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Bear Canister Bias

Thru-Fishing the JMT

5 x 8 Poncho as Shelter and Raingear

Esbit Stove Height vs Efficiency

Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days

Stoveweight vs Time Over 28 Days

Repairing Gear on the Trail

Washing Down Gear

Common Choices for Alcohol Fueled Stoves

Flying With Fuels

Resupply Options for Long Distance Hikers

MSR Pocket Rocket Tests

Pack Light Eat Right

Debunking Cookware Myths

For a Few Calories More: the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trail Foods

Water Purification for Long Distance Hikers

The 5 x 8' Poncho as Shelter and Rain Gear

Poncho Tarp the morning after a serious deluge
by Paul AYCE Nanian

The road to ultralite hiking is simple: carry the lightest gear possible and carry only what’s necessary.

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

  1. Don't 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.
  2. Epic 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.
  3. Don'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.
  4. Guy 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.
  5. Seek 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.

Should 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 significantly.

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.


AYCE says
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.