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Published Jun 20, 2022 6:54 AM

The waterproof poncho is the go-to defense against rain for military, hunters, backpackers, and soccer moms and dads alike, and for good reason. The best ponchos are light, easy to transport, provide protection against the elements for a large part of your body, and are simple to put on and take off. But it may come as a surprise that, depending on your outdoor activity, some ponchos are better choices than others.

The best ponchos are waterproof, and many are truly flexible and multifunctional. Need to keep the kiddos dry at a concert or baseball game? Put on a poncho. Backpacking, and find yourself in need of a quick shelter? Use a poncho to make a tent. Find that your regular tent is resting on some particularly soggy ground? Lay out your poncho as a ground sheet. This guide will help you match your weather protection needs to the poncho that will suit you best.

Methodology

The process we use to recommend the absolute best products relies on a mix of our team’s personal experience, external expert opinions, product research, and user reviews. I’ve pointed out in previous guides that I’ve spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities like camping, backpacking, and hiking, so I’ve had to plan for all sorts of weather contingencies. 

The fundamental job of a poncho is to protect the wearer from rain, so that was the starting point for inclusion in this list. Durability and functionality were also considered, but were weighted differently depending on the category (e.g., the best disposable poncho didn’t have to impress me with multifunctional capabilities, while the best lightweight poncho didn’t have to be the most durable). 

As I narrowed down the contenders, I compared my list to other “best of” poncho lists.  Gearassist.com, Camotrek.com, and Backpackers.com all have well-reviewed lists that helped quite a bit. After reviewing their lists, I carefully reviewed product pages from both the manufacturers and on Amazon. As usual, only products with an overwhelming percentage (greater than 70 percent) of positive reviews (four or five stars) could make the cut. For more information, check out the Task & Purpose editorial guidelines.

Arcturus is a company that creates specialized outdoor survival apparel including wool blankets, ghillie suits, and ponchos in particular. It’s a focus that seems to work because it’s managed to create high-quality, lightweight, yet durable rain gear that is very well-priced.

This poncho is available in several colors, including woodland camouflage, and it is designed to protect all of you from the rain. With a generous 48-inch length (front and back), it will easily protect all your legs past the knees for all but the tallest of people. Made of durable 210T ripstop nylon, the shell feels thin and light, and the double-layered polyurethane coatings ensure it remains waterproof.

The sides have three buttons to help close and keep out the wind and heavy rain (although some purchasers have stated that, because of this poncho’s size, strong winds can get in through the sides, so you may want to add some Velcro to cinch the sides closed a little more securely).

A neat feature of the Arcturus poncho is that you can buy optional “rapid shelter poles,” which fit into the shell’s grommet holes to create a standalone shelter. This is a luxury option, however, and if you don’t want to spring for the poles, you can still use 550 cord to create a tarp tent.

Product Specs
  • Material 210T ripstop polyester with double-layered polyurethane coated fabric
  • Size 96 x 54 inches
  • Weight 11 ounces
PROS

210T ripstop material is waterproof and durable

Steel grommets allow poncho to be used as tarp tent or shelter

Lightweight

CONS

Generous length may actually be too long for shorter people

Frogg Toggs have practically become a synonym for “poncho” among backpackers, and for good reason. It’s waterproof, inexpensive, durable, lightweight, and folds up into a small stuff sack. It’s comfortable, too, because while the outside is made of waterproof polypropylene, the inside is covered with a soft fabric layer, so your skin doesn’t have to touch plastic. If you’re looking for a great way to protect yourself from the rain without spending a lot of cash, this is your best choice, no matter what kind of outdoor activity you have planned.

The outer shell is made of nonwoven polypropylene fabric that is waterproof and wind-resistant (which means with really hard winds, you may feel it a bit) and has waterproofed seams. With the built-in adjustable hood cord and snaps on either side of the poncho, you can tighten and conform it for a more comfortable fit. And, it’s machine-washable, which is a nice thing to have after a long slog through a rainy hike.

The one drawback for the Frogg Toggs is the somewhat short length and width. The arms are covered just past the elbows for the average person. I’m 5-foot-8, and I get coverage to about mid-forearm. That’s fine for a while, but during a long, heavy downpour, it may get to be a problem with wet forearms. Plus, if you’re carrying a backpack, you’ll probably want to pack rain cover because this won’t be able to cover it and you effectively at the same time. But overall, it’s a great poncho.

Product Specs
  • Material Nonwoven polypropylene
  • Size 78 x 51 inches
  • Weight 9 ounces
PROS

Fully waterproof and lightweight

Machine-washable

Fantastic price

Side snaps and adjustable hood help create a more secure fit

CONS

Width somewhat short, exposing forearms more than other ponchos

For the folks who like a military-style kit, you may want to take a look at USGI Industries’ Military Style Poncho. Now, it’s not exactly like a military-issued poncho, as it’s lighter and not as thick. However, the 210T ripstop polyester is respectably tough, and the lightweight (18 ounces) and small size when packed in the carry bag (6 x 8 x 3 inches) makes this a great addition to an emergency bag or as part of your backpacking kit. Plus, USGI Industries is a disabled veteran-owned company, so that’s pretty cool.

The generous size of the Military Style Poncho provides plenty of protection for the arms and down the legs. Plus, the heavy-duty copper grommets on the sides give you the option of using it as a tarp tent or a rain fly, or it can be combined with a woobie-style liner that you can purchase separately (or use a military-issued liner, which reportedly fits nicely) to provide extra warmth or use as a sleeping bag/blanket.

Despite the high-quality build, USGI Industries product page states the poncho has a 3,000mm water resistance rating. Savvy buyers of the outdoor kit may recognize that “water resistance” is not the same as “waterproof.” That does not mean this poncho won’t protect you from rain, but it certainly will for most users. However, its ability to provide long-term protection over prolonged rain may be questionable.

Product Specs
  • Material 210T high-density ripstop polyester with polyurethane coated fabric
  • Size 86 x 59 inches
  • Weight 18 ounces
PROS

210T high-density ripstop material is lightweight but durable

Hood and waist drawstrings help adjust fit to conform closer to body

8 heavy-duty grommets allow poncho to be used as tarp tent, shelter, or cover

Can be used with woobie-style poncho liners (sold separately)

CONS

Rated 3,000mm water-resistant, so not fully waterproof depending on usage

Comparison to actual military issue find this poncho thinner, less durable

Best for Hiking

Serious hikers plan for any number of contingencies, including getting caught out in the middle of nowhere during a surprise downpour. And while any waterproof poncho is better than nothing, some are better designed if you plan to keep moving in the rain.

The Snugpak Patrol Poncho was designed to provide you and your gear with protection while minimizing any impact on your ability to move around. Made of its own Paratex Dry fabric, it’s waterproof, including the seams, and has dedicated sleeves (most ponchos simply drape over the arms). It also has room to cover your backpack, ensuring your gear stays dry. Plus (and this is a really nice feature), there’s a Velcro map pocket on the front of the chest, which lets you keep your map dry and easily accessible.

The Patrol Poncho can also be converted into an emergency bivy (bivouac sack) if you need overnight shelter. While other ponchos lend themselves to being used as tarp tents or ground sheets, this one can be pulled around you into a sort of cocoon shelter like mountaineers use. It’s not exactly a perfect shelter, but when confronted with an unexpected camping trip, it’s a lot better than nothing.

Product Specs
  • Material Proprietary Paratex Dry fabric
  • Size 53 x 56.7 inches (shoulder to hem)
  • Weight 13 ounces
PROS

Pullover poncho, but with dedicated arms for full arm coverage

Velcroed chest pocket for map storage

Designed to cover your backpack

CONS

More expensive than many ponchos

Hand-wash only

The Hagon PRO Disposable Rain Poncho is a poncho in its most elementary form. It’s essentially a plastic sheet that has been modified to provide protection against the rain, and that’s it. It’s designed for the person who has absolutely no need for their rain gear other than to be on hand when required. And for all this, the Hagon PRO is perfect.

Made from 0.035mm thick PE plastic, this shell is waterproof, light, and transparent — although there are actually a couple of color options if you like. Even though it’s essentially a plastic sheet, there are a couple of nice design elements. It has a well-designed hood that won’t collapse around your face (some ponchos with larger hoods can get in the way of your vision). It also features closed sides beneath the arm slots, which is great since the wind won’t be able to expose you with a sudden gust.

Of course, there are limitations to this kind of rain shell. Being disposable, they’re not intended to last very long (although you can probably get a few uses out of one). Plus, the 40-inch width only gives your arms partial coverage, so they’ll get wet. But for the price (you get five of these ponchos for $12.99 from Amazon), these ponchos are a perfect addition to an emergency bag or for a little insurance against the rain when working outside.

Product Specs
  • Material Polyurethane (PE) plastic
  • Size 50 x 40 inches
  • Weight Unknown (but light)
PROS

Waterproof

Inexpensive

Breathable design

CONS

No frills, just a simple shell to keep you dry

Define “travel” how you like (in a car, a plane, a kayak, a bike, or on foot), the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho is the perfect companion. Lightweight and small in its stuff sack (only 3 x 5.25 inches), you can stow it anywhere, and if you’re carrying it in a pack, you’ll hardly notice the extra eight ounces of weight. When you inevitably need it, you can’t ask for a more versatile shell to protect you against the rain.

This S2S poncho is made with 15D ultra-sil nano fabric, which is a “siliconized nylon fabric with a polyurethane (PU) inner coating” according to its Amazon product page. This provides solid water resistance for you as a poncho while on the move, or as a rainfly or tarp tent if needed for a shelter. Some backpackers will use this as their rainfly since it’s so light and can be used in a variety of ways. It’s large enough to protect you and your backpack, but also has a clever “drawcord tail” that allows the wearer to raise the hem if you don’t have a pack.

The biggest drawback of this well-made poncho is the cost. Some serious minimalist backpackers combine this with a bug tent like this one, so as to have more of a complete system that has multiple uses.

Product Specs
  • Material 15D Ultra-Sil Nano fabric
  • Size 57 x 104 inches
  • Weight 8.1 ounces
PROS

Waterproof

Large enough to create two-person shelter

CONS

Expensive

1,200mm hydrostatic head rating is good water resistance, may leak in prolonged rain

Best Lightweight

For those willing to pay the price, Zpacks’ Groundsheet Poncho provides excellent rain protection as well as heavy-duty utility as a groundsheet or pack cover, all at an astonishingly low weight of just under six ounces. For the ultralight enthusiast, there’s simply no better choice for protection against the rain.

Zpacks’ poncho gets its light, total waterproof protection and durability by using Dyneema, an “ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (HMPE) fiber,” that is so tough, it is often used in high-end tent floors. And with a rating of 20,000mm water resistance, it’s capable of keeping you dry through the harshest of rain. Like the previously discussed Sea to Summit Poncho, ultralight enthusiasts can combine this with Zpacks tents for a total lightweight sleeping system (but hoo-boy, it’ll cost you).

There are a couple of shortcomings to note, however, considering the high price. First, the poncho width is only 52 inches, which provides mid-arm coverage. Many ponchos are designed this way, as many people (backpackers in particular) find longer arm coverage cumbersome, especially in high winds. Also, the length doesn’t adequately cover larger backpacks, so if you’re hauling anything larger than 35 liters, you may want to look into getting rain pants or a rain kilt.

Product Specs
  • Material Dyneema fiber
  • Size 52 x 90 inches
  • Weight 5.7 ounces
PROS

Waterproof with fully taped seams and waterproof zipper

Elastic waist belt to adjust fit for warmth or venting

Multifunctional use as groundsheet, poncho, or dedicated pack cover if desired

CONS

Expensive

Mid-arm coverage

Our verdict on the best rain ponchos

Despite the relatively straightforward function of the poncho, there are a variety of products to choose from to meet your specific needs. The Arcturus Lightweight Ripstop Nylon Rain Poncho brings the best of all worlds together into a single product, and can fill almost any role needed at a reasonable price. But if you don’t really need the multifunctionality of the Arcturus or similar rain shells, then the Frogg Toggs Ultra Lite2 is almost certainly the way to go.

What to consider when buying a rain poncho

As with most outdoor kits, you really want to consider what you need your poncho to be capable of before you purchase it. If all you need is protection from rain while outside, like at a sports event or doing labor, then you can safely buy a lower-end poncho that leaves out things like adjustable waists, snap buttons, reinforced grommets, and the like that make the poncho a more versatile tool. If you need something more durable but don’t plan on carrying large backpacks, then well-made but functionally simple ponchos like the Frogg Toggs Ultra Lite2 will suit you well. It’s when you want to be able to get more out of your rain gear, like the ability to use it for a shelter, that you’ll want to do more research to ensure you get what you pay for.

Types of rain poncho

Disposable

A disposable rain poncho is essentially a sheet of waterproof material with a hood. It’s functional and provides ample protection, but isn’t designed to do much else. You can get a few uses out of these, which may be all you need, but eventually, it’ll tear as it’s not made to last.

Basic

Like the disposable poncho, these ponchos are water-resistant or waterproof shells that you wear when needed. The arms are usually covered mid-way to provide ease of movement, and most will have buttons to allow you to close the sides somewhat to protect you from the wind.  That’s pretty much it. These are durable enough to last you a while, but if you tend to wear them under a backpack, then they may wear through over time.

Multi-functional

These are rain shells that have been designed to take advantage of having a large sheet of waterproof material while you’re in remote areas. These are typically either made of thicker material or exotic lightweight material like Dyneema, that will protect from wind and rain but can be stretched underneath you or over you as a tarp tent. These will typically have reinforced grommets that will support trekking poles or 550 cord so you can set up your shelter. 

Key features of a rain poncho

Waterproofing

All rain ponchos afford some level of protection from precipitation, but not all are great for prolonged periods of heavy downpours. If it’s not waterproof rated, make sure it’s at least water-resistant to 1,200mm or higher. There is no industry standard of what is considered “waterproof” but fabrics with over 1,000mm of resistance start to provide a decent level of rain protection, and the higher you go, the more protection you’ll get. 

Size  

Most people don’t like to dress up like a cheap plastic Jedi, so the poncho is designed to look like it does for a reason. The length and width are geared to cover you at a minimum. But many are made with extra length in order to cover backpacks as well. If you’re not planning on hiking or carrying gear (and you’re not super tall), then something under 80 inches total length (40 inches on one side) is fine. But if you need more material to cover your pack, look for something over 80 inches. 

Drawstrings and buttons

The most basic of ponchos won’t have these, and you may not know what you’re missing. However, hood and waist drawstrings and side buttons are a great way to keep control of all the poncho in inclement weather, particularly when it’s windy outside. By using these, you can adjust the amount of material you have flapping in the wind, and make the use of the poncho a bit more comfortable.

Rain poncho pricing 

The good news is that there are a large variety of waterproof ponchos that do a great job protecting you from rain that don’t cost a lot of money. But like any outdoor gear, there is higher-quality, and in some cases exotic, materials that can push the price up pretty quickly.  Lower-priced ponchos tend to be made of simple PE plastics or polyester, and you can expect to pay below $20 (much lower if you buy something disposable). As you go higher in price, up to the $60 range, materials are more durable, like ripstop woven fabrics, that allow the poncho to endure more rigorous use. Once you pass $60, you’ll likely be in the more exotic range, where ultralight designs and materials are often part of a tent or hammock system.

Tips and tricks

As with something you do for decades upon decades, you pick up a few tips and tricks along the way in terms of selecting the right product, and/or using it. That’s the case with us and ponchos. To help you bridge the information gap, here’s a selection of what we’ve learned along the way.

  • Ponchos are almost all poorly insulated, but you can buy a separate poncho liner for cold weather. These also make nice blankets or emergency sleeping bags.
  • If backpacking, keep your poncho in an easily accessible pocket so you’re not digging through stuff to find it in a sudden downpour.
  • Some 550 cord can turn almost any poncho into a lean-to shelter. Always have 550 cord when backpacking.
  • Don’t overthink this. If you just need a poncho for a car emergency kit, the disposable ones are all you need.

FAQs about rain ponchos

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Which is better, a raincoat or poncho?

A: This totally depends on your intended use. If you know you’re going to be in rainy conditions for extended periods, go with a raincoat. If you want something easily donned for sudden rain, the poncho is the way to go.

Q: What is the best poncho material?

A: This depends on how much you want to spend. While exotic materials like Dyneema are light and waterproof, most won’t spend that much. Look for durable materials (e.g., ripstop nylon) that don’t feel like a trash bag on your skin.

Q: Do rain ponchos keep you warm?

A: In the winter, with a liner, yes. In the spring and summer, ponchos can make you too warm as they tend to trap in heat, so look for designs that help you vent that heat.

Q: What is the difference between a serape and poncho?

A: A serape is a cool-looking blanket-like garment that originated in Mexico. The poncho originated in South America and has a slit for the head. Modern ponchos are usually used for foul weather.

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