Portable "coal-fired" propane fire pit heats camp like a wood blaze
When you're venturing out into the unknown, sometimes burning or firewood-collection bans can douse your end-of-the-day base camp fire before you even spark it. Carrying a portable propane fire pit is a good way to hedge your bets, or avoid the hassles of wood fire all together, but while such fire pits have the fiery ambiance down, they often come up short in other areas – most notably, heat. Colorado's Howl Campfires looks to build a better mousetrap with a burly, heirloom-grade 61,800-BTU portable fire that spits furious 1,200 °F (650 °C) heat out of radiant tubes to provide robust wood-fire levels of warmth.
Like so many other new creations in the camping and RVing market, the Howl R4 fire pit came about from real-world trial and tribulation. Some of Howl's founding team members found themselves shivering under the big desert sky on a particularly frigid November camping trip in Utah. The propane fire pit they picked up en route specifically to fend off the imminent cold spell served as little more than a bright, bouncing light on which to focus as they paced and danced in place to keep warm. They determined then and there to find a better way.
Following the trip, a little thought and research brought the Howl folks to the conclusion that the flames of an average propane fire merely create literal hot air, which rises straight up and dissipates into the nighttime ether. That's fine for heating up a grill or griddle directly above a propane burner, but not so good for heating people gathered around in a circle ... unless they all want crouch over top the thing like they're in a football huddle on 4th and 8, OT.
So Howl got down to fire basics in order to build a fire pit back up in a different way it believes rivals any wood fire in cranking out chatter-silencing heat. It looked at the reason wood fires deliver superior warmth, finding the difference in the presence of the glowing coals that line the bottom of the fire, emitting the omnidirectional thermal radiation that actually warms the body.
Many propane fire pit manufacturers offer rocks or inserts in an attempt to add heat, but Howl landed on something more dramatic. It calls the solution BarCoals, two inner tubes that house the combustion of propane mixed with air, heating up to a glowing 1,200 °F to emit the same frequency of radiation as a wood fire. Howl calls the R4 the first "naturally aspirated portable radiant tube heater" and says it will warm a crew of four people in any weather, at any altitude and on any piece of ground.
The R4's combustion also feeds what Howl calls the A-Flame burner, which releases flames upward through the top grate. This delivers the dancing glow and ambiance of fire so that the R4 is a proper outdoor fire pit, not merely an infrared heater. Howl says the burner plate is designed to efficiently drain off water, while a windscreen blocks winds up to 60 mph (96.5 km/h), ensuring the flame keeps flickering through rough weather.
To prevent the R4 base from heating the ground and potentially starting a fire with dry weeds, loose pine needles or other omnipresent tinder, Howl installs mirror-coated reflectors that direct the radiation outward, where it's wanted, keeping the ground below cool.
Since it was redesigning the portable propane fire pit from the ground up, Howl set about solving another problem by ditching the round shape that for some reason persists as the most common form of gas fire pits. The R4 isn't particularly compact or lightweight at 22 x 16 x 13 in (56 x 41 x 33 cm) and 34 lb (15.4 kg), but it is designed for much cleaner packing than a round disc or tub. Its legs are spaced to fit around a propane tank to minimize packing footprint and serve as a stabilizing base when strapped to the tank. The legs also include strap points for tying the whole thing down to the pickup bed or trunk floor. This makes the whole fire pit/tank package semi-rectangular for neater stowing next to coolers, cargo boxes, tables and camping stoves.
Howl says the R4 is "built for a lifetime, or maybe three." It manufactures the fire pits in Colorado, press-braking the main frame out of 304 stainless steel and using a mix of aluminum and brass components.
Nothing about the R4's design or build suggests "inexpensive," and at $1,299, it's several times more expensive than other portable propane fire pits, though you could spend comparably on the largest collapsible Firestorm. We suspect many of Howl's most serious customers will have had already gone through cheaper propane fire pits in a fruitless attempt to solve their heating problem for overlanding, winter adventuring or full-time RVing and won't mind spending for something that promises a superior design. And even if such buyers aren't swarming into hordes and breaking down the gates, it should be a-okay for a company focusing on building and releasing its product in small batches. The next drop is coming on October 26, and a $100 deposit secures a spot.
Source: Howl Campfires