The BioLite CampStove  My brief, conflicted relationship with a fan-forced wood stove

In my day job, I tend to enjoy complexity and ingenuity, but sometimes I have to get what I wish for, in order to work out what I want.

It runs on twigs and sticks! It will re-charge your devices! It’s a triumph of technology, an award-winning design, cute, versatile, and brilliant! I wanted one from the moment I first saw an article about one. When a used BioLite CampStove came up on TradeMe for cheap, I put in a cheeky low bid, and let the Fates decide. I won the auction, and took to YouTube to watch myriad unboxing/first-firing videos as I awaited delivery of my new toy.

The first job was to charge up its internal battery using a USB cable. After a couple of hours, I got the green light, and set it up outdoors. I stoked it with dry twigs, topped it off with a beeswax-soaked cotton bud, and dropped in a match. I shall be blunt: the internal fan that forces air into the combustion chamber sounds like a hair dryer. Yes, it gets things going quickly, and transforms the device into a blast furnace, but what a racket.

The stove includes a thermoelectric generator (or ‘TEG’)—a solid bar that can generate a small voltage difference between its hot end (in the burning chamber) and its cold end (in the fan housing). After a few minutes, the indicator lamp turns green, to show that the TEG is generating enough current to run the fan, charge the internal battery, and has a little bit of juice left over to throw at your USB device. A maximum of 2 watts, to be precise. This is a little less than half of the output of a typical USB plug. Yes — it will charge up your big smartphone — but it will take hours. If this is your only source of power, it’s certainly a great deal better than nothing. A brisk 20-minute burn will bring your phone back from the dead for an emergency call or text, but relying on this to keep your appliances up and running will see you making camp at noon, and poking twigs all afternoon in order to recharge your stuff before bed.

Let’s talk about the weight: 935g (2 lbs). It’s a solid addition to most backpacks and even some car boots. Couple this with the 465g (16.4oz) Kettlepot, and you would have to be travelling a very long way before it starts being a lighter option than toting a litre of white spirit, or a stack of gas canisters. A 10AH battery pack and a gas stove will keep you juiced, ply you with tea, and weigh quite a bit less.

I took it on several trips, but could never get past the whine of its fan. The stove never let me down — it boils water in a jiffy, and even topped off my phone — but taking it along always felt like more of a duty, than a pleasure. If I’m using a wood-burning stove on a trip, I have certain aesthetic expectations. Orange plastic, a wailing fan and a blazing hellmouth are an unwelcome intrusion into my wilderness experience. Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating:

Two kilowatts of flame, 2 watts of electricity, too many dBs of noise.

So there it sat, somewhat forlornly, in my Earthquake Box. Just in case. Every time I saw it, I felt a bit bad. It’s an expensive piece of kit, and someone should be enjoying it. Eventually I set it free on TradeMe once more, and now someone else is feeling a bit bad about it. At least they also got it for a cheeky low bid.

The Department of Conservation’s website says during fire bans, “no fires can be lit in the open air”. The BioLite contains its fire, but there are still sparks and powdery embers. My approach was to bring something else during fire bans. I have no desire to be ‘that guy who burned down the Ruahines’. The downside of this is that in the middle of a spring downpour, all the likely fuel is soaking wet. You may get some side-eye if you try to fire it up in a hut, too—that’s a consideration with wood-burning stoves in general.

BioLite’s new version of the stove kicks out more electricity, and has a fancy LED dashboard, but the videos of it in use all seem to use cheerful ‘Kickstarter’ background music, rather than the Banshee howl of the fan. The original is still a great stove — well designed, and well made. The legs click solidly into place, the joints are smooth and sound. It’s a marvel of ingenuity and complexity and it delivers exactly what it promises. It turns out, I was looking for something else.

The Biolite stove, with its kettle and grill, on its way to someone new.

The BioLite CampStove, with its kettle and grill, on its way to someone new.

Wilderlife