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On one of my trips overseas, I had just finished packing my bag for the return flight when I heard one of my friends and hostel roommates grunting. I turned to find her attempting to shove a slightly damp cotton bath towel into her duffel bag.
“You don’t think the towel will ruin my clothes on the flight home do you?”
I wish I had told my friend about the pack towel (or travel towel) — an item included on many a traveler’s packing list (including mine!) for its lightweight, quick-drying reputation.
If you don’t want to shove a damp, dank bath or beach towel back into your luggage, a pack towel (or similar) is what you need instead!
In this article, we dish out why a pack towel is necessary, review some of the top pack towels on the market, and share why our favorite pack towel might not even be a “travel towel” at all!
What You Need to Know About Pack Towels
Advantages of Pack Towels vs. Normal Towels
Never, ever, ever pack a normal bath towel when you travel. They are too big, too bulky, and take way too long to dry. They’ll eat up unnecessary luggage space, and you might be forced to throw a slightly damp towel back in your luggage for the trip home.
That’s why travel pack towels exist.
No matter the brand, pack towels are known for being:
- Lightweight (as little as 1 ounce for a small size and 8-12 ounces for an extra-large)
- Compact (the ultra-thin towel folds easily to pack in a suitcase or backpack)
- Absorbent (taking in as much as 4-5 times their weight in water)
- Quick-drying (it dries in time for you to pack and move on to your next destination)
- Made from anti-bacterial fabric (keeping your towel relatively pleasant for a few more days!)
- Machine washable (dry on low or hang to dry)
Bonus: Packing your own towel saves on towel hire/rental fees when staying in some hostels!
Backpack Towel Sizes
Across brands, backpack towels vary in softness, the range of sizes available (XS-XL), the dimensions for the various sizes, and the available colors.
Be sure to compare brands to decide on the best value for your needs! For example, an XS with one company (12in x 24 in) is larger than the S from its competitors (as small as 10in x 12in).
- Small or Medium: Often used as a washcloth, hand towel, or to bring along for workouts
- Large: Hair towel or small bath towel (may provide full coverage for some)
- XL: Usually recommended by travelers for a bath towel or beach towel
You may wish to purchase a size larger than you think you will need, as travelers often lament the smaller nature of these towels compared to the traditional cotton ones.
Or, you can check out our recommended travel towel for most types of trips.
Choosing Travel Towels for Hiking and Camping
Because hikers are usually on the move faster than travelers, it’s that much more important that their travel towels dry quickly.
They usually won’t be using the towels for drying off from full showers, but instead might use them to dry off after a quick dip in a stream.
Microfiber and other materials are ideal for camping. And due to packing constraints, hikers want their pack towels to be as small as possible. That’s valuable room you might need to pack food or other essentials.
A loop of some sort makes it easy to attach it to your backpack to dry as you hike or to attach to a tree branch.
Drying with Pack Towels
Along with my fellow travelers, I have found the pack towel to be very absorbent, but often I do not feel as dry as I do with a regular towel.
The micro-fiber material has a tendency to “stick” – it doesn’t glide smoothly over skin like cotton does, so you may find you’re patting yourself dry!
The towels do dry quickly but be sure to put it in a spot where air can circulate. I like to secure the towel’s small loop around a rail of the top bunk in the hostel – dry in no time!
Our Best Travel Towel Reviews
Rick Steves Micronet Travel Towel
Travel guru Rick Steves has his own line of travel products (like this braided laundry line), so this travel towel is just one of his top quality items. The quick-drying towel is made from micronet and comes with its own (6 x 9 inch) pouch in two different colors.
Best of all, this product comes with a lifetime guarantee, so you can get it repaired or replaced.
If the standard version, at 40 by 20 inches and 6.1 ounces, just isn’t enough for you, Rick Steves also makes two larger versions and a smaller, washcloth version.
All sizes come in the same color variations and with a storage pouch with a hanging loop.
REI Multi Towel
Caroline Eubank‘s review:
For my first backpacking trip, I purchased an REI Multi Towel in the medium size. I knew it wasn’t large enough to cover my entire body, but just the parts that needed to be covered until I got dressed.
Like other brands, it comes with a pouch with loops and also has its own loops on the end, which can be snapped onto things like your hostel bunk railing or the zippers on your backpack.
REI’s name brand camping towels come in five sizes, each with their own pouches, starting with the small at 14” by 10” and going up to the xx-large at 59” by 36”.
These towels have a waffle design for maximum absorption. They also make a Lite variety that is made of an ultralight, soft fabric. These come in two sizes, large and extra-large.
- Grab an REI MultiTowel from REI.
PackTowl Original Towel
This mostly rayon towel by MSR is a favorite of hikers for its ability to fold up into a tiny bag. It claims to soak up 10 times its weight in water.
You can throw it in your washer and dryer when you get back home or line dry while on the road after wringing it out. The natural fiber allows the towel to get softer after every use.
The PackTowl comes in four sizes in this standard style. The small is 20” by 9”, medium is 30” by 12”, large is 36” by 20” and the extra-large is 50” by 27”. All sizes weigh less than 5 ounces.
The brand also makes Ultralite varieties, as well as Luxe, Nano and Personal styles in fun colors!
Sea to Summit DryLite Towel
Sea to Summit is one of our favorite travel brands so it makes sense that they would also make a pack towel. The soft, quick-drying towel is compact and comes in two colors and three sizes.
The microfiber towel is machine washable and easy to pack, even without a pouch. It also has the clip-on loop found with other towels.
The small towel is 32” by 16”, the large is 48” by 24” and the extra-large is 60” by 30”. All are under 7 ounces.
The similar Tek Towel is like the more traditional pack towel styles, coming in five sizes and with a pouch. The only difference is the mostly polyester material, which feels more like terry than suede.
HPL’s Favorite Travel Towel
Turkish towels! These towels are wonderful because they’re thin but still very absorbent.
Turkish towels, or hammam towels, are much bigger than traditional pack towels, but since they’re not as thick, they still fold up small and dry quickly.
In actuality, we just might think a Turkish towel is the best travel towel for most travel situations!
Pack Towel Alternatives
Sarongs: Sarongs have many uses, and one is as a towel. They are usually pretty thin though, and the absorbency isn’t the best. You can probably use it as a bath towel if you have no other options, but it works well as a beach towel.
Scarves: Depending on the fabrics, you might be able to get away with using a large scarf as a pack towel. When it’s dry, it could do double duty and warm your neck. See all the reasons you should pack the versatile scarf.
Turkish Towels: We just mentioned above that the Turkish towel is actually our preferred travel towel. Lightweight, absorbent, yet covers your entire body. It can’t be beat!
Have you found a pack towel product you love to rave about? I’d love to hear which ones have worked best for you.