Buying a Survival Backpack: Military & Tactical vs Hiking & Hunting Backpacks

Backpack with Gear

When it comes to buying a survival backpack, the options are endless. From military and tactical style backpacks to hiking, ultralights and hunting bags, it’s sometimes hard to know which style is perfect for your uniquesituation.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some pros and cons to each type of bag that you should consider. But before we jump into the specifics, first, you need to figure out exactly what you’ll be using your bag for.

  • Are you planning to use the pack regularly?
  • 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 storage/organization?

We are going to look at three primary styles:


Outdoor Hiking Backpacks

Hiking Backpacks

When looking backs geared towards the outdoor community, one of the top reasons to consider this style is ussauly overall weight and the construction of the bag. For the most part, outdoor packs are ussually designed to be lightweight, comfortable to carry, and most of them have a better overall contruction than your average school bag at Walmart.

But when it comes down to picking a bag, it often comes down to what you need to carry, how much you need to attach to the pack, and how long you are going to depend on the gear inside. Some people want to cram in every piece of gear they can fit, but lighter is faster, so you really need to decide just how much you really have to carry.

Ultralights:

Since lighter is faster, and a hell of a lot nicer on your back, let’s look at ultralights.

Over the last ten years, these bags have taken over the industry; they are lighter and a whole lot more comfortable to carry. In the past, these bags did suffer from performance issues; keep in mind in order to make them light that means sacrificing durability. That being said, the latest generation of ultralights have come a long way from their predecessors. 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.

The downside to buying these types of packs:

Unfortunately, the light hiking craze does have a few downsides. For every ounce, you lose in pack weight, you sacrifice organizational tools like MOLLE, pouches, durability, and other methods of carrying extra gear.

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.

The Best Ultralights

Traditional Hiking Packs and Thru-Hike Bags

Because these companies cater to hikers, these bags are designed to be carried on long hauls – which usually equates to durability and a better overall construction of the pack.

Hiking packs can also be divided into three distinct types; frameless, internal-frame and external-frame.

  • Frameless packs are going to be the lightest, but they don’t transfer weight very effectively from your shoulder to your hips.
  • Internal-frame bags have a stiffer build and they use flat aluminum rods or plastic framesheets. The way they are constructed helps transfer weight from your shoulders to your hips, making the bags easier to carry on long hauls. If you plan on climbing, then internal frame packs really start to show their utility
  • External-frame are rarely used anymore: They are more of a hold-over from an earlier day, and to be honest they are going to be hard to find. That being said, I do think they 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.

The downside to buying these types of packs:

If you carry a lot of MOLLE style gear, or are looking to carry tactical gear, weapons and knives, then these bags are probably not going to be what you are looking for. One other consideration is attention; depending on the bag, during a bug out situation they may raise a few eyebrows.  A big bag usually means lots of gear inside to the bad guys!

The Best Hiking Packs

Hunting Backpacks

Hunting backpacks really start to bridge the gap between outdoor packs and military packs. They have most of the features above, with the following exceptions:

  • They are usually camo, or designed to blend in with your hunting environment. This can be good or bad depending on who or what you are hiding from
  • Many have load lifters or suspension systems to help haul your meat out after the hunt.
  • They often have the ability to strap on a hunting rifle or bow.
  • If you are looking for an external frame, then chances are you will find it in the hunting variety.

The downside to buying these types of bags:

Just like hiking bags, and even more so in the case of camo bags, they could attract unwanted attention of the human type! During a disaster these bags scream “LOOK AT ME”, and will probably mean you are the first one stopped at police checkpoints.

Best Favorite Hunting Backpacks:

Tenzing 2220 Daypack

This is one of my favorite hunting packs, and one that I personally carry. It’s specifically designed for hunters, and gives you the ability to strap on a bow or gun in the fold-out boot. You can also load additional gear with the webbing straps. 

Tenzing 2220 Daypack Features:

  • 2,400 cubic inches of space with 11 compartments.
  • Air mesh suspension system for improved breathability.
  • Five horizontal compression straps to secure your load.
  • Fold-out bow and gun carrying boot.
  • Hydration compatible up to 2 liters.

You can find the Tenzing 2220 Daypack here on Amazon

Some of our other Favorite Bags:

Military Style Backpacks

Military Backpacks

If you’re not especially concerned with the weight of your pack, then a military pack can be a good option – especially if storage and organization are concerns. 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. They also usually offer an attachment system that allows you to clip 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.

What is MOLLE?

molle panel

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 Best Military/Tactical Style Packs

SOC Backpack

On the top of our list of tactical packs is the Sandpiper of California Bugout Backpack. This is one tough ass bag that comes standard with multiple compression loops, tie downs, and the ability to strap on MOLLE / PALS pouches.

When they designed this bag, they built it to take a beating and hold up during an extreme bug out situation. This is an extremely popular bag with military and contractors and has sold over 1 million units since they introduced it back in the 90s.

The SOC Backpack features

  • MOLLE/PALS panel
  • Hydration Compatibility
  • Expandable main compartment
  • Rugged, abrasion-resistant exterior 600 Denier material
  • Padded waist belt and Compression Straps
  • Aluminum back stays

You can find the SOC Pack here on Amazon

CONDOR 3 Day Assault Pack

This is another extremely popular and well-built bag designed for extreme situations. There is plenty of storage, it’s hydration compatible up to 2x 3 liter bladders, and if you really need to strap on the gear it’s MOLLE compatible as well.

A word of caution, the pull-tabs on the zippers are notorious for breaking off. It’s an easy fix with a bit of 550 paracord, but it is a bit irritating that they couldn’t have just added better cord themselves!

CONDOR 3 Day Assault Pack Features:

  • Has 7 different pocketed storage areas
  • Adjustable body contour shoulder straps with D-Rings for equipment attachments
  • Total dimensions: 22″ x 17″ x 11″; 3038 cubic inches; 50 Liters

You can Find the CONDOR 3 Day Assault Pack here on Amazon

A couple of our other favorite Tactical Bags

Discreet Survival Backpacks

Discreet pack

During a crisis situation, where you may have to get the hell out of Dodge in a hurry, you need to consider how much attention you are attracting. In times of crisis, there are going to be desperate people who will be willing to do just about anything to secure extra supplies, including robbing you of yours.

For that reason, we recommend finding a pack that draws the least amount of attention. Stay away from overly tactical looking bags, and try not to strap gear to the outside of your bag where people can see it and guess what else in inside. Check out what bags we recommend here.

The downside:

These are not usually built for long hauls. For the most part they are temporary and short-term bug out bags that will allow you to get from point A to B.

Best Covert Backpacks

5.11 Tactical COVRT18

We are big fans of 5.11 bags, but if you are trying not to look “tactical”, you usually start looking at other brands. Recently 5.11 started releasing covert options, and one of those options it their COVRT18 backpack.

The bag is designed to give you many of the features you will find in their tactical lineup, but the pack looks like something that any ordinary college kid might tote around.

COVRT18 Features:

  • Built from rugged 500D and 420D water resistant nylon.
  • Hidden R.A.C. (Roll-down Assault Compartment) that store a full sized firearm and MOLLE or web pouches.
  • QuickTact accessory straps at the shoulder that integrate with other 5.11 tactical gear.

You can find the COVRT18 Here on Amazon

Some More of Our Favorite Discreet Packs

The Survival Backpack 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 it feels.
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26 Comments

  1. I am agonizing over trying to find the right pack, and found this site…
    I want the organization of the Maxpedition falcon ii. I don’t like that it is so “deep” making fit stick out so far from your back. I really like some of there packs but they are missing the waist belt that I need???
    Organization is a must. A sling bag would be to tiring on long hikes.
    I crawl through brush occasionally, hike short hikes a lot and long hikes occasionally.
    Weight is a minor factor, because I don’t need a large pack anyway.
    I think I ‘m done with REI type but would like any input on organized packs.

    Thanks, there are a lot of good points here.

  2. Everyone talking about military vs civilian bags and someone recently mentioned mystery ranch… I’d suggest Kifaru bags… They have military and civilian bags. I purchased a bag called the Navigator a few years ago… Been excellent and mine is larger capacity than the army ruck. More comfortable also. Comes in “military patterns” or tan, grey and black. Navigator is discontinued now though and they are pretty expensive but you get what you pay for…

    • Sorry cut myself off. I sent my large Alice pack from Saudi to Tactical Tailor to have it modified. No longer carrying rounds. I got a new frame from DEI ( more of a molle style frame). I have added a Sleep system carrier on the bottom. I plan to use this to hike the AT in sections. I prefer the comfort of the frame, and the familiarity of the pack. I will go light with tarp, hammock, cooking gear etc… Love the pack and frame combination. Very comfortable.

    • Yeah the large ALICE pack is great. Very durable, it holds a ton of stuff but its also very compressible for smaller loads. Its got good back ventilation for hot weather packing too. Most of the new assault packs and “bug out bags” with all their unneeded features weigh almost as much as the large ALICE pack but you can’t fit 1/2 as much stuff in them, and despite the 1000 denier Condura they’ve got clamshell zippers and plastic clips that can break. Large ALICE FTW.

  3. As to appearance, I relaxed a lot on avoiding military look when I realized I can use a slip-on backpack raincover over it and it’s instantly disguised to look civie.

  4. USMC surplus ILBE pack for internal frame and FILBE (or “USMC Pack”) external frame is a heck of a unit. ILBE is great if you don’t wear armor. FILBE is better with armor and probably better for heavy road march. Real-world 120# everyday packs with poor Marines loaded to over 100% of body weight. Comfortable up to 60# for me (40% body weight). Lots of compression straps to pull the weight in close to the back and prevent shifting. It’s a $700 pack that you pay $100 for like-new.

  5. Why does no one ever mentions Hunting packs?
    The sit between Military and Hiking packs for weight and are one of the more Durable packs on the market.

    if you are looking at the Big Three for military:
    Mystery Ranch
    Eberlestock
    Kifaru

    they all make hunting variants as well, and they are quite a few others offering carbon frames for weight and strength etc.

    Hiking packs are not durable enough, for a long duration. Hunting packs are designed rugged and for carrying heavy loads, like meat back to the camp.

    So don’t limit your looking for Haz4,5.11, Maxped etc. If you are going to spend in those ranges a hunting pack could be for you!

    • I been using my madden pack for a hunting bag for some 34 years now it works quite well….and you are correct on this matter….

  6. I love my Gregory packs for hiking and camping. But hunting packs are the way to go for SHTF. Buy 3-7 internal bags for organizers. Rheybalso help out with shifting the weight around.

  7. I am 70 yrs old and would trade my MOLLE II GEN IV pack for anything else. I have had other quality packs and for me the versatility of the MOLLE system is the best
    when buying a MOLLE pack try to get a generation 4 and make sure it is military issue. Most all of the frames except for maybe the generation III were crap but the IV is the best

  8. I’m considering a pack to build my BOB around. How come the Condor 3 day assault pack didn’t get mentioned? It really looks like a great pack and the price is definitely right at under $70 on Amazon. YouTube abounds with tons of positive comments as do a lot of the Survival forums yet I see nothing here. Am I missing something about this pack?

  9. I’m much more from the “built stout and heavy” school when it comes to packs. My current pack holds 6,000 cu. in. and weighs over 4 lbs. Yea, it’s heavy…but it’s built heavy and I’d rather have that peace of mind. Instead of sacrificing weight on a pack, I focus on training more, that way I can “more comfortably” pack heavier loads if the time comes. I also choose to pack lighter versions of certain gear, and learned to fabricate things that I don’t necessarily “need” to carry.
    I think practicing bushcraft should play an important role in preparedness. The more skills you have, the less you need to pack.

  10. Just remember too that a military backpack is going to stick out a hell of a lot more so than a basic hiking bag or even say a school style backpack. While the advantage of a military pack is that you get the compartments to organize, a civilian pack won’t stick out as much if you have to choice but to go past a crowd of people while bugging out.

    • This is entirely a non-issue in certain areas where people using camo is considered normal, RE;the south or any rural area. And for anyone else? You can make a military pack look entirely civvie just by sticking a colored tire cover over it, available at any Walmart or auto parts store for around $8.

      Sorry, but I just don’t buy this line as being an advantage to civvie gear. I’d rather keep the long term/end game potential of my field pack just by adding a lightweight tire cover to ‘camoflage’ it in more crowded areas should such become necessary.

  11. My neighbor is in the reserves, I’m a vet that’s been out for 24 years. He showed me the bags they’re giving soldiers now and they haven’t changed a great deal from the bags we had back in the day.

  12. I have a Rush 24 and an Osprey Atmos. The Atmos is far more comfortable for hiking but the Rush 24 is vastly superior when it comes to organization of my gear. It’s really a tough call between these two packs since they each have desirable attributes of their own. But since I just added a zero-degree sleeping bag, thermarest pad, and ultralight 2 man tent to my supplies I am pretty much forced to go with the Atmos. If you can get by without those bulky and heavy items (they add about 10 pounds to the pack) then I would go with the Rush 24.

  13. I still have my GI assault pack that is pretty nice, but recently my wife bought me a Smith and Wesson M&P bag online and I really like it. It is about the same size as my assault pack and has MOLLE, quick release shoulder straps, and a nice kidney belt. The only downside imo is the strap release. They are regular side release plastic clips. I have frequently rucked with 80+ lbs and they have held up fine, but the square ones on my assault pack seem much sturdier. Still not a bad buy on sale for $30

  14. A whole lot of “humble opinions” out there. Here is the truth. These packs may be fine for some young buck out there with more strength than years, but for the majority of prepper(most of which are over 45) a pack is not a practical prep. As I have matured over the years I realize my limitations and that the only way I’m moving any worth while quantity of anything 15 miles a day is if it has wheels and I’m dragging it. Many rolling bags of all different sizes and features can be had that also allow it to be carried pack style for short cross country treks (short cuts). We’re all getting older and if you’re leaving for good, do you really think you can afford to leave behind “everything” over thirty pounds. That extra 500 rounds might come in real handy over time. These rolling packs also allow you to tie additional gear to the handle, etc. for additional capabilities. Get real and buy what you can afford and what you can honestly get more than 3 miles from your house with. 30+ years prepping and I’ve tried it all.

  15. I am thinking to buy Outdoor Hiking Backpacks. Would you like to suggest any direct link(amazon or ebay?). You know very well about this thus i can trust your direct suggestion.

  16. I have mix experience about normal military backpack and civilian backpack. Military backpack very high quality and it runs long but price is high. Civilian backpack price is low and it is also not lasting.

  17. Extremely useful information and really love the military packs but possibly wil get hiking pack because might be walking long distances and would like something light. Thank you extremely for everything you do.

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