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Think of a hot, arid region, and you will perhaps see a man with a sort of scarf wrapped around his head and covering his mouth. This is the shemagh which we pronounce “schmog.” It may also be known as a keffiyeh or a ghutra.
For hundreds of years, the people who lived in the Middle East have worn this garment to protect them from the harsh sunshine and the biting, dust carrying winds. As practical, well-tested head protection, it has been provided to soldiers all over the world. But how well does it work at keeping you cool?
A shemagh can keep you cool. The ability of a shemagh to keep you cool can be enhanced by wetting it, which increases the evaporation and hence the heat loss from your head. The shemagh is highly adaptable, simple to use, and has many other functions as well.
Now let’s have a closer look at what the shemagh is, how it functions, and what to look for if you are thinking of buying one.
Does a shemagh keep you cool?
The shemagh keeps you cool in two ways. It protects your head from the direct blast of the sun, and it can help with the evaporation of cooling water. In addition, the material it is made from allows your sweat to wick away and then evaporate.
We have two sorts of sweat glands – Eccrine over most of our bodies that open directly onto the surface of our skin – and Apocrine, which opens onto the air follicle. You will have seen how many athletes use a sweatband over their forehead because the sweat from your head can be quite copious.
Many other forms of headgear will block the natural evaporation of sweat from your scalp.
When you wring your shemagh out on cold water, it really does make you feel cooler. As the water evaporates, further heat is lost.
The garment is very versatile, and in hot weather, you may like to simply wear it as a scarf around your neck. However, worn this way it will not protect your head from the direct rays of the sun or even the ambient temperature of the air – and it is possible that while you may feel cooler, the temperature of your body core will not cool down and indeed will continue to rise if you are energetic. This can lead to heat exhaustion if ignored.
And, of course, with all that sweating, you will need to drink plenty of water.
Who has used the shemagh?
While the people of the Middle East have worn the shemagh for centuries, other countries’ militaries have adopted it for their troops.
During WW1, a small Irishman called DH Lawrence brought it to the attention of the world – and his epic tale “Lawrence of Arabia” has pictures of him wearing a shemagh. Since then, British troops, like the SAS stationed in the deserts, found it to be practical protection from dust, heat, and winds.
The shemagh has been used by troops stationed in Vietnam, North Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. US soldiers typically have khaki or olive ones with black stitching. Being so versatile, it has uses in cold as well as hot conditions, and when combined with goggles, they protect the face from the sand blown up by the strong desert winds. It can also protect one from wind-born snow, and the wind-chill effect of riding on an open-topped vehicle.
The way it is wrapped around the head breaks up the straight lines and creates a good camouflage as well.
But how do you put it on?
How do you make this 42 by 42-inch square sit neatly and firmly on your head? There are many different ways to put it on, but Creek Stewart has made a short video of his method of donning the shemagh. Since he is a senior instructor at the Willow Haven Outdoor School for Survival, Preparedness & Bushcraft, he has good experience in using it.
In brief, his method is as follows – in nine steps:
- Open out the square of material
- Fold it in two, making a triangle
- Take a point three-quarters the way along the folded edge. Hold this against your forehead
- You will find one side is longer than the other
- Pull the shorter end up under your chin and towards the back of your head
- Pull the longer piece across your face
- Wrap the longer piece over the top of your head – the two ends will meet
- Tie them together
- If you need to adjust it – do so
What sort of shemaghs are there?
Usually, the shemagh consists of a square of material with the sides about 42 by 42 inches. Natural fibers such as cotton or wool are beaten since both fibers are permeable and allow moisture to leave. They also wear well, getting softer as they age.
There are many different color schemes to choose from, but be aware of cultural preferences. Muslim fundamentalist groups tend to favor red and green. Earthy colors may provide good camouflage, and in winter, white and black serve that purpose. But there are many brighter options available. If you are trying to keep cool, one could suggest lighter colors will help to reflect some of the sun’s heat away from you.
What should you look for if you are buying a shemagh?
- Size – don’t be tempted to get a smaller one – they are harder to put on and harder to keep on, and the general effects are not as good. Plus, if you need to use it for something else, like a sling or tablecloth, the larger sizes function better. Stick with the 42 by 42 inch or even larger if you are a big person. The larger size allows you to drape it over your shoulders as added protection if you wish.
- Check the stitching – you don’t want it to come apart. If the stitches are loose, think again.
- Check the reviews if you are buying on-line.
- Made in America usually means good quality even if pricier.
- Is it 100% cotton or a cotton/poly mix? The mix may be slightly better wearing and slightly elastic, but they will not keep you cool as well as 100% cotton.
- Choose a lightweight one for summer, which will keep you cooler.
Some other uses for your shemagh
The other uses are only limited by man’s ingenuity, but here are a few of the more common ones related to keeping cool:
- Cover items you wish to protect from the sun (or sand).
- Create a shady place for yourself or your gear by using a prop.
- Soak in water and use it as a cooling bag. It can cool you, or keep food cooler and thus safer from bacterial growth.
- Protect your eyes if the glare is great or in case of eye injury or infection.
- Use it to prevent sunburn.
- A useful towel if you have bathed in a stream or river. Although staying wet will help you cool down, it can also make you feel uncomfortably soggy. If you have been exercising in the heat, you will be sweaty, and the shemagh can be used to towel you down.
- A wet pillow for your rest period – will be cooling at first, although the effect wears off quickly.
The shemagh has been well tested in extreme conditions and is standard gear for many soldiers worldwide. They have found it to be efficient, effective, and very versatile in many areas of warfare.
It keeps you cool in hot conditions. (It also protects you from cold in icy conditions.) It protects your head from the direct sun. As it is made from natural fibers, the shemagh allows the sweat from the glands on your head to evaporate off, thus cooling you. And when you combine it with water, it can have enhanced cooling capabilities.
Wearing good quality shemagh is a great way to help you stay cool.