisters

I really don’t like sounding like a grumpy old man, but every now and then a subject comes up where you have a list of complaints about and you just can’t help the way it sounds. Funny, but for a guy who thinks of himself as quite the opposite of grumpy, I do have a few of these subjects that get me grabbing my cane and waving it at the kids on my lawn. Today was one of those days, when I found myself discussion butane canisters on facebook with Christine from Camp Smarts. I was simply writing what I didn’t like about butane canisters, ran out of room with my comment, and figured I’d write it out a lot easier here (and introduce it by saying I’m not a grumpy old man).

UPDATE: I found out what happens to those gas canisters when you send them to your local waste management center.

First, I should probably mention I don’t hate butane canisters I regularly use them myself. They’re compact and easy to use. You just screw on your camp stove and you’re ready to go. No filling up, no priming, no fuel spills, and you can buy them at pretty much any outdoor store. For some stoves, the canister can even act as a stand to make it a little lighter and more compact. Oh, and I’ll keep using the term “butane”, but I also mean propane or any of the non-refillable fuel containers.

A sit on top stove. Dont tell, but I'm mixing stove and canister brands.

#1 Enabling the Jerks:

The first reason is actually not the fault of the canisters, rather an example of how jerky behaviour gives something a bad name. The problem is that too many people are disposing of the butane canisters by simply chucking them in the woods. The problem is that they don’t burn, so people can’t just toss them into a fire and forget them. They also don’t sink, so you can’t just dump them in the lake. They don’t crush up either, so stomping them into the ground behind some bushes doesn’t really work either. This is a litterer’s worst nightmare – there’s a lot of effort in casting off these things out of sight. So what do you do? Throw them into the outhouse of course. I’m a little saddened how many times I come across this. Less gross, but I’m sure just as annoying, I’ve also come across a couple of situations where there was a pile of canisters left at campsites, all different types and ages. People see the pile and figure that’s what you do with them. Somebody will just come by and take them. This is why Ontario Parks no longer sells non-refillable fuel canisters at the park stores, strongly discourages you from using them, and is regularly considering banning them entirely. You would too if you were the one you has to go in there and get them out, especially when considering from where you might have to get them.

Does this mean responsible people shouldn’t use them? No. If everyone carried them out with them this wouldn’t be an issue, and realistically, most people do. But enough people don’t, which is why I no longer recommend using them anymore, and hope my example might deter some from using them.

This is not a dump, for canisters

#2 Recycling

Ontario Parks wants you to bring your canisters home with you. Unfortunately, those canisters are not refillable or even recyclable, which means they need to be disposed of properly. And because they contain gas, they’re also not supposed to go into your regular garbage, but rather be deposited at your local dump’s hazardous waste center. I assume that everyone is more than happy to do all this, but it’s not that environmentally responsible. We’re supposed to – in order – Reduce, Resuse then Recycle. And I’m not certain the metal gets recycled at all once it gets processed at the dump.

#3 Content Management

You can’t see inside them, and you can’t open them up, so the only way to know how much juice is left is to pick it up and maybe shake it a little and guess. They have these stickers that you can put on them that will act as a fuel gauge, but they don’t always work. Admittedly, the more you use them the better you get at guessing. The real problem happens when you have 1/4 or less left in the canister. Your choice there is to waste the remainder and toss it (not literally), keep it hanging around for a trip that you don’t need as much (and know for sure it’ll be enough), or bring it with another and carry it around empty for most of the trip. My point is it’s an unnecessary juggling act, where if you used a refillable solution you could just top it off before each trip.

Do I have enough to make another pancake?

#4 The last bit of fuel is like the last bit of beer

Priming white gas stoves might be a pain, and have those eyebrow burning mishaps on occasion, but it’s the best way to maintain enough pressure to use even the last of your fuel efficiently. How many times were have you been using the last of your canister and it’s taking forever to boil some water, then finally run out, grab the new can and it seems like it’s suddenly 10 times better? It’s because they work on pressure, and the less fuel you have the worse it performs. In fact, using up the last of the can is useless, sputtering out dribbles.

#5 Trust

I’ve never personally punctured or broken a canister on a trip, but chalk that up to my over-paranoia than the craftmanship put into those cans. I have had a few puncture in my trunk (where you’re not supposed to keep them… I know). What’s easier to do is to pop the valve. You really have to be careful when jamming stuff into your backpack, and pay particular attention to making sure no pointy items are close to the canister – or can get shifted close to the canister. Alternatively, have you seen those refillable bottles made for white gas? Nice thick openings, made with tough metal and hard core lids that even have a child proof mechanism to prevent it from opening unexpectedly. Why’s that you ask? They’re made to be used often. The opposite is true for the butane canisters. They’re made as cheaply as the company can get away with – which to be fair is usually good enough – but I feel much more confident shoving stuff tightly into or not being so gentle with my pack.

Refillable white gas bottle and fuel. Most outdoor stores carry both.

A couple of additional thoughts that don’t quite make the list, but also worth considering – let’s call them “bonus points”:

  • Butane isn’t the optimal fuel for cold temperatures or high altitude, and in either situation you really want a device that you can control the pressure to get the proper amount of fuel coming out. Height shouldn’t be a problem in Ontario and you can get by in fall and spring cold, but if you’re planning on camping with snow on the ground or high enough for there to be snow on the ground in summer, the butane canisters are no good.
  • Stove manufacturers really encourage you to use their fuel, and their canisters. I’ve been told by many people how true this is, and many others have told me it’s completely false. Jetboil will tell you there’s a subtle difference in the thread of their valves making it damaging to use some other company’s canister, as does Primus and MSR. I’ve cheated and mixed and matched products, and while I’m sure I did some minute bit of damage to my stove that I’ve yet to notice, didn’t have the optimal cooking stove experience I could have, or made puppies cry somewhere, but I didn’t seem to have any problems.
  • They’re also awkwardly shaped. Is it just me? I find packing them inefficient, especially when I have to wrap them up with a towel or something to keep them from getting pierced by something. Those cylinder shaped reusable bottles are much easier to pack. Maybe this is a minor point.
  • There are also plenty of other options, including alcohol or twig burning stoves. Some can even be made at home out of discarded household items like pop or beer cans (seen below). They’re very light and require no priming at all.

There's lots of other alternatives to butane canisters and white gas.

Stay tuned for more stove updates. I’ve got quite a few of all different styles I want to test out this summer. Any suggestions on ones I should try, or want to share your favourite stove, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.