A few years ago, I took a weekend wilderness survival class. Deep in the remote woods of Oregon’s coast range, we strung plastic sheets up with fishing line for shelter and practiced signaling with tiny pocket mirrors. Enthralled, I watched as the instructor slowly teased a cotton ball daubed with petroleum jelly into a roaring campfire.
Survival class aside, fire starting isn’t one of my skills. I am far more likely to get exasperated and start dumping a bottle of white gas onto a pile of wood (which is not a WIRED-endorsed practice, by the way!) than I am to painstakingly craft lichen and kindling into a cozy home for a newborn flame. Luckily, with the BioLite FirePit, I don’t need to.
The FirePit is a sleek, portable, mesh box with removable legs, a hibachi-style grill, and an ash bin. It has a rechargeable 10,400 mAh battery that can power 51 air jets for up to 26 hours. And it’s Bluetooth-compatible, so you can precisely control the airflow—and how high the flames go—on your phone.
While you can charge your phone with the FirePit, the heat generated from the flames does not automatically recharge the FirePit’s battery pack, as with BioLite’s other stoves. So if you’re looking for a product that will let you cook food and charge devices in a natural disaster, the FirePit won’t be your first pick.
But if you want to quickly grill kabobs at a backyard or beachside gathering, the FirePit is as good at sparking conversation as it is flames.
Earth, Wind and Fire
With wildfires raging all over the western United States and ground fires forbidden in many locations, a portable fire pit is a very attractive option for summer car campers. The FirePit is particularly toteable, since it weighs less than 20 pounds, and is only 10 inches high with the retractable legs stowed. I can easily carry it with the side handles, and it also comes with a carry cover.
BioLite also cautions users to not set it up on a wood deck or dry grass. Nothing will ruin a backyard gathering faster than setting your house alight. I set my tester unit up on our slate backyard patio, charged the battery pack via micro USB (which took about four hours to go from 25 percent to 100 percent), and downloaded the BioLite app to my phone.
If you’ve ever used a charcoal grill, you’ll find the FirePit’s setup to be familiar. Air tubes run through the bottom of the unit, with a fuel rack in the inside. If you’re burning wood logs, set the fuel rack on the bottom, and if you’re cooking with charcoal, set the rack on the higher hooks.
If you choose to burn wood, the fuel rack can only accommodate 16-inch logs, and only up to four of them at that. Being able to adjust the airflow in the FirePit is a huge boon to getting a good fire started, but when working with so few logs, it does take a little skill.
I suggest keeping a hatchet and a few different types of kindling, like paper or small dry sticks, on hand. Not white gas or lighter fluid—the FirePit is not intended for use with any liquid fuel. If you’re trying to get a fire started, keeping the fan setting on low at first. The high setting is great for making the flames in a fire leap, but not for coaxing a bit of tinder to catch. The first time we used the FirePit, my spouse made the mistake of blasting the fragile sparks with air and just blew them all out.
Once you’re finished with flames for the evening, the FirePit is cools off really quickly and is easy to clean. I just took the fuel rack off the hooks and dumped the ash into our metal trash bin, then opened the sliding trap door to shake the rest of the ash out.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
The FirePit is not precisely smokeless, as BioLite claims. But it does do a much better job than our old fire pit of ventilating smoke, burning fuel more efficiently, and keeping stray embers contained. It was relaxing to sit around a fire without constantly circling around it to avoid smoke plumes. I also felt much better about having small children dashing madly around the patio.
It made cooking much easier, too. If you have a FirePit, you don’t need a separate grill, fire pit, and chimney firestarter. I used the FirePit for all three functions in the course of one evening. BioLite advises you to set the fuel rack higher up to cook over charcoal, but I didn’t like the idea of gingerly transferring it to the lower setting with a bunch of hot coals in the rack.
I set the fan to low and used kindling to start a fire with wood lumps in the lower rack setting. Once the charcoal started burning, I ramped up the air a little bit to get a little char on my chicken and veggie kabobs. The skewers fit perfectly across the grilling grate, and they finished cooking in a few minutes. After I was done, I just slid the cooking grate over, added a few logs to the hot coal base, and turned down the air.
The battery has a remarkably long life. Over a week of evening wood fires on low power, I only needed to charge it once. The app lets you know how long the battery life will be at each fan setting. At full charge, it has approximately 26 hours at low power, and at max power, about three. I grilled for an hour and had plenty of battery to last through the rest of the evening.
It’s a really big bummer that the FirePit can’t generate its own power from heat. BioLite’s other cooking stoves, the CampStove and the BaseCamp, have won devoted fans in both developing countries and in disaster-prone parts of the United States for being not only a great cooking tool, but a quick and highly efficient power source.
The FirePit does have an optional waterproof carry cover that also collects solar energy to recharge the battery. Just don’t count on it doing so particularly fast, since BioLite states that it will take 3-5 days in direct sun the cover to charge the FirePit entirely.
Finally, the FirePit might do too good a job at containing heat. We were all able to sit within a few feet of the FirePit and not feel any warmth. While that’s appreciated on a balmy summer evening, it means cold and rainy winter ones will probably be a lot less cozy. At least we can hike up the flames a little bit to cook s’mores.
Going camping without a fire is like…well, it’s not like anything. Camping without a fire hardly seems like camping at all. Portable fire pits, like BioLite’s, are a great way to exercise your pyromanic tendencies while obeying campsite rules and protecting vulnerable areas from fire damage.
You won’t be able to show off your Bear Grylls skills with a Bluetooth-enabled fan gently nudging your flames up to cooking height. But you also won’t be spraying noxious flammable liquids everywhere, either, or smelling like smoke for days. That seems like a more-than-decent tradeoff to me.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/review/review-biolite-firepit