Whether your out backpacking or dealing with a significant, regional disaster, being able to easily cook food and boil water is a real boost to your survivability. There are a lot of great, portable cookers for hikers and survival enthusiasts. The clever kids over at BioLite have taken one bottle design and added a thermoelectric converter to capture some of the extra heat and turn it into electricity sufficient to charge low-power devices. But is it a good device for our lazy needs? Let’s look closer.
So how’s this device work? This kind of portable stove, sometimes called a “bullet” or “rocket” stove, is a pretty straight forward idea. Unlike an open camp fire, this kind of stove traps the fire and directs more of the heat energy straight to the cooking surface. The biggest advantage to this design is fuel efficiency. Since the heat isn’t radiating away in all directions, you’ll need to less fuel to boil your water or cook your food. As an added bonus, this kind of directed energy is said to cook faster than open fires – okay, it’s not a microwave oven, but you’ll get your water boiling faster with this kind of system than without.
So what about the BioLite CampStove?
The first, most obvious thing to love about this device is that it combines all of the focused heat/fuel efficiency of a rocket stove with a device charging station and does it all in a fairly tight package. I like not having to carry a specific, limited fuel supply (alcohol, butane, etc). It’s less I have to carry and one-less-thing to run out of. That ability to use (almost) any kind of fuel really adds a level of flexibility that I love. If it burns, it works.
The real “killer feature” of this device is the thermoelectric converter. “Thermoelectric conversion” is a fancy way of saying that it takes some of the excess heat and turns it into electricity. It uses a USB port so you can plug-in and charge almost any device that can charged over USB, which would include most cell phones but as shown in their marketing pictures, could also be used for a USB lamp.
Of course, there are things I don’t like. For starters, it’s not available yet. They’ve been advertising this thing for at least 10 months and they still don’t seem to have a solid release date other than “camping season 2012”. It’s not cheap either. Pre-orders for the camping model are going for $130 (there’s also a larger home model that they have even less information on). That’s actually not unreasonably expensive compared to the competition. Other rocket-style stoves range from about $60 to as much as $120-130 (USD), and in this you’re getting the stove and the charging station.
One problem I have with this device is the fuel source/burning area. It’s small. It’s supposed to be small. But it means that you can’t burn large objects, and to maintain a steady fire you’ll have to be pretty ready with more fuel. Compared to a more open fire or larger cooker where one can drop in larger fuel chunks (logs, etc) for a long-term, sustained fire. Related to this problem, while these devices are great for cooking, they do little for general warmth. Again, this is by-design, but it’s still a limitation I see. If I need another fire to stay warm, than what does a stove like this really bring to the table?
I worry about the safety of its use in emergency situations. Every year I have to read about people who have killed themselves making improper use of camp stoves. They’ve used them in confined areas or in their homes and have asphyxiated themselves on the exhaust/fumes or have set their homes/selves on fire. Devices like this can easily turn on you if you’re not careful.
There are two big questions marks in my mind when I think about the HomeStove. How well will this thing really do at charging my devices? How long does it take to recharge your cell phone? How long will I need to keep pouring fuel into this thing, past the time I was done cooking, to finish charging? Can it maintain a stable power supply suitable for charging anything realistically? The other question I have is about its durability. How long until some component breaks? Likewise, how easy is it to setup/break-down? If I buy one of these for camping, will I be having to replace it before the end of the season? For hikers, that’s an inconvenience; in an emergency that could be putting lives at risk.
The device itself, when packed up, is pretty compact – not much larger than a 20oz bottle of Dr Pepper, which is great (the size that is, though I do like Dr Pepper). It’s a bit on the heavy side though, at a bit over 2 pounds according to their marketing information. That’s heavier than I’d like in my get-out-bag, but suitable for a car-kit or shelter-in-place kit where weight is less of a concern. But your limitations/specifications on “what’s compact” and “what’s light” may vary.
Conclusion? I don’t know that I could wholeheartedly recommend this to others, but despite my objections, I do really like this stove. It hits a lot of the buttons that “work” for me. I think this goes on the list of “things to keep an eye on”. It could be a nice addition, but they need to lower the price-point, or I’d need to be convinced that it really does work as well as it claims and can do so consistently. It’s a terribly interesting idea, but it’s just too untested for my tastes (at least for emergency-readiness purposes).
Links for reference:
Backpacking Stoves at Amazon (for comparison)