Choosing the Right Rain Gear: Ponchos or Rain Jackets

Choosing the Right Rain Gear: Ponchos or Rain Jackets

Should you bring a poncho or a rain jacket on your camping trip or hike? It's a classic trailhead parking lot debate, and for good reason. If your ultimate goal is to stay dry when the skies turn dark and the rain starts pouring, either option will do, but they each have their own pros and cons. 

If you're stuck and unsure which rain protection option is best for you, we've got you covered. Here's what criteria we'll weigh to help you feel confident in your decision: 

  • What's your budget? 
  • Where are you going? 
  • What's the forecast? 
  • What activity will you be engaging in? 
  • What do you prioritize? 
woman hiker wearing poncho

Consideration 1: Budget 

One of the most obvious deciding factors when comparing ponchos to rain jackets is price. On the spectrum of features, ponchos are as simple as it gets. They are a waterproof barrier that's easy to put on, offer a hood for protection from the rain above, and are one-size-fits-all. Price is kept low thanks to the lack of features and customization, as well as the choice of materials. They tend to be a bit thinner than rain jackets, don't have zippers, fit loosely, and don't offer adjustability. 

In contrast, even the least expensive rain jackets are, at minimum, 4x the price of a poncho, with many recognizable brands in the outdoor space offering rain jackets that are typically upwards of $100 for a base-level jacket. Now, don't get us wrong, these jackets are a great solution and worth every penny if you engage in the type of activities they are intended for frequently. But if you are just getting into the outdoors, are looking for lightweight rain protection in case of emergencies, or are looking to prioritize cost over features, don't feel like you must opt for a jacket. 

male hiker walking in rain

Consideration 2: Location and Climate 

Depending on where you spend your time outdoors may influence your choice of rainwear. Headed to the Pacific Northwest for a hiking trip in the rainy season? We may suggest you bring a poncho as a backup, but chances are you'll want a more form-fitting rain jacket since you'll find yourself wearing it (and wearing it often). But if you're camping in August in the Midwest, chances are you'll find a poncho is all you'll need to weather the storm of an occasion rainfall.  

Another consideration with climate is humidity and temperature. Ponchos such as our Lightweight Ponchos have button closures on the side, meaning there's airflow on the sides, allowing your body to release heat and prevent getting uncomfortable on warmer, humid days. Typically, entry-level rain jackets don't offer breathability unless you opt for a jacket with "pit zips" (zippers running alongside your torso that allow heat to escape from your armpits). It's not until you invest in a high-end (and expensive) technical raincoat that you will benefit from technical fabrics that offer breathability.  

Consideration 3: Expected Forecast 

If you're a fair-weather camper who prefers sunny days, chances are you've got a strong handle on when it might rain and tend to avoid getting caught in it at all costs. However, weather can be unpredictable sometimes, and even the best planners get drenched in a surprise rainfall from time to time. So what should you do when faced with the possibility of rain when you're camping or off on a hike? Rather than packing along a heavy and cumbersome rain jacket for a low chance of rain, we recommend packing along an ultralight and compact poncho such as our Emergency Poncho or Lightweight Poncho. This way, you can stay safe and dry if it starts to rain without lugging around the extra bulk of a rain jacket.

Consideration 4: Activities

Hiking into the remote backcountry miles away from a permanent shelter? It goes without saying that a proper rain jacket is the right choice. Doing a day hike or some sightseeing in your local national park? A poncho may be just what you need. For many backpackers and hikers, rain protection is top of mind since it's an essential survival item. But one commonly overlooked benefit of a poncho is the ability to wear it over your backpack, allowing you and your gear to stay dry.  

Hiking aside, if you're looking for a relaxing weekend car camping, rain protection should be on your packing list. Sure, you're likely closer to permanent shelters and your tent or trailer, but who wants to hunker down and wait out the rain? Eventually, you're going to need to step outside into the elements. In these situations, a poncho is the perfect low-cost rain protection needed to enjoy your weekend.  

two people hiking in rain ponchos

Consideration 5: Priorities

As the cliches go - function over form is what matters, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How does this relate to ponchos? Well, if your priority is keeping your wardrobe to a particular color palette and you want a form-fitted layer, then a poncho may not be for you. But if you're okay with compromising style in favor of weight and price, a poncho may be what you're looking for. It's important to ask yourself what matters most in your rain protection. Do you want proper sleeves, or is a draped garment that covers most of your arm suitable? Do you care to have a zippered front, or is the pull-over style of a poncho suitable for you? Are you looking for something thin that you can easily stash in your glovebox, backpack, cross-body bag, or trunk, or do you want something that feels more substantial that you intend to wear all day? Everyone's priorities are different, but you should ask yourself these questions before deciding. 

Whatever you decide, the most important thing is always to remember to have some sort of rain protection in case of an emergency. Every trip, hike, and adventure is more enjoyable when you stay dry.