You can live without pants. Sometimes I forget them on purpose just to live dangerously. And yes, suncream, flip flops and cameras are all very important but they’re also items that only really have one use, no matter how hard you try to use them as plates or hammers. No, the key to successfully living out of a backpack lies in packing items that provide solutions to a number of problems. Jacks of all trades…or packs of all trades if you will. And there are two very similar items that both fit this bill like a glove, which incidentally they can also be used as.
Invented by David Beckham in 1998, the sarong is quite possibly the most versatile piece of cloth you’ll ever own. Put down those fake Ray Bans, this should be your first purchase after landing. I mean don’t actually put them down, they’re still great value…no, just get them they look fine…look, just buy the Ray Bans. Then find a sarong. Not only is it a fetching symbol of metrosexuality, but a lightweight and quick-drying towel, a beach mat that doesn’t collect sand, a headscarf, a shade from the heat and a blanket from the cold.
If this is Sarong, I don’t want to be right!
Lock up your daughters/sons
Challenged sarongs to the packing priority top spot is that Swiss Army knife of scarves, the keffiyah. Also known as a shemagh, these are slightly thicker than sarongs and have been a functional feature of Middle Eastern dress for centuries. Their practicality is heavily endorsed by the British Army who have issued them to soldiers since before the Second World War. In the following decades keffiyahs have also become standard issue to Australian forces, U.S. troops, Irish Army Rangers as well as pretty much all Middle Eastern police and armed forces. These aren’t always easy to find when you’re away so pick up one before you go from here. Match with khaki and a thousand yard stare.
Shemagh-zing. Modelled by Sean
If you’re shaking your head in disbelief jyust take a look at all the uses for these wearable wonders. Go on, look at them!
- Towel – Packs tightly, lightweight, dries fast and gets the job done far better than your roommate’s t-shirt.
- Beach Towel – Doesn’t hold sand like a ‘proper’ towel and are usually bigger too.
- Modesty – A lightweight and cool wraparound for those religious places that ask you to cover your legs or shoulders.
- Skirt/Sarong – Wrap it round your waist for an instant addition to your limited travel wardrobe.
- Mosquito Protection – You’ve gone straight from the beach to a restaurant, the sun is setting, the mozzies are getting hungry and you’ve no repellent for your delicious legs. Sarong ‘em.
- Pillow – Either wrap around some folded clothes or roll up in a ball for an instant, contained head bed.
- Blanket – Perfect for napping on trains and hiding bus boners.
- Bag – Tie the corners together around whatever object you want to carry, and lift. You can also put it on the end of a stick for that depression-era chic.
- Scarf – Obviously the intended use of the keffiyah, but both do the job if your neck’s getting chilly.
- Warmth – Lightweight extra layers are always useful to have to hand when your stuck at remote bus stations or painfully slow border crossings.
- Cooling Down – Alternatively, when the heat is just too damn much, soak in water and wrap it around your head or neck.
- Dust mask – Keep your lungs grit free on motorbikes, windowless vehicles and in sand storms.
- Sun Protection – Insta-shade from that pesky tropical sunshine.
- Sweat Mop – Tie round your head as a bandana or do-rag, depending on whether you’re into rock ‘n’ roll or hip hop.
- Gang Affiliations – Left back pocket for Crips, right for Bloods. Or is it the other way round? Consult ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ to be sure. Snoop knows.
- Valuable concealment – Cover your camera or shove in your pocket to protect your wallet in dodgy ‘hoods. Though be careful which pocket (see ‘Gang Affiliations’)
- First Aid – Can be used as a sling if you need to immobilise your arm, or an emergency bandage or tourniquet for bleedy times.
- Water Filter – Won’t make water clean, but will take all the bits out of it before you boil or purify it.
- Oven Glove – For campfire BBQs and the aforementioned water boiling.
- Lens Cloth – Soft enough for quick occasional cleans but a well used keffiyah/sarong is probably pretty dusty so try not to do this too often if you don’t want to risk scratches.
- Bunk Bed Privacy – If you’re on the bottom bunk in a hostel you can pin it under the mattress above to curtain off your bed if you make any ‘special friends’.
- Self Defence – If Full Metal Jacket taught me anything, it taught me that teenage girls make excellent snipers, never call your child ‘Lawrence’, and a bar of soap wrapped in a towel makes a brutal clouting weapon. If you feel in danger on the road a fist-sized rock wrapped in your keffiyah or sarong makes a handy travel version of the latter.
Keffiyah or Sarong?
Ideally, I’d always try and take both. But if you really do only have space for one and have to choose, take a look at the environments you’re going to be predominantly travelling in. For subtropical weather and beaches, a sarong is the clear winner; it’s thinner, lightweight and makes the perfect beach towel. Also, if an item’s principal use is a scarf you don’t really want to be drying yourself with it too much, not unless you want your neck to smell like a damp Alsatian. Sarongs dry quicker and can lose the smell of seawater and bum crack after only 5 minutes airing in the wind. For jungle, desert, city or mountain, go for the hardier, warmer, and frankly more professional looking keffiyah.