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How to Choose the Best Bug Out Bag Backpack

The Bug Out Bag Backpack Ultimate Guide

*Disclaimer

Before we begin, I’d like to clear something up. Many people use the terms “bug out bag”, “get home bag“, and “72 hour bag” interchangeably. They are not.

A get home bag is designed to get you home if SHTF while you are at work, running errands, shopping for toenail clippers, etc.

A 72 hour bag is made for surviving for up to 3 days until you can get rescued/find your way back home if you get lost camping, your car breaks down in northern Maine, etc.

You aren’t supposed to be able to survive indefinitely off of the items in your bug out bag but you should be able to last a reasonably long time (couple of weeks or so, depending on the environment). It is a more long term “solution” than the others.

Because of this, your get home bag and 72 hour kit will not have the same equipment as your BOB. Therefore, your requirements for a pack will be different.

This guide is for choosing the best bug out bag backpack, though many of the criteria hold true for the other two as well.

Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the subject, picking the best bug out bag backpack for you. You might see me refer to it as a GOOD bag (Get Out Of Dodge), bail out bag, bugout bag, go bag, grab bag, or My Little Pony. Maybe not the last one so much but just know that these all mean the same thing. Hell, I may even shorten it to BOB if I’m feeling lazy.

Survival backpack for kids
Me in 5th grade

Much of this knowledge comes first hand from me spending too much time walking around with heavy stuff on my back. From books in school to hiking trips to backpacking through Europe for 6 months at a time.

I’ve also enlisted the help of some enthusiasts and experts I know and filled in the rest with big words and MacGyver references.

I’ve read numerous posts on this topic and I felt that none of them really fully addressed all of the issues so when I say the Ultimate Guide, I’m not just using buzz words.

This is going to be long. Grab a beer and a pen and paper and get comfortable, here we go…

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I should probably address this first since you need to make a choice here before you start looking at any other variables. There are a couple of schools of thought on this and you may not agree. It’s your choice. But it’s definitely a decision to make before we go any further.

Tactical Backpack vs. Hiking Backpack

To be able to carry as much equipment as we need, comfortably, and stand up to some pretty tough conditions, we have two choices; hiking or military/tactical backpacks. They both have pros and cons so you’ll have to pick which one works best for you.

Hiking Backpacks

The argument is that, in the case of an emergency, anyone who looks like they know what they’re doing will be targeted by those who are… less prepared. Meaning all that hard work you put into prepping while your friends and neighbors made fun of you will actually put you at more risk.

This is a pretty valid point. Even if you are armed, you can easily be outnumbered and overpowered by a mob or small gang. And even if you win the fight, you’ve wasted precious time and resources.

In this case, hiking backpacks are a better choice. They are built to carry a large amount of gear over long distances comfortably. The emphasis with these packs is on space and comfort.

They lack some of the features and durability of tactical backpacks but they also look like you just threw some stuff in a bag and ran. As long as you buy a pack with muted colors, you will probably blend in with everyone else.

Hiking packs are a good option if you live in an urban environment. Bonus points if you add dirt and duct tape to make the bag look old and worn (and you have more duct tape!).

Tactical Backpacks

tactical backpacks for bug out bagsIf you live in a more rural area where you are less likely to run into other survivors, a tactical backpack might make a better choice.

Military or tactical bug out bag backpacks generally aren’t as comfortable to wear for long periods as hiking packs but they could survive a hurricane/dust storm/avalanche/sharknado super combo and come out unscathed.

They also usually feature the MOLLE system (no, not the robot from WALL-E). MOLLE is an extremely versatile attachment system and is supported by a number of manufacturers. It can be used to quickly attach and detach various accessories like magazine pouches, sheaths, and day packs. This feature really increases the effectiveness of your BOB by being able to adapt to the situation as needed.

As far as color choice, again this is up to you, whether you want to go with something that blends into the landscape like camo or a color that doesn’t scream “military“.

Space

This is one of the biggest variables when picking out your pack because how much you can carry will depend on your size, endurance, and strength. If you’re 5’2 and 110 pounds, you’re going to need a different size bag than someone who’s 5’11 and 180 pounds.

Liters vs Cubic Inches

This can be very confusing as some packs are measured in cubic inches and some are measured in liters. And it gets even more confusing if you realize that US and UK liters are different. And then there are liquid measurements vs dry… It’s all a big cluster F.

The other reason you can’t evenly compare one size pack to another is because compartments that aren’t fully enclosed, like bottle storage pockets and such, aren’t counted in the measurements. Then you’ve got some areas that are larger than others but are less usable.

Bottom line, don’t make a decision solely on the volume metrics.

With that being said, you’re almost definitely going to want something larger than 2,500 cubic inches or 40 liters. Beyond that, you’re going to need to factor in what equipment you will need, how much you can carry comfortably, etc.

Anything over 6,000 cu. in./90 liters is probably overkill and will hinder more than help. If you have that much stuff that you think needs to be in your BOB, you should rethink your list.

Size

Is your bug out bag backpack the right size?
#PreparedForAnything

It is important to pay attention to the dimensions of the pack as well. If you’ve ever had to help a buddy move, you know that half of a 100 pound couch can be harder to carry than two 50 pound dumbbells. It’s all about how it fits you.

Do your arms hit the sides while you’re walking because the bag is too wide?

Does it stop at the small of your back or is there an awkward empty space because it’s sitting on your butt while you walk?

Does your the top of the pack hit your head with each step? That’s going to get old pretty fast.

Also, for the ladies, there are gender specific backpacks that are designed specially for women. If you find a brand that you like, check to see if they have bug out bags for women. The better the fit, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Compartments

Like I mentioned earlier, not all compartments were created equally. I like to travel with a simple duffel bag because I can easily throw in some clothes and a toiletry kit in and be on my way.

But it is bulky and when I need to find something small, it’s a lot of rummaging. Things get smushed, clean shirts rub up against dirty shoes, it’s anarchy in there. And if I packed like my wife and brought more than just some t shirts, gym shorts, and underwear when we went out of town, it wouldn’t be nearly as convenient for me.

On the other hand, when I was backpacking with a hiking pack, having everything separated and tightly packed into different areas made retrieving exactly what I needed terribly easy. Even though I was packed for 3 months instead of 3 days, my backpack was still smaller than my duffel bag.

It’s not about having more space, it’s about having better space. Think tiny homes vs. McMansions.

Accessibility

Being able to quickly get to the gear you need can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Plus, having to pull everything out of your pack just to get to your toothbrush at the bottom and then have to repack it isn’t just annoying, it wastes a lot of time that could be spent doing useful things like setting up a shelter, building a fire, putting on a puppet show, or literally anything else.

Imagine if you saw a rescue plane in the distance when you’re stranded in the wild but can’t get to your signal mirror in time. Way to go, Sergeant Unorganized.

MOLLE Attachments

Another thing that isn’t included in the volume measurements of backpacks is the ability to add attachments to the exterior of the pack.

For example, clipping your water bottle to the outside instead of having to store it inside makes it more accessible and saves quite a bit of room for other items.

This is where the MOLLE backpacks really stand out.

Hydration Bladder Compatibility

best hydration bladder for bug out bag
Keep your hands free for important tasks

Yeah, water is great and all but drinking is such a hassle. All that up and down. I might as well go to the gym and do curls. And straws aren’t much better. I still have to hold the thing!

For this reason, hydration bladders (Camelbaks for the rich kids) really are useful additions to your survival pack.

They’re an efficient way to carry water, keep your hands free, make it easy to ration water, and even have filtration devices built in.

What more could you ask for?

Comfort

The distance you are able to travel is dependent largely on two items, your shoes and your pack. And since we aren’t talking about shoes today, let’s focus on the bag.

Shoulder straps

The shoulder straps are the primary points of contact between your bug out bag and you. This is where almost alllll of the weight is going to be alllll day. So make sure they’re comfortable.

I remember I had a backpack in high school that seemed to have good, padded straps but they were foam and by the end of the year were flattened and useless from all that knowledge I carried from class to class. Trust me, when you’re carrying 30-50 pounds (basically a five year old on your back) for 8-12 hours a day, those straps start to feel like barbed wire.

On the other hand, the bag that I backpack with has some awesome gel honeycomb wizard magic technology padding that doesn’t wear out and allows it to breathe.

Besides padding, you should also look at the width of the straps. The wider the strap, the more surface area for the weight to be displaced, making it easier to carry. However, if you have a wide neck, too wide of a strap will be uncomfortable and could rub and chafe you after a while.

I have heard this is an issue for some people with the 5.11 Rush 72.

Hip straps

hip straps for bug out bag backpack
I bet he wishes he had some hip straps

Your shoulders may take the brunt of the weight of your survival bag but that doesn’t mean they have the take all of it. Many hiking and military/tactical backpacks come with hip straps that allow you to carry some of the weight with your thighs and hips rather than Atlas-ing it all on your shoulders.

Hip straps also change the center of gravity of your backpack to help you carry more with less strain. I know it doesn’t seem like much at first but I’d say that this feature decreases the effort required to carry weight by 30% (based on absolutely no actual tests or empirical evidence, just me getting lost in Barcelona without a wallet).

An added benefit of hip straps is that many have pockets and/or allow you to add attachments which increases the versatility of the pack while improving the weight distribution.

It also keeps items that need to be close at hand, close at hand (that’s a weird phrase, right? Close at hand?). Having your knife or tactical flashlight right on your hip can save a lot of time when seconds matter and keep you from having to take your bag completely off just to see what’s in this hole.

Sternum strap

I kind of glazed over the whole center of gravity thing but you would be amazed at how much something so little can make such a big difference.

Other than being a place to hang my sunglasses, all that a sternum strap does is pull your shoulder straps together.

But you don’t realize how much effort you’re using to keep your shoulders from being pulled back until you clip the strap on. Centering the weight on your chest rather than the outside of your shoulders is like a cold glass of water in the desert.

A bag without a sternum strap is a deal breaker to me.

Back padding

tactical bug out bag straps
Good back padding and airflow

I remember a buddy of mine in school had a backpack that had no padding and accidentally stabbed himself in the back prett badly with a pencil while running for the bus. That was an embarrassing scar.

Besides the shoulder straps, your back is the main point of contact between you and your gear. It will be bumping into you and rubbing back and forth as you walk (no matter how tight you cinch it) so make sure there’s something comfortable between you two. Ideally with air channels to improve circulation and keep you from sweating.

Compression straps

Here is another feature that seems small but makes a huge difference. Basically a girdle for your bug out bag. Being able to cinch your gear tighter, and therefore closer to your center of gravity, will improve your ability to carry the bag longer. Another must have feature, in my opinion.

Airflow

Remember that miracle honeycomb padding I mentioned before? Besides the comfort and longevity, the real benefit of the design is that it breathed better than any conventional padding.

Sweating may help cool us off but it also drains our electrolytes and increases the amount of water per day we need. Plus it smells and no one wants to stink any more than they have to when hot showers aren’t an option.

So when looking at packs for your bug out bag, pay attention to any airflow channels or webbing features in the back and shoulder padding.

Durability

I don’t care how comfortable your straps are, if they break, you’re going to have a bad day. It doesn’t matter how much your pack can hold if the fabric rips and leaves a Hansel and Gretel trail of your gear through the woods.

You’re not going to the store for groceries or hauling books from class to class. In the event you need to use your bug out bag, you’re going to be in rough situations and your survival is riding on what is in your bag.

So you want to make sure it can hold up to some beating.

Material

Obviously some materials are more durable than others but the weight of the fabric as well as the type of weave also make a big difference. Though I love cotton, I’d stick with Nylon in this case.

It can take more abuse, generally, and it’s what most of the best tactical backpacks are made out of now. Tactical bug out bags are built with thicker fabric like 1000d Cordura Nylon but this sacrifices weight for durability compared to the lighter hiking backpacks.

Zippers

tactical backpack zippers
Plenty of pockets is important too!

While the material of the bag is important to prevent rips or fraying, your zippers are more likely to fail before the fabric. Pay attention to the size and quality of not only the actual zipper and pull but also the stitching to the bag. This is where reading reviews is important to see if anyone else has had issues. Buying a “cheap” tactical backpack may end up costing you more over time.

Water Resistant

I don’t think there’s much to say about this. You don’t want your stuff to get wet. So being water resistant is a plus. I wouldn’t say it’s a deal breaker because there are other ways to keep your gear dry but it’s a pretty nice feature. Some hiking backpacks come with rain covers but those take up space in your bag. Usually very little but something to keep in mind.

Cut Proof

I figured I’d throw this one in here. Some pickpockets will slice open the bottom of your bag while you’re sitting on a train or walking down the street and steal your stuff literally right out from under you.

To combat this, some manufacturers offer models with basically chicken wire sewn into the bottom of the bag so that they can’t be cut. I don’t know how much of an issue this will be after a disaster but it could keep your bag from being ripped open by a jagged piece of rebar or a particularly aggressive tree branch.

Recommendations


ModelSizeMaterialUser Rating (Out of 5)Price

TETON Sports Scout 3400
3,400 Cubic Inches/55 LitersPolyester4.5$
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High Sierra Tech Series 59405 Titan 65
3,966 Cubic Inches/65 LitersNylon4.1$$$
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Osprey Men's Atmos 65 AG
~4,000 Cubic Inches/65 LitersNylon4.7$$$
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Paratus 3 Day Operator's Pack
2,890 Cubic Inches/47 Liters600 D Nylon4.5$
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Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack
5,600 Cubic Inches/92 Liters (expanded)600-Denier Poly/Canvas4.4$$
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5.11 3 Day Rush Backpack
2,894 Cubic Inches/47 Liters15D Nylon4.8$$
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Best Hiking Backpacks for Bugging Out

TETON Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame Backpack

TETON Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame Backpack reviewPersonally, I really don’t like packs that are taller than me. It messes with my OCD. And I always feel like someone is right behind me.

But a lot of people really like this Teton pack.

And they’re the ones hiking up and down the Appalachian trail so they must know what they’re talking about.

If your bug out plan involves really “getting away from it all”, AKA finding a vacant mountain and hanging out for a bit, this is probably the best survival backpack for you.

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High Sierra Tech Series 59405 Titan 65 Internal Frame Pack

High Sierra Tech Series 59405 Titan 65 Internal Frame Pack reviewThis is another hiking backpack that I hear a lot of good things about from both hikers and preppers.

Of course, being a hiking backpack, it’s light and durable.

I’ve actually tried it on and, despite what I said earlier about tall packs, I really liked it.

I looked like an idiot walking around the store for 30 minutes with it on but I was super comfortable and didn’t have to get a shopping cart to hold all my items.

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Osprey Packs Atmos 65 Backpack

Osprey Packs Atmos 65 Backpack reviewThis is our pick for the best hiking bug out backpack. It’s basically Mary Poppins’ bag. You keep putting gear in and yet there’s still plenty of space and somehow the bag hasn’t gotten any heavier.

Everything is very adjustable, to the point where gloves don’t fit this well.

Great attachment system, hydration bladder integration, easy access compartments, the list goes on. If you’ve got a sporting store near you, go try this bad boy on.

Find a small child, stick ’em in the pack (with the parent’s permission, of course), and walk around for a bit. You’ll forget the rugrat is in there til his mom starts running after you in the parking lot.

Great bug out backpack.

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Best Tactical Bug Out Backpacks

Paratus 3 Day Operator’s Pack Military Style MOLLE Compatible Tactical Backpack Bug Out Bag

My favorite thing about this rucksack is that, because of the MOLLE system, you’ve actually got three packs in Paratus 3 Day Operator's Pack reviewone. So if you’ve set up camp and want to go set some traps or collect firewood, you don’t have to lug the whole thing with you.

Many people have turned one of the side MOLLE pouches into a first aid kit that’s extremely accessible in case of an emergency.

Keep in mind, the Paratus is as tough as an ox from South Central but it also weighs about as much. At least when compared to the Osprey. But if you’re looking for a great MOLLE backpack, this is a very good choice.

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Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack

Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack review

Sandpiper of California (S.O.C.) has been making some of the best bug out backpacks for years now and the California Long Range is one of their most popular models.

Its MOLLE system isn’t quite as versatile as the Paratus’ but it’ll still hold everything you’ve got and a bit more. In fact, the biggest complaint that most people have is that it’s TOO big.

Which is a good problem to have if you’re the kind of person that needs to be prepared for everything.

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5.11 Tactical Rush 72 Backpack

The 5.11 Rush is the quintessential survival backpack. Also available in “12” and “24” hour sizes, this is the 5.11 Tactical Rush 72 Backpack reviewpack you think of when I say bug out bag.

It’s as adaptable as an indecisive chameleon, going from a legit 3 day pack to an everyday laptop bag at whim. And it’s tougher than my grandmother’s pork chops.

I know veterans who have taken this backpack on multiple tours without so much as a frayed strap. 5.11 has a great reputation in the tactical gear community and the Rush backpack is no exception.

If you’re going the tactical back pack route, this is our top choice.

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If you’re thinking about the Condor 3 Day Assault pack, the guys at Ultimate Survival Tips did a great, in depth review of it here:

Conclusion

Whew! That was a lot of words. The sad thing is that I actually cut a lot out! Hopefully this helped you to get started building your own bug out bag.

What’s your pick for the best bug out bag backpack?

  • But still what is the best materials for backpacks?

    • KPS

      It really depends on if you want to go for durability or weight. The best tactical backpack material seems to be 1050D which, oddly enough, outperforms 1680D. But for hiking backpacks, 1050D is too heavy so they use something like silnylon (which is waterproof as well). There are new variations coming out every year but they are all some type of nylon. This really was a helpful article for me: http://www.loadedpocketz.com/difference-ballistic-1000d-cordura-ripstop-nylon/

      • Thanks for the information. And what about the manufacturer? We always prefered Deuter. This year our son went to school and we bought him Deuter also. Any better ideas?

        • KPS

          No, that’s a pretty good choice. We’ve always heard good things about Deuter. Sounds like your son has the coolest backpack in school!

  • Great article, Evan! I like your thorough coverage of the many issues that need to be taken into account when choosing a bug out backpack. Thinking through these factors really helps us make the right choice. Thanks for putting this together.