Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sporks, Not Foons

When loading a pack for an adventure or assembling a BOB to keep handy, weight becomes a major issue. There are two main methods of reducing the weight of your bag: reduce the number of things in it, or reduce the weight of the individual items.

A few years ago, I ran across a handy item while looking for a birthday present for a friend who is an ultralight cyclist, a hobby where every gram of weight matters. This one item replaced three that he normally carried, and weighed less than any of the three it replaced. It did the job as well or better than what he was using, and was a lot more durable.

I found him a titanium spork.
We've likely all seen the disposable plastic sporks (spoon and fork in one tool) at fast-food joints. Handy for the restaurant (since they only have to stock one eating utensil to hand out to customers), they are usually a poor compromise between a spoon and a fork. They are also common in prisons, military meals, and schools and are generally weak and frustrating to use. Trying to get a spoon to do the job of a fork means compromising both functions and they just don't work well as either one.

I'm not normally a huge fan of multi-purpose tools, since they inevitably result in trade-offs that weaken the tool to the point of premature breakage, and I have a collection of broken Leatherman and Gerber multi-tools that reinforce this belief. I won't buy the cheap multi-tools because even the well-made ones don't hold up for long. I've broken pliers jaws, screwdrivers, knife blades, and worn out hinges during normal daily use. I don't abuse my tools, but I expect them to do the job they are designed for.

The titanium spork I found for my friend is “Light My Fire” (LMF), and it has a spoon on one end of the handle and a fork on the other. This eliminates the compromise of putting fork tines on a spoon and makes it actually useful. They also make plastic versions of the same design, but titanium has several advantages:
  • Titanium (Chemical symbol Ti) is as strong as mild steel, but only weighs half as much. I tested my spork by digging into a tub of frozen ice cream. Steel spoons bend and plastic ones break, but the Ti spork didn't even flex
  • Ti has a physical memory: if it does get bent, it tends to go back to its original shape.
  • Ti is resistant to most chemicals at room temperature and will not rust like steel. I have a few Ti-framed pistols and they are much easier to clean than their steel cousins.
  • Ti is a fairly poor conductor of heat, so you won't burn your fingers while stirring a pot on the fire. This also means that pots and pans made of Ti are known for uneven heating.
  • Ti does oxidize, but the oxidized coating protects the underlying metal (a process known as passivation). The process can take up to four years to complete under normal conditions, but then protects it indefinately.
  • Ti melts at about 3000°F, so it isn't going to be damaged by any common fire.
  • Ti is bio-safe, meaning it doesn't react with the human body. I have a Ti plate and screws holding a couple of vertebrae together, and due to this property it is used for making replacement joints. You don't have to worry about it adding anything to your food.

Ti also has a few disadvantages, though:
  • Even though it is the ninth most abundant element in the Earth's crust, it's also hard to extract and purify, which makes it expensive. The extraction process is inefficient and difficult when compared to steel of any type.
  • Most of the Ti-bearing ores are found in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and India. There's not much local ore in the USA, which means shipping and handling fees.
  • Ti “work-hardens”, which means that if you use a cutting tool on it, it gets harder to cut as you go. Machining Ti is a pain,  which is why most of the products you see are simple stampings and forgings.
  • Ti will burn when hot enough, so welding it is a challenge. Oddly, it will burn in pure nitrogen at the right (high) temperature,  so Argon and Helium shielding gasses are used.

The version I bought came in a three-pack, so the second went to another friend and the last one I kept for myself to play with. I've taken mine on numerous camping trips, and it now rides in my lunch bag for daily use.

I was recently given a different brand of Ti spork as a gift, and I am still testing it. The new one is made by HeavyCover and has a built-in bottle opener and some small wrench-like holes in the handle. I may write up a review on it later.

All told, I am impressed by the utility and light weight of my Ti spork. It works well, and it takes up very little space in a bag while replacing a steel utensil set. Every ounce counts when you're carrying it on your back for any distance, so keep looking for ways to reduce the burden.

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