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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.

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