The backpacking poncho gets a bad rap – even though it can function as a tarp and provides more ventilation than a rain jacket. On top of that, it has far fewer breakable features (read: zippers) than traditional rain gear. So why aren’t ponchos more popular?
The Unpleasant Reality of Rainwear
Let’s start with an unpleasant truth: if it rains long enough and hard enough, you will get wet. Water is relentless and inexorable. Even light rain will find its way through every taped seam, pore, and opening – especially when paired with windy conditions. Water will arrive at your naked skin and begin enjoying its favorite pastime of running downhill and soaking your shirt, pants, and undies.
All you are buying when you buy raingear is time: the time before you get wet. That time could be short or long, but it will not be infinite. It can always rain longer than your gear can keep you dry.
That said, longer is better than shorter; lighter is better than heavier; cheaper is better than expensive; well-ventilated is better than clammy; reliable is better than unreliable. There are choices to make. That’s true of all gear. Over the years, backpackers have made their choices and driven the gear market to ever-better functionality and value. Usually.
Allow me to suggest that raingear is an exception.
My first long backpacking trip was in the summer of 1968, from Red’s Meadows to Yosemite on the JMT. I carried a base weight of 35+ pounds (16 kg) – including a hatchet. There is not a single item in that pack (including the canvas pack) that I would consider taking along with me today.
Except for the poncho.
Being but a lad then, I could not recognize the elegance and perfection of design embedded in that poncho. It was just too simple and primitive. Newer surely would be better. When the first generation of breathable and not-at-all waterproof parkas came out, I gladly shelled out for a cutting-edge Sierra Designs 60/40 parka.
The advantages of ponchos
It was a fine and innovative garment, but it wouldn’t keep me dry for more than about 20 minutes. So when Gore-Tex jackets came out, I eagerly bought them – one every five years or so, each claiming to have cracked the code of waterproof breathability, each leaving me soggy if it rained more than an hour or two.
At about the same stage in life that I realized my parents actually were pretty smart, I also realized that the multi-functional backpacking poncho works pretty darn well. Here’s why:
- Ponchos are genuinely waterproof – because they are made of fully waterproof material instead of 2, 2.5, or 3-layer waterproof breathable fabric.
- They are well-ventilated by the nature of their design.
- They (usually) don’t have zippers and thus are not subject to zipper failure.
- They have few seams that can leak.
- They can cover your backpack – even a large backpack – and keep it dry.
- With some practice and skill, they provide a crude but effective shelter in which to eat lunch during an all-day storm.
- They can be a sleeping or cooking shelter.
- They can serve as a ground cloth.
- They can be worn while you are washing all your clothes at the laundromat.
- They are inexpensive.
- They never wear out.
- They require no maintenance.
- They never become obsolete.
- They never go out of style because they never were in style.
Yet poncho-wearers are a tiny minority in the backcountry, decidedly out of the mainstream. Wearing a waterproof breathable jacket is just one of those things that hikers are supposed to do if they want to do hiking right. Ponchos have acquired an air of dirtbaggery about them.
In our archives: This two part article on alternative rainwear provides a further argument for searching outside of traditional rain garments. Read part one here and part two here. Also, browse our poncho archives for specific gear recommendations.
Why some backpackers don’t like ponchos
We took a straw poll of Backpacking Light employees to see what they thought about ponchos. Here’s what they said:
Ryan Jordan (owner / founder) – I’m pro-backpacking poncho-tarp for trips with mild weather where the chance you’ll actually need raingear or a buttoned-up overhead shelter for a severe storm (with wind) is low. See this article for more on poncho tarping in inclement weather.
When faced with the decision to wear a rain jacket or a poncho in rainy conditions, I’ll opt for a poncho over a rain jacket below the treeline when wind is mild, humidity is high, temperatures are warmer, and the ventilation offered by a poncho is welcome. Otherwise, I find a rain jacket to be more manageable in high winds, colder temperatures, and lower humidity areas.
Andrew Marshall (managing editor) – I grew up backpacking in the rain with cheap, plastic emergency ponchos before moving to rain jackets in my early adulthood. My only experience with poncho ultralight backpacking since then was an experiment on the Colorado Trail with the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho, I loved the multi-functional concept – especially the extra material at the back to cover my pack – but struggled with it in high wind situations above treeline. I found that setting it up as an auxiliary meal shelter was too time-consuming in practice. But after editing this article and reading Drew’s suggestions (below) I’m seriously considering giving backpacking rain ponchos another shot. Too bad I gave my old Sea to Summit number away to a friend. Maybe I’ll check out Roger Caffin’s Make Your Own Gear: Silnylon Mountain Poncho article…
Chase Jordan (production editor) – When it comes to backpacking ponchos vs. rain jackets, I’m anti-poncho. They impede movement when in rough terrain and are less durable in comparison to rain jackets/pants combo. I also don’t enjoy the limitations of a poncho tarp in camp during storms, because the item I’d use to keep me dry while doing camp chores is being used as my shelter.
Matthew King (community moderator) – I haven’t ever used a poncho. They strike me as an incomplete solution allowing arms to get wet and seem like they would be prone to blowing around a lot. I have no interest in a poncho-tarp because it seems like a poor shelter and a poor rain shell. Also, what if you want to leave your shelter for some reason while it is raining?
I am pro-Packa on trips where there is a forecast for rain. I like that it covers the pack but more importantly, the airflow provided by having my jacket over my straps and pack is wonderful. I have the taped 15D version that is no longer sold which weighs 8.5 ounces (240 g) once I swapped the heavy shockcord/cord locks out for something lighter.
On a trip that doesn’t have a forecast for sustained rain, I bring a rain jacket. I prefer a silnylon jacket but mine failed and I haven’t found an appropriate replacement so I bring either a FroggToggs or an Outdoor Research Helium 2 jacket.
Mark Wetherington (staff writer) – I’ve never used a poncho and don’t plan to for the same reasons listed above.
In our community: Check out these forum threads for more on the topic of ponchos.
Common poncho problems and solutions
Most of the concerns listed above can be addressed with simple fixes in gear and technique:
Problem: ponchos flap in the wind
Solution: make a poncho belt. Get a 6-foot length of 3mm shock cord and a cord lock. Thread the ends of the cord through the toggle and tie it off to make a loop. After your poncho is on, wrap the belt around your hips, under your backpack, then put the toggle through the loop and tighten appropriately. Your poncho will still flap, but to a much more tolerable degree.