Kum Ba Yah
BioLite Made a Good Fire Pit and an Awesome Grill
Usually, technology can be considered at odds with nature. Nature prefers to crush screens, drench batteries and inject sand and dirt into circuit boards. But BioLite is a company that has staked its name on bringing the two to harmony. BioLite is best described as a tech company — it’s based in Brooklyn, not Boulder — but the products it creates are all designed for use in the wilds beyond the city.
Its flagship is the CampStove, a cylindrical backpacking stove that burns twigs instead of gas and sports an onboard electrical unit that optimizes the flames, eliminates smoke and charges anything that uses a USB. BioLite’s other products follow this same line of function in the field; there are Bluetooth-enabled lanterns, portable batteries and solar energy units for off-grid living.
Then there’s the FirePit. It’s like the CampStove in a lot of ways, but bigger: flames are housed in a closed container and an external battery-powered unit injects air into them to make them burn better, meaning, with less smoke. There’s also a grill top for cooking, and yep, it charges your phone too.
The Good: It’s a campfire without smoke — need I say more? I will anyway. The portable FirePit deploys in backyards, parking lots, at beaches or campsites. The air jet-optimized burn does work, making optimal flames well in reach for even the most outdoor-impaired of us. Oh yeah, and you can cook on it, and charge your phone, at the same time.
Who It’s For: Everyone, pure and simple.
Watch Out For: My biggest disappointment with the FirePit is that, unlike BioLite’s CampStove 2, its air and battery system don’t create a closed loop with the fire to maintain its charge. The CampStove 2 has a complete thermoelectric system that lets it turn the heat from the flames into energy, which it stores in its battery, which is also used to power a fan — you never have to charge it. The FirePit doesn’t have that, so you have to remember to keep its power unit charged up.
One more thing — the FirePit contains its flames in a box-like apparatus, so it doesn’t give off nearly as much heat as a regular campfire. Some people may like being able to cozy right up to the flames though, which is possible even when they’re at full roar.
Alternatives: Nothing marries tech and hardware quite like the FirePit. The closest you’ll get is something like Solo Stove’s Bonfire ($300), which also uses engineered airflow to maximize flames and minimize smoke or Primus’ Kamoto ($93), but neither have onboard thermoregulation systems like BioLite’s machine, and they aren’t optimized for grilling.
Review: There’s something about fire that makes it mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the complicated and unpredictable movements that are unlinked to any mathematical formula; perhaps it’s some vestige of evolutionary memory embedded in our DNA. Whatever it is, it’s undeniable that something is comforting about circling a campfire, either in the woods or a backyard, and BioLite has brought that experience into the 21st century with the FirePit.
Portable fire pits aren’t new, but the FirePit looks nothing like those that have come before. It’s oblong and rectangular, and perches on four legs, like a claw-foot bathtub that holds fire instead of water. At one end is a big orange electrical unit that powers the machine’s patented airflow system and marks its core innovation — air is injected into the flames to create the most efficient and smoke-free fire possible.
I’m generally skeptical of anything that complicates outdoor experiences (especially when batteries and Bluetooth are involved). “What’s wrong with a regular campfire?” I say. “The smoke!” BioLite retorts. Fair enough; I’ve had smoke sting my eyes and follow me around a campfire circle despite many pleas of “white rabbit” uttered to the fire gods. Firepits of the stone-ring variety are also definitively stationary, so there’s that admission too.
So, on a recent evening that turned out to be the first cool one of the season, I gathered a group of friends to my house with the promise of a campfire, and delivered it to them with the FirePit. Lighting a fire inside of it is just like any other: start with tinder (paper), then build on that with smaller fuel — tipi or log cabin, your choice — before moving to full-sized logs (the FirePit has room for four of those). The critical additional step is starting up the air jets on “low” once the flames get going. At this point, a soft whir like that of an airplane engine becomes audible, and the flames begin to dance a step or two faster than usual.
I’ll admit that I built our fire hastily, and if it weren’t for the FirePit’s 51 strategically-placed air jets, it probably would’ve needed a full demolition and reconstruction. But the jets fanned its life force to full blaze and allowed me to amplify its size much faster than I would’ve done with a standard, more fragile fire.
During this early burn stage, there was smoke present, but once the FirePit got going the air jets performed the task of combusting as they were designed to do and our flames burned smoke-free. As the night deepened and our pile of wood shrank, we noticed that the FirePit lacked something else: heat. It wasn’t completely devoid of its temperature, but the invisible aura of warmth that always accompanies live flames was severely diminished by the barrier of its container, forcing us to huddle in like moths to a lightbulb. The upside: you can roast marshmallows without doing the same to your hands at the same time.
The FirePit’s role as a cooking machine is underplayed, in part due to its straightforward name. On a separate evening, I filled it with charcoal instead of firewood, cranked up the air jets and placed an entire rack of ribs and on its included grill grate. As with my previous fire, I was surprised at the speed in which I was able to cook a full meal for five, even given the limited area of the FirePit’s cooking surface. It put my basic charcoal burner to shame.
Verdict: The FirePit doesn’t replace a campfire — I don’t think any portable fire container can — but it does a fantastic job at mimicking one and making it portable in a way that no other product has done before. The improved combustion provided by its air jet system makes fire maintenance a cinch and speeds up cooking. I didn’t miss the sting of the smoke, but I did miss the intensity of the heat. That said, the FirePit is an adequate stand-in in backyards and parking lots where a ring of stones isn’t available.
What Others Are Saying:
• “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.” — Adrienne So, Wired
• “Doubling as both an excellent fire pit and an amazing grill, the FirePit will be the perfect partner for fun evenings outdoors. You’ll appreciate how easy it makes it to get a fire going or to start a nice even bed of coals, and you’ll enjoy cooking on it, then standing around it later to stay warm.” — Wes Siler, Outside
• “If you’re considering a casual grill, the BioLite FirePit is a great option to expand your possibilities from grilling to flames and chilling. Keep in mind though, it’s only an 18-inch high cooking surface. While there’s a minimum amount of tech involved here, the app-controlled fan helps get things up to temp quickly and lets you sculpt the flame output to some degree. The X-Ray Mesh exterior is great for a combination of safety and visibility, while the overall package is easy to lug about.” — Jon Turi, Engadget
Burn time: 24 hours low; 10 hours medium; 5 hours high
Weight: 19.8 pounds
Output: USB A
Input: Micro USB
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