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Ponchos and Rain Capes

Ponchos and capes are very practical with more versatility and ventilation than a rain suit.

There is often some confusion of what is a cape, poncho, or pelerine. We seek to clarify this and share with you how comfy and versatile these outfits are.

What's the Difference?

Ponchos and capes are both considered common types of outerwear even today, but the two are often confused for one another because of how similar they are. The main difference between the two styles is the design of each type as well as the purpose for which it is worn.

Ponchos are square and open on the side, capes are more bell shaped with closed sides. Traditionally, capes were a fashion item while ponchos are worn to protect from the elements. Now more functional capes are coming to the market. We look at them here.


Do not wear your poncho or rain cape in moving water, like when fording a river. That could be dangerous. Keep it in your backpack and put it on afterwards to warm up.


Ponchos and capes were adopted as overcoat in the eighteenth century and were more country wear than urban. They were very popular in the past due to their ease of construction and their ability to be re-cut and used for other garments. When cloth was hand woven and all sewing was done by hand these were important factors.

As weaving moved from households to mills the price of cloth fell and the invention of the sewing machine made more intricate outerwear available to most people.

Today, many adolescents and younger adults discovered the benefits of rain capes. Our older readers know them from their youth and still appreciate them years later. Countless people and whole families go hiking, walking or enjoy long treks in the rain.

Ponchos and capes are still the most reliable rain protection. They dry quickly as they don't soak up much water. The combination with rain pants is unbeatable. This means you can wear them anywhere, any time, even in the water.

Being completely open at the bottom, they don't trap your body heat and sweat the way waterproof jackets and pants inevitably do. The length can be anywhere from just below the knee to the ankles. The nylon fabric is lightweight for hotter days or splashing around. Some smart people found them useful as sun protection on the beach or when swimming. They also make a handy changing room on the beach.

Hoods are Essential

Most ponchos and rain capes have hoods attached. This is important. Correct use of the hood makes all difference whether you stay dry or get wet when water runs into your collar. You could keep the hood down and tie it round your neck for better visibility, but that lets some water run down the inside of your poncho and get your clothes wet.

Make sure the hood has a good fit. In heavy rain you may want to tie it closely around your face. If the hood is too big you won't see much then. Look out for a cinch cord on the back to hold the hood to your head so it won't shift around and cover your face.

wet swimming poncho in the water
Wet Poncho Cape

Alternative Uses

Creative people have found other uses for a poncho or cape. When relaxing at home on cool days lightweight a cape is less bulky than a blanket. A swim poncho keeps you warm during training breaks. It is designed to get wet so you can wear it over your swim clothes. On sunny days a breathable hiking cape with good ventilation avoids sunburn. It looks good around town, on the beach, or in the pool.

Warm-up poncho in pool
Warm-up poncho on poolside
swimming in red hiking cape
Sun protection cape

Clothes for Underneath

Ponchos and rain capes work best when worn over quick drying, functional clothing. Remember, you will get wet either from rain or your own sweat. Cargo pants or breathable nylon rain pants with pockets complete this outfit. Lycra tights may work for cycling or swimming, but not so much for hiking. Avoid cotton as it gets cold and clammy when wet.

Depending on the climate you may want to wear extral layers underneath your cape or poncho. A loose fit swim shirt is good for ventilation in hot weather. It keeps the poncho from sticking to your skin, allows it to slide over you as you move about.

A tight fleece shirt keeps you warm in cool weather. It soaks up moisture off your skin and evaporate, or passes it to the poncho.

swimming in clothes
swimming in clothes

Pool Training

Before you head out for the great outdoors, wear your entire hiking outfit under the shower to detect leaks. Then go into a swimming pool to see how these clothes perform in the water. Do they fit well, stay put and feel good? Is it easy to wade through the water? Can you swim in these clothes? This avoids later disappointment.

Practice swimming in your hiking kit so you're ready for your outdoor adventures. This is good fun, builds strength and endurance, and prepares you for the inevitable swim or water crossings.

Poncho in pool
swimming in red hiking cape

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