I am a big proponent of easy to carry, cost-effective multi-use tools, for both daily carry and general readiness in a BOB or Get-Home bag. Ounce for ounce, the one I use the most (besides my smartphone) is the common, humble bandana.
Far from just a simple rag, bandanas give a prepper or traveler a great many useful functions for next to no weight and bulk.
Add to that their universal availability, low cost and their form factor affording you the ability to always have one, there is no reason not to carry this traditional piece of kit.
In this article, I’ll give you a few things to consider when choosing a bandana and a few examples of the nearly limitless ways you can employ a bandana for tasks great and small during your next adventure, whether it is planned or not.
A bandana is simply a square cloth designed to be tied and worn around the neck or head. Traditionally dyed a bright color and often printed in a variety of paisley or geometric patterns.
Depending on the crowd and your lifestyle, they may or may not be a fashionable item. We have all seen them used as sweatbands, wrapped around heads and faces, or tied around the neck as a sort of scarf or neck covering.
At its basest, a bandana can give you a little insulation, and moderate to major protection from sun and wind-blown grit, a bandana’s usefulness will be determined by its size and material.
Small bandanas, really handkerchiefs, are good for little more than mopping sweat off your brow or blowing your nose. Proper bandanas measure about 20” to a side or more, and are the most commonly encountered.
Larger ones may be three feet to a side or longer, and are more appropriately called a neckerchief. If you’d like more utility and insulation from your bandana as a garment, choose a neckerchief, The smaller form factor of the classic size is best for multipurpose use.
Material and weave should be chosen carefully. The most common bandana fabrics, especially among the cheaper ones, are 100% cotton, cotton/synthetic blends, and polyester. Silk bandanas are more expensive and rarer. All have their perks and flaws.
As a rule of thumb, I go for 100% cotton or cotton blends, as they are inexpensive, durable and readily absorb moisture. A thicker weave will make for good sun protection.
I avoid polyester ones like a bad rash, as their slick, typically thin construction and propensity to melt means they will serve an even shorter life than usual, and they are often so thin and gauzy they afford little protection from the sun’s rays. Polyester also does not wick moisture well.
Silk has advantages from both, being light, absorbent and insulating, but it is more expensive and can be tough to care for. If you find a good one that is priced right, definitely add one to you kit. Silk feels great against the skin and is useful in hot or cold climates.
Considerations for Use
You can use your bandana for whatever you want, but for most of us relegating our bandana to a few sets of tasks makes sense for daily use. Why?
Think it through: if you have been blowing your schnozz into a crusty, nasty hanky and then want to wipe your face with it, you do you, but don’t come crying to me when you wind up with dermatitis or an infected wound or sore.
In an emergency, anything goes, but you also would not want to press a bandana you have been using a basic rag or bindle into service as an improvised bandage or wound dressing.
Use your head. If I carry a bandana on a daily basis and it gets used, even just to mop sweat from my brow, I toss it in the laundry basket. You wouldn’t keep wearing a sweaty shirt or dirty underwear day after day, so why do you fold up a soiled bandana and stuff it in your jeans day after day? Keep them clean!
Beyond that, there is not too much to fret over with your bandana, except that you might consider carrying two, one for grubby tasks that might require an emergency rag, and the other for kinder uses, or keeping clean to be handed off to someone in need or donning as headgear when needed.
Up to you for EDC, but be sure to stash several across your bags and cases so you always have a clean one at hand no matter the situation.
Even if you are buying bandanas at a mid-range price point, they are inexpensive. When they start to get tattered, you can resign them to the scuzz rag bin or toss them and get a new one.
Uses for Bandanas
Below is my catch all list of ways you can use bandanas in daily life or when disaster looms. I have actually used most of these in my travels, and will attest that, though they might seem simple, are convenient, quick and expedient solutions, all made possible from a simple piece of sturdy cloth.
Some of these are obvious, but others are more esoteric. Use these latter examples to fuel your own creativity, and that will translate into resourcefulness in other areas.
This is a good time to remind you that if you aren’t getting multiple uses out of every piece of gear you carry you may need to rethink it or replace it.
No matter your situation or strategy, adaptability, flexibility and lightness should be your watchwords.
Enough preface, see the examples below.
- Head/Neck covering– The classic usage. With a little practice a bandana can be tied and worn on the head and around the neck in several ways. This will give you a little added insulation or shade, and can be padding for a helmet or strap that is rubbing you in all the wrong ways.
- Sweatband– When you are humping 60lbs on your back across all creation to get away from a bad situation, or digging a slit trench with a coffee can, you’ll be sweating. Use your bandana to keep stinging sweat out of your eyes. You can also tie it around your wrist to swipe your brow.
- Dust Mask– If you are dealing with larger dust and nuisance particles in the air, a bandana folded over twice and tied around the nose and mouth can give you a little relief. This is not nearly as effective as a proper respirator, but they do help. You can wet the cloth down before tying it on to help with smoke and vapors.
- ID Band– A vividly recognizable bandana tied around the upper arm is easily seen by party members and friends, especially in chaotic and crowded situations.
- Blindfold– Not for taking prisoners. Or firing squads. Well, you never know. In seriousness, a simple blindfold can help you get some shut eye in bright conditions, and unlike traditional sleep masks can be pulled off with ease in a hurry.
First Aid– It assuredly is not the best, but if you have nothing close at hand and it is relatively clean, you can use your bandana as bleeding control or a compression bandage.
Larger ones can be tied into slings or secure splints. Plenty of people claim you can use a stick and bandana as a cravat or improvised tourniquet. All I can say to that is you better test your brand well before trusting that it will have the strength to function in that manner.
Cooling– When you get really hot, you can soak a bandana and drape it over your head or secure it under a hat and let it hang over your neck. Even a heavy bandana will let a little air through if it is not doubled up and will result in a wonderful cooling effect against your skin.
Signaling– A brightly colored bandana can be used for signaling. Laid out flat or hung to be visible from long distances, or swung around to attract attention.
Different colors may be used for discrete labels and signals with your group. Bandanas of two colors can be used to arrange Semaphore signaling. This is limited only by your creativity.
Catchall or Mat– Your bandana is great for catching small parts when working on a device or other piece of equipment, and can be laid down at a moment’s notice as a hasty ground cover to keep components clean.
Bindle or Sack– For compartmentalizing and organizing loads. You can tie a sack onto a sturdy stick like a stereotypical hobo to improvise load carriage when you don’t have (or lose) your pack.
Washcloth– Easy to forget you’ll need a cloth to help you do the dishes, wash your hands or body, or wipe muck, blood or oil off of something. Keep in mind, if you have no way to then wash your bandana, you should now relegate it to tasks besides being worn on your body.
Simple Filter– As a basic filter for found water. A bandana will screen out the large particles and junk from water, saving your other filters wear and tear and speeding up your process somewhat. Don’t forget that if the water is contaminated, your bandana is now contaminated.
Food Covering– Cover a dish, can or pouch to keep dust and insects out in the short term. A bandana can be tied into a sack for gathering seeds, berries and nuts, or as a wrap for bread or jerky.
Heaving Weight– Instead of fiddling with tying a weight directly to a working end of rope or cord, you can simply tie a rock or similar hefty object up in a tight bindle and then thread your line through that to improvise a weight. This will help you hurl your line where you need it with accuracy and range.
Lashing– For tying some things together, or attaching or hanging. Also makes a handy grab handle for carrying an awkward item.
Concealment– An earth tone or camouflage pattern bandana can be draped or affixed to a piece of gear or opening that is too visible to reduce its profile.
Disguise– Not advocating banditry here, but the classic cowboy facemask is effective at disrupting your features to prevent recognition. Also really adds some spice to the “Wasteland Wanderer” look, though Antifa and other communist sympathizers are spoiling this classic getup.
Potholder– For pulling piping-hot pots and pans out of the fire or off a burner, a tripled-up bandana works fine. This is one of the primary reasons I do not like polyester bandanas.
Lanyard– Knotted at each end, this makes for a visible and flexible lanyard for gear you want to pull out quickly or just need a little extra grip on.
Padding– Something rubbing or chafing a hole in your pack, or in you? Use your bandana to stop the assault. Also really handy for silencing jangly metal or plastic gear that is making noise. That may save your life, or just your nerves.
Sacrificial Uses– The following uses are destructive to your bandana, hence they are listed under this category together. For an old, worn, trusty bandana, these are fine ways to give it one last hurrah, useful to the bitter end.
- Breadcrumbs– Not for coating a piece of meat! Get it together, man! Jokes aside, think like Hansel and Gretel; cut your bandana up into smallish, but visible pieces. When blazing a trail, or exploring the improbably large underground lair of some unknowable evil force, you can drop them so you can find your way back. They won’t dissolve, but take care they cannot blow away. Hopefully you won’t find a man-eating witch waiting for you…
- Patches– For punching out the bore of your favorite gun. Consider the sizes of commercial patches, and you’ll have a guide for cutting your bandana up just right for a jag or patch holder.
- TP– When you gotta go, and don’t want to risk the pinecone or vaguely poisonous looking plant. (It still itches from last time..). I list this here because, face it, I don’t care if you have a commercial washing machine standing by, once I wipe my butt with it, I am not using it for anything else.
I hope you’ll reconsider the utility of the humble bandana after reading this article. Far from a decorative fashion item for rugged types, a bandana has long served as an essential piece of outdoor and survival equipment.
If you don’t carry one, start. If you do, carry two. Keep a few in your packs, and you’ll always find plenty of uses for this supremely useful tool.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.