Testing the best woodburning camp stoves
We set our team of testers the challenge of making a meal using some of the most popular wood-burning stoves – a Frontier-style wood-burner, the EcoZoom rocket stove, a tiny woodgas backpacker’s stove and the high-tech Biolite camping stove.
Since then, we’ve added lots more lovely stoves for you to have a look at.
Why cook with wood?
So, an important question…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.
Open fires aren’t allowed at many campsites, and they’re not very efficient when it comes to cooking. A good stove, though, can cut the amount of wood you need to cook a meal by as much as 80%.
There’s an added incentive with some of the rocket stoves too. Some began life as a humanitarian project 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. 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 tester gets on with the woodburning stoves?
Around £130. Water heater extra.
- Toasting seeds on the stove
Our original test model was an Anevay Frontier stove, which cost around £200. Sadly for Anevay, a number of other companies now make all-but-identical stoves, one of them (Outbacker) for around £70 less.
These stoves are designed for camping, but there are kits available so they can be used inside bell tents and safari tents. They fold down to fit into a small bag and weigh around 10kg. They’re claimed to be 10 times more fuel-efficient than an open fire.
The stove 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 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 removable top plate for the first 10 minutes or so, but then the chimney made sure all the smoke was carried well away.
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 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.
- The water heater was a big hit with our testers.
- 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. Not an issue on the new model
- 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. Cooking on it was great fun.
The Ecozoom is a sturdy piece of kit that immediately looks as if it’ll do the business.
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.
Setting up and lighting
There 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 Ecozoom 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).
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.
- While it’ll take a family-sized pot, it can’t cook a couple of dishes at once.
To buy or not to buy
The most solid and robust of the stoves we tested, plus only 5kg in weight. Takes a bit of practice to get the fire right.
The Petromax is a beautiful silver stove that works more or less on the same principle as the Ecozoom, although it doesn’t have an insulated core but uses an air gap instead. Around £125. There’s an optional bag and lots of cooking pots in the same range.
The BBQ-Toro comes in black, grey or silver and is another identical rocket stove, complete with carrybag and good-sized wood rack. You can regulate the heat with a two-door system. Great value at around £85 too.
The Biolite comes in enticing packaging and is definitely the most high-tech of the stoves we tested. There are lights, cooking attachments, firepits and more.
Biolite began as a fuel-efficient mini-stove. It’s small (the stove weighs just under a kilo) and can sit on a table-top. 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.
Nowadays, though the range of Biolite goodies is huge. Choose from a kettle-pot for fast boiling that doubles up as a container for the stove itself, a barbecue grill that folds down and has a nifty plastic tray cover that can also be used as a plate, lights and even a coffee press to add to your kit.
Setting up and lighting the Biolite
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
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.
What 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.
- 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.
Have a look at Biolite’s FirePit barbecue
A smokeless wood-burning FirePit that the makers claim can go from spark-to-fire in less than 30 seconds, cook your meals, and give you a full view of the dancing flames.
Burn charcoal or wood, and control the intensity with four-speed fan, powered by the FirePit’s rechargeable powerpack that can also charge your phones and tablets. There’s even a control app! Around £220
From £10 to around £60.
At only around 250g in weight and folding away into a titchy bag, a 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.
Woodgas 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 a woodgas stove
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 a woodgas stove
It’s small, so it took some careful placing to get the pan sitting right on the support, but the pan was soon heating up nicely.
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.
- Too small for family cooking.
- Watch out for fiddly pan supports on some models
- Needs a windshield for easier lighting and burning.
To 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.
More tiny and folding stoves
Reader Tim Watson prefers firebox stoves for their simplicity, reliability and longevity. There are lots to choose from, many different sizes and they cost from £10 upwards. Most can be taken apart for packing away in a very small space.
For something super-simple, try Mark Bunce’s method of using a chimney barbecue starter for fast, hot cooking perfect for woks.
Here’s an idea for avoiding ground scorch under your campfire. This portable mesh campfire keeps the burning logs off the floor and makes it easier to clear up the ash afterwards.
Folds to next-to-nothing and stores away in a neat bag. Around £20. Lots of brands make the same thing, by the way. We chose the cheapest and fastest delivery option (at the time of writing!)
From around £75
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).
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.
Not a cheap option, but it’s one of those pieces of kit that earns a devoted following.
Now this is a great idea – the nCamp stove that works on wood, propane or alcohol – around £60.
It folds up very small into a separate carry case and weighs virtually nothing. We do love versatility, so multifuel is very appealing. The stovetop is also very stable for larger pots. A tad smoky, however.