Making tea on the Biolite Campstove
I picked up a BioLite Campstove this spring and have taken it on two short tours around Washington State: 4 day tour around SW Washington and a week+ trip to Victoria BC. I wouldn’t consider this extensive testing by any means but I can certainly offer my impressions so far. Let me set the stage first: so far I always tour solo, self-contained and do fairly ambitious cooking. That is to say I’m not just boiling water, I’ll actually cook things where it may take a long time (like rice say), you are pretty active in the minding the cooking (like a stir fry) or you need temperature control (something like oatmeal, or the rice, etc). I’ve been using alcohol stoves since I’ve been touring and I’m a pretty diehard Trangia fan since picking one of those up a couple years back. I also have been experimenting with electronics and charging systems for most of my tours. These experiments I’ve pretty well documented in these two posts on my blog: charging systems and charging systems revisited.
One of my recent touring goals has been one reducing overall dependency on services. Two aspects of that IMO are buying fuel and charging devices. So the BioLite seemed to offer solutions to those problems. Now as always I’ve done my research and knew that the BioLite is not going to offer much charging unless you just sat there feeding the fire for hours. However in my experience if you are serious about charging stuff what you want is an external battery and you should always keep that charged. You also should keep your devices charged as well instead of running it all the way down. The goal should be to be able to only drain your batteries in a give day as much as you can recharge in a typical day. That is if you use 10% of your smartphone battery per day you should be able to charge it 10%. So anything that offers additional charging along with its primary function is an advantage – if and only if it does the primary function well.
Cooking soba noodles with tofu and veg
So how does the BioLite work for cooking? I have to say not bad. I made soba noodles the both times I used it, which is a pretty go to dish for me. However it’s not one that demands a lot of temperature control. I mean its nice to turn down your stuff once the water is boiling so it doesn’t boil over but you can deal. You can control the fan speed on the BioLite between high and low and that gives you a rough temperature control. You also as you use it build up coals inside and you actually can have a nice lower temp burn up going. But it’s hard to keep it at that. This is because you need to constantly feed the stove. It’s small – which is good cause otherwise you wouldn’t tour with it – but that means it doesn’t hold much wood. For pure boiling of water from my kettle it pretty much kicked ass, at least as fast as my Trangia with kettle.
I have a style where I tend to either setup or take down my camp while cooking (if the food prep isn’t too demanding). This is true in the morning especially where I always make oat bran and coffee and can pretty much have all my gear beyond the cooking gear packed by the time breakfast is ready. This is much more difficult with the BioLite. Since I used my Trangia cookset with the BioLite I carried it packed with the alcohol burner me and used it for breakfast cooking.
Getting the water boiling water for my Soba noodles
So my thoughts on this is that the best way to use the BioLite is to carry another stove, one that ideally fits in your cookset and thus isn’t much more bulk. One could carry less fuel in this case – basically one bottle of HEET being the typical minimal amount I can buy. One would want to use the BioLite as much as you could but in the cases where you find no twigs – say in grassland type camping – or where you don’t want to feed the fire, or are in a rush you use your other stove. This does bring up the last point worth mentioning. The BioLite is pretty heavy and bulky as far as it goes. Since you have to carry at least some sort of cookset along with it, your space for your cooking gear is a lot bigger. If you could use it exclusively the weight savings on carrying fuel would I think be pretty close but the bulk is unavailable. In multi-person groups I think a lot of these problems would be alleviated – the bulk is less of an issue, someone needing to constantly mind the stove is less of an issue, carrying a backup is less of an issue.
Using the Biolite to charge an external battery pack
I did use it to charge my external battery on my first time using it and it worked fine. But I’d need to do a lot more experimenting with it to say how much I’d count on charging in a typical cook session. Unless you just barely use your devices I wouldn’t count on it to keep your stuff charged. But if you have another system (generator, solar or frequent mains access) it certainly will help. I did not end up using it to charge on it’s second outing as I’d forgotten my iPhone USB cable (D’oh!) and that was the only device I’d really run down. It can’t charge the iPad, hence the external battery which it CAN charge, but I think it’d be perfect for “topping off” a smartphone which I’ve come to realize the trick to self-charging devices on tour.
Getting the fire going
I suppose it’s also worth noting that this is a fire you are cooking over. So there is smoke, soot and flames. I rarely made campfires in camp myself but I do enjoy them. The BioLite does give you a nice, easy to make fire for that purposes. But you do smell like smoke and your cookgear gets a lot more dirty. As noted you also really go through the little sticks and it’s worth trying to get larger ones going after the fire is well and truly burning. I gathered a much larger supply on my second use of the stove and still found myself running through them by the time I was done. For me I’d have to gather a pretty good stash the night before if I wanted to cook breakfast with the stove.
Anyway as I use it more I’ll post some more experiences. In the end I think it works as advertised but there are a lot of things to consider. But this is the case with any cooking gear so everyone will have to decide what the tradeoff and benefits they are willing to make.
Note: I always intended to review the Biolite Stove here, but I ended up writing a long post over on the Adventure Cycling forums after my first use of the stove which I’ve based this post on.