Every backpacker wants to save weight so a piece of kit that will double as a waterproof and a shelter, fits into any bergen or daysack and only weighs 210g is a tempting prospect. A full set of waterproofs weigh anywhere from around 500 to 1000g while very few tents come in at less than 1kg. Even factoring in a space blanket as a ground sheet and using a lightweight bivvy bag gives a shelter weight of less than 600g which gives a total weight saving of around 1 to 1.5 kg. Having been tempted I bought one, secondhand but not used, for £25.
The poncho in rainwear mode is used just like any other poncho. Just pop it over the head and over your rucksack. Tighten up the hood and you should be safe from the elements. To turn it into a tarp all that is needed is to undo the side poppers, fasten up the hood using the drawstring and you have a nice rectangle of silnylon complete with webbing tie-out points. Golite have been a bit clever by adding an extra length of material at the back which can be clipped up to be out the way. But if you have a large rucksack to cover the poncho has the extra length to cover the back of your legs. Plus, it makes the tarp longer too – mine measures approximately 8’8″ x 4’10” when fully opened out.
I’ve done some tarp camping before but always in a bushcraft scenario with a nice wood fire burning to keep me warm. Given it is winter here, I’ve only pitched it as a a tarp in the garden as I don’t want to practice a new technique in winter temperatures protected only by some silnylon, a bivvy and a sleeping bag. I’ve had hypothermia twice, albeit in a first/ early second stage, and I don’t want it again. So, actually using it as a shelter is a task for warmer weather.
Be that as it may, my garden pitching leads me to think the tarp is roomy and able to withstand a lot of bad weather. It is big enough to be pitched as a A-frame, lean-to and a flying V. It is also very easy to pitch and takes a minute or two at most in any of the configurations I have tried. I also found a couple of neat pitching ideas on YouTube which you can watch here. The first one shows the tarp being used as a foul weather shelter http://youtu.be/TeoJWDCqsxQ although I found it better to have the pole at the front of the tarp and use another pole to tie out the hood this giving more room inside. The next one is my favourite configuration though http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjGBayyE208 as I think it offers a good amount of space and shelter.
So, as a tarp it looks like it will be good but what is it like as a waterproof? The other day I was fortunate (?) to be caught in a hail storm followed by some rain later on which gave me a good opportunity to test the poncho. The first thing I found out was it is a real pig to put on in high winds for two reasons. Firstly, the poncho catches the wind and billows a lot! Secondly, the hole where your head goes through into the hood is very tight – I had to take off my hat and spectacles to get through. Once on, the poncho still billows a lot in high winds but a piece of cord tied around the waist sorted most of that. I found there was still some poncho flapping around my lower legs which I solved by looping the webbing tie-outs together. Nevertheless, high winds are a problem as the material is so light so I can’t recommend the poncho for use in mountainous or slippy areas as its too dangerous.
Once the wind dropped and the hail turned to rain, the poncho came into its own and performed perfectly. The material is totally wind and water proof and shrugs wind, rain and hail off. Walking causes an airflow inside the poncho and I didn’t experience any condensation. The poncho is also surprisingly warm. The downside with all ponchos is that the wearer’s lower arms and legs get wet as they are outside the poncho. I didn’t find it a problem but, when in prolonged rain, I would recommend waterproof trousers and similarly waterproof long gloves. It is possible to buy British Army goretex mittens which reach up to past the elbow for £5 or so which would be perfect for this.
I did also pitch it as a tarp to shelter me from drizzle and wind while I ate my lunch a brewed a cuppa. It was only pitched for 20 minutes but it seemed to do the job very well.
To conclude, as a waterproof the Golite Poncho Tarp is prone to billowing in high winds but it is superbly weather proof. I would not advise using it in very high winds or where you need to see your feet but it is great in rain when the wind is low. It is long enough to act as a bivvy if you have the misfortune to be stranded and can’t move so on that basis I’d probably still take with me in the hills.
As a tarp, it is great for impromptu stops to have lunch out of the rain, shelter from the sun or change clothing in the dry. It is large enough to make a sheltered cooking area even if you are using a tent. As an shelter, I think it would be an excellent option although, as I wrote earlier, I’ve not actually spent a night under it yet.