Wednesday, May 26, 2010



Well, OK, maybe it’s not a summer home on the Cote d’Azur, but you can make a pretty good shelter out of a poncho.

One of the best ways to cut down on weight in your individual kit is to make as many items as you can do double duty. I know a local retired SF officer who scoffs at the guys who carry around those great big Rambo knives; instead, he always carried a multi-purpose Swiss Army knife and later a multi-tool. They do a wide variety of things and can still cut. You can even field dress an antelope with a multi-tool blade if you’re dumb enough to loan out your skinning knife to your hunting partner and he’s a mile or two away.

The good old-fashioned GI poncho is one of the most versatile pieces of gear you can pack along anywhere. It rolls up compactly and weighs very little. As you have probably figured out yourself, one of the major uses of the poncho is to use it as…well…a poncho. Some of the guys in the service always used to think it a big score to get a-hold of one of the old rubberized olive drab ponchos, but the newer nylon ones work well enough. Especially if you wear one over a pack or web gear so that it does not lie flat directly against your shoulders. I actually carry two since they’re so handy and versatile.

When the weather is hot sometimes it’s not worth wearing rain gear at all, especially in a fairly light rain, at least when you’re wearing a waterproof jacket and rain pants. They hold in all the moisture from your body like a steam bath and you can end up wetter than you would have without wearing any rain gear at all. The poncho will do the same thing, but it is easier to avoid this by ventilation with the poncho open at the sides and the bottom. Wearing it over a pack or other gear also helps more air circulate.

In rough country or really bad weather, you can wear your load bearing equipment over the poncho to keep it from snagging on the brush and/or flapping in the wind and making noise.

Hypothermia strikes most often when it’s “not that cold out”, and almost always when a person is wet. More people die from hypothermia when temps are in the 40’s or even 50’s than when it’s below freezing. Mostly it’s hunters or hikers who are unprepared in the first place and then get wet. The poncho provides a good way to get your chilled body warmed back up. It a sitting position on a stump, rock, or rucksack, you let the poncho drape down to touch the ground. Tuck your head in like a turtle. Then light an emergency candle and put it between your boots. This puts out a very surprising amount of heat and warms you up in short order. It doesn’t really dry you out that much, but it helps and, as the old saying goes, it sure beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Then we have all the different ways you can make a hooch out of a poncho. A little parachute cord and a tree or two and you’re in business. Ben and I used nothing more than a poncho hooch while backpacking and camping in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Crazy Mountains. Of course, it’s not the best thing to use during mosquito and/or black fly season. In that case, a bug net over a boonie hat and a pair of leather gloves will at least keep the little bastards from driving you completely insane, but doesn’t make for the most restful sleep. Anyway, in the first illustration you can see how to make all these various poncho villas.

In the desert, digging and stacking rocks and using the poncho can provide desperately needed shade in a survival situation. This is a survival shade shelter for use with a poncho, parachute, poncho liner, whatever you may have. To reduce the surface temperature, the shelter floor should be elevated or dug down (approximately 18 inches). For thermal protection, a minimum of 2 layers of material suspended 12-18 inches above the head is required. White is the best color to reflect heat (inner most layer should be of darker material).

Or you can just do what I do and avoid deserts altogether. That works even better.

Some Korean War infantrymen, equipped only with a shelter half and a poncho, learned to connect the two via the matching snaps and stake the contraption down on the edges. When occupied, their M1 Garand rifle was used as a tent pole, butt on the ground. When it was time to bail out, the man grabbed his rifle and exited, allowing the shelter to collapse and become quite inconspicuous.

The most awesome fabulous weatherproof hooch you can make from a poncho is called the ALPHA TENT, designed by Warlord. I can't say enough good about this system. Basically, you modify the lightest shock-corded replacement tent poles from a dome tent to the right length and use electrical wire nuts to make the ends properly fit the grommets on the poncho. Check out the link for how to make one.

The Alpha Tent is amazing. I once camped out warm and dry during an all-night frog strangler downpour in the Big Belt Mountains in my little old Alpha Tent. The only concession I had to make was to trench around the hooch so that the sheets of water running down the hill didn’t go under me, a problem you’d have with any tent when it rains that hard.

When Mark and I did our first winter camp-out, I outsmarted myself by setting up canvas GI shelter halves, figuring I could keep fairly toasty with the use of a home-made candle stove made from a juice can. Well, I didn’t stay warm. Between the frozen ground and the deep snow, I naturally couldn’t use tent pegs and had to use ‘flukes” or snow anchors consisting of lengths of branches buried in the snow. In the morning it took me forever to get the thing taken down and rolled up. Get a shelter half wet in the cold, and it’s like trying to fold up cardboard.

Mark used the Alpha tent. He had his all packed up and ready in a minute or two, and spent a comfortable night. Lesson learned.

The Alpha Tent can also be used as an impromptu raft for river crossings. You flip the tent over, put your gear in it, and swim across with it. This I have not personally tested. I try to avoid swimming rivers myself. But it is a good trick to know. Here are two more methods from the manuals concerning how ponchos can be used as emergency rafts. These require two ponchos and are not, of course, designed to shoot whitewater on the River of No Return, merely to get you across a river or stream.

Brush Raft
The brush raft, if properly constructed, will support about 115 kilograms. To construct it, use ponchos, fresh green brush, two small saplings, and rope or vine as follows:

• Push the hood of each poncho to the inner side and tightly tie off the necks using the drawstrings.
• Attach the ropes or vines at the corner and side grommets of each poncho. Make sure they are long enough to cross to and tie with the others attached at the opposite corner or side.
• Spread one poncho on the ground with the inner side up. Pile fresh, green brush (no thick branches) on the poncho until the brush stack is about 45 centimeters high. Pull the drawstring up through the center of the brush stack.
• Make an X-frame from two small saplings and place it on top of the brush stack. Tie the X-frame securely in place with the poncho drawstring.
• Pile another 45 centimeters of brush on top of the X-frame, then compress the brush slightly.
• Pull the poncho sides up around the brush and, using the ropes or vines attached to the comer or side grommets, tie them diagonally from comer to corner and from side to side.
• Spread the second poncho, inner side up, next to the brush bundle.
• Roll the brush bundle onto the second poncho so that the tied side is down. Tie the second poncho around the brush bundle in the same manner as you tied the first poncho around the brush.
• Place it in the water with the tied side of the second poncho facing up.

Australian Poncho Raft

If you do not have time to gather brush for a brush raft, you can make an Australian poncho raft. This raft, although more waterproof than the poncho brush raft, will only float about 35 kilograms of equipment. To construct this raft, use two ponchos, two rucksacks, two 1.2-meter poles or branches, and ropes, vines, bootlaces, or comparable material as follows:

• Push the hood of each poncho to the inner side and tightly tie off the necks using the drawstrings.
• Spread one poncho on the ground with the inner side up. Place and center the two 1.2-meter poles on the poncho about 45 centimeters apart.
• Place your rucksacks or packs or other equipment between the poles. Also place other items that you want to keep dry between the poles. Snap the poncho sides together.
• Use your buddy's help to complete the raft. Hold the snapped portion of the poncho in the air and roll it tightly down to the equipment. Make sure you roll the full width of the poncho.
• Twist the ends of the roll to form pigtails in opposite directions. Fold the pigtails over the bundle and tie them securely in place using ropes, bootlaces, or vines.
• Spread the second poncho on the ground, inner side up. If you need more buoyancy, place some fresh green brush on this poncho.
• Place the equipment bundle, tied side down, on the center of the second poncho. Wrap the second poncho around the equipment bundle following the same procedure you used for wrapping the equipment in the first poncho.
• Tie ropes, bootlaces, vines, or other binding material around the raft about 30 centimeters from the end of each pigtail. Place and secure weapons on top of the raft.
• Tie one end of a rope to an empty canteen and the other end to the raft. This will help you to tow the raft.

So there you have it. Old GI poncho good, old GI poncho your friend. If you don’t have one in your first line gear, you might want to consider getting one so people don’t think you’re a Commie or something.


Mattexian said...

Y'all consider grouping these helpful tips together? Maybe using the "theme" tags? This would go great with other minuteman/light infantry tips for the field, like your follow-up of "Infantry Overload" with "The All High Order of Gear Queers."

Ben said...

I've thought about putting labels on the posts, but going back and doing that to 4 years of posts seems daunting.

Bawb said...

Hi Gang. I started posting these "serious" articles over at scribd. I will continue to do so so that they will all be in one place where you can access them and download them all at one time and place. Plus you can find all kinds of other good stuff on scribd, namely military manuals and some of the old wacky "Poor Man's Thermatron Nebulizer" type books.