The BioLite CampStove charges iPhones with fire, but it’s mostly a great little stove
As an unabashed gadget enjoyer, I've done a pretty good job over the last few years of weening myself from impulse purchases. It was worst when I was a full-time gadget writer, strangely enough, when almost everything I wanted to play with was just an email to a PR person away; somehow I kept buying more stuff I arguably didn't need.
Now I'm more tempered in my purchases. Nothing irks me more than to have something sitting around that I never actually use.
Somehow, though, I bought a $129 BioLite CampStove in the early summer, despite being busy with a fulltime job that didn't allow for a lot of camping. (I haven't done much camping since I moved back to New York City, at least compared to when I lived in Oregon.) The BioLite sat on a shelf for a few months, save for when I'd pull it down to show it to a pal: Hey, look! This camp stove burns wood but also charges your iPhone. I was pleased primarily that such an object existed, even if I didn't need it.
When my girlfriend and I went to Oregon for vacation a few weeks ago, I almost forgot to back the BioLite, despite that our plan was mostly to hit a bunch of national parks and car camp.
Instead, we took the BioLite along and ended up using it very nearly every morning and evening–at least a dozen times. And it's even better than I'd have hoped.
First, the nerdly bit: the USB charging works. It's literally a bit uneven, as the BioLite only kicks on its charging function when it has 1) filled up its own internal battery that drives its combustion fan, and 2) when there's enough heat in the fire chamber to be converted into electricity. With an iPhone, at least, you'll hear the chime that denotes charging every so often, usually after you add a little bit more tinder to the fire. I don't know if that affects the battery or charging in any way, but I will say that my iPhone had a weird bug after a few days where the battery indicator was stuck at 99% for a while. (Something that many who aren't using BioLites to charge have experienced.)
Still, it worked. And fairly quickly, adding 10% or 20% in the amount of time it took to cook a typical meal. I would expect you could recharge an iPhone to capacity in about an hour, but I never bothered.
The reason I never used the BioLite for an hour was that I didn't need to. The stove burns hot and fast, boiling water in five minutes or so, and toasting a bit of bread or a tortilla in less than 30 seconds.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that, sure, the BioLite can charge your phone, but what actually made me want to write up my experience with it is that it's an incredibly effective, convenient little stove.
To understand why, it helps to understand why there's a battery in the thing in the first place. The idea behind the CampStove (and its big brother, designed for developing economies, the HomeStove) is that a battery-powered fan creates a vortex inside of the burn chamber, increasing both the heat and the combustion rate by adding more air–and thus more oxygen–from outside the burn chamber.
You see it working when you press the button on the front, turning on the fans. (Which you're instructed to do after the little fire inside, which you start with tinder or a firestarter like you would a normal campfire, has burned for about 10 seconds.) Small holes inside the burn chamber start swirling air around the little bits of wood you've tossed inside, both increasing the heat but also giving the smoke a chance to combust fully.
That's the biggest visual sign that the BioLite is working: the smoke disappears. That makes for a much more pleasant cooking experience; you're not kicking so much smoke and soot into your face or onto your pots as you would with a normal campfire.
Don't get me wrong: it's still a little wood fire. There's going to be some smoke. But it's far less smoke than typical when burning wood.
And burning wood is ultimately what makes the BioLite so convenient. We bought split pine firewood at almost all of our stops, simply to have a campfire to sit in front of each night. Just chipping little 2-inch shafts off of a single piece of firewood was plenty of wood to cook a two-person meal or make coffee in the BioLite. In fact, after a couple of days, I stopped making my own little wood chips and just looking around our camp sites and picking up wood from previous campers off the ground. In one stand of Ponderosa pine near the Painted Hills in Oregon, I found a pine tree that had split and fallen and was able to gather enough wood of the perfect size to last us for at least a couple of weeks. I was sad to have to leave it with a friend when we left.
Having the right size wood is definitely important, though, as the BioLite's burn chamber can only accept a small amount of wood at once, and pieces that are more than about an inch in diameter don't fit cleanly inside, especially with the big, metal prong for the heat-to-electricity exchanger nearly bisecting it at the top. That means you'll be feeding the BioLite quite a bit–every five minutes or so was my experience, especially with fast-burning pine. That can be mildly annoying when cooking a meal, but it just means you take the pan off the rolled metal scallops at the top of the BioLite, chuck in a little piece of wood, and go back to cooking.
The need to constantly feed the BioLite, plus the mild but audible whine from the fan, means you probably wouldn't want to light a fire in the stove and keep it running all night in lieu of a campfire. But that's not what it's designed for, so there's no ding there.
I've always been frustrated with camp stoves. I don't like buying fuel for them. I don't like packing out my spent canisters. They don't smell like wood smoke. While the BioLite CampStove isn't tiny or ridiculously light, it packs up into about a quart-sized container and obviates the need for bringing fuel along. Combined with its ability to recharge USB devices in the field–like the fantastic Joby GorillaTorch, another camp favorite–I feel confident in saying that I won't be looking for another camp stove anytime soon.
And now that I've done my little review, I'm going to throw the burn chamber in the dishwasher and clean it up. Can't have it looking shabby on my shelf.