Stainless Steel Vs Titanium - The Ultimate Guide
Over the weekend a SilverAnt partner released a YouTube video review. The video was a comparison for the SilverAnt multi-fuel stove and soon-to-be-released 750ml titanium pot. Because of the community Wade has built, he had many comments and views about both titanium and stainless steel. It was great to see the feedback and the community response.
From the comments, the main focal point was the price, especially in comparison to stainless steel. In the past 5 years of building SilverAnt, I have grown to love titanium more. It is an incredible material that continues to amaze me. And because of my deeper understanding it has also made me more apprehensive of other materials.
And so armed with this knowledge I wanted to make a blog series over the next few weeks called the “Titan Series”. In each article, I will list all the advantages and disadvantages of titanium in comparison to other common materials. The aim of this series is most definitely not to say titanium is the best. Instead I will inform and give you the relevant information to make your own decision.
In this first installment, I will discuss and review stainless steel. I will cover the composition of the metal, the advantages and disadvantages of stainless steel, its strengths in comparison to titanium, and its weaknesses.
So without further delay let’s get into the composition of stainless steel.
The Composition of Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, meaning that its makeup is made from predominantly iron at 65% - 75%. Typically stainless steel contains at least 10.5% chromium. In addition, to chromium, other elements, such as nickel, molybdenum, and titanium, will also be used to enhance the metal's properties. The exact composition of stainless steel can vary depending on its application. For this article, we will focus on SUS304 which is the food-grade standard stainless steel. It is also the most versatile and used form of stainless steel.
- Chromium (Cr) 17.5% - 19.5% - Provides corrosion resistance and gives stainless steel it’s signature shiny appearance.
- Nickel (Ni) 8% to 10.5 %: Improves toughness, ductility, and resistance to corrosion and high temperatures.
- Iron (Fe) 65% - 75%: The main component of stainless steel, provides strength and ductility.
Besides these primary elements, other trace elements such as Carbon, Manganese, Silicon, Sulfur, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus will be present. To give a percentage, about 2% of Manganese will be present with 1% Silicon. The other trace elements such as Sulfur and Phosphorus are very low at around 0.02% to 0.045%. Please see the table below for a breakdown.
Stainless Steel Composition Breakdown
Now that I’ve shown the composition of stainless steel I wanted to break down the elements further.
Chromium, you might be thinking what’s that? Well, you most likely have heard of Chromoly steel or seen shiny rims on a street racing car. Chromoly steel is very common to build bicycle frames as its stronger than stainless steel. And Chrome is used to enhance a lot of vehicles, from cars to motorbikes. To get stainless steel you must use Chromium!
Now Chromium as a raw material isn’t toxic to humans but as a compound, it is. Chromium compound exposure can cause issues with your lungs and sinuses, leading to some forms of cancer.
After Chromium the next mineral present is Nickel. Now Nickel is in all Stainless Steel and Aluminum products. Unfortunately, Nickel is poisonous to humans with some people facing severe reactions. For researching this article, a lot of top organizations referenced Nickel exposure. It is hard to acknowledge or measure exposure because stainless steel and Aluminum are everywhere in everyday items.
I want to share an excerpt from The National Library of Medicine.
Nickel contact can cause a variety of side effects on human health, such as allergy, cardiovascular and kidney diseases, lung fibrosis, lung and nasal cancer. Although the molecular mechanisms of nickel-induced toxicity are not yet clear, mitochondrial dysfunctions and oxidative stress are thought to have a primary and crucial role in the toxicity of this metal. Recently, researchers, trying to characterize the capability of nickel to induce cancer, have found out that epigenetic alterations induced by nickel exposure can perturb the genome.
After reading this I’ll let you the reader make your own judgment. With the recent research about free radicals, microplastics, and such I know it is important for human health to remove such materials where possible. Of course, it can be difficult, especially when all cell phone cases are made from aluminum, but there are definitely steps you can take to eliminate these materials or reduce them.
Another factor I’ll address later is the breakdown of Stainless Steel after years of use and what this means.
The Advantages of Stainless Steel
With the chemical composition of stainless steel explained it is now time to delve into the benefits of stainless steel as a material. What makes stainless steel stand out is its strength, weight, durability, cost, and longevity. Yet there are even more advantages to this versatile material.
Stainless steel is resistant to corrosion and rusting, making it ideal for use in harsh environments or applications where exposure to water is common. Unlike other metals that can rust and corrode over time, stainless steel maintains its appearance and integrity for a long time. Even after a decade of cooking on a campfire with your stainless steel pot, the material won’t corrode.
On every single building, you will note the use of steel and concrete. Whether for the foundations or the supporting columns. This is because steel reinforces the structure adding strength and integrity.
In everyday use, stainless steel is strong and durable. Let's take, for example, a stainless steel double-wall thermos water bottle. You can drop this, put dents in it, and for a solid 10 to 15 years, this water bottle will function great. It will keep heat and be a good thermos. It is understandable why the majority of outdoor products from sporks to travel cups are stainless steel.
In the outdoor community, another big positive of stainless steel is that you can cook with it. Whether a portable gas stove or a campfire, you can place your stainless steel travel cup or pot and pan on the fire and cook great campfire meals. Stainless steel is also a non-porous material. Meaning cleaning and sanitizing are easy, making it a popular choice. This paired with the lower cost of Stainless Steel is what makes it very popular.
Cost is always centered around the perceived value the product will bring you, and stainless steel is a good material that will last a long time. The average length of a Stainless Steel product without a coating is 10 - 15 years on average. This can be shorter or longer depending on the product. In our example earlier with a Stainless Steel thermos after 10 or so years, the heat will be lost quickly and it won't be a fully functioning thermos. At this point, it is necessary to get a new one, otherwise, your morning coffee in the car will get cold. In this instance, you could repurpose the thermos as a general water bottle.
The last advantage is weight. Now although not as light as Titanium, Stainless Steel is light and your gear bag will definitely have some weight reductions. As a material, its strength-to-weight ratio is great. Often when comparing say a titanium cup and stainless steel camping cup there will be very little difference. In this instance, it's the cost that is usually the determining factor.
In this case, Stainless Steel might be the cheaper option, but is it the logical one?
Let’s explore the disadvantages.
The Disadvantages of Stainless Steel
Despite its many advantages, Stainless Steel also has some potential drawbacks. These factors outdoor people should be aware of before making a purchase.
I have already spoken about the mineral components of Stainless Steel and for this reason, some will want to avoid products that contain Nickel. At first, a Stainless Steel product will be fine but over time and use the material will degrade. It is important to note that some Stainless Steel products may have coatings or finishes that can peel or wear off over time, especially with frequent use or exposure to harsh environments. Think of non-stick cookware coatings or an array of color options available.
The question here I ask is what chemicals or minerals were used to make the coating or color finish to the Stainless Steel product?
To continue on this chain although Stainless Steel in contrast to Aluminum or plastic has a long life after 10 - 15 years it will begin to degrade. For example, a stainless steel pan might start burning your food where before it cooked evenly.
Below is a chart from Wikipedia showing the sustainability and life of stainless steel in different uses.
Source Wikipedia Stainless Steel Page - Sustainability, Recycling & Re-Use Section. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stainless_steel
After looking at this you can see that common household appliances and metal goods usually last 15 years. With good care and maintenance, they can last longer!
A further disadvantage of Stainless Steel is that it is a heavier material. It is heavier than other materials used in outdoor gear, such as titanium, plastic, or aluminum. Although in this instance stainless steel is better for longevity than both plastic and aluminum combined.
Another potential drawback of stainless steel is that it is not the most thermally efficient material, which means that it may not be the best choice for keeping liquids or food hot or cold for extended periods of time. Stainless steel can take longer to heat up or cool down and it may not retain the temperature as well. In Wade’s YouTube video review, the titanium cooking set was quicker to boil in contrast to the stainless steel setup.
Stainless steel can also be prone to scratching and other damage. While stainless steel is generally very durable, strong, and resistant to corrosion, it is not completely immune to scratches or other blemishes that can affect its appearance. As stainless steel reaches the end of its life the material properties will begin to fade such as corrosion resistance. In this case, you might see orange rust areas for stainless steel products used with water.
For me, the biggest disadvantages of stainless steel are its degrading and the product’s longevity. Stainless steel products in contrast to other materials offer great value at reasonable prices. This leads me to a full comparison between titanium and stainless steel.
Stainless Steel Vs Titanium
In the title match between these two metals, the first point to address is cooking and boiling water. It is because of this very test that I am writing this metal comparison Titan Series.
For those that venture outdoors camping, hiking, backpacking, or thru-hiking, cooking is an essential part of the experience. Both titanium and stainless steel are great for cooking outdoors but which is superior?
To start let’s discuss heat conductivity. Cooking is all about heat and when boiling water and cooking titanium is generally faster than stainless steel. Even so, in stainless steel’s defense titanium’s heat conductivity can be a negative when cooking. When boiling water this issue isn’t a problem it’s an advantage. But with titanium heat conductivity it is very easy to burn food. Recently on Reddit a member of our community posted this and I loved it so much I wanted to share it here.
This leads me to some advice. You can, of course, cook with a titanium pan on a campfire but it is very hard almost impossible to control in contrast to a gas stove. Even on a gas stove, it can take some time to adjust to titanium camping cookware because of the speed of heat conductivity. I find more olive oil than usual helps. For this, if you want to cook on a campfire stainless steel is usually the better option. For boil-in-the-bag backpacking meals, titanium is the solution as it's much faster.
Another related area to camp cooking is hygiene and cleanliness. Stainless steel is a non-porous and corrosion-resistant material that is easy to clean. The same applies to titanium, it’s corrosion-resistant too. Yet there is a distinction, titanium is also an antibacterial and biocompatible material. Biocompatible means not harmful to human tissue. This is why titanium's used in medicine from artificial hip replacements to dental implants. The titanium will never leach chemicals or cause harm to human tissue. Stainless steel isn’t biocompatible as it contains Nickel as well as other minerals that are dangerous to your health. In this regard titanium is the clear winner and worth the extra cost just for the health benefits. But before we discuss price I want to focus on the two biggest factors in similar comparisons, strength, and weight.
Firstly let’s say that both stainless steel and titanium are very strong materials!
Both materials are used in all major construction and engineering projects because of their weight and strength. Yet, when it comes to weight titanium is going to be much lighter.
Titanium is as strong as steel but 45% lighter! Titanium also has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known metal!
For the ultralight backpacker where every gram matters titanium is the better choice. There is one comparison I want to share with you and that is even though stainless steel and titanium are both strong they cannot withstand dents, scratches, or dings. If you drop a full titanium water bottle or stainless steel water bottle they will dent. Not significantly but depending on the height of the drop will affect the size of the ding or damage.
A further area to discuss is the finish of titanium and stainless steel. Stainless steel is a good-looking material because of that gloss finish! But it is also very common to have a stainless steel water bottle with a coating. I don’t like this as the coating will peel after a few years and you don’t know what chemicals the manufacturer used. If I was going to buy a stainless steel water bottle I would buy an uncoated and unlined one.
On the topic of water bottles, there is an advantage to stainless steel thermoses compared with titanium. Stainless steel thermos flasks can be completely vacuum sealed in the manufacturing process. Titanium can only ever be double-wall. In the titanium manufacturing process creating a vacuum seal is very hard! This means that the stainless steel flask will keep your drink hotter in contrast to titanium. For example if titanium can keep your coffee warm for 4 hours, stainless steel will do 5 hours. That is why a stainless steel thermos has a mid range price.
And now that I have mentioned price let’s continue with this comparison. Price is both a subjective and objective choice, with every person seeking something different. The product's price can really depend on the materials and the lifetime of the product.
A titanium spork and stainless steel spork are almost the same price. Titanium and stainless steel cups vary as well as water bottles, camping cookware, and hip flasks. As shown earlier a stainless steel home or outdoor good on average will last 15 years whereas a titanium one can last a lifetime. For this reason, titanium is more expensive because of the value it provides the customer.
Let me give you an example. The Klean Canteen steel 16oz pint glass costs $11.95 whereas the SilverAnt beer cup costs $49.99. Now in this example, there is a clear price difference and that is why I chose it. Personally, I like Klean Canteen as a company. The prior CEO is awesome and his work as chairman for 1% For The Planet is super inspiring!
Even so, for me in making an informed decision I will buy titanium because it will last a lifetime, and titanium is biocompatible. Those 2 points are enough alone for me to make the decision without the effect of the weight, strength, crystallization, etc.
Now I know not everyone can afford titanium water bottles or cookware and more so justify that expense, but everyone can buy a titanium cup or a titanium spork and these will last a lifetime and more!
I am interested in asking the community what other classic examples they have where titanium or stainless steel is better and in what specific item of outdoor gear. Please leave a comment below.
In the outdoor gear space, there has always been a bit of a rivalry between die-hard stainless steel advocates and ultralight titanium fans. For me, titanium is the clear winner not because of its weight but because of its longevity and biocompatibility.
Nevertheless, my overall ethos is whatever gear you have, get outdoors! Have fun, enjoy nature, and as you venture out more, invest in the best gear you can! You will from experience gain a better understanding of the gear you need as well as from research and the outdoor community. Remember to maintain your gear whether stainless steel or titanium and over the years it will look after you.
If you have any questions or feedback please comment below.
To your next adventure!