Cookware 101: Titanium vs. Aluminum vs. Stainless Steel

backpacking cookware materials

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 a portaledge and you’re brewing ramen, or 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: All-around, lightweight versatilitybackpacking cookware materials Hard anodized Aluminum

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

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

MSR’s Alpinist and Quick Cook Sets utilize hard-anodized aluminum as their foundation. Hard-anodizing makes the material very durable. Some of these Quick cook sets are coated with a nonstick finish for easy meal clean up. Just like with all nonstick cookware used in home kitchens, we recommend using wood or plastic utensils to help prolong your cookware’s performance.

MSR’s Ceramic Pot Sets use a premium ceramic nonstick coating over their aluminum construction. This coating is the most durable nonstick coating we’ve ever found—allowing you to cook like you do at home and speed through meal clean-up afterward.

Stainless Steel: Simple workhorse durability

backpacking cookware materials stainless steelStainless 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 the least light of the three materials MSR uses, but it is by far the toughest and most scratch-resistance. It’s used to make our simple, dependable systems in MSR’s Alpine Line.

When it comes to cooking, stainless steels lies somewhere between aluminum and titanium in terms of its 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 a pan that really expands your meal options.

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

Titanium: The fast-and-light choice

backpacking cookware materials Titanium Titan 2In 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 on strength. It’s also corrosion-resistant, offering great durability.

Titanium pots are ideal for boiling water because they can be made with very thin walls, and transfer heat efficiently. But 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.


Other notes on cookware:

Cookware’s efficiency is also dependent on its color, 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. And wider diameter pots are more efficient than tall skinny ones. This is because more surface area is exposed to the flame and hot exhaust gasses and the heat transfers into the system faster.

Next, we’ll look at the perfect pairings of cooksets and stoves based on your adventure. So stay tuned and happy cooking!

Originally Published August 24th, 2015.

  • Titanium seems the way to go

  • Sanjana

    I had no idea that titanium is a better heat conductor than stainless steel. I can see why this would be important for people who cook a lot and want to find the best thing to cook their food in. My sister just got married and received a variety of different pots and pans. I’ll have to talk to her about keeping these tips in mind.

  • Chezron

    Aluminum is toxic

    • Adamant_Sea3

      What makes you say that?

    • Ken McNair
    • Some aluminum salts ARE toxic. The most stable, aluminum oxide is not. Dry antiperspirant deodorants use aluminum chlorhydroxide complex to prevent perspiration. It works because the body is trying to defend itself from absorption through the skin. Many metalic salts are toxic to the human body. The most infamous one is lead.
      My best advice is to hedge your bets by using only coated aluminum cookware. Also, Snopes is not a reliable source for truth checking.

  • Brian Smallshaw

    The link to the titanium cookware is broken.

    • MSR_Staff

      Hey Brian,
      Thanks for bringing that to our attention! We will fix that. In the meantime, here is the link you were looking for:

      • Brian Smallshaw

        Cool, now give us a 3 litre titanium pot in the same design as the Titan 2 series – good for big pots of rice and melting snow…

  • Brian Smallshaw

    It would be nice if there was something bigger than the two litre kettle in titanium, with a lid that completely sealed (no spout) for making rice and other things.

  • MSR_Staff

    Hi Indranee,
    There will be no health risks posed by sautéing in titanium cookware. However due to the thin bottom of our titanium cookware and its ability to transfer heat very efficiently, you tend to end up with hotspots that can make gourmet cooking a frustrating experience. Sautéing some onions every now and again is fine but if you are regularly going to be doing involved cooking, a non-stick aluminum pot set will be worth the tradeoff in weight.