I learned to appreciate the value of a poncho in my younger years, and to this day, I consider it a versatile piece of equipment that shouldn’t miss from your backpack. Regardless, if you’re a prepper, a survivalist, or just a camping enthusiast, the poncho will become your best friend in times of need.
After I was inducted for basic military training, 35 years ago, the sergeants lined up all us “boots” to draw equipment. One of the items issued was an OD-colored rectangle of heavy raincoat material measuring 5 1/2 feet by 6 1/2feet. Snaps lined the edges, and there was a hole in the center with a hood and a drawstring.
Since I was as green as a willow sapling, I saw little use for the thing other than to add weight to a combat butt pack.
The supply sergeant withered me with a contemptuous stare. “That thing,” he shouted, “is a poncho Other than your rifle, it is the most practical and useful piece of equipment you can have in the field.
He wasn’t wrong.
The poncho, a must have
The common poncho, military issue, which can be picked up relatively inexpensively at many Army surplus stores, or, in its civilian model, at out-doors supply houses, is a most indispensable companion for anyone who may find himself surviving in the Great Outdoors. No hunter, angler, trapper, backpacker, camper, or other active outdoors type should ever be without one.
Not only is it a comfort item of unquestionable value, but it may also literally mean the difference between life and death.
Over the years since boot camp, I have discovered more than two dozen practical uses for this single piece of rubberized material. And I’m discovering more all the time.
Protecting you from the elements
The most obvious use for the poncho is as a rain garment — a supreme outdoorsman’s rain garment. It is large enough to completely cover a man wearing a full backpack. With the side snaps buttoned and the hood in place, a hunter or trapper can trudge through a downpour of rain and keep himself and all his gear dry.
It is just as effective in winter against sleet and snow. Ugly as it is, the poncho is also the best personal protection against the howl &winter winds which can punch through most fabrics with icy fingers. Pulled over regular garments, it can ward off a gale and hold in body heat at the same time.
Being inside a poncho on a cold day is a bit like being inside a heated tent, and your own body acts as a stove. I have been forced to remove apparel in order to keep cool inside a poncho while my less fortunate companions were looking for something else to put on in order to keep warm.
Masking your presence
An old bow hunter’s trick of donning a poncho may work miracles for anyone forced to depend upon his hunting prowess in order to survive in the woods. Tricky winds can carry the human scent around the compass to alert every game animal in the vicinity.
Wearing a poncho contains much of the scent inside it. It also distorts the shape of the human figure and helps prevent game spotting you on a stand. It works wonders on a still stand for squirrels. I once had a doe deer venture so near I reached out and goosed her with a stick.
Two ponchos snapped together make an excellent portable duck blind. Ducks apparently can’t tell the difference between a quick poncho blind and ones erected with time and money. And the best thing about it is after you’ve finished hunting for the day, you can tear it down and use it for any of its two dozen other purposes.
Related reading: Mastering The Skill Of Stalking When Hunting For Survival
Long range combat patrols, Rangers, Green Berets and other elite forces from countries around the world use the poncho for a variety of purposes.
The poncho is lightweight and can be compacted to take up little room, an absolute necessity for people who must carry everything they need on their backs. The only thing required to convert it into a livable shelter is several lengths of cordage. Eyelets around the poncho’s borders permit it to be stretched into a tent-like shelter near the ground or, in combination with a hammock and mosquito net, as high above the snakes as you feel safe. The only real limitation is that it does not have sides.
Your poncho as a tent
As a civilian backpacking or hiking into out-of-the-way fishing places, I often still use a poncho for shelter instead of a heavier and more difficult tent. The style of shelter is limited only by your imagination. Four or five ponchos snapped together can make a castle.
Even when I have a tent, I take along a poncho for its many campsite utilities. It makes an excellent ground cloth for sleeping. Stretched over your tent, it makes a good storm fly, or, stretched separately, a sunscreen.
You can make a bag of it for storing food out of the reach of marauding animals. It can protect packs, camp stoves, or other equipment against the elements. It is a hammock, a chalkboard, an improvised backpack, an ice chest, a trash receptacle. With proper framework, it can even serve as a bathtub.
The edges of a poncho snap together to form a long cocoon. Fastened together around two or three woolen kets and a nylon poncho liner, which may also be purchased at Army surplus stores, the poncho becomes a snow proof, a water-proof sleeping bag of some comfort. I’ve remained reasonably dry sleeping in it during driving rainstorms, without any other shelter.
Your poncho as a flotation device
The poncho will even float. One afternoon on a long hike in the Ozarks, a friend and I came to a stream swollen from spring rains. Scouting upriver and down revealed no fording sites. “We’ll make poncho rafts and float across,” I said. My friend looked as though I had suggested we perform a miracle the equivalent of walking on water.
Without further explanation, I spread my poncho on the ground and placed my pack and all my clothing in the center of it. I lapped the sides over the bundle, then the ends, making a compact package which I trussed in the strong cord. It weighed about 40 pounds. Air trapped inside the bundle made it buoyant enough to float the pack and an adult in the manner of a boater’s life jacket.
We crossed the stream on our “rafts,” keeping our equipment completely dry. “Do you know any other little tricks with a poncho?” my once-skeptical friend inquired. “More than two dozen of them,” I replied.
The Olympic Peninsula in Washington with its rain forest is a rugged and inaccessible as any place in the world. Moss scummed on fallen logs, boulders, on the ground itself, often making wading a stream the best way to travel. The only way to get game out is to carry it, no easy task with a 200-pound buck or a 400-pound black bear.
Twenty years ago on the peninsula, I learned to depend upon an Indian-style travois to pack game out of rough terrain. I still depend on it. I construct the travois using a poncho, two stout poles, and two spreaders.
After lashing the poles together in a modified X with two short legs and two long ones, I tie in the spreaders to maintain shape and then stretch the poncho between the long legs to form a platform on which to carry the burden.
The rest is simple. Position yourself between the short legs of the X — and start pulling. I’m not promising it’s easy, but try hoisting that bear on your shoulders and carrying it out. As a one-time member of a mountain SAR (Search & Rescue) team, I have used such a travois to transport an injured person on at least one occasion. A litter, on the other hand, is far less traumatic to a patient and can be easily constructed using nothing more than a poncho and two long poles.
The poles may even be eliminated in a pinch. Soldier medics in Vietnam frequently rescued their wounded buddies by tossing them onto a poncho, grabbing the poncho corners, and taking off for safety. More than one GI owes his life to a poncho and a couple of loyal friends.
Your survival poncho
As a survival item, the poncho occupies such a high status in the military that the cadre of a survival school I once attended sent its students into the wilderness armed with but three articles — a helmet, a knife, and a poncho. Given the choice of but one article, I think I might take the poncho.
The poncho can literally save your life, especially in the desert. One year while hiking Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, I depleted my water supply. I obtained fresh water with my poncho by stretching it out to let dew settle on it. When one of those tiny desert rainstorms headed my way, I quickly made a poncho “tub” by staking the corners to low bushes and managed to capture a canteenful of rain, enough to see me safely back to civilization.
Even the driest desert has water if you know how to extract it. A poncho saved me a great deal of discomfort —if not my life — during a trek across White Sands, New Mexico. Although it was mid-August and had not rained for weeks, I “found” water using a poncho, a rock, a canteen cup, and a hole I dug in the dry sand. The canteen cup goes at the bottom of the hole. The poncho lines the hole, the rock at the bottom of the poncho keeps it taut and sloping and slightly clear of the sides of the hole.
Related reading: Water Procurement In The Wild Using Smart Techniques
The principal of a “water still” is that the sun’s heat raises the temperature of the air and soil underneath the poncho until the air is saturated with water vapor. The driest air contains at least some moisture. The vapor begins to condense in tiny droplets on the undersurface of the poncho because the poncho is relatively cooler than the damp air under it. The droplets slowly run down the sloping underside of the poncho and drip off into the canteen. The still will even produce during the night. After sundown, the poncho cools rapidly while the temperature of the soil remains relatively high. Water vapor continues to condense on the undersurface of the poncho.
As much as a quart of water may be obtained in this manner over a 24-hour period. Your water still may also serve a dual purpose as an animal trap. Water under the poncho attracts snakes and small animals, which crawl down the top surface of the poncho and then cannot climb back out.
Rattlesnakes make reasonable survival fare, other snakes less so since many have mushy flesh that tastes revolting.
During all my years of using a poncho, I have listed more than 30 different ways to use it. I can still think of others. In fact, the poncho’s usefulness is limited only by the imagination and by your needs for it.
In an emergency, it makes an excellent sea anchor for a boat. You can use it to cache food and supplies and keep them safe from animals and insects for long periods of time. Cut into strips, it can be used as animal snares, bindings, a tourniquet, a makeshift rope, a halter for a horse… and much more.
The poncho is the most practical and useful piece of equipment. Its many uses can help you through your journeys, and you will constantly find new uses for this piece of equipment. Your imagination is your only limit, but it will surely be put to the test when the need arises. It’s one of my dearest pieces of gear, and I don’t plan any journey before putting my poncho at the top of the list of things to bring along.