A towel is the most important item a Hitchhiker can carry. Ford Prefect and his fellow hitchhiker and friend Roosta both emphasise the importance of towels throughout Hitchhiker's and are both known to carry one with them at all times. Although towels are repeatedly mentioned in every version of Hitchhiker's, they are only seen visually in the television series and 2005 film.
The Guide's Description
A towel is just about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can carry. Partly because 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 around your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can 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 discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, 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 hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker 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.
Behind the scenes
Douglas Adams got the idea for the phrase 'knowing where one's towel is' when he went travelling and found that his beach towel kept disappearing. In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Original Radio Scripts, his friends describe how he would always "mislay" his towel.
Notes and references
- Adams, Douglas (1985). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Scripts: Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases.