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Whether you’re escaping the harsh sun in the desert, dodging downpours in the rainforest, or simply going on a weekend hike with the family, a good hat will make the experience more pleasant. It reduces glare, protects your face and neck from sunburns, keeps you cool, and prevents sweat from running into your eyes. This is why you’ll rarely meet an experienced adventurer or outdoorsman who doesn’t don some form of headwear in the backcountry.
As you’ll read in the upcoming Wide Brim Hat Buyer’s Guide in Issue 26 of our print magazine, there are many styles of headwear to choose from. One of the most noteworthy and popular styles of outdoor-oriented hat is the boonie hat — that’s what we’ll be focusing on in this guide. Read on for a brief history of the boonie, and for our reviews of three currently-available examples of this design.
The term boonie is a shortened version of boondocks, a word defined as “rough country filled with dense brush”. Looking even further back, the word boondocks was adopted by U.S. military forces stationed in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century. These soliders derived it from the tagalog word bundók, which translates to mountain. This etymology goes to show that even the name of this hat is strongly linked to rugged environments.
So, where did the boonie hat design come from? As with many of the tools we use today, the boonie hat wasn’t invented in a vacuum by one individual — instead, it developed organically over time. The general design was borrowed from preexisting hat styles, such as the WWII-era “Daisy Mae” fatigue hat seen below:
This hat style remained popular among the troops due to its simplicity, flexibility, and durability. By the early days of the Vietnam War, members of the U.S. Special Forces could be seen wearing similar hats that matched their tigerstripe camouflage fatigues. Rather than being officially-issued, these hats were reportedly made by local Vietnamese tailors using cloth salvaged from other items. It was at this point that the name “boonie” was first applied.
Since they were often custom-made, features of these first boonie hats varied. All had soft floppy brims, were made of either camouflage or muted solid-color fabrics, and could be crushed or rolled up and shoved in a pocket when not in use. Some had snaps on the sides, allowing the brim to be turned up like an Aussie slouch hat; others had eyelets or holes for ventilation.
One of the most distinctive features of the boonie hat is the bar-tack-stitched strip of fabric around the crown. This forms a series of foliage loops that could be packed with jungle vegetation to break up the wearer’s silhouette. Foliage loops aren’t present on all boonie hats, but they have become a common feature for modern designs.
As the popularity of boonie hats grew in the military, it also carried over to law enforcement personnel and civilians. Boonie hats are now worn by many hunters, fishermen, and hikers. Rather than uniform-matching camouflage patterns, these civilian-market boonies favor solid colors. And although we may not need to fill the foliage loops with twigs and go crawl through the brush, this band does provide a handy storage spot for small items — fishing lures, paracord, sunglasses, a chemlight, or a ferro rod.
We picked up a trio of consumer-grade boonie hats from 5.11 Tactical, Propper, and Rothco. Below, we’ll compare and contrast their features, construction, and value.
Materials: 65% polyester/35% cotton TDU ripstop fabric with Teflon coating, moisture-wicking foam sweatband, metal mesh vent eyelets
Colors: TDU Khaki, TDU Green, Dark Navy, Black
Sizes: 22 to 23-7/8 inches
Notes: With a wavy 2-1/2 inch brim and a choice of four subdued colors, the 5.11 Tactical Boonie stays true to the classic design for the most part. The foliage loops around the crown vary in size from 2 inches to 4-1/4 inches wide — this makes it easier to stash a variety of small items on the brim. A hidden pocket inside the crown offers more storage space, as well as a location to stow the chin cord. Dual vent eyelets on each side and a moisture-wicking sweatband keep the wearer’s head cool. The Teflon finish does a surprisingly good job repelling water, making this hat a good choice for rainy days. The foam-filled brim also springs back into shape nicely after being rolled up, while the other hats we tested have more of a tendency to retain creases and wrinkles.
Materials: 94% nylon/6% spandex ripstop quick-dry fabric, mesh crown
Colors: Khaki, Olive, LAPD Navy, Black
Sizes: 21-7/8 to 24-3/8 inches
Notes: This hat is a pre-production prototype of Propper’s boonie hat redesign, so its features and appearance differ from the previous model that you may have seen elsewhere online. The Wide Brim Boonie is part of Propper’s Summerweight collection, and is designed to keep the wearer cool and comfortable in hot environments. It’s made from the same ripstop fabric as the company’s other Summerweight apparel items, and features Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 50 — for more info on how UPF clothing protects your skin from the sun, check out our UPF Shirt Buyer’s Guide from Issue 21. This redesigned model omits the side snaps seen on the old hat, and has a revised crown with a contoured mesh section. This crown is deep and spacious, and true to its name, it breathes well in warm weather. Although the hat can be rolled and packed, its 4-inch brim displayed some distinct wrinkles and creases after coming out of storage.
Materials: 55% cotton/45% polyester, metal mesh vent eyelets
Colors: Black, Coyote, Khaki, Olive Drab, Navy Blue, White, various camouflage patterns
Sizes: 21-1/8 to 25 inches
Notes: The actual name imprinted on this item’s tag is “Hat, Sun Hot Weather Type II” but Rothco lists it online simply as Boonie Hat. This hat bears a product designation of MIL-Type-J-44320 and what appears to be a NATO Stock Number (NSN): 0423-41-082-7360. Rothco offers numerous boonie hat variants, ranging from a tigerstripe camouflage Vintage Vietnam Style to a painfully garish Savage Orange Camo model that looks like it belongs in a ’90s hip hop music video. The standard boonie we tested resembles the traditional design, with a 2-1/2-inch brim, large vent eyelets on each side, and a chin cord with simple leather slider. We noted that the crown on this hat feels rounder and more form-fitting than the otherwise similar 5.11 Tactical hat.
Photo: Life Magazine, circa 1942
Members of the 5th Special Forces Group and Vietnam Special Forces (VNSF) soldiers wearing boonie hats. Photo: S. L. A. Marshall Photograph Collection