Comparing Ultralight Towels
Towels can be incredibly handy around camp, from drying off after a swim to sponging dew and condensation from your tent. I often carry only a bandana as an absorbant cloth and on those cool mornings when the tent is covered in dew, I often wish I had something better to wipe off all of that moisture before packing the tent away. I’ve had a large (~16×40) Packtowl for years and on the occasions I bring it, I’m usually glad to have it. It’s highly absorbent, dries pretty fast, and comes in handy as a sit pad. But at 4.7oz, it’s a bit heavy and most of the time it’s far more than I need.
In this post, I’ll take a look at quite a few popular, modern, options for an ultralight camp towel. To be clear, these aren’t the type of towels you’ll lay down to bask in the sun on, or snuggle into after a refreshing swim. These are minimalist, utilitarian, tools. I’m looking for something that doesn’t weigh a lot but will absorb a lot of water and let go of a lot of water. I’ll wring it out a few times while drying off condensation if it saves a few grams, that’s OK. If it feels nice to the touch, that’s a bonus!
My Old Packtowl
What To Look For
Let’s start with the most apparent and qualitative features: size and feel. Both of these are going to be driven largely by personal preference, but in the search of ultralight, I won’t be looking for anything as large as what you might consider a body towel for home use. Looking at this chart below, from Packtowl, I have found something close to the “Hand” size to be a pretty good in use and plenty for drying off even after a river bath. Anything larger is often bulkier and heavier than necessary. Smaller can be OK if you don’t mind that slightly moist and cold feeling when drying off with an already damp towel. And if I am not taking a dip in a lake or river, I find the “Face” size is really all I need.
Most of the manufacturers of proper towels, like Packtowl, REI, and Sea to Summit, offer towels in multiple sizes. If the sizes I have linked here aren’t to your preferences, check to see if they offer alternative sizes.
More subjective than size, though, is wow these various towels feel. Or at least how much you care about it. The softest tend to have a plusher hand-feel, like the REI Multi Towel Lite, and while the thinner ultralight towels like the Sea to Summit Airlite or the Matador NanoDry Towel are soft to the touch, they can initially feel like they are just moving the water across your skin. And some, like the Mighty Cleaner Shammy or the Sweedish Dishcloth, dry hard. They won’t feel soft to the touch until they are moistened.
I’ll rank each on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the softest.
The fiber content of these towels does affect how they feel, though you’ll find synthetic materials at both ends of the spectrum. And this is another subjective factor that may be important to some so I will summarize the fiber content in an appendix. The considerations are typically the introduction of microplastics from some (not all) synthetic fibers, the chemicals used to process and create the fibers, and the tendency of some synthetics to get “funky”. Personally, after more than ten years of use (and probably closer to 20) I can’t say that my Packtowl, which is a blend of polyester and nylon, has any discernable odor. Sportswear that absorbs sweat earns this reputation faithfully, but I can’t say I’ve had this experience with towels. Something to consider though.
I will make no judgment with regard to environmental impact and will instead leave it to you to consider. For reference, here’s a quick summary of the various fibers found in these towels.
- Rayon – A synthetic fiber, though derived from the natural cellulose of plant material and wood pulp. Sometimes will be listed as “Viscose” or “Viscose Rayon” or “Lyocell” in reference to how it is manufactured. Often described as “artificial silk”.
- Polyester – In textiles, a synthetic fiber. It’s a plastic polymer sourced from petroleum.
- Nylon – Like polyester, nylon is also a plastic polymer generally sourced from petroleum.
- Polyamides – Nylon is a type of polyamide and from what I can gather, as a fabric, this is just the non-trademarked version of Nylon.
- PVA – Polyvinyl Alcohol – a synthetic plastic polymer that is generally sourced from petroleum-derived chemicals. You may be aware of PVA as Polyvinyl Acetate, otherwise known as school glue or wood glue. Polyvinyl Alcohol is derived from Polyvinyl Acetate.
- Cotton – A natural fiber derived from the cotton plant.
- Cellulose – An organic polymer that makes up plant cell walls and various plant fibers (including cotton fibers).
Just The Facts, Man
Beyond the look, size, and feel, what really matters to me is how effective the towel is at actually removing water, and a lot of it. I might not even care if a towel is really soft if I am only planning to use it to soak the condensation off of the tent walls. What I really want is a towel that will soak up the water and wring out dry so that I can soak up even more. So in addition to the subjective feel of the towels, we’ll take a look at the overall weight, the weight per square inch, as well as the absorbency and water retention qualities.
To measure absorbency, after capturing dry weight, each towel was soaked thoroughly to dripping wet and then weighed just as the dripping was minimal. I then calculated the Percent Absorbency to normalize the results to better compare as the towels all vary a bit in terms of dimensions and weight.
To measure retention, each towel was then hand wrung to the point that no amount of additional wringing would expel more water from the towel.
I’ve then weighted each of the characteristics of Weight (gsi – grams per square inch), Absorption, Retention, and Feel and then ranked each of the towels. I considered each on a scale of 1 to 10 and then that became a multiplier for the result. The relative importance I have given to each of these characteristics is subjective. You may get different results if you weigh them differently.
- GSI – 5 (multiplier 1.5)
- Absorption – 9 (multiplier 1.9)
- Rention – 5 (multiplier 1.5)
- Feel – 5 (multiplier 1.5)
Final note before just diving into the results. While I am providing the width and length dimensions, I have not really considered how thick these products are, and that matters. The Sea to Summit Airlite towel, for example, is the same dimensions as my Original Packtowel (OP). The OP is heavier because of the additional thickness, but their absorbency comparisons are pretty close. The Weight factor will work against the OP in this case even though it is effectively equivalent in terms of absorbency. This means you could really carry a much smaller size Packtowel and achieve similar results. Maybe I will consider density in a future update, but for now it is just something to keep in mind when comparing your options.
|Brand||Model||Width (in)||Length (in)||Dry Weight (g)||g/SqIn||% Absorbancy||% Retention||Feel||SCORE|
|Sea to Summit||Airlite Towel||20||40||45||0.06||264%||107%||3||35.7|
|REI||Muli Towel Lite||16||29||66||0.14||218%||91%||1||29.3|
|Mighty Cleaner||Shammy Towel||13||17||61||0.28||359%||39%||5||34.3|
|Sweedish Wholesale||Sweedish Dishcloth||6.89||7.68||11||0.21||1300%||182%||5||29.2|
|Creative Co-Op||Cotton Tea Towel||18||28||100||0.20||170%||77%||3||24.4|
What Does It Mean?
At the top of the list are generally towels that are going to absorb at least three and as much as nine times their weight in water and most will retain less than 3/4 of their weight after being wrung out.
At the very top is the interesting Portawipe. This isn’t really marketed as a towel, but I included it anyway as a nice point of comparison due its really small size, the fact that it is made of similar fibers, and is surprisingly durable. You’d be right to think of it mostly as a replacement for a body cleaning wipe, but I’ve used them to wipe light condensation down from the inside of my tent. They absorb a surprising amount of water (900%) and they dry very quickly.
These are highly compressed until the first time you add water. I find this to be mostly a novelty if you intend for them to be multi-use. Once expanded they are about 9.5″ x 9.5″ and only 3 grams total weight. It may be frustrating to dry off from a dip in the lake as it only removes 22 grams of water at full saturation. But compare that to the Packtowl Ultralight in the “Face” size. The Packtowl is larger at 15×15 and heavier at 10 grams. But the absorption isn’t as good and so it only removes 25 grams of water at full saturation. At 17¢ for the Portawipe compared to $16 for the Packtowel, the Portawipe might really be worth considering!
Discounting the Portawipe a bit as its ranking is in large part due to the really low weight and soft nature of Rayon (it’s 100% Rayon), the real contender for first place is the Shamwow. You may be familiar with it from late-night infomercials of the early 2000’s. Made of a mix of Rayon and Polyropylene, the Shamwow is actually a really effective absorbant, second only to the highly absorbant Sweedish Dishcloth. But it’s far more practical in term of size, it’s got a very soft feel, and the cost is only about $8 per towel.
Speaking of the Sweedish Dishcloth, what’s that all about? Despite the low ranking, this is actually a really interesting option. It is among the heaviest in terms of GSI, but with 1300% absorbency, this thing will remove 123 grams of water with a mere 11gram cloth. It is made entirely of natural cellulose and cotton and only costs about $1.80 each! So, why doesn’t this rank higher? Partly because of the weight (not entirely fair as it is thicker per sq inch) but also because it is the worst in terms of water retention. It is essentially a kitchen sponge but in the form factor of a dishcloth. And like a kitchen sponge, it becomes hard when it dries out, so it has a poor “Feel” rating. But if you are only using this to wipe down your wet gear it is well worth considering.
On to a couple of the more popular options that are actually billed as ultralight camp towels, the Sea to Summit Airlite and the Matador NanoDry Towel are also near the top of the pack. While soft, I find they are so thin that they feel a bit like they are just moving water around. But they are indeed absorbing as much as 2.5 times their weight and they are a scant .06 GSI, which allows them to be quick large for their weight. Interestingly, they appear to be identical fabrics with the only difference really being branding. See below, with the Sea to Summit fabric on top in both images:
Both are listed as 85%Polyester, 15% Polyamide and even under close inspection, the two products look identical right down to the weave. At 24″ x 47″ the Matador is slightly larger than the Sea to Summit at 20″ x 40″. But is that enough to justify nearly double the cost? Is the Matador worth $35 vs $18 for the Sea to Summit?
Given the close resemblance though, that got me considering that this may just be a generically manufactured product that is branded and private-labeled. And sure enough, there are many very similar-looking products available on Amazon, including this one branded as simply “Good…” that looks pretty similar, right down to the carrying case w/ logo tab and the very specific dimensions of 24″ x 47″. And only $13! I haven’t yet purchased one of these, but if I was considering either the Sea to Summit or the Matador options, I’d give this one a shot.
Performing just as well as the Sea to Summit Airlite and the Matador NanoDry towel is the Lightload towel. It has a similar GSI but superior absorption. It’s not quite as soft in feel, but it’s made of organic components (lycocell, so derived from wood pulp). The retention isn’t as good either, but it’s fair. But perhaps the best part is that it’s only about $3 and the 12″x24″ size is nearly ideal. Similar to the Portawipe, it is sold in a highly compressed form factor, which may be attractive if you aren’t sure you’ll even need it.
What Do I Recommend?
There are a few minor features that are maybe worth considering. Above you’ll notice that the Matador came in a small plastic case. Others, like the REI Multi-towel come in various types of cases. These are all extra weight, I don’t use them, and I don’t consider them. Maybe they’re important to you. The only extra feature that I do appreciate is a loop from which I can hang it on my pack to dry while I hike. Of the towels here, the only ones with that feature are the Packtowls and the Matador. And of these, I prefer the Packtowl Ultralite. It’s less expensive, higher performing, and I prefer the feel over the Matador.
For low-cost options, though, the Lightload towel is hard to beat!
Below is a summary of the various towels, there costs and their material composition:
|Shamwow||Original||$8.00||Rayon & Polypropylene|
|Packtowel||Ultralite||$16.00||70% Polyester / 30% Nylon|
|Sea to Summit||Airlite Towel||$15.00||15% Polyamide, 85% Polyester|
|Matador||NanoDry||$35.00||85% polyester /15% polyamide|
|REI||Muli Towel Lite||$16.00||85% Polyester / 15% Nylon|
|Mighty Cleaner||Shammy Towel||$7.48||Polyvinyl Alchohol (PVA)|
|Sweedish Wholesale||Sweedish Dishcloth||$1.80||Cellulose & Cotton|
|Creative Co-Op||Cotton Tea Towel||$0.00||Cotton|
You may note a few towels that I didn’t mention in the post, particularly the various cotton towels. It’s mostly because the only thing of particular interest is that they just aren’t that interesting. The thin and light floursack cloths are simply OK. They are moderately absorbent, moderately retain water, and are neither as harsh or as soft as some of the other options. They are just “meh” in every quality. The cotton tea towels are worse in all of these regards. They are inexpensive. But for not much more, the Lightload towel is considerably better in all other ways. If you are particularly interested in carrying a cotton towel, perhaps these will appeal.