Douglas Adams may have taken it a bit too far in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when asserting that a towel was “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” He was certainly onto something, but I’d argue that it’s hard to discretely wrap up a chunk of hair-studded pig fat for quiet disposal, so as not to insult your impoverished, but well meaning Guatemalan guests, with a towel. For that sly maneuver, you’ll need a handkerchief.

As far as necessary gear, in fact, the handkerchief, or pañuelo, by its significantly sexier Spanish name, is at the top of my list. Whether backpacking or traveling abroad, the pañuelo addresses one’s most basic needs: clean hands, quick-access shade, identity masking, tourniquet, sweaty brows, snotty noses … there is no end to the list.

Some among you are now fighting the image of an elderly man carrying his neatly folded handkerchief in the back pocket of his slacks. I’m not talking about that, although I’m sure even my grandpa, Vern, knew that backcountry cowboy coffee tastes far better strained though a (clean) pañuelo rather than a sock. What’s more, these old guys understand utility, which is the real reason every old timer has got one stashed in his back pocket.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a small handful of handkerchiefs, but I really only had one pañuelo. If memory serves, its original color was black with yellow and white designs throughout. I purchased it on a whim, probably in some gas station or at a checkout counter in the local K-Mart. But long before the pañuelo became an indispensable travel partner hitched to my belt loop, stashed in my daypack or neatly tied to my raft frame, it made its debut upon me at mid-thigh. This came in tandem with David Lee Roth, ripped jeans and the constant battle with my mother over the length of my hair. It wasn’t long before it had moved upward, abandoned its Van Halen playfulness and adopted employ as a stoic do-rag just in time for collapse of glam metal under the oppression of the AIDS scare, the first Gulf War and Nirvana.

As with the rebellious fashion of the pañuelo, its original colors eventually faded, leaving behind only the slightest hint that this scrap of fabric really began with a purpose. For most of our travels together, pañuelo was little more than that: a scrap of fabric. It lives in my memory: approximately 16-square inches, tattered and paper thin, and hemmed in multiple places with dental floss. During our years together, it soaked up everything from spilled beer to blood. It had bundled everything from scraps of tortillas to the charred remains of recreational embers. It had shielded my neck from the desert sun, and my hands from hot campfire pots. For more than a decade, whenever gear was assembled, my pañuelo was at the top of the pile.

While in grad school in the fall of 2004, I made a hasty stop on Lake Street in Minneapolis to join a “visioning session” for the redevelopment of a long-vacant and heavily blighted area of town. My evening plan still included a two-hour drive to southern Minnesota, where I lived at the time, so I’d intended my stay to be brief. Besides, Lake Street in 2004 wasn’t exactly the safest neighborhood, and all my meager possessions for a week at school were in the cab. When I returned to my truck after no more than a 20-minute absence, I was horrified to discover that my passenger side window had been reduced to a shimmering pile of glass shards. I guess I had made it easy for him, since all my most important items were neatly wrapped up in a carry-away backpack. He didn’t even have to dig!

Gone were:

One GIS textbook, one statistics textbook, approximately $80 worth of economics articles, one date book, one cell phone (I was kinda happy to see that bastard go), one calculator, one watch, one water bottle, one mechanical pencil, one pair of gloves, one bike light, one pack of gum (that I’d bought to get change for the fucking meter), one laptop computer, and …

… one miserable, thin, dirty and well-worn pañuelo.

My mind sifted through the likely scenario many times over the coming weeks and months. I’m quite sure that the shit-stain individual who rummaged through the contents of my pack quickly, and perhaps even with disgust, tossed my pañuelo aside. Fucker. Even then, even during my two-hour drive through a frigid Minnesota October night without a passenger-side window, I would have happily exchanged the entire contents of that pack, the pack and the window for that tattered snot rag.

I’ve moved on and now try not to bestow emotional importance to things like handkerchiefs. Luckily, this piece of gear is cheap and can be replaced (and probably should be) from time to time.

Nathan Boddy has stomped all over western North America, but calls the Bitterroot Valley of Montana home.  He has previously written articles for Backpacking Light magazine, a forum that accepts the utility and lightweight properties of the handkerchief.