Choosing a Military Backpack – What you need to consider before purchase

32 comments
how-to-choose-a-backpack

If you’re in the market for a serious backpack, of course you’re going to be adding many military backpacks to your shortlist. We’ve got a ton of backpack reviews here on the site but there’s one common thread among them all: they’re all either some form of Government issue, or tactically equivalent. When I was in the US Marine Corps, we didn’t get a choice out of Boot Camp which gear we could use. However, once we landed at our first duty station, the options became available.

Overview

Military backpacks have a variety of uses that make them indispensable tools. They have strength, capacity, and special features, so, unlike cheap commercial school bags, these packs are ideal for creating a bug out bag or hiking long distances. There are a lot of Government issue, as well as military style/spec backpacks available for sale though, so it’s important to make sure that you know what to look for. In this article, we will give you the background on what to look out for in a military backpack, so that you can know if you are getting a good deal.

Appearance

While it seems like the appearance of a military backpack is unimportant, it’s actually rather camo-testingsignificant for some uses. Having a good camouflage pattern can make a real difference. If you have an interest in hunting, hiking, or war games like paintball, a dull green backpack will stick out where a camouflage one would not. Before buying a backpack, look at the pattern and make sure that it is real camouflage. Most people will use military backpacks in a forest environment, so look into those kinds of patterns. Some common camouflage patterns include Marpat, Kryptek, Multicam and Pencott(this is by no means all the patterns available).

Capacity

Whether you’ve got a small, one day pack like the 5.11 Rush 12, or a monster hauler such as the ALPZ Commander, packing a military backpack is critical for efficiency and you’ve got to be dont-pack-like-thisintelligent about it. Luckily, most quality packs have many internal compartments to help you split things up. You need to be sure that it has the capacity to hold everything you need it to hold – and then a little. If you have a specific use for the backpack in mind, then plan out how large of a backpack you need to manage your usage. On the other hand, if you aren’t sure exactly what you need to load up(you DO know what you need to complete your objectives, right?), then err on the side of too big. You’d rather have more space than you need than run out of space and need to get a new bag. Unused space can still be useful in the future.

Weight

The material of a military backpack needs to be light, but strong. The weight is important, because you are going to be wearing it for extended periods of time. You want it to be as light as possible without compromising on strength and other features, like waterproofing. A military backpack can hold a lot of gear, and that gear isn’t guaranteed to be super light. Make sure that the backpack’s material is light enough, but yet durable, that you can manage the weight of the backpack and the load at the same time. Another thing to think about in terms of weight is that you’ve got many choices in design, such as internal or external frame. Read reviews from users who have used each of the backpacks you are considering to see if any of them complain that it is too heavy. The strap design is also important – if the straps are designed poorly, they will cut into your shoulders and make carrying the backpack very uncomfortable. Bad shoulder straps can completely ruin your entire expedition. Maxpedition packs are one of the brands we like when it comes to comfort. There is an excellent book about packing intelligently. It’s geared toward Bug Out Bags specifically, but it’s worth the read.

Special Features

As we alluded to above, a military backpack should have some extra features to make it worth your while. While you’re general GI packs like the ILBE or Medium ALICE packs provide fundamental functionality, gingerbread is not included. Extra compartments, and webbed pockets are what really put the fancier backpacks over the top – and some of the packs available offer an unbelievable amount of exterior and interior amenities. Some military backpacks come standard with extra straps so you can attach a bedroll, a sleeping back, or a similar item. A military backpack should offer a lot of these extra features. Waterproofing is also essential as you need to be able to rely on your backpack to get you through just about anything.

Comparisons

The first thing to do is settle on a budget. Once you have a price range, you will have a shorter list of backpacks to compare. Next, you can go through that list and see what is available. You need to decide on a core set of features that you absolutely must have, and then some optional features that you would like to have, but are not necessary. Narrow down the list to backpacks that have all of your must-have features. The resulting set of backpacks is your new shortlist. family-guy-comparisonWithin that shortlist, you can consider each backpack carefully. See the prices for each one, examine their unique features, and decide which one looks best. This process will save you time and ensure that you are going to stay within your budget.

The experience of shopping for, and purchasing a military backpack can be very rewarding. These backpacks are tough, long lasting, strong, and spacious, so they are excellent for a verity of applications. Just remember all of these useful tips so that you can choose the right military backpack for your needs when your shopping time comes!

Did I miss something?

If you find this article to be missing something you feel is important, LEAVE A COMMENT below and we’ll talk about it! If I add it, I’ll give YOU credit for looking out for me!

Questions?

Tweet out to me so that others can benefit from your question too!

Meet the Author

I'm a former US Marine, full-time father and husband, and part-time survivalist. I like old things, like music, furniture and time-tested survival technique, but there's always a place in my heart for new technology such as weapons and sleeping bag fill. I'm here to share my knowledge and experience, and I hope you'll share yours as well.

32 comments… add one
  • Roy Apr 12, 2015, 2:54 pm

    Really? You think King of the Hill is a good show but Family Guy isn’t? Sacrilege.

    Hey. I do a lot of hiking/backpacking. I have been trying to figure out a system where I can drop my backpack, yet still have my essentials kit on me.

    So, here is where i am having difficulty – i have a few items that I have tried a few ideas with – knife, whistle, lighter, etc, where i have tried various attachment points – the knife being the most problematic. I put the knife on my belt and the pack hip belt goes over top (obviously non-workable, no access to knife and drives it into my side) – put the knife on the hipbelt on the backpack and when I take off the backpack, I either have to transfer the knife to my belt after or I have to continuously go back to my backpack if I need the knife, it isn’t at hand when I want it. Is there a combo system out there where I can have a shoulder strap/suspender system that works with a backpack, that when I take the backpack off, I can keep the suspension system and some gear that is attached to that?

    • Mike Apr 15, 2015, 7:23 am

      Roy – first, and of the utmost importance, I must clear the tv show preference controversy. That comparison graphic – I didn’t make it. I’ve made a lot of graphics for this site (thanks to awesome programs that make up for my lack of graphics skills), but in the case of the tv show comparison chart, I wanted something like that but was out of free time. That said, Family Guy has always been my favorite animated show. I’ve tried others like American Dad, Futuroma, and the like, but nothing even comes close to Family Guy – at least for me. I digress.

      As I was reading your comment, the first question that came to mind was: what knife do you take with you? Depending on the size, there are many leg outfits that work pretty well. Kershaw Amphibian – Kydex Sheath Knife” title=”This one” target=”_blank”>This one for example, is made by Kershaw but gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. Tons of companies make these, and they’re all a little different. But, so long as the holster is the correct size for the knife, attaching other simple items like a whistle and lighter should be simple. Actually, many of the leg outfits are MOLLE compatible which means 1″ wide, one on, one off stitching. That would enable you to sort of build your own harness so to speak. Let me know what you come up with!

  • Donna May 17, 2015, 4:14 pm

    I’m looking for a backpack for my son that can carry a ton of books, binders, and school supplies. He is rough on his bags and with the weight he has to carry, the regular bookbags just don’t hold up. The last bookbag I bought him was a Targus and it lasted the longest. The zippers finally messed up. I am looking for something tough, rugged, and can be compacted enough to fit into his locker when some of the books are removed; plus something that won’t cut into his shoulders and poke into his back. I’m tired of wasting money on bookbags that can’t handle the load and aren’t big enough to hold all the books he needs. The material rips and the zippers break too easily. He is about 6 ft and over 200 lbs, so he can handle something big. Thanks for any help & suggestions!

    • Mike May 19, 2015, 6:27 am

      Donna – I’ve not used it as a school backpack but the 5.11 Rush 72 is my current favorite choice for what you’re looking for. I know many people who have used this bag for years with no trouble. It almost seems like stores don’t want to sell you something that’s too durable, otherwise you won’t ned to buy a new one! Here’s hoping for straight A’s for your son!

    • Particular Baptist Dec 6, 2016, 10:59 pm

      Donna,

      If I may suggest, as reviewed on this website, the MOLLE II assault pack sounds like a fit for your son. Not only is it able to fit a tremendous amount of gear (1850 cubic inches or eight gallons), but it is built for some of the most abusive users in the world, professional soldiers.

  • Patrick Aug 5, 2015, 3:48 am

    Donna mentioned the size of her son and sparked a very useful feature you could possibly add. Do you know how a lot of charts to compare large things like dinosaurs, tanks, planes, etc. have a small silhouette of an average sized human? Something like that would be pretty useful for size comparisons for the packs. It would be especially good if it is a gift for someone and whoever is buying it could better show the size differences between packs. I don’t know. Just thought it might be an ease-of-use idea.

    • Mike Aug 5, 2015, 10:55 am

      That’s a killer idea Patrick! I’ll have to take that under consideration for future makeovers – thanks!

  • Joesy Oct 4, 2015, 9:17 pm

    Suggestions please on what bags would be best for each family member. I’m looking into 3 day bug out bags. I’m about 5ft 5in and 103 lbs but some people think I look taller. My spouse is 6ft tall and about 190 lbs. We have a daughter who’s 4 and 3ft 5in and I would like her to carry a bag as well with just things for her. I am currently pregnant and due February 4 with a boy so I’m taking that into consideration that we’ll have another member of the family. Ideas? I want a molle type of bag and am confused in what’s American made and not cheap and won’t break up easily. Want to be prepared in case of anything and have been researching and any advice would be greatly appreciated regarding each person. I would like to bags FYI to help for the back support like hip belt or something.

    • Mike Nov 18, 2015, 2:36 am

      The Direct Action Dragon egg or 5.11 Rush 24 work very well for smaller folks, but those are not 3 day bags. For your spouse, any of the 72 hour bags on this site would be a great choice, and I’m sure there are many other brands as well. I’m 6ft 190lbs, and I run the DAG Ghost and the 5.11 Rush 72 all the time – both are very comfortable. Hard to tell where things are made these days, but I know for a fact that the GORUCK bags are. You know, I’m a fan of Made in the USA products as well, but I have to tell you that Under Armour is actually made in China! However, they are extremely picky about what mills they use, and so the production is extremely high quality, as are the materials.

  • Kenny Jan 24, 2016, 8:27 am

    Thanks for writing this article. I know I’m behind the curve on this, but I just found it. Hopefully you’re still responding to comments.

    I recently picked up a US military surplus 4 piece (including the compression sack) sleep system in the hopes that it would fit inside my backpack and take up less space than my current fairly bulky sleeping bag. No such luck. It’s too big, even fully compressed. I think that means I need a new, bigger bag. I could find a way to strap it to the outside if I have to, but I’m trying to keep everything I possibly can on the inside of the bag.

    Do you have any recommendations for a bag which will hold my new sleep system and a 1-man tent (or at least a tarp, which is what I have now) inside the main compartment while still allowing room for the other basics (first aid, food and water prep, etc.) in either the main compartment or the outer pockets of the bag?

    Thanks again!

    • Mike Jan 24, 2016, 7:19 pm

      Kenny – Any 72 hour pack will hold that sleep system and a hammock shelter, but not with much room left over. You may be looking at a more expedition-rated right from one of the popular consumer brands like Kelty, etc.. What’s wrong with attaching one of those pieces to the outside? Especially a hammock shelter as those are fairly compact in their packed form.

  • Stu Mar 4, 2016, 6:19 pm

    Hi Mike… First let me say that I have been reading and enjoying everything I can on your sight… So informative!! I served in the US Army back in the 80’s so I have a LOT of catching up to to do regarding modern gear and loadouts.

    My specific question relates to packs that are designed to work with plate carriers… Been scouring the web trying to find them but not having a lot of luck… Hoping you may have a couple recommendations. As you can imagine, I really wouldn’t want to go back to the old flak-vest and ALICE pack setup with MOLLE and PALS available these days. LOL

    Any help you can give would be much appreciated, and thanks again for all the great info on your site!

    – Stu

    • Mike Mar 9, 2016, 2:08 pm

      Hey Stu – what plate carrier do you have?

    • Kelly May 6, 2016, 8:26 pm

      Check out mystery ranch. Made in Bozeman Mt. Excellent but not cheap.

  • David Apr 5, 2016, 8:16 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for putting this info out there. I have about a year before I go to TBS and in the meantime, I want to get used to hiking with heavier loads. A friend getting ready for IOC said they’re going 160-plus lbs.
    It’s probably infeasible to go that high without investing in a main pack but I still want something that can go really heavy but be compact enough to use for lighter runs and weighted calisthenics. I’d need good waist support for the heavy hikes and an interior that could hold lots of weight- maybe my weight vest and one or two 45lbs weights.
    Any view on what could work? You’ve piqued my interest in Direct Action and 5.11’s 72 bags but I want to see if I’m on the right track. before investing.

    Semper FI,
    David

    • Mike Apr 6, 2016, 8:28 pm

      Hey David – those are both excellent bags. I think the Ghost has better hip/weight transfer but the Rush 72 is the better cargo rig. You’re sort of looking for two different bags, but I think the Ghost would be quite nice for you. The main reason is because with the aux pouch detached, and the hip strap removed, it’s a little bit of a smaller bag than most 72’s, so I think it can play both of your roles.

      • David Apr 9, 2016, 12:05 am

        Thanks, Mike. That’s really useful. I’ll see if I can get my hands on them before buying but even then, I wouldn’t be able to load them up so the weight transfer is especially good info.

  • Dave May 2, 2016, 12:53 pm

    Mike,

    Over the past few years ive had a couple of low-end backpacks. Currently im using a standard issue eastpack backpack as my edc bag wich i take along to work.

    Unfortunatly my backpack is to small to fit my laptop. What bag can you recommend as my new edc bag. It needs to hold my laptop and atleast a waterbladder. Preferably not to large. My first choice would be from maxpedition but your excellent site has made me to rethink my choices.

    Kind regards

    Dave

    • Mike May 5, 2016, 4:44 pm

      Dave – Maxpedition makes an excellent bag. You absolutely cannot go wrong with them. I also really like the GORCUCK GR-1. They are a little on the pricey side but have a LIFETIME WARRANTY. Good luck!

      • Dave May 10, 2016, 11:11 pm

        Hey Mike,

        Thanks for recommending the Goruck GR-1. The only drawback i could find is the price wich runs for about 250 us dollar. Though the backpack itself justify this its not what i have in mind to spend right now.

        Im looking for a bag in the 100 to a 150 dollar range. Pref in a “non-tactical” colour like black or grey but with molle straps. Needs to fit a 2,5l waterbladder and a 15 inch laptop. My laptop is 10,7 inch by 15,7 inch btw. Also preferred : a 24h backpack.

        Greets

        Dave

        • Mike May 15, 2016, 11:59 pm

          Dave, have a look at the Direct Action Gear Dragon Egg, and the Blackhawk Phoenix.

          • Dave May 24, 2016, 6:01 pm

            Hey Mike,

            Thank you for recommending the DA Dragon Egg. Today I received mine today wich was the last one on a website here in Holland.

            Best backpack i’ve had sofar!

            Dave

          • Mike May 27, 2016, 12:14 pm

            Glad you like! It’s a really nice bag. I’ve got a Dust, Dragon Egg and the Ghost. Love them all in different ways.

  • Nate May 15, 2016, 1:50 am

    Have you seen or used any of the packs from BDS Tactical? Custom made built to order in the USA also lifetime warranty . I know there chest rigs and assault vest are top a lot of my brothers who stayed in the Marines bought them and love them! There grunts so they know how to abuse gear!

    How thinks have changed I remember when we could only carry what was issued to us! I also remember going into combat in 2003 with a M-16A2 that had a zip tie as its rear pin! No I’m not BS’ing you the invading Battalion 1/5 had weapons like this all over the place!

    Great reviews on the packs the ILBE was a great ruck I was getting out and I remember my last hump was with this ruck and it was my best hump ever! I bought one about a year ago used came with the day ruck and the whole 9 yards and I still love it! When I worked at a sporting good store I talked people out of buying brand name top dollar ruck and to buy a used ILBE. I’m talking about $500 to $2000 rucks I got to play with at the store .

    Right now I’m looking for a good new 3 day back I do have an Original Maxpedition Vulture pack bought in 2004 did two tours overseas, diaper bag for two kids, been on countless camping trips, hikes, day trips and over night trips guess you can say its my EDC pack. Problem is I bought it before water bladders where the in thing it has the space for it just uncomfortable and if you place it in the main pouch there is no place to hang it or have the hose come out. Yet 12 years and she still looks new! But now being that I’m living in the Texas desert area that water is key when going on hikes and having the space for other gear.

    Like to hear what you think and yes the Ghost with the two water holders really caught my eye! Thanks take care stay safe and keep up the good work!

    • Mike May 16, 2016, 12:12 am

      Nate, I’ve not looked at BDS tactical, nor had I heard of them until now – I will check it out. Thank your brothers for their service for me. Tell them I said “shrimp n fries creamed corn”. Glad your Vulture held up – Maxpedition makes pretty nice gear. There’s actually a lot of nice gear out there if you look around. I do review some “cheapies” from time to time, but I try to stick with what I know and assume to be decent rigs. Having said that, as I was reading your comment, I was thinking the DAG Ghost, and then you mentioned it! I like DAG as a company, and all of these companies have a different flare to them. What I like about DAG is that they aren’t afraid to try something new, like their low profile PALS webbing. At first I was a skeptic, but I’m a fan of it now. It takes a little getting used to, especially if you are doing a triple-weave type of setup which is how I rig my MOLLE sides. MY thing with the Ghost is that I could never make good sense of the accessory bag that hangs on the back of it. I take my Ghost all over the place when I backpack, but I have the extension pouch off and in a closet. I like to consider the Ghost a nice 48 hour ruck the way I use it. The Ghost definitely shines when it comes to hydration though, so I’m with you there. Let me know if you’ve got any more questions about it.

  • Dionatans Oct 3, 2016, 1:55 am

    Hello Mike am Brazilian I am looking for a backpack supplier Alice pack large capacity and did not think it would be so dificel find a supplier, I wonder if you might be telling me who makes the backpack alice pack and suppliers this backpack, thank you.
    att

    • Mike Oct 3, 2016, 12:26 pm

      Hello. Rothco was making them for years, but remember that the ALICE carry equipment is outdated, and the US gov is not getting any new equipment. If you want an official issue piece, you’ll have to get it from surplus, and it will likely be used.

  • Halina Oct 14, 2016, 4:01 pm

    This blog is really interesting. I have bookmarked it.
    Do you allow guest post on your page ? I can write high quality articles for you.

    Let me know.

    • Mike Oct 18, 2016, 7:45 pm

      If you’ve got something you think our readers would enjoy, please let me know!

  • Lillian Nov 20, 2016, 10:13 pm

    Are there any packs that are well suited for women? I’m a 5’2″ female, 125 lbs and looking for a versatile tactical pack that I can take hiking and hunting – both weekend trips and day trips, maybe extended trips when I get more experience. I only want to get one pack that’s going to last because I’m a college student and not super loaded on cash! Looking at the 5.11 Rush series but not sure if the 72 would be too big for my frame.

    • Mike Nov 21, 2016, 2:31 pm

      Hi Lillian –

      The 72 is a pretty big pack. Hard to say how large it would be on your frame, but in general, you might go with the 24. Not sure if I have their size specs on my review, but 5.11 probably has a sizing chart on their site, plus you’ll have fun poking around that site anyhow – lots of nice gear. By the way, GORUCK packs have a lifetime warranty – something to consider.

Leave a Comment