I Hike Without a Towel and I’m Proud of It
Like most people of my generation, I was never actually a hitchhiker. In America, at least, hitchhiking had made the full transition from “a cheap way to travel the country” to “a cheap way to get stabbed in the kidney by a hobo (and/or arrested on suspicion of being a kidney-stabbing hobo)” twenty-odd years before I was born.
The closest most of us ever came was backpacking, which retains the general challenge of carrying everything you could possibly need for all life events on your back while dispensing with the high encounter rate of escaped convicts.
I mention all this because years after reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the recommended age (early adolescence) I still get a little irritated every time I consider or someone mentions packing a towel in preparation for a trip. For those of you that have forgotten (or never read) the relevant passage:
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)
—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Needless to say, I do not agree with the premise here.
And maybe that’s just generational and cultural differences. Your modern backpacker is unlikely to be borrowing gear off anyone, on account of the bears don’t carry pocket handkerchiefs and don’t much care if you do either, and in the unlikely event that you are bumming off someone your average American is unlikely to be impressed by the presence of a towel. Brits place, I’m told, a higher standard on such creature comforts.
But as far as I go a towel is wasted weight. A spare shirt will do just as well and has the added advantage of being, you know, a spare shirt. A bit of fluffy cloth might be a nice luxury once in a while, but on the triage of “ounces that I will have to support with my own body for weeks on end,” it’s among the first to go.
And maybe that’s just the difference between stupid hiking-related hobbies in Britain in 1979 and America in 2012. I’m willing to accept that.
Just don’t get up in my face about knowing where my towel is. I damn well know where my towel is; it’s back at home in the linen closet where I left it.