Flashback to late July 2021 when we hiked Shelf Lake near Guanella Pass in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado. We were spending some time at the lake, and Derek was fishing for Cutthroat Trout. The sky was blue and the clouds were white and puffy. Within a matter of minutes, the wind shifted, dark clouds began moving in, and we booked it downhill to cover. We barely made it 100 yards before we were hiking in the rain, and the lightning and thunder began soon after. Long story short, we made it back to the car but were completely soaked through head to toe. Our rain jackets were no match for this serious downpour.
While this storm wasn’t in the forecast, afternoon thunderstorms are often quick, strong, and unpredictable, especially in the mountains. We were caught off-guard, and we said never again! One of the best pieces of gear we could have been carrying in this scenario was a poncho. It would have kept us more dry and warm, even in the more extreme conditions. Because they’re so lightweight, it’s not a big deal to throw a packable ponchos in your daypack.
Let’s talk about the best ponchos for hiking – ponchos vs. rain jackets and the pros and cons of both, what makes a good poncho, and the best ones on the market.
Best Hiking Ponchos
Editor’s Choice – Sea to Summit Nylon Tarp Poncho
This Sea to Summit Nylon Tarp Poncho made our top choice for best all around poncho because it’s a decent price and comes with many necessary features, plus some additional cool ones. At only 14 oz, it’s lightweight and can be easily packed into its stuff sack. It has a wide brim to help protect your face, and is large enough to accommodate a backpacking backpack. It’s made of 70D nylon with fully taped seams, and can double as an ultralight shelter when paired with a Sea to Summit bug tent. How’s that for multi-functional gear!
- Measures 54 x 104 inches (packed 3.5 x 7.5 inches)
- Weighs 14oz
- Can be a 2 person tarp shelter or poncho
- Made of waterproof 70D nylon with fully taped seams
- Pair with Sea to Summit bug tents to create an ultralight shelter
- 70D nylon is best waterproofing on this list
- On the heavier side
- Large even when packed down
Red Ledge EVA Adult Poncho – Most Affordable
This poncho from REI is a great option to have on hand for emergencies or sudden showers on the trail. You get what you pay for and will probably only be able to use it a handful of times, but the waterproof EVA material is great to have on hand just in case. It measures 52 x 80 inches and is easily put on and taken off using the side snaps. This size makes it about thigh-length, making it a great size and shape for wind and water proofing.
- Made of waterproof EVA material
- Measures 52 x 80 inches
- Weighs 5.9oz
- Most affordable
- Lightweight and packable
- Not for heavy use or long term use
- Not multi-functional
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho – Best for Backpacking (ultralight)
This Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp is perfect for the backpacker or lightweight hiker, as it weighs only 8.1oz and packs down incredible small. It’s multi-functional, so it can be used as a poncho / raincoat, groundsheet, pack cover, or a 2 person tarp shelter. Because it’s made of 15D ultra-sil fabric with double stitched, tape sealed fabric, you’re sure to stay dry. As with our other Sea to Summit poncho (above), you can pair it with a bug tent to create an ultralight shelter, and it’s large enough to accommodate a backpack.
- Measures 57 x 104 inches
- Packs down to 3 x 5.25 inches
- Weighs 8.1 oz
- Can be a 2 person tarp shelter, pack cover, groundsheet, or rain poncho
- Made of 15D ultra-sil nano fabric
- Ideal for backpacking
- Most expensive rain poncho on this list
Therm-a-Rest Honcho Poncho – Cold Weather
While this poncho isn’t technically a rain poncho, we’ve added it to this list because it’s a great option for cold weather and is still water-resistant. It’s perfect for keeping warm outside, whether you’re walking or hanging out at camp. It compresses into the built-in pocket, and can double as a pillow as well. There’s even a draw cord along the bottom edge so you can cinch it around your feet to reduce drafts and keep it in place.
- Made of 20-denier ripstop polyester
- Weighs 1 lb 8oz
- Measures 79 x 56 inches
- Doubles as blanket and warm hoodie for campfire chillin’
- Water-resistant as opposed to waterproof
- Perfect for cold weather camping
- Can double as a blanket and camp pillow
- On the more expensive side
- Not waterproof
Rain Ponchos Pros and Cons
- Because rain ponchos are longer, everything from your head to your knees will be covered and more protected.
- Ponchos can protect your gear better, since their size allows them to go over your backpack.
- The looser fit can provide more ventilation within the poncho.
- A poncho can be converted into a temporary shelter if you need to take cover from the rain.
- Typically cheaper and lighter than rain jackets.
- Longer ponchos can limit your range of motion by getting caught up around your knees and legs.
- Made of thinner, less durable material. Make sure you’re looking out for thorns and branches so you don’t tear your poncho.
- Some are disposable after one use, making it more wasteful.
- Ponchos can look silly and don’t necessarily make for the best adventure photos.
Rain Jacket Pros and Cons
- Rain jackets are more comfortable to wear since they just fit like a jacket.
- Rain jackets can double as wind breakers, so they can be very useful on more exposed hikes.
- They offer plenty of protection for light to moderate rain without sacrificing mobility.
- They are typically designed to provide ventilation through the fabric, so a nice rain jacket should keep you from creating your own sauna.
- Rain jackets only protect your upper half, not your legs. While most hiking pants are treated with DWR, they can still wet through during a downpour.
- They don’t protect your gear or cover your backpack.
- Rain jackets need to be washed if worn regularly.
- Because rain jackets are meant to ventilate through the material, you run the risk of ‘wetting out.’
What Makes the Best Ponchos for Hiking
What makes a good poncho for you depends on what you’re looking for. Do you want a one-time-use emergency poncho or a reusable one that can be dried out and repacked? Do you want something with features like pockets or zip up vents or do you want just a simple piece of plastic?
We would recommend finding a nice balance between price and durability. Don’t necessarily buy the most expensive option, but not the cheapest either. If you skip out on quality in exchange for something cheap, you’ll be more likely to still get wet – which defeats the purpose.
How to Clean and Take Care of a Poncho
If you opt for a reusable poncho, the first step is to always let it completely dry before packing it away. If you’re out on a day hike, it’s possible to pack it away then unfold it when you get home and let it dry then. Any other times, you should hang it in a well-ventilated area to let it dry first. For any cleaning, you should always follow the instructions on the label. For dirt, a wet microfiber cloth may be enough. If you need more than that, follow the washing instructions.