Once upon a time, almost every boy in America was equipped with two things when they left the house each morning – a pocket knife and a bandana. As they got older and turned from boys to men, many of them carried two handkerchiefs, one for their own use and one that they could hand to a female friend in need.

Today, the daily carry of a handkerchief or bandana isn’t nearly as common. But, this is a valuable, multi-purpose tool that should be in your pocket or pack when you hit the trail. Before we get into that, though, perhaps we should define a few terms so we’re all on the same page.

Understanding the Terminology

Traditional handkerchiefs are typically small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. (Photo: Łeba / Wikimedia Commons)

A handkerchief is a piece of fabric that is usually about 12 inches square. While they can be found in virtually any color you can imagine, they are most often plain white. Materials may include cotton, silk, or linen, and traditional handkerchiefs often featured decorative elements such as a monogram or lace.

A bandana can be tied around the head to soak up sweat. (Photo: Pixabay.com)

A bandana is larger, usually 22 inches on a side with oversized versions going up to 27 inches. This fabric is often found in a paisley print in a wide range of colors. Most modern bandanas are 100-percent cotton or a cotton-synthetic blend.

A U.S. Marine in Afghanistan wearing a shemagh. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

A shemagh is even bigger, typically 42 inches square, with some variations reaching 47 inches on a side. This is a traditional Middle Eastern head garment that has found popularity with military forces and outdoor adventurers around the world due to its versatility.

The traditional handkerchief, while better than nothing, is limited in uses due to its smaller size. When it comes to carrying one of these tools in your kit, we recommend either a bandana or a shemagh. So, why is a bandana or shemagh a good addition to your pocket or pack?

Uses of a Handkerchief

Protection From the Elements

In cold weather, wrap or fold it around your neck to help stave off a chill. If it is hot out, dampen the fabric and lay it against the sides of your neck. Evaporation is a cooling process. Tie it around the lower part of your face — think of a stereotypical biker or bandito — to protect against wind, especially dust, dirt, or sand that might be blowing in that breeze. It also works great to keep the sun off your head and neck, shielding your skin from the harmful effects of sunburn. Lay it flat on your head with an edge trailing down your neck, then put on a ball cap or other hat over it. Shemaghs are large enough to be loosely wrapped around the entire head and face, creating a barrier against wind, dust, and glare.

Water Pre-Filter

Cloth can serve as a pre-filter to remove sediment, bugs, and other floating debris from water. Simply pour the water through the fabric to trap what you can before using your chosen filtration or purification method — for example, iodine, chlorine, or a micro-filter. It is important to note, though, that the fabric absolutely will not remove any microscopic organisms like bacteria, protozoa, or viruses. Pouring water through the bandana does not render it safe to consume, but it can improve taste and clarity.

Hunting or Self-Defense

Bundling cloth around a heavy object allows it to be used as an impact weapon.

There are a few ways you can use a bandana or shemagh as a weapon. First, with some practice, you can channel your David-versus-Goliath fighting spirit and launch rocks or other smallish projectiles by using the fabric as a sling. With substantially less practice, you can use it as a slungshot impact weapon. Drop a rock into the middle of the fabric, then pull up all four corners into your hand. Swing the weighted end at your attacker. As with all improvised weapons, these methods will require some amount of training and repetition to pull off effectively.


Remember the hobo many of us masqueraded as at Halloween when we were kids? Constructed in a manner similar to the slungshot mentioned earlier, you can use the cloth to carry gear in a hobo bindle, should the need arise. Simply lay out the fabric and place your supplies in the middle. Draw up the corners and tie them together.

Run a stick under the knot if you want to be traditional and carry the bindle over your shoulder. This is a good way to stash small loose items such as tinder shavings or wild edibles.

Pot Holder

Wrap a bandana or shemagh around a pot handle to safely lift it off the fire. However, a word of caution — as many of you already know, cotton loses its insulation properties when it gets wet. That’s why we try to avoid it for clothing when we venture into the field. If we get wet from the weather or sweat, it won’t keep us warm, unlike wool or many synthetics. The same holds true if we grasp a hot pan with a wet cotton cloth. The heat will transfer to our hand much faster through damp fabric.

First Aid

While it isn’t going to be sterile, the bandana can be used to mop blood from a wound as well as create a makeshift compression bandage. Place gauze pads on the wound and secure by tying the bandana around it. You could also tie down an ice pack or medicinal plants in the form of a poultice.

While a shemagh or large bandana could be used as an expedient tourniquet if no other options are available, that’s not recommended as the fabric needs to be kept fairly wide around the limb to prevent further injury. This will be difficult with the bandana or shemagh, and achieving sufficient tightness around a limb to occlude blood flow will be practically impossible. It could, however, serve well as a sling for an injured arm or be used in conjunction with a branch to immobilize a broken limb.

The bandana or shemagh is a powerful tool with a wide range of uses — not bad for something as simple as a square piece of cloth. It also weighs nearly nothing, so toss a few of them in your pack. You’ll be glad you did.

Survival Handkerchief Buyer’s Guide

If you're looking for a bandana or shemagh to add to your survival kit, here are a few survival-oriented options to consider.

Cabin Fever Game Bandana

Photos courtesy Colter Co. USA.

The Cabin Fever Game Bandana adds entertainment to the list of uses. It has a printed game board as well as instructions for Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, Dots and Boxes, and Marbles. The game pieces are up to you and Mother Nature to provide.

Dimensions: 22 inches x 22 inches

MSRP: $14

URL: ColterCoUSA.com

Wazoo Foraging Bandana

Photos courtesy Wazoo Survival Gear.

The guys at Wazoo teamed up with a few respected foraging instructors to put together a great reference for wild edibles that can go everywhere with you. It features detailed drawings of a dozen common plants, plus their uses and a ton of other information to help in the flora identification process.

Dimensions: 22 inches x 22 inches

MSRP: $11

URL: WazooSurvivalGear.com

Know Your Knots Bandana

Photos courtesy Colter Co. USA.

Knot tying is an essential survival skill. Learn how to tie 16 different highly-useful knots with the detailed diagrams on this bandana. In addition, they’ve included a short paragraph detailing the uses for each of the knots featured. Very handy information to have in the field.

Dimensions: 22 inches x 22 inches

MSRP: $14

URL: ColterCoUSA.com

Wazoo Tracking Field Kit

Photos courtesy Wazoo Survival Gear.

While you aren’t going to become a master tracker with just a Wazoo Tracking Field Kit, it will certainly get you moving in the right direction. The bandana is printed with true-to-scale prints from 21 common critters, from frog to mountain lion. The kit also includes a snap bracelet that is printed with a ruler, helping the user determine the size of the tracks.

Dimensions: 22 inches x 22 inches

MSRP: $14

URL: WazooSurvivalGear.com

Stayin’ Alive Reflective Survival Bandana

Photos courtesy Colter Co. USA.

The Stayin’ Alive Bandana packs a ton of information into a small space. It covers four survival essentials – Shelter, Food, Water, and Fire. The bandana itself isn’t just bright orange for visibility, the ink is reflective and when a flashlight hits it at night, it really shines!

Dimensions: 22 inches x 22 inches

MSRP: $14

URL: ColterCoUSA.com

Shemagh Tactical Desert Scarf

Photo courtesy Rothco.

Rothco has a line of shemaghs that come in a huge range of colors, from subdued to brilliant. All are large enough to serve in a variety of roles, from the traditional head wrap to a bindle and more. Each has a traditional fringe, too, adding visual appeal to this multi-purpose addition to your kit.

Dimensions: 42 inches x 42 inches

MSRP: $15

URL: Rothco.com

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