Going 'off the grid' with BioLite's BaseCamp stove


Tent? Check. Sleeping bag? Check. Spare battery packs to stave off the fear of being disconnected from the grid? Double check. Earlier this month, I loaded up the aforementioned gear for a quick weekend camping trip. It was honestly more glamp than camp, since we drove right up to our spot in Tolland State Park, which had showers and bathrooms nearby. Still, we'd be without power on-site for a couple days if not for a few backups. On top of that, someone in our crew had developed a serious Candy Crush addiction that could potentially drag our power ration down to zero. Luckily, we also packed BioLite's BaseCamp and NanoGrid system. The BaseCamp is a (relatively) portable, wood-powered grill with a thermoelectric generator, while the NanoGrid is a combination flashlight, lamp, battery and environmental lighting setup. Did these additions help us make it through the weekend alive, well and connected? Yes on all counts, but there's more to the story.

BioLite is a Brooklyn-based company that's been making gear to power outdoor exploits since 2012 when it released the CampStove. This portable $130 cooking stove needed only kindling to operate and used a thermoelectric generator to turn heat into fan and battery power. Today, the product line also includes the BaseCamp ($300), NanoGrid ($100) and KettleCharge ($150) -- all off-the-grid power solutions. It was the BaseCamp I was really curious about, considering it's more of a car-trunk-friendly product with its 13-inch cooktop and squat build. This design actually emerged in response to a growing interest in BioLite's HomeStove project for emerging markets, which isn't available to average consumers. The company decided to launch the BaseCamp as a Kickstarter in May 2014 and it successfully drew in over $1 million during its 30-day crowdfunding campaign.

Understanding the creation story of the BaseCamp helps to clarify some of the questions I had about its practicality in the field. It's too big for backpacking, but does have a built-in handle and there's a $50 water-treated nylon carrying case available -- much more convenient than the plastic bag I used when loading the ashy stove back into the car. The primary benefits are using only small amounts of kindling and split wood for cooking without needing a fire pit, plus you get heat-generated power to charge your devices. With its bulk, though, you'll probably have a car nearby and often a campfire pit on-hand. Bringing a few battery backups wouldn't be too difficult in that situation. Still, extended gaming and videos can wear down your battery reserves if you're pitched up for a few days and having renewable energy on tap is handy. Another benefit, which is more relevant to the HomeStove and use in less developed areas, is that it provides a cooking source with 91 percent less carbon monoxide and 94 percent less smoke than traditionally used indoor fires.

All told, what we have here is an 18-pound, 15-inch tall (23-inch with legs unfolded) stainless steel stove with cast iron in its belly. The cooktop is about 13 inches wide and has two loose parts: a heat diffusion layer (or "flame spreader") and wire grill top. The first layer helps spread heat across the entire grill area when its center hole is closed and provides a focused spout of heat when open. Wood is fed into its belly and there's an extension tray to support longer pieces until they burn down, plus a tray to help catch the inevitable tide of ash that will try to kill your airflow. The four fold-out legs underneath raise the unit eight inches off the ground to reduce environmental impact and also relieve the strain on your back as you're cooking. On my particular unit, one of the feet was installed backward, but the design made it easy enough to flip around. Hugging the outside is a bright orange shell of high-temperature plastic housing the fan, thermoelectric tech and 2,200mAh lithium-ion battery. You'll also notice a removable filter for the fan just below the USB port and indicator lights for power and heat.

The BaseCamp works right out of the box; just add wood and flame. A small pile of kindling lights easily, especially with the starters that come with the unit. As that begins to burn, it helps to step up the fuel to larger branches or even split firewood, otherwise you'll endlessly be feeding it a supply of small branches. Be sure to keep burnt ash clear using a stick or poker (none were included for this purpose) and the fire will burn bright and hot, especially with the fan driving circulation. After about 30 minutes, the heat indicator and battery level should be high enough to snag a bit of juice. If the evening light is dwindling, you can also use the convenient USB-powered gooseneck lamp to illuminate the grill, which has a passthrough for simultaneously charging devices.

Heat distribution on the rather spacious grill top was adequate, but don't expect it to be comparable to an open campfire. However, if you open the center of the flame spreader, the focused heat of the chimney is quite hot. I stuck to relatively small collected bits of wood and kindling, which meant lots of feeding to keep the fires stoked for cooking. If you ramp up to split pieces of firewood (one massive piece may kill the airflow and fire) things should last for a while with only minor nudges as the interior end turns to ash. Once you're done using the stove, remove any large pieces of wood and it should burn down quickly. Just dispose of the embers from the burn chamber and give the BaseCamp 30 to 45 minutes to cool down.

Over the past few years of camping, I've had the unerring ability to pick weekends that were subject to frequent downpours, which leads me to one of the major downsides of the BaseCamp. BioLite claims that while it's OK in a light sprinkle, exposure to water such as heavy rains could damage its electrical circuits. This is something you'll have to pack away or cover if the forecast looks iffy; if you're stuck with the stove going full-blast, things could get... interesting.

During the trip, I also tested out BioLite's NanoGrid lighting system. It's a two-part pack including the PowerLight (a USB-chargeable battery, lamp and flashlight) and a set of daisy-chainable SiteLights for brightening up your campsite. The PowerLight weighs just seven ounces and measures about 2 x 5 x 1 inches. It has three small buttons for the lamp, flashlight and SiteLights, along with a larger QuickLight button for easier access to the lamp and flashlight (as well as locking). You'll need that big button, since the smaller controls are difficult to press and hard to differentiate -- perhaps until you burn the locations into your memory. A great feature is the dimming ability, which you initiate by a long press on any of the three small buttons. It's useful, but unfortunately you may find yourself using the larger button and if you press and hold that out of habit, you just lock the system up. Keep that in mind before you find yourself frustrated in the woods at night, wondering what the heck happened.

There's a USB port on the side of the PowerLight for charging gadgets and as it happens, the NanoGrid's 4,400mAh lithium-ion battery has quite a bit of staying power. The device also hosts the aforementioned SiteLights, but there weren't any nearby branches low enough to string them on during my trip. They worked well in tents and could illuminate a perimeter if placed on the ground. The system comes with two of these units, which magnetically nestle into one another like halves of an orange. Each one stores a 10-foot cord wrapped around its middle like a yo-yo. The first unit plugs into the PowerLight's port, with each additional one connecting to the next SiteLight in the chain. The lights are bright and like all the features on the PowerLight, can be dimmed with a long-press of the button. With the low-light setting, BioLite expects you to get 22 hours using the lamp and a pair of SiteLights — and that's after one phone charge (rated by testing an iPhone 5).

Overall, the PowerLight's battery is a stalwart; its features are useful and it's a solidly built unit. The buttons, however, make interaction with the device a bit difficult. The addition of two or more of SiteLights does make it an especially attractive package, though. Just be sure to give this feature a test drive at the store, as it's designed to let consumers demo it while it's in the package. As a quick side note: Early production runs of the NanoGrid may have a port flap that's bent out and won't shut. Don't fret: The company has a repair kit that's easy to implement.

So, do you need a BaseCamp or NanoGrid for your next adventure? If you can get over the finicky buttons and locking issue, the NanoGrid seems like a good purchase. It's generally well-designed and offers a variety of useful features in a compact package. The BaseCamp is a bit more difficult to recommend for the average camper. Its HomeStove predecessor is a great humanitarian effort and offers features that are invaluable for certain environments. But bringing a BaseCamp along for your next outdoors outing may be more trouble than it's worth, depending on where you're headed and what the setup is. That said, it's easy to go from zero to cooking with just a few sticks, and you benefit from having a constant flow of thermoelectric energy. For a highly portable power and cooking solution, you may be better served checking out BioLite's CampStove (which I didn't test), but it won't help you grill up as many hot dogs or burgers quite so quickly, so there's that.