The Biolite CampStove has something of a cult following in the camping and survival world. It's claim to fame is its ability to burn easily available biomass (aka anything natural) and also recharge external USB powered devices. Some absolutely love it while others abhor it.
The truth is that there are other products that can do each of the individual functions better (a battery for device recharging, a liquid gas stove for cooking, etc) but is the whole worth more than the sum of its parts? Read on to find out.
How does it work
The stove is composed of the main combustion chamber, a pot stand and the power module.
The power module is built in heat resistant plastic that remains relatively cool to the touch during operation and houses the battery, fan & power conversion module. The fan is used to push oxygen to feed the fire, which gives it the ability to burn any time of biomass. The conversion module converts heat into electricity which recharges it's internal battery, power the fan and then uses the surplus power to charge your devices.
At first I assumed that the built in battery would also be used to recharge my connected electronic device but it doesn't. The Biolite CampStove only uses excess electricity to recharge your device (once its internal battery is full and it is generating enough power to keep turning the fan.)
When you first receive the unit, you are asked to charge the battery using the provided (yellow) USB cable with a computer or USB Wall Adapter. After that, you will never need to recharge it this way as long as you use the stove at least once every 6 months.
The power module fits inside the burning chamber so it is "fairly compact" but shouldn't be considered small.
The device is designed so that the external stainless steel mesh case can he held even when the fire is scorchingly hot. It has 3 legs which means it won't sterilize the ground (where it is placed) and won't cause the snow to melt (for winter camp).
Compared to most liquid fuel based camping stoves, it is much bigger and heavier. The Biolite CampStove is (packed):
- height 8.25 "
- Width 4"
- Weight 33 oz
My fully loaded packed MSR Whisperlite weights in at a mere 14 oz and packs in a quarter of the size. Unless you are an ultralight packer though, this shouldn't be much of an issue for you as it is the size of a large Nalgene bottle.
Especially if you buy the Kettlepod accessory, the entire kit stores in the KettlePot making it even more compact. I'll talk about the KettlePot a bit later.
Let's talk about fire
Biolite provides 5 fire starter sticks to get you going and you can buy a 10 packs from most sporting good stores for a couple of dollars. Combine this with a Zippo lighter and even semi-dry kindling will light into a warm bright fire.
Basically you light the fire starter, gently drop it into the combustion chamber then gently top it off with the kindling. You then slowly add the biomass fuel. After 15-20 seconds, you press the fan button once to start a gentle blow. As the fire starts to heat up, you start to add more wood (ideally the ticker woods which will last longer per load) or other thicker biomass. About a minute into the burn, you press the fan button again to switch it into high gear. Small sticks and twigs will burn within a few minutes while the thicker wood like maple may last up to 10 minutes.
Once the fire is hot, you can add almost any kind of biomass. I tried using fresh wet oily cedar tree branches and it burned them no problem. Pine cones, wood pellets, birch bark, wood, different grasses, leaves, animal dung are no problem for this hot oxygen fed fire.
Now people criticize the fact that it burns the biomass quickly (because of the high temperature) and that you will have to continually reload the CampStove to keep the fire burning and charging your devices. They complain about the impact on the forests of providing that much fuel, but the reality is that everywhere I've gone camping over the last 20 years has had more than enough dead biomass available on the forest floor.
The fire can get very hot which is good because the hotter the fire the more electricity it generates but if you need a slow simmer, you simply allow the fire to die down a bit bit, feed fuel more slowly and switch the fan speed to low. To boil water, you add a lot of wood and put the fan on high. The fact is that controlling a natural fire's temperature is much more complicated than a fuel based camping stove, so you'll have to be more attentive.
Because it burns very hot, all that is left is a small amount of ash that is environmentally safe and easy to dispose of. Plus the high heat means the fire generates less smoke.
I was able to boil 1.5 liter of water in their KettlePot in 5-6 minutes even when the ambient air temperature was in the low teens.
Remember that you can recharge almost any USB powered device but.....
I tested with various smartphones (iphone 5s/4s, Nexus 4/5, Samsung Galaxy S4/5, HTC One M7 and all of them were receiving power and charged.
My Nexus 7 (2012) tablet charged but not the iPad. The reality is that the Biolite should not be your only gadget power source. Recharging a completely dead modern smartphone will take many hours of stocking and restocking the fire.
The first rule of survival is redundancy. Always have 2 ways to accomplish a critical task. To build a fire, I always carry a lighter and a ferro stick. So to power your devices, I would use the Biolite CampStove and maybe a Solar charger as well ( I am testing and will be reviewing the Joos Solar Orange Joos Solar charger and battery soon). The Orange Joos solar panels charge an internal 5,000 mAh battery which can then power your power hungry devices. I recommend you take the same approach with the CampStove. Use the CampStove to recharge an external battery then use this battery to charge your devices.
It took 2.5 hours to charge my iPhone 5s from 12% to 50%.
It's a 1.5L kettle you can use to boil water, rehydrate food, make soup, boil pasta or veggies.It is an extremely versatile piece of kit that makes using the CampStove that much better. It's bottom has a heatsynch which means it collects the maximum amount of heat which efficiently boils 1.5L (of room temperature) water in about 5-6 minutes with a hot fire.
Once you are done cooking, you can clean the Kettlepot with water and a soft sponge and store the CampStove inside it for efficient space use.
I sent a couple of "issue" emails to their customer service group and responses where always prompt, courteous and complete. In this day and age of offshoring most support services, it was nice to deal with a company that seems to offer good reliable customer service.
I tested the unit a couple of times before making any judgements about it. I know many online reviewers complain that they have to find biomass and keep feeding the Campstove but I really don't see that as an issue. The way I look at it, it means I don't need to carry fuel with me which is really attractive for longer multi-day excursions or off-grid survival situations (when you lose power at home).
I never leave a lit fire unattended anyway, so dropping some wood into the device every 10 minutes isn't a big issue for me. You can sit around it with friends and chat.
Additionally there are drier periods when open campfires are not permitted but most authorities will allow you to use the Biolite, which means you can also use it to roast marshmallows, make smores or just relax around a "mini campfire". This thing is beautiful to watch at night in the dark ( I would even say mesmerizing).
Before I list the positives and negatives, let me just say that I actually liked the Biolite CampStove and will be using it for my personal camping excursions. There are a lot of negative write-ups but please make up your own mind.
I wish the device could generate power more efficiently, charge devices faster and maybe use part of the built in battery to charge devices when the stove is not in use.
It is a bit on the heavy side so I wish they would cut down on weight a bit (20-30%)
I wish you could lower the intensity of the LED lights on the power module. They are fairly bright at night in a dark forest environment. Either reduce the brightness, allow me to adjust the brightness or have an option to use red light which doesn't ruin night vision.
A great backup in survival or power down situations.
Easy to find fuel for your fire almost anywhere in the world. You don't need to lug heavy containers of fuel and if you travel internationally, you won't have to scramble in your destination country to find compatible fuel. I love the fact it uses standard highly available biomass.
I wish the fire chamber was a bit bigger so I could use larger pieces of wood but then people would complain about the increase in size.
It burns down the biomass completely into ash which means means you won't leave any trace.
The legs of the CampStove lift the device off the ground so you are not sterilizing the ground and are not risking starting a forest fire.