A buff is indispensable, and you absolutely need one – Popular Science

A buff is indispensable, and you absolutely need one  Popular Science

Yes, a buff can be turned into a hat.Smartape via Deposit Photos

A buff—also called a “neck gaiter” or, even worse, “multifunctional headwear”—is a tube of elastic fabric that you can wear in lots of different ways. The name comes from one of the main brands that makes them, but most outdoor sports companies have their own take on the garment. Buffs come in a variety of fabrics, thicknesses, and sizes. Most people will get by just fine with a lightweight polyester one, but you can also get high-end Merino wool options, and even thick weatherproof buffs.

As the name neck gaiter suggests, they’re most commonly used to cover the gap around your neck from the cold and wind, but they can do a lot more than that. Here’s why I always keep a buff in my travel bag—and you should too.

It’ll protect you from the cold and the sun

Nobody likes a sunburned scalp.Zakirov Aleksey via Deposit Photos

The main purpose of a buff is to keep you wrapped up—and there are lots of ways you can do that. When it’s cold, you can use it to cover any exposed skin in your neck area. Or, if it’s really cold, you can go all-in and wear it as a balaclava. The buff’s flexibility is really great here: depending on what you need, it can be everything from a commuter’s light scarf to part of a polar explorer’s wardrobe.

But, it’s not just useful in the cold. A buff also keeps the sun off you when it’s warm. There are lots of buffs out there that have SPF protection, sometimes even equivalent to 50—and it won’t rub off like sunscreen. In Indonesia, most of the motorbike taxi drivers wear one pulled up over the back of their neck to keep the sun away.

It’s a great sleep mask

Falling asleep when you’re traveling can be a challenge, but a good sleeping mask can make it easier—and I’ve found my buff to be one of my favorites. It’s soft and wraps totally over my head, so it doesn’t come free even if I move around. Plus, it keeps my earbuds in place so I can listen to music or just tune out the noise of other people.

The only potential downside is that buffs made from lighter material won’t block out 100 percent of the light. If you need it to be pitch-black for you to sleep, either roll or fold your buff—so your eyes are actually covered by a couple of layers of fabric—or just go with a heavier one.

It keeps your hair out of your face

If you have ever grown out your bangs, you’ll know that no matter how short your hair, there’s always the possibility of getting it in your eyes.Massimiliano Finzi via Deposit Photos

Hair can be a real pain when it starts getting in your face. A buff can double as a scrunchie, headband, or headscarf as you need. When my fringe starts to get a bit long, I often use mine as a headband when I’m hiking.

It’s a washable rag

Sometimes you just need something to clean yourself up—a tissue, a towel, anything, really— and there is nothing. I don’t want to admit the number of times I’ve blown my nose in my buff when there’s been nothing else to use, but when it comes down to it, a buff is a washable rag. It’ll make for a great emergency handkerchief so you don’t have to launch a snot-rocket or blow your nose on the hem of your t-shirt.

And a buff is not just a tissue. In a pinch, you can use it as a towel, a sweatband, or even to stop a wound from bleeding if you’re in an accident. When they’ve been caught short, long-distance runners have even used theirs as emergency toilet paper.

While you wouldn’t want your buff to be the only tissue (or toilet roll) you ever have, keeping it in your bag in case the unexpected happens means you (and your butt) will be covered.

It’s tiny

Best of all, there’s no penalty to carrying a buff. They’re lightweight and pack down small. You can stash one in your everyday or travel bag and just forget about it. You won’t even notice it’s there—until you need it, and it saves the day.

It works as an emergency… almost everything

Buffs are handily elastic, which makes them extremely versatile. Some of the out-of-the-box things you can do with buffs are:

Make an arm sling

Depending on how many buffs you have on hand, you can make a sling for children or adults. Only one will do for kids (place it around the head and injured arm and open the buff around the elbow for better support), but you’ll need two for adults. Knot two buffs together and put one around the person’s neck. Use the other one to hold the injured arm and open the buff around the elbow to provide support.

Stop the bleeding

If you’re ever in need of pressure to stop a limb from bleeding, all you’ll need is a stick and a buff to create a makeshift tourniquet. Put the buff around the limb and just above the wound. Place the stick under the buff and turn it in place as many times as necessary to tighten the grip.

Support sprained wrists, knees, and ankles

A no-brainer really—tie the buff around the injured joint two to three times to keep it in place and limit mobility.

Craft an emergency bag strap

If a handle falls off your carry-on bag or backpack, tie your buff onto whatever bits of fabric remain and use it as a strap until you can find a permanent replacement.

Tie a loop for attaching things to the outside of your bag

If you forget the outside carry straps for your bag (or one breaks), a buff works great. Loop it through your bag and use it to tie your tripod, sleeping bag, tent, or anything else down.

Jury-rig an iPhone armband for exercising

If no one got you an exercise armband for Christmas, use your buff instead. Wrap your smartphone in it and wear it over your upper arm while you go for a run or lift some weights at the gym.

Organize your cables

Chances are you’re carrying your fair share of cables in your bag, and it’s likely they’re all tangled up as you read this. Solve this by tying them together with your buff.

Create a breathing mask

Instead of wearing your buff over the top of your head, wear it over your face. The light fabric is easy to breathe through but will stop any dirt or dust from getting into your mouth and lungs. Perfect for protests and Burning Man.

An emergency tent guy line

If a guy-line breaks, put your buff through the loop and pull it taut. You can then peg it down and keep your tent fully erect.

That’s just a few—there are probably hundreds of creative uses that I can’t even imagine. I firmly believe that you can escape from a deserted island or high-alpine plane crash with just a buff, a pocket knife, and your MacGyver-like ingenuity.