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What is a GI Poncho Hooch and Why should I know How to make one?

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A GI (government issue) poncho is a simple, tarp-like piece of gear that has a built-in hood that has kept the rain off of generations of US soldiers. It is also easily converted into a shelter and having one and knowing how to make it into a “hooch” could potentially save your life.

How to make a GI poncho hooch?

Shelter. It’s essential for survival. Shelter from the wind, shelter from the rain, shelter from the snow, shelter from the cold. Usually ranked high in the precedence of needs in survival or selection of survival kit. Our homes provide us with shelter, but what about in the wild. Shelter comes in many shapes and forms.

Three hours without shelter, and in some circumstances, much shorter periods of time, can prove fatal

Many can remember camping trips with family in pup tents or larger-sized family tents. Many fond memories from my childhood come from falling asleep to the soft patter of rain on canvas. Before the rain, there were stern admonishments from my father, uncles, or older brothers warning me not to touch the canvas. Otherwise, it would leak and compromise our shelter.

As an infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division and later as a Special forces NCO (non-commissioned officer), I spent many nights in the woods or as it was referred to, “the field”. We could brave the elements and sleep or rest in the worst of conditions if we had to and still prevail. Not comfortably perhaps, but carry on with life and the mission at hand to be sure.

The height of luxury in the bush was a poncho hooch. A GI poncho was light enough to be carried in our rucksacks and enough to keep wind and precipitation off us. With a sleeping pad or pine boughs underneath us to insulate us from the hard, cold earth and either a sleeping bag or in the warmer months or climates, a poncho line (woobie), this was the height of luxury in the field. The next step up was a Motel Six.

What is a poncho hooch? Simply a shelter made out of a GI poncho. They came in many forms, from a simple lean-to, a “V” shaped shelter, and an overhead cover with the poncho hood tied off and elevated. So the rain or melted snow would drain off, or a two poncho envelope that can provide shelter for two.

Why should I buy an army poncho and not an S-Mart tarp?

The GI poncho can easily be replaced by a simple tarp or expensive lightweight rain fly. There is better, more lightweight stuff out there, but the GI poncho still has its place. Why you may ask? Here’s why.

They are rugged.

They hold up well and very importantly, their grommets are strong. Stong grommets are essential due to the fact they will be the anchor points of how the hooch is constructed. Do they rip out? Sure, but not very often. Yes, I know how to repair and make field-expedient grommets. But the fastest, most straightforward repair is the one that never has to be made.

They are lightweight.

GI ponchos come in a heavy and light variety and I have used both extensively. If durability is an issue, use the heavy version. It is still pretty lightweight. If weight is an issue, use the lightweight version, It is pretty durable.

They are inexpensive.

If you are in the military, they are issued and cost you nothing. If not, a quick internet search revealed they can be had from 20 to 40 bucks.

Pro Tip: Get the real McCoy. The “ GI style” knock-offs will fail you when you need them most. Here is one of the lightweight varieties that will work: Rothco G.I. Type Military Rip-Stop Poncho

They are versatile.

GI poncho can be used to make a shelter, a stretcher (litter), a device to keep you and your gear afloat (“poncho raft”), or a rain collection device. They have even been known to be used as, well, a poncho to keep the rain off you while you are moving.

What else do I need to make a poncho hooch, besides a poncho?

20 feet of cordage or as we used in the mil, 550 cord, otherwise known as parachute suspension cord, will suffice. There are better, faster ways, however. Lengthened bungee cords are a better, faster way.

If they can be about three feet when not under tension and stretched to about five feet when they are, they are suitable. Bungees cords are essential and make life much easier if you want to set up a poncho shelter or something similar quickly. Hook them into one of the grommets and loop it around a tree, vine, or stake in the ground and, spiffy neat-o, you have an anchor point that is made quick. No worries about cold hands trying to tie a knot, in the dark.

They should not cost more than right around 10 bucks. They are literally worth their weight in gold. I can’t tell you the number of times I have gotten looks of amazement when I was able to construct a viable shelter in less than two minutes. Four to six of these take up very little space and weigh next to nothing. If I was going to the woods and was going to rely on a poncho or tarp shelter, I would not be caught dead without them. Do I still carry and use cordage? Absolutely. I might need to lengthen the reach of the bungee or may need an extra anchor point. Cordage, especially 550 cord or parachute suspension cord ( so named because the tensile strength is 550 pounds) is extremely versatile and has numerous uses. These bungee cords have worked
well for me in the past: BrigadeQM Light Duty Camo Bungee Cords, 4 Pack – BrigadeQM

But what if I hate the military stuff?

For those that are not into the military surplus scene or must have the latest and greatest from REI or one of their competitors, I am not trying to convert you. Please feel free to get the absolute brightest colors of neon green-yellow or orange of tarp or fly and the corresponding bungee cords to go with. The point that I am trying to pass on is that a lightweight but durable tarp or fly with sturdy grommets and a few low-cost bungee cords or cordage can easily save your life and turn a night that could have been miserable into a pretty comfortable, pleasant evening.

Pro Tips

I liked to make my hootches low to the ground to keep a low profile but also as an aid to keep out of the wind. If you can dig a fire pit and/or make some sort of reflecting wall to reflect heat from that fire into your shelter, so much the better.

One advantage to GI ponchos is that they have push-button snap fasteners on two sides, opposite of each other. If you have a partner and both carry a poncho. They can be snapped together and each corner tied off or fastened to a tree, vine, or stake to form an “envelope”, about eighteen inches above the ground. Tie off the hood of the poncho on the top of the envelope to keep precipitation out and attach it to a limb, tree, or whatever. You and your partner can crawl in through the two open sides and crawl into or under whatever sleeping insulation you are using and you have a combination overhead cover and somewhat of a groundsheet.

This configuration will somewhat retain both of the individuals’ body heat. One of the minuses of this configuration is that condensation from the respiration of the two individuals inside can make things a little damp after a while.


Poncho hooches have sheltered generations of soldiers and marines ( ok, and some sailors, air force personnel, and coasties too). It is something that is easy and cheap to learn and use. If you spend any amount of time in the wild, it is a tool that should be in your toolbox.

For more, feel free to visit my Youtube channel.