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The Poncho: The Most Useful Item on My Travel Packing List

many uses of a poncho on packing lists

The following post about a travel poncho was submitted by Jemma Beedie.

At home for the holidays in 2016, I had been very clear with my family that I did not want any presents. I was flying on from Bahrain to Sri Lanka to begin a five month solo journey around Asia and I intended to take only carry on luggage. Then, out with my little brother a couple of days before Christmas, I turned around and saw the most beautiful poncho I’d ever laid eyes on. I needed to own it. I didn’t know at the time that this impulse buy would turn out to be one of the most valuable items I took on my trip.

The Practical Travel Poncho

A thick, acrylic material, the poncho was designed in such a way that it covered my whole back and draped over my shoulders. It hangs open unless I position it to cover up my front. This is key to its usefulness: because it opens up fully, the poncho has been used as a rug at the beach, as a blanket in cold hostels, and as an emergency towel. I suspect a traditional poncho would be just as useful, as long as it can be laid out flat.

back of travel poncho
Jemma’s poncho opens fully and can be laid flat, making it very useful

There was no space for the poncho in my tiny pack, but that didn’t matter as it is an item of clothing. I carried it on my arm, the way I would a coat, or slung it over my shoulders in the airport. As soon as I boarded the flight it was over my lap and chest and I used it as a blanket on the chilly night flight to help get some sleep.

>>Learn how to pick the perfect hostel.

travel poncho
Jemma says a stylish travel poncho is something every female traveler should pack

My first hostel in Sri Lanka was hot, but that turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. At a Workaway placement in the Sinharaja rain forest the days were roasting but the nights were cool. Provided with only a thin sheet, most of us shivered through the night, or tried to create makeshift bedding with towels and spare pieces of clothing. I simply spread my poncho out over my body and got a good night’s sleep.

It wasn’t just the rain forest that turned the nights cool; at a hip hostel in Kuala Lumpur the air conditioning blew directly onto my bed. As much as I asked the other women in the room to leave the temperature controls alone, there was always someone who insisted on lowering the air blasting out to nearly Arctic. Once more, I curled up under my personal blanket and snoozed through it.

Securing it to the outside of my bag with a spare bungee cord, I can be sure of always having it to hand. I have used it as:

  • a picnic rug at the beach, keeping coarse sand off my legs.
  • a curtain at a hostel where I wasn’t comfortable with just how many people were crammed into one dorm.
  • a pillow on public transport, especially long bus journeys, by rolling it into a sausage and accompanying with ear plugs.
Jemma wearing her travel poncho
Left: Jemma wearing her versatile travel poncho in Bahrain. Right: About to start her adventure with her new poncho.

The Fashionable Travel Poncho

By far the best thing about the poncho, though, is the fashion aspect. From that first five month trip onward, the poncho comes everywhere with me. I have taken it through Europe when I lived in a van for six months and I have taken it on weekend jaunts with my husband. No matter how dirty you are, how unwashed or smelly from a day’s travel, a quick slick of red lipstick and a poncho will make you feel about a hundred times better.

>>Read more about the best convertible travel clothing for women.

So what if the cotton dress I’m wearing has been to the beach, on a hike or simply scrunched into the bottom of my bag for a week? All I need to do is throw my trusty poncho on over the top and I know that I look the part, whether heading out to one of Bangkok’s cocktail bars, to cycle around a Medieval French village, or to meet old friends for dinner in Tenerife. It works over jeans, yoga leggings, day dresses and shorts. It can be worn with heels for a smart look or with flip flops if I’m coming straight off the beach.

versatile travel poncho
Jemma shows us just how great her poncho is

A jacket just doesn’t have the same versatility, and that’s why when I speak to friends who are planning backpacking trips of their own, a stylish poncho is one of the few things I always passionately recommend.

About the author: Jemma Beedie is a writer, sometimes for passion and sometimes for pay. She loves it when the two overlap. She grew up in Bahrain, where her pale Pictish skin was often frazzled by the intense Arabian sun. She has travelled with family, friends, and alone, though most often with her husband. She lived for a year in a 24-year-old van with her adventure cat, though he much prefers the old Scottish cottage they currently inhabit.

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travel poncho
poncho on travel packing list
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Gear We Use


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Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.

Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

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Reader Interactions


  1. Lydia says

    This is an indeed a very useful piece of clothing, Jemma. It seems so versatile, useful and stylish at the same time. I definitely need to get one!

  2. Martha says

    Hi Jemma
    Thought you might like to know that the lovely, versatile garment you have is actually called a Ruana, not a poncho. A poncho is usually a rectangular piece of fabric with a slit and/or hole in the middle to put your head through. A Ruana is very similar but it has a slit which is open all the way from the neck opening to the edge of the fabric. They are indeed great garments. I wove one for myself more than 30 years ago. It’s it still a favorite piece of clothing. Thanks for highlighting its usefulness.

  3. TM says

    Could you give us measurements of your precious? Despite looking everywhere, I haven’t found a ruana that would fit the bill for me so I guess I’ll have to make it myself. Is the material windproof or less thick? Does it drape or stand more solid? Thanks for the great tip in any case!

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