Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Biolite Camp Stove

Biolite Campstove prior to lighting
Campstove: Biolite Campstove
Recommendation: Buy only  if the cost doesn't concern you too much
Comments: When I first saw a description of this stove in an online article back in 2010, I was pretty intrigued.  Could this be the end of gas stoves and associated canisters?  Zero operating costs?  Practically net-zero carbon emissions from camp stove use (of course, ordinarily, that is a relatively small emission compared to emissions from transporting your stove and yourself to the campsite).  It seemed too good to be true, but I had to try it out.  When the price came in at around $120, I thought it was reasonable enough (given a high quality stove generally runs in the $100 range, and the lifecycle costs would probably be much lower).

An early warning for all Canadians ordering this product - you will be charged both a brokerage fee and HST when ordering this stove directly from the supplier. Living in Ontario, it came to a total of $28.71 + a $15 shipping fee (so the total cost of the stove was in the $165 CAD range).

First Impressions: The stove is larger than expected, bigger than a 1 litre Nalgene bottle, which it is compared to on the website, but not that much larger.  Immediately you have to question how useful it is in wet weather (how many dry twigs are you going to have to lug around in place of fuel canisters?).  As well, simmer control could be a bit tricky; you have to alternate between "High" and "Low" fan settings to change the voracity of the flame.  Finally, if you're cooking dried noodles or something that requires simmering, how many times do to have to refill this combustion chamber before they're finished cooking?  I hoped to explore these questions on my first camping trip with the stove.  

Biolite Stove
The Biolite Campstove upon ignition
First Use: As it turned out, it rained on the first day of my trip to experiment with the Biolite Campstove.  I didn't bother trying to use it after the rain finished for the day, the pine needles I would have used as tinder were too wet, as were the twigs needed for the fire.  It became clear that you need to either have at least a couple meals worth of dry fuel in a water-tight bag ready to go in the case of rain on the first day or have a backup stove or have some no-cook meals.  The question of how much fuel you need to have in reserve is a tricky one. But from my experience, it's quite a bit (see discussion below).  

The next day after the rain, I tried to use the stove for boiling a pot of water for lunch. This was my first attempt with the stove, so mistakes were made.  But roughly speaking, this is the process:
  1. As stated in the instructions, place tinder at the bottom of the stove.  Pack it very loosely or it'll be very difficult to light.
  2. Layer in smaller pieces of branches, about 2mm or 2" in length (1-2 mm or 1/8" in diameter), about 10-15 small pieces
  3. Drop in a match - this can be tricky and they often go out on the first attempt.  Try to aim it so the match falls through the twigs and makes it to the tinder at the bottom.  
  4. As soon as the tinder catches, and you see flames starting to engulf the twigs, turn the fan on low.   This will get very smokey at first, but the smoke will pass after the fan runs for a bit.
  5. Have your larger sized branches - 5 mm (1/4") in diameter - ready to drop in.  As soon as it's clear that the small twigs have caught fire, drop in one or two of these.
  6. Let these catch and drop in a few more, being careful not to over fill (do not fill with twigs more than 3/4 of the way).  Turn the fan on to high.
  7. Place your pot/kettle on to the stove - I hope that you don't mind that these will become blackened with soot by the end of the process.
  8. Keep feeding the stove every minute or two while the water boils.  For the sake of efficiency, take this time to collect and/or break-up more twigs.  See the first video below; after a few minutes, the fire will pick up a bit and will look a little more like the second video (as you'll notice, it's pretty loud, but nowhere near as loud as the MSR Dragonfly).
  9. Time to boiling was approximately 10 minutes for me, though perhaps this decreases with usage as your proficiency with the stove improves.  
  10. The Biolite Campstove after the coals have caught
  11. Given the amount of effort involved in boiling water for this thing, I can't imagine how cumbersome it would be to charge a portable electronic device.  
Benefits:
  • The main benefit of the stove is clear - you don't need to purchase fuel.  Though given the complications stated above, this should be revised - you don't need to purchase as much fuel.  I just don't think it would be a smart maneuver to take this as your sole means of cooking, unless you pack a lot of ready-to-eat meals.  A back-up fossil-fuel based stove is required. 
  • It's easy to maintain.  No priming, no concern over durability (unless the fan kicks off sooner than expected), no gas lines to keep clean. It's pretty well idiot-proof.  
  • Small sized branches/twigs that the stove requires are plentiful.  You basically only need to just wander within a 5 meter radius of where ever you are cooking (I'm in shield country though, with conifers that constantly drop branches...).  It sure beats cooking over an open flame - much easier to control.
  • Once the flame catches, it's easy to keep alive.

Biolite Stove
Swirling flame on the Biolite stove (fan on)
Concerns: Other than the issue of packing in dry fuel, I have a few gripes that should be aired for those who are considering purchasing this stove. These are:
  • Labour intensive - the constant breaking of sticks and refilling of the combustion chamber to maintain output is a bit annoying (but hey, it's free)
  • Not as quick to boil as advertised - 4.5 minutes seems like an awfully ambitious estimate, I can't imagine how this can be achieved with any consistency...maybe after a lot of practice 
  • Simmer control is an art, not a science - it is not just a matter of toggling on high or low fan setting; you need to really watch the flame and the pot, and adjust the rate of fuel consumption accordingly (also by adjusting the rate at which you feed the fire)
  • If the fire dies while you're cooking, it is a pain to restart, so you can't just start the stove and let your focus drift from the task at hand
  • You need to be aware of shifting wind conditions - if the wind starts to shift during the cooking process, the flame can potentially damage the battery/fan pack.  You need to ensure that the flame is downwind of the battery pack.  
  • Biolite Stove
    Biolite Campstove in action
  • Very smokey on start-up - just after the tinder catches and you've started the fan, expect a lot of sooty smoke.  
  • All your cookware will be blackened - though it's camp cookware, so this is not a deal breaker
  • If you're car camping, you're likely out of luck.  
Summary: This stove has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of camp fuel you consume.  However, don't abandon you gas stove yet; the potential for fuel scarcity/quality issues is great enough that you'll need backup.  Or at least a lot of ready to eat foods (protein bars, gorp, wraps, etc.)  

How much fuel is needed per meal: The stove eats a lot of twigs before you get boiling water.  I would imagine that just to a pot of water to boil, you'll need the equivalent of at least a couple 2-foot branches of 5mm (or 1/4") in diameter), a couple 2-foot branches 2mm (or 1/8") in diameter and about a handful of pine needles or dried leaves. And if you want to simmer or charge a device after that, you'll need to add fuel to this stock accordingly.  




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