Buying a Backpack: Military Bags vs Civilian Hiking Backpacks

by Rob Richardson, Off Grid Survival

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, and to really figure out what’s right, you need to know exactly what you’ll be using it for.

  • 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 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 really 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 types 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 this might be great for light hikers, it’s a negative to 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 is a concern. While these packs are usually on the heavy side, they are super durable, made to be carried through harsh conditions, and are usually easy to organize and add attachments and gear to.

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 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 main 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 on mind when choosing a backpack

  • Often times 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 really need to pay close attention to how the pack feels when testing put different bags.

Sharing is caring!