Is it time to throw in the towel on travel towels?
At first glance, it may sound a bit silly to take a towel with you when you travel. After all, what kind of hotel wouldn't provide towels?! It turns out that there's actually a wide range of accommodations for whom towels are a luxury, not a standard amenity. Places like hostels and campgrounds usually require you to bring your own towel, along with some cottage rentals, university dorm accommodations, couch surfing, and even convent stays.
Even if you are staying in quality hotels with guaranteed clean towels, you still might want something with you to freshen up on overnight trains, buses, and flights. They're also helpful for drying your hand-washed laundry. So what's the best solution that balances comfort with practicality?
1.) Traditional cotton and cotton-blend towels.
Pros: They are soft, comfortable, and they remind you of home. As you'll likely just take one from your cupboard, a traditional towel is free of charge. They are very absorbent and perform their toweling tasks with ease.
Cons: They are big and fluffy and take a lot of room in your pack. A LOT. They also take a long time to dry and can smell musty if packed when still damp.
Lesson learned: I brought my favorite cream colored bath sheet with me for my required self-provided towel while living and working on a Malawi university campus . Clearly, only a fool would bring a white towel to an environment that was rich in red dust and poor on washing machines! It was a nightmare to handwash and never really looked clean.
Best for: Semesters abroad, car road trips where luggage space isn't at a premium, people who aren't changing rooms every night. I took a small, well-used hand towel with me for my first solo backpacking trip. I would stuff it on the outside of my wee pack to dry during the day and it was small enough to always get tossed in whenever I splurged on 'real' laundry.
2.) Travel Towel #1 - The Shammy Towel.
Pros: Like my favourite model from Sea to Summit (see it here), they are very lightweight and take up very little space. They dry much more quickly than traditional towels and often have built in, anti-microbial features. They often have an attached snap-loop to easy hang the towel up to dry. They come in a wide variety of sizes, from extra small to nearly as large as a traditional bath sheet.
Cons: They feel like the shammy cloth used to wash cars! And while they might statistically absorb more water than a traditional towel, I never really feel 100% dry. It's like they absorb all the water drops but never absorb all the moisture. And despite the fact that they dry more quickly than a traditional towel, a soaking wet shammy towel still takes a long time to dry. It's not like you can just wring it out, wave it in the air for 5 minutes, and toss it in your pack.
Lesson learned: Personally, if I was going to travel with a tiny towel, I'd just take a regular hand towel. While I appreciate that ultra light, hard core backpackers will want to save every possible ounce, I think most average travellers will want a travel towel big enough to wrap around their head.
Best for: Ultra light backpackers, people looking for something light to refresh themselves while travelling, helping to wring out hand-washed laundry.
3.) Travel Towel #2 - The "We feel like a real towel, honest!" towel.
Pros: Just like a shammy towel, these hybrid designs feature lightweight, low volume, quick dry, anti-microbial towels with snap loops that come in a wide variety of sizes and colors (here's my favourite). The main difference is that they feel more like a regular towel. They rely on either weave-like texture or a traditional loop design to try to recreate the plush softness of regular towels.
Cons: While still very lightweight, they are heavier than shammy travel towels. They seem to cost a bit more than traditional travel towels, possibly because they are often marketed as a yoga towel containing environmentally friendly recycled fabric .
Lesson learned: Do not drop them on the ground while camping. The textured fabric seems to act like Velcro on dried leaves, which promptly crumble and get stuck into the tight fabric weave. I'm not exaggerating when I say I've been trying to de-leaf one towel for two years now.
Best for: Everyone but campers! It has the best of both worlds. This is what I'd chose for the majority of my travels.
1.) Sarong: You already have it with you and a sarong makes for a great in-a-pinch towel, blanket, sheet, curtain, scarf, skirt, and more. But the thin cotton can get sodden wet with each shower. Best for someone who is a real minimalist who is anticipating free towels 90% of the time.
2.) Rentals: In most hostels and other properties, you usually have the option of renting towels if they aren't included - after all, it's a clever money maker for the property. In my experience, the towels are on the small side and are worn a bit thin but have always been clean. Note that most private hostel rooms include towels - and they are nicer than the rentals.
3.) Pillow case, T-Shirt, Anything: I've gone a spontaneous weekend trip or two where I just packed a small bag and I didn't think to bring a towel or sarong - and I'm already half way ready to step into the shower. In a pinch, just about anything made of fabric will do just fine. But it's not ideal! At the very least, bring along a sarong.
4.) The Lost and Found: (Tip from an anonymous blogger!) I have never been this desperate, but every hostel and alternative property has a lost and found. A vaguely worded inquiry will likely result in a towel. Not sure if I'd ever pursue this - but hey! it's a great way to get a free umbrella!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments - what's the most valuable item in your pack?
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