When was the last time anyone got excited about a camping stove? Yet, people are talking about the BioLite CampStove. It can cleanly cook with wood while charging your gadgets. How's it perform in the outdoors?
What's It Supposed To Do? BioLite's elevator pitch says it, "…makes cooking on wood as clean, safe and easy as modern fuels while generating electricity to charge phones, lights and other electronics off-grid."
Basically, a thermoelectric generator captures energy from the flames, powering a fan that feeds the fire more air in order to improve combustion. The CampStove is designed to burn small, easily gathered biomass like twigs, pinecones and the like without creating much smoke and with a powerful enough flame that it can quickly boil water, grill burgers, roast marshmallows or handle any other stove tasks as well as traditional, propane, white gas or alcohol-fueled camping stoves.
It's supposed to do that in a package small, light and convenient enough that you can easily take it with you. And, oh yeah, it can charge your gadgets too.
People have seized on that last merit as the CampStove's main point of appeal, but it was actually just a welcome side effect of the clean, efficient combustion created by the thermoelectric generator-powered fan.
"It's interesting that the re-charging benefit has become the main topic of conversation," Jonathan Cedar, BioLite's Co-Founder and CEO tells us. "We still think the coolest accomplishment is that we can burn wood as clean as gas. The first two prototypes of the CampStove didn't even have a USB port. Once we realized we could create enough surplus electricity to share with other devices, that's when the recharging feature came into play."
Keep that in mind as you read this review. The charging ability was a welcome add-on to the stove's main purpose — clean, efficient wood combustion.
How's It Supposed To Do It? The stove is a stainless steel canister about the size of a large Nalgene water bottle. You build a little fire in it and air channels aid combustion by providing oxygen to the fire's base while the cylindrical shape channels flames and heat upwards, where you need them to cook. A plastic box clips onto the side with a little metal "spout" that protrudes into the top of the fire cylinder, capturing heat to power that thermoelectric generator. That then charges a small battery that powers a fan, which forces air into the fire's base, giving the stove that efficient combustion. When there's a power surplus, any gadget plugged into the stove will get a little charge.
That power is provided through a standard 5V USB port producing 2W of charging power continuously or peaking at 4W.
We asked Cedar what the Stove's advantages are over proven, ubiquitous gas-powered camp stoves:
- Never carry fuel. Don't need to pack bulky, leaky gas canisters.
- Don't need to ration fuel. If you're using the sticks and twigs around you, you don't need to agonize over whether or not that second pot of tea is worth it.
- Enjoyment of a campfire, without the smoke. Gas stoves are cold, tiny, and super perfunctory. The CampStove gives you a beautiful big flame and its unique combustion technology makes it burn smokeless. You can roast a marshmallow as good as any camp fire, but without leaving a huge footprint behind.
- You can fly with this. Traveling far for your outdoor experience? Gas canisters are not welcome aboard. And it sucks to land have your first question be "where can I buy gas?" You can fly with the CampStove, carry-on or checked. We recommend checking it, but you can technically carry it on, just be ready to explain how it works to that TSA agent (we've done it a lot and are usually met with "Oh, wow. COOL.")
- You can feed a lot of people with this, especially with the Portable Grill attachment.
- Can your gas stove charge your phone? Nope.
How Does It Perform? We tested the BioLite CampStove Bundle, which adds a modular kettle and grill to the stove and power unit. That takes the price up from $130 to $225. Both additional pieces fit perfectly onto the stove, giving you a stability and ease of both transportation and use you wouldn't get with other equipment; the whole stove fits into the kettle and the grill is housed in a plastic cover to keep its grease and soot contained.
When the CampStove arrived, initial signs were promising. Setting it up on my front porch, a large handful of twigs was able to boil two cups of water in just five minutes. That's pretty decent, taking only two minutes longer than the white gas-powered, $140 MSR Whisperlite stove. A big reason for that extra time was because I had to pull the kettle off the stove to reload it with wood halfway through. Both those times are at sea level.
That gave me the confidence to carry the Bundle on a backpacking trip last weekend. At 33oz for the stove/power unit, 30oz for the grill and 16oz for the kettle pot, that added up to a not inconsiderable 4.9lbs of additional weight. Heavy, but because we were headed to an area where campfires are banned, I figured the combination of large grill, easily boiled water and the comfort of a campfire might make it worth it.
In the woods, the stove is incredibly easy to start and its power source — twigs — are very easy to gather. Unfortunately, the additional cooking times required by the 10,500ft elevation made keeping the stove going a real hassle. It needed a new load of twigs every five to 10 minutes and every 20 minutes or so, it'd accumulate enough ash that we'd have to stop cooking, empty the stove's contents into a hole, then bury the ash and coals before rebuilding the fire. You can't leave the CampStove unattended while it's burning wood, it simply consumes its fuel source so fast that it needs near constant feeding. With burgers taking 20 minutes or more to cook on the grille, I'm sure you can understand the level of hassle involved.
Adding insult to injury, the stove produced huge billows of smoke. Fire and I are best friends and I know how to manipulate it, but this was even while using very dry, very old, bark-free twigs. On a regular campfire, that material would have burned smoke-free. This smoke made keeping the fire going a real pain. Anytime we lost the flame, we'd have to blow down into the bottom of the canister to re-ignite it, getting face fulls of smoke in the process. Also, camping in a fire-free area, the huge billows of smoke would have made us stick out like a sore thumb had there been any other campers or rangers around. Seriously, I can't emphasize how smoky this stove was.
Not lying about the smoke! This was wood smoke, not caused by burger grease.
The level of effort required to keep it going, along with the face fulls of smoke you'd get blowing on it every few minutes meant that we didn't bother keeping it going when we were finished cooking. No smores or romantic "campfire" lit nights for us, just the stars and the reflection of the moon in the crystal clear lake.
Oh, and phone charging? I was able to gain 4 percent charge on a Samsung Galaxy S5 Active (on which all these photos were shot) after 30 minutes of continuous charging. Disappointing, but at least I was able to play music via a Bluetooth speaker without running down the battery. Don't expect quick and easy top ups either, once started, the fire needs about 10 minutes to build up enough heat to produce surplus power for charging, then that continuous re-fueling and tending while your battery indicator slowly ticks up.
How Does It Compare To Rivals? I'd like to say first that I enjoyed using the CampStove. It's a slickly-packaged device that, because it takes so much continuous care to use, you end up developing a real man/machine connection with. Its ability to put a little charge in your phone is a neat — if limited — feature, too.
Having said that, it has a hard time comparing to rivals.
My standard backpacking stove is an old cat food can burning denatured alcohol. When I made it, I fed Wiley its contents for a snack, so the thing was basically free and its fuel costs about $6 for one quart. It can boil two cups of water at sea level in five minutes and 30 seconds. The stove weighs 1oz and for a two-night trip, I'd typically take a generous 8oz of fuel. So, its total weight with fuel comes in at 9oz to the CampsStove's (alone) 33oz. Add to that a 16oz Mophie Juice Pack and you have gain the ability to fully charge your phone in around an hour, several times. Together, the total price for that setup (with fuel) is less than $80 and total weight is 25oz — considerably lighter, cheaper and more convenient than the BioLite.
Not a bad place to spend July 4th, right?
A nice backpacking stove like that above mentioned MSR Whisperlite costs around the same as the CampStove and is far more convenient to cook on, requiring no face fulls of smoke or continuous fire tending. It's much lighter too, even with fuel and a Mophie.
The CampStove also exists in a bit of a legal grey area. Is it acceptable in a fire-free zone? While it does burn wood, that wood is just twigs. While you don't need a fire pit and don't damage the ground under the stove, you do need to dig a hole to dispose of the ashes and hot coals the stove produces every 20 minutes or so. If you are somewhere that permits fires, a regular old campfire is going to be a much better option, actually requiring less work and cooking far easier. Its price and weight? Free and none.
The best use-case for the CampStove that I can come up with is using one for car camping in place of an old Coleman two-burner propane stove. There, it's a neat, wood-burning solution, but again, requires much more effort to use.
Adventure Ready? In its current form, the CampStove is a really, really neat idea that hasn't yet fully realized its promise. It asks too much of its users in terms of both labor and weight and may fall afoul of fire regulations in many protected areas. Most of its advantages — unlimited fuel, the enjoyment of a campfire, gadget charging — actually end up feeling like limitations. But, we do look forward to seeing where this idea goes.
The KettleCharge promises to fix many of the CampStove's shortcomings with faster charging and the ability to charge devices from its battery.
According to Cedar, BioLite is already working on a more efficient solution. This fall, they'll release a new device called the BioLite KettleCharge. It will be compatible with the CampStove, standard backpacking stoves or even your gas stove at home. Producing 10W of electricity, its charge times should be equivalent to plugging into a standard 110v outlet and it has the ability to hold 1.5 smartphone charges in its internal battery. Weighing 32oz and retailing for $130, the KettleCharge will go on-sale this fall.
"I've been using the KettleCharge at home on my gas range and it's actually replaced my regular kettle," says Cedar. "It's the perfect amount of water, and anytime I use it, it's a great reminder to plug in my phone for a quick 10 minutes so my battery never runs out."
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.