The best travel towels aren’t where you’ll find them

Yes, my friends and colleagues, towels. Because despite the seeming irrelevance of such a thing, a compact travel towel is one of the best ways to cut down on bulky items so you can travel with just a minimum of gear. If you’re looking to shrink things down and travel light, travel towels are an absolute must, because:

Regular towels are gigantic, plush monstrosities that rapidly fill up what little space you might have to work with. They’re also made of every traveler’s arch-nemesis fabric: 100% cotton. It’ll work fine, until you have to wash and dry it. Then it’ll stay wet forever, and sooner or later you’ll stuff it into a pack and it’ll smell atrocious once it comes out.

Travel towels, on the other hand, are super-thin and fast-drying, so they’ll take up very little space, and dry out in just a few hours. Even if they’re totally soaked, you can usually leave them out overnight, and they’ll be ready to go by morning. At $20 each, they’re a backpacker’s best friend. You can use them as a bath towel, beach towel, clothes-wringer, or even a blanket.

The problem, however, is that travel towels are usually made of polyester, or some other form of synthetic material. This is great for fast drying times, but terrible for odor resistance. And you know what causes that odor? Bacterial waste products. That’s right, kids! That horrible smell is bacteria poop. And what happens when you’re stuck with a towel that smells a little “off?” You’re smearing it all over yourself. Gross!

So what’s the best travel towel?

Linen.

That’s right. Something a million years old that went out of style when cotton took over the world is going to be the best travel towel you can possibly get. It’s going to be a little pricy (maybe $30 for a bath towel size), but linen has a number of properties that make it ideal for this sort of job.

First of all, it’s highly absorbent. If you’ve ever tried to dry yourself off with polyester, it just…doesn’t…quite…work. That’s because polyester pushes water away. Linen, on the other hand, soaks it right up.

And what really surprised me was that it dries fast. In fact it dries so quickly that it nearly compares to polyester in side-by-side tests, which was the only point of using polyester in the first place.

But it vastly outperforms synthetic fabrics when it comes to odor resistance. Linen is naturally anti-microbial, which means bacteria have a hard time multiplying on its surface. No bacteria = no smell. I used one of these over the course of a month, and never detected even a hint of odor.

Polyester, on the other hand, usually starts smelling weird after just two or three uses…especially if you have to stuff it into a bag before it had a chance to dry out completely. If you’ve ever pulled one of those smelly towels out of a pack after a long day, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

And once you switch to linen, you will never go back.

I have a few of them. Here’s what they look like:

Linen towels
Linen in a waffle weave (left) and a regular weave (right).

The waffle weave on the left is softer, but bulkier. The one on the right is scratchier (though it softens up over time), but somewhat more compact. Both work just fine, so take your pick.

They’re quite similar in terms of size and weight to a typical travel towel found in camping stores; maybe a little heavier, though it’ll be a matter of just a few extra ounces. They’re about the size of a t-shirt once they’re all rolled up.

Linen travel towel rolled up

Seriously…this is the way to go. You’ll never go back. I will bet you a beer.

Okay, where do I get one?!

The first one I got was from Outlier (one of the few companies combining fashionable and functional clothing, which is the only way clothes should ever be made), who sent me a free one and I’ve been salivating over it ever since. Sadly, they don’t seem to make them anymore…(update: they’ve just restocked them!)

Luckily for you, they’re all over the place. Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and obviously Google. You need to be clever with the search terms though, because “linen” has become a slang term for “sheet” or “towel” or “blanket” or just about any large piece of fabric that belongs in a home. This makes it kind of messy to look up “linen towel” because you’ll find results like “100% cotton bed linens” or other garbage like that. It really annoys me that we’re using the wrong word for something, kind of like how we occasionally use the word “China” for plates, which is ridiculous.

So what you’ll have to do is correctly plug in the exact-match search term, by typing the quotation marks in the proper location, where it’ll–

No. You know what? I’ll just do it for you.

Search for linen towels on:

Those’ll take you to a search specifically for “100% linen” bath towel, with the quotation marks around 100% linen to make it an exact-match search term, so it won’t, for example, show you a towel made of 100% cotton that also happens to have the word linen somewhere on the same page. Hopefully, anyway.

Once you’re there, you can experiment with other search terms, such as bath sheet, which is bigger, and therefore ideal for using as a beach towel or blanket. You can also type the word waffle into the search boxes to get that super-soft waffle weave type shown above. For whatever reason, Etsy seems to be the place to go to find the waffle-weave style, though I also found several on eBay.

You can also just order a couple yards of linen and sew up the edges yourself.

By the way, they make really great kitchen towels. Since they dry faster and resist odor better than cotton, they’re less likely to get sopping wet and smelly over the course of cooking dinner and washing your hands a million times. Obviously there’s a limit to how quickly they can dry out, but it’s noticeably better. They’ll probably last longer, too.

They also work just fine as regular bath towels at home, but I wouldn’t really recommend spending the extra money to replace your old cotton towels, because cotton towels usually have 24 hours to dry before you take your next shower, so drying time isn’t really a big deal…but, on the other hand, the thinner fabric takes up a lot less space in the washing machine, so you can wash more at the same time and save on quarters or electricity costs. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but they’re going to be especially useful for travel, camping, or going to the gym, or something like that.

As for alternatives: I’ve heard that sarongs work nicely, since they’re very thin, and usually made of rayon, which is highly absorbent and would dry faster than cotton…but they’re usually made with the intention of being wrapped around a woman’s body, so they’re not necessarily towel-sized or towel-shaped…and although linen isn’t the absolute lightest travel towel you can get (I think the MSR Packtowl Ultralite is the winner in that regard), you could just use a smaller size.

Well, that’s about all I have to say about them. I’m officially convinced: Linen makes the best travel towel you can get. Now that I’ve found them readily available on eBay and Etsy in all sorts of sizes and colors, and at decent prices, I’m officially upgrading this suggestion from “yeah, you’d probably like it” to “just get it, because it’s objectively superior to any conceivable alternative.”

Happy camping/traveling/showering!

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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76 Comments on “The best travel towels aren’t where you’ll find them”

  1. I’ve used sarong as a towel and it’s great, but really big… Dries faster than my linen towel. My linen towel is really scratchy… I have to break it in. I wish I bought the Outlier towel. :/

    1. Yeah, just go for one of the other waffle weaves. They’re identical. I think Outlier was just buying from one of these guys, because I have an Outlier one and a non-Outlier one, and they’re the same thing. But Outlier’s was pretty big (more like a bath sheet), and it’s nice to be able to find some smaller ones.

  2. A cheaper option is to buy the fabric directly from a fabric store – a 1m by 1.5m length of 100% linen costs NZ$18-25 (I make my own tea towels). You’d just need someone with a sewing machine to hem the (two) raw edges. As a bonus you’ll have towels in awesome colours :)

    1. Yeah, that works too. I have no sewing machine, so I outsource that job, but I was happy to recommend it as an idea for some craftier readers.

    1. They work really well in hot weather, since they breathe really well, and feel nice and cool, but they wrinkle ridiculously easily. Rohan does some linen/polyester blends to get rid of that problem, and has them available in the summer. I bet linen could work as a t-shirt, though…

      1. Linen tee shirts have become easily available for women (Ann Taylor even had them). The drawback is the light colors are rather sheer. The knit fabric is a little rumply, but the coolness makes up for it..

      2. I remember reading a style magazine article about linen suits. Their take on it: linen is SUPPOSED to wrinkle, so just go with it. It doesn’t look terrible…it just looks like it’s been worn today. You just shouldn’t pack it in a heap and then wear it. Hang it up overnight, wear it around for a half-hour or so, and your body heat will iron out most of the unwanted wrinkles. The ones you can avoid are the ones where it creases when sitting down, holding a backpack, etc.

        http://tinyurl.com/zvgba6f There’s a woman’s linen t-shirt. Looks awesome, right?

  3. At the risk of sounding tacky i use a large chux super-wipe (usually used in the kitchen) – light weight, take up minimal space and they dry very quickly – not very attractive but on the trail i don’t seem to mind.

    1. Yes, these were the travel towels of my youth. 30 years ago I went on an outback camping trip where the guides issued everybody with a jumbo chux super wipe. They asked ‘better you try these than having the van full of every bodies half dried smelly towels’. They work.
      I still always carry a spare just in case. :)

    2. Linen looks worth a try. Thanks for the tip.

      My present lightweight set up uses a super absorbent square intended for kitchen use (look for a high Viscose content), wipe down, wring out 2-3 times, then finish with a pocket handkerchief sized micro-fibre towel, which barely gets damp. Both dry fully in a couple of hours from a string washing line I set up on my hostel bed. The viscose squares are so cheap (around 4 for £1) you can toss them out after a few days use, rather than pack them damp on the last day. If you do take them home, they are fully washable (use NO fabric conditioner).

      1. I use those all the time in the kitchen, and they’re great. I thought of using one as a bath towel, although it felt a little weird. Definitely a good budget option, though. It’s also great if you have to wring out clothes, since they can absorb so much, and then you can wring out the towel and keep going.

  4. Last year I bought some linen from the local fabric shop. I cut it into three pieces for a face cloth, small hand towel, and large bath towel. The total dimensions prior to cutting was aprox. 54 inches square. I used the golden ratio when I cut. (basically cut 1/3 off the large piece. Then did the same again to the small piece). Then took the pieces to a local tailor who serged the edges for around $10.

    I used the large towel in Europe for approximately a month. It never started smelling at all. When I got back home I had my girlfriend sniff the towel and she said it smelled like it just came from the fabric store. It wasn’t even dry when I packed my bag on the way home. I just shoved it into a ziplock baggie.

    I did do a comparison with her synthetic travel towel where I soaked them both, wrung all the excess water out, then weighed them with my kitchen scale every half hour until both were dry. The synthetic one had a slightly better absorption ratio, and dried slightly faster. But there was less than a 10% difference between the two in both absorption and drying time.

    For me the lack of bacteria poop, and slightly longer dry time are a completely reasonable trade off.

    1. That’s how I feel as well. I can’t imagine anyone saying “well, I’m smearing bacterial sewage all over myself, but at least it dried in seven hours instead of eight!”

    1. That’ll work too. I get a little tired of having to look at every label individually when I’m in a store to find out if it’s cotton or linen, though. That’s why it’s easier to look them up online. But if you can find them, they’ll work fine.

  5. Thanks to your previous post on this, I bought the Outlier towel and used it during three months of travel this summer. I loved it so much I was going to get more and give them as Christmas presents. Bummed they no longer sell them.

    1. Yeah, I think it’s too bad. I think what happened is that people looked at it and thought $50 or $60 for a towel is 10 times the cost of a regular towel, and that seems like a lot, but if you look at it as 2 or 3 times the cost of a travel towel, that’s totally different. But they were just buying the fabric from a supplier and sewing it, which plenty of other people do too.

    1. Yeah, the waffle weave is maybe 10-20% thicker. Hard to get a good estimate, but that’s about what it looks like to me.

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