Shemagh (Keffiyeh) Scarf: Why I Travel With One

Shemagh Scarf Uses
The Shemagh (or Keffiyeh) Scarf
Travel Gear

One of my favorite & most used pieces of travel gear. The Shemagh or Keffiyeh is an incredible multi-use essential tool when traveling. I always have one with me.

The Shemagh (pronounced “shamay” or “schmog“) is a soft piece of woven cotton cloth, kind of like a giant heavyweight bandana.

You can also think of it as a smaller (yet thicker) sarong.

You may recognize it as a traditional headscarf in many Arab nations. Unfortunately, ignorance in the world runs rampant, and because of this the Shemagh often gets a bad rap.

Once you start using one though, you’ll quickly discover those Arabs sure knew what they were doing when they created these!

In my opinion it’s more useful than a bandana, plus more convenient & durable than a sarong. In fact I’d argue the shemagh has 101 different uses…

Shemagh or Shesh
A Moroccan “Shesh” Headscarf

Shemagh Uses

  • Dust Protection. Cover your face on motorcycles, trucks, and chicken buses.
  • Sun Protection. Great for when you’re stranded in mid-day heat without shade. Especially if you’re bald (like me).
  • Towel. Small, lightweight, fast drying, but thick enough get the job done.
  • Ground Cloth. Keep your butt clean & dry when sitting on the ground.
  • Warmth. Wrap it around your neck as a scarf to keep warm.
  • Bag. Put stuff in middle, tie corners together. Instant hobo sack.
  • Sarong. Wrap around your waist for modesty. Shorter than a normal one.
  • Sweat Rag. Great for hiking, running, or other sweat-inducing activities.
  • Arm Sling. Sprain a wrist or break an arm? Temporary immobilization.
  • Emergency Bandage. Help stop bleeding & protect the wound.
  • Pillow. Thick & soft enough to ball up & use for bus rides/camping trips.
  • Weapon. Twist big rock up in the middle. Swing away. Instant self-defense tool!
  • Concealment. Often used to hide my camera in questionable neighborhoods.
  • Rope. Long enough to be rolled up to tie things together.
  • Water Filter. Fold multiple times & filter debris out of water before boiling.
  • Pot Holder. Take that boiling water you just filtered off the fire.
  • Keeping Cool. Soak in cold water and wrap around your neck.
  • Signal Flag. Large enough to wave and get someone’s attention.
  • Blanket. Decent for covering your upper or lower body.
  • Eye Mask. Sleep during the day or in a hostel when lights are on.

These are only a few of the Shemagh’s many applications.

This simple piece of cloth is so practical that Australian, British, Irish, Thai, and even US Special Forces all issue the Shemagh to their troops!

I’ve been traveling the world for the past 7 years with my Shemagh, to over 50 countries like Iceland, Fiji, Mexico, Cuba, Greenland, Israel, and even Afghanistan. It’s one of my most useful pieces of travel gear.

So if you don’t have one yet because you’re worried about what people will think, get over yourself and find out what you’ve been missing. ★

Bonus Video! How To Tie A Shemagh Headscarf

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(Click to watch How To Tie A Shemagh Headscarf on YouTube)
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I hope you enjoyed my article on why I travel with a Shemagh (Keffiyeh) Scarf! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Can you think of any other uses for a scarf? Do you use them? Drop me a message in the comments below!


Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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Comments (71)

  1. It even works as a face covering during this Covid-19 pandemic and looks far more elegant than the usual gimpy surgical masks.

    If you are worried about offending people from Palestine, just get one with a non traditional design. Even better, buy it from the last traditional factory still producing them, the website is

    Keffiyehs are awesome, and so practical.

  2. If you have your shemagh with you, then a strag will automatically assume that you are 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 you any of these or a dozen other items that you might accidentally have “lost”. (Apologies to Douglas Adams.)

  3. You can wrap your bosom down tightly with them underneath your clothing which is helpful as a woman traveling alone abroad under certain circumstances when you are well endowed. On the other hand you can wrap it like a bandeau or halter top in countries where showing lots of skin is appropriate. It’s just an absolute travel staple, you can wear it as a woman as a garment in SO many ways. For extended travel I bring two identical- you can make a dress out of them with just a simple bracelet, and one different pattern. Google ‘fashion with scarves’ and lots of good video tutorials come up. I have also used mine as a colander for pasta while camping!! Rinse it in the river and …. clean enough! There are so many uses for these… gift wrap a present for someone going on a trip. Tie it to a stick to flag down help in an emergency. Use it to trap fish.
    Camping? Cut off the top of an empty water bottle put your flashlight in there and cover with scarf … instant romantic tent lighting. Hmmmm.. I’m going to be thinking of this all night.

  4. Matthew,

    I recently got into these while traveling in Jordan. Picked one up while I was in Petra. What is the Jordanian style of tying? I am American, and since I started wearing it, I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier! Thanks for your input.

  5. OMG thank god I found you! Running out of time to plan our London-Norway-Iceland spur of the moment trip which leaves at the end of June! I think I’ll just use your Iceland Ring Rd tour-very well laid out. Wish you had one for Norway. We will be there x2 weeks. If you have any suggestions, please email!
    Love your website/blog!
    Thanks so much!

  6. I bought 2 different colors. A sand and tan color and a mocha and black color. Bought the 2 different colors for a few different reasons. Love them!!!

  7. “Unfortunately, ignorance in the world runs rampant, and because of this the Shemagh often gets a bad rap.”
    the shemagh does not get a bad rap.
    however … the people who predominately wear them have a well deserved bad rap.
    perhaps it’s because of their behavior.

  8. I have been looking for a good one of these recently and I have been wondering, what do you think is the best company that sells these; what one do you own and like?

    • My favorite shemagh scarfs were purchased locally while traveling through middle-eastern countries — Israel/Palestine, Morocco, Oman, and Afghanistan. I’ve got a nice collection going.

      However Blackhawk makes good ones. They unfortunately don’t have many color options…

  9. Hi Matthew,
    I recently very regretfully lost a shemagh my friend gave to me from Syria several years ago. I loved it and used it frequently. It was a beautiful burnt orange color and black, soft yet very study and held such comfortable warmth. Do you know where I may be able to find another of similar quality, ordering from the US?
    Thank you so much, Lee

    • yes.
      these are original palestinian keffiyehs from the last remaining factory there. i believe they even have an eBay shop where they have stock already in the US, so it will arrive much faster. but, even when you buy it from their website and its shipped from their european store, it gets to the US or anywhere around the world quite fast.

  10. I personally own 4 shemaghs. And, being a denizen of the frozen wasteland known as Canada, I use mine as a headwear to deal with wind and snow. Combined with a pair of UV snowboarding goggles, they make the perfect headgear for a Canadian winter.

  11. You asked can a person use the scarf for another purpose… Yes when I’m driving with windows in down position. I tie around my head to keep my hair off my face and it won’t let my hair hurt my eyes.

    • That’s a wonderful use Ronnette! I never thought of that (I have no hair). LOL. But it gives me another idea too, using it as a window sun shade.

  12. In my country its called a palestinian-scarf and its a trend amongst hipsters and leftists, i therefore loath the thing, ill rather die of dehydration than wear one.

    • Well get something in different colors or make one. They are so useful. Not only the ones featured. I been wearing scarves for years. Before it was a fashion. They are wonderful. Why should the thugs have the good things.

    • they’re used by many armed forces in the west: many special forces branches in the US just love them!! and the british special forces too love them!!! they used them a lot during world war two in the desert cause they’re just the perfect tool to have there. and lastly, but not least, they make them in israel’s colors, too, people in israel use them quite a bit too cause they’re just so helpful in their conditions!! i have blue and white one in israel’s colors. they’re quite useful and they’re definitely a fashion statement!!

  13. Was looking up proper ways on how to use my shemagh and this is amongst the top articles. Well thought, articulate and full of real life examples / uses. The comments section is the winner though as it is still very informative 6 years later and the history behind it and it’s “relatives” makes for a neat story that informs rather than misinformed.

    Thanks for a great article and comment section.

  14. I have two of these and think they’re great. I have the olive green one and another that is black with skulls on them, which to me are little more girly for me. hahaha I keep them in my “go bag” and use them when hiking/camping. I’m not traveling YET but definitely plan on them being in my backpack. Thanks for sharing the great info, love your site.

  15. Came across this article while looking up what these are whilst browsing the military surplus store to see what they were. Immediately bought one and love it for the uses I put it through.

  16. Matt,

    I came across this article about a year ago and ordered a shemagh immediately. Now seven months into travel, this has easily been one of my favorite and most useful items. I’ve used it for nearly every use you mentioned so far. Helping with dust, shade, a cover for valuables and a pillow have all been very common.

    I came across some comments in Israel (as someone mentioned above) that the shemagh is a symbol of a “Free Palestine”. They told me I shouldn’t wear it in the Tel Aviv airport or other high security areas. I thought that was interesting.

    Anyway, thanks again! Cheers!

    • Awesome Cameron, glad you’re enjoying the shemagh! I think the symbolic aspect has to do with certain colors. Because the Israeli army uses them too.

  17. I absolutely LOVE these things! I have about a dozen or more from different companies, mostly Mato & Hash or Rothco. The M&H ones, I use for many different things: a couple I use for towels or storage, as they are great absorbers of light spills or to wipe off glass, or if you have glass items in drawers that roll around they will protect from damage. The Rothco’s are THE BEST. These are used in more traditional areas, as a scarf/headwrap because they are thicker and softer.

  18. The Shemagh is actually NOT Arabic. It was first called a “Sudra” (compare it to the traditional Arabic word for it; Qutra) and was created and first worn by the Jews several thousand years ago. The Arabs adapted the Sudra and forbid the Jews then living under Arab rule to wear it as all non-Arab muslims were by law second class citizens and could not do or wear certain things and the Keffiyeh was very highly though of. Some Jews still wear it today though but usually wear it in bright colors (usually white or white/blue) in order to not confuse it with the modern Arabic Keffiyeh/Shemagh which usually is made in dark colors or the traditional Gulf colors; red and white. The IDF special forces wear it in black and white.

    To sum up, the Keffiyeh is not more Arabic than pizza is American.

    People who claim to wear it as a political statement or to show support for this and that, are all sadly mistaken and uneducated.

    I own several and I wear them mostly to protect me from that middle-eastern sun, and dust if i’m out in the desert. A smart thing to do when it’s hot is to place a soaked piece of cloth on your head and wrap the Keffiyeh around. It really helps to keep your head cool and at the same time protect you from the sun.

    • well said! too bad there’s so many ignorant americans who tacked on this terrorist stigma to such a useful, and versatile, piece of clothing.

    • Ahh, but the jews wear it differently, because they use a headband, in arabia headbands are not as common, I really hate the fact people associate arabia with terrorism, because I associate it with the arabian nights, sahara caravan, mid desert sword battles, and it just fascinates me. :D

  19. So I have a Sarong, a kind of unisex dress, that serves the same purpose. It’s almost to big to be used as a scarf.

    One thing you might have missed is using something like this to section off your bed if your sleeping on the bottom bunk. So valuable if you want some privacy when your sleeping.

  20. I realize I’m a little late to this post, but I am just wondering if you have used any other brands with success? Just looking for more color choices. Thanks!

  21. Please, if you are buying one of these versatile scarves, consider buying one from Palestine using this link: I own several of them, and use them for everything from NYC galas to travel-related needs as described above. Buying them from here supports the work of people whose livelihoods are limited under occupation.

    • Thank you for this link Ru. I have just ordered two scarves but am sure I’ll return for more – they are beautiful.

    • I have many scarves. But from what the internet says, for dimensions, I might not have the size right. I’m a seamstress and I’m planning to make one; what kind of weight cotton do you suggest? I love all the comments…. maybe I’ll just look threw my fabric… I’m bound to have a great cotton ❤️👍happy and safe traveling everyone!

  22. Excellent! I’m making my first one now. I got some nice black and white seersucker: feels like a good weight. Thanks for the good article!

    • I actually need to pick up another one, my last Shemagh got permanently stained from cave dust in Thailand.

  23. Yes! I’ve been wanting one of these for so long but didn’t know what they were called. All my searches for “Moroccan scarf” led me to fashion scarves. Thanks for this! I always have a sarong, chopsticks and bandanas with me when I travel, and as much as I love my sarongs they start to rip after a time because I use them so much.

    Also, I just wanted to say that I find them to be the most beautiful scarves I’ve ever seen. I continuously find myself drawn to Arab culture, I can’t wait to make it to that part of the world one day.

    But for now I am preparing to hitchhike in the states with my dog to attend massage school. This’ll be my first hitchhiking adventure, barring getting lifts around town.

  24. I just purchased one off Amazon. When I received it seemed fragile, the frayings were falling off the ends and it had a horrible odor. I decided to gently hand wash it and tons of dye came out of it. So much dye came from it I stopped washing it. Now you can see through the fabric. I chose one of the more expensive ones offered on Amazon but feel I was ripped off.

  25. I bought one about 5 years ago and have found many uses for it. My favorite by far is as a laundry basket, I throw it on top of the clothes in the dryer after it’s done, turn the drum over by hand so that the clothes are laying on top, then dig underneath and find the corners and tie them together. Takes all of my clothes out of the dryer in one move. Since then, I keep one on my motorcycle, one in the truck, and a couple spares in the house. They are so much more handy than a regular bandana.

    • A political statement to ignorant people. This scarf, while it may be known mostly as terrorist garb to hide their identity, has been used for many generations by many different people of different religions.
      Would you not wear cloths woven using different materials because the bible says not to (NIV, Deuteronomy 22:11), or not braid your hair or add beads or wear rings as the bible says or go in defiance of it and make a statement against the bible?
      Anything you wear or say or do can be made into a political statement or offend someone now days, I say get over it.

      • The site linked above by Ru to producers of beautiful scarves includes information about how purchasing their garments represents resistance to the Israeli occupation.

    • Maybe wearing this scarf is usually non-political, or maybe not. Clearly, there is no political statement intentionally implied by Matt and many others by wearing or using this item, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some political intent inferred by some (arguably ignorant) people (and arguably the problem of those people rather than the user). HOWEVER, buying this item from the link provided by Ru certainly intentionally adds a political statement on the part of anyone who chooses to purchase from that highly politicized organization. So maybe those who suspect some political message are not always so ignorant after all.

  26. I have been looking for one and cannot find one in my area, looks like I will have to purchase on-line. I have a similar love affair with chop sticks. (My mother in law is Japanese). I cannot eat with them but I use them for 101 other uses. Stake plants, poke out corners of blankets when I am sewing, hold my hair up, hot glue finger savers, the list goes on and on. The simplest inventions seem to be the best!

  27. I use a turban I bought 20 years ago in the bazaar in Zahedan on the border between Iran and Pakistan for all these uses and more! Such as saving yourself a space at a crowded beach or outdoor concert, gathering wild berries or vegetables… and of course as an instant head covering for visiting mosques or shoulder covering in churches!

  28. Thank you for your website very informative. what is the shemagh made of the material. I got one and can’t ware it because it irritates my skin. Where can i get a good one.

  29. It’s really nice to see people admiring my people traditional clothing :) i’m happy all of you like it, i myself use it all the time (since i’m arab :P ) most of us put a black round thing we call ‘iqall’ or ‘iyqall’ to hold the shemagh or ‘qutra’ in place i use it when i’m travelling with my tribe in the desert or around the world with my friend i use it as a protection from the sun (which is it’s actual use ) and from the sand i use it for stuff that my tribe told me how , and many others and it’s great for wiping the camera lens :P.
    Again thank you for admiring our clothing.
    Who said old isn’t fashionable :P

    • Awesome Faris! Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine not traveling with it these days — always finding new uses. An excellent piece of travel gear.

  30. I would definitely get one given the chance. For now, I use a scarf for similar reasons.

  31. Well, you sold me. It could also be used as a cape in a bull fight, a bib for those who eat disgusting things on travels around the world, as a snapping tool in the locker room, as a covering for a Weiner, Congressman that is. Emergency T. P comes to mind. As a hammock for a hairy banana eating monkey; that’s monkey hammock, not banana hammock. Olive would be okay but pink is another story, unless you were running in a cancer run. I don’t think the motorcycle gangs will trade their colors in for a cotton rag, but you never know. There is something not right about leather chaps and a cotton shawl unless your riding in P Town. And that’s my report.

  32. Agreed, the keffiyeh is a must-have for all gear collections.

    Get authentic with either a red-and-white or a black-and-white one.