You know Biolite as the company that invented clever stoves that cook with sticks—and power USB output to your phone while you camp. We dig those stoves, sort of. They’re less efficient than canister models like MSR’s Windburner. But canisters create waste, and Biolite’s underlying mission is to make products that produce less waste in the developed world and to provide power-efficient, practical living solutions in the developing world. A cool but heavy twig stove is a byproduct that also helps bring attention to the larger goals.
The BioLite FirePit, with legs folded, is about the size of a rolled foam Therm-a-Rest. It weighs 20 pounds and at that size is plenty easy to walk to a beach or campsite. You sure wouldn’t want to hike with it, but it’s no major struggle to load or unload from a car trunk, and it’s far easier to reposition after use than, say, a kettle grill with wobbly legs.
A metal grate holds either wood or charcoal above the lower tube, and a grill slots at the surface to enable cooking. But what makes the FirePit special is that it comes with a powerful fan unit and battery pack that plugs into the side. The battery can charge cell phones, headlamps, etc., but more important it runs a fan that pumps air through 51 jets to form an air “cradle” that surrounds the charcoal or wood.
Not only does this stoke the flames, it also changes the airflow, pushing smoke and ash back down into the fire rather than up into your face. The burn is more efficient that way, and hotter, too, and you won’t breathe in as much. And because the FirePit has mesh sides you can see right through the stove, so the experience is very much like sitting in front of a glass-fronted fireplace, mesmerized by the dance of light, minus any harsh smells. Pile in some split wood and we found the burn rate far slower and more enjoyable than being around an open campfire.
To keep the battery pack topped, you can add the $60 Solar Carry Cover. This is handy because it converts the stove into a fully off-grid power supply that’s always charged. (Note that unlike Biolite’s backpacking stoves, this one doesn’t charge the battery off the heat of the fuel.) You can also recharge the fan battery via micro USB, and if you didn’t use the battery to charge other devices, you’d get 24 hours of fan on the lowest setting. We cooked with ours over a long weekend and came nowhere close to running dry of power, and that included stints of charging phones off the USB output. Depending on how you plan to camp, you might not even need the Carry Cover, though it is handy for keeping soot out of your rig and your clothes when you haul the stove around.
As for why the FirePit fits in with the overall Biolite zeitgeist, because the stove burns both wood and charcoal, and burned every stick and nugget down to nothing but ash, you’re getting the most out of the fuel, and we wound up using a lot less charcoal, especially, during cookouts.
Performance-wise the FirePit is pretty stellar. We cooked with it for three nights at Kingdom Trails in Vermont and have cooked with it in our backyard for a few weeks now as well, and in general, it’s preferable to other stoves we’ve tested that use charcoal—with a few caveats.
The fan facilitates actually lighting the fire, but even though there’s a hidden panel beneath the stove for using a wand-style lighter to ignite newspaper under the coals, we wound up using a cylinder-style charcoal igniter (smaller ones will nest right inside the FirePit); it was more reliable. Once lit, however, it was easy to stoke the heat by turning up the fan, or leave the blower low, to create a hot-and-cool dichotomy, with coals stacked on one side of the grate to sear meat, and foil-wrapped veggies on the opposite side, keeping warm.
While there isn’t a huge grill surface, it’s generous enough to cook for up to four people, as long as you have a decent plan of attack. And do note that unlike a kettle grill, there’s no lid to trap heat. We found ourselves improvising with an inverted small Dutch oven or using a cast iron skillet for more delicate vegetables or fish. Speaking of vegetables, this is a very satisfying grill top for corn, and charring Japanese eggplant (then peeling the skin and marinating it in an olive-oil, soy-lime sauce) led to a super-delicious smoky flavor.
And after cooking we’ve taken to loading in a log or two on top of the charcoal embers, sitting around the FirePit, digesting and gazing at the glow.
$200 • BUY