It’s important to always prepare for poor weather. You never know when it’s going to rain. The ideal rain gear depends on the activity you’re doing, the weather you expect, how much gear you want to carry, as well as personal preference. 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. We’ll cover weight, packed size, waterproofness, ventilation, cost, versatility, and much more. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best rain gear whether you’re hiking, camping, trail-running, cycling, fishing, or traveling.
Getting drenched in an unexpected storm could bring your adventure to an end. It could even bring about a dangerous situation if you have no way to dry off. Hypothermia can be a real concern in some cases. If you prepare properly, the rain can create a fresh and pleasant atmosphere.
What is a Rain Poncho?
In its most basic form, a rain poncho is a rectangular piece of waterproof fabric or plastic with an opening in the middle. Your head goes through the opening and the fabric drapes over your body. There are no sleeves. Most rain ponchos have a hood sewn around the opening to keep the rain off of your head. Ponchos fit loosely. They are usually one-size-fits-all.
Mid-range and higher-end ponchos offer additional features to add comfort and versatility. For example, some ponchos are made from waterproof breathable fabric to help vent sweat. Some offer zippered vents as well. Some ponchos feature sleeves to help keep your arms dry.
Many ponchos have a drawstring around the hood and waist to help keep heavy rain out and to prevent the poncho from flapping around in the wind. Insulated ponchos are available to provide more warmth.
Some models come with grommets along the edges so you can use the poncho as a tarp or ground cover. Large ponchos can act as a pack cover while you’re wearing them. These features add versatility.
Common rain poncho materials include coated or laminated nylon or polyester, Cuben Fiber, PVC, and other various types of plastic. Basic reusable ponchos are typically made from nylon/polyester with a silicone coating. These are affordable, durable, and waterproof. Ultralight models are available that are made from thinner material such as Dyneema. Disposable plastic ponchos are also available. I’ll talk more about materials later on in this guide.
What is a Rain Jacket?
A rain jacket is simply a jacket that is made from waterproof or water-resistant material. Rain jackets have a waterproof zipper in the front, making them easy to put on and remove. Most models are waist length and have a hood to keep your head dry.
Rain jackets fit tighter than ponchos. They come in small, medium, and large sizes. You’ll have to choose the proper size to fit your body. Rain jackets often come with hook and loop fasteners or snaps around the wrists and elastic or a drawcord around the waist. These help you fine-tune the fit and seal the jacket up to keep water out.
Higher-end rain jackets offer a number of additional features to improve comfort and performance. For example, many models feature zippered underarm vents to allow sweat to escape. Some models are made from high-tech waterproof breathable materials, such as Gore-Tex. Many models are seem sealed for extra water resistance. Usually, the hood has a brim and drawcords to help keep your face dry. Some rain jackets offer insulation for extra warmth.
Many models feature waterproof zippered pockets for storing gear. Sometimes the hood can be rolled up and stored in the collar or be removed. Many models are also designed to be compact and packable. Rain jackets are also available in fashionable designs.
Rain Poncho Pros
- Ponchos offer more protection than rain jackets- Ponchos are usually made from a single piece of material. This means there are fewer seams that can leak. The only seam is around the hood. Ponchos also cover more of your body than rain jackets. They hang down to around your mid-thighs. This helps protect the lower part of your body from the rain. You may not need rain pants when you wear a poncho. Ponchos also allow you to sit on wet surfaces without getting your pants wet. Most ponchos are also large enough to drape over your backpack to keep it dry as well. This eliminates the need for a pack cover. Rain jackets, on the other hand, just cover your upper body.
- Ponchos offer better ventilation than rain jackets- Waterproof clothing keeps the rain out but also traps your sweat inside. In order to keep you dry, your rain gear must offer good ventilation so your sweat can evaporate and escape. Otherwise, your sweat will soak your clothing just as bad as the rain could. Because ponchos fit loosely, they allow for much more ventilation than rain jackets. Air can enter under your arms and moisture can vent out. This is possible because ponchos don’t have tight sleeves. The material just drapes over your body. Fresh air can also enter from the bottom of the poncho because there is no waistband. This airflow helps to dry your clothing and body. Some ponchos also offer zippered vents or buttoned flaps under the arms and in the front that you can open to further increase ventilation. This airflow helps you stay drier by allowing sweat to evaporate and escape.
- One size fits all- You don’t have to worry about buying the proper size when you choose a poncho. Ponchos are large and baggy enough to fit most anyone. It doesn’t matter what body shape or size you have. Most ponchos one size fits all. This means you can lend your poncho to a friend and it will fit just fine no matter how skinny, fat, short, or tall they are. That said, some manufacturers do offer short and tall sizes. If you’re short, you’ll want to check the poncho length before you buy. An extra-large poncho could hang down to the ground.
- Ponchos are cheaper than rain jackets- If you’re on a tight budget, you can buy a disposable plastic poncho for around $1 pretty much anywhere in the world. Of course, this style only lasts for a few uses because the plastic is so flimsy. They’re great for occasional use. Basic reusable ponchos start around $10-$15 depending on the material they’re made of. Ponchos are cheaper than rain jackets because they have a much simpler design. They are made from a rectangular piece of fabric. There are no sleeves or zippers. Basic rain jackets start at around $20.
- Some ponchos double as a tarp or groundsheet- Poncho tarps include grommets on the sides and corners. You can use these to attach guy lines and use poles and stakes to make a shelter out of your poncho. This can keep you or your gear dry from the rain or block wind or the sun. You can even use a large poncho tarp as your primary shelter. Check out this excellent guide to poncho tarps for more info. In addition, you can also use your poncho as a groundsheet under a tent or bivy sack. Tarps have many uses. For more info, check out my tarp vs tent pros and cons list.
- Ponchos pack down smaller– Ponchos are generally more compact than rain jackets. For example, disposable or ultralight poncho might pack down to the size of a deck of cards. This is possible because ponchos usually don’t have bulky zippers or elastic bands. They are just made from a piece of plastic or fabric. This saves you some space in your pack. This makes ponchos a great choice for trips where rain is a possibility but not expected. A compact poncho won’t waste much space in your pack if you don’t have to use it.
- Ponchos weigh less than rain jackets- Because ponchos don’t have sleeves, zippers, elastic bands, or other fancy features, they tend to weigh less than rain jackets. On average, a lightweight poncho will usually weigh 1-2 ounces less than a comparable rain jacket. The exact weight difference really depends on the materials and design. Because ponchos have multiple uses, you can also leave some items at home. This saves even more weight. 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. The light weight and versatility make ponchos an excellent choice for ultralight hikers.
- You can easily make a DIY poncho- Ponchos are easy to make. 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 have multiple uses- Ponchos are incredibly versatile. A large poncho can double as a tarp or groundsheet. A poncho tarp can be your shelter. You can also use your poncho as a pack cover. This makes ponchos ideal for ultralight hikers. Carrying gear with multiple uses helps you cut weight and save space. Ponchos also have a number of uses in survival situations. You can use a poncho as a stretcher, to collect rainwater, to carry stuff, or to keep an injury dry.
- Ponchos keep you cooler- The loose fit allows air to pass through. This air moving across your skin evaporates sweat, which cools you down. This makes ponchos a better choice for hiking in hot and wet climates like the tropics. You’ll stay cooler and more comfortable.
- Ponchos are more durable- Ponchos are very simple. They don’t have zippers or snaps that can wear out or break like rain jackets. There are fewer seams that can tear. You can stuff and compress your poncho or use it as a tarp without having to worry about damaging it. This makes ponchos more durable than rain jackets. If your poncho tears, you can easily patch it up. This Gear Aid Tenacious Tape (#ad) works well for making waterproof patches.
- Ponchos are more reliable- Most ponchos don’t have zippers that can fail. Instead, they simply pull over your head. They also have fewer seams that fail and can start leaking. This makes ponchos a bit more reliable. If you expect a long and heavy rainstorm rain and rugged conditions, you may be better off with a poncho.
- You can put your poncho on and take it off without removing your backpack- Ponchos slip over your whole backpack and body. It’s not necessary to take your pack off and set it down on the wet ground in order to put your poncho on or take it off. This saves time and helps keep you and your gear dryer.
Rain Poncho Cons
- Ponchos can snag on trees, branches, and other obstacles- When you’re hiking in the backcountry, branches, sticks, thorns, and brush can catch on your poncho. This happens because ponchos fit loose and baggy. You have to be particularly careful while hiking on narrow trails and off-trail. Eventually, your poncho will snag on something and tear. One way to reduce the likelihood of snags is to tie a cord or bungee around your waist. This holds the material closer to your body so it doesn’t flap around quite so much.
- Ponchos don’t cover your arms- Most ponchos are shaped like a rectangle when they’re laid out flat. They don’t have sleeves. The material just drapes over your shoulders and covers the upper half of your arms. This means your forearms can get wet. The sleeves of your clothing under your poncho will get wet unless you wear a short sleeve shirt or roll the sleeves up. The only 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 with sleeves do exist. These can keep your arms dry. The sleeves do add a bit of weight and bulk.
- Ponchos don’t provide as much protection as rain jackets in extreme conditions- Due to the loose fit, rainwater can more easily blow or splash in your poncho. It can enter around the neck or through the sleeves. These areas are more open on a poncho because there are no zippers, elastic bands, or snaps to seal the openings up. The larger openings allow more water to enter. Ponchos don’t provide as much protection from the wind for the same reasons. The large openings allow wind to blow through the poncho. In extremely windy and rainy conditions, a poncho may not provide quite as much protection as a rain jacket.
- Ponchos aren’t stylish- Rain ponchos are basically a big, baggy piece of waterproof fabric that hangs off of your body. They don’t look flattering on anyone. They don’t provide a good fit either. Because ponchos are one size fits all, they are usually too baggy. Color options are limited as well. Most ponchos are dark green, grey, or black. They are designed to blend into the woods. For these reasons, rain ponchos are better for those who plan to spend most of their time in the outdoors hiking, camping, cycling, or fishing. When you’re in the woods, it doesn’t matter how you look. Ponchos aren’t ideal for city use. They look odd and make you stand out. Particularly if you live in a large city where people care about fashion. Rain jackets, on the other hand, just look like normal clothing. Of course, if you don’t care about how you look, this point doesn’t matter.
- Ponchos flap around in the wind- This gets particularly annoying while hiking in heavy winds or while cycling while wearing a poncho. The poncho can flap around and slap against your body, gear, and itself. It gets noisy and irritating. Wind can blow into the poncho through the bottom or sleeves and inflate it like a balloon. One excellent solution is to tie a rope or bungee around your waist to secure the poncho a bit tighter. This prevents the excess material from flapping so violently.
- Ponchos aren’t as warm- Because ponchos fit more loosely, they can’t trap as much body heat. The wind blows through the large openings near your arms and neck and removes body heat. Ponchos don’t provide much in the way of insulation. You’ll have to deal with a wind chill factor while wearing a poncho. To stay warm, you’ll have to layer up under your poncho. For this reason, ponchos aren’t ideal for hiking in cold or windy weather or at high altitudes.
- Fewer adjustment options- Most ponchos only come with a drawcord around the hood. Other than that, there are no adjustment options. You can’t tighten or loosen the poncho. It fits the way it fits.
- Poor fit- Because ponchos are designed to be one-size-fits-all and offer few adjustment options, they don’t usually offer a good fit. oftentimes they’re too large. The fabric may hang down below your knees if you’re on the shorter side. The baggy fit can make the poncho uncomfortable to wear. It can also look kind of goofy. A poncho never fits perfectly.
- 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. Most ponchos are slightly too small to provide complete protection during a heavy rainstorm when they’re used as a shelter. Most ponchos only measure around 8′ x 5′ when folded out flat. When the rain starts blowing sideways or flowing along the ground, you’ll get wet. The solution is to pair your poncho tarp with a water-resistant or waterproof bivy sack. If you’re taller than around 6″ or you expect heavy rain, you’re probably better off with a larger tarp or a tent.
- Ponchos don’t last as long as rain jackets- There are a couple of reasons for this. First, ponchos are more likely to get torn. It’s easy for the baggy fabric to snag on a tree branch and tear. Ponchos also tend to get more use and abuse so they wear out faster. For example, if you use your poncho as a groundsheet, abrasion can eventually wear a hole in the fabric. While using your poncho as a tarp, a gust of wind can put too much tension on the fabric, causing it to tear. If you use a cheap disposable poncho, you might only get a couple of uses out of it.
- If you use your poncho for shelter or a groundsheet, you don’t have rain protection if you have to leave your shelter- For example, if your poncho is pitched in tarp mode, and you have to go out in the rain to go to the bathroom, you will get wet. This can also be a problem when setting up your shelter in the rain. If you use your poncho as a tarp, you have to take your poncho off before you can pitch it. During this time, you will get wet. One solution is to carry an umbrella. More on that later.
Rain Jacket Pros
- Rain jackets can keep you drier in extreme weather conditions- Most rain jackets include a drawcord around the hood, an elastic band around the waist, hook and loop, or snaps around the sleeves and neck. You can tighten all of these down to create a seal that keeps the rain out. These adjustments come in handy on windy days. They help prevent water from blowing into your jacket. A good rain jacket can keep you dry even in the harshest of storms.
- Rain jackets don’t get caught on trees or branches as easily- Rain jackets are much more form-fitting than ponchos. The fabric sits closer to your body. This makes it much less likely for the jacket to snag on a tree branch, thorn bush, or other obstacle. You can more easily hike through overgrown trails and off-trail without getting caught up. Rain jackets are ideal for hiking in dense forests. You’re also less likely to tear your rain jacket.
- Rain jackets cover your arms- Rain jackets have full-length sleeves that keep your arms dry. The sleeves of the clothing you’re wearing under your rain jacket will stay dry as well. The biggest benefit of having sleeves is being able to use your hands without having to worry about your arms getting wet. This comes in handy while using trekking poles, cycling, fishing, or carrying something.
- Rain jackets come in different sizes and offer a good fit- Rain jackets come in a range of sizes. Most jackets are available in small, medium, large, and extra-large sizes. They are not one size fits all like ponchos. Your rain jacket is designed to fit your body. Wearing a well-fitting piece of clothing improves comfort and looks. There won’t be extra material hanging around. The jacket won’t feel too tight or too loose. When buying a rain jacket, you should choose a size that is large enough to layer some clothes underneath. If it’s chilly, you’ll want to wear a sweater under your rain jacket.
- Rain jackets provide warmth- Rain jackets help trap heat and keep the wind out. When you seal the jacket up tight around your neck, wrists, and waist, some air gets trapped inside. The wind also can’t blow as much of your body heat away. Your body heat warms up the air that is trapped in the jacket. The air provides insulation to keeps your core warm. For this reason, a rain jacket makes for an excellent outer layer on cold days. For example, you can increase warmth by wearing your rain jacket over a fleece or wool sweater or a down jacket. This layering technique works well even when it’s not raining. You can also buy rain jackets with a built-in insulating lining. Because rain jackets are warmer, they may be the better choice for winter or cold weather hiking, camping, and travel.
- More stylish- Rain jackets are normal clothing. While wearing one, you won’t stand out or look strange. This makes rain jackets a better choice for city use. You can blend in. Rain jackets can even look stylish if you buy a high-end model from a major outdoor manufacturer like Patagonia, The North Face, Arc’teryx, etc. You can choose your favorite color or match your jacket with your clothing. Ponchos, on the other hand, make you look kind of out of place when you’re walking around a city.
- Rain jackets offer more adjustment options- Most rain jackets allow you to make adjustments to the hood, neck, sleeves, and waist. There is often a drawcord, elastic, snaps, hook and loop, or a combination of adjusters. These allow you to adjust the jacket for the weather conditions. If it’s rainy, windy, and chilly, you can tighten the jacket up for extra protection and warmth. If it’s hot and humid and rainy, you can loosen the jacket up for better ventilation. You can also make adjustments for fit. For example, if you gain or lose weight, you can adjust the jacket so it fits more comfortably.
- You can get use out of your rain jacket while you’re not hiking or camping- During normal day-to-day life, you can wear your rain jacket around town while it’s raining. A rain jacket is a versatile and useful piece of clothing to keep in your closet. If you live in a rainy climate, you’ll wear your rain jacket regularly throughout the year. You may not want to do this with a poncho because they look kind of funny in city settings.
- Rain jackets have pockets- These work great for storing your phone, wallet, headphones, snacks, keys, map, flashlight, and other small items that you need to access frequently. They’re very convenient. The pockets usually have waterproof zippers and a flap over the opening to keep the rain out. Ponchos usually don’t have pockets.
- Rain jackets can double as windbreakers- The waterproof fabric does a good job of blocking the wind. You can zip the jacket up tight around your neck and tighten the sleeves and waistband to keep the cold wind out. On windy days, I wear my rain jacket often even while it’s not raining. You can’t do this with a rain poncho. The wind blows right through the large openings.
- 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. There is less loose material to blow around. This makes hiking through the wind much less noisy and annoying. Rain jackets are better for hiking in high-altitude exposed areas where high winds are common.
- Rain jackets are durable and long-lasting- Rain jackets are designed for regular use. They are made from durable rip-stop fabric that can handle abuse. Rain jackets are less likely to get torn because the fabric sits closer to your body. You should get years of use out of a quality rain jacket. When buying a rain jacket, you should make sure that the zippers work well. This is one part that can fail.
- You always have rain protection available when you pack a rain jacket- A rain jacket only serves one purpose. That is to wear as a jacket and keep you dry. When you pack a rain jacket, you’ll always have access to rain protection. When you use a poncho, it might be in use as a groundsheet or tarp. If it starts raining, you won’t have any rain protection to wear.
- 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 Jacket Cons
- Rain jackets don’t offer much ventilation- Because they fit tighter around the wrists, neck, 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 moisture to pass through. Your sweat gets trapped inside of the jacket. Eventually, your clothing will get soaked. Sometimes, you can get wetter while wearing a rain jacket than if you had just not worn rain protection at all. How much ventilation matters depends on the humidity, the intensity of the rain, and how active you are. The more you sweat, the more important ventilation becomes. Some modern rain jackets are made from high-tech materials that are designed to be waterproof and breathable at the same time. These waterproof breathable fabrics have tiny pores that are small enough to prevent liquid water from entering but large enough for water vapor to pass through. This way, your sweat can escape in the form of water vapor but liquid rainwater can’t enter.
- Rain jackets offer less protection- A rain jacket only covers your upper body. Rain jackets don’t offer any rain protection for your legs or pack. If you sit down, your bottom gets wet. For complete protection, you’ll need to pack rain pants and a pack cover. This adds weight and bulk. A poncho pretty much covers your whole body except for the bottom part of your legs.
- Rain jackets are more expensive- Basic rain jackets start at around $20. High-end ultralight models from popular outdoor clothing brands start at around $100. This is expensive when compared to basic disposable ponchos which cost around $1. Reusable ponchos start at aruond $10. Rain jackets cost more because they have a more complex design with sleeves and pockets. More fabric needs to be cut and more seems need to be sewn. There are also zippers, elastic bands, snaps, and hook and loop fasteners. All of this adds to the cost.
- 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. They provide protection from the rain for the upper half of your body. Ponchos, on the other hand, have a multitude of uses including shelter, ground cover, and pack cover.
- Bulkier- A rain jacket usually takes up more space in your pack than a ponchos. This is the case because rain jackets have zippers, sleeves, fasteners, elastic bands, etc. These add bulk. Rain jackets don’t compress as well as ponchos. In addition, you’ll need to pack rain pants and a pack cover for complete rain protection. This additional gear takes up more space.
- Heavier- Rain jackets usually have more features than ponchos. For example, there are sleeves, elastic bands or draw cords, snaps, zippers, pockets, etc. All of these features add weight. On average, a rain jackets weighs 1-2 ounces more than a similar poncho. When you pack a rain jacket instead of a poncho, you’ll also have to pack some additional gear. For example, you’ll need a pack cover and rain pants. These add weight.
- Rain jackets can get too hot- The tight fit traps bodyheat and prevents air from passing through. Your sweat can’t evaporate away and cool you off. While hiking during the summer or in a tropical environment, you can easily overheat while wearing a rain jacket. The heat causes you to sweat more, which can make your clothing wet. Rain jackets are often less comfortable in hot weather.
- 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.
- You have to remove your pack every time you want to put on and take off your rain jacket- This is necessary because you wear your rain jacket under your pack. Having to remove your pack to put your jacket on and take it off can get annoying. Particularly if you hike with a heavy pack. While hiking in scattered showers, you might have to remove and replace your pack multiple times. Sometimes you don’t want to set your pack down on the wet ground.
- 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 over time. When this happens, it’s time to replace your jacket. In some cases, you can repair a broken part.
- Less reliable- Rain jackets have zippers that can fail. They also have more seams that can begin leaking. This makes rain jackets a bit less reliable. While hiking the Wonderland Trail, the zipper on my jacket failed and I had to rely on my backpack chest and waist straps to hold my jacket closed. My shirt didn’t stay quite as dry as I would have liked.
- You have to carry more gear when you use a rain jacket- For example, you’ll need a separate shelter, pack cover, groundsheet, and rain pants. These add weight and bulk. A poncho has many uses and can replace multiple items if you’re a minimalist.
- 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.
Poncho and Rain Jacket Materials
Ponchos and rain jackets are made from a wide range of materials. A few common materials include coated nylon, coated polyester, Cuben Fiber, Gore-Tex, PVC, and other various plastics and coated fabrics. The material plays a major role in how waterproof the jacket is, durability, and cost. In this section, I’ll outline the difference between waterproof materials, waterproof breathable materials, and water-resistant materials. I’ll also talk a bit about durable water repellent.
Waterproof materials offer the most protection from the rain. These fabrics and plastics are completely resistant to water penetration. Like a plastic bag. Water can’t pass through from the inside or outside. There are two main types of waterproof fabric, coated and laminated.
Coated waterproof fabrics are made by spreading a waterproof film over a fabric. For example, polyester or nylon fabric can be coated in silicone or PU (polyurethane). The coating impregnates the fabric to make it waterproof. Sometimes both sides of the fabric are coated and other times just one side is coated.
Laminated fabric is made from multiple layers. One layer is usually a tightly woven fabric such as polyester or nylon. The other layer is a waterproof membrane. The layers are bonded together with an adhesive to form a single waterproof material. Polyurethane is a common waterproof membrane material. Some laminate materials contain three or more layers.
Waterproof rain jackets and ponchos can also be made from waterproof plastics. For example, PVC is often used.
The main drawback to waterproof fabrics is that they trap water inside. Your sweat can condense on the inside of your jacket or poncho and make your clothes wet. It can’t vent away.
Water-resistant fabrics are designed to prevent water from passing through for a short period of time. They can keep you dry during light rain, scattered showers, and short exposure to rain.
This water resistance is usually achieved with a tightly weaved fabric. The fibers are so close together that water has a hard time passing through. Some water-resistant fabrics may be treated with a sealant or water repellant coating. Pretty much any fabric that isn’t absorbent can be considered water-resistant.
During a heavy or prolonged rainstorm, water-resistant fabric will start to leak. The rain eventually soaks through. Water pressure from heavy rain can also cause water to move through the fabric. Eventually, you’ll get wet.
The main benefit of water-resistant fabric is that it offers better breathability than waterproof fabric. This allows sweat to vent away.
It’s important to note that there is no standardized definition of water-resistant vs waterproof fabric. At a certain level of water resistance, a fabric can be considered waterproof. It’s up to each manufacturer to decide whether they want to label their jackets and ponchos as water-resistant or waterproof. You kind of have to take their word for it. This makes it difficult to compare the amount of water resistance that jackets and ponchos from different brands provide.
Waterproof Breathable Materials
Waterproof breathable fabrics are designed to prevent liquid water from entering while allowing water vapor to vent out at the same time. This is usually achieved with a three-layer design.
The outer layer or face fabric is usually made from nylon or polyester with a DWR (durable water repellent coating. The outer layer is designed to look stylish and not soak up any water. The DWR coating helps water droplets bead up to they can’t as easily pass through the fabric.
The middle layer is a specially designed membrane. This membrane has microscopic pores that are too small for liquid water to pass through but large enough to allow water vapor to pass through. This is possible because water vapor particles are smaller than liquid water particles. The membrane is either laminated or coated onto the outer layer. Teflon (ePTFE) or polyurethane (PU) are the most common materials for waterproof breathable fabric membranes.
The inner layer is a treatment and liner that are designed to protect the membrane from body oils and sweat as well as to provide comfort. This is necessary because oils and sweat contain contaminants that can cause the membrane to lose its ability to keep water out. A number of different techniques are used to create this protective layer. Most commonly, some kind of oleophobic (oil resistant) treatment is applied to the membrane. A fine mesh layer is often bonded to the inside of the fabric.
Ponchos and rain jackets made from waterproof breathable materials can keep you dryer than those made from any other type of material. While you’re being active, sweat begins to accumulate under your waterproof jacket or poncho. If this sweat can’t escape, your clothes eventually become saturated. Waterproof breathable materials solve this issue by allowing sweat to vent out through the fabric in the form of water vapor. This helps your clothing stay dryer.
Some waterproof-breathable fabrics perform better than others. Performance depends on breathability. This is a measurement of how efficiently water vapor can pass through the material. The more breathable the material is, the more sweat can vent away and the dryer you’ll stay. Breathability is sometimes called air permeability. The first and most well-known waterproof breathable material is Gore-Tex.
There are a couple of drawbacks to waterproof breathable materials. First, they don’t provide quite as much insulation. You’ll need to wear a warm insulating layer under your waterproof breathable rain jacket or poncho if the weather is cold. Waterproof breathable materials are also expensive. The materials are a bit more difficult to manufacture. These are modern high-tech materials.
DWR (Durable Water Repellent)
DWR is a chemical coating that is applied to fabrics to make them water-resistant or hydrophobic. When water touches a fabric that has been treated with DWR, it beads up and rolls off instead of soaking into the fabric. A DWR coating prevents your rain jacket or poncho from getting saturated with water. This helps you stay dry. Pretty much every waterproof and waterproof breathable rain jacket and poncho that is made from fabric is treated with a DWR coating. DWR does not affect the waterproof breathable membrane.
Over time, the DWR coating becomes less effective. You’ll know this is happening when rain starts soaking into your jacket or poncho. DWR becomes less effective when oils and sweat from your skin and dirt contaminate the coating. Abrasion can also wear the coating off. It is possible to revive a DWR coating by washing your rain jacket or poncho, drying it, then applying heat with a dryer or iron. Your rain gear should come with care instructions for the DWR coating.
Eventually, the DWR coating will wear off and need to be replaced. Spray-on and wash-in DWR products are available. These help you reapply the DWR coating.
My Choice: Poncho Vs Rain Jacket
I own both a poncho and a rain jacket. The type of rain gear I pack depends on the type of trip I’m taking and the activities I’m doing.
For hiking, camping, bicycle touring, and fishing, I prefer using a poncho. In particular, a poncho tarp. In my experience, 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 main functions.
The most significant weight saver is using the poncho for 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. A poncho also replaces my pack cover. This saves me around 4 ounces. For trips where I pack my tent, I can use my poncho as a groundsheet under my tent. This cuts around 3 ounces from my pack weight. For most trips, I can also leave my rain pants at home because the poncho covers most of my legs. This saves even more weight. In my opinion, the weight savings alone outweighs any drawbacks.
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 and hotels.
A rain jacket usually makes more sense for travel. Mostly because it looks more normal in a city. I can wear a rain jacket to a bar or restaurant 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.
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.
This affordable poncho tarp weighs just 9 ounces (260 grams) and packs down into a bundle that measures 9″ long by 3″ in diameter. When laid out flat the poncho measures 4.6′ wide by 7.2′ long (140 x 220 cm). It’s large enough to use as a groundsheet, pack cover, or even a shelter. It is one size fits all.
The Anyoo poncho includes eyelets around the edges and hook and loop fasteners on the sides. The eyelets allow you to easily pitch the poncho as a tarp shelter. The fasteners allow you to form sleeves from the poncho material. The Anyoo poncho is made from 210T ripstop polyester fabric with a PVC coating making it PU3000mm waterproof. This budget poncho would work perfectly for hiking, travel, or cycling.
The Sea to Summit tarp poncho weighs 14 oz (400 g) and packs down into a bundle that measures 3.5″ x 7.5″ (8.9 x 19 cm). It’s made of 70D nylon fabric with fully sealed seams. The hood features 3-panel construction with a brim and drawcord. When laid out flat, the poncho measures 57” by 104” (145-264cm).
Guy line attachment points are located on each corner and in the middle of each side. These allow you to pitch the poncho as a tarp. It can be set up as an A-frame, sun or wind shelter, hammock rainfly, or awning for a tent.
This unique poncho is specifically designed to double as a shelter. It provides 360-degree protection while worn as a poncho and while pitched as a tarp.
While worn in poncho mode, the Gatewood Cape features front zippers for extra ventilation and a long skirt that keeps your legs dry. While pitched in tarp mode, the Gatewood Cape offers a sturdy pyramid design, 35 square feet of living space, a vestibule, and open side skirts for plenty of ventilation. Best of all, it’s incredibly lightweight at just 11 ounces. If you want a poncho that can truly double as a shelter, this is probably your best option.
This poncho does need to be seam-sealed. You will also need a trekking pole or tent pole, buy lines, and stakes in order to pitch the Gatewood Cape as a shelter. Also, keep in mind that there is no floor or insect protection. You’ll need a groundsheet and maybe a bug net. Six Moon Designs offers a net tent insert that provides all of the extra protection you’ll need.
This ultralight poncho is made from Frogg Toggs nonwoven polypropylene material. This breathable fabric is waterproof, windproof, and incredibly lightweight. The Ultra-Lite2 poncho features an adjustable hood and side snaps that can seal up the sides for extra protection. A stuff sack is included.
Rain Jacket Recommendations
When shopping for a rain jacket, I recommend you go for the lightest weight option that you can afford. As far as materials go, I like sil-nylon for its 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:
This ultralight rain jacket from Outdoor Research weighs just 6.3 oz or 179 g, making it one of the lightest rain jackets on the market. It compresses down into an internal pocket that doubles as a stuff sack. The compact size and light weight make this one of the best jackets for ultralight hikers and carry-on travelers.
The Helium II is made from 30D ripstop nylon. The laminated fabric is waterproof and breathable and comes seam sealed. The jacket features an adjustable hood, waterproof zipper, chest pocket, and elastic cuffs.
This is the go-to rain suit for hikers on a budget. The Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 rain suit is affordable and incredibly lightweight. It includes both a rain jacket and rain pants as well as a stuff sack. The jacket features a full front zipper, hood with drawcord, and elastic cuffs around the sleeves. The pants feature an elastic waistband and straight-leg design. The suit is made from waterproof and breathable nonwoven polypropylene. This is an excellent rain suit for hiking, travel, fishing, cycling, and more.
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.
This lightweight rain jacket features The North Face’s proprietary DryVent waterproof breathable technology. The nylon ripstop fabric is treated with DWR to help you stay dry in wet conditions. It comes fully seam sealed.
The jacket features a stow-away hood and zippered pockets. It also offers and a custom-like fit with plenty of adjustments around the cufs, hem, and hood. This well-built rain jacket is available in a wide range of colors and sizes.
This nylon rain jacket features a hideaway hood that zips into the collar, a mesh lining for extra comfort and breathability, and adjustable cuffs and hem. The jacket is made of lightweight waterproof nylon fabric. For convenient storage, it zips up into its side pocket.
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. The Columbia Glennaker Lake Front jacket is available in a wide range of colors and sizes
Who Should Choose a Rain Poncho?
Ponchos are ideal for those who want to hike or travel ultralight. You can cut a significant amount of weight from your pack by choosing a poncho that can double as a shelter, groundsheet, and pack cover. You can even leave your rain pants at home because a poncho provides protection down to your mid-thigh. This can save a significant amount of weight. A poncho is one of the most versatile pieces of gear you could pack. They are great for minimalists, survivalists, and ultralight fanatics.
Ponchos are also better for use in warm, humid, and tropical environments due to their superior breathability. Sweat vents away more easily due to the loose fit. You’ll stay cooler and dryer in these conditions as a result.
Those who are on a tight budget are also better off choosing a poncho. Disposable ponchos are available for around $1. Basic models start at around $15.
Who Should Choose a Rain Jacket?
Rain jackets are ideal for cold weather and extreme weather use due to their tighter fit. The waterproof material can act as an insulator and windbreaker to help you stay warmer in cold climates. Rain jackets also seal up around the neck, sleeves, and hem to keep the rain out during a heavy storm. If you expect unpredictable weather or heavy rain, pack a rain jacket. If you expect extreme cold, consider an insulated rain jacket.
The tight fit also makes rain jackets a better choice for those who hike through dense areas or off-trail. The material is less likely to snag on branches and brush. This improves longevity.
Those who travel often also prefer rain jackets as well due to their natural look in urban environments. A rain jacket looks like a regular piece of clothing. Some models even look stylish. This increases versatility.
Those who value comfort may also prefer wearing a rain jacket due to the contouring fit. The adjustable hood, hem, and sleeves give rain jackets a custom-like fit. This gives you a better range of motion.
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 rain protection.
In the end, the choice between a poncho and rain jacket comes down to the type of trip you’re taking, the weather you expect, and your 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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