Give up the gas? Head-to-head on wood-burning camping stoves

Anevay Frontier wood-burning camp stoveWouldn’t it be great if you could do away with the camping gas in favour of twigs and pine cones? There’s a world of alternatives out there that promise all the enjoyment of an open campfire, but with far superior camp cooking (and environmental) qualities.

 

We set our team of testers the challenge of making a meal using some the most popular wood-burning stoves – the Anevay Frontier wood-burner, the EcoZoom Versa rocket stove, the tiny Woodgas backpacker’s stove and the high-tech Biolite camping stove. And now added – the rather fantastic Solo Stove.

Why cook with wood?

 

First, though, why would you want to cook with wood when you’re camping? Apart from saving you the bother of carrying and changing camping gas bottles or carrying liquid fuels around, wood is generally free and available everywhere – and we mustn’t forget the pleasure of collecting sticks and feeding a fire before you feed yourselves.

wood-burning camping stoves

From pocket size to family size – our line-up of wood-burning camping stoves. The mini one on the far left is actually a dinky alcohol burner.

Open fires, though, aren’t allowed at many campsites, and they’re not very efficient when it comes to cooking. Our friends at Wild Stoves tell us that a good stove can save you as much as 80 per cent of the wood needed to cook a meal compared to a small open fire.

There’s an added incentive with some of the rocket stoves too. EcoZoom and EnviroFit (whose stoves we haven’t yet tested) began life as humanitarian projects for developing countries, saving families fuel costs and the health costs of cooking over smoky open fires.

Wood or charcoal stoves will never be as fast to get going as a piezo ignition gas stove, of course, and they vary widely in portability. You won’t want to be carrying 12 kilos of stove very far, for example, but if you usually camp with a car or campervan, then it’s a viable option. The lighter stoves, usually the highly-efficient wood-gas type, aren’t really family-sized – more for back-packing and wild camping for one or two people.

So how did our testers get on?


The Frontier Stove

Around £150. Water heater extra.

Frontier wood-burning stove for camping

Toasting seeds on the Frontier stove

The Frontier stove is designed for camping and for inside bell tents and safari tents. It folds down to 51x31x29 and weighs 10kg, and the makers say it’s 10 times more fuel efficient than an open fire.

The Frontier has space on the top for two pots, and a lift-off plate allows you to cook over an open flame. Air-flow is controlled by an adjustable front door opening and smoke is carried away up a long chimney. An optional stainless steel water-heater with brass tap fits neatly around the chimney.

Setting up and lighting

It took just a couple of minutes to get the chimney sections out of the body of the stove, fold down the legs and fit the chimney in place. The water heater fastened on very easily. It took around 10 minutes to get a good fire going using a bit of paper, some dry twigs and then some bigger bits of wood. There was a fair bit of smoke through the front and the removeable top plate for the first 10 minutes or so, but then the chimney made sure all the smoke was carried well away.

The Frontier stove

Cooking

The flat stove-top is great for two medium-sized pans. We toasted some seeds on a flat baking tray in less than a minute, a pan of curry was boiling (sometimes too vigorously) very quickly and we even used the flat top to cook chapattis (which worked brilliantly). Meanwhile, the water heater was warming up a couple of litres ready for a cup of tea after the meal.

What we liked about the Frontier stove

  • A very portable package – especially if you buy the optional carry-bag.
  • Surprisingly stable on its spindly-looking legs.
  • Our testers loved the water heater – such a neat and sturdy idea and a great use of continued heat.
  • It looked fiddly to clean out the ashes, but proved to be simple.
Frontier camping stove

Curry simmering,. chapatti chapatti-ing

Frontier camping stove

The Frontier’s water heater was a big hit with our testers.

The not-so-good

  • When your water gets to temperature, you can swivel the heater to the back of the chimney to give you more stove-top room. The first swivel took off a chunk of paint, which made us worry about durability.
  • It can be hard to regulate cooking temperature. Our curry was boiling furiously even on the simmering end of the stove-top. See the comment at the end, though = reader Joanne McGee uses a folding barbecue rack to lift pans off the surface.

To buy or not to buy

A definite BUY! Our testers wanted one. They liked the idea of installing it in their shed at home, and being able to pack it up for trips away too. Not for back-packers, of course. Cooking on it was great fun. There’s now a Frontier Plus too, by the way, with some nice refinements and better flame control. Have a look at the Horizon rocket stove too – from the Frontier makers, Anevay, and getting good reviews from our readers.


The EcoZoom Versa

Around £110

EcoZoom Versa rocket stove

It took a bit of practice to get the EcoZoom going, but there was no setting up time.

The Versa is a sturdy piece of kit that looks as if it’ll do the business. It burns wood, charcoal (using the grate provided) or dried biomass. Inside, there’s an abrasion-resistant ceramic insulated combustion chamber with a vertical section that forces the gases to mix with the flame, decreasing emissions. The top is solid cast-iron.

Stewart, who discovered these American-made rocket stoves while in Africa and brought them to the UK, tells us the Versa generates 23,000 BTUs of power ­– more than many propane stoves.

Setting up and lighting

EcoZoom Versa rocket camping stoveThere was no setting up to do, apart from opening the two doors and positioning the stick support in front. It took a couple of minutes to get the kindling alight and to feed the first few sticks in the front. Our testers thought they’d get better at regulating the temperature with practice on the amount of fuel and whether the bottom door should be closed or open.

Cooking on the rocket stove

There’s only room for one pan at a time, but it can be a big pan! And there’s a pot skirt supplied to make sure the heat stays around the base and sides of your pot rather than escaping into the air. We fried a pan of marinated paneer very quickly, and then let the fire die down a bit to keep a pot of curry simmering. Although you can burn charcoal in it, the concentration of the heat into a small area at the top means you can’t really use it as a barbecue. A griddle pan, though, would work really well (and be healthier).

EcoZoom camping stove

A pan of marinated paneer cooking nicely on the EcoZoom.

What we liked about the Ecozoom rocket stove

  • Its robustness – it felt like it would last a long time.
  • The outside doesn’t get very hot (that’s a con if you want to keep warm around it, of course).
  • Good carrying handles and no bits and pieces to fit together.
  • Efficient, fast cooking.

The not-so-good

  • While it’ll take a family-sized pot, it can’t cook a couple of dishes at once.
  • No carry-bag, but Stewart keeps his in a plastic 15l paint tub. He says it fits perfectly, is watertight and you can keep kindling in the middle.

To buy or not to buy

The most solid and robust of the stoves we tested, testament to its being designed for day-to-day cooking in developing countries. Takes a bit of practice to get the fire right. A bit heavy to take as a camping stove.


Biolite

Around £110 for the stove. £40 for the grill, but bundles available

Biolite camping stove

The Biolite with its nifty kettle-pot.

The Biolite comes in enticing packaging and is definitely the most high-tech of the stoves we tested. It’s a neat bit of outdoorsy gorgeousness that comes with a range of accessories for cooking versatility. At heart, it’s a fuel-efficient mini-stove. The heat from the fire generates electricity via a thermoelectric generator to power a fan that creates air-flow to improve combustion. Surplus electricity is sent to the USB port for charging devices.

Biolite with grill

The barbecue grill attachment for the Biolite.

It’s small (the stove weighs just under a kilo) and can sit on a table-top. Accessories include a biggish kettle-pot for fast boiling that doubles up as a container for the stove itself. There’s also a barbecue grill that folds down and has a nifty plastic tray cover that can also be used as a plate.

Setting up and lighting the Biolite

Biolite camping stove in bag

This high-tech camping stove folds away into small and neat package.

It’s a pleasure to get the Biolite out of its bag and see how well the stove fits together. The battery charging section fastens to the outside and is held in place as you fold down the tripod legs. The kettle-pot sits on top (there’s also a pot support included) and, when you’re grilling, the barbecue accessory fits over the stove and has two skinny fold-down legs to support it.

Our tester has used a lot of rocket stoves on expeditions in Canada, and was a bit stumped about why he couldn’t get the kindling to stay alight. Then he found the fan button and…flames! The fan makes it very fast to light and really gets the fire roaring.

Cooking on the Biolite

Lighting the Biolite camping stove

Tiny bits of wood are all you need to get a roaring fire – thanks to the fan.

This is a small camping stove really designed for one or two people, but it’s very efficient and soon had a frying pan heating up nicely. We found the kettle pot and the grill a little unstable, so we had to be very careful how we placed them on the stove. One interesting thing our testers noted was that the fire goes so well, you tend to forget to add more twigs and, of course, you can’t see that it’s dying down under the pan. They thought they’d get into the habit of checking if they were using it regularly.

Biolite camping stove cookingWhat we liked about the Biolite

  • A neat, well-designed stove that’s easy to carry.
  • Very fast to set up and light and a very efficient fire.
  • The USB charging connection is unique and should appeal to gadget-lovers.
  • Very little wood needed to keep it going.
  • The fan really does help with lighting and burning.
USB charger from Biolite camping stove

The USB charger is powered up when you light the stove.

The not-so-good

  • One of our testers didn’t like the fan noise, which he thought didn’t fit with the outdoor experience he wanted.
  • We questioned the usefulness of the USB charging, because if you need the fan running on high to fan the fire, it won’t charge. Our testers felt it could be good for emergencies but you were unlikely to get a full charge from it in a normal cooking session.
  • The barbecue grill was quite flimsy and didn’t fit properly into its stand, and the whole attachment didn’t fit positively onto the stove.

To buy or not to buy

Some of our testers loved it, others weren’t so sure. It’s got the looks, the wow factor and the fast, efficient burn, but there were some doubts about its reliance on a fan and the usefulness of the phone-charging function. Its compactness and light weight mean it’s very portable, which makes it more viable as an alternative to a small camping gas cooker.


Woodgas stoves

From £15 to around £50.

wood-gas stove in pack

Light and small – a great backpacking wood-gas stove.

At only around 280g in weight and folding away into a titchy bag, the Woodgas has to be the stove for back-packers and wild campers – and even for car-campers who don’t want a lot of big and heavy kit.

Wood-gas stoves work so well because the main air coming into the stove partially combusts wood-gas, then pre-heated secondary air is pushed into the top of the combustion chamber to mix with the remaining smoke. The result is a very hot, clean burn and fast lighting. This stainless steel model is a passive wood-gas stove, so the secondary air holes are powered by convection rather than a battery-operated fan.

Setting up and lighting the Woodgas

Our testers loved the way this stove fitted so neatly and simply together, and it was up and running in a couple of minutes using a bit of small kindling and some twigs. The flame was soon strong enough to set a pan on top.

Cooking on the Woodgas stove

It’s small, so it took some careful placing to get the pan sitting right on the supports. We were supplied with our stove by Het Buiten in the Netherlands who have opted for a hinged and fairly sturdy pot-stand in preference to the redesigned wire stand on Wild Stoves’ Wild Woodgas Stove (otherwise very similar). The pan was soon heating up nicely.

wood-gas stove

Air from the top holes makes for an efficient burn.

What we liked about the Woodgas

  • Would probably fit in a (big) pocket, so could be taken anywhere for almost instant cooking.
  • The cheapest of the models we tested.
  • Simple, with no bits and pieces to break.

The not-so-good

  • Too small for family cooking.
  • Fiddly pan supports (though these have now been redesigned).
  • Needs a windshield for easier lighting and burning.

cooking on wood-gasTo buy or not to buy

The neatest, lightest and smallest of the stoves we tested. It’s easy to light, but susceptible to wind. The pot stand is fairly stable providing you position your pan carefully and don’t use anything too big. A simple, satisfying stove to use for one- or two-person wild camping.


The smallest Solo Stove

The backpacker’s version

Solo Stoves

From around £55 to £115.

While we haven’t given the Solo gasifying stove as thorough a testing as the others, we already love it. While it might look rather like the cheaper Woodgas above, it’s in a different league (and you do pay dearly for that difference). There are three sizes – a backpacker’s one-to-two person option, a two-to-four person Titan stove and the four-person Campfire. They don’t seem to be available outside the US at the moment, but there’s also a big firepit Bonfire.

A few dry twigs is all it takes to get it going. Rising hot air, and the absence of oxygen created by the combustion process, pulls air through the bottom vent holes in the double-walled cylinder. This air fuels the fire at its base and gives a boost of preheated air through the vent holes at the top of the burn chamber.

An ash pan catches loose ash and prevents it from clogging the airflow. It acts as a heat shield and prevents your stove from scorching the ground.  Vent holes near the top of the burn chamber allow preheated oxygen to fuel the flame resulting in a more complete combustion and a hotter fire with less smoke.

The smallest Solo Stove

The smallest Solo Stove

The Campfire Solo Stove four-person stove

The Campfire four-person stove

Made of stainless steel, the smallest weighs 255g and the four-person weighs just under a kilo. There are accessories available, including cooking pots and an alcohol burner attachment to use instead of wood.

Not a cheap option, but it’s one of those pieces of kit that earns a devoted following. We’ll report back on how it fares long-term.


The Ezystove

Though we haven’t tried one ourselves yet, we’ve been hearing good things about the Ezystove – a lightweight (2.8kg) rocket stove with an interesting open structure that makes a good solid surface for cooking pots.

It gives out 2Kw of heat and can be adjusted from simmer to intense.

We’ll report back when we’ve tried it out, but have a look at what a couple of readers say in the comments section below.


And a firebowl for good measure

La Hacienda firepitLa Hacienda make some lovely firepits and outdoor ovens and they kindly sent us one of their folding steel firebowls to try out. It comes with a grill, a spark cover, a couple of tools and a storage/carry bag. They’re very affordable at around £40, and are a good size for sitting around. We love the pull-toggle to release the folding legs, and it’s a neat package.

Our testers have now reported back. They really enjoy using it, but were disappointed that it rusted overnight after the first go. It hasn’t impaired how it works, so they’re trying to get used to its now rustic charm! They’re now testing the Firebox pizza oven ‘attachment’ that sits on top of the firebowl, and we’ll hear more about that soon.


And what did we cook? Try out our camping recipes for chapattis, marinated paneer and lentil and spinach curry. If you’re still thinking of a gas stove, make sure you read our camping gas stove recommendations and a very definite ‘don’t buy this’ warning for one particular model.

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8 Comments

  1. I bought an Ezystove last year and it’s excellent. It can generate a lot of heat very quickly.
    Because of the small amount of fuel being burnt at any one time it is quite easy to adjust the heat with how much fuel you feed in.
    It is true that the underside of the pans get sooty, but I tended to rub the worst of it off on the grass (once they were cool) before washing up.
    The paint / coloured coating near the doorway got damaged when flames licked out, but this was probably my fault for putting in too much fuel and is only cosmetic.
    Excellent campsite stove / camping gadget

  2. Joanne McGee

    I’ve used the frontier stove for years. To slow cook, I put an old fold up BBQ rack on top of the stove to lift the pan off the direct heat! Works wonders. Regarding swivelling the boiler, I’ve never needed to do that, there’s plenty of space for cooking, even with the boiler on; and I cook for five adults on mine! The flashing kits for fitting the stove into a canvas tent are easy to instal, and mine have never leaked! I’ve loved my stove so much, I went to Anevay the other day and upgraded to the Frontier Plus. The Frontier Plus is bigger, has a viewing window and air control, and the flue is 4″ diameter, much bigger than the 60mm of the Frontier. Which means you don’t have to de coke so often. Of course, the flashing kit is so much bigger for that, and I have yet to fit it. But looking forward to testing it out next week during our visit to the New Forest. In addition to my new toy, I am also looking forward to trying out my new Cadac Safari Chef stove! We are going to have one gastronominous holiday!

  3. Thanks for the suggestion, Jonathan. It’s on our list to try and it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to the Horizon, as they look quite similar.

  4. Have you tried the EzyStove and how does it compare? They look great in pics and reviews elsewhere are positive.

  5. Some would say the soot is a badge of honour! Others would take along a hessian sack or similar to keep sooty pots in. There’s also the trick of rubbing soap (bar or liquid) onto the bottom of the pot. It won’t stop the soot, but it makes it easier to clean off.

  6. Donald Perley

    One thing not mentioned in the article is that where wood flame hits the pot, you get soot. More to clean, plus it rubs off on hands, picnic table, etc.
    Some of the specialized pots like Biolite kettlepot and Silver Fire’s Dragon pot are designed so the flames don’t hit external surfaces, so no soot stains on things that touch the pot.

  7. David Maunder

    I have a Woodgas stove and am very pleased with its lightness simplicity and performance. It also sits exactly inside an MSR Seagull camping saucepan, which in turn sits comfortably inside the stove’s mesh bag. There’s room in the folded stove to carry a few twigs and kindling, and suitable fuel is nearly always lying around. I use a very light titanium windshield when necessary. I have now bought several more as gifts for friends, who are also impressed with this neat little stove.

  8. Don’t trash the ash

    There are lots of uses for the ashes from your woodburning stove, so don’t just chuck them.
    One of our readers, an English guy who’s set up Stovesellers.com in France, has compiled a list for us. Ashes can be used to enrich compost, repel snails and slugs, prepare the soil for flowers and plants that thrive in alkaline conditions and to help fruits and vegetables that love potash.

    The best ashes to use
    You must keep the ashes dry, or they’ll lose their nutrients. It’s best to keep them in a metal bucket indoors.

    Don’t use the ashes if you’ve been burning smokeless fuel. They can contain traces of iron, cadmium, lead, aluminium, zinc and copper and these elements aren’t good for your garden.

    As long as it’s firewood ash, then this is a great source of nitrogen, lime, magnesium, potassium, trace minerals and carbon, all of which are beneficial. The exact nutrients will depend on the type of wood that you’ve been burning. Woods such as oak and other hardwoods can contain approximately five times as many nutrients as softwoods such as pine.

    Adding wood ash to compost
    Add the ash to your compost pile by sprinkling it in layers, building up your compost pile with a layer of ash, followed by a layer of compost, and so on. Keep turning the compost pile as you add the ashes, ensuring they’re not all in one area. They must be spread evenly throughout the compost. If you want the compost to be less alkaline, add citrus fruit peel too.

    Deter those snails and slugs
    Ashes sprinkled around the base of your vulnerable plants can create a barrier that will discourage snails and slugs from climbing up the stems.

    Re-apply the ashes every time it rains. As the ash makes the soil more alkaline, test it regularly to make sure the pH of the soil hasn’t increased too much. You can buy a pH soil testing kit from any DIY store or garden centre.

    Feed flowers and vegetables
    If you have plants and flowers that like an alkaline environment, feed them with the ashes. Do this by sprinkling ashes around the plants, then rake them into the soil. Don’t leave clumps of ashes sitting on top. Flowers that thrive in potash include lavender, peonies, clematis, rosemary, carnations, asters, columbines, lupins, sunflowers, oriental poppies, daffodils and perennials.

    Your vegetables are likely to grow better with an application of firewood ashes. Try this with your tomatoes, cauliflower, courgettes, sprouts, cabbage and asparagus. When planting tomatoes, place a quarter of a cup of potash into the hole. This will give you a higher yield.

    Useful tip for hydrangeas
    As the colour of blue and pink hydrangeas is influenced by the pH of the soil, adding ashes will change their hue. The light pinks can become darker; the blue flowers will develop a pink tone and the dark pink blooms can turn burgundy. Apply the ash three times a year, in mid-May, June and in the winter. This will change the colour in one season.

    Thanks, Stovesellers!

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