titanium vs steel
Last Updated: April 26, 2021

Titanium Vs. Steel: Which Is Better?

You need to choose between titanium and steel and you’re not sure which way to go? Well, if you’re shopping for a knife or outdoor gear, I can certainly help with that! This detailed guide covers the main properties of the most common titanium and steel alloys, as well as their general uses, and performance in outdoor gear.

So, if you wanted a layman’s guide to the key differences between titanium and steel, you’re definitely in the right place. Read on to learn more about the most commonly used metal alloys on the planet, and see which one is a better fit for your needs!

What’s The Difference Between Titanium And Steel?

Steel Tubes

I’ll cover all the major differences in the strength, weight, rust resistance, and use of the metals later. Let’s start with the most important difference of all – titanium is an elemental metal, whereas steel is a metal alloy. That means that titanium can be found all over the planet in its elemental form, whereas steel is made by mixing different metals.

Steel is an alloy of iron and it usually contains a bit of carbon to increase its overall strength and corrosion resistance. For that reason, it’s more difficult to talk about the properties of steel, since they almost always depend on the number of other metals in the alloy. Steel can be enriched with titanium, chromium, zinc, and other metals, and each of those improves a specific property of steel.

Additionally, even though titanium is an elemental metal, it is rarely used in that form. More often than not if you see something that’s made from titanium, it’s actually made from a titanium alloy. So, keep in mind that when I’m comparing the properties of the two metals, I’m talking about the general properties of the most commonly used metal alloys.

Strength And Weight

Steel Production

In general, titanium is stronger than steel. In fact, it is highly valued for its tensile strength, which is pretty much just the maximum load a material can support without fracturing. But that doesn’t mean steel is to be dismissed – in fact, high-carbon steel has tensile strength that is equal to that of grade five titanium alloy. I’m not going to bore you with the numbers, but you should keep in mind that the strength of steel depends on the amount of carbon in the alloy.

Low-carbon steel is about half as strong as most titanium alloys, whereas high carbon steel can sometimes outperform titanium alloys. 

What about the weight? Again, titanium is generally lighter than steel because it has a lower density. That’s why titanium is more commonly used when something needs to be exceptionally strong but lightweight. The tensile strength is amazing, especially considering just how low the density is compared to steel. But this also depends on the alloys, and in some cases, the differences can be so minimal you don’t even notice the extra weight of steel.

It’s important to note that it’s impossible to say that one is outright better than the other, simply because there are so many different variants of both alloys out there. Different metals in the mix mean different features, so it’s crucial to know exactly what’s in the alloy to know what properties and performance you can expect.

Corrosion Resistance

Rusty Trains

Titanium has better rust and corrosion resistance than steel. However, there are several variants of steel mixed with other metals that have excellent rust resistance, so it’s not like everything made from steel will rust if it’s exposed to a drop of water.

Steel is more prone to rust because of the iron content, but there are a lot of different steel alloys that contain other metals with excellent corrosion resistance. Stainless steel is the best option when it comes to rust resistance because it has very high levels of chromium.

Rusty Chain

Pure titanium, on the other hand, has excellent rust and corrosion resistance, especially from liquids. This includes acids, chemicals, and even salt water, which is exactly why the metal is often used in manufacturing ships. However, pure titanium is hard to find and even harder to produce. A lot of parts and objects that are made from titanium are actually made from titanium alloys, and those aren’t always entirely resistant to rust and corrosion because of the other mixed metals. But titanium alloys still have higher rust and corrosion resistance than other metal alloys, so they’re a common favorite for objects that are to be used in wet conditions.

When shopping for items that you know will be used in wet and humid conditions, be it a knife or a bicycle frame, make sure that it’s made from galvanized, carbon, or stainless steel. All three versions have great corrosion resistance and are perfectly suitable for use in wet conditions. You can also find steel coated with titanium, and that’s also a great option because titanium has amazing rust resistance. Just be very of steel alloys that don’t contain any metal other than iron, since it’s highly likely that they will be prone to rust and corrosion.

Pricing And Availability

Titanium is a rare metal and it’s generally pricier than steel. However, titanium is not as rare as most people think. It’s actually the fourth most common metal on Earth, but it’s very difficult to find it in its elemental form. Also, it’s hard to purify titanium, and that’s the main reason why it’s more expensive than other metals – it costs more to produce it than to source it.

Steel, on the other hand, is not an elemental metal. It is made by enriching iron with carbon, and there’s an abundance of both on this planet. However, the exact price of steel depends on the other metals in the alloy, which is why steel prices vary so much. A simple steel alloy that contains only iron and carbon will be the cheapest, whereas alloys that are enriched with titanium or chromium tend to be much more expensive.

Common Uses of Titanium

Titanium Motorcycle

Titanium has a lot of uses that include everything from items we use in daily life to naval ships. It is especially popular for objects that are to be used in highly corrosive environments, because of the metal’s great rust resistance. It’s used in the naval industry, oil and gas industry, and it’s quite popular in sports.  

Because of its strength and reliability, titanium is often used in racing cars to protect the driver’s cockpit. It’s proved incredibly effective in fashioning halo structures that defer debris and protect the driver in case of collision. Titanium halos have saved several lives over the years, making this metal the absolute best choice if you need something extremely tough and reliable.

Titanium Halo

Additionally, titanium is extremely lightweight considering its strength, and that’s another reason why it’s so popular for racing cars. Those cars need to be as light as possible, and titanium is the only metal that offers both incredible strength and low weight at the same time. 

That gives you a good idea of just how tough titanium is. But when it comes to weight, you’ll probably get a better sense of its use if I tell you that titanium is often used for tennis rackets, wristwatches, golf clubs, scissors,  and even surgical tools.

Titanium Watch

In addition to that, titanium is also frequently used in prosthetics. The metal connects well to the bone, so it has a bunch of different surgical applications, especially in joint replacements. It’s also used in dental implants, eye implants, and even toe implants, because of the metal’s high biocompatibility.

Common Uses of Steel

Steel Scaffolding

Steel is used often – it is one of the most widely used materials on the planet, and it has quite a lot of applications in engineering, construction, car manufacturing, and agriculture. Steel alloys are easy to manipulate – enriching the alloy with different metals brings out different properties, making steel alloys suitable for quite a lot of different purposes. It’s estimated that more than half of all the products in the world are made from steel, which should give you an accurate idea of just how commonly used this metal alloy is.

One of the steel alloys that most people use daily is stainless steel, which is mixed with iron, chromium, and other elements. That variant of steel is most resistant to rust, and that’s why it is often used to make bottles, pans, pots, and other utensils used in cooking.

Bike Frame

Also, steel and titanium are both used in bicycle frames. Steel is generally the better option for bike frames since it’s cheaper, stronger, and more comfortable to ride. Titanium frames are usually lighter, but they’re not quite as tough as steel ones.

Steel has a high tensile strength just like titanium, but it requires less energy to produce, which means it’s more cost-effective. It’s a metal alloy that is omnipresent in people’s lives – everything from the building you’re living in, to the fridge where you keep your food is most likely made of steel.

In Outdoor Gear

klean kanteen classic

Titanium and steel are both often used in outdoor gear for items like cooking stoves, bottles, tent frames, etc. Did you notice what I left out?

Both titanium and steel are used for manufacturing knife blades. If you’ve ever shopped for tactical knives or multi-tools, you probably came across at least one heated discussion about the pros and cons of titanium and steel blades.

People who vote for titanium say that it’s a no-brainer because titanium has better corrosion resistance. This is the crucial factor for anyone who uses knives in wet conditions often and doesn’t want to spend hours upon hours cleaning, drying, and oiling the knife after every single use. Also, titanium is harder than steel, so it’s less likely to dent if you use it on something very hard.

Titanium Knife

On the other hand, people who praise steel say that you just can’t compete with the value of steel knives. And I can’t argue with that – steel is much cheaper than titanium, meaning you can buy two excellent steel knives for the price of one measly titanium knife. Plus, titanium is slightly more brittle than steel, meaning it’s a little easier to break. If you’re trying to pry something open with a knife, you’ll get the job done easier with a steel knife in your hands.

And then there are knives made from a combination of steel and titanium, for people who simply cannot make up their minds. It will either be a steel knife with titanium coating for better corrosion resistance or a blade with a titanium core but a steel exterior. In any case, these knives are usually unbreakable, very expensive, and difficult to find.

Camping Stove

In addition to that, both these metals are often used in camping grills and stoves. Titanium grills and stoves are popular because they’re lighter than steel options and have better corrosion resistance. On the other hand, when it comes to camping pots and bottles, steel is the choice of many people. The main reason for that is because steel is a lot better at transferring heat, which makes it more suitable for cooking.

When talking about outdoor and camping gear, it’s impossible to say that one of these materials is just better than the other. It depends on the specific item you want to buy and the features that you are prioritizing.

What About Luggage?

Rimowa Classic

There are quite a few metal suitcases around, and they’re becoming increasingly popular among frequent travelers. They’ve proven to be more reliable than even polycarbonate suitcases, at least when it comes to the durability of the shell.

However, metal luggage is made from neither titanium nor steel. Keep in mind that weight is extremely important with suitcases, whether we’re talking about small carry-ons or big checked bags. Both steel and titanium are too heavy for that, and neither is cost-effective. So, what are all those metal suitcases made from?

Aluminum. That is by far the best and most popular metal for luggage. It’s the lightest out of the bunch and it’s undoubtedly the most cost-effective. Aluminum is one of the cheapest metals, and an aluminum suitcase still often costs more than $1,000. Imagine what a titanium suitcase would cost, considering the raw material is much pricier than aluminum.

External Frame Backpack

There’s another type of luggage worth mentioning here, and those are backpacks with external metal frames – what are the frames made from? It can be anything really – steel, aluminum, or titanium. There are reasons for and against each of the metals, but in practice, the differences are barely noticeable. All metals are strong and lightweight enough for a backpack frame, so you only need to worry about this if you’re going to design and make your own backpack frame. In that case, just figure out which features and specifications you want, and then choose the metal that fits those best.

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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