Poncho Vs Rain Jacket for Hiking: Pros and Cons

by wheretheroadforks

It’s important to always be prepared for poor weather. Whether you’re hiking, bicycle touring, or traveling, you need to pack rain gear. After all, if you get drenched in a storm and can’t dry yourself off, you could end up in a life-threatening situation with hypothermia. When choosing rain gear for your trip, you have two options. This guide outlines the pros and cons of using a poncho vs rain jacket.

a person hiking while wearing a rain poncho

Rain Poncho Pros

  • Ponchos offer better ventilation than rain jackets- Because ponchos fit loosely, they allow more airflow. This helps you stay dry by allowing sweat to evaporate and escape. When you sweat while wearing a rain jacket, the sweat can get caught between your body and the waterproof material. It has no way to vent out. While wearing a rain jacket, you can sometimes get just as wet as if you hadn’t been wearing rain protection at all.
  • Ponchos are cheaper- If you’re on a tight budget, you can buy a disposable plastic poncho for $1 pretty much anywhere in the world. They’re incredibly affordable. Of course, this style only lasts for a few uses because the plastic is so flimsy. They’re great for occasional use though. Basic reusable ponchos start around $10. Rain jackets cost a bit more. 
  • One size fits all- You don’t have to worry about buying the proper size. Ponchos are large and baggy enough to fit most anyone. You can lend your poncho to a friend and it will fit just fine no matter how skinny, fat, short, or tall they are.
  • Ponchos offer more protection than rain jackets- Ponchos hang down around your knees and protect the lower part of your body from the rain. They are also large enough to drape over your backpack to keep it dry as well. This eliminates the need for rain pants or a pack cover, lightening your load. Rain jackets, on the other hand, just cover your upper body.
  • Some ponchos double as a tarp- Poncho tarps include grommets on the sides and corners. You can use these for tying guy lines and using poles to make a shelter. This can keep you dry from the rain or block wind or the sun. You can also use your tarp poncho as a groundsheet under a tent. Tarps have many uses. For more info, check out my tarp vs tent pros and cons list.
  • Ponchos are easier to make yourself- If you’re into MYOG or DIY, you can pretty easily sew yourself a poncho out of a piece of sil-nylon ripstop or Dyneema fabric. The hardest part is the hood. For more info, check out this excellent guide to making your own poncho tarp from The Trek. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can just cut arm and head holes out of a trash bag and use that for rain protection.
  • Ponchos help you lighten your pack weight- Because ponchos have multiple uses, you can leave some items at home. For example, you can use your poncho instead of a tent, pack cover, and groundsheet. By combining these three items in one, you can cut at least a couple of pounds from your pack.
  • More durable- Ponchos are very simple. They don’t have zippers or snaps that can break like rain jackets.
  • You can put your poncho on and take it off without removing your backpack- It slips over your whole pack and body. You don’t need to set your pack down on the wet ground in order to put it on.
people wearing ponchos while sightseeing in Venice on a rainy day

Tourists wearing ponchos during a rainy day in Venice

Rain Poncho Cons

  • Ponchos get caught up on tree branches and other objects- This is probably the biggest drawback to using a poncho. When you’re hiking in the backcountry, branches, sticks, and bushes can catch on your poncho because they fit so loose and baggy. Eventually one of these will cause a tear.
  • Some ponchos don’t cover your arms- Most ponchos are shaped like a rectangle when they’re laid out flat. They don’t have sleeves. This means your arms can get wet. The solution is to tuck your arms in near your body to keep them dry. Of course, if you do this, you can’t use your arms to use your trekking poles, steer your bike, or carry gear.
  • Ponchos can allow more water to get in- Because of the loose fit, rainwater can more easily blow in. In some weather conditions, a poncho doesn’t provide the same protection as a rain jacket.
  • Ponchos flap around- This is particularly annoying during heavy winds. One solution is to tie a string or bungee around your waist to secure the poncho a bit tighter.
  • A poncho shelter doesn’t offer as much protection as a camping tarp or tent- This point only matters if you intend to use your poncho as a camping shelter. Ponchos are slightly too small to provide complete protection during a heavy rainstorm. When paired with a water-resistant bivy, they do a pretty good job. For more info, check out this awesome guide to poncho tarps from The Hiking Life.
  • If you use your poncho for shelter, you don’t have rain protection if you have to leave your shelter- By this, I mean that if your poncho is in tarp mode, and you have to go out in the rain to go to the bathroom or something, you will just get wet. This can also be a problem when setting up your shelter in the rain. You have to take your poncho off to pitch it. During this time, you’ll get wet.
  • Ponchos aren’t stylish- It’s just a big, baggy piece of fabric hanging off of your body. Ponchos don’t look very flattering on anyone. For this reason, a poncho works better for those who plan to spend most of their time hiking or camping. Ponchos aren’t ideal for city use. Rain jackets, on the other hand, just look like normal clothing. This means they blend in in the city. Of course, if you don’t care about how you look, this point doesn’t matter.

a person walking along the railroad tracks in a rain jacket

Rain Jacket Pros

  • Rain jackets keep you drier- Most include shock cord around the waist and hood. Some have elastic around the sleeves. This makes the jacket fit tighter which helps to keep the water out. This also prevents water from blowing in on windy days.
  • Rain jackets don’t get caught on trees or branches as easily- Because the fabric fits closer to your body, you’re less likely to snag it on a limb or other obstacle in the trail. This means that you’re also less likely to tear your jacket.
  • Rain jackets cover your arms- Full-length sleeves keep your arms dry. This means your hands are always free to use while you walk. This comes in handy while using trekking poles or cycling.
  • Rain jackets come in different sizes- Rain jackets are not one size fits all. They usually come in small, medium, large, etc. You can get the right size to fit your body. This improves comfort and looks.
  • More stylish- Rain jackets look like a normal piece of clothing. This makes rain jackets a better choice for city use. While wearing one, you don’t stand out or look strange while wearing one.
  • You can use your rain jacket at home- Even during normal day to day life, you can use your rain jacket around town while it’s raining. You may not want to do this with a poncho because they look kind of funny.
  • Rain jackets don’t flap around- Because they are more form-fitting, rain jackets don’t blow around in the wind as bad as ponchos. This makes hiking through the wind much less noisy and annoying.
  • You always have rain protection available- A rain jacket only serves one purpose. That is to wear as a jacket and keep you dry. If you are using your poncho as a tarp, you don’t have any rain gear available.
  • You can buy custom made rain jackets– If you aren’t limited by a budget, several companies sew custom rain jackets to your exact specifications. This way, your jacket will fit your body perfectly and you can pick and choose all of the features that you want.
  • Rain jackets pack smaller- Because rain jackets use less fabric than ponchos, they are able to pack slightly smaller. Of course, if you use your poncho as a shelter and pack cover, you’ll save even more space.

a family walking down a street while wearing rain jackets

Rain Jacket Cons

  • Rain jackets don’t offer much ventilation- Because they fit tighter around the wrists and waist, rain jackets don’t allow much air to pass through. This is a problem when you sweat. The moisture has no way to escape and evaporate away because the waterproof material doesn’t allow any water to pass through. This means your sweat gets trapped inside the jacket. Eventually, you’ll get wet. Sometimes, you’ll get wetter in your rain jacket than if you had just not worn it at all. This depends on the humidity and intensity of the rain. There are some high-tech waterproof materials that claim to ventilate. In my experience, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
  • Rain jackets offer less rain protection- They only cover your upper body. Rain jackets don’t offer any rain protection for your legs or pack. For complete protection, you’ll need to pack rain pants and a pack cover. A poncho pretty much covers your whole body except for the bottom part of your legs.
  • Rain jackets are more expensive- Decent lightweight rain jackets start around $20. Ultralight models start around $100. This is expensive when compared to basic ponchos which start at around $1. High-end ponchos and rain jackets are comparable in cost.
  • Rain jackets are harder to make- If you’re into MYOG or DIY, sewing your own rain jacket is much more challenging than a poncho. You have to worry about the zipper, sleeves, and making it the right size. Of course, if you have time and some basic sewing skills, you can make yourself an awesome rain jacket.
  • Rain jackets only have one use- Ultralight hikers and travelers like to pack gear that has multiple uses. This saves on space and weight. Rain jackets only serve one purpose. Ponchos, on the other hand, have a multitude of uses including shelter, ground cover, and pack cover.
  • You have to choose the right size- Rain jackets aren’t one size fits all like ponchos. You have to pick out the right size for your body. This could be a problem if you want to lend your rain jacket out or you gain or lose a lot of weight.
  • Less durable- Rain jackets have zippers to keep them closed and elastic around the wrists. Some have snaps or velcro. This stuff can wear out or fail after a while.
  • You have to remove your pack every time you want to put on and take off your rain jacket- This is mostly just an annoyance. Sometimes you don’t want to set your pack down on the wet ground. With a poncho, you can put it on over your pack.
  • Your pack may weigh more when you use a rain jacket- You’ll have to carry more gear. For example, you’ll need a separate shelter and pack cover. These add weight and bulk. A poncho has many uses and can replace multiple items if you’re a minimalist.

The Third Option: The Umbrella

Another popular rain gear choice is a simple umbrella. For some types of trips, umbrellas may be a better choice than a rain jacket or poncho. For some trips, you may wish to carry an umbrella in addition to your traditional rain gear.

a tourist using an umbrella on a rainy night in the city

Umbrella Pros

  • You can wear regular clothes- There’s no need to dress in a specific way while using an umbrella. You can be dressed up for a night out while using it.
  • You’ll blend in in the city- While walking around a city on a rainy day, most everyone seems to have a black umbrella. You won’t stand out.
  • Umbrellas can keep multiple people dry- 2 people can share one umbrella. This is handy for a couple traveling together. You only need to pack one.
  • You can use your umbrella in the sun- Make yourself some shade while you walk. This also helps to protect your skin from sunburn.

Umbrella Cons

  • Umbrellas are awkward and unwieldy- They get caught on things and knock into things as you walk. While hiking, umbrellas are particularly annoying if you’re passing through an area with a lot of trees. It may be unusable if the trail is too overgrown.
  • One hand is always occupied- This is the biggest drawback in my opinion. You have to hold it. That means if you need to use two hands for whatever reason, you have to put your umbrella down and get wet. Rain jackets and ponchos work hands-free.
  • You can still get wet- This depends on the severity of the rain and wind. Umbrellas really only work for short walks through the rain. After a while, you’ll get wet. Particularly your lower body.
  • Umbrellas are kind of lame- For whatever reason, umbrellas are seen as uncool. They also aren’t very masculine. If you care about this type of thing, you may want to consider a rain jacket instead.

Personally, I really like umbrellas. Particularly for city travel. I often carry one in addition to my poncho or rain jacket. It’s one piece of luxury gear that I like to carry. I can use it no matter what I’m wearing. It’s compact and easy to carry around in my day pack. If it starts to rain, I can whip it out and stay dry for short walks.

My Choice: Poncho vs Rain Jacket

I prefer ponchos. In particular, poncho tarps. In my travels, I have found that the lighter and more compact my pack is, the happier I am. I began slowly switching to ultralight and multi-use gear to reduce my pack weight. A good poncho is the ultimate piece of multi-use gear. It offers 3 functions:

  1. Shelter- For shorter trips or trips where I expect decent weather, I leave my Big Agnes tent at home and just use my poncho as a tarp. This cuts around 2 pounds from my pack weight. 
  2. Pack cover- The poncho covers my pack so I can leave the dedicated pack cover at home. This cuts around 4 ounces.
  3. Groundsheet- For trips where I pack my tent, I can use my poncho as a ground cover under my tent. This cuts around 3 ounces from my pack weight.
A rain poncho set up as a basic tarp shelter

A rain poncho set up as a basic tarp shelter

In my opinion, the weight savings alone outweighs any drawbacks. I like always traveling with some kind of shelter in case I want to camp. Lately, I have begun leaving my tent at home more and more often in favor of the poncho tarp.

Having said this, there is one occasion where I prefer to pack my rain jacket instead of my poncho. That is while traveling internationally on a trip where I plan to spend most of my time in cities and staying in hostels.

A rain jacket makes more sense for these kinds of trips. Mostly because it looks more normal in a city. I can wear it to the bar or out around town and nobody gives me funny looks. While walking around in a poncho in some cities, you just stick out. I prefer to blend in for a variety of reasons when I travel.

Poncho Recommendations

When shopping for a poncho, I recommend you choose one that doubles as a tarp. Even if you don’t plan to use your poncho as a shelter, it’s nice to have the option. My favorite material poncho material is sil-nylon. It’s lightweight, durable, and fairly inexpensive.

If you’re on a tight budget, nylon and polyester ponchos offer excellent durability with a bit of a weight penalty. Alternatively, you could choose a disposable plastic poncho if you’re on an even tighter budget. I’ll link some of my favorite options below.

Sea to Summit Ultra-SIL Nano Tarp Poncho

This compact poncho tarp weighs just 8.1 ounces. It’s made of 15D sil-nylon fabric. It includes guy line attachment points on each corner so you can pitch the poncho as a tarp. It measures 57” by 104”. 

Arcturus Reusable Rain Poncho

This is an excellent budget option. It’s made of a lightweight and waterproof 210T Ripstop Taffeta The poncho weighs just 11 ounces (312 grams). It includes grommet on the corners for attaching guy lines. One drawback to this poncho is the size. It measures 54” by 96”. That’s a bit too small for taller campers to comfortably use it as a camping shelter.

Rain Jacket Recommendations

When shopping for a rain jacket, I recommend you go for the lightest weight option that you can afford. I like sil-nylon for its good weight to price ratio. It usually doesn’t rain all that often so you don’t want to be carrying around a heavy rain jacket that you rarely use. Here are a few of my recommendations:

Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Water-Resistant Breathable Rain Suit

This is the go-to rain suit for hikers on a budget. It’s affordable, lightweight, and includes rain pants and a stuff sack. This setup is tough to beat. Several sizes and colors are available including women’s and children’s versions. My biggest complaint with these is the fact that they aren’t all that durable. They are cheap enough to replace when they eventually tear. 

Columbia Men’s Glennaker Lake Front-Zip Rain Jacket

This nylon rain jacket is available in a large range of colors and sizes. It features a hideaway hood that zips into the collar. It’s made of lightweight waterproof nylon fabric. This jacket zips up into its side pocket for easy storage. This is a good mid-range option. It’s more durable than lower-end rain jackets. The only drawback is the fact that it’s slightly heavier and bulkier than high-end ultralight rain jackets. 

Umbrella Recommendation

For trave, I like the Fidus Mini Portable Lightweight Umbrella. It’s the most lightweight and compact option that I have found at just 8.4 ounces and 7.4 inches long. It’s available in a bunch of colors as well. I prefer classic black. So far, mine has held up really well. 

Final Thoughts: Poncho Vs Rain Jacket

Carrying rain protection while hiking, traveling, or camping is a must. You just never know when the weather is going to turn. With the high tech fabrics that are available today, an ultralight rain jacket or poncho only weighs around 8 ounces (around 225 grams). I’ve seen high-end models as light as 3 ounces. There’s no reason not to carry one.

In the end, this choice comes down to personal preference. Either a poncho or a rain jacket will work for pretty much any situation. If you don’t care about looks and plan to use the additional tarp feature, a poncho may be for you. If you never plan to use the tarp feature, a rain jacket is probably the better choice.

Where do you fall on the poncho vs rain jacket debate? Share your experience in the comments below!

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