I have had a love hate relationship with ponchos. Theoretically they make great sense, but I have tried rain ponchos five times for six month or longer. After each poncho experiment I switched back to a rain jacket. This post is about my current re-evaluation of ponchos as rain gear.
Likewise I have always thought the US Army Poncho + Liner was an extremely versatile system, but seemed too heavy. I recently realized there are new materials such as Polartec Alpha Direct which could be used to make poncho liner than is significantly lighter while providing a useful amount of insulation. I tested this system in the Bay Area when we had some storms and then walking the Camino Frances for a month and was pleased with the results.
Why a Poncho?
Drew Smith‘s The Backpacking Poncho makes a good case for using ponchos.
On the plus side a poncho can be an extremely light and compact item which can provide rain protection for the body, backpack, and can function as a shelter if it is large enough. A poncho made from good material can be a “buy it once for life” item, lasting decades without any maintenance. Another nice feature of a poncho is that it can be put on and then taken off without removing a backpack. You don’t even need to stop walking.
Downsides of ponchos are they can flap in high wind, get snagged when climbing or going cross country, and don’t protect arms when using poles (which I am not).
The biggest downside for me is that most ponchos are generally made from non-breathable materials which has no air permeability and zero vapor transmission so moisture often condensates in the chest area. I know people say that ponchos can provide good ventilation but this hasn’t prevent me from overheating and getting wet from condensation even when I hold the poncho up to maximize ventilation. I find ponchos too warm above 50-55F except when facing heavy rain, in which case it is comfortable to 75f.
When above 55F (dry or light rain) I am more comfortable wearing a Shakedry rain shell, or just getting wet provided I have a way to dry myself when either the temperature or my activity level drops.
Motivation for a New Experiment
I realize the conditions I was like the face on the Camino: daytime lows around 40F and nighttime lows sleeping in alburgues around 60F (or warmer) required about the same (or less) insulation. This would be a perfect situation to use a poncho liner or wearable quilt for insulation during the day and to sleep at night. The other option would be to sleep in my warmest clothing at night. I discarded the idea of clothing for night because in these conditions the pants I wear do not provide enough warmth to sleep in the lowest temperatures.
I considered using ultralight synthetic quilt or a traditional poncho liner, but both options were heavier and more expensive than ideal. Then I thought about using Alpha Direct for the insulation. Unlike many synthetics or down, it doesn’t require a fabric to contain it which reduces weight and allows it to be useful in a wider range of temperatures depending on how much you prevented air circulation. Combining an alpha direct quilt or blanket with a light weight poncho and sleep sack could provide an extremely light (10.8oz) and versatile system:
- Polartec Alpha Direct 4004 “blanket”: 4.4oz, 120gsm piece 48×62″ bulk fabric I purchased for $22.
- Trail Bum GNU CAPE a 3.4 oz poncho made from sil-poly which fits over me wearing up to a 30L pack.
- MLD Nylon Sleep Sack: 3oz, minimalist sleep sack.
Originally I was going to purchase a larger piece of Alpha Direct so it could be the same dimensions as a poncho with a slit to pass my head though. I ended up using a smaller, unfinished piece of alpha direct because I wasn’t prepared to make it into a shaped poncho liner, I hadn’t settled on how to attach it to the poncho, and the fabric for a shaped liner would have doubled to cost. Rather, I decided to “make do” with a simple blanket, and if the experiment went well to purchase more Alpha Direct.
I ran some simple experiments around the SF Bay Area, slept in our unheated garage and backyard to validate the idea. The first true “field” use was for 31 days walking Camino Santiago – Frances in May 2003. The conditions experience was daytime temperatures for 40F-72F (as low as 35F including windchill), sitting outdoors in cafes (~45F-55F), and nighttime temperatures ranged from 55F-70F when trying to sleep. We had several days of rain with the temperature during the rain varying between 45-65F. Right after this trip we were in Taiwan were we experienced torrential rains in 75-85F. Winds varied from completely calm to 35mph.
My “base” clothing were Luna sandals, Xoskin toesocks, Patagonia Terrebonne jogging pants, a light weight ArcTeryx Cormac Sun hoody, a PolarBuff, and a Montbell Umbrelo Hat.
When highly active, just my base clothing kept me comfortable when it was >55F (factoring in wind chill), >60F when it was raining. I was wet, but my movement kept me warm enough, and when the rain stopped my clothing dried in around a hour.
When it was cooler than that some combination of my rain poncho and Alpha Direct blanket gave me just the right amount of insulation. On the coldest mornings (39F air temp, wind, sun not out yet), the combination of my base clothing, my backpack, a Polar Buff, Alpha Direct wrapped over my shoulder and across my front torso, and the Gnu poncho on and snapped shut kept me quite comfortable even when I was just standing around. I particularly enjoyed my arms and hands being comfortably under the poncho without needing mittens.
As it warmed up I would gather the Alpha Direct into a scarf configuration continuing to use the poncho to protect against the wind. Eventually I would remove the poncho and use the Alpha Direct as a shawl, over my shoulders or around my body as a vest which was kept together using magnets made to hold racing bibs on shirts. In modest wind conditions the alpha direct configured as a vest kept me comfortable down to around 40f.
FIXME: Pictures of blanket going from Shawl to Vest using magnets, to Scarf.
A real plus of this system is I could adjust it as I walked. I didn’t have to stop walking and never had to take my backpack off.
One challenge was went it was around 40-50F and the wind was going from 0 to 30mph and the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds. With no wind and sun strong I wrapped the Alpha Direct blanket around my waist. When the wind was blowing and the sun was blocked by clouds using the Alpha Direct blanket when carefully doubled over my sides and chest was comfortable. The constant reconfiguration was bothersome. In these conditions I tried using the poncho rather than the Alpha Direct blanket. That mostly worked, but sometimes was too warm.
After a couple of weeks I pulled out a shakedry shell which I brought in case the poncho just didn’t work, and used it as a wind shirt which was perfect. I continued to use the poncho on especially cold mornings, or when it rained. A minimalist windshell should be added to this system.
Night time sleeping condition were primarily indoors with temperatures between 57-75F. When nights were cool, I slept in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt with the alpha direct as a blanket, inside a nylon sleep sack. This was warm enough to sleep well to around 55F. As it warmed up I shifted the alpha direct on top of the sleep sack resulted it less insulation allowing me to sleep in warmer condition. Above 72F I would just use just the sleep sack or no sack with the alpha direct blanket draped over my legs. The sleep sack was a perfect size for colder nights using my relatively small blanket, but I sometimes felt a bit constrained. In the future I think a larger blanket/poncho and a larger sleep sack would be more comfortable.
The Gnu Cape
Amazingly light and compact. Could put on / take off my 23l pack without removing or unsnapping the cape. The cape claims to fit up to a 30l pack. They make a larger version reportedly good for larger packs. I found the shape worked well.
Alpha Direct 120gsm (4004)
An amazing material as a poncho liner. Absorbed very little water so would dry amazingly quickly. Didn’t pick up odor. When air movement was blocked by sleep sack or poncho was quite warm. When doubled up it provided some warmth without wind blocking. (A single layer of 90gsm Alpha Direct seems to hold no warmth in strong winds)
The piece of Alpha Direct I brought was a bit too short. This experiment was successful enough that I will purchase a larger piece of Alpha Direct and actually make a poncho liner rather than just a rectangular piece of fabric. Having a small foot pocket would make it work better in sleeping mode. Open question if the race bib magnets would be strong enough to create a foot pocket.
There was a thread on backpackinglight.com about making a summer sleeping system using alpha direct.
Make a hoodless poncho which can easily ventilate around my neck. My montbell umbrello hat will keep by head dry and prevent rain from getting in through an open neck area.
- MLD Pro Poncho
- Sgt Rock hammock friendly poncho/tarp
- No experience, but the Aricxi Poncho from AliExpresss looks like a good deal.
- The cheapest are typically fragile “emergency” ponchos made from plastic weighing just a couple of ounces. These can be effective in moderate conditions, but they are very easy to tear.
- The DriDucks Poncho is slightly more durable that plastics but is still fragile. It has the benefit of being somewhat breathable.
- Vinyl / PVC ponchos which can typically be found as hardware stores. These ponchos are inexpensive and typically weight 8-16oz. They are durable enough to wear, but I won’t recommend using them as a shelter.
- SaphiRose ponchos with a zipper have been positively reviewed in the BP gear forum.
Liners and Wearable Quilts