Tactical Backpacks: What Are They and Why Do You Need One?
It was not a good day.
For the first time in over 15 years we drug our sorry butts back to the trailhead in defeat, with the loss of our gear as evident as the loss of our pride.
Broken straps, lost cell phones and water bottles, ripped grommets, and bent hooks. We still have no idea at what point we lost the tent.
It was not a good day.
In retrospect, it was Mike’s fault.
Of course, when you have the city-blood brother-in-law tagging along where he didn’t belong, what did we expect? It was inevitable. Definite. Unforgiveable.
Mike went yuppie.
All he had to do was pick up the backpacks. That wasn’t asking too much, right?
We had the rest of the supplies set for our bi-annual 3 days of living off the earth – and MREs – but after the incident last Fall we decided to spring for new packs.
Swearing he could be trusted with the task (and a healthy fear of the missus) we allowed Mike to procure new backpacks.
Rather than doing the research (or going with common sense) Mike believed the advertising hype and bought packs from the mall. The mall!
So, to prevent you from making the same mistakes Mike did, I've put together a buying guide for finding the best tactical backpack for you.
Types of Backpacks
A backpack by any other name … Isn’t
Most folks think that all backpacks are built the same. But then, most folks ain’t all that bright.
Backpacks come in all shapes and sizes and for a multitude of uses. For our purpose we are going to eliminate the discussion of school packs and women’s backpack-style purse (seriously, wtf?), and stick with real backpacks.
To get a real feel and understanding for the different styles of backpacks, specifically the tactical style, let’s first do a quick review of what you are using it for.
A few questions to consider might include;
- Why do you need it?
- Are you using it for hiking, camping, hunting, or general bug out bag (BOB)?
- Is this for daily work, extended work, or play?
Before you ask - NO, hiking and camping are not the same.
And if you thought they were, please leave your man-card at the exit.
Hiking can be anything from a few hours in an afternoon, to a weekend. Generally, hiking with an overnight stay would include nice trails and a warm cabin with indoor plumbing.
Hiking requires few needs so the packs are small, and generally fashionable, with just a few sections; water, a place for your personal items, maybe some granola.
If you’re hitting a spot overnight you might like a change of clothes, which you may be able to fit.
I should probably mention that many hiking packs are being touted as “day use” backpacks in a marketing attempt to align more with the heavy duty and extended use packs. Try not to fall for it.
This use, on the other hand, includes the general act of hiking - but you find a spot you like and drop gear for the night.
Right there in the middle of the woods.
And since there’s no Walmart around the corner, you better bring everything with you that you might possibly need, from food and clothing to bedrolls and a tent.
These bags are a bit larger than hiking backpacks, and generally have more ‘structure’ to them - maybe they have extra packs hanging off, or the steel tube frame you commonly see.
The look is more rugged, and the overall weight is increased along with the capacity.
The fit is more secure and snugger, and they often have waist straps to help even out the load.
Hunting can be combined with camping, although most seasonal hunters are only out for a day on their 3-wheelers. Still, they need to carry a first-aid kit, extra ammo, spare gloves and socks.
You get the idea.
These packs are interchangeable with the camping packs, since the need for space is equaled as well as the need for wearing them for an extended length of time.
Bug Out Bag Backpacks
A Bug Out Bag is a completely different creature.
Traditionally it was used by the military for fast evacuation in case of being overrun by the enemy - hence “bug out”.
Modern BOBs can cover a variety of uses from a fireman who might need a spare set of clothes on an instant’s notice, to a geek who carries all his tech and tools in one place, to a woman in her 9th month and knows she could go into labor at anytime.
Basically, a bug out bag is a grab-n-go of whatever you need to sustain whatever you do for a specified timeframe. All families should have a bug out bag of some sort in case of a fire or other emergency.
These bags are generally larger, and since the term is so loose - so is the bug out bag. It’s not uncommon to see duffle bags or even suitcases replace the traditional backpack style of a BOB.
For help on choosing the right one, check out our buying guide to find the best bug out bag backpack for your needs.
And we’re off to the Army Surplus Store
Now that you’ve decided what you need, let’s take a closer look at the Tactical Backpack.
For starters, you need to know that not all military backpacks are tactical backpacks.
Oh, and just because a store is called “Army Surplus” we should probably tell you that most of what they stock is cheap imported knock-off.
Not all, but most.
Seriously - do you think some guy is going to get his hands on 35 pieces of gear that were actually used in Syria? If you want authentic used, try your local pawnshop.
But I digress …
A military backpack - or a “military style” backpack can be anything from a rucksack that was actually used in the military to a cheap hiking pack with a camo pattern and claims to be made to ‘military specifications’.
Basically, over half the “military style” on the market are nothing more than cheap knock-offs for guys who want to look cool and impress the neighbors.
Then you have the real military backpacks, which can be synonymous to tactical backpacks.
When you see them, the first thing that should catch your eye is the unique design.
They have multiple compartments and pouches. These allow you to organize everything from small do-dads to multi-liter hydration systems for water on the go.
The second thing you will notice is the strange webbing - we will get to that in a minute - on the back and sides.
The overall look is that they are heavier and beefier than hiking or camping packs, and the carry structure is designed to evenly distribute the weight.
Once on, these large packs are amazingly easy to move around in and there is no loss to your center of gravity.
So, basically, even though it looks like you might tip over backwards, you won’t. Unless you’re drunk, in which case you will end up looking like a turtle on it’s shell.
This style backpack has its primary use as a bug out bag and for serious camping.
For camping, you can carry anything you need in it or attached to it.
As a bug out bag, the organization of the pouches and pockets allows you to have - and find - everything you need quickly and easily.
What to Look for in a Tactical Backpack
When looking at tactical backpacks, these are a few features you need to pay attention to:
We can’t say enough about this. These packs need to be tough and durable, so construction is everything.
- Outer shell: Don’t settle for anything less than 1000D (or higher nylon) - the density makes them water resistant and pretty durable and cut resistant.
- Stitching: This is another overlooked but important aspect. Make sure it is double stitched everywhere.
- Zippers: Inspect the zippers - they are going to get a lot of use and need to hold up.
- Padding: Don’t skimp on the padding - but don’t go overboard, either. The straps and part against your back should be comfortable, but check for high-quality foams and not generic “cotton” or open cell foam. The compression molded foams are the best. Try the squeeze test - the less they compress, the better.
Size matters - kinda.
Most good tactical backpacks have compression straps that allow the pack to expand and contract according to how much you stuff in it.
Make sure the largest pouch fits your largest item.
This gets a little confusing.
Basically, most BOBs are sized by their day’s use - meaning how many days you can live out of them.
Although we reviewed mostly 3-day tactical packs, your needs may differ.
While not all will have a traditional “frame”, you need to consider how the pack attaches to you.
The largest pack, with a properly fitting strap system, should feel almost weightless. Almost.
- Shoulder straps: The straps need to be generous and padded. They need to also be adjustable - the more the better. They also need to be secure so you do not need to readjust every few hours.
- Sternum Strap: Again, this is non-negotiable. A sternum strap allows the dispersement of the weight across the bulk of your upper body. A properly cinched sternum strap should not put pressure on your chest.
- Waist Strap: The most overlooked strap is the waist strap. Make sure it is large - or small - enough for your girth. It should fit around just above your hips, allowing for increased comfort.
- Back Support: As part of the strapping, and considering the padding, check out the back support. The higher quality packs will have some version of metal keeping the overall shape of the pack, and takes into consideration the contours of your back.
Probably what separates the men from the boys is the generous use of MOLLE - short for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. It’s the strange straps stitched onto packs.
This allows the attachment of additional straps or packs and other accessories to your tactical backpack.
While several manufacturers have their own proprietary system, never choose a pack that is not compatible with MOLLE. And remember - the more, the better!
- PALs: Short for Pouch Attachment Ladder System, the term is used interchangeably with MOLLE.
- Velcro: Velcro is good for attaching patches and other such to your pack, but never choose a pack that depends on Velcro to hold any of the accessories or pouches onto the main pack.
We could go on about the materials, but once you see a couple good ones and a couple bad ones, you will pick up on it pretty quick. Just try to avoid advertising propaganda.
Tactical Backpack Comparison
|Brand||Capacity IN³||Materials||Hydration Capacity||Accessory Platform||Reviews|
|5.11 Rush 72 Backpack||3,342||1050D Nylon||Designated Compartment (Single 3 liter)||MOLLE & TacTec System™||4.8
|Condor 3 Day Assault Pack||3,038||Not Specified||Designated Compartment (dual 3 liter)||MOLLE||4.6
|Maxpedition Falcon II||1,400||1050D Nylon||Designated Compartment (Dual 3 liter)||TACTIE® and MOLLE||4.6
|Paratus 3 Day Operator’s Pack||2,500||600D PVC Backed Nylon||Hydration Compatible||MOLLE||4.3
|Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack||5,600 (expanded)||1000D Nylon||Hydration Compatible||MOLLE & PALS||4.4
The Best Tactical Backpacks: Our Reviews
These are a few of the more common 3-day Tactical Backpacks. These are from companies that design and build packs.
While we do not cover every detail, we want to present the highlights of each to assist you in choosing one for your own needs.
5.11 Rush 72 Backpack
Best Overall Tactical Backpack
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This water repellant beast is the godfather of the Rush family of tactical backpacks, the largest they offer.
It is designed for 72 hour use, and with over 3300 square inches of capacity I’d stake my excursion on it.
The generous pockets have more nooks and crannies than my grandparent’s attic and there’s a specific spot for a 3-liter hydration pack that you can run the hose up for convenient on the go drinking.
The compression straps help fit this in a standard airplane overhead bin, making it useful as a carry-on as well.
The waist straps can be used for extra comfort and weight dispersement when you’ve filled the bag (and believe me - you can stuff this thing!) or tucked away if not being used.
This is one of our favorite packs; designed with the user in mind from the sternum strap to the fleece-lined pocket for your phone or shades.
The water repellant nylon keeps everything inside dry and the self-healing YKK® zipper hardware is a bonus.
The strapping system allows for easy addition of a bedroll and an impressive amount of accessory packs are available.
The only cons were discomfort of the back plate during long hikes, and intermittent comments that there may be some very modest shrinkage after washing.
Not all the accessory pouches and attachments are available in all their colors, which could irritate your fashion sense.
If you’re into that sort of thing.
This is an amazing pack that is built for pretty much whatever you can throw at it. We know - we tried.
Don't believe us? Read our full review of the 5.11 Rush 72 backpack for a more in-depth analysis.
Condor 3 Day Assault Pack
Best Tactical Backpack Under $100
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With just over 3,000 in3 of space, 7 pockets (yes - 7!), and the ability to hold up to 6 liters of water, this tactical pack is clearly made for any man to live out of for at least 3 days.
The compression straps allow you to save room for use as a carry on, and the MOLLE webbing allows for additional packs.
The overall feel of the Condor Assault Pack is more of a hiking than tactical backpack, but the beefiness screams to be put to the test.
Holds two 3 liter hydration packs. That’s 6 liters - in addition to 6 other pockets to fit whatever you could think to stuff into therm.
Did we mention the massive amount of water it holds?
The zippers do not hold up as well as YKK® and we’ve noticed that the shoulder straps stitching leaves room to question the longevity of the pack.
Additionally, the adjustment system of the straps could lead to slouching of the bag and pressure points, and the need to readjust.
The MOLLE system allows for the addition of pretty much any accessory pack or attachment, but because it holds two bladders, you don’t need to waste the space with water bottles.
Maxpedition Falcon II
Best EDC Tactical Backpack for Everyday Use
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My first impression of the Maxpedition Falcon II pack was that it was some 5th grader’s book bag with a camo job snuck into the tactical section to see if we would notice.
We noticed, alright - and once my hands were on it, I wondered if my 4 year old was too young for his first tactical backpack.
This is definitely one of the smaller offerings - coming in at a mere 1,400 cubic inches - yet still holds TWO 3 liter hydration bags.
Made of 1050-Denier water & abrasion resistant nylon, this pack just oozes quality.
Their proprietary TacTie® Attachment Strap system allows for the addition of any brand MOLLE and PALS accessories.
Probably good for a youngster to pull his own weight out on a trip into the wilderness.
Although it boasts a larger hydration capacity, we cannot recommend this small capacity for extended outing.
Also, the shoulder and waist strap - while of high quality stitching - are much narrower than we would like to see for comfort in extended wear.
This compact backpack is of the highest quality material and workmanship - but it’s just too small to be considered a truly tactical backpack.
It is the perfect size for an EDC (Every Day Carry) bag though.
Paratus 3 Day Operator's Pack
Most Versatile Tactical Backpack
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At just shy of 2,900 in3, you could easily pack a lot into the Paratus.
Fashioned with lighter 600 Denier nylon, there is no specific mention that it is water resistant.
It does have double stitching all over the place but lacks the standard compression straps found on other extended-day Tactical backpacks.
One feature worth pointing out is how versatile this pack is.
It is touted as "3 bags in one", meaning you can add or remove pouches as needed to fit your requirements. It's an EDC bag, 24 hour pack, and 3 day backpack all in one.
Because of the top-load, I’m pretty sure we could load this with more than my wife’s Prius could handle.
"3 bags in one".
The removable Rapid Deployment Bag is a nice feature.
We weren’t impressed with the vagueness of the “Lifetime Warranty” - an unspecified timeframe described as “Lifetime is defined as the expected life of the product” and excludes wear and tear.
Made from 600D Nylon
We would prefer the side packs be MOLLE and not velcro.
Several reports of zipper failure were reported within the first year.
You know how we prefer to see the specs in writing than a lot of fancy double-talk. This appears to be a good bag at a good price point, but lacking details - like if it’s water resistant - make us go “hmmm”.
Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack
Largest Tactical Backpack
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This SOC pack is truly a monster. At 4,200 square inches - 5,600 in3 expanded - you don’t need any accessory pouches to gain extra space.
While not water resistant, the density of the 1000 Denier Cordura® does a good job keeping the contents dry.
There are compression straps and you can add on MOLLE and PALS accessories, but we were concerned with the quality of the stitching and the zipper pulls.
This is a HUGE bag.
This is a HUGE bag.
The straps are narrow, and there is too much single-row stitching for our comfort.
Bigger isn’t always better. While you will fit everything you need for a bachelor party in it (including the bachelor and ‘entertainment’) we have concerns about the quality of the materials and stitching.
If I had to pick just one, it would be the 5.11 Rush 72 Backpack.
It boasts all of the requirements to call it a tactical backpack, has ample room and compartments, you can add a gazillion accessories with the generous use of MOLLE, and the overall quality and workmanship make it the best bug out bag for your buck.
But no matter what pack you choose, make sure you choose the pack that's right for your needs, not just the one with the best marketing.
Don’t be like Mike.