Ever ridden out a rainstorm in a cheap plastic poncho? The best we can say is that it’s sometimes slightly better than no rain gear at all. Yet this hooded garment endures, in part because ponchos have played a role in everything from baseball to Hollywood to the U.S. Civil War. So, don’t pull the wool over your eyes—try these unusual poncho facts on for size.

Betcha didn’t know about ponchos

  • Dating back to 500 BC, ponchos have long been used for function and fashion. The first ponchos were made of wool and were meant to keep the wearer warm and dry. Their design also signified the importance of the wearer, a stepped-diamond motif indicating authority and leadership.

cover image of the Pancho and Lefty vinyl album from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson

  • Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” to number one on the country charts in July 1983. The ballad offers this timeless advice for all van-lifers: Living on the road my friend; Was gonna keep you free and clean; And now you wear your skin like iron; And your breath as hard as kerosene.
  • Because ponchos were typical clothing items of many South American and Mexican cultures, their exact origin is still up for debate. However, because the Mapuche people from the Andes Mountains spread the poncho throughout Spain and Latin America, they are usually credited with the invention of the poncho we’re familiar with today.
  • Ponchos were first used by the U.S. military in the 1850s and were officially adopted during the Civil War. They’ve seen plenty of upgrades over the years making them lighter weight and more waterproof, as well as more functional thanks to the addition of a drawcord hood that could be closed to better form a rain fly or ground sheet. Today, ponchos remain a standard piece of U.S. military field equipment.
  • Clint Eastwood famously wore a poncho in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, in which Eastwood played The Man With No Name. According to Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in the Star Wars films, Boba Fett was based on The Man With No Name, including the color scheme of his armor, which was the same green and white design as Eastwood’s poncho.
  • While a quick Google search of “how to make a garbage bag poncho” will churn up plenty of tutorials, we’re pretty sure you can figure it out for yourself. Many a camper will start out with a simple trash bag poncho in lieu of a raincoat or even a store-bought poncho, eventually graduating to more expensive rain gear. Longtime canoe campers will know everything comes full circle, though—nothing gets more lightweight or waterproof than a good old trash bag.
  • No history of the poncho would be complete without mentioning the equally maligned and adored rain poncho of modern times. These glorified trash bags with a hood, can be seen in the stands of outdoor sporting events, on the decks of Maid of the Mist cruises, and on the lawns of music festivals. A word to the wise: pick a clear or colorful poncho. Basically anything but white. The White Sox made the mistake of handing white ponchos out to fans at a 2014 game and haven’t lived down the sight of stands full of fans in pointed white hoods.
a person jumping at the end of a dock while wearing a maple leaf poncho in rainy weather
A glorified, albeit patriotic, trash bag with a hood. | Feature photo: Adobe Stock

Cover of the 2023 Paddling Buyer’s GuideThis article was first published in the 2023 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

A glorified, albeit patriotic, trash bag with a hood. | Feature photo: Adobe Stock



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