Survival Tool… A Towel?

In The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, the most valuable piece of survival gear is a towel. The novel’s entry for towels can be found in the footnotes of this article[1]. In summary, the guide states that a towel can be used for: warmth, shade, defense, cushioning, as a sail, chemical warfare filter, or defense against the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

But seriously, how useful is a towel during a survival situation?

Obviously, a towel can be used for warmth and make-shift shade, but I’m dubious of the other uses listed in the Guide. Here on Earth, a towel won’t be much use as a sail or defense against a large monster. Nor does it provide much comfort as a mattress, but it makes a decent extra-firm pillow[2].

Here are some ways towels can be used during a survival situation by us Earthlings.

Wave to Signal

The easiest way to survive a disastrous situation is to get rescued. If you’re stranded and see a plane or helicopter flying nearby, grab a towel and wave it around to get the pilot’s attention. Even if the aircraft flies away, the pilot probably saw you and reported your location to other rescue teams. Keep waving the towel at passing aircraft until you are rescued. If one pilot doesn’t see you, maybe the next one will.

For Warmth and Cooling

There are a few ways a towel can be used to stay warm or to cool off.

Shade

Tie the corners of a towel onto a low tree branch and sit under it to shelter from the sun. Just don’t expect it to cover your entire body if you want to lay down for a nap. If someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, in addition to applying cool water or ice to the skin, providing shade to the upper half of the body can help cool the victim while waiting for medical assistance.

Insulation

If your home has a drafty door, tuck a towel into the cracks at the bottom to keep the hot/cold air out. Similarly, if there’s a small hole in a wall, stuff a towel in the opening to temporarily seal it.

During Hurricane Harvey (2017), the storm pushed rain through the masonry of my building. I was faced with having to pat-dry that wall nonstop for multiple days, with less than a dozen towels, and no way to dry them. It was an impossible task and I had to be creative with the materials at my disposal. I managed to rig up and adhere a few towels to the wall so they soaked up the water, and guided it into a bucket (so I could sleep).

Warmth

A towel makes a decent blanket for the upper body, but won’t cover much more than that.

I once had to use a towel as a blanket while attending school in North Texas. I was returning from Spring Break when a late Greyhound stranded me overnight at the station near my campus. The weather can be bipolar in that part of Texas, so the warm day quickly became a frigid night. I found a towel in my luggage and used it to stay warm enough to get a few naps in before the school shuttle picked me up the next morning.

To clarify, the “station” was little more than an office with 2 public restrooms, all of which were locked. Also, this was about 10 years before Uber became popular and taxis didn’t serve the area.

Head Covering or Scarf

The derogatory term, “Towelhead” gained usage after 9/11 as a slur against Arabs, Muslims, and desert nomads. During a survival situation, it’s wise to adopt the traditional garb of those desert cultures to shield your skin from the sun. Here are a few examples of how you can use a towel in this situation.

Turban

Wrap a towel around your head into a turban to serve as a makeshift hat. Wetting the towel helps keep your head cool as the water evaporates. If you have a really large towel, alternate forms of a turban can be fashioned to cover your neck as well.

Scarf

Similarly, using a damp towel as a scarf can provide additional cooling if you already have a hat. Even a dry scarf helps to absorb sweat and cool your skin through evaporation.

Alternately, a towel used as a scarf can help cover or insulate your neck when exposed to the cold.

Lawrence of Arabia Turban

This is a simple head covering and may be easier to wear than a turban, but you need a rubber band or rope. This two-piece “turban” is worn to shield the wearer from the sun and provides additional cooling by directing breezes toward the head and neck.

  1. Center the towel and cover your head as far forward as the mid-forehead. Don’t cover beyond your eyebrows, because that will ultimately cause distractions and limit visibility.
  2. Use a large rubber band (or a string/rope) to fasten the towel, so it stays in place. Fasten it midway up your forehead and around the back of your head.
  3. Experiment with how you wear the turban. If you wear the “turban” lopsided, or longer on one side, you’ll have enough towel to use as a scarf or face mask.

Makeshift Clothing

What if you suddenly find yourself naked and afraid, with nothing but a towel?

Don’t panic!

Use that towel to cover your very public, pubic areas. If you’re female, wrap it over your chest. Most towels are wide enough to cover the breast and pubic areas of the body. It’s a little easier for men because we can simply wrap it around the waist.

However, the width may be too long and may hinder a man’s ability to run quickly. I find it useful to fold the towel in half to reduce the width. It still covers what you need covered, while providing unrestricted movement.

Plus, it’s sexier… if you’re young or muscular, or generally attractive looking. Humans tend to be more willing to help those we find sexually attractive and wearing that towel in a sexy way could help with finding a survival companion. Who knows, maybe you’ll find love in a hopeless place (or time).

A Diaper

Finding fresh diapers will be impossible during a survival situation, so you’ll need to use towels as a substitute. It’s best to have multiple towels when using them as diapers. I think 5 towels are a good amount to have per infant, but more are always better. It’s a good idea to use the following rotation plan.

  1. One towel is worn by the baby.
  2. Wash each towel immediately after soiling.
  3. Dry soiled towels (could take hours if air-drying).
  4. One towel should be ready for the next diaper change.
  5. One towel should be ready as backup.

You’ll have 2 towels washed and drying at the same time, while still having 2 available when the diaper needs to be changed… in theory.

Absorb Water

Imagine finding an open well with water, but no bucket in sight. This is the only water you’ve seen all day, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find more tomorrow.

How can you get that water?

The basic function of a towel is to soak in liquids, so use it to soak up and collect that water.

  1. Tie a rope to the towel and drop it in the well.
  2. Make sure the towel is soaked before pulling it back to the surface.
  3. Wring the water out of the towel into a cooking pot, or some other container.
  4. Repeat the process until your container(s) are full.
  5. Make the water potable before consuming (filter, boil, germicidal tablets, etc.).

Makeshift Water Filter

It won’t remove microbes, but you can pour water through a towel to filter out debris before making it potable.

Air Filter or Mask

A towel can be used as a mask to keep sand and dust out of your airways. Used as a mask, it can muffle the germs of an infectious person and reduce the distance germs travel away from the wearer. As the Covid pandemic has shown us, masks don’t provide much protection from germs that are already in the air, so this is more of a preventative measure to help keep infectious people from spreading diseases.

A dry towel can even be used as a make-shift respirator to reduce the amount of smoke inhaled during a fire. According to most sources, wetting the towel doesn’t provide much additional benefit, and can make it harder to breathe through the towel.

What about Chemical warfare?!

Well, a towel can help… and it can’t.

According to FEMA[3], you should cover your mouth and nose while seeking shelter, but it should not be relied on as a safety measure in place of getting to shelter immediately. Covering your mouth does not prevent exposure to chemical vapors, but is effective against smoke and aerosols. Such byproducts would be released to the immediate area of a biological or chemical attack. Although, you’re most likely to encounter smoke during a house fire or wildfire.

In studies, using a dry folded handkerchief (or towel) was the most effective filter for particulates or aerosols[4]. As previously mentioned, wetting a towel doesn’t provide any benefit, and can make it harder to breathe. Placing a wet towel at the bottom of a door or window does not prevent vapors from entering a room, nor does it reduce the amount of chemicals entering[5].

As Defense

There are several articles about using a towel or other piece of clothing to defend against an assailant armed with a bladed weapon. Watch any “kung fu” movie to see how the unarmed protagonist fends off attackers with clothing, and even disarms them with it. In real life, the goal is to constrict the weapon or arm to disable or disarm the assailant, and then escape the situation.

It’s possible to use a towel to defend yourself from an attacker armed with a dagger, but it may be harder if faced with a larger blade like a sword. The best way a towel can be used to defend against a bladed weapon is to redirect the force away from your body. However, you shouldn’t go into a fight expecting to use a towel as a medieval shield, because a sharp sword (or katana) can easily slice through it.

If a stabbing attack is unavoidable, try using the towel to reduce how far the blade penetrates the skin. 

A Torture/Interrogation Device[6] 

Do you recall how painful it was getting whipped by a towel in the high school locker-room? The same principle applies when using a towel to interrogate a prisoner. Hold the towel at opposing ends and roll it into a long, towel-like rope. Then crack that whip at random parts of the body until the prisoner talks.

If used with enough force, a towel-whip can even leave bruises.

Wetting the towel can cause additional pain, but don’t get the towel soaking wet. If the towel is too wet it’ll only create a sloppy mess and won’t cause the prisoner much pain. You need enough water to moisten it. The perfect amount seems to match up with the dampness a towel gets after drying an average-sized adult as he walks out of a shower.

To Dry Things… A Towel’s Basic Function

Don’t forget the basic function of a towel is to dry stuff. Knowing how to use it for other things is great during a survival situation, but towels are best at doing the following.

  • Dry yourself, objects, and surfaces (of course).
  • Absorb liquid.
  • Wash yourself (most towel sets come with rags, which are made of the same exact material).

Last Resort Uses

Useful things can be made out of a towel, but doing so will destroy it. If you have no other option, a towel can be scrapped to make bandages, cut for cordage, or used as kindling for a fire.

***

When I read The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, I knew the claim that a towel is the most valuable piece of survival gear was meant to be a joke. However, a towel can be very useful during a survival situation.

Use this article as inspiration to see how ordinary household items can be used differently to improve your chances of survival. I’ve already found a few things we tend to throw away and will share their potential uses in future articles.


[1] Towel – The Guide’s Description:

A towel is just about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can carry. Partly because it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it around your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, 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 hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker 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.

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Wiki. (n.d.). Towel. Retrieved from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Wiki: https://hitchhikers.fandom.com/wiki/Towel

[2] Towel Pillow: A towel makes a good extra-firm pillow if folded. Its flexibility means it can be formed into any shape you need without flattening out, which is great for ergonomics… or so my doctor says.

[3] FEMA Guidelines: I know that many of my readers don’t exactly trust FEMA. Some of you don’t trust the government at all. Hell, I don’t have confidence in it either because it’s repeatedly ruined simple common-sense laws and messed up so many straight-forward public works projects. HOWEVER, the scientific data it acquires is originally designed to help our soldiers and we shouldn’t disregard its value to us as survivalists.

[4] FEMA. (2020, February 5). Using wet towels in chemical attack? Retrieved from Federal Emergency Management Agency: https://www.fema.gov/faq/using-wet-towels-chemical-attack

[5] Door/Window Covering: Placing a towel at the bottom of a door or window will not prevent vapors from entering. All points of entry (door, window, AC vent, dryer vent, plugs, etc.) need to be sealed with plastic and duct tape. Unfortunately, even that may not be good enough considering that some plastics are semipermeable, and there are likely deformities in the room or house which could allow vapors to enter, such as: cracks in the wall, floor, and internal ceilings (and/or standard features in a home, like attic vents).

[6] Crime/Violence Disclaimer: The author does not condone violence or breaking any laws, nor does the author support vigilante justice. The intention of this article is to educate readers on how to improve personal survivability during a theoretical disaster, and does not promote or entice anyone to steal, loot, or commit any other crime in any ordinary circumstance.

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