I bought a Biolite camp stove just over a year ago for my camping trips, but it’s had a lot more use than I ever envisaged. Buying the grill attachment made it even more useful. I’ve had to learn various best practices with it all, like any new piece of equipment, but the rewards have been huge. I should probably sell them, because every time I show anyone they want one and tend to go out and buy one.
So what is a Biolite camp stove? In summary, it’s a little stove which runs on small bits of wood, gasifying them and burning them highly efficiently to yield lots of heat, no smoke and virtually no ash. It’ll boil a litre of water in 4 minutes if you get it right. It even generates electricity from the heat, to charge your USB devices, of which more later.
The Biolite camp stove is a compact unit weighing one kilo. It comes with a stuff sack and a pot stand. It has an on board battery which needs to be charged before first use, but I’ve never had to recharge it since that first time because it recharges itself during normal use.
We bought the grill attachment and use it whenever we have a BBQ. We prefer the speed of the Biolite to a charcoal BBQ, taking mere minutes from cold to cooking. The taste of the food is better too. And it’s truly portable – no mess at all thanks to the grill’s clever plastic cover. We’ve had endless BBQs in the park, whilst camping, on the beach, in the mountains and in the garden. My work colleagues value our lunchtime BBQs and reckon I’ve greatly improved their quality of life thanks to the Biolite.
The Biolite generates electricity from the heat it produces, thanks to an integral TEG (Thermo Electric Generator). TEGs work with a temperature gradient, in other words it has to be hot one side and cool the other. In the case of the Biolite this is achieved by use of the fan which produces the air current that gasifies the wood. Of course that fan and it’s control electronics all run off the electricity from the battery, so the Biolite has to use the electricity produced to recharge that battery. It’s only once the battery is fully charged and you’re generating excess electricity that the Biolite will start to make electricity available via the USB socket for charging your phone or whatever. Don’t expect to charge your iPad though, which needs a full 2 amps. Your iPhone, iPod or GPS should be fine though. Expect to generate about 10% of charge for an iPhone 5s in around 20-30 minutes.
The implications of the Biolite are truly amazing. No gas bottles which are heavy and finite, and burn warm rather than really hot. Infinite heat and USB charging means infinite clean water and GPS/phone. In a survival situation this could just save your life.
I’ve seen many people moaning about the Biolite camp stove. Generally it’s a case of a bad workmen blaming the tools. As with most tools, the technology is sound, but results may vary depending upon how you use it. Learn the skills and it’ll serve you well.
Here are some of my top tips from a year of Bioliteing…
- Damp wood is to be avoided. It’s a small combustion chamber and you want to avoid wasting too much of the heat boiling away the water in your wood. If all the twigs on the ground are wet, try finding snagged branches in trees which tend to be air-dried. Or cut dry pieces from the interior of the wood, away from the wet parts. And then use the grill to dry the wet wood, as mentioned below.
- Best wood: a nice dense hardwood. Ash is great, and burns when green due to only 20% water content. Pine is good but larch can spit, especially when knotty.
- Surface area matters: get busy with your axe, or knife and baton, to reduce your wood to small kindling (see photo above).
- If the contents of the combustion chamber are just smoking with little or no flames, the fan might be able to reignite the gases once their temperature comes to flashpoint. This is preceded by a roaring sound from deep within the chamber. But it might need a little help to reach flashpoint faster. Don’t blow downwards into the chamber or you’ll burn your face. Treat it more like a flute. Give a hard blow or two across the top of the combustion chamber in the same direction as the wind. Most times the smoke will ignite, you’ll get lots of heat, and no more smoke. And your face will live to fight another day.
- Position the fuel well. Your sticks should be vertical or sit at an acute angle in the combustion chamber. Sometimes one may go in as too oblique an angle, your flames will cease and it’ll go all smoky – just reposition the offending piece with another stick and it’ll often just all restart. Push them down well too, so they get well heated by the hot coals at the bottom of the chamber, gasifying them faster.
- Favourite way to light it? Same as my favourite way to light all fires. A handful of birch twigs and a piece of birch bark. Twigs and a long match are good too. As are bits of dry firewood cut into matchsticks with knife and baton.
- Making porridge: the heat from the Biolite is too great, burning your porridge. So boil the water/milk first, then add the porridge oats and stir. Then if necessary gently bring back to the boil with the pot suspended over the Biolite. This method won’t take long to produce perfect, unburned porridge. The same goes for most rehydration tasks.
- Heat: the Biolite produces masses of it with little or no smoke and a low predictable flame. So try bringing it under your suspended open tarp on a cold winter’s night and warming a nice pocket of air. I wouldn’t recommend you do this with a tent however – far too risky. Never, ever use any kind of naked flame in a tent, because of both fire and carbon monoxide risks.
- Crusader cup: avoid burning yourself on hot handles by positioning your cup carefully on top of the Biolite with the handles over the fan unit and the concave wall of the cup right at the edge of the combustion chamber (see photos above).
- Billy can: keep the handle of the billy can balanced over the top of the lid, to keep it nice and cool. If it drops, try to ensure it drops over the fan unit where it’ll be cooler (see photo above).
- The grill doubles the size of the combustion chamber. This can lead to a more sustainable fire and lots more heat (sufficient to turn the metal of the grill to glowing red hot). So if you’re carrying the grill, and if you need lots of heat, and maybe half your wood is damp, consider using the grill even if you’re not using it for cooking. You can always lay out your wettest wood on it to dry out.
- Let your Biolite finish its combustion cycle before packing it away. It’ll carry on fanning the fire, producing excess electricity until the embers are extinguished and the chamber is cool, and there’ll be hardly any ash left. Then it’ll power down by itself and it should all be cool enough to pack away immediately. It’ll also be fully charged and ready for next time.
I hope this helps you out, whether you’re considering buying a BioLite camp stove or you already have one and are a bit disillusioned. Please feel free to comment!