Monday, October 11, 2021

Living (well) With The Lowly Poncho

 Recently, when the failure of my traditional rain-suit forced me to fall back on my even more traditional poncho I was reminded all over again - because apparently I tend to forget - of just how versatile and effective this simple garment can be.

In fact the poncho is so versatile that I decided not to spend the money on replacing my rain-suit and just use the poncho I already carry in my pack instead. 

(Just for grins, to highlight the 'versatile' part of that statement above I've numbered the different uses and configurations of a poncho as I talk about them throughout the text below, and I've only covered a handful of the many possibilities here.)

Yeah Yeah, I know, the poncho is hardly a fashion statement and it won't get me a modeling gig for the LL Bean fall catalog or an invite to join the 'in crowd' at the trailhead, but hear me out.

If you still want to scoff after reading this post then go ahead and scoff away.

Now I'm not talking about the barely there bit of whisper-thin plastic that you can bunch up in your pocket to the size of a key-fob and buy off E-Bay for $14 per 10-pack!

If you get caught out by a sudden downpour one of these single-use ponchos might be fine for getting from the Mall, where you've been buying the latest designer tie and a $10 coffee, to your nearby Beamer (Better be nearby since you cruised the parking lot for 15 minutes trying to snag the closest possible slot!) without ruining your $800 suit-jacket, but it has no place out on the trail where your survival may depend on it.

I'm talking about a proper military style poncho like this that does an admirable, if basic, job of keeping the rain off. (One) 

Mine weighs a full pound and even carefully packed is still the size of a well-stuffed file-folder, in part because of the durable fabric generously sized to completely cover my arms and drape well down my legs, and partly because of the 8 metal grommets, one on each corner as well as another in the middle of each edge, (notice the grommet by my hand where I can use a finger-loop through it on windy days to keep the rain-coverage in place Although I can also just pull my arms inside for even more protection. (Two)) and metal, double-sided snaps installed every 8 inches or so down the two sides. These snaps not only allow me to securely close the sides, but can be used in other ways too, which I will get to in a moment.

My one immediate complaint about military-style ponchos is that the hood is sized to fit over a tactical helmet. This may be fine for weekend militia members and guys and gals with 50's-style big-hair, but it is way to large for my stubble-covered skull where it flops over and covers my eyes - which, you know, is kinda bad when you're trying to hike - but I get around that by wearing the hood over top of my hat.

Or, if I decide the rain is light enough to go sans-hood and just rely on the weatherliness (Not a word? Should be.) of my Tilly, then after putting the poncho on I pull my arms inside, reach up behind my head from inside, pull the hood down through the neck-hole, and leave it nestled between my back and the poncho. This keeps the loose hood from filling up with rain and giving me an unpleasant dowsing when I'm not paying attention later.  (Three)

A major advantage of ponchos over rain-suits is the poncho's ability to protect your pack as well as you, because let's face it, even on the most expensive of our packs those fancy little rain-covers tucked into dedicated pockets on the bottom are seriously lacking when it comes to real-world functionality. (Four)

This photo is worst-case scenario with me wearing a pack fully loaded to 30 pounds for some proper over-nighting and you can see that I still have some serious coverage going on here for the backs of my legs. With the same pack loaded to a less bulky day-pack status the back-of-leg coverage gets even better.

A common complaint with ponchos, actually all truly water-proof rain-gear, is that it is HOT! But then again, if you're hot then hypothermia is not much of a concern and rain is just water after all so if it's that hot I'm inclined not to bother trying to stay dry anyway, but there are other strategies that can be used with a poncho to combat the heat short of complete exposure.

Easiest is to just undo the side-snaps and let the front and back flap free as you walk, creating far more ventilation than the fancy vent-panels sewn into those expensive rain-jackets could ever provide. (Five) 

If that's still not enough another trick I have useed is to thread some cordage (You are carrying some bits of cordage along on your hikes aren't you?) through the grommet near my hand, down to the grommet in that same front corner, across through the grommet in the center of the front, through the grommet in the other corner, and finally back up to the grommet near my other hand. (Which takes less time to do than it sounds.)

If I now pull on the two ends of the cord like a draw-cord, drawing the grommets up on the inside, between me and the rest of the draping poncho as I've done in the photo, to just below my chin before looping the cord behind my head and tying it off I'm still largely protected from steamy vertical rain  and more importantly so is my pack, but there is also plenty of ventilation going on in this configuration.  (Six)  Admittedly it does look pretty goofy so it's a good thing I'm not a fashionista. (see previous comment about not getting into the LL Bean catalog)  

Using that improvised draw-string I can also draw the grommets up on the outside to somewhere between my belly-button and my nipples then loop the cord behind my head and tie it off.  This creates a pouch, a wheel-barrow of sorts, for collecting leaves and other bulky but light stuff to be used for making fire-starter or insulation. To make the pouch less leaky snap a few of those handy double-sided snaps together to close up the pouch-sides. (Seven)

OK, so both a rain-suit and a poncho will keep rain off of you, but by this point you can clearly see the poncho is a little more versatile than a rain-suit - but the versatility doesn't end here so I'm not done yet!

Another really handy and simple thing I can do with a poncho but not a rain-suit, is sit down on a rock or log with my pack sheltered between my feet and pull my arms and head inside the poncho. I call this the squat-and-turtle and have used it frequently. Just make sure the hood either lays so it both covers the neck opening and won't fill up with rain, or if it's windy and the hood won't stay put, pull the hood's draw-cord tight to close the neck-hole.

It may look strange, but there's enough completely sheltered room under here for me to poke through my pack, study the map, eat lunch, read a book, sit out a bad squall, or just rest out of the weather for a while, be it wet, wind, cold, or any combination. (I don't have any first-hand experience, but I wouldn't recommend smoking under there!) I find it works best with a brimmed hat on to create a little 'umbrella' space around my head. If it's windy I can sit on and/or tuck under my feet, the edges of the poncho to keep everything in place. (Eight) 

Back in basic training we were taught to pair up with someone else, snap two ponchos together and build a nice little tent with a few stakes and a couple poles. The resulting shelter is actually quite roomy, especially since military field strategy dictates that one of you is always outside and alert while the other sleeps - two hours on two hours off.

Since I never did that beyond basic training I'm am not counting it as one of the uses here, but a single poncho can still make a decent shelter.

The first thing to do with making most poncho shelters is to draw the hood-cord up tight to close the neck-hole. (There's at least 7 common shelter configurations for a single poncho, but I'm only going to cover a couple simple ones, because simplicity matters.)

The most basic poncho shelter, and the one I've had the 'opportunity' to use second only to the 'squat and turtle' method, is made by opening up all the side-snaps, laying the poncho out flat, dirty or wet side down, lay your sleep system on one half, then slide in, zip up, and starting at the bottom, fold the free half of the poncho over everything, snapping the edges together as you work your way up to the top to create a full length poncho-taco! Now lay back, pull the top edge of the poncho up over your head and get some rest. (Nine) 

If you got caught out without your sleep system, which includes the all-important ground insulation/padding, you need to lay the poncho over an improvised pad to keep yourself insulated from the ground.

My first choice for this pad is a layer of green Spruce boughs. If Spruce isn't available than any short-needled evergreen will work. Both of these resist compressing under your weight and maintain that all important insulating property. If neither of those materials is available then a mound of grasses and leaves will work. Or at least be better than nothing.

Neither the grass nor the leaves have to be dead and crunchy, but they do need to be dry to the touch, and mixing in some dead and crunchy stuff will help absorb some of the water-vapor that comes off the green stuff, improving the insulating qualities of your handy work.

Once your poncho is laid down over this insulating pad, line it with your emergency blanket, shiny-side towards your body for maximum warming power, put on all the clothes, socks, gloves, hats you have with you, (In the military we even kept our boots on when doing this.) and again, climb in, pull the emergency blanket over, then as you pull the poncho over and snap it from the bottom up start stuffing the rest of that big pile of dried grasses and leaves you collected earlier in between the blanket and poncho to maximize insulation. Finally, as before, pull the edge over your head and get some rest.

Notice I didn't say sleep. Actual sleep may be hard to come by under these circumstances. Just accept that and lay still to allow your body as much rest as possible. I find that focusing on relaxing all the muscles in my face (There's something like 30 of them!) helps settle my mind and also has the infectious result of relaxing my other muscles as well.

I know, I know, laying awake all night without moving is boring as hell, and every passing caterpillar sounds like a prowling wolf-pack there in the dark, but just try to relax! As it has for a few billion years, morning will come and you want to be in the best possible condition for the day ahead.

 As hinted at already, there are other shelter possibilities too, but beyond the squat-and-turtle or poncho-taco, even the most basic shelter needs a few accessories.

This is my stake-bag which I always have in my pack, even when just day-hiking.

Strictly speaking, the stakes aren't necessary. I can always take the time to hunt down suitable sticks and fashion stakes or toggles out of them with my knife, but the little aluminum stakes I carry don't weight much at all and anything that makes building an emergency shelter, which by definition is done under already challenging circumstances, a little easier is worth the weight in my book.

Also tucked into the stake-bag, and actually more important than the stakes themselves, is a couple-three lengths of cordage and a half-dozen or so pre-cut-n-tied cordage loops. (again, anything to simplify the process)

Using the cordage, which can be tied end-to-end in order to reach if necessary, I locate a couple of appropriately spaced supports and stretch out the cord between them at just about waist height.

I'll tighten this ridge-line later, but right now I need some slack in it

so I can pull a loop up through each of the three grommets along one edge of the poncho and secure them there with one of my stakes or a site-scrounged toggle. (Which is just a fancy word for a short bit of stick I found laying on the ground!)

Once all three toggles are in place I pull the corners away from each other to get a taut edge, and finally I can tighten up the ridge-line. (I use a trucker's hitch for this because it's extremely quick to tie, even faster to untie, and easy to adjust, including snugging it up very tautly.)

A slight more complex alternative to ridge-line-looped-up-through-the-grommet-over-a-toggle-and-back-down-through-the-grommet is to use one of my pre-formed loops to create a Prusik Knot around the already taut ridge-line, slip the free end of the loop through the corner grommet and secure with a toggle. (here I've used one of my stakes instead of a scrounged stick.) then do the same with the other corner. The Prusik Knot can then easily be slid along the ridge-line to tighten things up but when you let go it will stay put as long as there is lateral tension on it.

Some claim that Prusik Knots work best if made from a smaller diameter cord than the ridge-line itself but I can't be bothered and use 550 para-cord for both with success.

At the other edge of the poncho, the one that will be closest to the ground, I slip one of my pre-made loops through each of the three grommets

stake out the poncho,

and create a decent little shelter. (Ten)

A slight modification of this shelter can make it even more livable.

Once staked out in the lean-to configuration thread a length of cord through the neck-hole and tie it off around the middle of one of your hiking sticks, or you can use a scrounged branch as well, just make sure and smooth the nubbins on the branch so they don't abrade your poncho.

With the stick parallel to the ridge-line stake out or tie off the other end of the cordage to create a bit of a "peak" and make the inside of your shelter a little more roomy. (Eleven) 

Just make sure you don't pull it out so far or high that you create a rain-catching pouch between the neck-hole and the front-edge of the shelter. Unless, of course, you intend to collect some of that rain  to replenish your water supply.  (Twelve)

If caught out without a sleep-system or adequate clothing this type of shelter is only appropriate in mild weather unless combined with a carefully crafted and controlled fire out front, which is beyond the scope of this post. But even in the mildest of weather, the earth is one huge heat-sink so the next step would be to put down a thick, improvised insulating layer so that you're not laying right on the ground and being slowly sucked into hypothermia even on a warm night.

So there you have it. Without even trying, a dozen useful and practical reasons for reverting back to the lowly but versatile poncho and away from those expensive, stylish, but single-purpose, rain-suits.

OK. As promised, you can now scoff if you must.


  1. Awesome! Freakin' Awesome!

    The Elvis is The Best!

    (In 50 yrs of hiking I've never seen any of this.)


    1. I needed the Elvis-hair to hold up that big hood!