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Review: BioLite CampStove charges gadgets while it cooks

BioLite CampStove

With a smart and innovative design, this powerful little biomass stove promises a lot: Not only will it cook your food, it will charge your electronics, eliminate the need to carry fuel, and do it all without creating smoke. Does it live up to all it’s promises? Read on to find out.

Out of the box

Like any good piece of camping equipment should, the BioLite stove feels solid. Its interior chamber is made of high-temperature steel that will withstand even the hottest fires, and it’s surrounded by a honeycomb-patterned steel mesh so you can still pick it up once it gets hot. The mesh will bend inward if you squeeze tightly, but will spring back once you release, so there’s no need to worry about warping the exterior. For stability, the stove has three extendable legs made out of solid but lightweight anodized aluminum. Even on bumpy or uneven ground, the legs made it easy to situate the stove in a way that would hold a pot safely.

The plastic housing around the fan and generator seemed like a potential weak point. The first time we fired it up, we were concerned that a breeze would send flames licking down onto it, turning it into a gooey blob of molten orange plastic. Wrong. The plastic it’s made out of is pretty rugged, and is designed to withstand a good amount of heat. Even if strong winds start to cause problems, it’s not hard to reposition the stove to keep the flames away from the plastic.

The fan and charger unit easily detaches from the burn chamber, and once it’s cool enough, fits nicely inside of it for more compact storage. Overall, it scores high marks for design.

Starting a fire

To get things going, the unit ships with six fire-starter sticks that look like Kit-Kat bars made out of compressed pocket lint. Break one off, light it up, toss it into the burning chamber along with some wood bits, and you’re on your way. Once the fire gets going, the directions say to switch the fan on to the low setting. This will feed fresh air into your fire, making it burn quicker, hotter, and more efficiently.

BioLite fire-starter sticks

BioLite fire-starter sticks

Knowing when to switch between the two fan settings is key, as the high setting will likely blow out a weak fire before it gets large enough to be useful. We found that we only needed to be on the low setting for about a minute before the fire was strong enough to handle the high setting. Once it reaches this point, you can fill the chamber with wood. With an abundance of fuel and air, the stove will create a blazing spiral of flames that can be used for cooking right away.

Cooking

In our first experiment with the stove, we boiled one cup of water in a titanium pot in just over two minutes. Experiments with more water yielded consistent results, as one liter took roughly four times as long. Boil times varied based on the strength of our fire, but as long as we fed the burn chamber a steady supply of wood, the stove heated things up rather quickly.

Simmering food in a skillet was relatively simple as well, as we only needed to let the fire die down a bit for a lower cooking temp. Maintaining a consistent level of heat was a bit more difficult, but if the fire ever got too hot we just took the pan off for a second. Gourmet camp chefs will probably still prefer variable-temp gas stoves, but with a bit of practice we were able to control the heat well.

Long-term use

Once we used up the trusty firestarter sticks that come with the CampStove, getting the stove going can be a pain. Starting a fire inside the chamber was somewhat difficult, since we couldn’t fit a hand inside it or get a flame into it from below. The directions suggest using a long match, but like the overwhelming majority of the world (seriously, who keeps those around?) we didn’t have any handy, and it was too much of a hassle to hunt them down in a store.

To get the CampStove working without firestarters, we basically had to start a small fire outside of the stove using bits of paper and small twigs. Once we caught some sizable chunks of wood on fire, we tossed the whole flaming pile into the chamber. Much to our frustration, on the first few tries this caused the fire to go out. Being persistent, we repeated the process, but this time with the fan blowing on the LO setting. It worked much better. Truth be told, it’s only a bit more cumbersome than starting a regular old campfire without lighter fluid or any other type of accelerant. Those with good fire-starting skills and plenty of patience might not mind this too much, but for campers who’ve become accustomed to the simplicity of lighting gas stoves, this will undoubtedly be a point of annoyance.

With the firestarters handy, the stove is on par with the simplicity of any gas stove. Without them, it’s considerably more tricky. On its website, BioLite boasts that you’ll never need to carry fuel for the CampStove, but since firestarters are pretty much essential for easy operation, this isn’t entirely true. For consumers turned off by the idea of buying more firestarters, we recommend an old backpacking trick. Instead of buying firestarters, you can make your own by smudging a few cotton balls with petroleum jelly. They’ll light quickly and burn for around five minutes before going out. BioLite warns not to put any sort of liquid fuel or accelerant into the burn chamber, but we found that these vaseline cotton balls caused no damage whatsoever. Despite this easy fix, the ignition problem is a major drawback. 

BioLite CampStove connected to iPhoneCharging electronics

In order to charge your devices effectively, you’ll need to keep a healthy fire going. If the heat gets too low, the stove can’t produce enough energy to power both the fan and charge your gadget, so it gives priority to the fan. You’ll know when this happens, as the stove’s indicator light will glow orange when it’s only running the fan, and will glow green when it’s producing a surplus of power. Keeping the bar green and providing a steady flow of electricity to your devices is just a matter of feeding the fire.

What kinds of stuff can the stove charge? The charging bay consists of a single USB port tucked behind a protective rubber stopper, so pretty much anything that’s USB-powered can get juice from it. The only cord it comes with is a short USB to USB cable for the initial battery charge, so you’ll have to provide the cord for whatever device you’re powering up. 

Through all of our tests with an iPhone 4s, it added about 1 percent to the battery for every 2.5 minutes of charging. It might not be the quickest charger, but since we generally used the stove for anywhere between 8 to 30 minutes, it always gave our phones enough juice to last until the next meal. 

Putting it in perspective

The BioLite CampStove is truly a unique product right now. We know of only two other biomass stoves that use fans to increase efficiency, an of those two, neither make use of thermoelectric energy to power their fans, and neither can be used to charge electronic devices. This really puts BioLite in a league of it’s own.

Even compared to a liquid-fuel stove like MSR’s renowned Whisperlite, the BioLite compares favorably. In terms of weight, the BioLite CampStove and WhisperLite stove are in pretty close competition. The BioLite stove weighs in at 33oz, and a fully-fueled Whisperlite comes in at just about one ounce less than that. Granted, a Whisperlite gets lighter as you use up fuel, but it also doesn’t run forever or charge gagdets.

The CampStove’s ability to charge electronics gives it a considerable advantage over all other stoves available — as long as that’s something you’re looking for. With other stoves, campers interested in keeping devices powered up will typically need to invest in some other means of charging — be it portable solar panels, battery packs, or thermoelectric generators. Regardless of the type, these all add extra weight to your pack, and cost you extra money. Which brings us to the next point.

Price

At $129, the BioLite CampStove admittedly costs more than most stoves on the market. Canister stoves will run you around $30 to $50, and liquid-fuel systems like MSR’s WhisperLite typically fall within the range of $70 to $120 dollars with some high-end systems going as high as $180. The advantage of BioLite’s CampStove, however, is that you don’t need to buy fuel for it — save for maybe a few cotton balls and some petroleum jelly. Additionally, if you take the charging ability into account and consider the fact that you’ll pay an extra $50 at minimum for other charging systems, BioLite’s price begins to seem more reasonable. All things considered, we think it’s well worth the money.

Overall

It’s too heavy for ultralighters, and not suited for large groups, so we think the BioLite Campstove would be a good choice for small groups going out on weekend hikes. Although canister stoves are considerably lighter, the BioLite offers a more ec0-friendly cooking system and is capable of charging electronics. Sure, you’ll have to carry a few extra ounces, but just keep thinking about all the money you’re saving on fuel and all the canisters you’re saving from landfills, and the load will feel lighter. If you’re of the mind that gadgets have a place in outdoor excursions, the CampStove is arguably one of the lightest stove and charger combos you can put together, and also one of the cheapest. All things considered, its virtues outweigh its shortcomings, and the BioLite CampStove is surely one of the most creative and well-designed outdoor products we’ve seen.