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The Baldwin Articles – Ponchos And Shelters

Special Forces Veteran Terry Baldwin is continuing his series on the history of US Military equipment with ponchos and shelters.

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This is about effective tactical shelters that I have used in the field including various military issue ponchos, tarps and the Ecotat Multipurpose System. I recognize that today there are quite a few other potential options available but I’m going to stick with what I know works. In WW II and until at least the late-80s the US Military issued two basic shelter items. One was the canvas “Shelter Half” each of which came with (3) wooden poles and (5) aluminum tent pins. These so called “pup tents” were heavy, always leaked – even when new – and required two sets to form a complete shelter. The resulting 2-man floorless tents were intended strictly for bivouacs in relatively secure rear areas and not for the front lines. Other than in basic training I don’t believe any service member ever willingly carried or voluntarily used these things. I’m not sure exactly when these stopped being issued but I don’t think anyone was sorry to see them go.

The USGI poncho on the other hand was always a much more popular option. It was considerably lighter than the shelter half. It was actually waterproof and it was simple enough that it could be successfully erected by one person even in the middle of a pitch black night. The OD green poncho was the standard for many years. It was thicker and slightly heavier than the current versions and was quite durable. The lighter woodland type was introduced in the 80s but many “old soldiers” kept using the green ones for some years afterwards. The poncho was not issued with any accessories, but a hunk of 550 cord or some bungee cords was usually enough to construct a functional shelter in a wooded area. However, carrying some kind of lightweight tent pins was also advisable in order to anchor the poncho directly to the ground when necessary.

Probably the oddest fact about issue ponchos is that they are only rarely worn as ponchos in modern times. Even in the late 70s we had wet weather tops and bottoms that were usually worn to keep dry while active. The poncho was almost exclusively employed in the field as a sleeping shelter. In fact most people kept the hood tightly tied off to facilitate more rapid shelter construction. Many Allied countries prefer some form of tarp for expedient individual shelters instead. In the US we generally refer to the resulting simple structures as “hooches” while the British refer to them as “bashas”. Basha tarps are generally longer than a USGI poncho and therefore make a relatively spacious shelter that more easily accommodates a soldier and all his gear.

Since it has no hood opening the tarp cannot be worn like a poncho. But otherwise the two are very similar in form and function. They all come with grommets and web loops or snaps to provide lashing points and to allow two or more items to be linked together to make larger coverings. Either type can also be readily used as an improvised litter to move a causality or to construct a buoyant “poncho raft” to aid in crossing bodies of water. Mated with a poncho liner or blanket either can be a lightweight sleeping bag or bivy as well. When light discipline is a concern they can be used as expedient blackout screens during map checks and similar tactical activities. The OD green poncho could even be used as a makeshift chalk board. As long as you remember to bring chalk. And if you are in the boonies long enough, you can use your poncho or tarp to form the lining of a field washing machine to hand clean your cloths.

The Ecotat Multipurpose System was developed in the 80s by a retired Marine. It does have an NSN and was available for issue for a number of years. Besides M81 woodland they were made in solid coyotish brown and more recently in UCP. The Ecotat concept was pretty audacious, innovative and truly ahead of its time. The idea was to retain all the functionality of the poncho, make it more ergonomic so that it could be worn more comfortably as a garment AND give the soldier the option of constructing a complete modern one or two man tent with the included accessories. The first versions were also made of a brand new space age miracle fabric called Gore-Tex. I have one of the early ones that I acquired around 1984. This was still a few years before the Army began issuing jackets and pants made out of Gore-Tex. It was a very intriguing idea. But for the field soldier in moderate climate zones there just wasn’t much need for the full tent option. And even without the accessories it was considerably heavier than the OD green ponchos most of us were using at the time. Eventually a coated nylon Ecotat was produced that helped reduce the weight quite a bit but by that time the Army had lost interest in making them a general issue item.

I couldn’t begin to guess how many Ecotats were fielded or may still be out there in circulation. If anyone has recent experience with them as an issue item I would love to hear it. I believe that all of them were actually produced by Wiggy’s for Ecotat. The Ecotat company itself went out of business years ago. But Wiggy’s still makes these in several colors under the name “Freedom Shelter” although no longer in old style woodland. There are also some cheap knock offs out there made in China I presume. The Ecotat system is not the be all and end all of individual soldier shelters. Still, the idea of a truly multifunctional shelter system has great merit. I would love to see a fully modernized and improved A2 version of these developed. But the fact is the US Military has essentially come full circle and we are back where we were decades ago with two separate issue shelter systems. The USGI poncho or tarp continues to be the primary tactical shelter available to soldiers. And single purpose one and two person pup tents are available for bivouac and base camp situations like the Army’s Improved Combat Shelter. Albeit these are absolutely much better tents than their canvas ancestor.

All of the items I’ve talked about do what they were designed to do quite well. Some are a little heavier or bulkier than others but not by too much. For me it came down to options and color scheme. If I knew I was going to be living out of a hooch for any length of time I generally preferred a tarp since it was roomier. If I was just carrying something for contingencies but didn’t expect to use it much I usually went with ponchos because they took up the least space. A key factor was always what camouflage pattern available to me would blend best with the terrain and season I expected to be working in most often on any given trip. The examples shown (top to bottom): Ecotat nylon in tent mode, Ecotat Gore-Tex, British DPM woodland tarp, British MTP (Multicam variant) tarp, M81 woodland commercial tarp, USMC MARPAT tarp, USGI OD green poncho, woodland poncho, post Desert Storm commercial tricolor desert poncho, UCP poncho, Gulf State DPM desert poncho and Dutch DPM woodland poncho. As a side note: all the ponchos except one have small hoods designed to be worn under helmets. The Dutch poncho and the Ecotats have much larger hoods designed to be worn over helmets.

I found the M81 woodland items were usually a good camouflage option in most temperate locations in spring and summer. However, I felt the DPM woodland worked better in some of the African countries I visited. I carried the desert variant DPM poncho most often in GWOT and found it especially appropriate for many places in Afghanistan. If I had gotten the MTP tarp sooner it would have worked at least as well and probably better in some locations. The newer MARPAT tarp might be a good choice if you are switching between widely varying environments since it is reversible woodland / coyote. And this may surprise some people but I found the UCP poncho worked quite well in some terrain overseas and even here on my homestead it is better than the woodland options during the late fall and winter months. If in doubt I went with the OD green poncho. It worked reasonably well in almost any terrain or climate. Bottom line: I highly recommend always carrying something that can be used to make a tactical shelter YOU can live with anytime you expect to be in the field. And in my experience any one of these military issue items would be a suitable choice.

Next: ALICE Packs Part 1.

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35 Responses to “The Baldwin Articles – Ponchos And Shelters”

  1. Terry – as always well done. I for one really enjoy the time and effort you put into your articles. Well done Sir, well done!!

  2. Weaver says:

    As usual, outstanding review article.

  3. Historia says:

    Sir,
    very cool article, interesting to see others employ a similar system. I have used, and seen many use the fine commercial woodland tarp from the PX too. even thought they wear out fast.

  4. jjj0309 says:

    Ourstanding article. So much valuable informations. Ecotat was truly ahead of it’s time. Maybe it was too much innovative. Many nowaday civilian outdoor brands has their own fancy bivy type tents but the versatility, detail, and innovation of Ecotat is just remarkable and it’s unbeatable still today. Enhanced version of Ecotat would be sweet. I just wish some company picks up this idea and improves it with modern tweaks and materials someday.
    Can’t wait for next ALICE Packs part. I’m a huge ALICE Pack cultist myself. Hellcat mod or aftermarket M-ALICE packs with 1606AC frame is just heavenly sweet.
    Thank you for your great article, Mr. Baldwin.

  5. Jon, OPT says:

    Excellent article. Best Basha there is for SEA is the Aussie hooch, if you ever want to see one give me a holler. Basically a Brit Basha in AUSCAM.

    Jon, OPT

    • Kaos-1 says:

      Haha, speak of the devil with this article. I just ordered a pack of bungee cords (and a few other things) from OP Tactical to specifically for a poncho hooch.

      • Jon, OPT says:

        Thanks! I have both a DPM Basha, and an AUSCAM one, in my pack there are always 5 or 6 bungees and 50 ft. of 550, this system has never failed me in 20 years, though most of my lightfighter years I used the USGI system.

        Jon, OPT

        • Terry B. says:

          Jon,

          My first experience with a basha tarp was an OD green Aussie version I traded for in Hawaii. Unfortunately I lost it when I PCSed stateside.

          I have not seen one in AUSCAM. Just to be clear…are you talking about the older camouflage pattern or the newer Multicam variant the Aussies adopted?

          TLB

          • Jon, OPT says:

            The older pattern, I got mine in 2005 on Talisman Saber, I’m pretty sure it’s a knock off version, the actual issue ones are balls out robust as is most older Aussie nylon kit.

            Jon, OPT

            • mike says:

              I’m using a Mayflower Basha in Mandrake and I’ve been told it’s on the lighter side of Bashas. I love it, I really love it, but I’m already looking for the next one as this was made for speed not longevity!

    • mike says:

      Completely agree Jon. The auscam hoochie is the best option I’ve found. Built a lot better then a poncho and lighter then the British Basha and USMC Tarps. Only problem is the actual issue ones can be hard to find.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Great article. It’s great to learn the history of the gear, and see options from other countries.

  7. Philip says:

    A great article, Mr. Baldwin (as always!)

  8. bulldog76 says:

    oh boy an article on alice my first love when it came to packs she was like a whore she would haul anything you put in her and she just wouldnt stop

  9. Chris K. says:

    Very interesting article. I remember carrying 2 OD ponchos snapped together to make an enclosed shelter for wet/cold weather. Looking forward to the ALICE article (and maybe understanding why the Army kept fielding those shoulder straps with the terrible quick-release buckle that always popped open).

  10. Matt says:

    Army Poncho suspended with bungees over a net hammock…slept like a baby.

  11. Riceball says:

    Once again, a well written and informative article. I especially liked the mention of the shelter halves, I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only who hated those things. The sad thing is, when I was in the Corps during the ’90s they were still issuing those stupid things, this always baffled me since even then the civilian world had long since gone to lightweight nylon tents that could be assembled in only a few minutes.

    When I was going through MCT my company actually got to test out some new nylon tents that the Corps was testing out, but in typical military fashion the tents had the footprint of a 1 or 2 man dome tent but only half that space was actually useable because the stupid thing had 2 parts, an outer dome and a shelter portion that was really only good for only 1 person. The idea was that the portion covered by the outer shell but not occupied by the shelter was to be used to put your pack and other gear in.

    On the subject of shelter halves, I actually had the dubious pleasure of actually using my shelter half outside of boot camp once. My CO had decided to take my unit on night hump one drill weekend and after the hump we would stay overnight in the field and set up shelter halves. We were supposed to practice both noise and light discipline but since nobody had set up a shelter half outside of boot both light and noise discipline went completely out the window as we turned on flashlights to actually see what we were doing and we hammered in the tent stakes with our e-tools.

  12. Brett says:

    The smell of the old OD ponchos and the rain suits is nostalgic. Kind of a mixture of armpit and old cheese.

  13. Bill says:

    Great article.

    I was always searching the surplus stores for the heavy weight OD ponchos.

    Still used the shelter halves during Team Spirit in the early 80’s.

  14. Al V says:

    Great article and many memories.
    at the end of a ftx, we would construct a hoochie hotel, 12 plus all done up together.
    Best was the hooch and hammock combo.

  15. Ben says:

    Having used the Brit Basha extensively, it could be bastardised into a number of different configurations, dependant on the situation. One of my favourites was the use of flexible carbon fibre tent poles to make a tarp ‘dome’; great for mountain training in the UK where there was generally a lack of trees. Bivvy poles, paracord and tent pegs also enabled you to make a low-profile ‘pup tent’ out of the basha.

  16. Simon says:

    to the OP,

    Hey give me a yell as I’m an ex Aussie soldier still here in Aus and the issue AUSCAM Hootchies (as we call them) are fairly easy to source. the issue OD ones are a little harder though

  17. Don says:

    Back around 1991 I acquired 2 Ecotat shelters (1 in Woodland, the other in 3 color desert) direct from Ecotat. The 3 color desert was a special run for a military unit (presumably SF). I traded them to a buddy of mine who still might have them.

  18. neisty says:

    Nice article. Ive always been a fan of the Aussie Hoockes, linking up 2 for a base camp shelter. The Old Aussie O/D hooches are also an old fave but just a bit short for some one 6″4 on a rainy night.

    SORD has some new Ultra light multicam Hoochies coming out soon. 2 versions, 1 part of a larger sleeping system

  19. Jay says:

    I was issued an Ecotat system while with a Marine Corps unit in the late 90’s (still have it). The one man tent was pretty nice at the time, and the two sleeping bags had some nice features (the bungie cord bottoms, to sleep with your boots on and not muck up the bag and the velcro slit so you could unzip the bags and use them as a warm poncho). Ours were a dark brown. The light bag was good for warmish weather, the slightly heavier bag was good to about freezing. I have never tried to double them up and see how cold they were good for in that mode though. The other nice thing about the bags was that both of the bags could be zipped together into one big bag-good for camping with friends of the fairer persuasion…

  20. Curious about your estimation of the useful effective life of your basic USGI OD green poncho? My experience is that the poly coating that makes them waterproof begins to smell and rot within a couple of years even when well cared for. Any tricks to making them last longer?

    Thanks for a very good article. Love the detail and personal history with an outstanding, multi-purpose and generally under apreciated piece of gear.

    • Terry B. says:

      Hardcore,

      The OD green one I showed in the picture was issued to me about 30 years ago and is still good to go. Of course, even though it is old it has only been used in the field infrequently for the last 15 years or so.

      I keep it and the others in a tuff box in a relatively moisture free and temp controlled environment (limits possible mold or mildew damage) and out of direct sunlight.

      I also use talcum powder from time to time to “rub it down” that seems to help keep it supple and hopefully staves off dry rot. Also don’t fold it up too tight so that it can “breath” a little. It would probably be better if I could store it completely unfolded.

      Unfortunately I can’t confirm scientifically that any of that increases longevity, but I believe it does help.

      TLB