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The History Of Boonie Hats In The U.S. Military

US army soldiers in kitchen wearing boonie hats
History of Boonie Hats
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military introduced “boonie hats” to its troops as a way to provide a cool, yet functional uniform hat to replace the baseball cap-like field hat that had been used since the 1940s. The southeast Asian jungles were intensely hot and military personnel needed protection from the sun. Boonie hats kept the sun off the faces and necks of soldiers and also kept their temperatures cooler than the traditional field cap.

Initially, it was U.S. Army Special Forces personnel who were the first to wear boonie hats. The hats not only were operationally more functional, but they provided opportunity for camouflage. The tiger stripes and leopard spots, two popular patterns available to forces at that time, blended in well with the jungle foliage especially when shrubbery was added to the hat. They were instantly popular.

Early boonie hats were made of cotton and included an insect net. Cotton was a better material than the synthetics being created at the time. Cotton proved to be more breathable and lightweight because it was a natural product, but because it was natural it was prone to fading, shrinkage and it wasn’t as durable.

Prior to the 1960s, boonie hats were not in the U.S. military uniform inventory, but the U.S. military had taken notice that their allies were rocking some smart headgear in hot climates. For example, Australian forces wore pre-cursors to boonie hats that later were modified and became affectionately known as “giggle hats” because they had a comical appearance.   

British forces had a bush hat that influenced the design of U.S. boonie hats and those were used during World War II and through the 1960s. Both the Aussie and British hot climate headgear certainly influenced the development of American boonie hats. American military leaders took notes and started developing their own style of hot weather headgear.

What are Boonie Hats?
Simply put, boonie hats (the most common spelling) or “booney” hats are a military hat with a wide brim used by military forces in hot climates. They tend to replace the standard patrol cap in most cases because of the protection they offer the wearer in the elements. In particular, boonie hats tend to do a really great job shielding the wearer from the sun.

The current occupational camouflage pattern (OCP) boonie hats are made of 50 percent nylon and 50 percent cotton, so they are durable, but lightweight and breathable, and they have adjustable chin straps with brass vent screens to keep the person wearing it cool. The best part? They are machine washable, so after a rigorous outing, just drop the boonie hats in the wash and they are good to go.

Boonie hats are distinguishable by their very wide brim which goes around the entire hat and provides shade to the wearer’s face and neck and protects their eyes from the sun as well. The crowns of boonie hats have metal or brass (brass is preferred because it does not rust) vents or grates to help keep individuals cool. Those vents allow heat and moisture to leave the top of a person’s head.

Around the base of the crown, boonie hats have branch loops to allow the wearers to add local vegetation as camouflage. Although boonie hats do a great job breaking up a person’s head shape in foliage, adding branches and grasses assists tremendously for those serving as snipers or on recon.

Two soldiers shooting prone wearing Boonie Hats

Boonie hats got their fun name, legend has it, from a Tagalog word “bundok,” which means mountain. The term “boondocks” started getting used by U.S. service personnel during the Philippine American War which started in 1899 when Filipinos rose up to fight for their independence rather than be ruled by another colonial leader. Boondocks was used as military slang for Filipinos from the mountains. The term evolved to mean anything associated with the jungle or remote wilderness. Over the years it became “boonie” for short.

During the three-years long conflict in the Philippines, U.S. military personnel wore a hat that was a cross between a fedora and a cowboy hat. The hat had a wide brim, but was formed in such a way that the backside of the brim was curved upward over the neck, and the front brim was formed downward to protect the face and eyes from the sun. The hat was very flexible, pliable and it could be that this campaign saw a precursor to what would become boonie hats.

Boonie Hats Today
The design of boonie hats has changed very little since they were first introduced and boonie hats have been used in many of the U.S. military’s most recent conflicts including, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and other operations. In most cases, boonie hats were issued as part of the packing list for deployment and many personnel kept their boonie hats upon their return.  

Boonie hats have been issued in a multitude of camouflage patterns including the tiger stripe jungle fatigues, the woodland battle dress uniform, the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU/chocolate chips), the newer DCUs of the early 2000s, the various digitized uniforms of every branch, the multi-cam occupational camouflage pattern, the airman battle uniform, and others.

The wearers’ ranks are ordinarily pinned or sewn onto the front of the boonie hats. Most boonie hats today include ripstop reinforcement. They are made of a NyCo blend (nylon/cotton) in most cases.

Boonie hats, like boots, are one of the few things U.S. military personnel are allowed to keep upon return from deployment. Since they are considered a personal item and can’t really be reused, military personnel keep them and they are a source of pride because of what military personnel endure during deployments. Many U.S. military personnel get very attached to their boonie hats for a variety of reasons.

Operators, for example, might get attached to them because of the number of or nature of the operations they have been on while wearing their boonie hats. A supply soldier might be attached to their boonie hat because of the number of miles logged in bad guy country; their boonie hats in tow in their cargo pocket while they are on convoy. Others might get attached to them because it is a physical reminder of something they survived and how they were a part of something greater.

Whatever the reason for the attachment, boonie hats usually become highly regarded memorabilia for war veterans. Then again, boonie hats can also find post-military function as fishing hats or to ward off the sun while cutting the grass. Their durability and flexibility make them ideal for whatever a person does.

Three US army soldiers in combat gear

These days, most boonie hats are reserved for deployment to hot weather locations. It was not uncommon to see boonie hats worn in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Africa or other hot weather locations. They are also used in hot weather training environments.

Mostly, boonie hats are popular because of their comfort and functionality, but they are also popular because they are a part of a significant life event in the lives of just about every Marine, Sailor, Soldier, Guardian, and Airman who has deployed or trained to fight.

3 Types Of Military Hats And Their Uses

Hats, covers, lids; whatever you want to call them, head gear has been a part of military uniforms in the American military since the Continental Army was formed. Over the years the headwear of U.S. military personnel has changed considerably. From the cocked and round hat of the 1700 and 1800s, to today’s patrol cap, boonie hat and berets, they all are a part of the U.S. military lineage.

Because hats vary with each service branch, this post will focus on the three types of military hats that can be worn with the Army Combat Uniform. While the hats worn in other branches of service, like the Air Force, are similar to the types of military hats worn in the Army, some of the information in this blog post could be applicable to other branches.

Patrol Cap
The patrol cap is one of those types of military hats that is easy to wear. Easy to don and with a brim to protect a person from the sun, it's easy to like. According to a U.S. Army historical survey, the patrol cap, once known as the M-1951 field cap, made its appearance in 1943.

The cap had a slightly longer visor with rows of reinforced stitching. When the temps got frigid, the cap had a flannel-lined fold-down flap that covered the ears and the back of the head. As the cap was developed, some officers considered the M-1951 to be too sloppy to present a proper military image. To make their soldiers look sharper, some commanders mandated the use of cardboard to be worn in the cap to keep it straight and crisp.

In 1953, professional appearance became a priority within the Army ranks and the Army’s Chief of Staff Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway issued a policy directing troops to improve their soldierly image. Commercially manufactured stiffened and blocked models of these types of military hats were sold through the post exchanges and these types of military hats were standard issue throughout the 1950s. They were known as the “Ridgeway Cap.”

In 1958, the Army established a headgear study group to find a replacement for the Ridgeway Cap. As any soldier who has served during peacetime knows, without a war to train for, priorities in garrison tend to shift and a greater emphasis was placed on appearances and military bearing.

army personnel in camo uniforms

A new cap design was released in 1962. These types of military hats were known as “Cap, Field, Hot Weather.” What made the hat a hot weather item is that it lacked cold weather earflaps.

These new types of military hats were baseball style caps in olive green shade 106. Constructed of polyester and rayon blend, they had soft visors and rounded crowns, constructed of six triangular segments meeting at the top. These types of military hats also had a ventilation eyelet in each segment.

Initially, soldiers hated the cap, according to the Army historical survey. The polyester and rayon proved to be too hot in tropical climates, and soldiers did not like the look of the high front panel. After considerable pushback from troops in the field, a newer version of these types of military hats started getting issued at the end of the Vietnam era.

These types of military hats continued in use until they were replaced in 1985 when the M-1951 field cap, now referred to as a patrol cap, was reintroduced as part of the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in woodland and desert camouflage patterns. These types of military hats were also issued as part of the Army Combat Uniform in universal digital camouflage pattern.

Today, the Army Combat Uniform in occupational camouflage pattern (OCP) requires the wear of the patrol cap unless otherwise directed by higher-level commanders.

Boonie Hats
These types of military hats with their broad brims were introduced in Vietnam. Since their introduction, they are a fan favorite amongst soldiers because of their comfort and ease of wear.

Boonies were used as a substitute for the patrol cap in Vietnam, but high-ranking commanders did not like their crumpled, unkept appearance. These types of military hats did not give off the proper military image many officers expected of their troops.

Nonetheless, function prevailed over form, in the case of these types of military hats scoring a victory for the rank and file. Variations of the boonie hat were introduced over the years to accompany the Desert Camouflage Uniform (known unofficially as the “chocolate chip” desert uniforms). These were used during the 1990s during Desert Shield/Storm.

army soldiers in boonie hats

As the Army entered the Global War on Terrorism, desert camouflage uniforms changed and so did the boonie hats along with them. The Army said goodbye to the BDU and as the Army entered its digital Army Combat Uniform phase, boonie hats also were adjusted to match the futuristic, and often maligned, digital ACUs.

What has changed along with caps and uniforms since the 1950s is that senior leaders have recognized that when the force speaks, they should be heard and the boonie hat has remained a part of any deploying soldier’s packing list. In the arid, desert climates which American forces have fought in for the past several decades, the boonie has provided a cool, comfortable headgear for military personnel downrange. Soldiers and leaders love them alike, so they are likely to be around for a long time.

Where did the name “boonie” hat come from? There are various war stories depending on the veteran that you ask, but even military historians are stumped.

In 2001, on the Army’s birthday, the black beret was authorized for wear with the Army’s utility uniforms including the BDU, maternity BDU, aviation BDU, desert BDU, hospital duty uniform, food service uniform, flight uniform, combat vehicle crewman uniform and cold weather uniform, as well as the service uniforms (class A and B uniforms).

The move by then Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff, sparked considerable controversy especially because Army Rangers had been wearing black berets since the Vietnam War. It was their distinctive headgear. With Shinseki’s well-intentioned, but unwelcomed directive, every soldier would wear the black beret not just with their service uniforms, but also in utility uniforms.

female soldier with black beret

Soldiers instantly hated the beret. These types of military hats have to be shaved, cut, and formed over the course of many weeks, months and sometimes years. They don’t breathe at all, so personnel assigned in hot weather climates are normally uncomfortable when they wear the beret.

Not to mention, while they were introduced to help give the U.S. Army a more professional look, it actually ended up making many soldiers look less than professional because the soldiers did not know how to properly form and wear the berets. Many soldiers ended up looking like pastry chefs.

When the Army Combat Uniform was introduced, the beret was the mandatory headgear for those in garrison. If they deployed, the boonie or patrol cap were the options, but the beret remained.

Today, berets are worn by Airborne, Special Forces and Ranger units with the Army Combat Uniform. Other Army units wear the OCP pattern patrol cap with their ACUs.