Buying a Survival Backpack: Military Bags vs Civilian Hiking Backpacks

Hiking Backpack on the Ground with Hiking Gear

Military, hiking or hunting packs; which backpack is going to hold up when you need it and which pack is right for your unique situation? Both have their pros and cons, but to really figure out which one is the best, you need to find out exactly how you’ll be using it.

  • Are you planning to use this bag on a regular basis? Is it something you plan on carrying in and out of work, school, or wherever you travel?
  • Is this bag’s primary purpose bugging out?
  • How much gear do you plan on carrying, and how important is your organization?

Outdoor Hiking Backpacks

One of the top benefits of choosing a hiking style backpack is how light and comfortable they are. Over the last couple of years, these bags have come into their own; they are lighter, stronger and a whole lot more comfortable to carry than bags from even a couple years ago. If you plan on traveling over long distances, where fatigue will become an issue, then these bags are probably going to be one of the best options to consider.

Because these companies cater to hikers, many of whom are a little obsessive about their pack weights; these bags are designed to be carried on long hauls. Unfortunately, the light hiking craze does have a downside; for every ounce you lose in pack weight, you sacrifice organizational tools like MOLLE, pouches and other methods of carrying extra gear.

The downside to buying these types of packs:

One of the biggest drawbacks to these kinds of packs is their lack of compartments and organization. Since every bit of extra material can add weight to the bag, many of these companies have slimmed down the amount of storage space in favor of one large compartment. While that might be perfect for light hikers, it’s a negative point for those who want an easy to organize bag.

Military Style Backpacks

If you’re not concerned with the weight of your pack, then a military pack can be a good option – especially if storage and organization are a concern. While these packs are usually on the heavy side, they are super durable, made to be carried through harsh conditions, and are generally easy to organize and add attachments and gear directly to the bag.

The main benefit of choosing a military-style bag is the ability to attach utility packs, accessories, and magazine pouches right to the bag, using a MOLLE system or ALICE system on older style packs. Since most modern accessories are designed to be used with MOLLE style bags, I would tend to stay away from the older ALICE packs.

MOLLE PALS Webbing
MOLLE Packs use the Pouch Attachment Ladder System or PALS as a way to easily attach extra gear to the bag.

MOLLE (pronounced molly) is an acronym for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. MOLLE packs use the Pouch Attachment Ladder System or PALS, a grid of webbing that allows you to easily attach and detach pouches, slings, gear or other items to your pack or vest. Most modern tactical equipment, like knife sheaths holsters, magazine pouches, and radio pouches are designed around this system.

DIY TIP: For all the Do-it-Yourself guys out there, who want to add MOLLE to their traditional hiking packs: The PALS grid system uses horizontal rows of 1″ Mil-W-43668 Type III nylon webbing (commercial vendors use Type IIIa), spaced 1″ apart, and reattached to the backing at 1.5″ intervals.

The downside to buying these types of packs:

The real downside to these packs is their weight. If the pack is going to be carried by someone with back issues, or someone who has a hard time carrying large amounts of weight, then a hiking backpack might be the better option since they are usually much easier to carry.

One word of warning on buying military backpacks: If you do decide to go with a military pack, make sure it’s an actual military pack, or a pack built by a reputable company – not some cheap Chinese knockoff that’s going to split open the moment you start stuffing it full of gear.

The bag you choose depends on your unique needs.

If you’re buying a pack specifically for long hikes then buy a hiking backpack, they are generally more comfortable and designed to be carried for hours on end. If you’re buying a bag that’s primary purpose is for bugging out, then a military bag is probably the way to go. The military pack is generally a bit cheaper, easier to organize, and easier to carry gear specifically made for bugging out.

A few things to keep in mind when choosing a backpack

  • Often the manufacturing of military gear goes to the cheapest bidder, so mil-spec doesn’t always mean top quality.
  • Beware of cheap Chinese knockoffs. Gun shows and military surplus stores are notorious for selling cheap knockoff gear that may look like military gear but is far from the real thing.
  • Test, test, and then test some more. Try on a number of different bags and make sure you find something that fits your specific body size, frame, and unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all bag; what works for me might be horrible for your specific needs.
  • Make sure it fits. Like a properly fitted pair of boots, a properly fitted pack is barely noticeable when it’s on. Trust me a poor fitting pack is going to be hell on your back, so you need to pay close attention to how the pack feels when testing put different bags.

41 Comments

  1. Dark Space
    September 10, 2014 at 9:55 am

    I have something of back pack habit/problem my wife tells me

    By far, the best pack I own is a Goruck GR1. It is the most expensive (at least relative to size) and the best built pack I’ve ever owned. I use it to ruck in, so its full of bricks and sweat. It cost more, but has a 100% lifetime guarantee, and they mean it.

    I have a $20 walmart bookbag I use for frequent and light use (i.e. to and from work on the motorcycle) that is about worn out after 18 months – I feel like it was a good value for what it was used for. I’m going to replace it with a second GR1 that can stay clean.

    I have a 5.11 Covert series backpack that looks less ‘tactical’ on the outside but has molle and velcro in all the right spots on the inside that I use for travel and weekend camping. Historically I used the single or double-compartment packs from North Face (and still own them) for camping, but they’re just not organized enough. The GR1 (or larger GR2) would be good for camping too, even though it’s more minimalistic, it allows for attachments to organize your stuff in.

    Then, to your point, I have a half dozen molle style packs in various colors that were in the bargain bin over the years. The best built one I use as a range bag, but it’s too bulky for serious use (i.e. walking through the woods it would stick outside your normal body frame and hit every twig). The rest are holders for my 72 hour kits for the family – I have the kits organized in plastic bags inside the bags, so I can yank them out if I have to (and put them in more reliable bags), but can also just grab the molle bag and walk if there is no time. I strongly agree with your statement on buying quality – I won’t throw these bags away, but they also were a waste of money for any serious user.

    • Steve
      September 30, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Spending 300.00 is crazy. I went to Kmart and bought a killer bag for about 25 bucks. I cut up a pool noodle and reinforced the shoulder straps with it. Most comfortable thing ever.

      • william boettcher
        June 11, 2016 at 8:11 am

        youve never worn a mystery ranch

        • michael harris
          October 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm

          Accept NO substitutes……Komodo Dragon BABY!!!

      • animalinstinct
        July 31, 2016 at 12:54 pm

        A pool noodle? GENIUS!

    • Dan
      March 29, 2016 at 8:50 am

      I am a search and rescue instructor and the only packs I use are camelbak tactical. I have an original hawg that’s been in use for as long as I’ve been alive and I use a bfm for my 72 hour bag. Just bought a new Rubicon to use in addition to the BFM And it’s amazing

  2. Better Get This One Right
    September 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    There is a time to wal mart and a time to just pay the money for quality. Purchasing a pack is a Quality moment. This is going to carry your life and your family’s life, better get this one right. I remember hiking Grand Canyon, my friend no shit brought his Marlboro mile gear on the trip. His thin pack straps by the second day were cutting into his shoulders. Long story short, “DONT DO IT”. Get yourself a comfortable pack.

    • ARC
      December 14, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Very True. Your bugout pack should have a lot of thought put into it. I am a Veteran and I can tell you, your backpack is your life. Your main pack should have a really good frame whether internal or external. The shoulder straps should be a padded nylon strap all the way up the pad and have break aways to instantly drop the pack without struggling with the pack when seconds counts. Break aways are a two piece shoulder strap held together with a plastic clip. If your main backpack don’t have break aways on the shoulder straps then you need to get the older padded Alice Pack Straps and incorporate them on your main pack. In a combat scenario, you will need to dump your main pack instantly so you can maneuver quickly without all the extra weight.

      • SFC Retired
        December 16, 2016 at 10:36 am

        Also 1 thing to think about is color Stay away from Camo. If U use Camo you will be the first one stopped. Because the powers that be will think U are a vet ( U know “home grown” terrorist )

    • Stevo
      March 20, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      Buying a walmart bag for any type of serious use is just crazy. If you’re in the middle of nowhere and your bag breaks you could be in a world of pain.

  3. Marcus
    September 10, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Living in sunny southern communist California I am at least lucky enough to be able to ride my motorcycle almost year round. By far the most comfortable and useful pack I’ve ever owner has been my 5.11 rush 24. Plenty of storage and plenty of molle to add whatever you need for whatever the day may call for. The yoke style straps are the most comfortable things I’ve used even when loaded over 80 pounds. What started out as a bug out bad has turned into my EDC.

    • Jon
      June 12, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      The rush 24 is well built, and has plenty of organising pockets, but it’s very short and squat – so if you’re tallish, it sits at an uncomfortable angle with the bottom of the pack in the small of your back – rather than resting on top of your hips.

      It also sits far out from your back – so the weight is magnified rather than minimised.

      It’s actually painful to carry with any weight in for any length of time.

      I’m not sure why so called military packs are always short and stick out so far from the centre of gravity – good ergonomics is one of the things civilian packs do really well.

      A well built but poorly designed pack.

    • Doug
      September 16, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      I have owned the Rush 24 for over 5 years. It has been overseas twice with me as well as many day hikes including a week in Utah earlier this summer. The only spot that it does not still look new is one of the shoulder straps show some rubbing on it.

      I currently live in the Pacific NW, and it is still my daily carry bag.

      As fare as the way it fits, I am 6’1″ about 200lbs and I have had it loaded down with over 35lbs of gear on many of my hikes and even had my 5 year old(35-40lbs) tossed on top of it and it fits perfectly and has never made my back hurt. In contrast, I was lazy a couple weeks ago on a day hike and used one of my cheap packs. With about 15-20lbs in that pack after about 2 hours into our 5 hour hike, my neck and back started hurting. Was not an enjoyable hike!

    • Ben Leucking
      June 8, 2016 at 5:38 pm

      I’m with you on the Rush 24. I have six backpacks – each organized for various purposes, but my 5.11 Rush 24 is the go-to pack of preference. I’ve never found anything more durable or functional under a wide variety of conditions.

  4. church
    September 10, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    lord have mercy…………time money and durability …I have but just one pack…not to go in to a long story.. This is a madden pack made in boulder colo. in it’s day it was top of the line military issue late 70’s …I purchased it in 1979..45 years of tried an tested heavy and comfortable it suite me find ..A hundred dollar investment worth it’s weight in gold…stuffed full of what it takes to survive in a world gone wrong …the old girl has taken care of me through cold hell and high water….I wouldn’t trade her for all the molle in the world…..so have at it with your new high priced gear I ‘ll stick to the old tried an true … 58 years of living on this rock….to the bitter end…

    • OFFGRID Logo
      Off Grid Survival
      September 10, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      If I had a pack like that I wouldn’t give it up for the new MOLLE style packs either. There’s are some decent bags on the market, but damn we really used to know how to make stuff in this country.

      I’ve been looking for an old 1960s/70s metal tackle box specifically for that reason; you just can’t find that kind of quality these days. I can’t tell you how many of these new plastic tackle boxes and bags have broke on me after only a couple times out.

      • church
        September 11, 2014 at 11:57 am

        how if any way can I get a photo of this pack pinned to this article ????? I been following this site for a few years now….

        • OFFGRID Logo
          Off Grid Survival
          September 11, 2014 at 1:32 pm

          If you’re trying to pin it to Pinterest there’s a pin it button at the top of the article that should work… Is that what you’re talking about?

          • Mike414
            September 24, 2014 at 8:06 am

            Madden is making those packs again the same way they did in the seventies

      • jeb
        November 29, 2014 at 2:10 am

        Once I get my home fab shop going I might be able to make something that fits the idea. Do you think there’s a demand?

    • Dark Space
      September 11, 2014 at 6:30 am

      To be fair, $100 from 1979 is $345 in today’s dollars – so that buys you pretty much top of the line packs…

  5. neutrino
    September 11, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Another aspect I don’t see mentioned is that a lot of these ‘ultralight’ packs are NOT durable in any real sense of the word. Durability WILL equate to weight. As long as you approach your packs with the mindset that ‘if it lasts me this trip, I’m cool with it’ then buying most of these ultralight packs will be fine.

    From my personal experience, external frame packs transfer weight better than most of the hyperlight internal frame bags, and generally allow you to carry more weight over longer distances, with less pain and misery than a comparably sized internal frame pack.

    If you’re going to be climbing, then internal frame packs show their utility, but if you’re just having to cover distance, often times an external frame pack will help significantly, not only from the perspective of better weight transfer and support, but also from the fact that you can actually attach things to the frame such that they aren’t predominantly laying against the pack thus speeding drying times. External frame packs also tend to intend for you to place your sleeping bag outside the backpack, thus leaving you more useable space inside.

    I don’t hate a lot of the new stuff, I just wouldn’t trust it if I had to bug out and it was my only source of transporting critical gear.

    I own 3 Kelty packs, 2 of which are external frame, 1 internal. I have a large Gregory internal frame, as well as a tatonka internal frame. I’ve run ospreys and REI brand gear, and can honestly say that the lighter the pack, the lower the durability. Ripstop is only what it is named. It will RIP all to hades, but won’t completely split open. So, buyer beware.

  6. JD
    September 25, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Eberlestock packs are what I rely on. After reviewing all the rugged/military type packs out there I’ve come to the conclusion that Eberlestock are the best bang for the buck! Specifically the Destroyer. Stay clear of the Battleship unless you are at least 6’2″ tall as it’s a very large pack. 6’4″ would be better.
    I am 6′ tall with a large build, and though I can make the Battleship work with proper loading, it’s really a tad too big for my INCH needs.

    I hope this helps!

  7. Jason Schiffner
    September 26, 2014 at 10:03 am

    I spent 10 years as a special operator and I loved a traditional ruck sack frame. I would use the frame with tactical tailor kidney straps and shoulder straps. Then for the bag I would use a medium sized camelbak. My point is: don’t be afraid to mix and match to find whats best for you. Also, when buying a “milspec” backpack, just make sure its Berry Compliant. That way you’ll avoid all those cheaply made rigs.

  8. Moman
    November 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    ok.. i’ll admit my moment of shame for packs.. I got the wally world special S.O.G. 3 day pack with Molle.. But so far it has held up to quite a bit of abuse without so much as a hiccup.. and it has a lifetime warranty..

  9. John
    January 13, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    A great pack I don’t hear many people mention is the T.H.E. Pack by Specopsbrand. It is made in the US, and mine has been fantastic over the 5 years I’ve had it. Molle all over, including the entire sides, front, bottom. Comfortable straps-they have molded to my body shape. They are frequently on sale for $99, and that is what I paid for mine. I can’t imagine these $300+ high end military packs are made any better.
    It’s only downside is that it’s overtly military looking. Certain situations, that is not what I want (think airline travel, cities, overseas). For that reason I am considering the GoRuck Gr1 in addition. Pretty pricey however. And some people say even that is military looking. What the heck am I supposed to use then, is my only choice a bright red pack from REI? eh

    • Ralph
      March 25, 2015 at 7:15 pm

      I have a Spec-Ops T.H.E bag and LOVE it. I’m in EMS so it holds all my gear, and when deer season comes it does double duty for that as well. I also keep my “EDC stuff” and other gear in it. Best pack I’ve ever bought.

    • RalphCummings
      September 13, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      color can be changed with a $2.00 container of RIT dye available at every grocery store

  10. mark
    February 10, 2015 at 9:08 am

    68 pattern external frame Jump Ruck, with canadian 82 pattern shoulder straps and waist web, i can use it to hump a mortar dismounted,after jumping from a c-130 and its my go to bug out now that i dont jump any more.

  11. J
    February 21, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    I definitely agree that you don’t want a poor fitting pack. You don’t want to be too cheap either or it won’t be very durable. None of the military packs I’ve tried have been as comfortable as the civilian ones I’ve tried/owned but packs are one area where I don’t skimp.

    I’ll take my internal frame pack over an external unless I’m hunting and need to pack out some meat but that’s just me. I do have a nice external frame pack.

    In my opinion, military packs are for young really fit guys carrying 80+ lbs into battle. That’s not me. I also don’t need to jump out of a C-130 with a mortar. I wouldn’t even know where to buy a mortar. ;) Military packs are durable no question… if you don’t mind the weight.

    As for color, there are plenty of grey, dark blue, dark dark green, tan, black, etc… packs. REI is definitely not known for these colors nor are certain other manufacturers. Color selection often changes year to year so grab the color you like when it’s available.

    Molle adds weight. If you are planning on going into battle I can see it, but just for a 72 hour or bugout pack I don’t see the need. Ultimately it’s a question of how much you need to attach to the pack. Some people want to carry everything but lighter is faster so decide just how much you really must carry.

    IMHO, Mystery Ranch packs are the best but you’ll pay more. They make military packs (SOCOM issue and or Berry Compliant) and non-military packs. They aren’t cheap though.

  12. J
    February 21, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    BTW, instead of pockets use ultralight stuff sacks to organize your pack contents. They add way less weight than by adding extra pockets.

    • Andy
      November 12, 2015 at 5:00 am

      Finally someone who actually backpacks comments. Lol

  13. Mike
    February 23, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    My son tells me that I am “a backpack aficionado.” I have been a scout leader for over 15 years and have a collection of backpacks full of backpacks; all different sizes, materials, and designs from low end to high end. I have any backpack I need for any purpose I could put it to use. I probably have over 100 packs in all.

    Most of the ultra light packs, while quality made are really only good for a few through hikes as long as you do not do any trekking through the thick brush, aka bushwhacking. They are lightweight, but will not stand up to much, if any abuse. I have turned most of these into stuff sacks or organization sacks in my primary bags.

    When it comes to military style packs, IMHO the external framed ALICE pack is by far the best option; a huge dump pack for the main compartment, with good sized external pockets which use buckles and snaps… no zippers to break, a huge benefit! The problem with military style packs is that they could put a target on your back giving the impression (false or not) that you know what you are doing and may have additional or specialized gear, which could be of value to any marauder thinking they could get ahead of the game by taking your stuff. You should try to blend in with the population, not stick out.

    First put together everything you plan to carry, and then get a bag that fits the gear. If you buy a bag too small, you will not get everything you wish to carry. If you get a bag too large, you will have a tendency to overload it.
    Second, make sure the pack properly fits your torso; what is good for you may not be good for your spouse or child, and vice versa.
    Third is to get the best quality bag you can afford that meets your needs. Avoid zippers, as they can and will break, even the so-called self-repairing zippers; remember Murphy’s Law.

    Internal Frame versus External Frame… both has their pros and cons. And external frame typically allows you to be able to carry more weight, but can be bulky to maneuver with, especially if you start strapping stuff to it. It also allows better airflow so your back does not become as sweaty. An internal frame pack offers a more streamlined profile, allows better maneuverability, but not the airflow so your back will most likely be wetter.

    To make a long story completely endless… If I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, and having used every pack I own multiple times I would only have purchased the following two packs (I am not employed by these vendors, nor do I receive any type of compensation from them for reviews):

    For my primary daily pack, I use the Duluth Pack Wanderer. It is a frameless pack with one main dump pouch and three external pockets. All pockets close with a buckle and leather strap. I had mine customized with padded straps and a pouch added inside the main flap. It is a bit expensive, but they have a lifetime guarantee, and you only cry once rather than multiple times.
    For my long term hiking / camping (BOB if necessary) pack, I use my Gregory Palisades expedition internal frame pack. It has some adjustments so you can make it better fit to the torso, a solid hip belt with water bottle holder, loops for axe, poles or similar, and even though it has some zippered compartments, for the most part they are never opened and the straps keep everything tightly in position. It is large enough to carry everything I must have and then some; particularly sleep system and layered clothing. I purchased this pack from REI, which also offers a no questions asked guarantee.

  14. Lone Wolf
    March 1, 2015 at 4:44 am

    On my own opinion I learned that the money you invest in pack should be like when your buying your work boots it should be durable enough to withstand the tests of time plus a couple of years but yet like a few of the commenters mentioned mix it up civilian/military surplus although i can say on the spectrum of Military surplus i do agree that the molle rucksack system is awesome as far as load capacity and weight distribution with a 100lbs load actually walked 8 miles with it no stitching or bending of polymer frame the only down side with military surplus is the color ACU specifically stick out like a sore thumb and i suggest that you personalize said camo configuration with patches or what you feel would make it your own since most people both civilian military personnel active and retired and i mean no offense or disrespect when i say this mistake you for active duty or retired ive even had a couple of ret military folks accuse me of playing solider when im just a gearjunkie who values the durability of military surplus equipment just thought id offer food for thought to those of you who are new at buying military surplus gear and also check it out thoroughly for holes tears stitching missing components or zippers that wont work or are broken usually a good haggling /barging point to save a few dollars before you buy for any surplus gear and if your at a store that has enough staff to take the time to help you out ask them and ask for advice on adjusting the pack accessories pouches etc basically if your one of those tall muscular guys who wants to carry the kitchen sink id recommend the Molle 2 Rucksack in ACU good support system any puinishment you feel that can break the frame try and see itll prolly ask for seconds and laugh at your feeble attempts to break it i dont recommend the woodland camo unless youve got an extra current issue molle rucksack polymer frame all i can say is that it beats the sharp edges of an alice rucksack frame toodles have fun

  15. Dave
    March 6, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    A lot of info, but not very specific. In the debate in picking a backpack between civilian and military the bottom line IMHO is:

    What are you planning on carrying?

    What can you carry terms of weight? Age / fitness / distance …

    How much do you need to blend in? Standing out as Rambo is not a benefit.

    Will it be specifically for SHTF situations or regular hiking?

    Here are my thoughts. Don’t go too cheap. Don’t go too big or too small. The molle has benefits in adaptability not to be found in a sports backpack for starting smaller and adding on.

    So .. in sorting out my needs… (this is a need I’ve recently been looking at) I need to be able to bugout, so one purpose, always packed, ready to go. I like the molle system, even though never used it. being a military style it needs to be ‘weathered / dirtied up some’, to help with blend in. My perspective – If it looks old you are not probably not rich, if new looking, you must have money. I’ve looked at a couple of 38 liter size on Amazon with molle, but found online a made in USA about 30 liter I like from an independent company. Being older, and I’m not a pack mule, so smaller to start. I’ve not had luck in locating used so far, so looks like need to go new.

    Thanks for listening to me sort out my needs..now I just need to place the order…

    Anyone else care to share their decision process?

    • Dave
      March 6, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      slight correction to above- might not be “made in USA”. Still looks like nice product.

  16. gary kim
    March 25, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Military backpacks offer strong grip and extensive life as compared to civilian backpacks. Military backpacks are also comes under different styles which attracts everyone towards them.

  17. Bob
    April 20, 2015 at 5:52 am

    Being older with health issues bugging means by vehicle or not at all. I gave up my beloved larger military packs. BOB has become a 2 wheeled luggage bag to go in our vehicle. I just purchased a hiking Deuter Airlite 28 for EDC. And given the present controversies/conspiracies of government vs veterans I will blend in with the Deuter pack. I hate to get rid of my modified Alice packs, Multicam issue ruck and others but if I can’t physically use them they are just taking up space. I enjoyed them.

  18. Bob
    April 20, 2015 at 6:09 am

    My goal is to not have my Deuter 28 weigh over 8 pounds total which contains daily health maintenance supplys. Water and PSK pouch is carried separate from the bag. If I had to I could walk a good distance, say to get home with this pack weight. So it is an EDC bag or GHB. BOB is now an organized luggage case.

  19. Dan M
    May 14, 2015 at 9:26 am

    I agree with a lot of the comments and points made in relation to carrying a military style pack, you do stick out in a crowd… but one of the things that we have to remember in a bugout situation is that you want to avoid crowds and mobs of people. Imho, i have tried a lot of civilian style backpacking backpacks, but i find that they are not made with the same type of.material or offer the same amount of organization as a military style pack. in my situation, I will need to be able to carry enough rations for myself and two kids which will put me at about the 30 something pound limit that i will have to carry.

  20. Ms. Mae
    May 30, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I have a couple friends who swear by their packs from Hill People Gear. Watching them in use makes me think they are currently the best combination of a ruck/military/hiking pack. As soon as I can afford it, I’ll be getting one of their systems.

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