Lori Carey Photography

Monday, September 29, 2014

National Preparedness Month - Gear Review: Biolite

Biolite Steve and Kettle
Biolite Stove and KettlePot

When I was planning out my article series for National Preparedness Month for DrivingLine, I put a lot of thought into problems I had personally experienced or seen while venturing off road. When I talk about "off roading", I'm not just talking about hard core rock crawling on technical trails. I'm including traveling off pavement in remote areas, something that landscape, nature and wildlife photographers do on a regular basis. When something goes wrong in a remote area, it could be days before help is able to reach you.

One of my biggest challenges when packing for a trip is the balancing act between bringing enough gear to be ready for anything with being able to fit it all in a 2DR Jeep and still have room for my photography gear. That's why I love gear that is multi-functional, it makes packing so much easier! One of the toughest decisions is how much fuel to bring for the campstove; the (propane in my case) canisters are bulky and take up a lot of room in my camp box. I always try to bring only as much as I need, and since I always have several partially empty canisters I sit there shaking them trying to evaluate how much fuel is left in each one to determine which ones I should take. I did run out of propane once, and that got me thinking that if I were forced to spend an unplanned night or two out in the wild, I would have no way to heat water or cook food. All the freeze-dried emergency food in the world isn't going to do me any good if I have no way to prepare it. In the desert environment that I spend most of my time in, there are very few (if any) trees and there is no firewood lying around!

I started researching options and became fascinated by the Biolite Stove. Not only did it claim to boil water with just a handful of twigs, it also claimed it could charge a cell phone with that same handful of twigs! I may not be able to find wood for a campfire in the desert, but I can always scrounge up some twigs or other small biomass. And although I can charge my electronics with solar, not everyone has that option. I contacted Biolite and they graciously agreed to send me a Biolite CampStove and KettlePot to put to the test.

I am so incredibly impressed with this system and everyone who has seen it in action has been equally impressed. The Biolite Camp Stove uses thermoelectric energy to convert to heat to electricity. The generated electricity powers a fan that makes the fire more efficient by improving combustion, so it requires very little fuel. Surplus energy can be used to charge small electronics like a cell phone through a USB port. It uses biomass for fuel - any small twigs, pinecones, wood chips - and it doesn't need much.

Biolite Steve and KettlePot
Biolite Stove and KettlePot

The first time I tested the Biolite Stove we used a couple pine cones and a handful of pine needles. The pine needles burned hot and fast, maybe a bit too fast for practical purposes because I did have to keep resupplying the fire, but I heated a half liter of water in less than three minutes and brought a dead cell phone to half charge in less than twenty minutes (we forgot to keep a good eye on the clock). The next time I tested it I used a handful of small twigs and they made a perfect fire. I didn't even need to use all of the twigs you see in the top photo. It is amazing how well this stove works with just a small bit of biomass fuel!

Biolite states that the stove will boil one liter of water in 4.5 minutes and my tests were consistent with that number. They state that twenty of minutes of charging an iPhone 4s will provide 60 minutes of talk time, and again my tests were consistent with that figure although I used different phones for testing purposes.

Biolite CampStove charging a cell phone

If you want to play it safe and not worry about having to scrounge up twigs or other biomass, you could always buy wood chips and pack a small quantity with the stove (mmmm mesquite!). I also recommend carrying some kind of fire starter, either store-bought or home made such as dryer lint soaked in Vaseline (the stove ships with an initial supply of fire starters). After filling the stove with twigs you will be lighting the fire from the top of the stove and it takes some practice to get the hang of it. Fire starters make it much easier to get a good flame going right away.

The 1.5 liter stainless steel KettlePot makes it a complete cook system. You can cook inside the pot or use it to boil water which you can easily pour through the spout. The stay-cool handles mean that no pot holder or cloth is required to pick up the pot, and it even comes with a bowl.

It gets even better - the CampStove packs up inside the KettlePot for a complete cook system that also charges small electronics in a package that is 10.2 inches tall and weighs just over three pounds. The CampStove also comes with a pot adapter so you can use other pots on the stove if you don't have the KettlePot.

Biolite Stove and KettlePot

Biolite also offers a really cool grill that attaches to the CampStove so you can use the stove to grill dinner over a wood fire (mmmm burgers over a wood fire, guess what's on my Christmas wish list!). If the CampStove is too small for your needs, the larger BaseCamp might be a better fit.

I love that I don't have to depend on fuel canisters when I'm out on the trail and the Biolite CampStove is perfect for emergency situations, on or off the trail. You could even use it to make s'mores on the beach or in your backyard! It's good for the environment because it uses a renewable fuel source, it's non-polluting and it doesn't add more trash to landfills.

All of my friends who have seen this stove in action have wanted one. It really has become a favorite piece of gear. It's not just extremely functional, it's actually fun to use!

I have been challenged by a few friends to see if I can find enough biomass in the Sonoran desert of the southernmost portion of California. Desert season starts next month and I'm looking forward to seeing how well I do finding enough fuel to boil a liter of water and charge a cell phone.

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