Iron VS Titanium - The Ultimate Guide
Welcome to the final installment of our Titan Blog Series, Iron VS Titanium - The Ultimate Guide. The aim of this series has been to learn and explore the other common materials and metals used in the outdoor gear industry for backpackers, campers, hikers, and more. The main four materials used to make outdoor gear are aluminum, plastic, stainless steel, and titanium. Nevertheless, there is another metal with a loyal following too.
Iron, although perhaps not your first pick for outdoor gear is an incredible material that has changed the world we inhabit.
So in this article, I will delve into the history and properties of iron, common gear made from iron, the advantages and disadvantages of this metal, as well as compare iron to titanium.
Without further delay let’s discover the history of Iron.
History of Iron
Iron has played a vital role in human civilization since its discovery, where it was used for various purposes, including tools and weapons. Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth's crust, making it one of the most widely available metals.
The use of iron dates back to the early civilizations of Mesopotamia (roughly 14,000 BC), where iron objects such as beads and tools were discovered. Mesopotamia is now modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria. In this period the river Tigris was highly fertile and productive to human colonies. However, it wasn't until the 14th century BCE that the Hittites (people in now modern-day Turkey) discovered the process of extracting iron from ore, making it more widely available. Iron quickly became a valuable resource, and it was used for weapons, tools, and other everyday objects.
During the Middle Ages, iron production continued to grow, with the use of blast furnaces that could produce larger quantities of iron. The iron produced during this period was known as wrought iron, which was malleable and could be easily shaped into various forms. The introduction of the blast furnace also led to the production of cast iron, which was harder and more brittle than wrought iron but could be used to produce larger objects such as cannons.
With iron throughout this time it was used alongside other materials to both cook as well as make tools and unfortunately weapons.
The Industrial Revolution brought about significant advancements in the production of iron. The development of new technologies, such as the Bessemer process, enabled the production of large quantities of high-quality steel, which replaced wrought iron in many applications. Steel was stronger and more durable than wrought iron, making it ideal for use in construction, transportation, and manufacturing.
Today, iron is still widely used for a variety of applications, including construction, transportation, and manufacturing. Nevertheless, with our huge advancement in technology often other materials with better properties are used. A classic example is steel as it’s stronger, but without iron ore, we cannot have steel!
So throughout history we humans have realized iron’s immense use for a variety of purposes but what makes it so special? Let’s look at the chemical composition of this metal.
Chemical Composition of Iron
For those that have forgotten like me from chemistry classes in school, iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal with a silvery-gray appearance and a relatively high density that belongs to the transition metals.
The chemical composition of iron is relatively simple, consisting of just one element - iron. It has a molecular weight of 55.845 g/mol and a melting point of 1,538 °C (2,800 °F). As a relatively reactive metal, it readily reacts with oxygen in the air to form iron oxide, commonly known as rust.
As well as being the fourth most abundant element in the Earth's crust, it makes up roughly 5% of the total crustal mass. It is commonly found in minerals such as hematite, magnetite, and taconite. Iron is also present in seawater and in the human body, where it plays a crucial role in the formation of red blood cells.
Its natural properties as well as the fact it reacts well with other substances make it a highly useful metal for a variety of applications. Iron is a good conductor of heat and electricity, making it ideal for use in applications that require high conductivity. It is also relatively easy to shape and weld.
Most importantly, iron is an important component of steel, which is one of the most widely used, if not the most used materials in the world!
Material Properties of Iron
With steel being the most used material worldwide as regards metals, you can imagine the amount of iron required to make steel for us humans to build our civilizations! But iron is not just used to make steel. Iron is equally a phenomenal material with some great properties.
One of the key material properties of iron is its strength. Iron is a strong and durable metal that can withstand high levels of stress and pressure. Iron's strength also makes it ideal for use in outdoor gear, where it can withstand the rigors of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and backpacking.
Another important material property of iron is its malleability. Iron can be easily shaped and formed into a variety of shapes and sizes, making it a versatile material. It can be shaped, welded, joined, and formed to fit specific needs and applications for a variety of outdoor products
Iron is also a good conductor of heat and electricity. Its conductivity makes it ideal for use in cookware where even heating and heat retention are required.
As iron is an abundant resource although non-renewable it is also relatively affordable, making it a popular choice for use.
Now people reading this might be wondering what products are made from iron and in particular from our lense for outdoor gear? Let’s find out.
Outdoor Gear Made from Iron
The first product that is common amongst outdoor enthusiasts is an iron skillet. Although not purely a product that is exclusive to the outdoors. The humble skillet has been making outdoor meals that much tastier. Just look at some of the large bushcraft social media channels and you will without a doubt see a few skillets cooking up some culinary delights!
The beauty of a skillet is it’s a lifetime product that gets better with time. Once a skillet is fully seasoned - the steak you can cook on this is mindblowing. And being in nature with a campfire roaring is pretty much perfection.
Another similar product is the classic iron Dutch oven pot. Again a great item that is at home literally outdoors at the campsite as well as in your kitchen. A hearty winter stew in the snow - what dreams are made of! Cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are particularly popular among outdoor enthusiasts and the bushcraft community for their ability to cook food evenly over an open flame.
Besides cookware, you will also find iron stoves. Now these aren’t as popular as say stainless steel or titanium but still, they are great for burning wood and even setting up a hot tent at a permanent campsite. Similarly, at permanent campsites, you will find iron outdoor furniture. Such examples include chairs, benches, and tables.
Lastly, iron is also used in the construction of outdoor tools such as axes, hatchets, and saws. These tools require strong and durable materials that can withstand the rigors of outdoor use, and iron's strength and durability make it an ideal choice.
Advantages of Iron
As we have just seen iron is great when cooking but what other advantages does this metal have?
One of the biggest advantages of iron is its strength. Iron is a strong and durable material that can withstand high levels of stress and pressure, making it ideal for use in applications where strength and durability are important. Nature and the elements can be brutal hence why iron products are a good option if you need a lot of strength and durability.
What makes iron so great for cooking and in particular over an open campfire is its high melting point. You can’t control the temperature of a campfire and therefore other materials under extreme heat might warp. Not iron - its natural melting point is 1,538 °C (2,800 °F). Even the hottest of campfires won’t be able to affect your iron Dutch oven or skillet.
On the topic of heat - iron is also a good conductor of heat and electricity. This means while cooking you get even heating and heat retention. This is a bonus where the food you cook is harder to burn.
Another advantage of iron is its malleability. Iron can be easily shaped and formed into a variety of shapes and sizes, making it a versatile material. You will have probably seen Dutch ovens as well as skillets in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Lastly iron is also an abundant and affordable material, which contributes to its popularity and widespread use. Its abundance and affordability make it a popular choice for a wide range of applications. Pair that with the longevity of an iron product and you have great value from your purchase. Also, another side point is that iron is recyclable. This is great for conscientious customers who want to reduce their ecological footprint.
Disadvantages of Iron
While iron is a versatile and popular material for use in a variety of industries, it also has its disadvantages and limitations.
One of the main disadvantages of iron is its susceptibility to rust and corrosion. When exposed to moisture and oxygen, iron can rust and corrode over time, which can weaken its structural integrity and compromise its functionality. This makes it important to take precautions such as using protective coatings and regular maintenance to prevent rust and corrosion.
One of the cardinal sins with an iron skillet is washing it. This is because of rust but also to preserve the seasoning.
Another disadvantage is that iron is a heavy material. This makes it a little impractical for the ultralight backpacker who is trying to reduce the total weight of their gear. If you have a permanent campsite or live out of a van then weight is less important but for those who like to move lightly and swiftly, this is a major factor.
A further disadvantage of iron is its tendency to be brittle at low temperatures. This can make it more prone to cracking and breaking in cold environments, which can limit its use in certain applications. If you have any tundra expeditions planned iron is a definite no!
Lastly, iron although it does have a long life, its longevity can be affected by the environment as mentioned by rust and corrosion. A quality iron product can easily last decades but a lot of maintenance is needed to ensure this. Maintenance isn’t for everyone and often simplicity is the better optimization.
Iron VS Titanium
Now for the main comparison, we all have been looking forward to - Iron VS Titanium. Both have unique advantages and disadvantages that make them suitable for different applications. But which is better?
Iron outdoor gear, such as cast iron cookware, has been used for centuries and is known for its durability and versatility. Cast iron is an excellent heat conductor, making it ideal for cooking and baking. It can be used on a variety of heat sources, from stovetops to campfires. Cast iron cookware is also incredibly durable and can last for generations with proper care. Another advantage of iron cookware is its non-stick properties, which improve over time as the cookware becomes seasoned.
However, there are some disadvantages to using iron outdoor gear. Cast iron cookware is heavy and can be difficult to transport, making it less than ideal for backpacking or hiking trips. Additionally, cast iron requires special care, such as seasoning and regular oiling, to prevent rust and maintain its non-stick properties.
On the other hand, titanium outdoor gear is relatively new compared to iron and has gained popularity in recent years. Titanium cookware, for example, is much lighter than cast iron and can be easily transported on outdoor adventures. Additionally, titanium is resistant to rust and corrosion, making it ideal for use in wet environments.
Nevertheless, there are some downsides to using titanium outdoor gear. Titanium cookware, for example, is not as good of a heat conductor as cast iron, which can result in uneven cooking. Titanium is also a more expensive material than cast iron, making it less accessible to budget-conscious backpackers, hikers, or campers.
If you have an upcoming trip planned where you have a permanent campsite or are living the “VanLife”, iron cookware is a good option as you don’t need to worry about weight and you can cook gourmet meals. But if you are solo backpacking or thru-hiking opt for titanium gear. It will be more expensive but you save a lot of weight and equally have functional gear that can be repurposed for the morning coffee too.
When it comes to outdoor gear, both iron and titanium have their advantages and disadvantages. Iron is a tried-and-true material that has been used for centuries, known for its strength, durability, and affordability. It's a popular choice for cookware and other outdoor equipment due to its ability to withstand high temperatures and rugged conditions.
On the other hand, titanium is a newer material that is known for its lightweight, corrosion-resistant properties, biocompatibility, and strength. It's often used in high-end camping gear, such as water bottles, cups, and cookware, due to its high performance and durability. Ultimately, the choice between iron and titanium outdoor gear depends on personal preferences, needs, and budget. Both materials have their place in the outdoors and will provide reliable performance and functionality.
Please let me know in the comments what materials the majority of your outdoor gear is made from. Check out our Titan Series article Stainless Steel VS Titanium.
To your next adventure!