Wouldn’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.
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?
Around £150. Water heater extra.
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 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.
- 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 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
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 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.
- 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.
Around £110 for the stove. £40 for the grill, but bundles available
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.
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
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.
- 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.
From £15 to around £50.
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.
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.
- Fiddly pan supports (though these have now been redesigned).
- Needs a windshield for easier lighting and burning.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.