Camp Towel V. Cotton Throwdown
We pitted a lightweight, teched-out camp towel against one you'd hang in a bathroom. Here's how it stacked up.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Camp towels: they're lightweight, dry fast, and take up very little room in a pack. But they're also often not very effective—drying yourself with one can feel like you're trying to suck up water with a paper napkin. Are they really that much better for backpacking trips than a cotton option? To find out, I tested the PackTowl Luxe—a full-size synthetic camp towel (85 percent polyester, 15 percent nylon) made by Cascade Designs—against a similarly-sized version that I pulled from my bathroom closet.
PackTowl claims that the Luxe can sop up five times its weight in water. To test that claim, I weighed out 62 ounces of water (five times the weight of the dry towel), put the Luxe in, and watched it wipe the bowl dry. I then weighed out 101 ounces of water in the same bowl (five times the weight of my bathroom towel) and let the cotton go to work. I gave it a little more time than the PackTowl, but it still left a full cup or water sitting at the bottom.
Point for the camp towel.
PackTowl claims that the Luxe dries 30 percent faster than a cotton towel. After soaking both of my test subjects, I let them hang over my shower rod, checking each by hand for moisture every 30 minutes. The Luxe took about seven hours to dry, and the cotton took 12 hours. That's still pretty slow, of course, and at camp, you’d likely have to let either dry overnight.
Last June, I let a Luxe towel sit in a pile of wet rafting gear in my garage for three days. When I finally cleared the mess, my trunks and dry top had a mildewy funk, but the towel barely smelled. Credit the inclusion of Polygiene—a silver-salt liquid compound that actively kills stink-causing bacteria. I wouldn’t leave the towel wet for a week, but it was totally fine in my short-term test. As for cotton, well, leave a wet bathroom towel on the rack for a few days and it’s rendered unusable.
The Luxe measures 54 by 24 inches and folds down to the size of a classic Moleskine journal. The 48-by-28-inch cotton towel rolled down to the size of a Nerf football. On my scale, the PackTowl weighed 12.4 ounces. The cotton towel weighed 20.2 ounces.
When comparing both towels side to side, I preferred the Luxe to the cheap cotton one. Credit the terry knit of the polyester and nylon blend that makes these materials softer than what you'd find on other camp towels.
To test both as beach towels, I spread them out on the gravel in my backyard and laid down. The Luxe, which doesn’t have much loft (which is why it packs down well), felt like a dish towel underneath, while the cotton at least provided some cush.
The Bottom Line
A regular cotton towel costs about $10. The Luxe costs $30. So is it worth the $20 difference?
For regular car-camping trips, I’d say no. You don’t need to save space and worry about dry time, stink, or absorbency while out with the family here. On a river trip, I’d take the Luxe. That packability counts when you’re rafting, and the faster dry time and anti-stink properties will help ensure your towel doesn’t rot away in a drybag.
For backpackers, a smaller version of the Luxe camp towel would be useful, too. Cotton would be way too bulky.