Keep your paper towel roll from unraveling with this simple camp hack

Paper towels, the Swiss army knife of front-country camping, can do it all: clean messes, wipe dishes and maintain tidiness.

But when wind gusts, as it is wont to do outdoors, things unravel quickly. The roll unrolls. The tail ends up in the dirt.

There’s gotta be a better way. Larry Green, a Scouting volunteer, has one.

His paper towel trick is the first in a series of Camp Hacks I intend to share. These are simple, ingenious ways to improve your camping experience.

Step 1: Get a paper towel roll. Any kind will do.


Step 2: Cut a hole in the top, slightly larger than the diameter of the cardboard tube. [Obligatory knife safety reminder: Always cut away from yourself.]


Step 3: Squeeze the roll on all sides to loosen the tube.Paper-towel-hack-3

Step 4: Slide the cardboard tube out. This is probably the hardest step.Paper-towel-hack-4

Step 5: Set aside the tube. Recycle it, use it in a craft project, etc. Don’t just throw it away.Paper-towel-hack-5

Step 6: Pull the innermost sheet out to get it started.Paper-towel-hack-6

Step 7: Success! You just made a paper towel dispenser.Paper-towel-hack-7

See the video

More from Larry Green

Green, you might remember, is the Scout volunteer behind the dishwashing rack and water-boiling gadget I shared previously. Read more on his Scout Pioneering blog.

Share your Camp Hacks

Have a Camp Hack to make outdoor life better? Email it to me at scoutingmag (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send step-by-step photos if possible, and I’ll make sure to credit you as the originator of the hack!


  1. Great trick! However, Scouts should avoid using paper towels altogether, since they tend to use more than they need. Instead, they should be air-drying their dishes, or at the very least using clean dish towels. Avoiding the use of paper towels saves money and landfill space.

    • We should prepare boys for modern life. Using dish towels is unsanitary over a week or weekend. Burn the paper in the campfire at night. (Yes, I know some know it all is going to opine about some make believe fire danger and that somehow global warming is effected by my paper burning and not by the sun)

        • you can almost eliminate using paper towels by packing a rubber spatula to remove food waste, washing the dishes and following with a very hot rinse and air-drying. j”Make the dishes look clean before they hit the dish water.”

    • I have never yet seen scouts use paper towels to dry the dishes. They are used to wipe off the visible debris so you don’t overload your hot-soapy wash.

  2. The biggest challenge with this technique is to remove the cardboard cylinder without disrupting the inner folds of paper towels. Some cylinders refuse to be extricated without a struggle, often leading to some of the inner towels coming out along with the cardboard. Still, it’s an effective way to keep the towels intact, accessible, and safe from being blown away or inadvertently unraveled.

  3. It seems that ‘hack’ has finally joined the list of trendy new and overused slang!

    Just the other day, my son was dressed up for something and I said he looked ‘sharp’, which he had no idea what I was talking about. I asked what term he would use to sound ‘hip’, which of course drew an eye-roll.

    • In the words of Abraham Jay-Jedediah Simpson II, “I used to be with it, but they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you…” 🙂

    • ‘Hack’ in the context of ‘a clever way to use an item other than that originally intended’ may be overused, possibly, but certainly not new. It’s been in documented use in roughly this context since 1955 and in wide use among computer geeks since the 70s. (That’s just before it picked up another vaguely related definition regarding computer intrusion.)

      If it’s ‘trendy’, then I have been trendy since at least the mid 80s. That’ll be a surprise to my kids!

  4. The US spent millions of dollars designing a pen that would write upside down, zero gravity, in space for our astronauts. The Russians just gave their cosmonauts a pencil.

  5. We stopped using paper towels on outings when the Scouts blew through a club pack of towels in a weekend! I got a bundle of washable hand towels from a warehouse store. They can use as many as they like, and we wash them all at the end of the weekend. For drying we use mesh laundry bags to let the dishes air dry except for Sunday as we’re packing up. When I cook for the adults I keep one in my belt to wipe my hands as I go. We keep a laundry bag of clean towels and one for dirty towels. When I get home I just throw the whole thing in the wash.

    I do like the hack, and would use it for the adults because they tend to be a bit more judicious in their use.

    • YOU throw the whole thing in the wash???? What’s the Quartermaster doing all this time??? How is it the Scouts “allow” an adult to do for them what they can do for themselves???

      Side story: My (now age 21) son at age 13 decided he would do his own laundry from “now on”. We had taught him how to separate out the darks and whites, the fuzzy whites from the dark blues, etc. … He very proudly came up from the laundry room in the basement and announced his success (we heard the machine chug-chugging in the basement). “Congratulations!” I said. “How much detergent did you put in?” “Detergent?”, he answered……

  6. We bought some of the washable food service towels (25 in a pack) at one of the big warehouse stores. Dirty ones go in a mesh laundry bag which gets washed when we get home. We still use paper towels for things that will go in the trash like food and grease. Now we can get multiple outings out of a roll instead of using multiple rolls on one outing.

  7. This trick looks great if you buy your rolls one at a time, but it’s cheaper to buy multi-packs. Right now we usually go through two rolls in a weekend.

    But I am going to have to look into getting re-usable towels. Any tips on ensuring that the towels get washed and all come back by the next campout?

  8. Use one of the yellow fleece camp towels you see in camping sections of sports stores. Have your scouts have one for washing themselves and one for the dishes (and never the two should meet). These towels don’t weigh anything to speak of, wring almost dry by hand and completely dry quickly.

  9. For the single rolls the technique still works. Just put a couple of rubber bands around the outside to keep it from unrolling around the outside.

  10. Last I checked, using any sort of towel to dry pots and pans and other cooking utensils instead of letting them air dry was against the health code in every state. Besides, what’s easiest, run some pieces of twine then hang stuff up and let everything air dry, or shlep along paper towels to dry things then pack the towels back out again? The only use I’ve found for paper towels outside the hoke is to clean up a spill while car camping, and for a disposable towel at a truck stop (unless you happen to stop at a Pilot or Flying J that offers towels).

  11. I guess my take on this “Hack” is different from other opinions. A scout is Thrifty. Purchasing paper towels in single packages vs. multi roll packs is more often expensive. You could however still remove the roll and use some scrap plywood to make a box that would attach to the side of a chuckbox. Lining the inside of the wood with plastic and have the lid down so you pull the towels down would work as well as keep then dry in wet weather. Reusable towels are great however paper towels work better for cleaning dutch ovens and other cast iron cookware.

    • Well my troop is even MORE thrifty than that. We make our own paper towels!

      First we cut down a pine tree and spend all day whiting down the trunk to finger size chunks. (The bark is used to extract turpentine and other useful degreasers.) We then haul out our paper “cooker” digester from the troop trailer which over a 12-14 hour period reduces the pulp to the useful fibers. Don’t worry, we pack out and reuse the paper liquor. A Scout is thrifty after all.

      Next we soak the cellulose fibers and roll them out into thin layers squeezing out as much water as we can. This really works out the Scout’s muscles so we’re getting the fitness in that we need.

      Note: we don’t use any dye or bleach to make them white. We’re an all-natural paper towel troop.

      We create a thin screen machine using local branches and twigs and lots of pioneering knots. Tip: the square knot shouldn’t be used in this case. This contraption is a sight to see and the Scouts have gotten really good at constructing it. After we make the paper, we either return the branches to the forest or use them in the fire. Nothing goes to waste!

      The Venturing patrol is in charge of making the inner cardboard tube, but that takes some understanding of the Kraft Paper Cycle so it’s left to the more advanced Scouts.

      We then spool it into rolls on the cardboard tubes making sure to perforate it every 12 inches, cut off the sides (which we recycle) to make it straight and then wait for it to fully cure and dry next to the fire.

      We can usually get 500 regular sized rolls (or 200 MEGA ROLLS!) out of a 20 year old pine and given our crazy kids today, we use up all but 2 or 3 of the rolls. (Sometimes they TP the neighboring troops at summer camp! It’s a hoot.)

      And Bryan is free to riff of this post for the next April 1 article. 🙂

      • This actually sounds like a lot of fun, and doable with planning, although you’d want to use power tools instead of whittling (which I presume you meant instead of whiting). In the past, I’ve seen very cheap 1×3 wood frames with screen tacked to strain paper. The only problem that I’d foresee is making paper strong enough to take some abuse, since handcrafted paper seems like it’d fall apart too easily when wet and manhandled? Seriously, let’s take this idea made in jest and run with it. I still maintain that, last I looked, it was against the health code in every state to dry your troop’s dishes with paper towels instead of air drying them, but this make your own paper towels thing sounds like a marvelously fun activity.

  12. …and after making your own paper towels, I think you’ll be qualified to earn the “Pulp and Paper” merit badge. (bonus)

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