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 unique situation.
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 Backpacks: This category will include ultralights, traditional hiking, and hunting.
- Military Packs: This category will include tactical bags and traditional military rucks.
- Discreet Bags: These bags are for bugging out or situations where you don’t want to draw attention to the gear you are carrying.
Outdoor Hiking Backpacks
When looking at backpacks geared toward the outdoor community, the top reasons to consider a hiking pack usually comes down to the overall weight and the construction of the bag. For the most part, hiking packs are typically designed to be lightweight, comfortable to carry, and most of them are designed and built to hold up longer than your average school bag from 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 will need 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 need to decide just how much you have to carry.
Since lighter is faster and a hell of a lot easier on your back, let’s take a look at ultralights.
Over the last ten years, these bags have taken over the industry; they are lighter and much more comfortable to carry. In the past, these bags suffered from performance issues; keep in mind that to make them light 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, these bags will probably 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 types of bags are designed to be carried on long hauls – which usually equates to durability and better overall construction of the pack.
Hiking packs can also be divided into three types; frameless, internal-frame, and external-frame.
- Frameless packs will 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 use flat aluminum rods or plastic frame sheets. 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 start to show their utility
- External-frame is rarely used anymore: They are more of a hold-over from an earlier day, and to be honest, they will be hard to find. That being said, I think they transfer weight better than most 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. Another consideration is attention; depending on the look of the bag, they may raise a few eyebrows during a bug-out situation. A big bag usually means lots of gear inside to the bad guys!
The Best Hiking Packs
Hunting backpacks bridge the gap between outdoor 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
- 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
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
Best Hunting Backpacks:
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
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 typically 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). However, since most modern accessories are designed to be used with MOLLE-style bags, I would avoid the older ALICE packs.
What is MOLLE?
MOLLE Packs use the Pouch Attachment Ladder System or PALS as a way to attach extra gear to the bag easily.
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 backpack 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 it is usually much easier to maintain.
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
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. As a result, 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
- A 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 a 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
In 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 attract. In times of crisis, there will be desperate people 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 is inside. Check out what bags we recommend here.
These are not usually built for long hauls. Mostly, 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 is their COVRT18 backpack.
The COVRT18 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 stores 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, buy a hiking backpack; they are generally more comfortable and designed to be carried for hours. On the other hand, 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
- The manufacturing of military gear often 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 real.
- Test, test, and then test some more. Try on several 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 particular needs.
- Make sure it fits. Like a properly fitted pair of boots, a properly fitted pack is barely noticeable when it’s on. But, trust me, a poor-fitting pack will be hell on your back, so you need to pay close attention to how it feels.
Bone fides: I’ve taken gear into the field for vertical mountain rescue, SAR, on-boat Divemaster, world travel, and of course in the military.
The *only* bag that I would recommend after 30+ years of humping gear is the Camelbak BFM. I have two of the 1000 denier models; they’ve been rock-solid in carrying heavy loads on duty and aloha shirts and sunscreen in airline overhead bins. External pockets, MOLLE/PALS, internal frame, huge 30 L capacity, removable water bladders, great belt & straps. Avail in late 2018 on Ebay for ~US$120.
Every other bag I’ve owned, from issue ALICE pack to various North Face and Kelty packs, I’ve given away from disuse after getting my first BFM. I’d stack this bag against *anything* offered anywhere; that’s how much I love these packs.
NOTE: Camelbak has recently come out with a “BFM 500” with laser-cut MOLLE and 500 dn cloth, lesser drainage holes, admin pocket up high instead of below the hip belt. Reviews have been mixed, and my personal thought is that it’s a lesser pack. Luckily the older models are plentiful around the ‘net, new and used, in a variety of colors.
have an original ranger ruck, rush 72, and a sabra gear pack…the sabra is my favorite…
I see a lot of articles telling you “watch what bag you buy or you might look like a target”. The truth is, in a SHTF situation any backpack will make you look like a target. Bags scream gear and supplies. If someone wants your stuff they will take it. One of the best though if you don’t have to cover long distances is a diaper bag. I rarely see these covered or even brought up. They are often durable and usually have a lot of pockets, are water proof and best of all inconspicuous. Some thief is looking for supplies they going to go for the guy with the backpack, or the diaper bag? Just another option.
Anyone remember some 70’s vintage mountaineering packs, specifically Yak packs?
I like how you pointed out that hiking backpacks are usually designed to be comfortable and typically have better construction than standard backpacks do. My brother wants to get into hiking, and he wants to make sure that all of his gear is safe in his backpack. I’ll share this information with him so that he can look further into his options for getting a good hiking backpack in the future.
I don’t think the pack is as important as what’s in it. As long as it has a good kidney belt and lumbar support.
There are too many ultra light sleep systems that are warm for most 30F temps that are 2lbs, and R value sleeping pads that weigh 1lb, and tents under 3lbs. I focus on that, and keep my big four items under ten pounds. As for food, I do a 100 calorie to gram of weight rule. That way I’m carrying the lightest possible food with the most calories. I use a simple alcohol tin can stove, and one quart ultra light pot, Poland spring water bottles, and water purification tablets. Use your head, many items can be multiple use. For instance I use everclear for fuel to my stove, So I can drink it, cook with it, or use it as an antiseptic or to sterilize things. Several items in one.
Because the contents are so light, I can carry a 16lb Alice pack that cost $20 and subsist for 5 days. You could carry a 16lb anything a lot longer than a expensive osprey pack loaded with 40lbs, the expensive suspension system will crush on you just like a cheap one.
Want to save your back? Get the contents of your pack down as light as possible, then choose the pack. You won’t need nearly the pack you think. A lot of the things in your pack you don’t use anyways, stop carrying those things, you run into that with “back up gear” be serious, are you going to lose your knife? Your flashlight? Your lighter? You can have a tiny pocket survival Tin with a razor blade, a magnesium fire starter, a tiny led light in it, heck you can pack a few more little things in there too like a needle and thread. Be realistic, if you lose your flash light you did something really stupid, but if you have a razor blade and a magnesium fire starter you can make fire, you can make light. Your back up stuff can weigh as much as your car keys. A small razor blade can be just as good as a heavy knife if you were to lose your knife. You don’t need a second knife, carry an extra amount of consumables instead if you want the weight, or a completely different tool. Most people haul all that extra crap and never even use it. Think about it, extra weight WILL make you suffer, lack of extra items only present a POSSIBILITY for you to suffer, and that’s largely in your control.
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 styles 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.
I’m a bag junkie. I collect bags like some gals (and guys) collect shoes. I almost got the Mystery Ranch, but in the end, it was the mil connection and the dog that got me to the GR1 and yes, it costs, but hell, it’s the best pack I’ve ever worn in almost 35 military years and you name the number of trails and cities I’ve packed in.
Hi, sir, I’m a bag junkie. I collect bags like some gals (and guys) collect shoes. I almost got the Mystery Ranch, but in the end, it was the mil connection and the dog that got me to the GR1 and yes, it costs, but hell, it’s the best pack I’ve ever worn in almost 35 military years and you name the number of trails and cities I’ve packed in.
Beth Terry the plastics of biggest concern are the oldest ones like bakelite which are made with formaldehyde and continue to leech it into the atmosphere for years. Fortunately, they are now rare, but at one point formaldehyde-based plastics were even pumped into walls as insulation and would off-gas for years (they would be safe now)