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Survival Equipment

Rain suit or poncho: What is the best rain gear for your outdoor survival needs?

Rain suit or poncho: What is the best rain gear for your outdoor survival needs?

It rains outside, so carrying rain gear should be a no-brainer. But what is the best rain suit for your needs? Or, is a rain suit the best choice?

by Leon Pantenburg

Rain follows me. Over Christmas break, 1977,  John Nerness and I went backpacking in Death Valley, CA. Packing rain gear seemed like a waste of time – after all, the average annual rainfall is 2.36 inches. Some years it doesn’t rain at all.

Bob Patterson at waterfall on Blue Earth River, Minnesota.

Bob Patterson kayaking at a waterfall on the Blue Earth River, Minnesota. (Bob Patterson Photos)

But two days before Christmas, we ended up at the bar at Furnace Creek, waiting out a rain storm that washed out the road.

On my John Muir Trail through hike, it rained nine consecutive nights, with intermittent showers during the day. In Louisiana, during my 1980 Mississippi River canoe voyage, the rain lasted more than 40 hours at one stretch.

The moral of the story is you never truly know what the weather might hold and it’s always best to prepare for anything. And you better prepare for the worst!

I use and appreciate good raingear. But choosing the best for your needs may depend on different circumstances.

Essentially, rain gear choices boil down to two: poncho or rainsuit. I use both, depending on the circumstances and activity.

To help pick your raingear, here are some aspects to think about:

  • Anticipated temperatures: A summer rainstorm, where the temperatures won’t get much below 70 to 80 degrees is a lot different than a mixed sleet/rain storm, where the temps are hovering around freezing.
  • Activity: Sitting on a deer stand in the rain won’t generate near the body heat that hiking through the woods will. How much activity will you be doing, and how much heat will that generate?
  • Budget: You get what you pay for. Wearing a cheap rainsuit  or poncho during an extended rainstorm is guaranteed misery. The material may tear or the design may be inadequate to the conditions. Most frequently, hard use may cause it to leak at the seams.
  • Packing: How bulky is the gear? If  it takes up too much space, you might be tempted to leave it behind on a sunny day. Several hours later, you may end up really regretting that choice!

Poncho: A good poncho is my first choice for backpacking. I like the large, hooded ones that completely cover the pack and the hiker. You can work up quite a sweat hiking on some trails, and in those circumstances, wearing a rainsuit can feel like you’re inside a damp, cold plastic bag.

I’ve also worn a camouflaged poncho in a tree stand hunting whitetail deer in the rain. The poncho kept my blackpowder rifle dry so it would fire when needed.

But a poncho is not ideal.  A large poncho allows you to keep you and your gear reasonably dry. I say “reasonably” because wearing a poncho in the wind is like wearing a sail that whips around, exposing you and your gear to the rain. Wearing a poncho while paddling and portaging a canoe can be miserable.

Bob waits for the storm to blow over at Lake Agnes.

Rain suit: I have used several rain suits, and never found one that was entirely adequate. On my Mississippi River canoe trip, I spent the last month in almost  constant rain. My cheap plastic rain jacket was miserably ineffective.

But a rain suit is only as good as its design and composition, and on this matter, I defer to Bob Patterson, of Mankato, Minn.

Bob and I were  college roommates, and have done many, many camping, backpacking, climbing, canoeing and hunting trips together. Bob retired after a career as a fire fighter/emergency response professional, where he was outside in all weather conditions. He  is a regular at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota.

Here are some thoughts from Bob on rain suits:

It only takes a couple of hours for a sunny swimsuit trip to turn into a cold, wet, miserable experience.  This is what happened in 2009.  We were headed for Lac La Croix on the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters

In the two miles it took to cross Lake Agnes, the wind came up, making it too rough to safely canoe any farther.  The timing was close.  We just made it to the campsite we were shooting for.

For the next one-and-one-half days, we were held prisoner in the campsite by a 40-mph wind.  Temperatures dropped and periodic waves of rain were pushed through the area.  Proper clothing made the difference between making the best of a tolerable situation and suffering through a miserable one.

One note on waterproof/breathable material.  I still have at least 50 jackets, parkas etc., and have owned many more, made of about every kind of waterproof/breathable material on the market.

If you are going to use the coat for doing any work in the rain, get one with ventilationThere is no waterproof/breathable material that will transport perspiration fast enough to keep you dry on the inside if you’re putting out any kind of effort.  It doesn’t take much effort – cutting fire wood, walking with a pack, walking without a pack, pitching tents – to work up a sweat.

I prefer pit zips, but they also make side zips, pocket vents, back vents, and host of others.  The bottom line is:  to remain comfortable and dry, you have to get the moisture out, and material alone won’t do it adequately.

Keep your paddle in the water.

For more info on dressing for the outdoors, check out this video:

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View Comments (2)


  1. Leon

    05/21/2015 at 10:58

    I don’t like Goretex. Generally, when it’s raining, the water pressure is more than what comes from inside. That means the evaporation, sweat or other interior moisture can’t leave. I think you’re better off with a waterproof jacket with multiple zippers for ventilation.

  2. Pete M

    05/21/2015 at 10:26

    I use both as well. I almost always carry a poncho as it serves double duty as a tarp or ground cloth with the hood tied closed. In a hot environment it provides shade too. Paired with a poncho liner it makes a bedroll for moderate temperatures.
    The best and toughest Gortex rain suits I’ve used is the military ECWCS (extended cold weather clothing system). It has many vents and is durable enough to pass the MCRDAC (US Marine R&D) extended use tests. They are also 1/3 the price of inferior quality Gortex on Amazon.

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Survival Equipment

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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