It has been said repeatedly that the best thing that the US military has invented, (other than advances in medicine, space travel, the internet, and robotics), is the Woobie, aka Poncho Liner. Let’s start there.
For the two of you in the free world that are uninitiated in its magic, the poncho liner is a camouflage synthetic blanket that is light, warm, and easily packable. The poncho liner, affectionately and hereafter called a ‘woobie”, has largely remained unchanged since it wasintroduced to Soldiers in Vietnam. It is by no means any more water resistant than any other light nylon, and it will not retain some of its warmth if it becomes drenched, (as wool would). It will, however, dry much quicker and the weight savings and cost alone vice wool is enough to choose one over the other. If you buy a gently used poncho liner at a surplus store for over twenty five dollars, you are being overcharged.
Necessity being the mother of invention, bright boys and girls have been improving upon the woobie for years. According to BreachBangClear.com, the USMC has issued a product improvement in the way of a two way zipper. Most often in temperate climates, a blanket is all that is needed when you are out in the elements. In adding a zipper, it keeps the heat in where it is needed and eliminates the need to carry a bulky patrol bag. The addition of the zipper has two functions. First, you can mate up two different woobies to make a double thickness blanket. This also allows you to stuff some biomass insulation, (pine needles, cat tail down, leaves, etc.) in between the two mated blankets to increase the thermal retention capabilities in an emergency. Especially in the field when the OPFOR is in the area, it is better to have a blanket on you that you can quickly discard than be wrapped up in a constricting sleeping bag.
The commercial market has produced some excellent ways for you to be able to buy your way out of a cold night. There are a ton of excellent, undoubtedly tacticool, and pricey improvements to the woobie that are worth mentioning. The top of the heap, Kifaru, makes theWoobie and and Doobie, (3.6 and 6 oz. of insulation). Hill People Gear has the Mountain Serape which comes also in two sizes. Wiggys offers an improved poncho liner with zippers andwith ties that is made with the same insulation found in their bags. Snugpak has the cheapest of the bunch with their insulated jungle blanket. The Kifaru and Hill People Gear blankets are designed to be snapped together around the body so you can essentially wear it in conjunction with your poncho. You can, however, mod a USGI woobie to do something very similar with zippers. That video you can find at the end of the article.
The poncho is often overlooked with the introduction of Gore-tex and softshell overgarments. In the military, I only ever really used the poncho to construct a hasty overhead cover, (just once), or to simply protect my rucksack from the rain when I had to ground it. The poncho and poncho liner are on every unit packing list for the field but like the elbow pads or Camelbak cleaning kit, you rarely ever took it out of the plastic when it was given to you by the Central Issue Facility.
As I have started to look beyond the meat-headed military purpose, I see how much more useful the lowly poncho can be. Normally, if I was out runing around in hot weather, (being a multiple heat casualty just about anything over 50 degrees is hot weather to me), and it began to rain, I would just keep going. After all, I am made out of sugar. I now see the poncho as something useful and breathable that can keep me from a fair amount of undue misery. Contrary to popular opinion, you do not always have to “embrace the suck”. Not only is the poncho good for its intended purpose, it can be used in a variety of other ways. The most popular being, of course, as a legitimate shelter.
As I have stated before in another post, I am in awe of the ingenuity of the Alpha Tent. With the addition of a couple of lightweight collapsible poles, you can make the poncho into a decent enough shelter for three seasons of temperate weather. This is the most lightweight shelter system that I know aside from building a time consuming debris hut. One Alpha tent with a tea candle can get you pretty far in a bad spot in the woods.
The poncho has also been product improved on the commercial market and thoughtful modifications have been done to make it more usable. My favorite of the commercial ponchos are from Bushcraft Outfitters, the Poncho Tarp. It is worth mentioning that they also produce the MEST Tarp which is 5×7 and weighs a whopping 13 ounces. These two in conjunction, one cover, and one ground cloth, will weigh less than a normal two piece tent and are imminently more useful as they can be used for other things. Had I to do it over again, I would have saved the money I spent on the Snugpak Ionosphere and bought these two instead. We’ll see what Santa brings.
I know that many foreign governments have also produced their version of the poncho and these can be found floating around the surplus world with varying regularity. The Swedish and German are of decent enough quality. I remember an eastern bloc version that was ridiculously reminiscent of a drab Klan outfit. I’d stay away from that one. I cannot personally speak for any of these, but I would recommend that you do the research before you purchase. If, however, you find any of them for less than ten dollars, I would suggest you snap it up immediately. Treat it to some Camp Dry on occasion, and you will can never go wrong with a lightweight groundcloth or cover.
Tying it all together
If you examine both the USGI poncho, and poncho liner, it does not look like it would mate up well, I personally have not used the equipment this way, but that is not to say that my unique experiences will match up to yours. This video illustrates now to put the two pieces together and some other small gear mods that you may find useful.
This mod video is in German, but it illustrates some wonderful ways in which you can product improve the poncho liner to create a more functional piece of equipment, German over-engineering for sure, and God bless them for it.