Military Poncho Shelter Configurations using Trekking Poles

I have been issued a lot of field gear during my military career. If you were to ask me what one piece of gear has been the most useful, I would tell you that it is the U.S.G.I poncho. I can't think of one piece of gear that is more multi-purpose than a poncho. Thinking back, the poncho was the only shelter item that I was issued, and for six years, I slept many nights in the field with it. 

The U.S.G.I poncho has been made from different materials and configurations over the years. It wasn't until the Vietnam war that the military provided a lightweight poncho to help keep the troops dry during the jungle rains, and help keep them warm at night. The poncho is made from a waterproof lightweight ripstop nylon with grommets and snaps down each side. The hood of the poncho is oversized to fit over the helmet. The U.S.G.I poncho measures 68"x 80" and weighs in at 1-1/2lbs. What the military calls lightweight and what backpackers call lightweight are two different things. For military use, the poncho has to be durable, so it can only be so lightweight.

If you haven't thought about the U.S.G.I. poncho as part of your 10 essentials, then I hope after this post you will. The poncho shelter should be thought of as a temporary shelter, for things like getting out of the sun, wind, and rain. It can also be used for an overnight bivouac shelter. I want to share with you some different shelter configurations that can be made from a single poncho. While all these different configurations could be set-up with a ridgeline, I am going to show you how to use only your trekking poles instead of using a ridgeline.   

  • 1- U.S.G.I poncho
  • 2- trekking poles 
  • 550 cord
  • 5- tent stakes
Knots Used:
  • Overhand loop knot (quick)
  • Figure 9 loop knot
  • Taut-line Hitch
  • Shear Lashing (also need to know how to tie a clove hitch)

The number one single point of failure for a leak is the hood. In prepping the poncho, I start by pulling the drawstring which will close the opening of the hood. You will still be left with a small opening.

U.S.G.I. Poncho Hood
Start with closing the oversized hood.

Roll the hood up and wrap the drawstring around the hood roll that you made. This should keep any rain from leaking in from the hood. It is also going to provide an attachment point.

U.S.G.I Poncho hood rolled up

As for tent stakes, you have two options. If you use the aluminum hook type of tent stake they will fit in the grommets on the poncho. If you use MSR Groundhog stakes, they won't fit in the grommets. I used the MSR Groundhog stakes, and I believe they have more advantages in building a poncho shelter than the hook type tent stake. I had to add a loop from 550 cord to each grommet in the four corners of the poncho. I believe going this route gives some flexibility in the placement of your stake.

550 cord loop in poncho grommet
Simple loop made out of 550 cord 

Once the prep work is completed we can make any poncho shelter configurations that we want to use

The Plow or Flying V:

Determine which direction will be the front of your shelter. The 68" ends will be the front and back of the shelter. Place a tent stake in each corner of the rear of the shelter. The front trekking pole will go into the right front grommet.

Use an Overhand Loop Knot to attach the 550 cord guideline.

On the front guideline, you can use an overhand loop knot or a figure 9 loop knot to slip over the tip of the trekking pole. Used a taut-line hitch on the stake end of the guideline to be able to make easy adjustments to the guideline. Then attached a guideline to the drawcord of the hood. Fully-extending the rear trekking pole, wrap the 550 cord around the tip and add another taut-line hitch. 

Use the poncho hood as an attachment point for the rear trekking pole.

Attaching the rear guideline to the hood helps lift the poncho up providing more room in the interior of the shelter.

Wrap 550 cord around the tip of the rear trekking pole.

Stake down the last corner and make any adjustments to the trekking poles and guidelines if needed. 

Front view of the Plow or Flying V

Left side view showing the guideline attached to the hood.

**Note, you have to put the stakes and guidelines in the order that is mention. If you stake the three corners and then add the trekking poles to the rear of the shelter it will not be up high enough to provide room inside the shelter. Geometry will work against you! **

The Cave:

The Cave might be a better option for all-weather protection.   

This configuration starts with staking down the 80" side of the poncho. Place the front trekking pole in the center grommet. The rear guideline is attached to the hood, and then to the great trekking pole. The last step is to stake out the two front corners. 

To get overall protection you have to be willing to lose some interior space.

The Cave provides more overall protection from the elements but will be a tighter fit for taller people. The same amount of supplies and knots are used as with the Plow and Flying V.

Lean-to with closed side:

Construction of this configuration can be either right or left.

The lean-to, with closed side, is a modification of the basic lean-to shelter. This configuration still uses the same amount of supplies as the other two shelters. 

This is a great configuration to get out of the wind while preparing a trailside meal. I think this a bit sturdier than the basic lean-to.

Pulling the hood out would improve this configuration.

Using only the supplies I have listed at the start of this post presents a disadvantage with this configuration. Not being able to attach to the hood, doesn't allow you to pull it back to provide more interior room, or keep the back of the shelter to bow-in due to wind.  This can easily be fixed by using a limb that is above the shelter and tieing a section a 550 cord the hood to the limb. Also, a tall stick could be used just like the trekking pole. 


The lean-to is what you normally think of when building a poncho, or tarp shelter. The lean-to is quick and easy to set-up. Because the hood area of this configuration wants to sag, it's a little harder to lift the hood area just using trekking poles. 

The lean-to is what you normally think of when building a poncho or tarp shelter.

Using the same supplies and knots as I did with the other configurations. The trick here is how to get the hood pulled out or up without using another pole or limb. I took 550 cord and attached it to the hood drawstring. I then ran the other end of the 550 cord to the tip of one of the trekking poles. 

Using an overhand loop knot to attach the 550 cord to the trekking pole. Then adjusting the guidelines to add more tension to the trekking poles helps pull the roof/wall of the shelter out to provide more interior room. 

Guidelines attachment point. 


The A-frame happens to be a more challenging configuration than all the others. This are two reasons. First, you need to be able to tie a shear lashing. If your lashing skill is lacking, now is a great time to brush-up! Second, the poles are slick, so it harder to keep the lashing in place due to the pressure of the attachment point.

The trekking poles allow you to adjust how high you want your shelter to be.

The A-Frame is no different than the other shelters, and that the hood needs to be pulled up to provide more interior room. I ran 550 cord from the hood to one of the trekking poles and then ran the tail as a second guideline. 

No matter how you set-up your poncho shelter always try to pull the hood up.

There are only so many useable poncho shelters that you can make because of the size of a poncho, but the list of what you can do with a poncho is endless. While all these shelters could have been set-up using a ridgeline, more stakes, and guidelines. My point here was to show that you don't need trees, and with minimum supplies, you can set-up a shelter in a matter of minutes that can protect you from the elements.  

My favorite out of all the poncho shelter configurations is the Plow/Flying V.  I feel that it provides the most room and is the sturdiest out of all of them. 

With any fieldcraft, you should practice before you need to use the skill. This post just shows you how I would set-up the different poncho shelters using trekking poles. Are there better ways to do it?  Could I have used different knots? Sure, but that is not the point. This post was to get you thinking about the 10 essentials, and how a poncho can provide you temporary shelter when needed. 


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