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The Things We Carry

The Bandanna — Jack of All Trades

By Tamia Nelson

September 6, 2005

As recent, terrible events in the American South have made perfectly clear, when you don't have much, little things can mean a lot. Refugees travel light out of tragic necessity, but canoeists and kayakers do so by choice, and no paddler's wardrobe is complete without at least one bandanna. Two are even better. My weekend kit for amphibious jaunts has no less than five of them: two in my rucksack, one in my field vest (worn on portages and off-the-trail scouting trips), one in my first-aid kit, and another in my bike's bar bag. The last does double duty, wiping sweat from my brow and grease from my hands, though usually not at the same time. And that's just the beginning.

Ah, yes. Beginnings. My very first bandanna was a red paisley print like the ones the movie cowboys wore. Once I'd folded it into a double-thickness triangle and tied it around my neck, I could pull it over my mouth and nose in an instant to keep alkali dust out of my lungs on the trail. A child's imagination is a powerful thing, isn't it? In a tiny, faded, black-and-white snapshot I can just make out my first bandanna. It hangs from my neck at a jaunty angle, complementing my ten-gallon hat and pointy-toed cowboy boots. If appearance is anything to go by, even at the tender age of three I was ready to ride out of Lonesome Dove and head north across the Canadian River into the wild Montana country. But appearances deceive. Much later, however — I was now a teenager — my feet followed where my imagination had once led. I hit the trail in earnest, and two bandannas accompanied me everywhere I went. One of them whisked leaves, twigs, and, yes, dust from my camera as I pursued the perfect wildlife photo. The other, soaked in citronella, kept blackflies and mosquitoes at a distance whenever I stalked trout in my grandfather's favorite beaver ponds. That was the idea, at least. In truth, the citronella smelled better than it worked, but at least the bandanna kept the sun off my neck.

Nor was this all. Reduced by repeated folds to a strip about two inches wide, the same bandanna became a pungent headband, soaking up the sweat that poured from my brow on long portages and hard bike rides, sweat that otherwise ended up in my eyes, stinging and burning and blurring my view of the world around me. Do you want a little more coverage, perhaps? Nothing could be easier. Simply fold a bandanna once and drape the resulting triangle over your head. Then tie the tails at the back. The resulting do-rag makes a pretty good headscarf, even when it's not being used to soak up sweat. Farwell, who doesn't seem to have any sweat glands above his brow, nonetheless wears a bandanna do-rag under his helmet, both on the water and off. It keeps the summer sun from giving his bald pate a tiger-stripe (or polka-dot) tan. It also has a sort of piratical chic. Don't fancy yourself as a pirate? Want a Lawrence of Arabia look, instead? Then tuck a doubled-over bandanna under your ball cap so that one end hangs down over your neck. On sweltering days, soak the bandanna in water first. Now you've got your own portable air conditioner. You can also do the same trick with a bandanna neckerchief worn cowboy style, or with a do-rag. And you can still use the bandanna to wipe the salt crust from your forehead and face.

Of course, bandannas aren't just for fancy dress. They have many other uses. A large bandanna, properly folded, makes a pretty good bandage for a twisted ankle or sprained wrist. Bandannas can also be pressed into service as easy-to-stow, quick-to-dry washcloths and towels. A hint: after you wash yourself off, rinse your bandanna washcloth, then wring it out and use it to rub down your wet body. You'll be surprised how much water you can pick up this way. Your towel will hardly get damp. Even raggedy old bandannas haven't outlived their usefulness. I tuck a few into each repair kit and kitchen pack, and use them as rags, dishcloths, and pot holders. A much-folded bandanna is particularly handy in open-fire cookery, taking the place of the professional chef's side towel and supplementing your pot-grip. A WARNING is in order here, however: A damp bandanna will not protect your hands from a hot pot, and dry bandannas — particularly ones with frayed edges — catch fire very easily. So whether you cook over a stove or a wood fire, always exercise extreme care when you're juggling your jewelry!

Bandannas help out in the kitchen in other, less obvious ways, too. A folded bandanna makes a passable prefilter for your portable microfilter, postponing the day when you'll have to clean (or replace) the filter element. This is particularly true when the water you're relying on carries a heavy burden of silt or other sediment, or contains large amounts of visible organic matter. Bandanna filtration can't take the place of proper water treatment, obviously, but it will increase your microfilter's efficiency. It can even make chemical germicides more effective.

It sure seems like the cowboys were on to a good thing, doesn't it? They hit on the perfect miracle fiber for the job, too: cotton. Yep. Cotton. It's light, cheap, and absorbant, and it stands up to months of sun and wind without giving in. No, I'm not blind to the many advantages of high-tech synthetics in other applications. But I want my bandannas made from low-tech cotton. Size matters, as well. This is one place where bigger really is better. Don't forget that cotton shrinks the first few times it's washed — if in doubt, buy large. A two-foot square is about the smallest size I consider useful. Anything smaller is a handkerchief. Period. To my mind, it's not worth bringing along. Color? That's up to you. I'm a traditionalist. Most of my bandannas are red or dark blue. Farwell, on the other hand, alternates between solid black (for stealth) and hunter orange (for safety). And speaking of safety, if you own any white bandannas, leave them in the dresser drawer when you're exploring the autumn woods and waters anyplace where "Virginia" deer are hunted. They're not called whitetails for nothing. Or maybe wild turkeys are in season when you plan to paddle. If so, avoid blue and red bandannas, too. A paddler — even a paddler wearing a red bandanna — doesn't look very much like a bird, I admit, but it's a sad fact that there are turkeys on both ends of some hunters' gun barrels. A magnum load of #2 shot can ruin anyone's day, and red, white, and blue are the colors of a gobbler's head and wattle. It's better to be safe than sorry.

At least the bandanna is one item of gear that you don't have to special order. Whatever your favorite color, you can find bandannas practically everywhere. I've seen them in rural Ser-Sta-Gros whose only other stock was fly-paper, cold beer, and sun-rotted fan belts. Most of the major outfitters offer them, often in designer colors with hard-to-guess names. (Anybody know what color "soho" is? How about "dragon"? Beats me.) Big-box retailers, hardware stores, and even grocery stores sell them, as do military surplus outlets. The upshot? It doesn't matter if you're an urban cowboy or an honest-to-god saddle tramp. Either way, you won't need to shop till you drop to find a bandanna.

What's so special about bandannas? In an age when a navigational computer can be worn on your wrist and most boats are made in electrically heated molds rather than carpenter's shops, it's hard to believe that a simple square of cloth can do so many things so well. Yet it can. Whether you need a safety flag, a sun hat, a water filter, a dust mask, a washcloth, a handkerchief, or a bandage, you'll always be glad you have a bandanna in your pocket — or your pack. It's the rag trade's closest approach to the multi-tool. Don't leave home without one. Better yet, take two!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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