Disclaimer: This review is not sponsored. The only money I could possibly (but most likely won’t) make is by the link at the bottom if somebody decided to purchase the stove. I do not intend to persuade you one way or another – this piece of gear has some significant pros and cons. Because a lot of people have asked me how I like it, I’ve decided to share some of my thoughts here.
How I Got The Stove: I don’t remember how I found out about this stove, but I signed up for ‘more information’ about the BioLite CampStove before it’s launch date was formally announced. At the time I was planning a trip to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). The site said the stove would ship by ‘camping season 2012’, whatever that meant. By the time I decided to pull the trigger and try out an un-reviewed $130 stove (11 May, 2012), the first units were already being shipped. The order confirmation email I received estimated shipping by mid-July, but I was starting the TRT on July 7th. Luckily, the stove shipped early and arrived on June 22nd, leaving plenty of time for me to test it out before the trip.
Unpacking and Testing: I had some issues unpacking the stove. The plastic unit was firmly lodged into the stove, in the same way that it should be packed for hiking. Because it was so tight, and the outside is so thin, I was worried about damaging the product before I even had it assembled correctly. As it turned out, my concerns were unfounded. The thing is quite durable.
I looked over the instructions and charged the device overnight with it’s orange USB cable. The next day I went out to the garage to find some burnable timber. There wasn’t much to choose from, but I successfully started and sustained a small fire on top of my backyard patio table. Ready to go.
Field Use: Four of us set out to hike the Tahoe Rim trail. After the first night, we found ourselves re-shuffling gear because only two of us would continue on the following day. After only one day of using the BioLite, we decided to bring it as our only stove for the rest of the trip. Any lessons would need to be learned the hard way.
After a few days of regular use, the BioLite was less a piece of complicated gear and more just a fire holder. Correction: A fire TORNADO holder. Huddling around the tornado flames is the perfect way to spend your evenings before turning in. In some places, I found that the flames repelled mosquitos better than my bug spray. Since mosquitos are often the reason I crawl into my tent early, the BioLite helped me enjoy sunsets and the nighttime sky a little more. This stove provides the joy of a real campfire in a very small package that’s easy to start and easy to extinguish.
Charging USB Devices: The BioLite contains a thermoelectric (peltier) device, which generates electrical current based on a heat differential. The fan that amplifies the flames also draws in cool air over the heat fins, which increases the heat differential. The BioLite’s primary objective is to generate enough power to keep the battery charged and power the fan (which also increases the heat differential). The secondary objective of the unit (the proverbial icing on the cake) is to charge devices with the USB outlet.
When the BioLite begins to charge a high draw device like an iPhone, you can hear the stove’s fan decrease in speed as the current is switched. The hotter the fire, the more USB charging you can accomplish. With most fires, it seems to only charge the USB about half of the time. For my iPhone 4, this means I can get about half of it’s full charge in a night with a few hours of fire tending. I had little to no luck charging AA batteries sufficiently enough to power a SteriPEN, but only the Energizer Ultimate Lithiums seem to really work in the older model of the SteriPEN anyway.
Safety and Ease of Use: Starting a fire in the BioLite is pretty much the same as starting a regular campfire. Create a stockpile of fuel in varying sizes. Start with some smaller sticks. Paper and pine needles don’t work too well because they burn so fast. The fan sometimes blows out the fire as you are trying to get it going. This can create quite a bit of smoke. Once the embers in the bottom of the stove are really hot, any fuel thrown on top will ignite quickly and without much smoke.
If you’re just sitting around the fire, you’ll probably add a 1/2″ stick (4″ long) once every couple of minutes – things burn quickly on high. When just enjoying the fire, the fan can be turned to low. It has a bit of a hum when it’s on high.
Occasionally, while getting the fire going or (worst case) if it goes out and you have to restart, quite a bit of smoke and embers can fly out of the stove. It’s no more dangerous than a regular camp fire, but this could be an issue if you are camping in a very dry area.
When done for the night, the stove can be picked up by the plastic unit on its side even if it is still hot. Embers can be dumped into a cat hole or fire ring. To be safe, throw some water on those embers.
I like this stove because:
- No fuel frugality necessary. Flexibility in meal choices when I can boil water for 10 minutes or more.
- Once started, it works just fine in moderate wind environments.
- If the SteriPen or tablets fail, this stove can boil lots of water without having to worry about wasting fuel.
- It’s a mini campfire! I’m not going to light fires every night on a backpacking trip – it can be a lot of work. This stove provides me the joy of siting around a fire, with far less work.
- Charging is just a bonus. My headlamp, phone (GPS & camera) and new SteriPen can all be charged with this stove.
And a few not so great things:
- Smoke. If your flame goes out due to poor fuel (green or damp material), it smokes A LOT. The fan blows on the embers which in turn just billow smoke. This didn’t happen often, but it was certainly unpleasant when it did.
- Campfires are illegal in many places, especially in California. If used properly, the risk of a runaway flame is low, but the law is the law. Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires.
- No simmer setting. This stove has two settings: hot and volcano. Hot boils water fast and volcano boils it faster. This can be a good thing, but it’s also easy to burn a delicate meal to the bottom of your pan if you are not paying attention.
- Adding fuel. Generally speaking, you’re going to have to add fuel at some point before your food is done cooking. This requires some coordination – a stockpile of fuel should be made before you begin cooking. I enjoy tending fires, but I prefer to do so without also tending to the meal.
- Soot on your cookware. This can be annoying when you pack pots next to your clothing. But backpacking doesn’t require crisp white shirts, so a little soot isn’t too bad.
- It’s not ultralight. You save weight by not carrying fuel, but the stove still weighs 2 lb, 1 oz.
- It takes longer to turn on and off than a traditional gas stove. This is no big deal when you are setting up camp for the evening but it can be annoying if you need to cook breakfast and are trying to get a quick start in the morning.
The bottom line: The BioLite CampStove is a neat little stove. I use it on about half of all my backpacking trips. It isn’t for everyone and it’s not for every situation. Some people will like it and some will not; I hope I’ve provided enough information for you to decide which camp you’re in.