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The Things We Carry: Part 7

Ponchos aren't elegant, and they're a nuisance (or worse) in high winds and big waves. But for day in, day out utility, versatility, and economy they're mighty hard to beat. Having said that, I've a confession to make: I didn't always appreciate them. When I first took to the woods and waters, I wanted only high-tech, high fashion raingear. If it was endorsed by a Himalayan climber, that was ideal. I wasn't impressed by the fact that ponchos worked. They were too everyday, too down-home, too utilitarian, too simple. I wanted flash.

Then — you guessed it — my feelings did a 180. My epiphany came when I was working as a geologist. I tramped for miles cross-country in whatever weather the gods decided to throw my way. I also hauled a rucksack full of sample bags and field gear. My job required a lot of note-taking, not to mention photography and sketching. Moreover, the work had to be completed on schedule, and each day brought a new challenge.  Swamps with standing water deeper than my wellies were high. Scree slopes that threatened to avalanche with every step I took. Hawthorn thickets that tore clothes and lacerated skin. Not to mention rain. Always rain.

Yet though I carried a surplus German military poncho in my rucksack, I never used it — until the day an icy November deluge caught me halfway across a seemingly endless plowed field. This was no drizzle. The rain pelted down with tropical intensity, but no tree or shrub offered shelter. That's when I remembered the poncho in my pack. I had the rucksack off in seconds. Out came the poncho. Then I shouldered the rucksack again and pulled the poncho over my head. From that moment on I was a convert. The rain continued to bucket down, but I stayed dry from the top of my head to the top of my wellies. My pack and log book stayed dry, too. And that was just the beginning of my enlightenment. In time, I came to understand that ponchos are...

The Swiss Army Knives of Clothing

A poncho is a sort of peripatetic tarp, and it has many of the tarp's virtues. I often carried a lightweight tarp in my rucksack, even if I wasn't planning an overnight stay along the trail. It was part of Being Prepared. But once I started thinking about it, I realized that my poncho was a little brother to the tarp. Most ponchos are rectangular, after all, and many have grommets at their corners, just like most tarps. The main difference? Ponchos have a hole near the middle for your head. (Many have a hood, as well.) This hole is what transforms the poncho from a simple tarp into a…

WEARABLE SHELTER.  But unlike a conventional rain jacket, a poncho can cover your pack as well as your body. (Many ponchos are cut longer in the back than in front for just this reason.) Nor do you have to worry much about that bane of raingear: condensation. A poncho's generous cut and open skirt make ventilation a snap. There's no need for miracle membranes here — convection alone is usually enough to keep you from overheating and sweating through your clothes. Yet when a cold wind blows, you can also cinch your poncho close round your body, achieving much the same result as a form-fitting shell.

And a poncho's uses don't stop there. It's as practical off your body as on. In fact, it can be pressed into service as both…

GROUNDSHEET AND TARP.  Spread your poncho underneath your sleeping pad, and your bedding is now protected by a waterproof groundsheet. (A couple of caveats: Tie the hood closed with a lanyard and watch out for sharp stones and thorns.) If rain threatens or you expect a heavy dew, couple your poncho with an orthodox tarp. The result? A simple, lightweight lean-to. Bothered by biting insects? No problem. Suspend a mosquito net from the ridgeline or wear a head net. A large poncho can even be used as a tarp or lunchtime windbreak in its own right. Pitch it high if you want an airy sunshade on the beach, or cinch it low for a refuge in wind-driven rain. A poncho can also pinch-hit for your tent's rain fly in an emergency. And if this weren't enough, it makes a pretty fair roll-your-own bivy bag, too. Condensation will be a problem, of course, but it's usually better to be soaked with warm sweat than cold rain. Or go the whole hog: dispense with your sleeping bag altogether. Add a light insulated liner (you'll find milspec "poncho liners" in any surplus outlet), and your poncho can double as a warm-weather bag, at least on short trips.

Is that all? No. A poncho can also be used as an…

(ALMOST) DRY BAG.  Call it GI waterproofing. Just fold your poncho over your spare clothing, roll it up tight, and tie it securely. The resulting mini-duffle will keep your skivvies and socks dry under almost any circumstances — even through short periods of total immersion, if the gods are smiling and you don't have too many pinholes in your poncho. Need a canoe tarp to protect your packs from splash and spray? Simply drape your poncho over the packs and tuck the edges and corners underneath, lashing it down with light line. Better yet, shove something — a break-down aluminum pole, say — under the packs to keep their bottoms out of the water sloshing around in the bilge. Now your gear is protected from soaking as well as spray. And in a worst-case scenario a poncho can be folded into a reasonable approximation of a knapsack. It won't carry like a Kelty, to be sure, but it beats having to walk out of the bush with all your belongings in you hands.

On a happier note, a poncho makes a pretty fair…

SAIL.  No paddler wants to turn down a free ride, so on the rare occasions when you're favored with a following wind, put the Old Woman to work by lashing your poncho to two paddles (or that aluminum canoe pole I mentioned earlier). In a tandem canoe, the bowman can prop these improvised masts upright against the bow deck in a splayed "V," while bracing them with his feet — leaving his partner in the stern to trail her paddle as a rudder. More adventurous paddlers may even want to experiment with improvised backstays, but resist the temptation to make your rig too elaborate. You'll need to drop your sail in a hurry if the wind shifts suddenly, or if a gale-force gust threatens to drive your bow under the waves. Of course, less ambitious bowmen will just stand up and hold the poncho in their outstretched arms while trapping the lower corners underfoot. Chances are good that their arms will give out before the wind does, however. (A cautionary word: If you're tempted to try this — and who isn't at one time or another? — experiment in your home waters first. Standing in the bow of a canoe requires practice, as well as a skilled partner in the stern.)

Have I convinced you that ponchos still have a place in paddlers' packs? Good. But don't think that all ponchos are created equal. They're not. It's important to pay attention to…

The Devils in the Details

You can buy specially tailored ponchos. Indeed, you may want to, particularly if pedaling is an adjunct to your paddling trips. The "cyclist's rain capes" that appear in catalogs every so often are really ponchos, but they're ponchos with a difference — cut to accommodate a cyclist's hunched posture while minimizing flapping and keeping stray fabric out of a bicycle's moving parts. Farwell often uses one as his default raingear, on the water and off. But even he admits that standard full-cut ponchos work best for paddling and portaging. A few points to check: The hood should cinch down tight enough to keep out wind-blown rain, while still allowing you to turn your head. And though light weight is good, durability is more important. Ponchos lead a hard life. The fabric must be sturdy, and all seams should be sealed. (Carry repair tape, anyway.) Get the right size, too. You want your poncho to cover you from crown to calf — and your pack, into the bargain — but you don't want a poncho that's so long that you're always tripping on the hem. Unfortunately, few ponchos are made in more than one size. Still, a sewing machine can shorten one in a jiffy, and some paddlers may even be able to get by with a kid's model. Lastly, don't bother carrying a poncho that doesn't have snaps along the sides, and insist on grommets at the corners. (A snap kit or grommet tool will remedy either deficiency, of course.)

Now for the big question: Where can you buy one? This is harder than it might appear. Ponchos don't have the sales appeal that high-tech shells do. Few small outfitters stock them nowadays. Luckily, mail order sellers like Campmor usually have them in their catalogs, as do companies that supply field gear to foresters and geologists. Military surplus stores are also good places to look. Their offerings may be heavier than those of recreational outfitters, but surplus gear is almost always sturdy. Since a poncho does so many things, you can afford a few extra ounces. And surplus ponchos are often dirt cheap.

OK. I've been trumpeting the many virtues of ponchos, but that doesn't mean they're perfect. In fact, ponchos can occasionally prove…

False Friends

A poncho's loose fit, while a very good thing when you're trudging over a portage trail on a showery summer day, is a downright nuisance in a gale of wind. The folds of fabric flap unmercifully, sometimes wrapping the wearer up as tightly as any Egyptian mummy. And it's even worse in a boat, where a poncho can act as a drag chute in a head wind, driving you back faster than you can paddle forward. All that fabric can get in the way even when the Old Woman isn't nagging. As I noted earlier, short folks may step on the hem of an overlong poncho as they hike down the trail, even tripping themselves up from time to time. (And it's no fun to fall if you have a canoe on your shoulders!) Even lanky paddlers occasionally catch the hem with their boots when climbing or descending steep slopes. As for swimming in a poncho — don't even think about it. Stow your poncho before running rapids or attempting a long, open-water crossing. In less demanding conditions, however, you can do a lot to civilize a poncho. To begin with, make sure you close all the snaps along the edges. A makeshift belt around the middle does even more to tame the beast, pulling in the fabric and preventing it from billowing. Of course, this negates one of the poncho's best features — its ventilation. Still, it's worth sweating a bit to avoid being blown backward down a long lake or tripped up on the portage trail, isn't it?

Ponchos are the Swiss Army knives of clothing. They may not do any one thing superbly well, but they do a lot of the jobs that need doing in and out of boats. That's plenty good enough for me. They're also cheap, light, and easy to stow. And look what you get for your money: Protection from wind and water for both you and your gear, a light-duty tarp, and a serviceable ground cloth, all rolled into one. Politicians and paddlers don't have too much in common, but there's one problem we share. We often need to cover our keisters. Politicians have to rely on torrents of words, but we paddlers have ponchos, and I know which I prefer. That's why I always have a poncho in my pack. Shouldn't you?

Copyright © 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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