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For the hardcore, long distance hiker, the weight of a pack can make or break an excursion, which is why outdoor retailers focus on ultra lightweight camping gear. From sleeping bags that are almost lighter than air to boots that feel like they're barely there, every ounce of equipment counts. And when weight is a true concern, many hikers have to leave behind the handy travel stove. It's not much fun to be relegated to eating cold food, but the weight of a stove — and especially the liquid fuel it sometimes needs — can be substantial.
Another luxury that many hikers have to forgo is conversely more modern; a smartphone not only provides entertainment while out in the wilderness, but for many it serves as a lifeline in case of emergency. Although it's not heavy like a stove, it instead inconveniently requires electricity to charge — something hikers won't easily find along the Appalachian Trail.
Attempting to solve both of these problems at the same time is the buzz-worthy BioLite CampStove. This appliance cleverly combines features of a lightweight cook stove and a USB device charging station — which is powered by heat generated from the stove. Naturally it sounds pretty neat, but is the BioLite worth the dough?
The stove has two main components. The first is a stainless steel burning chamber about the size of a quart bottle, enclosed in a skin of steel mesh. The steel mesh allows for easy handling while the stove is still hot. When in use the device is supported by three spreadable aluminum legs.
Adjacent to the fuel chamber there's a plastic encasement that houses a small thermoelectric motor which spins when heated. This energy then charges the lithium ion battery that powers a 2-stage fan. The fan then injects air into the burn chamber to keep the fire roaring. The excess energy is then transferred into usable electricity that is routed to a USB port in the side of the unit, where campers can plug in devices for charging.
The CampStove is especially unique not only for its ultra-efficient energy output, but also for its ultra-portability. Its size makes it easy to transport, but its ability to run solely on biomass like twigs (and not liquid fuel) helps keep it lightweight. By using renewable resources for fuel, campers have a much smaller carbon footprint too. In fact, the stove burns so hot that it actually gasifies the wood, so fewer noxious fumes are produced.
As a tool for heating food out in the wilderness, the BioLite functions pretty well, according to Digital Trends. In their tests, the stove boiled a cup of water in slightly more than two minutes and "experiments with more water yielded consistent results." Unlucky Hunter also gave a thumbs up to the device's cooking utility, giving the CampStove an A+ in the stove department.
There are a few downsides, though. Digital Trends found that it's difficult to get a fire started once a camper runs out of the starter pads that are included with the BioLite. "We basically had to start a small fire outside of the stove using bits of paper and small twigs," they wrote of their extensive testing. "Once we caught some sizable chunks of wood on fire, we tossed the whole flaming pile into the chamber." Digital Trends also found it challenging to adjust the heat of the stove.
More camping-focused publications also took issue with some of the CampStove's features; when Phillip Werner of SectionHiker tested the stove, he was annoyed at how quickly the wood burned, requiring constant replenishment. And, while The Unlucky Hunter found that the CampStove was highly functional, the site noted that it seemed to take up a lot of room in a backpack.
In order to generate enough electricity to charge a device, there must be a healthy fire burning in the stove. This is because the motor first must fan the fire, allocating only excess energy to the USB port. Fortunately there are indicator lights built in to show when the juice is flowing.
Digital Trends tested the CampStove's electrical output by charging an iPhone 4S, and found that it produced enough electricity to add 1% to the charge every 2.5 minutes — or about four hours to fully charge the phone. To get a charge for this long, SectionHiker estimated the fire would need to be stoked with about two grocery bags full of twigs. So while the CampStove might be great for small bursts of gadget charging — enough to keep a phone alive for emergencies — it won't supply enough power to juice up an iPhone for a day's worth of use.
Before springing for the BioLite CampStove, it's important to compare it to potential alternatives. The BioLite CampStove ($129 with $12.50 s&h) weighs in at 33 oz., so we'll use that as a benchmark for comparisons. Campers who opt for both a solar charging station and a stove will have to weigh their options, too: the Solo Wood-Burning Stove ($69.99 with free shipping, a low by $18) doesn't have a fan, but weighs only 9 oz. Meanwhile, the MSR Whisperlite International Backpacking Stove ($81.06 with free shipping, a low by $19) weighs a scant 10.9 oz., but requires a separate fuel bottle like the MSR 20-oz. Fuel Bottle with CRP Cap ($17.95 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $1). When the bottle is full of fuel, it alone weighs a hefty 24 oz.
Then, to gather electricity, a hiker could turn to the Guide 10 Plus Solar Adventure Kit ($109.95 with free shipping, a low by $10), which contains solar panels that weigh 6.4 oz., and with good sunlight can fully recharge AA or AAA batteries in six to eight hours. These batteries in turn power its USB port for electronic devices. The solar kit is conveniently made to fit over the outside of a pack allowing for on-the-go charging.
Of course, it might not always be sunny enough to gather a charge for re-upping your electronics, especially while trekking in and out of the woods. The BioLite CampStove has an advantage here, since it can operate and recharge in the dark, or whenever is handy. The CampStove also has a price advantage over the separate purchases of both a stove and a solar charger. However, it will be heavier than some combinations that include wood-burning options.
Given the shape and weight of the BioLite CampStove, it might not be the best choice for those who intend to live out of their pack for days on end. But the CampStove is a clever way to give a dual purpose to an otherwise standard camping tool. So for a small group on a weekend trip, it might be just the ticket to a hot meal and a functioning phone for emergency use.