Titanium cookware: where less will cost you more

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Ever try eating hot Ramen noodles using a spoon with the handle cut short? Instead of merely burning your tongue, you can scald your thumb, chin, throat, nose and lips all at once with big sputtering dribbles. Not to mention go hungry.

Serious backpackers are more weight-conscious than a Slimfast spokesmodel. They trim tags off their sleeping bags and drill holes in toothbrush handles. While packing, they count matches and skip the salt to shave ounces. But they have to accept the weight of their high-country cookware.

Now they may have to worry about it blowing around in the wind instead.

New titanium cookware weighs on average half as much as comparable stainless steel. It's tougher, non-corrosive and lacks the bad flavor of aluminum.

It also costs twice as much. Hikers and campers buy about 80 percent more traditional stainless and aluminum cookware than titanium because of the price, says Mike Wendel at Recreational Equipment Inc.

''It's pricey, but nice,'' he said. ''If you want really lightweight, it's the way to go.''

The hottest thing in cookware is actually a terrible heat conductor, said Nate Borne, spokesman for Snow Peak camping gear, a Japanese company that debuted in the U.S. last year. But titanium, the 22nd element on the periodic table, is so strong it can be made super thin, allowing heat to transfer.

Thin means light. How about a stove with no loose parts weighing in at 2.5 ounces, about five cars keys. Or a double-wall insulated 11-fluid ounce mug weighing 3 ounces ($35), compared to 7.6 for a stainless one of the same size ($15)?

Comfort when backpacking is largely a matter of how much stuff you carry. Hikers in Japan love high-end equipment, and Snow Peak has 2,000 products there, ranging from tents and sleeping bags to tables.

They brought only the titanium compact backpacking and mountain climbing equipment to the U.S., leading with their $79 Giga Power titanium stove, winner of Backpacker Magazine's Editor's Choice Award for 1999.

Most people will not fork over the money for the specialized titanium equipment, says Andy Church with Kirkham's Outdoor Products, which has carried titanium products for about a year. ''But we do get people in here doing amazing things, like a two-day traverse of the Wasatch or a three-day traverse of the Uintas with a 25-pound pack. And they don't care about money and want the smaller, lighter equipment.''

The Giga Power stove burns special isobutane fuel (about $5 per recyclable canister), which burns much better in cold weather than butane or propane.

Kirkham's employees have left the isobutane Giga Power canisters in the freezer for days, then taken them right out and lit them up with no problems.

The high price for titanium isn't likely to come down any time soon.

''It is really costly to fabricate,'' said Tomo Sekiguchi, vice president of Snow Peak. ''The material is hard to work with because of its hardness, so dies and molding are difficult to manufacture, and it's a very expensive raw material to begin with.''

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