The Survival Poncho and Tarp


Ponchos and Tarps

Lightweight tarps, ponchos, and poncho liners are critical must-haves for easy and effective temporary shelter. When I was climbing White Mountain a few years ago with two of my kids, the weather turned a little colder than what we had dressed for (I was in shorts in early Spring with snow still on the ground). In addition to water and my EDC, the only other item I packed for the quick 8-hour climb was a 25-year-old poncho liner and a Patagonia Houdini Jacket. If it wasn’t for that liner, it would have been much more difficult if not impossible to summit that day. The liner kept all three of us sheltered during breaks and was surprisingly warm and windproof. We simply huddled together near a rock outcropping and tucked the edges under our legs and bodies. The dark camouflage material soaked up the intermittent sun and seemed to easily shed the gale force winds blowing through valley all the way to the summit.

The “Ray-Way Tarp Book: How To Make A Tarp And Net-Tent, And Use Them In The Wilds” is a little overkill but is an excellent source of information related to tarps, their uses, and how to construct your own with lightweight materials. Be advised, the book can get expensive depending on availability (its popular among trail hikers looking to save an oz. for the AT or PCT). Link to AMZ.

Poncho. Common military ponchos are made of coated nylon and are waterproof. It can be used as a rain garment, ground cloth, or sleeping bag. It can also be used to make a shelter or tent. Two ponchos can be snapped together to make a two-person shelter. If possible, air-dry the poncho before folding it up. Ponchos can also be used as an expedient raft, hammock, or stretcher.

Back to basics for basic

Good livin’ in a two poncho shelter. US Army Photo

Ponchos and tarps are available in many styles, qualities, and features. US and German military ponchos are usually the best and least expensive. More expensive alternatives use breathable but waterproof materials. A simple waterproof layer with a strong backing, hood with draw string, and corner grommets is all you need. Large contractor grade plastic bags are an expedient alternative. Pack two or three.

Ponchos have many uses including rafts, stretchers and hammocks. See THIS post for detailed poncho raft instructions.

Best Sapper Competition 2010 Wisconsin Guard soldier a top finisher in 2013 Best Ranger Competition

Some materials degrade and waterproof coatings delaminate over time. How long depends on use and storage. Periodically inspect all water resistant equipment and replace or repair when needed.

Poncho Liner. The poncho liner is a lightweight padded panel about the same size and shape as the poncho. It can be attached to the poncho with its tie tapes and snap fasteners. It can also be used as a blanket. The liner can be hand-washed with warm soapy water. It should not be dry-cleaned.

Poncho Shelter

The poncho shelter, or tarp tent, is a reasonable shelter for most wet/semi-wet climates. This type of shelter does not provide any real insulating qualities or heat conservation. A poncho or tarp with grommetted corners (eyelets for tie down cord) works best but any sheet of waterproof material will work. Lay insulating bedding on the shelter site then string a stout length of cordage between two anchor points. This is called a ridge-line. The ridge-line should be about three feet off of the ground (approximate). If using a poncho, the hood must be “goose necked.” This is simply twisting the hood until it gathers into a tight bundle, closing the hole in the poncho for your head. Then tie the twisted bundle with any available cordage, (the drawstrings in the hood are good) so that it will not unwind.

Poncho Shelter

The poncho is draped over the ridge-line lengthwise, one half on one side, the other half on the other. The ridge-line is pulled up through the grommet, producing a loop that a small stick can inserted into. The tension on the stick (“cobbler peg”) will hold the poncho in place on the line and can be easily and quickly removed. A length of cordage can be tied to the hood of the poncho and secured to any over-head anchor point (branch or another ridge-line). This helps give the shelter sag relief during a hard rain or snow. Whittled out stakes can be driven through the grommets on the edges. This will draw the poncho down tight to the ground. If you need more room in the shelter, loops of cordage can be tied into the grommets (6-8 inches long). Stakes are driven through the loops, which raises the poncho edges off of the ground. If you are using a tarp, the corners can be twisted a few turns and cordage tied to the comers.

If Moderate to heavy rain is expected a trench six inches wide and six deep, should be dug. The trench should trace the shelter edges just at the dripline. Lead the trenches away from the shelter a few feet, preferably down hill. Drainage trenches are critical if you expect even moderate rain.

Poncho Lean-To

The poncho lean-to is another method that can be used in rains or heavy morning dew. The lean-to can be constructed from any large piece of sheet material (plastic, canvas, etc.) Natural insulation should be laid down for bedding. Two anchor points are selected and a ridge-line is tied about 3 feet off of the ground. The poncho is then secured to the ridge-line, with “cobblers pegs.” Stretch the poncho out to full length and stake it down to the ground. If the ground is rocky and you are unable to drive a stake, tie a 6-8 inch loop of cordage through the grommet. Place a stake through the loop, then lay the stake flat on the ground. Now place a large rock on top of the stake and the cordage.

Expedient poncho shelter. Photo by MC1 Roger Duncan.

A fence can be used for the ridge-line because this shelter can be entered from the sides. Of course the cobblers pegs cannot be used with the barbed wire, so it will need to be secured with cordage at the grommets. The shelter can be constructed without the ridge-line, by placing the edge of the poncho on a solid object (log, dirt mound, tailgate, etc.) and weighting down the comers with rocks.

Using a length of cordage, goose-neck the poncho hood and pull out the sag in the middle of the shelter. Attach the hood line to any close anchor point. If you don’t have an anchor point for the hood, two stout ridgepoles can be used. Cross the ridgepoles and lash them together with the hood line, then lean them out and away from the shelter. The pole’s weight will pull the sag out of the poncho. If the poles are stout enough and lean out at a steep enough angle from the shelter, they will weather most storm conditions.

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