How to Make an “Ice Bandana”

At the aid stations of hot summer races where I would refill my ice bandana, many competitors and aid station volunteers would ask about it- where I got it, how does it work, where can they get one, etc. Well, after looking for something that would work for ultra running races a couple of years ago I realized that there was nothing on the market so I designed my own with some input from others who have done the same. This post outlines how to make an ice bandana. Note: This is a prototype. It worked sufficiently well in the first iteration that I never modified it. But I am sure that it can be (and certainly has been) improved upon.

If you do a quick search, it is clear that there is not much available out there on either buying or constructing an ice bandana. I have seen no detailed design outlined anywhere, although I am not the best at searching. The following is what I have gleaned from a bit of casual research and, at the time, an immediate need for an ice bandana.

Basic Idea

The approach for an ice bandana is to reliably get a cool surface onto regions of high allesthesial thermosensitivity- specifically, in this case, the back of the neck. This is important because cooling of such regions has been shown to improve the ability of humans to perform in hot environments. Other such thermosensitive areas include the surface of the head and face, among others.

One highly utilized method to attain this cooling is to use a bandana and line up a row of ice cubes along the diagonal of the rectangular shape and to “roll up” the cloth to form a tube-like assemblage that can be tied around the neck. Many runners use this approach but there are numerous compromises. First is that the ice does not last that long as it is hard to put much ice into the bandana. Second, unless you limit the ice to just the center of the diagonal (and therefore even further limit the amount of ice you can get into the bandana) you will have ice along the sides of your neck and even into the front part of neck. Cooling of the sides of your neck is not as effective as cooling the back of your neck as the sides are not as thermosensitive- this design takes ice from where you want it (back of the neck) and puts it somewhere where it is less effective (sides of the neck) thereby decreasing the efficiency and durability of the icing. Third, using just the cotton bandana cloth leads to quick melting of the ice since it is in very close proximal contact with your skin. The thin cotton bandana material does not provide much of a thermal barrier between the 0C (32F) ice and your 37C (98.6F) skin. Finally, there is a very low “thermal mass” when just using the cotton bandana material due to both the relatively high thermal conductivity of the bandana material and the low ice mass capability of the system.

A System That works

Many runners have experimented with using ice bandanas over the years and one concept that has been found to be very efficacious is the inclusion of a low thermal conductivity, high capacity ice “pocket” with a relatively large thermal mass.

One such material is chamois- traditionally the tanned skin of the chamois, a small European antelope (which, like the US pronghorn variety, are incredibly “cute”). “Chamois” is also the term used for a similar tanned skin material from sheep or lamb. Historically,  chamois has been used for a number of purposes including as a drying towel for automobiles, as the crotch material in cycling shorts, and as a polishing cloth for soft metals and gems, among many other uses. In each case the very low abrasion characteristics of the material are central to the use. For use in an ice bandana the chamois material is providing not only low abrasion, but also a relatively low thermal conductivity and a relatively high thermal mass (ability to hold a large amount of water).

One of the important consequences of using a chamois insert is that it gets wet and stays wet. This is critical to ensuring good thermal contact with your skin and, combined with the small thermal barrier layer that the chamois provides, you are cool but not cold- or frozen. Some of the available non-ice type neck wraps that use freezable sealed liquids and phase change materials can be too cold against the skin and therefore uncomfortable. And just sewing a square cotton bandana into a triangle with an opening to deposit ice will work but the ice will not last as long and it will not be as comfortable as the design shown below.

The idea here is to sew a chamois pocket on the “inside” of the bandana in a configuration that allows for both a substantial amount of ice to be accommodated and that the ice is preferentially located at the back of the neck. This can be accomplished in numerous configurations but I show here how I have done it. Do not limit yourself to this arrangement; as noted above, this bandana was a prototype that could likely be improved upon. It works well enough for me and I have not felt the need to make any “improvements”. Just make sure you include the chamois pocket in your design.

design and construction
  1. Start with a standard square 56 cm (22″) bandana. The bandana material is preferably cotton, as this will be the lightest and least abrasive cloth for this purpose.
  2. Lay the bandana out flat on a table and cut a 20 cm (8″) by 15 cm (6″) rectangle from a piece of high quality chamois. In the US high quality chamois is generally available from auto care outlets that specialize in the myriad of tools, lotions, and potions for the auto detailing geeks. One such outlet is here, but there are many others. One of the best places in world to buy chamois is here.  The key is that the chamois is the real thing and is of high quality (proper thickness and proper preparation (tanning)). At the time I built this bandana I was under a time constraint so I just cut a rectangle out of the chamois I use to dry our beloved Westy camper. The drying chamois is now a bit smaller but still sufficient to do a good job of drying the Westy.
  3. Place the chamois rectangle on the diagonal in the center of the of the bandana and machine or hand sew three of the four sides leaving one long side facing “upward” open to form a pocket.      L1030293Slide1 (7)L1030294
  4. You now have an “Ice Bandana”! Fill the pocket with as much ice as you need for the conditions- I usually fill it up as much as possible on a hot day. However, if I am starting at the base of a big climb in hot conditions but will be getting to high altitude (<ca. 2500 m (8000 feet)) quickly I will not fill it with as much ice since the temperatures will generally be moderated and breezes common at the higher attitudes.L1030304L1030296
  5. Now fold the lower part of the bandana “triangle” up and over the filled ice pocket to form one large, bulging, “triangle”.L1030299
  6. Then fold the upper part back over the ice pocket area and you have the assemblage that you will then wrap around your neck.L1030300
  7. Locate the ice pocket on the back of your neck and tie the bandana. I use a simple double knot that is easy to untie and adjust. Be sure not to tie the bandana too tight as it will be quite uncomfortable. You will likely adjust the knot a few times until you find the most comfortable tightness and position.           L1030301L1030302L1030303

For me, the amount of ice shown here will last in excess of 2 hours at 32C (90F) – 35C (95F). You may have a different experience since the ice melting will be a function of your skin temperature and your exposure to direct sun. However the 2h+ timeframe is usually sufficient to get you to the next aid station.

Some other sources

Here is an ice bandana with a chamois lining available from a retail supplier. I have not found any details as to exactly what the design is but I expect that the bandana is fully lined with chamois. You can get the right cooling by just putting ice in the middle section of this model and folding it up as described here.

There is more information on ice bandanas here at the Fellrnr site.

Update 14 June 2018:

This guy adapted the construction of the ice bandana, improved the pocket design, and put together a nice video. Great job! Take a look:

15 thoughts on “How to Make an “Ice Bandana”

  1. This is great! I’ve been using the small little ice bandanas that have some kind of microbeads that swell up when placed in water and they work great for maybe 30-minutes, then it just turns to a wet cloth that’s the same temperature as your body (With Georgia humidity that’s not good because wet does not equal cooling). I’ve seen people at western races such as Big Horn and Western States with something like this that was just stuffed with tons of ice and thought it would be perfect but couldn’t figure out how they were getting so much ice in there without it falling out or melting immediately. I’ll definitely be making one of these today and using it for Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in a couple weeks!

    • Hi Caleb,

      Glad to hear that this post can help. I found it weird that there was nothing available on making a good ice bandana, at least nothing that I could find.

      The key to this design, particularly for western races with low humidity, is the chamois as it holds a large amount of water and is super soft (once wet) so it provides a very good, and comfortable, conduit for cooling from the ice reservoir to your neck.

      Good luck at TRT, based on the long term forecast you will definitely be needing an ice bandana.

    • Hi Glen,

      The chamois goes on the “inside” of the bandana where, when the assembly is wrapped up for use, the “lower” half of the bandana is wrapped over the chamois pocket and then wrapped back “down” and over the pocket again. This is described and shown in the pictures but perhaps it is not obvious. In the final unit the bandana material will be against your neck. The purpose of the chamois is to provide the large thermal mass/high water carrying capacity that will lead to a long lasting cooling effect. The fact that the chamois is soft is great as it ensures that if anything might shift and you end up with the chamois next to your neck it will not chafe.

      Hope this clarifies the construction details for you.

  2. Nice, I’m preparing for Squamish 50 next weekend and the weather around BC has been quite hot lately and likely to continue. Will follow the steps to make one or two of these. I have some buff and some other bandana but not made of cotton so not keeping cool long enough, this might come handy. Just need to master the on/off at the aid-stations to fill it with ice efficiently…if there is ice at aid-stations! I’m wondering if something similar could be tried for the arms and the legs. Thanks!

    • Hi Dimitri,

      It should work well for the Squamish 50. The late summer heat is hard to accommodate as we all want it to cool down after our increasingly hot summers the past decade. You should be able to find a standard cotton bandana there in the Vancouver area and they are very inexpensive- the expensive part is the chamois.

      As far as arms and legs, many people use arm sleeves to hold ice on their arms- just pull back on the elastic and shove some ice cubes into the sleeve between your akin and the sleeve- it works great as there are numerous regions of high allesthesial thermosensitivity on the arms. I have seen others do the same for icing legs although not as many.

      Good luck at the rcae!

  3. Just tried this for a race last weekend. Worked like a charm! I also added velcro to each end so I wouldn’t have to deal with knots. Thanks for this great idea!

  4. Hey Robert, I like your idea and am going to try this. Wondering if there’s a reason not to make a full chamois pocket so the ice is better insulated all around as opposed to just the bandana on the back side. Also, I was thinking about a flap at the top to help hold ice in, but that might not be an issue. Any thoughts on these modifications?

    Thanks for posting!

    • Hi Doug,

      I chose to position the pocket to be in contact with the allesthesial thermosensitivity area on the back of the neck since studies have shown that cooling this area (and other allesthesial thermosensitive areas such as the top of the forearms and the upper front chest) is very effective at reducing core temperature in hot conditions. Increasing the area of contact with a full chamois pocket will place cooling on the sides of the neck and lower down on the back where the effect of the cooling will be less- however it will still be real. So increasing the size of the pocket probably will not adversely effect the objective, in fact it may increase it, but it could also lead to discomfort- but that is somewhat an individual thing. The ZombieRunner product is a full chamois pocket and there have been good reviews so it may work out for you.

      As far a flap for holding the ice in… I have not had any issues with ice spilling out since the bandana, when folded, will hold it in place. However you will be adding a bit more chamois with a flap and that is probably a good thing as far as water retention and chaffing.

      Glad to hear that you can find some use in the design!

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