Titanium cookware: where less will cost you more

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Ever try eating hot Ramen noodles with a spoon with the handle cut off? 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 their toothbrush handle. While packing, they count matches and skip the salt to shave ounces, but 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, is tougher, non-rusting or corrosive and lacks the bad flavor of aluminum. Picking up a titanium mug the first time is astonishing.

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 level when backpacking is largely a matter of how much stuff you can 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 choose to bring only the titanium compact backpacking and mountain climbing equipment to the U.S., leading with their Giga Power titanium stove, winner of Backpacker Magazine Editor's Choice Award 1999.

REI carries titanium cooksets by Evernew and a titanium fuel bottle ($70), but no titanium stoves.

Kirkham's Outdoor Products has carried titanium products for about a year, including the featherweight Giga stove ($79) by Snow Peak and hanging cookstove attachments for big wall climbing and mountaineering ''where you want to cook inside your tent,'' said Andy Church with Kirkham's. They also have Mountain Safety Research (MSR) titanium cookware.

Open flames inside tents are a bad idea, he says, and should be limited to extreme conditions. Most people will not fork over the money for the specialized titanium equipment, Church says, ''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), a fuel that 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 and taken them right out and lit them up with no problems.

''We also had a manager that took one and went up Mill Creek cross country skiing, buried it in the snow and it worked great,'' Church said.

The extreme and gadget-happy high country consumers were actually waiting for the titanium products at REI and Kirkham's before they hit the shelves. Most backpackers are waiting for the price to drop, but it's not going to happen.

Titanium is not electronic gadgetry, it is an expensive raw material to begin with, and the products are made as an alloy with about 88 to 91 percent pure titanium mixed with about 5 to 7 percent vanadium and about 4 percent aluminum.''

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 dyes and molding are difficult to manufacture and it's a very expensive raw material to begin with.''

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