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Bandanas: More Than Just A Hiker’s Handkerchief
Montana Senior News August/September 2015
When I began hiking in the Rockies some 30 years ago, I didn’t own collapsible hiking poles, waterproof rain pants, or a backpack with a water bladder—all standard trail equipment for me these days. Instead, I donned a fanny pack, holstered two water bottles in the side pockets, and toted a plastic poncho. I also deemed wooden walking sticks unnecessary.
           
Not averse to staying warmer, dryer, and upright on the trail, I gradually took advantage of what technology had to offer as the years progressed. Microfleece and Gore-Tex became my new trail partners along with anti-shock trekking poles. But all the inventiveness on the planet has never improved one old-fashioned piece of hiking gear that I have always considered indispensable—my bandana.
           
As a city-girl with negligible trail experience, I possessed not one bandana when I moved to rural Montana back in 1987. Nor had I given much thought to their usefulness. In my mind, they simply conjured up images of John Wayne’s neckerchiefs and incognito outlaws on horseback.
           
Not so for my husband. With a substantial number of trail adventures under his boot soles, he had come to appreciate the potential of these colorful cotton squares. His impressive collection of folded bandanas stacked neatly in the top drawer of his bureau proved that. Upon discovering he never hiked without a bandana and learning why first-hand from our time together on the trail, I promptly laid claim to joint ownership of his stash.
           
Versatile and lightweight, bandanas are a wise investment for any hiker of any age. Considering, however, that a dozen typically cost less than ten dollars it may be stretching our Spandex shorts too far to label them an investment.
           
As unglamorous as it may sound, one of the main reasons I hike with a bandana is my need for a comfortable hanky. Softened through countless washings, it can tuck under the waist strap of my backpack and be quickly reached on chilly mornings if my nose wants to do more than smell the scent of balsam firs and creekside willows. It can also be transformed into a neck warmer should wind or rain start misbehaving. Since I am not squeamish about dual-purposing in this instance, carrying one bandana works nicely.
           
During summertime, those nippy mornings can often evolve into scorcher afternoons with temperatures hovering somewhere in the 90’s. As rock faces bake in the sunshine, I am especially grateful for my paisley patterned bandana with its Celtic knots and diamond borders. When I wear a shirt that doesn’t have a collar to turn up, I tie a bandana around my neck to prevent sunburn. Or, if my path happens to cross a hand-numbing mountain stream, I troll a bandana through the icy waters then lay it across my neck for an instant cool-off. As I walk, the water trickles onto my shoulders and arms prompting momentary goose bumps. Although dry hot air will eventually suck that moisture out of the indigo-and-white material, I enjoy the reprieve for as long as it lasts.
           
At times I have found myself in the backcountry during huckleberry season without an empty container—admittedly on rare occasion—to cradle those yummy sweet-tart berries. When only a mere arm’s reach from the trail, they beckon irresistibly for grazing or gathering. So I knot together my bandana’s corners to form a makeshift pouch. If the bandana is large enough, the pouch can hang from the straps of my pack, which makes it easy to harvest as I amble along. Understandably, the fastidious amongst us may prefer a clean back-up bandana for this purpose. Your call.
           
From a first-aid perspective, a bandana can pinch-hit as an emergency bandage or tourniquet until something more suitable can be found. If amply sized, it can even be fashioned into a temporary arm sling or shaped into an ankle brace. For those hikers whose foreheads perspire in hot weather, three guesses what can be twisted into a sweatband.
           
Should I encounter a swarm of gnats, flies, or mosquitoes, my bandana won’t fail me then either. Grasping one edge, I swish the material in front of my face like a metronome then flick it either side of my head to ward off pesky trail denizens and discourage them from buzzing in my ears. I have also been known to tie a bandana mask-style over my nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the little darlin’s. Likewise, when the wind kicks up tossing dust everywhere, my bandana goes to work shielding my nose and mouth. Not only can I cease worrying about ingesting unwanted protein or grit, I can also breathe deeply and gulp as much air as I would like.
           
We can thank India for introducing the ever-practical bandana to the world. And we can congratulate the British for recognizing a great idea, importing it, and inexpensively copying it. This adaptable invention sailed across the Atlantic with America’s early-day settlers and has been on the move ever since. An iconic symbol of the Old West, bandanas may not be cutting-edge but no matter. They serve so many useful purposes on the trail they could qualify as a hiker’s best friend. That’s good enough for me.