Why You Need a Bandana and How To Find the Right One For You

Bandanas are back.

You might think bandanas are dorky or unnecessary, but look at this Old West settler and tell me they don't look awesome.

Bandanas have a million different uses (alright, maybe just 20 or so which we'll talk about later) and they weigh almost nothing.

There's a reason these old accessories are making a comeback. Backpackers and hikers have started to realize that newer isn't always better.

The bandana is the jack of all trades and can replace a bunch of different things in your pack. Check it out.

Bandanas are serious business and we're gonna go way in depth. This article is pretty long so if you want to skip ahead to a specific section you can use this handy dandy 'Quick Navigation' section.

If you're impatient and just want to see my top pick, here it is. I'll explain why shortly.

Why You Should Trust Me

I am a backpacking fanatic.  I live in Michigan and have backpacked the Manistee River and Manitou Island. I flew out to Colorado last year and spent a week in the Rawah Wilderness and in a month I'm heading up to Isle Royale in the U.P of Michigan. 

Whenever I get a chance to get out in the wilderness I take it and I've been able to field test a ton of gear over the years.

Standing at 13,000 feet in the Rawah Wilderness

In front of beautiful Lake Michigan off the east shore of North Manitou Island

I've spent hundreds of hours reading reviews and first hand testimonies from other backpackers on what they liked and didn't like about every piece of gear.

I hate when I buy a crappy piece of backpacking gear only to upgrade later; I like to buy the right gear from the beginning and not have to worry about it breaking down or wearing out in 6 months.

Cotton vs Synthetic Bandanas

Most backpacking and hiking gear is made to repel water. From Merino wool socks to moisture wicking shirts, almost everything is built with synthetic materials that keep water out so you can stay dry.

But bandanas are different. Most of the time you'll be wearing a bandana on your forehead or neck and it will be used to absorb sweat to keep it away from your face.

There are some synthetic bandanas on the market but they're geared more towards fishermen who need protection from the sun reflecting off the water. For hikers the focus is more on staying cool and keeping your face dry in hot temperatures.

Levi's Classic Bandana - The Best Bandana For Hiking

You were probably expecting some fancy, high-tech bandana made of crazy materials with some awesome design.

But the truth is a bandana is one of the few pieces of gear that you want to be made of cotton.

Unlike most of your gear which you want to repel water; the bandana is meant to absorb sweat and protect you from the sun and cotton does a fantastic job.

Buffs vs Bandanas - What's the Difference?

If you've never heard of a Buff before, it's basically stretchy bandana that's permanently connected to be the shape of a cylinder. It's basically a scarf; just tighter around your neck and made of breathable, synthetic materials.

Here's a picture of some people using a buff. The hikers are using the buff as ear muffs to stay warm. The fisherman is using the buff to look like a bank robber.

But seriously, the fisherman is using the buff to protect from the sun reflecting off the water. Buffs are super breathable so you don't feel warm even when you have your head completely covered with your buff.

And here's a cool break down of all the different ways you can wear a buff. The most common uses for hiking are to use it as a neck gaiter and a mask to protect from dust that gets stirred up. 

I've also heard of people using it as a headband that they pull down over their eyes at night to help block some of the sunlight so they can sleep in.

Whether you want a buff or a bandana will depend on what you're trying to accomplish. In general, a bandana is going to be better for keeping sweat off of your face. A buff is going to be better for covering multiple uses (like the picture above showed).

Buffs are convenient because they're stretchy and don't need to be tied so they're easier to use. A cotton bandana will need to be tied and is a fixed size so you won't be able to stretch it out and use it in the same way as a buff.

Specific uses where buffs are better than bandanas:

  • Neck warmer
  • Face mask
  • Hat
  • Pillowcase

And here are some use cases where a bandana is better than a buff:

  • Towel
  • Washcloth
  • Pre-filter for water (removes large chunks that can clog filter)
  • Tourniquet in case of emergency

Here's an easy comparison between the top selling bandana and buff.

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18 Other Ways To Use A Bandana

Bandanas are mostly used as headbands, towels or wash cloths. But they have a TON of other uses. Here's a run down of some other ways to use your bandana when you're hiking:

  1. As a hat - The most common use for a bandana. Keeps the sun off your head and can also protect you from bugs.
  2. Sun protection  - Drop the bandana down to your neck and wrap it around to provide some protection from the sun.
  3. Handkerchief - This grosses me out but if you want to use your bandana as a snot rag you could do that and not have to bring along any Kleenex.
  4. Headband - Wrap it around your head to keep sweat out of your eyes.
  5. Sleeping mask - Fold your bandana up and put it over your eyes to block out the sun and get some extra sleep on the trail.
  6. Stay warm - Wrap your bandana around your neck like a scarf to trap in some heat.
  7. Stay cool - Soak your bandana in water and put it on your head/neck to help cool down while hiking.
  8. Pre-filter drinking water - Backcountry filters get clogged up which means more pumping/waiting for your water to filter. Use your bandana to cover the opening to your water filter so when you fill it up, all the big solids and chunks of dirt will be filtered out by your bandana. This will extend the life of your filter and prevent clogs.
  9. Strainer/colander - Noodles are a popular backpacking meal because they're dehydrated and lightweight. You can use your bandana as a strainer when the noodles are done cooking; just dump them into the bandana and give it a squeeze to get the water out.
  10. Coffee filter - If you bring coarse ground coffee you could use your bandana as a filter. If I'm going backpacking for more than a few days I just bring some Starbucks instant coffee to save on weight and convenience.
  11. Napkin - 'nuff said. Wipe your hands on it.
  12. Tourniquet - If you get a serious cut where you're bleeding heavily, you can tie the bandana tightly around your arm/leg to reduce blood flow to the injured area and help stop some of the bleeding. This is one situation where you definitely want a bandana and not a buff! Buffs are too flexible to apply enough pressure.
  13. Cold compress - Get your bandana wet and hold it over a burn or other injury to help reduce swelling and pain.
  14. Emergency signal - If you have a colorful bandana you can wave it around to draw attention and signal for help. This would be a last resort but it's an option.
  15. Towel - Use your bandana to dry off after crossing a stream or for cleaning up water in your tent.
  16. Toilet paper - This is pretty disgusting but if you're out of TP this is better than nothing.
  17. Trail marker - If you decide to go down a long, unmarked dangerous trail you can leave this at the fork to let other people know you made a horrible decision.
  18. Secure items to backpack - You can use your bandana to tie things together or attach them to your backpack.

7 Ways to Wear A Bandana

Everybody knows how to wear a bandana as a headband. But if you want to get the most use out of your bandana then you need to know how to properly fold it for all of the other uses it has. If you don't fold your bandana correctly then it will fall off and come untied when you're trying to use it.

This is a little hard to explain so I'd recommend checking out this video. It's only 2 minutes long and shows the 7 most common ways to wear a bandana. If you really want to read how to do it, Wikihow has a good guide with some gifs to show the bandana folding in action.

Bandana Alternatives

If you don't like bandanas there are a couple of alternatives. We'll take a look at each one and break down the pros and cons of each.

Hat vs Bandana

If your primary use for a bandana is to cover your head from the sun, you might have better luck with a hat. Hiking hats don't look as cool as bandanas or baseball hats but they are more breathable, lightweight, and offer full 360 degree coverage.

I have a hat identical to this Columbia sun hat that I use for hiking. I prefer this style of hat over a baseball cap because it's more lightweight and is looser on your head.

Another awesome thing about this sun hat style is the breathable mesh on the front of the hat which helps keep you cool.

One downside is that these hats look pretty dorky. I usually take mine off when I'm in a picture but the rest of the time on the trail I've got this hat on.

Do Rag/Durag vs Bandana

Do-rags (or durags) are another alternative to bandanas that you've probably seen being used by motorcycle riders. These are also sometimes called skull caps because they are tight fitting hats that only cover your head and don't extend over your face.

For hiking purposes I wouldn't get a traditional do-rag. They're usually made of synthetic materials and are pretty thin. They don't provide much protection from the sun and give no warmth.

I own a small skullcap that's made to be used as a winter hat for runners. It's very lightweight and has a sweatband built into it like the one pictured here.

On really cold nights I wear this hat in bed for extra warmth.

Shemagh vs Bandana

When I came across the shemagh I had no idea what it was. I'd never heard the word before but as soon as I saw a picture I recognized it immediately. I won't even bother to describe what a shemagh is, just check out the picture below.

Shemagh's are typically used in the Middle East because they provide protection from the sun, dust, and heat. Because they're loose fitting and breathable they keep direct sunlight off of your skin while allowing air to flow through.

I've never seen any hiker using a shemagh but they seem to cover a lot of the same bases as a bandana/buff because they're so large. You could easily use a shemagh for a sun shade, sleeping mask, scarf, etc.

Dust Mask

The last bandana alternative I'm going to cover is a dust mask. These are primarily intended for ATV riders who are going to be off roading in dusty areas. 

These dust masks don't offer any protection from the sun so they're really only useful for protection from breathing in dust.

ATV dust masks have filters built into them so they'll have added weight compared to a buff or bandana.

I can't think of many hiking scenarios where you'd need protection from dust but not the sun so I'd probably use a bandana or buff before looking to a dust mask. 

They're also more expensive than bandanas so they're not very good options.

Specialty Printed Bandanas - Gimmick or Useful?

Most bandanas are either red, blue, black or the occasional tye die design. But there are a lot of unique designs that are printed on to bandanas to give them extra features. They're usually known as survival bandanas because they have useful survival info. But there's a bunch of other designs like topographical maps, star gazing guides, knot tying guides and more.

Survival Bandanas

Survival bandanas are regular cotton bandanas but instead of having designs printed on them they have a ton of useful survival info.

There are a bunch of different options and each survival bandana has different information.

Most survival bandanas will have information on fires, animals, knots, emergency procedures and advice. Shop around and find one that fits your needs and doesn't have useless information on it.

Topographical Map Bandanas

Topographical map bandanas do exactly what the name says. The bandana has a topographic map printed right on it so you can use it for navigation.

Unfortunately you can only have 1 park printed on a bandana and they don't have trails/campsites marked very readily. You're probably better off buying a physical map that's easier to read and reference.

Still a cool idea though if you don't care for the normal bandana designs.

Stargazing Bandanas

I'm a huge space nerd and love looking at the stars when I'm backpacking. The stargazer bandana has a map of all the constellations and major stars so you can quickly figure out what you're looking at in the nighttime sky.

This bandana is made of cotton and uses glow in the dark printing so the map is stil readable at night time. Smart.

The stargazer bandana seems more partical than the topographic map and would make a great gift for any space nerd backpacker.

Bandana Wrap Up

Hopefully this article shed some light on all of the different purposes a bandana can serve. When I dove into this research I had no idea how many different ways you could use a bandana. From topographical maps to emergency toilet paper, the humble bandana can do it all. Happy hiking.