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#282182 - 09/19/16 07:45 PM Poncho shelter practice
unimogbert Offline
Old Hand

Registered: 08/10/06
Posts: 857
Loc: Colorado
Once again, the lesson is to try your gear.

This weekend I took a solo hike for exercise and for curiosity to see where the old logging road visible on Google Maps went to.

I programmed my GPS so I could be sure of being on the locations in the event that the ground signs were too subtle.
I hiked to 2 points. Less than half a mile from the car and perhaps 200' elevation gain I found a dead-end logging road that had nearly disappeared.
So I decided to climb to the top of the hill the road was on. Then I decided to follow the ridge to a saddle where I would join a trail that I've travelled many times. From there I went on to the favorite destination (an old B-17 crash site) where I rested for 20 minutes then returned to the saddle.

At this point I'd hiked 3 hours and gained 1000' elevation reaching 10,200'. Temperature was perhaps 55F with variable breeze in the trees. The saddle had some trees and pine needles and I decided I'd try setting up a poncho shelter for practice, like I'd seen on YouTube.

First discovery - the soil layer on my mountains is about one inch deep. This means putting in tent stakes requires trial and error to find a spot between rocks to get the stake in very far. (I already knew this from backpacking trips with real tents)

Second discovery - the pine needle layer is relatively thin. In a real bivy situation I'd have to gather many, many more needles for a decent insulating layer.

3rd discovery - the 15 year old I've been hiking with had spent some alone time * cutting my kit's ridgeline into 6" to 8" pieces and poorly melting the ends. So my paracord ridgeline (if needed) was a knotty mess if I were to tie the pieces together. Fortunately I had a roll of twine to use though I didn't setup using a ridgeline. (tried the plowpoint and the square-held-up-by-the-hood arrangements)

4th discovery- military poncho is too short to keep both head and feet under cover (I'm 5' 9") Even diagonal doesn't really work well.

5th discovery- Even after putting on a stocking cap, fleece shirt and a BDU coat, after lying down on the needles under the poncho, the air movement in the openings around the poncho made me COLD after about 10 min. I'd sweated up my clothes climbing and hiking and didn't change out of the damp clothes for this exercise. (With me I had a polypro long sleeve top I could have put on and removed my damp shirt. And I had rain pants and a plastic rain parka that also stayed in my pack. )

I did not do anything with fire as we have a burn ban in effect.

What did I learn? Poncho shelter would make for a really miserable night out unless a LOT more effort was put into getting dry and insulated. And if it's raining, you're going to be lying on your side with your legs curled up. Build padding accordingly. Maybe have a large trash bag designated for foot covering as they stick out in the cold/rain.

Need more practice with the poncho itself and have replaced the ridgeline material in my kit.

* Young man likes the woods but isn't fit enough to hike for long. He quit after 1 hour on two trips (yes, uphill). So on one trip I expected he'd quit. He did. So we cooked ramen for him to eat (he loves ramen!) and I left him with food, water, a poncho, my kit of stakes, pre-tied paracord loops for stakes&grommets, ridgecord and a roll of twine. Instructions were that if he wanted he could put up a poncho shelter. Feel free to cut the TWINE as you desire. I went on up the mountain and returned 2 hours later. Found him asleep rolled in the poncho. No shelter assembled. No words about what he'd done to my cordage. Found the damage on this last trip.

His stepdad says that's what he does. Tell him he can do something - he won't do it. Tell him he can't do something, and he'll find a way to do it even if it means getting in trouble when found out.

My lesson- check your gear carefully after someone (especially that young fellow) hands it back.

#282191 - 09/20/16 02:24 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: unimogbert]
Tjin Offline

Registered: 04/08/02
Posts: 1756
So no sleepingbag, blanket or anything?

I hate to carry too much stuff, but a good mat, sleeping bag and a form of shelter is just mandatory for a good night sleep. Can't do things effectively without sleep, so the weight of proper sleeping gear are worth it.

#282194 - 09/20/16 04:33 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: Tjin]
unimogbert Offline
Old Hand

Registered: 08/10/06
Posts: 857
Loc: Colorado
Originally Posted By: Tjin
So no sleepingbag, blanket or anything?

I hate to carry too much stuff, but a good mat, sleeping bag and a form of shelter is just mandatory for a good night sleep. Can't do things effectively without sleep, so the weight of proper sleeping gear are worth it.

This was a minimal test of my just-in-case gear. I've carried a poncho for decades as part of my dayhiking loadout with the utility of having it as raingear as well as the theoretical use for expedient shelter. My backpack trips (many, many) have had mat, bag, tent and stove for hot food - so were all comfy and controlled.

Mostly I wanted to try out stringing up a poncho in terrain I hike in (not my backyard). But I sort of expected more "shelter" payoff for the effort when instead I just had a lesson in how much more must be carried or prepared in order to have a survivable night out in the altitudes and terrain I hike in.

Again, you really need to try your stuff out to consider yourself educated.

Edited by unimogbert (09/20/16 04:59 PM)

#282206 - 09/22/16 07:45 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: unimogbert]
Tom_L Offline

Registered: 03/19/07
Posts: 690
You know what they say about experience being a hard teacher - she gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. smirk

There is no substitute for hands-on knowledge. Kudos for giving it a try, sounds like you learned a couple of lessons there. Don't be too hard on yourself though - and don't give up the concept of the poncho shelter just yet. To be fair, I think your expectations of the military poncho lean-to may have been a little unrealistic.

The good old poncho lean-to does work well for what it is, and within its own set of limitations. You will find it depicted in just about any survival manual (for a good reason I suppose) even though of late it seems to be getting a little less popular.

For all its limitations, the poncho lean-to happens to be the type of shelter that I use most of the time. I've spent a good number of (surprisingly comfortable) nights under one. From the Highlands of Scotland where it kept me dry from an endless downpour, to the open desert, the Alps in wintertime (with snow cover and well below freezing) to temperate woodland, which is my primary environment.

To make it work properly though, you have to keep in mind that the poncho lean-to is not a complete shelter per se. It only achieves two things when constructed properly: it will keep you dry and (mostly) protected from wind. With improper construction and placement though your lean-to is likely to fail even at those two basic aims.

Not all ponchos are created equal. My go-to model is a cheap German army poncho made of some kind of stury OD synthetic fabric (vinyl IIRC). I've used it for almost 15 years and it's still going strong. It's long enough to keep me fully under cover, and I'm 6'2". In a pinch it could even accomodate two people as long as you don't mind huddling together. If you look around and try different models I'm sure you could find a surplus or civilian poncho that would suit your needs.

Your poncho is nothing more than a roof. Whether you opt for a simple single-sloped lean-to or a double-pitched A-frame - do make sure you pick a good spot sheltered from the wind. Preferably in a small hollow or natural depression, with your back to a large log or boulder, etc. Place the entrance away/perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction.

In cold weather extra ground insulation is a must. Even in a pine forest the existing layer of needles compacted on the ground is generally inadequate to guarantee a good night's rest. Make a bough bed if at all possible. If unavailable, look for dry grass, leaves and moss. In any case, strive to create a springy raised matress to get your body at least 3 to 4 inches above ground level.

A simple double-pitched lean-to is not the best choice in cold, windy and/or rainy weather because it's open on two ends. If no better option is at hand you can make your shelter much warmer by lowering the back end of the shelter as far toward the ground as practical. You can further enclose it with a backpack if you carry one, it will also make a decent makeshift pillow.

If the conditions are really horrible you could opt for some other type of shelter entirely, such as a debris hut and use the poncho only for the outer layer to keep you dry. And don't forget that fire will make all the difference. Ideally facing the entrance of your shelter, with a reflective screen behind if possible.

#282208 - 09/22/16 11:07 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: Tom_L]
Bingley Offline

Registered: 02/27/08
Posts: 1390
Originally Posted By: Tom_L
Not all ponchos are created equal. My go-to model is a cheap German army poncho made of some kind of stury OD synthetic fabric (vinyl IIRC).

I need to add a poncho to my kit. What criteria should I be looking for other than a sheet of waterproof plastic? Can anyone point me to a few good links? (Not sure whether there is a surplus store near me.)

#282209 - 09/22/16 11:44 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: Bingley]
Russ Offline

Registered: 06/02/06
Posts: 5099
Cheap plastic or vinyl might be fine. I got mine from CAMPMOR years back.

#282210 - 09/23/16 01:24 AM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: unimogbert]
unimogbert Offline
Old Hand

Registered: 08/10/06
Posts: 857
Loc: Colorado
I'm using a US issue type poncho. The material is very strong so it hasn't suffered from punctures even when bushwhacking. (it rides on the outside of my daypack)
I've also carried it as part of my in-case-of-snakebite gear when out with a group in rattlesnake country- makeshift litter for a victim.

But it's not as light as other products.

If I could change one thing I'd make it longer which would make it work better as rain gear and as a shelter.

#282211 - 09/23/16 12:03 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: unimogbert]
Montanero Offline

Registered: 10/14/08
Posts: 1482
Loc: North Carolina
I am a big fan ponchos. Serving 24 years in Airborne Infantry and Special Forces, I have spent literally months, or even years, living in poncho hooches. Their versatility as rain gear, shelter, and emergency litter make them a valuable piece of gear.

As for criteria, the usual attributes of size and weight are a factor, and the material they are made of affects the weight most of all. The military issue ones are not the lightest, but are durable. I currently carry a Sea to Summit soil-nylon poncho. The dimensions are greater and it is light and packs small, but it is not cheap.

As for making a shelter with a poncho, there are so many ways. With a single poncho, the lower to the ground, the drier and warmer you will be. There is that inconvenience of getting in and out though. I used to carry 2 ponchos, as the military ones snap together and can make a larger shelter, drier and easier to get into along with your gear. You do need to tie up the hoods to make sure they do not allow water in. It helps if you then guy them out so they do not form a depression in your shelter that catches water. The ends will be open, but can be blocked with gear or natural material if that is available.

Ponchos are used much like tarps. Tarps can't be worn as rain gear, but they are essentially the same in making shelters. Any guide for making tarp shelters will be useful for poncho shelters.

Some pieces of kit that I would never have considered going into the woods without when I was in the Army:


Canteen Cup



550 cord

#282212 - 09/23/16 01:38 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: Montanero]
hikermor Offline
Geezer in Chief

Registered: 08/26/06
Posts: 6861
Loc: southern Cal
I,too,have spent many comfortable nights under a poncho/tarp rig and they can work quite well if properly rigged. Size matters.

I often carry a light weight tarp fashioned from painter's tarp material which is light but not all that durable. This works well in situations where I find the poncho cumbersome (thick brush, technical climbing terrain, etc) and I don some sort of rain suit.

I like Montanero's list of essentials. Throw in a Bic, a small flashlight/headlamp, and a bit of FAK - you are good to go.

Bottom line - there are few pieces of gear more versatile than a poncho...
Geezer in Chief

#282213 - 09/23/16 02:51 PM Re: Poncho shelter practice [Re: unimogbert]
bacpacjac Offline
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 05/05/07
Posts: 3601
Loc: Ontario, Canada
Originally Posted By: unimogbert
...you really need to try your stuff out to consider yourself educated.

Wise words, unimogbert, and good on ya for getting out there and forcing theory and reality to meet. So many of us carry stuff that we don't really know how to use. That's gonna suck in an emergency! Practice. Practice. Practice. Even if it's in your backyard. Try different conditions - wind, rain, hot, cold, dark, injured.... and practice in the environments you'd expect to have one of those emergency situations in.

You Tube has a way of making me think that things are easier than they really are. So many people cut out to flubs, fumbles and frustrations in their videos. It makes it hard to get a real sense of what it's actually like unless you try it yourself. The first time I tried a ferro rod, for example, I thought it was going to be so easy because all survival gurus on tv and the Tube make it look that way. It is easy for me now, but after LOTS of practice. The same goes for shelter building. Even with an instant roof or floor provided by a poncho or tarp, it still takes a lot of work and time to make a good shelter.

EDIT to add: What are you using for your paracord ridgeline? Is it a braid?

Edited by bacpacjac (09/23/16 04:28 PM)
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