Backpacking Cookware 101: Titanium vs. Aluminum vs. Stainless Steel

Backpacking cookware comes in a variety of materials to meet the needs of everyone from fastpackers to dedicated backcountry chefs. Each material has its key benefits and understanding them will help you pick the cook set that’s right for your priorities, both on the trail and in the “kitchen”—whether that’s on a portaledge brewing ramen or in a grand valley where you’re concocting a gourmet spread. Here’s a look at the three materials used in MSR cookware and why you might choose one over the other.

hard-anodized aluminum backpacking pot
Photo by Scott Rinckenberger

Hard-Anodized Aluminum: All-around, lightweight versatility

hard anodized pot with lid

Hard-anodized aluminum is the cookware of choice for all-around backcountry use. It conducts heat evenly, is lightweight and easy to clean, especially when coated with a nonstick finish. Because it disperses heat uniformly across the cookware surface, aluminum is a good choice for cooking real meals with fresh ingredients or temperature-sensitive foods like eggs or pancakes.

Aluminum is also extremely efficient, meaning it transfers its heat quickly. This helps to save fuel, allowing fastpackers and solo travelers to shed weight and move quickly.

MSR’s aluminum pots feature a hard-anodized finish, which is a production process that makes the material very durable. Many backpackers choose hard-anodized aluminum because it delivers an excellent balance of durability and lighter weight at an affordable price.

MSR’s cook sets and Trail Lite Pots feature hard-anodized aluminum pots.

MSR’s Ceramic Pot Sets are hard-anodized aluminum pots with a ceramic nonstick surface. This premium coating allows you to cook like you do at home (with sticky foods like eggs) and enjoy an easy clean-up afterward. This ceramic is incredibly durable, handling the abuse of backcountry cooking. It’s also safe at high heat and PFTE- and PFOA-free, allowing you to cook gourmet fare worry-free.

cooking eggs in stainless steel backpacking pot
Photo by Scott Rinckenberger

Stainless Steel: Simple workhorse durability

stainless steel bowl setStainless steel is very durable, so it’s perfect for when your pots take a lot of abuse. This makes it a top choice of backcountry travelers who are hard on their gear, or by guides and institutions where cooks prep a lot of meals on a wide range of adventures.

Stainless steel is by far the toughest and most scratch-resistant of the three materials MSR uses, though it weighs a bit more than aluminum and titanium. It’s used to make the simple, dependable systems in MSR’s Alpine Line.

When it comes to cooking, stainless steel lies somewhere between aluminum and titanium in terms of performance and suitability. It does not conduct heat particularly well, which can lead to hot spots and burned food. To get around this issue our Alpine Fry Pan features a heat-spreading aluminum disc on the bottom. This allows for efficient, even heating in an ultra-durable fry pan that expands your meal options.

Most travelers choose stainless steel for its affordability, exceptional ruggedness and simple sophistication.

titanium cookware
Photo by Anna Brones

Titanium: The fast-and-light choice

titanium kettleIn 1999, the MSR product catalog declared: “You want light? You want strong? You want Titanium.” Indeed, titanium’s biggest advantage is its ultralight performance. Titanium is 45% lighter than steel and stronger than aluminum. It is the lightest cookware material you can buy before you must sacrifice strength. It’s also corrosion-resistant, offering great durability.

Titanium pots are ideal primarily for boiling water because they can be made with thin walls, and transfer heat very quickly. Like stainless steel pots, they tend to develop hot spots, making them less than ideal for cooking real meals. Titanium is favored by the truly fast-and-light crowd, who count their grams and opt for quick boil-only meals after a long, exhausting day.

Titanium is used to forge MSR’s Titan cookware.

backpacking cookware at campsite

Final Considerations for Backpacking Cookware

Cookware’s efficiency is also dependent on its color and pot diameter and height. Darker pots, especially with dark bottoms, tend to be the most fuel-efficient. As older cookware blackens with use it becomes more efficient than new cookware. Wider-diameter pots are more efficient than narrow ones because more surface area is exposed to the flame and hot exhaust gasses, transferring heat to the system faster.

Next, we’ll look at the perfect pairings of cook sets and stoves based on your adventure. Happy cooking!

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Originally Published August 24th, 2015.