Our fearless reporter tries out a gas-free campstove which can also charge her phone: will it actually work?
We’re almost at the point where sunny weather can be expected, if not counted upon, which means camping and barbecue picnics are starting to look like a good idea again. The lumpy ground, grass rashes, chilly breezes and frozen-in-the-middle-yet-burned-on-the-outside meat products of last summer have faded in our memories, leaving rosy visions of Pimms and crackling sausage skins. So, continuing in my mission to do everything I want but with an eco-gadget to hand to ease the guilt, it was high time I sought out an eco camp stove.
Camp stoves often run on non-renewable fuels such as butane or petrol, and fuel canisters can end up in landfills, so they’re not the greenest way to cook or heat water while you’re out in the wilderness.
The BioLite camp stove invites us to “Cook dinner and charge electronics anywhere with just a handful of kindling”. The idea is to eliminate the need for “heavy, expensive, polluting petroleum gas”, as well as being a useful resource in a power cut, or in the wake of a natural disaster. (However, the first thing you have to do is charge it, so hopefully you’ll have had the foresight to get that out of the way before the natural disaster.)
So how does it work?
That was my first question, since in my pack I had instructions in several languages including Mandarin, French and two in German, but none in English. After realising my French isn’t quite up to scratch, I ended up relying on this video.
You fill the chamber with dry sticks and light it with one of the firelighters provided. You then press the “on” button to start the fan, and place your pot over the fire. The fan keeps your fire lit so you don’t have to blow on it.
The technology behind it is thermoelectric. After you’ve lit a fire in the chamber, the stove converts the heat into electricity to power the fan, which in turn keeps the fire going. Once there’s a surplus of electricity, it can be used to charge or power small devices. The product photos almost always show an iPhone charging (“*iPhone not included”, they hasten to add), even though a USB-connected lamp is just as plausible a use for it. But, let’s face it – iPhones are the sexy, skinny models of the gadget world. They are the women draped across the bonnet of the sports car.
So, armed with my BioLite and my sexy, skinny iPhone, I ventured out into the wilderness of my parents’ back garden, in the deepest, darkest outskirts of Slough. I borrowed a pot and a litre of water, and made a promise to the family I hoped I could keep to boil a litre of water for everyone’s tea.
“If I’m not back in two days, use the kettle.”
Online reviews of the BioLite were mixed but largely positive. Names have been changed to suit comments.
Five stars: “The stove is well made and attractive. It smoked a fair amount while the wood was catching but once it started flaming and the fan kicks in there's very little smoke and it burns incredibly hot. Once the green LED came on I plugged my iPhone 4S into the stove and it charged no problem. I am yet to test on my iPad3 but I'm sure it'll work!” - optimistic Apple customer, UK
Three stars: “This is a very cool and fun gadget, nothing more nothing less. It cannot be used in heavy rain (according to manual), it produces a far too high flame to be used inside a tent, it's bulky and at 950g it's not light (and you still need a couple of pots to cook and boil water). Ok, it charges my smartphone, but only if it doesn't rain and I keep feeding it sticks of wood overnight. I think for now I will stick to my gas and multifuel stoves, thanks!” - indifferent, in a tent
Two stars: “It is really heavy and does not work correctly. I had Biolite during my last hike in the Polish Bieszczady mountains and it had a hard time charging my Motorola Razr Maxx. Before the trip I charged the internal battery fully. Next I tried to charge my phone during a winter night in February. The Biolite started to cycle between charging my phone for a few minutes to charging its internal battery for five minutes. I gave up after two hours and my phone was barely charged.” - Bear Grylls*, UK
*not really Bear Grylls
My own verdict: the minus points
- The price. It’s £149.95, which means your desire not to use non-renewable fuels must be £149.95 strong.
- I had to interrupt the boiling process several times to feed it more sticks – “just a handful of kindling” really meant “just a handful of kindling every few minutes”.
- The site is clear about using dry sticks. If you stray from this and use leaves or anything even slightly damp, the results are poor and incredibly smoky.
- It can’t be used inside without setting off a smoke alarm, and it can’t be used outside if it’s raining. So in an emergency such as a power cut, you’re relying on decent weather or a lax attitude to indoor safety (that’s a joke – do not use this indoors. The flames lick around the pot, get quite large, and are very hot).
- Charge is intermittent. My iPhone started charging six minutes after the fire was lit, then did around seven minutes on, 10 minutes off. A tip: put your smartphone on “airplane mode” for faster charging in those intervals.
And the plus points
- It eliminates the need to lug around heavy canisters of gas, and eradicates the chance of you leaving any of it behind.
- I agree with the Amazon reviewers that it’s not featherlight, especially given that you’ll also need pots – but compared to a gas stove and canisters of butane it’s a better deal, weight wise.
- The charge function is clever and useful. Anyone who’s ever been to a barbecue in the outback of Hyde Park knows it’s a bummer when your phone conks out, taking with it the chance to snap photos of your dry, flaccid burgers, or brag on Facebook about the quality time you’re spending with your friends (when any fool can see you’ve exchanged it for quality time with your phone).
- You could also use the USB function for a lamp, to read a book, or so you don’t trip over in the dark.
- If you’ve used butane stoves, you might be used to a quick boil speed, but when you use the right kindling and a thin-base pot this boils water in just a few minutes (yes, my family got their tea).
- You can get a steak grill accessory. And anything to which you can add a steak grill deserves a shout out.
- It has built-in safety functions. For example, after you switch it off, it jumps back to life like some sort of demon. But it’s not a demon (you can quote me on that), it’s the fan switching itself back on until it’s cooled down the mechanism.
It’s admirable that anyone would be so dead set on cooking without gas that they would go to the trouble of buying this gadget, but I hope more people do. In light of the surge in popularity in camping in the last few years, if everyone eliminated butane from their outdoor cooking, it might start to make a little dent in the use of non-renewable fuel.
This product is available at the reduced price of £134.95 from ethicalsuperstore.com.
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