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Reviews > Cook Gear > Stoves > BioLite CookStove > Test Report by Duane Lawrence

BioLite CookStove
Product Test by Duane Lawrence

Initial Report September 11, 2016
Field Report December 4, 2016
Long Term Report March 25, 2017

 
Tester Information
 
Name:                Duane Lawrence
Email:                 duanesgear (at) yahoo (dot) com
Location:           Sparwood, British Columbia Canada
Gender:             Male
Age:                    43 years
Height:               5 ft 9 in ( 1.5 m)
Weight:              160 lbs (73 kg)
 
I have been an avid outdoor enthusiast for over 25 years.  I enjoy a variety of outdoor activities including mountaineering, day hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, river and ocean kayaking, back country skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking and rock climbing. I have climbed throughout British Columbia, the United States and when opportunity presents itself in Europe and India. I carry a wide variety of gear depending on the type and length of trip.  I am a search and rescue team member in the Southern Canadian Rockies and am part of the swift water, rope rescue and avalanche technical teams and ground search team.
 
Initial Report September 11, 2016

Product Info

 
MSRP                                   $99.95 USD 
Product                                  BioLite CookStove
Manufactures Web Site       www.BioLiteenergy.com
Weight                                  1.6 lbs (725 g)
Measured Weight                25.7 oz (728 g)
Boil Time                              4.5 minutes for 1 liter (33.8 fl oz)
Dimensions                           8.25 x 4.5 inch (21.01 x 11.43 cm) Unpacked
                                               7.75 x 4.5 inch (19.70 x 11.43 cm) Packed
Battery Charge Time           1.7 hours
Burn Times                           Turbo – 10 hours
                                               Boil – 20 hours
                                              Simmer – 25 hours
                                              Campfire – 30 hours
Fuel                                       Biomass (Sticks, Twigs, Pellets)
Warranty                              1-year limited
 
 
General Information
 
The BioLite web site has a lot of details regarding the use and operation of all their products.  For the BioLite CookStove, the site indicates that biomass (also known as wood) fueled stoves create a smokeless, clean burning and intensity-adjustable heat that can boil water in 4.5 minutes.  The stove can accommodate pine cones, sticks and twigs, the manufacture notes that they need to be dry.  I’ll make sure to test out how the stove works on damp and wet biomass as dry wood is not always available.   Heat intensity is managed through a USB rechargeable battery pack that operates a fan system.  It has four settings Campfire, Simmer, Boil and Turbo.  The battery life is indicated at 30, 25, 20, and 10 hours with L.E.D. lights that indicate charge level.
 
The web site indicates that the stove can be operated in windy conditions and in light rain although they do not recommend using it in heavy rain due to the electronics.  They also note that the stove should be positioned in such a way in windy conditions that the flame blows downwind of the battery pack.  For cleaning they recommend the use of a nylon brush as needed or just a damp cloth.  The fuel chamber can also be washed in a dishwasher.
 
When starting the stove the website recommends keeping the stove away from overhanging branches, dry brush or other ignitable items.  Starting the fire requires the use of kindling and some form of fire-starter, then working up to larger pieces of fuel as when starting a regular campfire.  Available fuel should then be placed in the fuel chamber, loosely packed, without blocking the air jets with additional fuel being added as needed.  When finished, it is recommended that the user let the fire burn down to cold ash then dispose of the ashes in a small hole and dousing them in water prior to burying the ash. 

The website states that any metal cookware can be used provided it is no more than 10 in (25.4 cm) in diameter and less than 8 lbs (3.63 kg).
 The manufacturer has a number of accessories listed on their web site that can be used with the BioLite CookStove including a KettlePot, Portable Grill, Pellets and Stick snapper.
 
First Impressions
 
On first inspection the stove looks pretty good.  It is robust, utilizing a combination of rivets and spot welding.  The battery pack is very simple to attach and the whole system looks straightforward to operate.  I am not sure if the exterior waffle guard is for air flow or is a heat guard or both. I will have to wait and see when I start it up.  The three folding leg base looks really good for stability, extending out for a 20.6 cm (8.1 in) spread and it keeps the unit elevated and off the ground which should make it nice and easy to stabilize when in use.   
 
On the whole it appears to be a fairly straightforward design.  The battery pack-fan combination mounts to the side of the unit and forces air into the unit and flows through air holes throughout the internal burn chamber.  I would have expected that there would have been more air holes towards the bottom than the top in order to provide more air flow, but his is not the case.   One question that I have yet to find an answer to is how to empty ash buildup that might enter through the air holes into the air flow chamber.  It may not be an issue with the fan module, maybe it just blows all the ash particles out, will have to wait and see.
 
The fan is simple to operate with a single push button that allows the operator to change the fan speed from 1 – 4.  The system uses LED lights as indicators of fan speed levels as well as charge level.   I liked that fact that I could hit the button once and it would show what level of charge was remaining in the battery pack without the whole system turning on.  It might not be an issue, but having the button on the bottom front of the battery pack means I have to hold onto the unit to be able to depress the button.  Turning it off requires the button to be held down for a couple of seconds, which requires two hands. Just pushing on the button will push the stove over. This may not be an issue if the heat guard keeps the outside of the stove cool but if it doesn't then it might pose a risk for burnt fingers.  I also wanted to note that although the unit comes with an USB cable it does not come with a wall plug.  Glad I had one, otherwise I would only be able to charge the battery off my computer. Not a big issue really.
 
All in all the BioLite stove looks well constructed and simple to use.  I am very interested to see how it actually works in the field and if it puts out enough even heat to cook with.   Although the unit is heavy, technically no fuel needs to be packed in, so it balances out a little.

Field Report December 4, 2016

I thought it best to start out the test period by doing some at home testing to see what I would be dealing with.  My initial testing was all about seeing what the stove could do, how hard it was to get it going and how long it would take to boil water utilizing a variety of fuels.  The first thing I learned was what not to do when trying to light the stove.  Never try to light the stove from bottom up. I started, logically I thought, by putting a couple of twigs in the bottom of the stove adding the lit fire starter, turning the fan on medium and then adding more fuel.  Not sure what I did wrong on the first attempt but what I experienced was anything but a smokeless stove.  My neighbor actually came over thinking I had a fire on the back porch.  The stove was billowing out so much smoke I couldn't see the fence line through the smoke.  Very impressive if i was trying to get rescued using a smoke signal.  Anyway after a number of trials and errors I found that the best way to light the stove was to fill the chamber to about two-thirds the way up then add the fire starter and turn the fan on full.  Putting something over the top to keep the heat inside the chamber made a significant difference in start up time which was about 1.5 minutes to 3 minutes depending on how dry the fuel was.  There is a very good reason why the instructions indicate not to use wet fuels.  Wet fuels generate just as much smoke as smothering the fire.  The stove will go smokeless when using wet fuel although it took about 15 minutes before there was enough internal heat generated to dry out the fuel and move it from smoke machine to smokeless wood fired stove.  Also, there was only about 5 minutes left of burn time before I had to add more fuel.  Overall, don't use wet fuel unless there is no other choice.  Just not worth the hassle.  
    
Back to the testing with dry fuel.  Once I figured out that wet fuel was not a viable option, that starting the stove two-thirds full, to cover the chamber, and to be very careful not to smother the fire when refueling I was able to actually start using the stove.  Here is what I discovered.  When using natural wood (branches) the total burn time, light up to embers, was about 40 minutes.  Of that time about 30 minutes was useful heat.  Each time I refueled I lost a significant amount of heat as the new fuel needed to be heated to its ignition and clean burning point before the temperature returned to a nice hot burn.  When I was using small fuel from trees, less then 1 cm (.4 in) in diameter, a full chamber was not enough to boil 1 l of cold water and it smoked for about 10 minutes before going smokeless.  The total burn time with small fuels was less than 20 minutes.  When using greater than 3 cm (1.2 in) diameter fuel I was able to boil 1 l of cold water before needing to add additional fuel and did not experience smoke once it was lit. Total burn time was about 40 minutes, boil time for 1 l of water was 9 minutes 30 seconds from lighting the stove.  I did try and boil a second pot of water with the larger diameter fuels but was only able to get it to a point where it was uncomfortable to put my fingers in it, fairly hot but not boiling.  

My next test was with pellets.  BioLite actually sells packages of pellets but I just went down to the local hardware store and picked some generic pellets up.  The pellets are listed as having a moisture content of less than 6% which makes a huge difference in heat output and burn time.  With pellets I was able to boil three, 1 l pots of water.  The first in under 5 minutes, second in 5 minutes 45 seconds and the last in 10 minutes, although I would not call it a rolling boil.   The total burn time with pellets was about 40 minutes as well although the heat generated was so much higher and more effective than non-processed wood.  I should note that all of the above tests were completed on the highest fan setting. It is good to note that it is very easy to smother the fire when using pellets, when using unprocessed wood it is much harder to do, but I can attest to the fact that it can be done if one is careful.  There is no way to not know when the stove has been smothered as it smokes copiously and there is not much to do about it other than empty it out and start over.

Out in the field was much less controlled but still gave me good results.  I had three nights to use the stove cooking dinners and breakfasts. I thought about warm lunches but opted out due to the length of the start up time and burn time of the stove, it just seemed like way too much effort.  I spent a single overnight in Waterton National Park in Alberta for my first night.  The hike was about 16.5 km (10.25 mi) return up to an elevation of 1795 m (5889 ft)  with temperatures around 4 C (39 F) to 10 C (50 F).  My second trip include two nights in Kananaskis, Southern Canadian Rockies, with about 25 km (15.5 mi) of hiking at an elevation of 2250 m (7382) and at a temperature of about -2 C (28 F) to 8 C (46 F) during the day.  There was lots of wind when I was cooking as well as rain, sleet and a little snow, so lots of good testing conditions.  
     

On the first overnight I used whatever I could find (fuel) to cook dinner, freeze-dried food packs were on the menu, so essentially boiling water.  I ended up finding some nice dry branches in the forest under story to use.  The branches ranged from less than 1 cm (.4 in) to 3 cm (1.2 in) and I had to cut them to less than 4 in (10 cm) in length as the burn chamber is only 5.5 in (14 cm) deep.  I found that if I made them larger I could not put the pot on top of the stove without the pot hitting the fuel.  Also when there is already fuel inside the chamber it's hard to get longer pieces in the stove when they are needed.  During this first, in the field test, I found the stove fairly easy to use.  A little bit of a pain to cut up all the twigs and sticks to size.  The smaller the pieces the easier it is the break them up to the right size the larger they get the harder this is.  I actually used a field saw to cut the larger ones up in some instances. Not sure if this is a bonus or not but cutting wood warmed me up so maybe.  The actual amount of fuel needed is not that much, a good double handful was just fine for cooking.  I did a bunch extra as I wanted to test out the campfire mode, which incidentally provided a nice ambiance but little heat.  All the heat from the stove is directed straight upwards and does not radiate out at all which limits its warming ability.  
   
When I got the stove going, using a full pot of water to cap the stove to foster increased initial temperatures, everything went fairly well.  There was a fair amount of smoke in the beginning prior to the stove reaching its critical temperature to burn clean and then it went smokeless. This is likely due to the amount of moisture in the fuel than anything else.  I really only used the high fan setting to keep the heat going and I had no issue boiling water for tea and dinner although I did have to top up the fuel chamber a couple of times.  Wind was not an issue for the most part although in the beginning when it was smoking it swirled around as any typical fire would and I had to move a bunch of times to keep out of the smoke.  The other item of note was to do with sparks.  Burning wood generates sparks.  Not a big deal although I had to pay particular attention to the stove as I did not want to melt holes into my down jacket.

In the morning I tried out the pellets.  Although I found them harder to light they, again, generated allot more heat.  After making coffee I turned the stove fan down to low, added a diffusion plate, and cooked oatmeal. This is the regular stuff not the instant, it takes about 10 - 12 minutes on low heat to cook.  Although the low setting did lower the temperature it did not create a simmer until the fire burnt down to embers.  Although the fan helps adjust the total temperature of the stove it is a crude regulator and heat is influenced more by the amount of fuel placed in the burn chamber than anything else.   I did remember to weigh the pellets I brought up with me before and after the trip and am able to confirm that half a kilo of pellets is able to boil enough water for 3 large cups of coffee and oatmeal for two.  I wasn't sure what I was going to find for fuel so I actually brought 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs) of pellets, only using .5 kg (1.1 lbs), apparently a lot more than I actually needed.  

My next two-night trip showed very similar results.  Wild fuel when dry is good but I had to continually refuel the stove for cooking and when I used pellets it generated much more heat and for a longer period of time.  During this second trip it was a little cooler and slightly higher up and neither had any notable impact on the stove's performance.  It was very windy on these nights, rainy and sleeting out.  The rain and sleet really had no notable effect either but the wind was aggravating.  Lighting the stove when it was windy was a challenge although once lit everything seemed to go just fine.  

Cooking over this stove was like cooking over a camp fire.  It does burn clean, no smoke, but not right off the get go.  Using pellets eliminates any potential for sparks but when using sticks and twigs there is no way to cook under a tarp without risking melting little holes in the tarp.  The fan does add or subtract heat but not enough to change from a simmer to a boil to a simmer.  Heat is more easily regulated by the amount of fuel added to the stove.  There is also a lot of planning that needs to be done when using the BioLite stove including determining fuel amount, preparing enough fuel and working from boiling to simmer.  A lot more thinking than I am used to when cooking.  The last item to note is that although the stove can burn 'clean' meaning no smoke, it did generate lots and lots of carbon build up on the bottom of my pots.  This on the surface is not a big deal but I found that I not only had to scrub the inside of the pot but also the outside. If I placed the used pot in my pack without cleaning the outside I would have coated everything in soot.  I actually brought a plastic bag to place the pots in afterwards which was, in hindsight, a very good idea. The single charge on the battery is still going strong. After about 5 hours on high and 3 hours on low I still have three out of four LED lights showing.  For battery life it is doing very well.

Even though there are a number of challenges with using the BioLite I actually enjoyed using it.  It is very cool to be able to use dead branches for cooking and not, technically, having to bring fuel.  It's getting really snowy out which will make the next couple of months of testing challenging but I am still looking forward to continuing this test.

Long Term Report March 25, 2017


It's been a long winter but, I was able to bring the BioLite CookStove out for a few more nights to see how the stove performed in snowy conditions.  I was only able to get out for three additional nights due to some extremely cold weather.  My winter travels included a backcountry ski trip for a single night with temperatures in the range of -5 c (23 f) at an elevation of approximately 1600 m (5249 ft) and lots and lots of snow.  The next two
nights were a snowshoeing hike with temperatures also around the -5 c (23 f) range but with a little more elevation around 2100 m (6890 ft).

I ended up using pellets for both of these trips as there was no dry material around that I could use with the stove.  I had already experienced what happens when I used wet fuel and felt there was no need to create a billowing tower of smoke, so pellets it was.  The good thing about bringing pellets was that they burn hot and are relatively easy to start.  I used both a Zip solid fuel fire starter block and Woods fire starter sticks to get the stove going and found that the Zip fire blocks were by far the easier way to go as they produce a hotter flame and do not smother as easily as the Woods.  Each time I would fill the burn chamber up about 2/3 of the way, put the fire starter in, turning the fan to high and then add more pellets very slowly ensuring not to smother the flames.  I did use this same technique with branches and twigs which I have to admit are much easier to light compared to the pellets as long as they are dry.  I believe it is due to a substantially increased amount of air flow through the burn chamber.  With pellets, because they are really small they pack down a lot and reduce air flow which makes it harder to get going.  The benefit with the pellets over other natural biomass is that I got a much hotter and longer burn, not needing to reload the stove for at least 30 minutes when on high.  

 Using the BioLite in winter was not overly difficult, not that I expected it to be, even though I ended up using pellets for everything.  This is where there is a little bit of a down side.  I ended up using a lot more pellets over the course of a single night, filling the burn chamber 3 or 4 times depending on how much snow I needed to melt for water.  Compared to summer usage where water was already in its liquid state having to melt snow increased the volume of pellets I needed to bring from
.5 kg (17.6 oz) to 1.5 kg (53 oz) for a single overnight.  With the stove weighing in at 728 g (25.7 oz) it meant I was carrying 3.75 kg (8.25 lb) for a two night trip.  The stove and fuel ended up weighing more than my four season tent which I can honestly say I was not that happy about.  The increase in fuel usage I found was in line with any winter activity I have done so there was no surprise there and the stove performed very well.  I was actually very pleased with the footings of the stove.  I was able to place the stove with a full 2 l (.53 gal) pot on top of a packed patch of snow and heat did not melt the snow around the stove resulting in it neither tipping over nor melting into the snow.  The stove chamber is well insulated so that all the heat is kept in the chamber and directed upward to maximize heat for cooking, a fact that I really appreciated when cooking on a snow pack.  Because the stove is a single piece and well insulated from the heat it generates I was able to pick it up and move if needed.  I was also very impressed with the longevity of the battery pack.  After sitting unused for a couple of months the battery indicated that it was still at a 3/4 charge.  After using it for several hours over the course of three more nights of melting snow on a high setting, cooking my evening and morning meals, I was only able to run it down to a 1/4 charge.  Although I did not calculate the actual burn time over the entire test period I can confirm that I would have no concerns whatsoever about using this stove during a long trip where it was my only stove.  The battery life was very impressive.  


   

The BioLite CookStove is a solid stove that performed very well.  Provided I have continual easy access to dry fuel I would have no qualms about using this stove on a week long backpacking trip and foraging for fuel.  If on the other hand it was wet out and I had to bring my own fuel I would not elect to use the BioLite.  This is only due to the significant amount of additional weight that I would need to pack around.  The only other down side to this stove was that it left all my pots covered in soot.  Each night I would have to clean them off which was messy and not enjoyable.  I ended up bringing a plastic bag to put the pots in prior to loading them in my pack as I did not want the rest of my gear getting covered in soot.  The stove is not very shinny on the inside anymore and the top of the battery pack is yellowing due to the heat that the stove can produce but aside from that it is in excellent condition with no noticeable construction issues.

Summary

The BioLite CookStove performed very well but there are challenges with this stove.  It is limited to dry fuel which can limit its usability during inclement weather.  The mess it leaves on my pots is a definite down side.  Smothering the flames is a definite possibility which just means I had to be extra conscientious when using the stove.  The residual ash was not much of an issue just something that needed to be dealt with.  Burn time was good, more so with pellets than natural fuels.  Stove stability was excellent as was the battery life for the fan.  Once I got the technique down I did not have many issues with getting the stove going although it did take a good 5 minutes or so to get it up and running. Overall a good solid stove which I would recommend to anyone that would rather use natural fuels than liquid fuels.  The BioLite CookStove is also a fun stove to use as I have always liked having a camp fire at camp.  Thank you to BioLite and BackBackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the BioLite CookStove.

Pros

  • Do not need to bring fuel
  • Nice to use as a campfire
  • Fan battery life is excellent
  • Emergency smoke singles
  • Stable design in snow or on solid ground

Cons

  • Poor regulation of heat
  • Have to bring fuel if it is wet out
  • Sparks when using natural fuel
  • Smokes on start up
  • Soot on the bottom of my pots
  • Generates a lot of smoke if smothered

 



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