An ode to The Humble Trail Bandana

I’ve long been known to have pet peeves about the trash hikers drop along trails, but one piece of trash has become more annoying: the ubiquitous facial tissue.

A used tissue boldly lying in the middle of the path could indicate someone who doesn’t know any better. But a tissue hidden under a rock shows that someone knows it needs to be done and is trying to hide the evidence.

While wearily picking up the umpteenth piece of used paper along a trail recently, I had to wonder why hikers don’t use handkerchiefs, or the incredibly versatile outdoor equivalent, the bandana.

Westerners know bandanas as a square of printed cotton material used as neckwear or hat bands; a friend says they also make good dinner napkins because they never need to be ironed.

Bandanas are used to blow one’s nose or wipe the sweat from one’s face. Sometimes the same bandana is used for both purposes, though for some reason that seems to scare people off. After all, we are talking about hiking, an activity where you can go days without changing underwear or bathing. Also ladies – the humble bandana can be used as a pee cloth to avoid leaving unsightly piles of toilet paper along the trail. Dangling one’s pee cloth on the back of a package allows ultraviolet light to kill the nasties.

A bandana is usually cotton, but can also be nylon, wool, microfiber, silk or fleece. It can be red, navy blue, yellow, magenta or white – you name it. Bandanas can boast maps of the area, cattle tags, illustrations of edible plants, flowers or cloud formations. Some people may aspire to wear a lavender paisley bandana delicately embroidered on a chartreuse background – why not?

A bandana can be used as a muffler to keep your neck warm, a scarf to keep your head cool, a hat to keep the part in your hair from getting sunburnt, or two tied in a belt to keep your pants up. It can be transformed into a snare for catching small animals, a fishing line, a hammock for squirrels, a filter for drinking water or a tie for your next formal party.

Bandanas can be used to tie your hat so it doesn’t fly away in the wind. They can keep your bottle of milk or wine chilled in the river so it doesn’t get washed down the rapids, or your hiking buddy so he can’t interfere while you search his package for chocolate (which, by the way, was tied to a tree with a bandana so it wouldn’t tip over).

They can be used as an arm sling for a broken collarbone, a tourniquet in case of bleeding, padding for splints when resetting a bone, or a gag to muffle screams when resetting the bone.

Several bandanas can be tied together for a tarp, a ground cloth, an air mattress to be used in extreme haste, or perhaps an impromptu prom dress. They can be cut into pieces and used to play checkers. They can be folded up and used to patch your jeans. They can be unraveled (or torn) and woven into a macramé belt. They can be lined with foil and used to boil water.

Two can be tied together and used as bikini bottoms while one’s pants dry. They can be used to hold your hair back while you hike, to hold your food while you hike for a day, or to hold over your face while holding up a train.

If soaked with water, bandanas can be used to lower the body temperature of a victim of heat exhaustion, or twisted into a “rat tail” and used to painfully snap a person hiding their used facial tissue under a rock.

All in all, a bandana is something no hiker should ever be without. A bandana is truth, beauty and a little bit of Rit dye. And once you join the ranks of bandana lovers, you too can sing the Chiquita Bandana anthem: “bandana, bandana, bandana is good enough for me.”

Marjorie ‘Slim’ Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a Grand Canyon educator who also cleans up trails.

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