If you haven‘t been living under a stone or in a desert you should already know that ponchos are quite useful pieces of rain gear. But did you know that there are multifunctional versions that double as survival item, too? It’s no wonder they are one of the basic parts of every preparation for disaster.

In the Perunika online shop, all tactical and military pants can be found in the following category:

1. Military tarps and ponchos


First let’s talk about it’s primary use. Given that it’s not a very fashionable item why would you prefer it over a waterproof hardshell jacket with a breathable membrane?

  • Ponchos are very packable, at least modern versions. They take about the size of one or two cans of beer. While we see a good reason to carry beer with you, staying dry in the rain is an option to consider. You can put them in your bag, just in case. A thing you wouldn’t do with a rain jacket because it just takes too much space or could get torn when you pack it too closely and have it flying around in you bag
  • Ponchos are big. They cover your backpack and and most of your legs. While there are rain covers for backpacks and waterproof pants these are extra items to carry and in case of rain covers they won’t help when it’s really pouring down
  • Ponchos are cheap. While hardshell jackets can easily cost several hundred euros a poncho normally won’t set you back more than 10 – 50 Eur.

Tactical poncho

But since this is a tactical blog let’s talk tactical things. What’s so special about ponchos? First of all, you need a special version of poncho to make use of the following. It’s called “tarp poncho” or USGI (after the US troops that made it popular). This very poncho can be opened at the sides and when laid flat has a roughly rectangular shape. Some have slightly curved sides but most just look like a rectangle with a hooded hole somewhere in the middle. Along the sides these ponchos have grommets and buttons. When you put your head through the hole you can close the buttons and the thing starts to look like a poncho as you know it. Closed at the sides with openings for your arms. There are “rubberized” versions around which are really, positively waterproof, but they are quite heavy and bulky and feel like a sauna. So newer versions normally have no thick layer of extra rubber on the inside which makes them a tiny little bit more prone to becoming leaky but they are a lot easier packable and one that might get a bit leaky is a lot better than one that you don’t have with you because it’s too heavy and bulky. Check the pictures of the poncho being packed before you get one just to be sure. A thin layer of rubber or something similar is ok, but it should still be stowable.

You can wear a poncho over a backpack to keep it dry
Wear your poncho over a backpack to keep it dry

You can use the buttons on the side to connect two or more ponchos to get a bigger tarp. So if you’re around in a group, try to make sure everyone has the same model or at least compatible ones. It won’t hurt if you route some paracord through the grommets to securely connect the parts just in case the buttons give way.

The grommets can be used to tie lines into them and set up the poncho as a smaller version of a tarp. You can build your lean-to, A-frame or whatever setup you prefer. Just make sure to close the hole for your head (you shouldn’t have to stick it through when in tarp mode, anyway). This kind of ponchos come with drawstrings to close the hole and usually a second one you can route around your waist to keep the poncho from flying in windy conditions when worn as rain gear. Don’t forget to get creative when it comes to tarp setups. No trees around? Use your walking sticks. Need protection from the sun when your car broke down? Fix the lines in the doors of your car.

There are several other uses for waterproof sheets that can hold quite some weight when you’re out and about. You can lay it flat and place your gear on it so you won’t lose any of it when unpacking in the wild. You can wrap your gear in it so it stays dry when it doesn’t fit in your shelter. You can wrap yourself in it and create some minimalist bivy-bag. You can stuff your gear in it and wrap it around your shoulder to create a makeshift slingbag in case your backback is lost (common problem with camo-backpacks).

A poncho makes a good tarp for minimalist camps
A poncho makes a good tarp for minimalist camps

You can even just use a small part of the poncho and roll the rest up. This way you can use it to carry water for a short way e.g. to put out a fire. Or you could spread the whole poncho and have the hole for the head be the lowest part of the setup. This way you can collect rain or dew in a survival situation. When rolled up, a poncho can be used to stabilize and pad fragile things like an injured limb. Speaking of injuries: You can wrap a poncho around two bars (like small trees) and build a makeshift stretcher to carry a wounded person. For the stretcher: You definitely want to try and practice that before you might need it. Maybe your poncho’s not tough enough or your wrapping slips off the bars and that’s nothing you want to find out while carrying someone who is actually in pain.

There are liners, called “woobies” you can put inside the poncho to create a waterproof and warming piece of clothing. Either use it while you wear it as a regular poncho or to create a warmer version of the bivy-bag. Woobies like the Helikon-Tex swagman roll have toggles you can put through the grommets on ponchos so it will stay put. Wrapping yourself in the liner with the attached poncho you can close the zipper on the liner and the buttons on the poncho to create a fairly tightly closed cover.

Combine a poncho with a woobie to get a minimalistic bivvy bag
Combine a poncho with a woobie to get a minimalistic bivvy bag

The bivy-bag setup might not be super comfortable, especially when you are a bit bigger (meaning wider) but, hey, we’re talking about survival situations here.

Don’t forget that most tactical brands have different color options for ponchos. While health-and-safety departments might advocate going for bright orange I can imagine you’re more interested in more subdued colors like coyote or olive drab. Some brands even have camo patterns like PenCott, M81 Woodland, Pantera wz.93 or others.

How I use it

When I‘m on weeklong business trips by train I sometimes had to realise that the weather forecast is not as  accurate as I was wishing for. Since I don‘t want to weigh myself down with hardshell jackets when the forecast says it‘s gonna be sunshine all week, I started to throw a poncho into my bag every time I start off for a trip. I know, it‘s nothing you would be expected to arrive in to a business meeting but I‘m ok with awkward looks when I can stay dry in pouring rain.

When I stay in the woods I normally take a tarp with me. It‘s not much heavier than a poncho but it gives some extra space when set up and you don‘t have to deal with the hole for the head. That‘s because I normally plan on staying outdoors and never really was forced to, so far. But where I do rely on a poncho when I’m staying outside is as the first layer on the ground. So when I set up a minimalist camp, I place a poncho on the ground, then a sleeping mat on top of it. Over all I set up a tarp. Why the poncho? Because I tend to roll around in the night and I don‘t want to get my sleeping bag in contact with moist earth and grass when I fall off the mat. To be honest I‘m using an old poncho where I don‘t rely on it being waterproof anymore. A good poncho would be fine and shouldn‘t suffer from this kind of treatment but I don‘t want to risk ripping it open with a twig or a sharp stone when I actually have an old one around.

A poncho as a tarp and one as a baselayer and you have a comfortable shelter for your sleeping pad
A poncho as a tarp and one as a baselayer and you have a comfortable shelter for your sleeping pad

There are more uncommon uses where a poncho came in handy, too. On vacation in Italy we once set out for a remote beach where hardly any people where around. The upside was that dogs were allowed on this beach but the downside was that there was no sun protection at all. I had my poncho with me (yes, in Italy, in the summer) and used some driftwood to set it up as a sunshade.

So go for a poncho and give it a try. Don’t hesitate to try some of the setups described in this post. Just take this piece of advice: Try them before you need them. While we know most of our readers will never need a poncho for something else than to keep them dry in the rain it would be a shame if you could make good use of your gear and just miss the chance because you didn’t prepare yourself.

About the author

widhalmt is what you might call a tactical gearhead with a focus on collecting. Like your average nerd he likes to dig into topics he’s interested in and learn as much about them as possible. Then he tries to get hold of his items of interest (he’s quite picky about brand and model when he chose a certain item) and put them to the test. Be it while walking the dog in the woods or go for overnighters outdoors.

In his daytime job he works as lead support engineer for an open source IT consulting company. Since his work involves a lot of travelling and going to customers he has quite some experience in choosing items that are rugged enough for constant travelling but still work in an office environment without offending anyone by being “too tactical” (although he tends to stretch that last part a bit). It’s safe to say that he has some tactical gear on him when he walks out the door (and sometimes even when he stays at home).

In tactical gear he has very widespread interests but if he had to pick something, it’s be knives, bags/backpacks and camo patterns (especially PenCott)