The Best Packable Travel Towels of 2023 | Reviews by Wirecutter

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We love a plush, thirsty bath towel, but a campsite or suitcase just isn’t the place for one—there, we want a quick-drying, packable travel towel. tea towel pot holder

The Best Packable Travel Towels of 2023 | Reviews by Wirecutter

After putting 20 such towels through 60 hours of testing—including an intense day of sand and surf at the beach—we’ve concluded the PackTowl Personal offers the best balance of drying time, packability, and odor resistance without compromising comfort and design.

A good option for nearly every towel-related scenario, it’s lightweight, extra-large, and supersoft, making it usable for both car camping and travel into the backcountry.

Whether used for camping, hiking, traveling, or general outdoor adventuring, this towel is durable enough to handle extended abuse while remaining soft and comfortable.

Good-enough absorbency and drying time for those on a budget.

Good for car camping, day trips, and hanging at the beach, this towel is made of an incredibly soft fabric that also repels dirt.

Whether used for camping, hiking, traveling, or general outdoor adventuring, this towel is durable enough to handle extended abuse while remaining soft and comfortable.

Scoring well in nearly every performance category, the PackTowl Personal towel consistently surprised us with its ability to handle the elements. It has an antibacterial treatment to help prevent odor, the “body” size (25 by 54 inches) is large enough to wrap around most folks, and it feels soft against the skin. It’s made of a tear-resistant fabric and was the best towel we tested at absorbing water and repelling dirt. Better still, sand from the beach remained on the towel’s surface so it was easy to shake off, leaving the towel clean after multiple uses. Its drying time was faster than most of the towels we tested and it packs down to a small size in a zippered breathable pouch, making it convenient for travel or camping.

Good-enough absorbency and drying time for those on a budget.

The Rainleaf Microfiber Towel was nearly identical in design to many of the pricier models and scored just as well in our field tests. The only downsides are that its size large is smaller than most other large towels we tested, and it has lighter-feeling fabric. It didn’t handle our day at the beach quite as well and took a little longer to dry, but otherwise it’s comparable in comfort and packability. And, because it’s treated with an antibacterial coating—something not standard on budget (or even some pricey) towels—it passed our smell test with a perfect score. At just a fraction of the price of our top choice, it’s a good pick if you’re the kind of person who goes camping a few times a year and needs something affordable that works well.

Good for car camping, day trips, and hanging at the beach, this towel is made of an incredibly soft fabric that also repels dirt.

If packing your towel down into a tiny space isn’t a concern for you, the PackTowl Luxe is about as comfortable as a towel can get. Although it does take up a bit more room and takes significantly longer to dry, its “body” size has the same dimensions as our top pick but has a plusher feel against the skin. Unlike similar big and luxurious camp towels, it didn’t smell after being put away wet. It absorbed water off the skin without trapping in the dirt and sand, which left it surprisingly clean for a towel with such a high pile. As it was easy to shake off, we enjoyed having it as a wrap and beach blanket, too.

We spoke with three experts to get their takes on what we should look for in a good towel. Mark Knight, a product designer currently with Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), has designed a number of outdoor products, including packable towels, and gave us a breakdown on what he considers to be important when creating products like these.

We spoke via email with Georgia Newsome, owner and operator of Coastal Bliss Adventures, who has worked as a backpacking, camping, and canoeing guide for the past 15 years.

And we spoke with Craig Oliver, product manager for health and safety at MEC. He was able to tell us what’s important from a consumer perspective. In addition to these interviews, we read a number of online reviews, pored over camping and backpacking forums, researched microfiber fabrics, and then selected and tested the towels we think cover most activities to determine which one was best overall.

Why doesn’t a regular, everyday cotton towel cut it for most outdoor activities? Knight offered us five reasons your cotton towel isn’t ideal: it’s too big, too heavy, might get damaged or stained, doesn’t get washed at the same frequency it would at home, therefore causing it to smell, and lastly, it’s not always used in the same manner as it would be at home. He added, “As a travel towel, there is also the added functional requirement of being quick-dry. When traveling, you can move around a lot, and a packed wet towel generally means a stinky towel.”

Packable towels are usually made from microfiber, although a few of the ones we tested are made from other materials (which didn’t end up performing as well). These materials are typically a blend of polyester and polyamide, aka nylon, and depending on the blend will produce a towel that feels more suede-like and slick to one that feels more plush like your average cotton towel. There are also packable towels made of nanofabric, which is composed of tiny nanoscopic fibers woven together—think the width of a human hair (or even smaller)—to create a fabric that is incredibly lightweight and small. Though they do the trick, nanofiber towels tend to have a slicker surface, which means they don’t feel much like the towel you’re used to.

According to Oliver, the most popular camp towel size is roughly equivalent to a standard household bath towel—about 26 by 52 inches after washing. Some towels were slightly smaller or larger, but we tried to stay within what would seem like regulation size for most people.

All the experts we talked to shared the opinion that the type of towel you’ll want to purchase depends on the activity you’re using it for. For backpacking or kayaking trips, Newsome told us that “lightweight, small packability and quick drying are the most important factors.” For car camping or other adventures, where weight isn’t an issue, she opts for a larger microfiber towel, and one with an antimicrobial coating, “which means for those longer road trips and tours this towel stays fresh smelling.” Knight’s opinion aligned with Newsome’s: “Some of the lightest towels don’t feel that great against your skin, but the weight means you will actually bring it in your backpack when on a long hike. If you are traveling around the world, weight might not be your primary concern, but comfort will factor highly, as you will be using the towel each day—unless you are a soap dodger! So, a softer, slightly heavier towel may be the way to go.”

Just as important as how much water a towel can absorb—in other words, how well it dries you—is how well the towel dries after you’re dry. “Nobody wants to put a wet towel into their backpack,” Oliver said.

After surveying online reviews, forums, and user ratings, and asking people what type of towel they preferred for their own outdoor activities, we narrowed our field to 19 packable towels, then threw in a standard cotton towel as a plush baseline. We then tested the towels using seven criteria: price, comfort, design, wicking, drying time, odor resistance, and packability.

We washed and dried all of the towels, giving them all an equal starting point, then we scored them in each category. We didn’t score weight or size, but we did make note of whether these features made a difference when comparing similar options.

Comfort: This was a tough one because of the people we asked, some preferred a more textured fabric and others liked the smooth feel of the microsuede towels. We asked individuals to feel each towel against their skin, asked for their comments, and then asked what their overall top picks were.

Design: Here, we looked at how well the towel is made, and whether there were any particular features—good or bad—that made drying off more or less of a pleasure. Key among them was fabric quality, stitching, and what kind of hanging loop—essential!—the towel came with. We also looked at texture, an important attribute for both water absorption and grabbing dirt and grime, rather than just pushing it around. A too-slick towel won’t do much of anything except leave your skin feeling yucky and wet.

Wicking: One of the most important tests we conducted was how well the towel could wick away water and leave the skin feeling dry. When we took our test towels to the beach, we wanted to see how they performed against sandy salt water and whether they were able to clean the skin in addition to drying it.

Drying time: To determine which towel dried the fastest, we applied the same amount of water to each towel and then timed how long it took for them to dry. But how much water to use, and how dry is dry, exactly? We used 4 ounces of water, a quantity we settled on after having multiple testers shower and weigh their towels before and after use. Once the person was dry enough to feel comfortable putting their clothes on, we called that “dry.” We did this a couple of times with each person and used a couple types of cotton towels to get a base number. The average amount of water people removed from their bodies after showering was a ½ cup, or about 225 milliliters. We hung our entire assortment of high-tech, portable towels on the same line and recorded the time it took to leave each one dry to the touch.

Odor resistance: Another important criterion is how the towel smells after multiple uses. “An antimicrobial finish helps with odor management and decreases the frequency you need to wash the towel,” Knight told us. A towel may be used a dozen times before it gets properly washed, and if a towel smells musty or dirty after a couple of uses, it probably is. Many of the towels advertise a protective antibacterial coating and we wanted to see if these coatings actually made a difference.

Our test involved taking the towels to the beach, soaking them in 16 ounces of ocean water, wringing out the excess water as best as we could, and then placing each towel in a sealed plastic bag for 48 hours. After that, we opened the bags and took a whiff. Though most remained odor-free (especially those coated with an antimicrobial treatment), we were taken aback by how seriously a few of them reeked.

Packability: As important as drying you—and drying out—are, the other key thing a camp towel has to do is pack small for travel. Some towels came with cases, some didn’t. Our focus was simply how tiny a towel could get.

Price: More expensive doesn’t really seem like a good thing when it comes to something like a packable travel towel, given that there’s such a variance in price and that most towels pretty much claim to do the same thing.

Whether used for camping, hiking, traveling, or general outdoor adventuring, this towel is durable enough to handle extended abuse while remaining soft and comfortable.

The PackTowl Personal is our top choice because it handled every test we put it through. It’s the perfect option for nearly any outdoor activity that requires a towel. It’s large and durable while still being comfortable and comes with an antimicrobial treatment, which means it won’t smell after multiple uses. Its snap loop for hanging was one of the easiest to use, and the towel packs down to a small size, making it easy to travel with. Its drying time was comparable with that of the fastest-drying towels we tested, and it didn’t absorb dirt or sand into its fabric, an essential feature if you’re taking a towel into the backcountry.

Made of a soft microsuede, this towel was consistently chosen as a top pick by those we asked to rate its comfort. It is soft and light, but still has a bit of texture, so it doesn’t feel slick against your skin the way a nanofiber towel like the Matador NanoDry Shower Towel does. The PackTowl seems built to last, with a nicely seamed edge that should hold up over time. On top of feeling soft, it dried our skin much more readily than the non-microfiber towels we tested, like the Coleman or Outlier. It even dried a bit more quickly than other microfiber products in our test group. We were impressed by how well it repelled sand and dirt from being absorbed into its fabric. The sand that did stick to the towel was easy to shake off—which wasn’t the case of some of the other models we tested that looked like dirty rags after just a short time at the beach.

In our drying-time test, the PackTowl dried much faster than most, with the exception of the linen towel and the Biospired Footprint, which beat the PackTowl’s dry time by 30 minutes. (The towels we tested dried in a range from 1 hour, 45 minutes to nearly 4 hours.) We noticed that the towels with an additional antimicrobial coating took a little longer to dry. We think the extra odor protection is worth the few extra minutes of drying time. As the PackTowl dried, some water initially beaded on the surface, but was then absorbed, compared with towels that still had visible water beads after almost an hour of drying. (Beads of water were a good indication of extended drying times.) Water also dispersed evenly through the towel rather than leaving wet spots, which likely contributed to its fast drying time. We dried the towels in overcast conditions, and noticed that at just over 1 hour, 30 minutes the PackTowl was only minimally damp, and could be packed back into its carrying case if you were in a rush to pack up and go.

We tested the PackTowl’s “body” size, which weighed 6.7 ounces, fairly average compared with the other suede-type towels, and measured 25 by 54 inches, just shy of being the same size as our standard bath towel, and larger than many of the towels in our testing pool.

Wirecutter staffers have owned this towel for multiple seasons and it continues to hold up, with no loose threads or unraveled seams after use.

We didn’t love the PackTowl’s pouch: it doesn’t attach easily to a backpack, and the zipper seemed flimsy. But the pouch is made of breathable fabric, so it won’t trap moisture the way a plastic bag or pouch might. Although the PackTowl is antimicrobial, it did have the slightest ocean water odor to it after our 48-hour smell test, which is not something we noticed in previous tests.

Good-enough absorbency and drying time for those on a budget.

Costing about half the price of our top pick, the Rainleaf Microfiber Towel is a great choice for those that don’t want to shell out almost $30 for a towel. A major bonus is that unlike most of the inexpensive towels we considered, this one actually comes with an antimicrobial treatment and passed the smell test after being sealed up wet for two days. It’s also comfortable, easy to dry off with, and just as packable as the PackTowl.

It didn’t dry quite as fast as our top pick and that may be due to the fact that some of the water beaded off and remained on the surface before being absorbed directly into the towel. The size we tested (L) is also slightly smaller than some of the pricier options but still big enough to wrap around the average person’s body.

Because it is so inexpensive, there’s the option of upgrading to the XL or XXL sizes for just a few bucks more and still have it come in well below price of most other towels. On top of that, it has a functional carrying pouch that is both breathable and easy to fasten onto a backpack so you can pack the towel damp and hang it to dry when it’s time to hit the road.

That said, though it did well drying our testers at the beach, it didn’t handle sand as well as our top pick, leaving a good amount behind on both their skin and the towel itself. If you’re a serious outdoor adventurer who’s going to be putting it to work against the elements, we recommend a towel that can handle gritty, sticky stuff a bit better.

Good for car camping, day trips, and hanging at the beach, this towel is made of an incredibly soft fabric that also repels dirt.

If size and volume aren’t issues and you’re looking for something more soft and comfortable, the PackTowl Luxe performed the best of the plush cotton-like microfiber towels. Not only did it dry the quickest of these towels, it was good at removing sand from the skin and didn’t absorb dirt and mud into the fabric. It also didn’t have any odor after the smell test. A few of the other thicker towels we tested simply reeked—testers used the term “rotten fish”—after a couple days crunched into a ball, but not the Luxe.

If comfort is a primary concern, this towel feels much closer to cotton, avoiding the slick skin-feel common to many microsuedes and nanofibers. As we did with our pick, the PackTowl Personal, we tested the extra-large “Body” size. Also like our pick, at this size the Luxe is a few inches larger than the others we tested of the same type, measuring 25 by 54 inches, offering that extra little bit of coverage.

It does come with a carrying pouch, and though not as stylish or durable as the Sea to Summit Pocket Towel’s silicone carrying case, it’s adequate for what it needs to do. We consider this towel a solid option for car camping and day trips, when taking up a little extra space won’t matter.

Although durable and light, there’s an environmental downside to microsynthetic fibers: Every time you wash that gear, small quantities of its fibers are shed, ending up in our waterways and oceans. (Here’s a study from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management on the issue.) For more about the problem and some advice on combating it, see our article Your Laundry Sheds Harmful Microfibers. Here’s What You Can Do About It.

We tested a standard white bath towel—the Fieldcrest Luxury Solid Towel, which has since been discontinued—that was the same size as the majority of the towels we tested. It performed as expected: It was great at drying skin and was comfortable, but it didn’t pack down and had a bit of a funky smell after our odor test. Surprisingly, it didn’t take that much longer to dry than some of the plusher microfiber models we tested and actually outperformed a few of the towels that are marketed specifically for camping.

Biospired Footprint Towel: This had been our runner-up pick, but the size we tested has cycled in and out of stock. If you do happen to run across one, it’s still a good towel, though. We had also tested, and dismissed, the Biospired Endurance Camping & Fitness Towel and the Biospired Trek Pack Towel; for what it’s worth, those towels also tend to have stock problems.

Matador NanoDry Shower Towel: For backcountry campers and hikers that are concerned about weight, this is by far the lightest towel we tested (2.4 ounces). It performed well, but it is very thin and not as comfortable as the others. We decided it was too specialized to be best for most people.

Outlier Grid Linen Towel: Made of a natural linen fabric, this towel was the fastest-drying towel, and it performed well at the beach. But it doesn’t pack down very small, doesn’t come with a carrying case but rather a thick elastic band, and had a faint smell after our odor test. Those drawbacks made it hard to justify its high price.

Sunland Microfiber Towel (currently unavailable): One of the least expensive microfiber towels, but no antimicrobial treatment and very average performance.

Sea to Summit DryLite Towel: One of the slowest to dry. Another note of caution, many online reviews have reported a problem with the cobalt blue dye running. We didn’t run into this problem, but we tested an orange towel, so it’s likely the issue is with only the darker-colored towels. Another drawback is that the carrying case comes with a Velcro closure, making it possible to snag the fabric when maneuvering the towel into and out of the case.

Shandali Yoga Travel Towel (currently unavailable): Average performance, no carrying case, and though it does have a little loop for hanging to dry, most of the towels we tested had a loop with a snap, making them more versatile.

YogaRat SportLite Sport + Bath Towel (currently unavailable): Though this towel did dry quite quickly and was resistant to odor during our 48-hour test, the lack of an antibacterial treatment gave us odor concerns for people taking it on longer trips. And with no carrying case and a snapless loop, this towel was a few steps below our top choices in convenience.

Sea to Summit Tek Towel: Sand stuck to the towel, leaving it quite dirty. Drying time was slow.

REI Co-op Multi Towel (currently unavailable, but we're looking into a possible new version): Everything stuck to this towel: dryer lint, grass, sand, and dirt, and even though we tested a darker color, it looked dirty after our day at the beach. It also didn’t smell great after our odor test, and it took over four hours to dry.

Lightload Towel: Not really built to be used multiple times, this towel is made of an almost paperlike viscose material, and although very small, once unpackaged it can’t be squished down to its original size (although it does fit in a smaller Ziploc bag). It is incredibly large though, dried quickly, and would probably perform as an ad-hoc firestarter or outdoor survival tool (non-cleanliness-oriented usage scenarios suggested by the manufacturer). Whether being able to set the world on fire is a worthwhile trade-off with this towel’s lack of odor resistance—it was the worst performer in our stink trial—is something we hope we’ll never have to decide.

Coghlan’s Deluxe Camp Towel (currently unavailable): This is the classic outdoor towel that’s been around campsites for years. Some backcountry campers still prefer these towels because they’re small, lightweight, and cheap, but they didn’t perform as well as the microfiber towels that we tested. They dry very slowly, stink up easily, and don’t feel good against the skin.

Coleman Camp Towel (currently unavailable): Similar in nearly every aspect to the Coghlan’s towel, just with slightly different dimensions—neither is big enough to really function as a full-body wrap—this model also had the drawbacks of rough fabric, odor retention, and delayed drying. (It appears to have been discontinued.)

Most packable towels are designed to repel dirt and bacteria, so they don’t need to be cleaned after every use. Excessive washing can also break down the fabric and any additional antimicrobial technology the towel might be treated with. So, wash only when dirty and don’t dry your towel on high heat unless absolutely necessary; way better to hang it when you can and let the air take care of it.

This article was edited by Ria Misra and Christine Ryan.

Nicholas J. Bruce, Niko L. Hartline, Stephanie N. Karba, Elizabeth O. Ruff, Shreya U. Sonar, and Patricia A. Holden, Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, September 30, 2016

Mark Knight, product designer for Mountain Equipment Co-opand member of the Outdoor Industry Association, email interview, April 21, 2017

Georgia Newsome, owner and operator of Coastal Bliss Adventure and Kilimanjaro Bliss, email interview, March 31, 2017

Craig Oliver, product manager for health and safety at Mountain Equipment Co-op, phone interview, March 29, 2017

What Are The Coolest New Small Gear Companies?, Outside, January 15, 2016

Anne Trafton, Tiny particles may pose big risk, MIT News, April 8, 2014

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The Best Packable Travel Towels of 2023 | Reviews by Wirecutter

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