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BioLite CampStove

Today we introduce Ben, a new gear reviewer for Monderno. Ben has been teaching in the outdoors for more than six years, primarily for Summit Adventure. He has led mountaineering, rock climbing, canoeing, and backpacking trips throughout the US, Ecuador, and Mexico.

- Brandon

Having been an Outdoor Instructor and Mountain Guide for the past several years, I’ve used a variety of camp stoves in a variety of circumstances.  Typically, I use stoves that operate on either white gas or isobutene because of their versatility, simplicity, and the usability they offer my clients.  When Brandon contacted me about testing the BioLite CampStove I was both excited and skeptical: excited to try something completely different and “out-of-the-box”; skeptical because most electronic “gadgets” don’t actually simplify my job.  I decided to give it a try on a five day climbing and backpacking course in the Sierras.

First, if you’re not familiar with the BioLite CampStove and what makes it unique, watch this short video from BioLite.

It turns out that the BioLite CampStove is not necessarily an exception to my thoughts about electronic gadgets.  It doesn’t simplify my work, and I don’t foresee its widespread use in the outdoor industry, however, it does function as it claims and could prove useful in certain circumstances.  Below I will outline the pros and cons of the stove as I see them, as well as the uses for which I would recommend the stove.

Pros

It actually works…and it’s cool!  I was impressed by the speed with which it boiled water.  At 7,000-9,000 feet, burning either Lodgepole, Jeffrey Pine, or Manzanita, the Campstove boiled water just as fast as the MSR Whisperlite we were also using—easily less than 5 minutes.  Furthermore, it charged my phone without incident and received the “oooohs and aaaaahs” of the group I was with.

It can remove the need to carry fuel in certain environments.  On a multi-week trip through dry, wooded environments I would consider using this stove in order to avoid carrying fuel.  However, if rainclouds were looming, or for some reason I thought I would not be able to find dry wood later, I would consider picking up wood and carrying it in my backpack.

It can remove the need to carry extra batteries for emergency contact devises.  Phones, satellite phones, GPS devices, and maybe even SPOTs could be charged using the Campstove.  I usually bring some sort of emergency contact device into the back country with me.  With this stove, I did not need to worry about batteries dying.  I could always recharge my device (with a little effort).

It produces no waste such as propane or isobutene canisters.  As I was using the CampStove one of my clients was swimming in pristine lake nearby.  He emerged from the lake carrying a rusty Coleman propane canister.  It was riddled with bullet holes out of which water was pouring in streams.  It is always a pain to figure out how to properly dispose of fuel canisters.  Often, a trip to the nearest hazardous waste disposal facility is required.  This is the type of thing the CampStove can prevent, and I’m sure a case could be made for the CampStove having a smaller carbon footprint than fossil-fuel burning stoves.

Ambiance: It feels more natural to be cooking over a fire.  The smoky scent and firelight, despite the whining of the fan, contribute to a more campy and rustic feeling than the typical hissing of a gas stove.  Also, because it requires the collection of wood, it allows one a closer connection to the environment, and an increased sense of being independent and self-sufficient in the wilderness.

It can be used without the fan as a small campfire substitute.  I often opt to avoid campfires with my groups due to the way they can scar the forest floor, litter campsites with charcoal, and lead to the over-collection of firewood near popular campsites.  I was able to get the BioLite to function as a small, self-contained campfire without the annoying fan running.  This kept all the charcoal contained, did not scar the ground, and only used a small amount of wood which was quickly condensed into a cupful of ashes.

Safety.  Even on rock-climbing trips, using stoves is probably the most dangerous activity I have my clients do.  Gas stoves, which have a highly combustible fuel cell sitting directly adjacent to a flame, can act like time bombs.  With the Campstove, I don’t have to worry about explosions.

Cons

As opposed to other popular stoves, it must be constantly tended in order to burn well and charge a device.  It requires the user to devote much attention to the stove throughout the cooking process.  Because the fire is in such a small container and burning at such a quick rate, it must constantly be stoked or it will lose its heat, stop charging any devices, smoke, and die.

I do not picture it working well in locations lacking dry wood.   Much like cooking over an open-fire, the usefulness of the CampStove is very much at the mercy of the environment.  In unvegetated, snowy, or wet environments (such as above the tree line) the CampStove would prove far less useful than a gas stove.  In a survival situation, however, I would prefer it to an open fire.

It takes a significant amount of time in order to fully charge a device.  I let my phone die during the trip in order to charge it back up using the stove.  I never was able to recharge it completely (usually only back to 1 or 2 bars) because it required me to tend the stove constantly for over an hour.  Usually, I was able to finish cooking in only fifteen to thirty minutes, but during much of this time the green light was not on, meaning the phone was unable to charge anyway.  Why not bring solar panels for this function?

Charging a device means the battery may die.  Using all the spare power to charge a phone means there is not power left to charge the stove battery.  Thus the battery is likely to die, requiring the user to build a hot enough fire within the stove, without the use of the fan, in order to recharge the battery and get the stove functioning again.  Because of this issue, I ended up using the MSR Whisperlite rather than the CampStove for a night.

Firestarters are definitely recommended.  Additional focus and diligence were required to start the stove without the aid of firestarters.  Imagine removing the cover from your shower drain and trying to start a fire in the bottom of it.  I ended up laying the stove on its side to build the fire with pine needles and twigs.

The fan can be annoying.  It seems to be louder than other gas stoves I’ve used and is at an awkward, high pitch.

It’s not waterproof.  And with consistent use, it will get wet at some point.  Then what?

It fills with ash after 45 minutes to an hour of use.  This requires the user to stop cooking, dump out the ash, and rekindle another fire.

It produces smoke despite the advertisements, particularly while the fire is still getting hot and when the fire is dying down.  Cooking in a closed tent or shelter would present some difficulties due to the smoke, hot embers, and the pile of wood required to be present.  For cooking inside a tent, a gas stove would be far superior.

It is not covert.  It is brighter and louder than other stoves I’ve used.  This is unimportant to me, but some may find the information useful.

Durability

Another characteristic of the CampStove which should be considered is the durability of the battery.  How long will it last?  The metal component that houses the fire seems quite durable, but I am guessing that the battery would wear out in a much shorter time.

BioLite CampStove In Use

With that in mind, I’ve brainstormed a few circumstances in which I imagine the stove could be useful, and some in which I imagine it would not.

Useful

  1. A survival situation in which fossil fuels are difficult to acquire.
  2. Extended expeditions through dry, forested areas.
  3. Showing off a novel gadget to friends.
  4. Having a stove/campfire combo that doesn’t char the ground and burns less wood than a typical campfire.  This could work well for Wilderness Therapy programs.

Ineffective

  1. Winter camping
  2. Rainy camping
  3. Unvegetated environments
  4. Covert situations
  5. Charging devices quickly and easily
  6. Cooking without thinking

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, I think the Biolite CampStove is an ingenious device which seems to be well made and functions as it is advertised.  However, because much attention and specific circumstances are required to operate it smoothly, it would only be a valuable device for certain people in certain circumstances. I hope you find this review helpful.

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3 Responses to BioLite CampStove

  1. Jason August 20, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    Very helpful review, thanks. I was considering purchasing a Biolite…I might still buy one, but it doesn’t sound like the best choice for an all season backpacking stove.

  2. emmanuel escobar December 13, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    thank you brother, i have being considering buying one of these, the info was very useful.

    • Brandon December 13, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      You’re welcome!

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