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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles

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 be able to fit over the combat 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 if needed. I wanted to share with you 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 at 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 for a guideline.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles

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 each of the four corners of the poncho. I believe going this route gives some flexibility in the placement of your stake.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
Front view of the Plow or Flying V.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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:

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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:

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
The construction of this configuration can be either right or left.

The lean-to, with a 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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles

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

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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. 


Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles

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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations 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 a 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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using 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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
Guidelines attachment point


Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles

The A-frame happens to be a more challenging configuration than all the others. There 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 is harder to keep the lashing in place due to the pressure of the attachment point.

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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. 

Military Poncho Shelter Configurations Using Trekking Poles
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 how a poncho can provide you temporary shelter when needed. 

Now It's Your Turn-

Leave a comment on your favorite military poncho shelter set-up. Do you normally use a poncho as your shelter?


Heinz said…

Thanks for the article - get some new inspirations for my small shelter for hiking over severall days!

Unknown said…
Thank you so much for this. These configurations look excellent. Do you have any set lengths of cordage for the guylines? I'm wanting to reduce the amount of paracord that I carry so having fixed lengths that are dedicated for the rear line and the front line, etc. would be helpful. I'm imagining, for example, that in the Plow / Flying V that the rear guyline would be 12-14' and the front guyline probably 6-8'? What do you think and also wcould those lengths be re-used in the other configurations?
Thanks again,

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. During the construction of all the different poncho configurations, I re-use the same 550 cords to make each one of the shelters. While I didn't measure my lengths of cords, I believe your guest is about right. If your goal is to reduce the amount of cord and carry dedicated guidelines, I would do this by setting up the Plow/Flying V. I would make my first cut longer than what I would need. Set the shelter up like you want it. Then cut the guidelines to the lengths that you like. Then melt the ends of the cords to keep them from fraying. I hope this helps and that you found the post useful.
Unknown said…
Thank you for your answer and quick reply. That sounds good and thank you for your advice. Cheers, Shaun