Gear Review Sea to Summit Poncho-tarp


Make ready. Go forward!
Jan 21, 2012
Every time winter begins to release his icy grip, I eagerly look forward to getting my shoes dirty on the trail again. Towards the beginning of this year, it was no different. And that's how I found myself standing in an outdoor store drooling over this item like a kid in a candy store.

I really try to think about each new piece of gear carefully, considering if it will get used and if so, how much use. Is the amount of use it will get worth the cost, and actually carrying it on the trail? I usually stand in front a section of gear touching everything, mumbling to myself and imagine each piece in use. My "kind of" responsible, cheap self takes over in this thought process and I buy and don't buy all the gear over and over again in my head. My wife still hasn't figured out the logic of my saying, "Yeah, but I had purchased three times this amount in my head."

I digress, the point of this post is to do a write about one of the items I bought at the beginning of this year and have now used on just about every backpacking trip I've taken this year. It's a tarp poncho from Sea to Summit. The one I purchased is made from ultra-sil material. It's extremely lightweight and water proof. It comes in a stuff bag that's about the size of a soup can and weighs in at 10 ounces. First, it's well made like just about every Sea to Summit item I've ever had. Wearing the poncho there are snap buttons down the side. I'm about 5'11" and it comes down about mid calf on me. The back is longer than front by several inches, so if you're wearing it over a backpack, the back won't be way up high. There's a cinch cord in the middle of the back edge to take up this extra length if drags the ground without a pack on. I haven't found the need to use it yet, but it's this attention to details that make me really love the Sea to Summit gear. There are guy attachment-points at each corner and the middle of each side. The stitching is top notch and I've had no issues now in over a year of use, stretching and pulling the tarp tight.

I took it home and practiced setting up with guy wires and a couple of hiking poles. There are so many different configurations that I won't try to describe them all here. The tarp measures 5 feet by 9 feet. While not small it's not large either. Sea to Summit suggests you can fit two people under the tarp. Perhaps if the tarp was stretched out flat overhead, but then any rain would collect on the flat surface and weigh it down until the water escapes through the hood opening. (Ask me how I know.) So that leaves pitching it in such a way as to allow water to run off down the sides.

My primary use for this so far has been a tarp over my hammock. I found you can stretch the tarp between the two trees from the middle guy wire attachments of each end. This arrangement leaves the four corners to be tied down to the ground. While this works, I believe it can be made simpler as follows. Stretch the tarp between the two trees from diagonal corners. Then you only have to stake down the other two corners. I also place a hiking pole on the corner of the side used to get in and out of the hammock. This give me enough room on this side to sit, relax, cook etc. This is the method that I've used now for most of backpacking this year. I make sure that the side with the hood opening is on the other side without the hiking pole, thus making for a steeper pitch allowing the water run off quicker. I discovered this last bit one morning at about 3am when the water starting dribbling in on me. That's a rude awakening. I pushed up against the tarp, emptying out the pool that had filling in the tarp roof. Now, I pitch the hood on the other side and have not since had a problem.

As mentioned earlier, it's more than just the tarp--it's also my poncho. Because I already have it in my bag for shelter I don't pack rain gear anymore. It's there toward the top of my pack ready to be pulled out at a moments notice. Indeed, I now consider it an essential piece of gear, even for my day hikes. Recently, on a business trip to Dallas, Texas I squeezed in some free time for day hike at Dinosaur Valley State Park. I packed my essentials in my hip pack and set out. Let me set up a bit of this story before continuing. Some of you will see the punch line before I get there. (Try not to snicker before I get there though.) It was late summer and this part of Texas had been having a really bad drought. Something like two or three months with no rain. They even had a ban on watering your lawn. You guessed it. The one day I had to go hiking rain was in the forecast. WTF! (Wow, that's fantastic!) The locals loved the idea of course, and I had my trusty poncho tarp so I wasn't worried. Pulled it out of my pack when the rain started and continued my hike. I left several of the buttons on the side unbuttoned for ventilation and stayed quite comfortable. The slickness of this material made it really easy to clean the mud off at the end day.

I can't say enough good things about this product. It's one of those products that after using it a few times I consider it essential and have it in my pack every time I set out. There are a few small things that I'd change if I could though. First, the stuff sack is just about impossibly small. I usually do pretty good at getting items back into their bags, so trust me when I say this one takes a lot of work. Second I really wish it had one big pocket in the front. When wearing the poncho, it's awkward to reach in under to get items out of pockets. Having a front pocket would be a nice to place to keep a snack or perhaps have some guy wires ready to make a quick shelter with the tarp. I'm sure the pocket could also double as a stuff sack for poncho. At the very least I wish the stuff sack had been sewn into the poncho somewhere. It's just one more thing to keep track of. Still my summery is I love it, use it, and would definitely recommend to a friend.
Here's my Sea to Summit Poncho-tarp in action. This was on the Low Gap trail in the Morgan Monroe State Park. (Note: I now hang the tarp much lower on the two trees and position the one outside corner up higher with a hiking pole.)
Extra notes that didn't fit neatly into my write up.
For about half the price, Sea to Summit makes the same poncho in nylon. The nylon version is only three more ounces (13 instead of 10). If I had it to do over, I'd buy the nylon version. Not because I haven't been happy with the ultra-sil version, just because I'm a cheapskate and it's hard to justify the money to save 3 ounces.

Let me briefly tick off my thought process of how I justified the cost in case you're like me and are balking at the cost. I found the poncho hanging in the store and thought, "Oh, I could use a lightweight poncho." (It packs down about the size of a soup can and weighs in at only 10 ounces.) Then I noticed the price. "Whoa! That's a bit crazy." But as I stood there thinking about it I came up with list of points that helped me justify buying it:

1. The price tag of an item divided over the course of many years of use comes out to a much smaller, more reasonable amount. This assumes that you'll actually use item. Otherwise years later you simply have overpriced item sitting in your closet.

2. While I considered the price tag hefty for poncho, it's not a bad price for a light weight tarp shelter.

3. Having two uses from one item not only made the price tag seem smaller, but would certainly cut down space and weight in my pack.

Shout out to the great folks at Quest Outdoors. They have a wide variety of gear, pricing is reasonable, and they have a friendly knowledgeable staff. What more could you ask for? No I'm not affiliated with them, but I picked this item up at one of their stores and thought I'd give them an "atta-boy".
Is this the one? Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Tarp-Poncho

My wife bought me the GoLite Poncho Tarp for Christmas this year. Looks pretty similar less a couple ounces. Haven't tried it out yet but I'm really looking forward to leaving my rain coat behind for it. Thanks for the review.
Love mine. I've used it for all of last year and it still is in great shape. I also love that it covers the pack as needed. My pack cover is good for reasonable down pour, but as I found on the west rim in Zion it offers little protection for rain coming in sideways.
I'm still trying to figure out how to use a bug net with this. I haven't figured out the right setup. Love it as a cover for my hammock though.
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