The 5 x 8' Poncho as Shelter and Rain Gear
by Paul AYCE Nanian
Poncho Tarp the
morning after a serious deluge
The road to ultralite
hiking is simple: carry the lightest gear possible and carry only what’s
Most lightweight hikers have little problem with the former;
it only makes sense that if you reduce the weight of an item your pack will
in return be lighter. This approach alone can reduce your pack weight enough
to allow the use of lightweight packs with light-duty frames like the Mountainsmith
Ghost. The latter, however, proves to be more problematic. To know what is necessary
requires judgment: “I don't need to carry wind or rain pants”, “I can carry a 40° bag and wear my spare clothes instead of a 20° bag”. The reward of this
approach is single digit base weights, but the risks can be dire. But sitting there watching a bad storm blow makes it hard to think of anything but the risks.
Truth be known, that first storm was by far the worst
of the five storms I weathered on my recent JMT hike. Shifting, gusty winds
complete with blowing, copious rain and hail made for an, ahem,*exciting* night.
I can't say I got much sleep, but morning finally
came and I packed up my dry gear, unscathed.
In that and each of the storms the poncho tarp proved to be adequate rain gear
and primary shelter.
The Five Tenets of Poncho Tarping
put off seeking a good location until it's too late. Hiking in the
aftermath of storms invariably involved passing scores of hikers trying to
dry out their soaked gear. This included both tent and tarp users. Storms
have a way of telling you when things are going to be bad. Listen to your
instincts; if there's a sudden drop in temperature and a black sky, more likely
than not you're in for a serious thunderstorm. Do the safe thing and seek
shelter before things get ugly; this is all the more important if you're using a small tarp like
the 5 x 8' poncho since room for error is basically nonexistent.
shelled bags are worth the weight. The splash factor becomes an issue
with small tarps and heavy rain. Nextec's Epic fabric worked surprisingly
well to mitigate the splash factor. Orient yourself so that the side of
your bag with the zipper is most protected, since the zipper will be porous
to any moisture trying to run off your bag. Don't be foolish and think that
Epic is waterproof- it isn't.
try small tarps until you've mastered tarp camping with an 8 x 10'. There's
no margin for error with a small tarp. With larger tarps you can sleep in
the center and be more or less insulated from blown rain and the splash factor.
You're about as close as you can get to the weather with a 5 x 8; learn the
tricks of the trade before you push the envelope.
lines are essential. A 5 x 8' tarp gives maximum area when
it's pitched as flat as possible. Guy lines help to keep the fabric taut and
water draining instead of pooling. Prop sticks can be used in a pinch; find
them before you go to sleep.
sites with good drainage and maximum natural protection. Nothing
is worse than a site with poor drainage. This is the most important factor
in staying dry. You cannot camp in those dished campsites seen by the side
of nearly every trail. Go off trail and find a defendable location, even if
the weather is clear. Every time you make camp, take the time to set up your
tarp as if there were an impending storm. Woe to those who wake at 3am to
a bad storm in a shoddily set up tarp in a dished site.
you or shouldn't you
If you're on your
game when it comes to an 8 x 10' rectangular tarp, a poncho tarp as rain gear
and shelter can cut over a pound from your base pack weight. Ponchos are surprisingly
enjoyable to hike in during rain, and do an excellent job of keeping your pack
dry and core ventilated. In a good location and properly pitched, a poncho tarp
is an adequate primary shelter, and the excitement of being so intimate with
bad weather is absolutely amazing. And if you're on a trail like the AT where
there are shelters every 7 miles or so to fall back on, the risks are mitigated
On the other hand,
small tarps like a 5 x 8 are definitely not recommended for the uninitiated.
Even experienced tarp users would be better off with a modern shaped tarp that's
large enough to allow for sleep during storms. Really, really weigh carefully
the risks involved to your health and safety by being so close to the weather
against the weight savings. For most people the risks will not justify the rewards.
|You're the one that'll suffer the possible dire consequences, including death, from exposure. Don't decide to take this risk lightly. This article outlines personal experience and is not be considered to be a shelter recommendation.