Every year I receive a handful of emails about poncho tarps. In particular, whether or not I think they represent a viable shelter and rain gear option for thru-hiking. The short answer is yes, but with some fairly large caveats.
For the handful of gearheads who are interested in the whys and wherefores of these multi-functional pieces of equipment, this article is for you. For everyone else, feel free to either check out the rest of the website, or make yourself a quadruple espresso and read on……………
What is a Poncho Tarp?
A Poncho Tarp is a lightweight, minimalist piece of backpacking equipment which, as the name suggests, doubles as both rain gear and shelter. As a bonus, it also makes for an excellent pack cover.
What experience do you have with poncho tarps?
Approximately 18,000 miles (28,968 km) and 700 nights in total, including the first 11 of the 12 Long Walks. During this trip I used a poncho tarp in a wide range of environments, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Southwestern Horseshoe and Pacific Northwest Trail. Additionally, over the years I have regularly taken poncho tarps on overnight rainy season excursions in Mexico’s Sierra Madre.
In regards to which models I’ve used, the lion’s share of my poncho tarping experience has been with two different tarps; namely the Integral Designs 8×5 Sil Poncho* and the Mountain Laurel Designs Pro Poncho. The latter has been my go-to option since 2010.(* Note: As per RJ in the comments section, the former Integral Designs Sil Poncho is now made by RAB).
What sort of hikers are suited to using poncho tarps?
The gossamer weight and multi-functional nature of poncho tarps has an undeniable appeal to ultralight hikers. Shelter and rain gear for a cumulative total of 8 oz (0.23 kg); throw in a cuben bivy and you are still talking sub-14 oz (0.40 kg). However, as my old mate Greg “Malto” Gressel is fond of saying, “everything looks good on a spreadsheet.”
The reality is that poncho tarps aren’t for everyone, and they certainly aren’t a suitable option given certain conditions (see below). Here are a few boxes you should tick if you are thinking of taking the poncho tarp plunge:
- Prior experience with using small tarps. There is no way around it, in shelter mode poncho tarps are far from palatial. If you are riding out a lengthy storm underneath one of them, you will want to make sure it is pitched tautly and in an appropriate location. There is little room for error when using small tarps in inclement conditions.
- On-Trail Vs In-Camp: Due to their spartan character, poncho tarps aren’t made for lazy days around camp. They are most suited to hikers that enjoy spending more time on trail, and less time hanging out.
- Adaptability: Due to their inherent limitations, hikers choosing to use a poncho tarp should be capable of doing big distance days when conditions dictate (e.g. Extended above tree-line sections in sketchy weather).
- No Snivelling: If you tend to be one of those hikers that moans and groans at a little discomfort, chances are a poncho tarp isn’t for you.
What model and size Poncho Tarp do you recommend?
There are quite a few cheapo poncho tarp options available online. While I suspect some of these are ok, most of them look disposable in nature; something you might take to a three day music festival in the UK, rather than on a multi-week trip into the backcountry.
As I mentioned above, my go-to poncho has long been the Mountain Laurel Designs Pro Poncho. If you are interested in giving poncho tarps a try, I can’t recommend it highly enough. When I first used the MLD model back in 2009 I thought it was a well-made, highly functional piece of gear. Nine years and many nights in the boonies later, I still think the same, though I can now add “durable” to its list of endearing qualities.
In a nutshell, I’m a fan of the MLD Pro Poncho for the following reasons:
- Size: The 9’x5.2′ (at front) dimensions is sufficient to provide decent protection in tarp mode. For reference, I am 6’1″ (185cm), medium build, and weigh around 180 lbs (82 kg). Over the years I have ridden out plenty of storms in relative comfort under a low-pitched Pro Poncho (combined with an UL Bivy). For medium and larger-sized hikers, I wouldn’t recommend going any smaller than the MLD model. Indeed, in my opinion poncho tarps that are 8’x5′ (or smaller) should only be considered by folks that are 5’6″ or less. (Note: I made do with the 8’x5′ Integral Designs Shelter in some pretty nasty weather over the years thanks to a combination of good campsite selection, sleeping in the foetal position, and a great deal of tarping experience. That said, I can tell you for a fact that the extra coverage provided by the MLD model, makes a world of difference in when you encounter truly dodgy conditions).
- Catenary Cut: The catenary cut ridgeline is spot on. The slight curve makes for an easy and taut pitch in A-Frame, but isn’t so pronounced that there are issues pitching it in other configurations such as the Half Pyramid.
- Hood Design: The patented hoodslit design is what really sets the MLD Pro Poncho apart from other models I’ve seen and tried. In poncho mode, the drawcord/cordlock system makes it easy to adjust the hood’s volume, and the stiffened brim is big enough to keep the rain out of your eyes (Note: You will still need a cap underneath to stop the hood from drooping when the rain is really coming down). In tarp mode, the hoodslit is set into the ridgeline, and seals shut when taut. I’ve never experienced any of the pooling or drippage issues that are common with the standard round-hole / twist-and-tie-off ponchos.
What pitches do you use with a Poncho Tarp?
I like to keep things as simple as I can when in the backcountry. Over the years, 95% of the time I’ve used just two configurations with my MLD Pro Poncho:
1. Half Pyramid – Employed in mild conditions, when there is little chance of precipitation, (6 or 7 stakes), and;
2. A-Frame – Used when medium to heavy rain and wind is on the cards. Pitched low and with the back corners pegged directly to the ground (9 stakes minimum). The A-Frame provides more protection per square foot than the Half-Pyramid, but is less roomy and comfortable.
What environments are suitable (and unsuitable) for a Poncho Tarp?
For established long distance rambles such as the Triple Crown trails, where there is little to nothing in the way of bushwhacking and two weeks straight of inclement conditions is very unlikely, I think poncho tarps are a good choice for experienced tarpers who aren’t too fussy when it comes to space and comfort .
That said, I wouldn’t think about taking a poncho tarp for extended journeys in consistently wet and windy environments (e.g. Scotland, Tasmania, South Island of NZ, etc). Same goes for routes in which there is a lot of rugged cross-country terrain or overgrown trail, in which cases, ponchos are more likely to snag on a branch or bush than a regular rain jacket.
Finally, I’d also leave the poncho tarp at home for exclusively above tree line hikes. In such exposed environments, I’ll occasionally take a larger square (8.5’x8.5′) or rectangular (9’x7′) tarp, but more often than not I’ll go with a fully-enclosed lightweight shelter such as a Mid.
Do you always combine your Poncho Tarp with an UL Bivy?
Yes. For a weight penalty of between 4.5 to 7.5 oz, a bivy minimizes drafts, provides an extra 5 to 7 degrees of warmth for your sleep system (like a windshirt for your quilt), a sanctuary from no-see-ums / midgies / mossies during bug season, and protection for your quilt from splash back when it’s bucketing down. If you so choose, you can even leave your groundsheet at home thanks to the bivy’s waterproof (ish) bottom. Indeed, if I am using any tarp that’s smaller than 9’x7′, I will always combine it with a bivy. The two bivvies I have used in combination with my poncho tarps since 2009 have been the MLD Superlight and the Katabatic Bristlecone.
How do you deal with the flapping when hiking with the poncho in wet and windy conditions?
I always use a bit of bungee cord around my waist, joined together at the front with a mini-cordlock. This simple and ultralight accessory weighs practically nothing and eliminates a lot of the flapping issues. If you are thinking about giving ponchos a try, some sort of makeshift belt is a must.
On a related side note, the “breezy” nature of poncho tarps in rain gear mode, is actually one of the things I like most about them. Unless you are rocking an umbrella / windshirt combo, I think ponchos are tough to beat when it comes to wet weather ventilation.
What about setting it up when it’s raining, and more specifically, making the switch from poncho to tarp mode in those conditions?
This is one of the biggest concerns hikers have about giving poncho tarps a try. However, if you have practiced the transition beforehand, have all the necessary components ready to go, and are adept at pitching your tarp quickly, it isn’t as big an issue as many hikers believe. Here is a step-by-step breakdown:
1. Campsite Selection – More than half the battle when hiking with a poncho tarp in inclement conditions is picking the right campsite. Small tarps aren’t as forgiving as tents or larger tarps. You will need to up your planning game; this particularly holds true if you are hiking through an exposed and/or above tree line section. Before setting out, identify sheltered campsite options on your maps, estimate how long it will take you to get there, and have a Plan B in case Mother Nature throws you a meteorological curveball. Above tree line riding out the mother of all storms is not where you want to be when using a poncho tarp.
2. Once you have arrived at your spot, stand under a tree, take your pack off and remove your guylines and stakes from your pack. Both these items should be easily accessible when there is a chance of precipitation (i.e. side or back pocket of backpack).
3. Take off your poncho; give it a huge shake to remove as much excess water as possible.
4. If you are cold, quickly put on your windshirt. This item is water resistant rather than waterproof, however, it will keep you warm and dry for the couple of minutes it takes to set up a poncho tarp. As with the guylines and pegs, be sure to have it easily accessible and ready to go.
5. Connect your guylines to the poncho. I use mini carabiners to connect my guylines to the poncho. It takes less than a minute or so to attach them. For a weight penalty of practically nothing, I prefer this system to messing around with knots when your hands are cold and wet. If it’s not raining or precipitation is highly unlikely, I leave the carabiners attached to the Poncho.
6. Pitch your poncho the same as you would your tarp. Some hikers will tell you that they can pitch the shelter whilst still wearing it. Forget about this idea. It takes longer, is more complicated and chances are you will get just as wet (probably more). Keep things simple. If you are proficient in pitching tarps, the entire setup can be done in less than two minutes.
7. Under Cover – Grab your pack – which has been patiently waiting under a tree, bush or groundsheet – and crawl under the poncho. Wipe off any remaining water from the inside of the shelter with a bandana.
8. Breaking Camp – Bummer. It’s still raining the following morning. Not to worry. Pack your bag so that everything is stashed away apart from the actual poncho. Once this is done, take down your shelter, disconnect the carabiners/ guylines, store them in an easily accessible baggy, give the poncho a shake, put on your pack, put on the poncho and away you go.
9. Almost forgot………….try not to get flustered irrespective of how much the elements are raging, and focus on performing each of the steps deliberately and efficiently. Over the years I’ve seen more folks than I can remember lose their poise while trying to pitch their shelter in inclement conditions. Keep cool, don’t rush, breathe steadily, and get it right the first time.
Personally speaking, I like the multi-functionality, along with the weight and volume savings of a good poncho tarp. For certain types of environments and trips I think they represent a solid option. That said, they aren’t and never will be for everyone. If you are keen on trying a poncho tarp, and more importantly actually enjoying the experience, here are some final tips:
- Hikers and Chippies: Understand and accept the limitations of poncho tarps before setting out. Good hikers are like good carpenters. They never blame their tools.
- Size Matters: Choose a model that is appropriate for your size. If you’re well over 6′, and you head out into the boonies with a 8’x4′ tarp in anything but bone dry conditions, you are potentially asking for problems. This holds doubly true if you do so without a bivy. I know a lot of UL hikers get obsessed with base weight and going as low as they possibly can, but this particular point really is just common sense.
- Practice: Before setting out on a trip, practice making the transition from poncho to shelter mode. If possible, try doing it in the rain. With repetition, the transition becomes easier and quicker.
- Perspective: Chuckle in the face of discomfort, and embrace and learn from adversity. In regards to the backcountry, it has always been the challenging times that have taught me the most and made me a better hiker. Using poncho tarps successfully isn’t always easy, but when I think about it, that’s one of the things I like about them the most.