A thoroughly complete guide to travel towels

Warning: this guide has more than everything you wanted to know about travel towels. It cover what material makes the best travel towel, how to find the right size towel for your backpacking trip, what features a good travel towel should have, and how to care for your towel so that it loves you back.
Photo by Tristan Gevaux on Unsplash

Why do backpackers need a good towel?

Tow·el  /ˈtou(ə)l/


a piece of thick absorbent cloth or paper used for drying oneself or wiping things dry.

As emphasized by the memorable Mr. Adams, a towel can be the most versatile and useful item in your pack. Towels can double as scarves, sun protection, pillows, blankets, privacy screens, clothing, and more! Backpackers should always carry their own. 

“... if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Ditch Your Terry Towel

Most people hear “towel” and think of a fluffy, encompassing, wrap of soft cloth. And when you’re home, or treating yourself to a stay at a fancy resort, that can be true. A backpacker, however, is faced with the necessity of carrying all of their possessions on their back, so they must settle for something a bit more practical and less luxurious. (Or not, if you don’t mind carrying the weight and bulk.)


Terry cloth is a thick material, usually cotton, with uncut loops on both sidesThe loops add surface area which improves its ability to absorb water. Terry cloth is cozy and agreeable…and gigantic. The downsides of a terry cloth towel are that it is:

  • heavy
  • bulky
  • slower to dry than other options
  • prone to mildew in humid climates or when put away damp and kept inside a backpack for long periods
  • stinky if not properly cared for
  • clingy, so sand and twigs stick to it

There are better options for backpackers. 

Terry towels are cozy, but best left at home. Photo by Dan Wayman, Unsplash.

So what is a terry cloth towel good for? If you do have a terry cloth towel, don’t toss it in the bin just yet…Keep it at home: these pleasant accessories are perfect to have ready for overnight and weekend trips (just not the marathon of backpacking).


What size towel do you need for backpacking?

A big, fluffy towel is an unnecessary luxury for a backpacker. Many, many hostels provide free towels. Yours is a backup. Packing a small travel towel for yourself does not mean you are dooming yourself to frigid, dripping wet dashes to and from your dorm. A large travel towel, on the other hand, is a bulky burden. 

What are the size options available for travel towels?

Travel towels are usually sold in a range from extra small to extra large, so it’s easy to find the right one for you. Read the following descriptions and select the option that best suits your needs.

XS to Small: Ultralight (UL) Option 

Approximately 12×24” to 16×32” 

Best for those who: 

  • Want the lightest option
  • Have very limited space in their packs
  • Don’t require a full coverage/wrap around towel
  • Are willing to change clothes in the bathroom or shower stall
  • Want only enough to dry off with

If you are going for ultralight, a towel is still recommended. Opt for the smallest size towel available. All a UL traveller needs is enough towel material to absorb all the water from your body. That varies from person to person depending on surface area and desired degree of dryness. Start with a little extra and cut off any material as you decide you don’t need it. 

Medium-Large: Standard Option 

Approximately 20×40” to 24×48” 

Best for those who want: 

  • Full/wrap around coverage
  • The option to travel between dorm and bathroom and still be decent
  • Balance between bulk and performance

The medium-large sweet spot has enough coverage for trips to and from the shower, but doesn’t take up most of your bag. For this option, you need a large enough size to cover yourself, but are trying to limit excess fabric. The only way to find out what size that is for your is to get a measuring tape and take your measurements! 

Tip: You can use a piece of string/yarn/cord/whatever to wrap around yourself, and then lay that flat and measure it.

Extra Large +: Luxury Option 

Approximately 30×60” and up

Best for:

  • Trips of short duration
  • Those who want all the comfort of home
  • When the space and weight of luggage is not a concern 

If your trip is short and you don’t mind the weight and bulk, feel free to bring whatever size towel you desire. 

Instructions for How to find the right size towel for you 

Width =  Distance from your armpits to 3″/8cm above your knee cap
Length = Your circumference* + 12″/30cm


Width =  Distance from the top of your hip bone/wase to 3″/8cm above your knee cap
Length = Your circumference* + 12″/30cm

*measure your circumference at the widest point the towel will cover. Add 12”/30cm to that length so that the towel overlaps a little and will not flap open when you walk. 

Pro Tip: If you can not find the perfect size towel, create your own! Order the next size up, cut off what material you don’t need, and sew the edges. 

Features to consider when picking the perfect towel

Once you’ve picked the size and material of your travel towel, you can narrow down your choices by what bonus features it has. None of these are necessary, and there are ways to rig up your own solution, but they can be nice to have. 

  • Carrying case Many travel towels include a case to contain it. They help to keep your bag a little more organized. That said, if you want to save a little weight, ditch the case and use a rubber band or piece of string to keep the towel compacted. 
  • Hanging Loops It’s helpful that your towel has at least one loop to provide another way to hang it up. If it doesn’t, it only takes a few minutes with a needle and thread and a spare piece of string/cloth to add one. 
  • Ties Some towels have ties that hold the towel folded together, or can be used to hang the towel. 
  • Antimicrobial Properties Various materials are naturally antimicrobial, which means they will help fight odor. Others have been chemically treated to resist growing microbes. Nothing beats regular washings, but it’s a convenient feature. 
  • Weight Every ounce of gear you purchase is one that you will have to carry around with you. Opt for the lightest option that fits your needs.

The one-two punch: 1 Travel Towel + 1 Sarong

In addition to a towel, backpackers should always have a sarong. Towels and sarongs are great multi purpose items. 

Best for those who:

  • Want a variety of options
  • Prefer to keep their bathing towel separate from their beach towel
  • Are travelling for any length of time: both short trips and long
  • Want to save space and weight by carrying multipurpose items

Sarongs can be made from the same materials as travel towels, usually nylon or cotton, but they are not designed specifically to absorb moisture. They are usually thin and breathable so they will dry quickly. Sarongs are larger than most travel towels, in the ballpark of 44×66”. Because of their larger size, they can be used as a blanket, bed sheet, scarf, skirt, dress, rucksack, and more. Sarongs make great beach blankets and can even double as your covering on the way to/from the beach!

Carrying both a sarong AND a travel towel allows you to customize your gear. You can have a any sized towel that you keep separate (and clean!) for bathing, and a sarong to wear about and use any way you need. 

How to care for your travel towel

It’s important to maintain your gear. With travel towels, that means keeping it clean and odor free. 

  • Regularly wash your towel in water that is lukewarm or cold. It’s best to avoid super hot water. 
  • Do not use bleach. It weakens many fabrics and shortens their lifespan.
  • With microfiber, do not use fabric softener or anything acidic (like lemon juice) when washing your towel. 

If your towel starts to smell a little off, even after washing, soak it separately in hot water (under 200℉/not boiling) with 3-4 tablespoons of baking soda. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes, rinse, and dry completely. Also, wipe down the inside of your bag from time to time. 



A travel towel is a must. It’s nice to have the right one for you, but don’t fret about getting it right the first time. Like everything, it’s going to take some time to figure out exactly what your preferences are. There are many options to explore. 

After factoring in everything, our top pick is the Sea to Summit Drylite Towel, size large. It’s a little on the pricy side ($20-30) but is the perfect mix of size and performance.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own. 

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I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

― Robert Louis Stevenson

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

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