This story has been updated. It was originally published on January 18th, 2020.
It goes under a couple of different names—buff, neck gaiter, neck gaiter or, even worse, “multifunctional headwear”. Whatever you call it, though, this garment 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 this versatile accessory. Buffs come in a variety of materials, thicknesses, and sizes. Most people get by just fine with a lightweight polyester one, but you can also get high-end Merino wool options, and even thick weatherproof ones.
As the name neck gaiter suggests, they’re most commonly used to protect the gap around your neck from the cold and wind, but they can do a lot more than that.
Here’s why I learned the multiple ways of how to use a buff—and you should too.
A neck buff will protect you from the cold and the sun
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. And 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.
A neck gaiter can double down as a sleep mask
Falling asleep when you’re traveling can be a challenge, but a good sleeping mask can make it easier. I’ve learned how to use a buff for exactly this purpose. It’s soft and wraps totally over my head, so it doesn’t come free even if I move around. Plus, a neck buff 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, roll or fold your neck buff so your eyes are covered by a couple of layers of fabric. The alternative is to just go with a heavier one.
A buff headband keeps your hair out of your face
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.
How to use a buff as 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 just 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 neck buff is not just a tissue. In a pinch, you can use it as a towel or 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 their neck gaiters 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.
A neck buff is 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.
How to wear a buff as, well, almost everything
Buffs are handily elastic, which makes them extremely versatile. Some of the out-of-the-box things you can do with them 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 neck buff to create a makeshift tourniquet. Put the buff around the arm or leg 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 neck gaiter 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 neck 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 buff 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 ideas on how to use a buff—there are probably hundreds of creative ways 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 neck buff, a pocket knife, and your MacGyver-like ingenuity.