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Old School Meets High Tech – BioLite CampStove Charges As It Cooks

When it comes to cooking, a wood fire is about as old school as it gets. BioLite has brought the basic wood fire into the 21st century with their CampStove.

Why would I be interested in wood as a cooking fuel? My little motorhome has a fully equipped kitchen including a four-burner gas stove, but sometimes it’s just nice to cook outside. It also doesn’t hurt to be prepared for anything.

Why Wood?

While BioLite’s target customer probably camps somewhat more primitively than I do, why would they even be interested? Compact gas and liquid fueled stoves are abundant, convenient, and reliable. I’d like to think that, for at least some, there is a simple romantic or nostalgic attraction to a wood fire, but there are other good reasons, too. How about not having to carry fuel and empty fuel containers? How about wood being a naturally renewable resource? Oh, and how about if, on top of all that, it could recharge your phone or other devices while it cooks your food?

High Tech

Oh yeah. This is about as high-tech as cooking on wood gets. It uses forced ventilation for efficient burning, reduced emissions, and a really hot flame. And while there are other fan-driven wood camping stoves on the market, they all require batteries to run the fan, and that means batteries to remember and replace. The BioLite uses thermoelectric technology – the heat from the fire is converted to electricity to power the fan. Not only that, but it generates more electricity than it needs for its fan, and makes the surplus available via a USB jack so you can charge your phone, LED light, or other gadgets. Pretty neat, huh?

I first read about this sometime last year and just had to get my hands on one. At the time they were still in development, but they were taking email addresses of interested parties. I signed up and eventually forgot all about it until one day, out of the blue, I get an email telling me they’re accepting reservations for preorders. Eventually I was invited to place an actual order, which finally shipped last week and arrived this week!

Nicely Packaged

I was impressed from the moment the UPS driver handed me the box. Much smaller than I was expecting. The box, that is. It was exactly the size it needed to be, but not a millimeter larger in any dimension. And no polystyrene peanuts nor plastic bags, either. BioLite gets extra points in my book for smart eco-friendly packaging. In the box was the stove (in a drawstring nylon stuff sack), a short USB cable (for initial charge-up of the internal battery), a handful of sawdust-and-wax fire starters in a waxed paper bag, and a sheet of instructions.

Nicely Built

The stove is very well built. Excellent fit and finish. The “power module” (orange unit containing the fan and electronics) stores inside the fuel chamber. For use it attaches to the side of the fuel chamber and is securely held by extending the legs, one of which engages with a protrusion on the bottom of the power module.

Get Ready

I connected the power module, using the supplied USB jumper, to an AC powered charger to “condition” the battery prior to initial use. This is only necessary the first time, or if the stove is stored for more than six months.

The BioLite burns wood or other biomass, so I went about collecting some. It didn’t take long to collect a handful of twigs, plus some bark and pine cones fallen from nearby trees. I collected a variety from smaller than pencil thickness up to about as thick as my thumb. I broke them into about 5-inch lengths.

First Firing

I attached the power module to the side of the stove and deployed the legs.  I loosely filled the fuel chamber with a few pieces of bark and the smallest of the twigs. I twisted a bit of newspaper up into a “stick” of sorts and stuffed it in. I lit the paper with a long barbecue style butane lighter, sticking it down to the bottom to get the bottom of the paper and some of the bark burning as well.

Once it looked like it was burning well enough, I started the fan (doing it too soon would just blow out the flame), and after another minute or two, it was going quite nicely, so I added a couple pine cones and some of the thicker twigs. I switched the fan to high and put on a pot of water.

Charge!

While waiting for the water to boil, I watched for the LED bar above the USB jack to turn green, indicating that it was ready to use as a charger. I connected my combination cellphone and UHF/VHF radio and sure enough, the phone’s display indicated it was taking a charge. I was using fire to charge my HT/phone — how cool is that?

Tea Time

I probably should have started a timer, but it wasn’t three minutes before the water started to bubble a bit, and in less than  five it had achieved a vigorous boil. During that time I had to lift the pot once and feed the fire. I made myself a nice cup of tea and took some photos.

Conclusion

In all, I’m very pleased. I can honestly say the BioLite CampStove has exceeded my expectations. It’s a great little stove; burns hot and clean on a handful of twigs. It’s so efficient that it only left a couple of tablespoons of ash. I can also see it being really nice as a compact portable (tabletop, even?) campfire. I don’t know how often I’ll have a need for the USB charging feature, but it never hurts to have a backup plan. It might work nicely to directly power a small LED light — maybe to see what I’m cooking at night?

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Oh, and  what’s more, BioLite is using sales of the CampStove to help fund the design and construction of a larger version for use in developing nations. For more info or to get your own CampStove, check out BioLiteStove.com.

Manufacturer’s Specifications:

  • Packed Size  Height 8.25 inches  Width 5 inches
  • Weight  33 oz (935 grams)
  • Fuel  Renewable biomass (twigs, pinecones, wood pellets, etc.)
  • Fire Power Output  Peak: 3.4 kW (LO), 5.5 kW (HI)
  • USB Power Output  Max continuous: 2W @5V, Peak: 4W @5V
  • Compatible Devices  Powers most USB-chargeable devices including smartphones.
  • Charging Time  20 minutes of charging provides 60 minutes of talk time. Charging times vary by device and by strength of fire.
  • Boil Time  4.5 minutes to boil 1 liter of water. Varies based on strength of fire.
  • Fuel Consumption  1.6oz (46g) of wood to boil 1 L of water

Invisible Shoes: Minimalist Footwear Review And Comparison

Invisible Shoes vs. Vibram FiveFingers

When I first tried Vibram FiveFingers shoes a few years ago, I really liked them. They soon became my everyday shoes – at least when I’m not barefoot. One big drawback they have, especially in the summer, is the fact that they hug your foot like a glove. Despite the thin top and side fabric, they don’t breathe very well, and my feet get hot and sweaty. Maybe not so much compared to regular shoes, but for someone who prefers nothing, the Vibrams, while providing the barefoot ergonomics, still feel like wearing shoes.

I thought I would see what I could find that was open like a sandal while keeping a barefoot feel. I looked at the Teva Zilch, but I didn’t like the big toe loop nor the cross strap over the little toe.

Eureka!

Then I discovered Invisible Shoes. They are basically just a piece of sole material and a string to hold it onto your foot. Invisible Shoes are as close as you can get to barefoot while still offering the bottoms of your feet a bit of protection. My feet stay cooler and drier. No more white stripes from sandal straps or white toes from FiveFingers to mar my all-over tan. They also go great with my usual wardrobe, or, shall I say, my lack thereof.

Invisible Shoe

Okay, so I like the look and feel. How about the actual wearing? Well, once I got them tied right, which takes a bit of patience and careful following of directions, I took a test-walk.

Walk, Don’t Run

I should probably mention right here that I am not a runner. Minimalist footwear has created quite a stir in the running community, but it’s my opinion that going barefoot, or as close as possible, is best for everyone no matter their level of activity. While I can’t remember the last time I ran that I wasn’t being chased, I usually walk a mile or more each day. Most of that is on rocky desert terrain.

Been There, Done That

Since these are not my first minimalist footwear, and since much has already been written elsewhere about the advantages of barefoot walking and running, as well as transitioning to minimalist shoes, I’ll be noting what I have observed to be unique about the Invisible Shoes as well as how they compare, in my opinion, with the Vibram FiveFingers Classic for a walker and hiker.

Breaking The Habit

The first thing I had to learn to do was stop clenching my toes. Having worn flip-flops for years, the sensation of the lace between my toes make me reflexively clench, as is necessary with thong footwear to hold on to them. With the Invisible Shoe, however, this is not necessary, as the lace also goes around the back of the foot. They aren’t going  anywhere no matter how swiftly or vigorously I move my feet. Once I broke myself of the toe-clenching and let my foot relax, the walking was great.

Feel The Earth And Air

They felt comfortable and secure over most terrain. The open design means that the rare tiny pebble might get between the shoe and the sole of the foot, but is easily dislodged, usually by simply shaking the foot. I found the complete lack of anything, save for the thin lace, on top of my foot to result in a wonderfully free feeling. On most surfaces the tactile feedback was very similar to the Vibrams. The Invisible Shoes come in different sole thicknesses; I chose the thinnest, 4mm, which is, incidentally, the same thickness as the FiveFingers Classic soles. The Invisible Shoes are actually more flexible, however, as the result of two significant differences. First of all, the 4mm thickness includes the raised tread pattern, so the flexibility is actually equal to a 3mm sole. In spite of their razor-siped soles, the Vibrams retain the stiffer feel of their 4mm thickness. Also, the Invisible Shoes are essentially flat, while the Vibrams have raised edges, especially at the heel, toes, and balls of the feet, further reducing flexibility.

Bottoms Up!

While the Vibrams, with their mostly smooth soles, offer ever-so-slightly better feeling of tiny terrain details, it doesn’t make much noticeable difference in actual use. Possibly more significant is the lack of sides on the Invisible Shoes. This allows for better feeling near the edges of the foot. While I’d already learned the importance of careful foot placement wearing the FiveFingers, I found that with the Invisible Shoes I had to be even more careful because of the more flexible soles and unprotected sides and toes. Still, it becomes second nature and is mostly a subconscious attention that causes little distraction.

Nothing’s Perfect

If I had to find a fault with the Invisible Shoes, it would be that they are probably not well suited for especially steep terrain or climbing. They offer plenty of traction for normal walking and running, but they just don’t feel especially secure in situations involving extreme lateral forces.

Conclusion

I think I’ve found my new favorite footwear. I won’t be getting rid of my FiveFingers — they still have the edge for cold weather and steep terrain. Overall, though, I’ve found the Invisible Shoes to be closer to my ideal of being barefoot, and about as minimalist as a shoe can get. They never stink and are easy to keep clean. They are thin and light, making them easy to carry and store. Invisible Shoes are inexpensive at under $30 for a pair (even free, if you’re handy and resourceful – DIY instructions are on their website).

Do you have experience with minimalist footwear? Have questions about mine? Comments are open!