Must Have Travel Gear: Shemagh (Keffiyeh) – And Why It’s Better Than a Bandana

There are very few pieces of travel gear I consider as “must haves.” Through 15 countries across 3 continents, you could count the number of items I don’t dare leave home without on 1 hand.

The items that make this rarified list usually have an incredible ratio of functionality to weight & size.

Enter one such item: The shemagh.

The shemagh (pronounced “Schmawg”) is basically a super-sized bandana at over 1m in length. You’re basically combining the uses of a bandana with those of a length of rope – and what we end up with is one of the best pound-for-pound travel items on the planet.

I consider the Shemagh one of a few “must have” pieces of travel gear, as it’s size & weight to functionality is off the charts – right up there with ear plugs and extra TP!

What’s a Shemagh?

The shemagh – otherwise known as a keffiyeh or ghutrah – originated in the Middle East as a method of protecting its desert-dewlling wearers from the sun and sand. You may also recognize it as a traditional headscarf in many Arab nations.

It’s become standard-issue for military forces all over the world because of its versatility  and functionality – some British military and police units even employed them before the Second World War. More recently, survivalists, bushwhackers, and outdoors-folk have adopted it as a favorite multi-purpose tool.

And it’s time for travelers to get on the bandwagon. For the shemagh is one of those rare items that’s useful practically everywhere, even if it’s unpredictable as to how – kind of like duct tape and rope.

25+ Uses for a Shemagh

While the classic uses for the Shemagh have to do with whethering the heat, sun, and dust of the desert, it doesn’t take long to find a whole host of other uses. Where many travelers use bandanas, a shemagh often will do the same job better. Here are a few ideas to show the incredible versatility of this garment:

  1. Signal – large enough to get noticed even at a distance.
  2. Dust Protection – it’s classic function.
  3. Sun Protection – Great way to prevent burns and stay cooler under the midday sun.
  4. Neck Gaiter  – wrap it around your neck to keep warmer.
  5. Tourniquet – if you’ve sustained an injury and need to reduce bleeding, your shemagh might just save your life.
  6. Pot Holder – Need to remove a hot/boiling pot or pan from the fire? You’ve got a makeshift glove right here.
  7. Collecting Wild Edibles – Like foraging for berries or mushrooms? Here’s your basket.
  8. Sling – temporary immobilization while you search for proper medical care
  9. Sling (Weapon) – put a rock in one end and you’ve got a rudimentary means of self defense. Deadly in the right hands.
  10. Pillow – roll or fold it up for instand comfort
  11. Rope – At over 1m long, you could roll it up to tie things together.
  12. Washcloth/Towel – big enough to get the job done, small & light enough to dry quickly.
  13. Sweatband – it’s absorbant cloth designed for the desert.
  14. Waist pack/pouch – a makeshift carrying system in a pinch.
  15. Hobo Pack – put your things in the middle and tie the corners together!
  16. Dish Rag – the world’s biggest dish rag can get the job done.
  17. Napkin – made a mess of yourself? Use a small corner to clean up.
  18. Eye patch – hopefully you don’t need one, but if you do, your shemagh will come in handy.
  19. Pre-water Filter (like Coffee Filters) – Fold multiple times & filter debris out of water before boiling.
  20. Cleaning Glasses/Binoculars etc – make sure your shemagh is clean 1st, in order to not scratch your lens
  21. Ear Muffs – keep things warm, or block out noise.
  22. Keeping Cool – Soak in cold water and wrap around your neck.
  23. Sneeze Rag – Maybe not your ideal use, but in an emergency you’ll be covered by your shemagh instead of…sputum.
  24. Sarong – Wrap around your waist for modesty. Shorter than a normal sarong.
  25. Concealment – Hide your valuables on public transport or questionable neighborhoods.
  26. Blanket – you probably won’t get 100% coverage unless you curl up, but an easy way to keep your torso or legs warmer.
  27. Eye Mask – Block out the sun or hostel lights if it’s daytime.

Can you think of any others?

How to Tie A Shemagh

Here’s a quick tutorial for tying a shemagh:

Choosing A Shemagh

Even though shemaghs come in all sorts of color & pattern combinations, travelers should avoid traditional black & white and red & white patterns while traveling in the Middle East, as these have certain cultural connotations and may cause tension if worn in the wrong area. You wouldn’t intentionally strut through gang territory wearing another group’s colors in LA or Detroit, so respect the same basic precautions if you intend to sport a shemagh in the Middle East.

This potential problem is easily avoided by choosing any other color pattern: It’s easy to find non-traditional colors such as tan & olive, blue & black,  red & black, and even completely non-standard combinations to suit your taste and your environment.

As a rather pragmatic guy, I’m mostly interested in a good ratio of quality to price – though for clothing I lean towards slightly higher-price, more-durable designs. You might prefer something else – like authentic design, a bargain basement price etc. With that in mind, I’d recommend checking out the selection on, reading some user reveiws, and deciding what best fits your needs & desires.

You can check out a couple different selections on Amazon here and here.

Whether you’re going on safari, the north pole, or any other sort of adventure travel, a shemagh probably deserves a spot on your packing list.

Have you ever worn/used a shemagh? How did you find the experience?

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AJ Walton

AJ Walton will show you how to travel the world on your budget, how to make money on the road, and why you don't have to live the way others expect. Get the free guide: 101 Ways To Make Money While Traveling

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