For the past two years we have been waiting for the Biolite stove. It appeared to fanfare on Kickstarter.com and people have been waiting patiently ever since. For those of you who have managed to avoid the hype, this is a stove that uses sticks and twigs and pine cones for fuel instead of a petroleum based fuel source. People have gone crazy for the idea, and while a few have surfaced, they are finally about to hit mass release. I managed to get my hands on one, and thought this would be a good opportunity for a review.
Most people who are interested in this stove are backpackers. While I do backpack, as you are aware, I am mainly a paddler. I will try and cover both of those bases.
The Biolite stove is beautifully manufactured, and is about the same size as the Jetboil Flash (or the original Jetboil PCS which is what I use.) This is where the comparison ends.
The jetboil uses a standard propane/iso-butane canister. By the scale in my kitchen it weighs 1 pound 5 ounces. (21 ounces) with one container of fuel in the pot. The Biolite weighs 34 ounces by my scale. So this is a heavy little stove. The argument would be that you don't have to carry fuel, but with that sort of thinking you could carry a jetboil and three fuel canisters for the same amount of weight. My real stove of choice is an MSR Whisperlite. My Whisperlite weighs 11 ounces without fuel. 18 ounces of fuel (in an MSR 24 liquid ounce bottle) will keep me cooking for about four days - maybe longer - and still weighs less than the Biolite. But as a paddler I don't really care about weight. If it fits in my boat I can bring it.
Here is how the Biolite works. You set it up and gather sticks. Light a fire starter that it comes with, fill the chamber with sticks and add the fire starter. After ten seconds you hit a button on the side of the stove which turns on a small fan. The fan is powered by the heat of the fire in the chamber. The heat creates electricity which charges a battery. This battery controls the fan, but also can be routed to a USB port to charge an electronic device.
So this morning I gathered sticks, and set myself up to do a test. I wanted to boil two cups of water on the Biolite, and two cups of water in the jet boil. I was going to time how long it took for me to get flames and then how long a hot fire would take to boil water. Biolite claims that it will boil a liter of water in 4.5 minutes which is a respectable time. But most people aren't boiling a liter of water. They are boiling two cups, because two cups of water is the amount that most freeze dried food uses. My jet boil boils two cups of water in about 3 minutes. (It actually just took 3 minutes and 33 seconds to boil two cups of cold water on a 45 degree day, with a canister that was almost empty. With a new canister it is probably around 2 minutes 45 seconds. )
This is where the problem started. Last night it rained. It rained a lot. I couldn't find dry twigs. I had no problem find twigs that snapped easily, but they were wet. I figured I would try it anyway. I followed the directions and got nothing but smoke for 7 minutes.
In those seven minutes I did some thinking. I tend to paddle in cold and wet places. Most of the places I paddle I would have a hard time finding fuel for this stove. For instance, my last paddling trip near cape lookout in NC I wouldn't have been able to find suitable wood.
If I were backpacking I would have no problem finding fuel, but do I really want a two pound stove? two pounds before a pot? I don't think so. It is a very cool item. It is beautifully made. It is the first real innovation in the stove industry since the jet boil. But I don't think this is the end all, be all of stoves. I think Biolite is doing some amazing things, and I think this is the coolest. But I am not ready to make the move to this stove just yet.
A couple of other things that occurred to me, this stove is probably going to make the bottom of my pots black. not the worst thing in the world, but messy. This stove offers no flame control - besides the rudimentary 'fan on hi' or 'fan on low'
It also occurred to me during the seven minute wait, that suppose I wasn't using this to cook? Suppose I used this simply for power generation. At Max power Biolite says it will put out 5W via USB. But also says for long term, it only puts out 2W. Two watts wont charge my iPad, and it will charge my Iphone slowly. I need to see if it will charge my GoPro.
Yesterday at work - before the rain - we did light it up. With Dry fuel it lit quickly and easily and produced a lot of heat. I am waiting for the day to warm up, but honestly, if not being able to find dry fuel will keep it from working, what will I do backpacking when it rains? Or paddling when it rains? That for me is a deal breaker.
I got up early before work to give it one more shot. The sticks I had collected had been sitting in the sun since the day before. I want this stove to work the way they say it does. My collected twigs and sticks were all gathered from the ground the day before. They were brittle, but yesterday had gotten a good coating of water. I figured 24 hours would be enough to dry them out.
I repeated the process. Broken twigs in the stove, a fire starter. Wait ten seconds. Fan on. 45 seconds in, I had a good flame. Put the fan on high. A minute and a half in, I had a good fire. At three minutes I decided to get a pot with two cups of water to see how long the boil time was. When I came back from inside I could have sent smoke signals with what was coming out of the stove. I used a stick to stir the fire around a little and added some fresh fuel. This cured things and I had a new raging fire. I placed my pot on the stove and added the water. I had nice flames licking up around the pot. At one minute and 35 seconds I had steam. At 4 minutes I had steam. At 5 minutes I carefully removed the pot and saw I would have to add more fuel. Still no rolling boil. This is where I gave up.
I do think that the wood was still too wet. With a good fuel source I am sure this works perfectly. With a questionable fuel source you have a long slow night of cooking ahead of you. I think this is an incredibly brilliant product with some very serious limitations. Weight being one, and usability in bad weather being the other? You certainly couldn't use it winter camping. People talk to me about this stove like it's a revolution. For me, the revolution in stoves was released about a year ago, and no one noticed. It's the MSR whisperlite Universal that will burn just about any kind of fuel. If my 20 year old whisperlite would stop working I would buy one in a heart beat, and it is only about 30 dollars more than the Biolite.