The US Issue Poncho – Swiss Army Knife of Shelter

When considering what gear to buy, one of the things that everyone should have is a US military poncho.   As we’re going to discuss, it’s the Swiss Army knife of shelter gear, and has many uses. As the passage above from the Ultimate Tactical handbook says, it’s a refuge, a shelter, and a shade.

The style has been largely unchanged since the Vietnam War, and for good reason.  It’s well-designed and versatile as it is.

Before we get started, let me give you a caution…don’t buy a “military-type” or “US-Style” poncho, they aren’t the same thing.  Find a true surplus poncho and get that, rather than a cheap imitation.  The water-proofing just isn’t the same and they frequently aren’t as big as a US Poncho.

First, the poncho can be used as designed, and it works well.  It’s big enough to be worn over a backpack/rucksack and has a hood.  The loose nature will also cover any other gear you are wearing.  When paired with US Issue gore-tex pants, it’s a solid set of rain gear.

The poncho can be used as a shelter, and that’s its secondary use.  There area grommets on all sides for tying off the shelter to trees or staking it down.  Before using it as a shelter, or a tarp, make sure you securely tie off the hood.  

Once you get a poncho, get out into the field and practice setting up various types of shelters using it, the most basic two being a lean-to and an A-Frame.  The time to learn isn’t during an emergency.

To make an A-Frame:

  • Select two trees and tie a piece of cordage between them.  This will become the center ridge-line of your shelter.  Don’t make it too high, remember we are trying to remain concealed.
  • Lay the poncho over the ridge-line with equal amounts of material on each side.
  • Pull the sides out and stake them down, so that they are tight.  You can either stake the shelter directly into the ground, or use cordage to suspend them above the ground, for ventilation.
  • Make sure you leave enough room for your gear to be inside and out of the weather, and enough room for “self-administration”, like changing clothes or washing.
A Frame

To make a Lean-To:

  • Select two trees and tie a piece of cordage between them.  For a lean-to, this should be higher than on an A-Frame, but only as high as you need.
  • Stake down the rear directly into the ground.
  • You can fold in the excess from the sides if you have extra material, and use your gear to hold it down, creating a windbreak, if necessary.

The poncho can also be used a tarp in the field.  If you are using a small backpacking tent as a shelter, and you want to leave your gear outside, you can cover your gear with the poncho, again, being sure that the poncho hood is tied off.

The poncho can be used just as a tarp to cover other areas, rather than as your sleeping shelter.  The best thing is that the poncho has double-sided snaps, allowing you to snap multiple ponchos together and make a larger shelter.

In the field, you could use this to cover a fighting position/observation post or even a hunting blind, to set up a meeting/dining area, or really any other use.

You can suspend it between trees over your tent for additional rain protection (or, since it’s woodland camouflage, protection from observation).

The “Ranger Roll” is a tried and true item that actual field veterans swear by.  This is a US military poncho and poncho liner tied together.  The poncho liner comes with strings attached to tie through the grommets on a standard US poncho.  When tied together, this makes a good moderate weather sleeping bag.  You can either keep the two separate and attach them each night, or keep them separate so that you can use the poncho during the day.

You can insert a casualty reflective blanket between the two for early spring and late fall, and if you also add a US issue wool blanket in the middle, it becomes a four season solution.

My personal set up is to have two US ponchos, one in a ranger roll and the second on the belt for use as needed as either a poncho, or as a tarp shelter.  If needed, I can attach the two together.

An Option

The US Military Issue poncho is truly the Swiss Army knife of field shelter.  You can wear it to keep you dry, you can make a ranger roll sleeping bag, you can use it as a tent, and it has double sided snaps so that you can attach several together to make a larger shelter.  As an added bonus, it comes in the ubiquitous woodland camouflage pattern.

And, for prepping on a budget, if you aren’t wearing camouflage and suddenly need to, due to circumstances you encounter and you want to avoid contact, you can throw the poncho on over your clothes, wearing the hood and you are now in full camouflage.  Everyone should own at least one.

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Published by JD

I am the author of the Tactical Wisdom Series. I am a personal protection specialist and a veteran of the US Marine Corps. I conduct preparedness and self-defense training.

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