Why has the tactical backpack become so popular? Is it another example of military tech finding its way into the mainstream, like GPS, duct tape, and canned food? Tactical backpacks have grown in popularity, increasingly replacing standard book bags, hefty luggage, and briefcases. So what makes a backpack tactical and what’s the right one for you? We’ll get into the details and choose our favorites, so if you’re looking for a tactical backpack to add to your loadout, you’ve come to the right place.
So, what is a tactical backpack?
Durability is the first defining attribute of a tactical backpack. You’ll find high-end fabrics like Cordura and ballistic nylon in any such backpack worthy of the title. Cordura and similar fabrics have high tensile strength fibers that withstand long term wear. You can stuff your bag to the stretching point, expose it to the elements, scuff it, scrape it, toss it in your car and move about your world without fear of damaging it. They’re designed to stand up to abuse.
Another identifying feature of a tactical backpack is the militaristic look and feel of it. The appearance of things like MOLLE webbing (we’ll get into exactly what that is later), Velcro patch zones, and tactical colors like black, desert tan, OD green, and of course, camo are dead giveaways that you’re looking at a tactical backpack.
And finally, many tactical backpacks include dedicated compartments for hydration bladders. After all, the tactical backpack was built for warfighters, and those folks tend to get thirsty while doing the work of American badasses.
Generally speaking, if a backpack looks like something you’d see in a war zone, it’s probably a tactical backpack. But that doesn’t mean all tactical backpacks are built alike. Let’s get into the reasons why you should add one to your personal loadout.
What should you use a tactical backpack for?
The answer to this is pretty simple: Use a tactical backpack for carrying stuff from here to there. The days of the American man earning his 9 to 5 wage accompanied by a well-worn leather briefcase are officially dead, and the tactical backpack killed them. If you’re headed to work—whether it’s to a police station, military base, fire house, or just an office job like the rest of us schmucks—you’re probably carrying everything you need in a backpack.
Tactical backpacks have grown in popularity because of their ease of use and tough construction. Whereas a standard book bag might fall apart within a couple years of use, a tactical backpack will stand up to whatever you throw at it. A regular backpack may come with enough pockets for your daily commute, but a tactical backpack will have more room, allowing you to run more errands, carry more stuff, and extend your personal range.
Then there’s the customization afforded to you by way of the MOLLE exterior. The US military sure loves their acronyms—MOLLE stands for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. MOLLE interacts with PALS (here we go again), which stands for Pouch Attachment Ladder System, meaning you can customize your tactical backpack with attachments like first-aid pouches, magazine pouches, and more. An additional benefit of MOLLE webbing is easy access to basic gear like pens and knives which you can stow on the exterior.
Using a tactical backpack for everyday missions
For a reliable every-day tactical backpack, we recommend Propper’s Expandable Backpack. It’s got plenty of room for all your stuff for daily back-and-forths, including a laptop sleeve, side compartments for water bottles, and a soft-touch compartment for valuables like sunglasses. But if you need to run errands or travel farther, unzip two extra inches of expandable storage space in the main compartment so you can carry even more.
If you’d rather have the functionality of a tactical backpack without the overt look of one, go for the lower profile Gamut 2.0 from Vertx. It doesn’t have the MOLLE webbing, but its thoughtful storage features make it an ideal commuter bag with a tactical edge. The back panel can be quickly opened with the Rapid Access pull tab, revealing a Velcro zoned pocket for a holstered handgun plus spare mags. And under that, there’s a sleeve that fits a plate of body armor. It’s a bag with hidden talents.
Using a tactical backpack in the great outdoors
Tactical backpacks are ideal for long-distance hiking and hauling plenty of gear to a backcountry campsite. Make sure you choose one with a bladder compartment so you can stay hydrated out on the trail. A good rule of thumb for hiking is to bring a half liter for every hour you plan to be on the trail. So a standard 2-liter bladder—found in any Camelbak—should earn you four hours of happy, hydrated hiking.
As far as packing goes, the modularity of many bags means you can move the contents around to account for weight. Like we talked about above, the exterior MOLLE webbing allows you to stow useful gear like knives or gloves or hiking poles on the outside for easy access.
Most tactical backpacks are weather resistant, but no bag does a better job at shrugging off rain than the TruSpec Elite 3-Day Backpack, which features an attached rain fly that you can deploy over the pack for extra defense in inclement weather.
Using a tactical backpack as your bug-out bag … or bags.
Every well-prepared American should have an emergency bug-out bag stocked and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Many of you reading this probably already have one in your garage, one in your car, one in your attic, and one tucked away in a secret location like Ron Swanson.
Portability is the first standard a bug-out bag must satisfy. Tactical backpacks have this covered. Built to be easily worn over both shoulders, it allows you to move swiftly away from danger and travel long distances on foot if necessary, plus it frees your hands up to deal with whatever dicey situations you might find yourself in.
Like your outdoor bag, your bug-out bag should also contain a hydration bladder. It also doesn’t hurt to throw in some extra water bottles, or if you’re planning to really get off the grid, add a water purification system to your pack so you can drink from natural water sources.
In a particularly apocalyptic situation—like one where society breaks down and regular folk turn against each other—you’ll want to pack a weapon. What you pack is entirely up to you, but many preppers like to stock go-bags with compact handguns and a few spare mags. On top of that, adding a reliable knife to the bag is a good last-resort personal defense weapon.
Lastly, pack the basics: Add some freeze dried meals (we recommend Wise Company), some energy bars, a spare change of clothes, a first aid kit, matches, a flashlight, and your go-bag is good to go.
Adding all this gear requires a backpack big enough, tough enough, and versatile enough to handle it all. You can’t go wrong with 5.11 Tactical’s RUSH72. With 55 liters of storage and covered in MOLLE webbing, It’s a bag built for worst-case scenarios. Its ample storage offers real estate for packing emergency supplies inside and affixing gear to the exterior. Multiple pockets keep your supplies organized instead of all lumped together, giving you quick access to whatever you need. The shoulder straps are heavily padded, and the clinching waist strap secures the bag and redistributes its weight so you can travel longer without getting too fatigued.
Using a tactical backpack on deployments
These are the Cadillacs of tactical backpacks. The long haulers. The big boy bags. If you’re headed out on deployment (whether it’s an actual military deployment or weeks spent traveling overseas), consider one of these oversized backpacks to transport all your clothing, personal gadgets, books, gear, and anything else you can think of.
With an insane 4270 cubic inches—70 liters of combined storage with all three compartments attached—the Snugpak Rocket Pack is our top choice for a deployment tactical backpack. It’s a beast. You can also use it as a day pack at your chosen destination by removing the two side bags and wearing only the main compartment. One reviewer wrote how it could pack 80 pounds easily, and he even managed to fit his body armor and helmet with room to spare.
Choose what works for you
There’s no single example of the best tactical backpack ever made—only the best backpack for you. If you’re a uniformed professional in need of a duty-specific bag like a law enforcement backpack, choosing one of these is standard operating procedure. If you’re a weekend adventurer who wants a little more “tacti-cool” in your hiking game, a tactical backpack works just as well as most dedicated outdoor recreation bags.
If you’re just a regular American with a day-to-day job, we can recommend a tactical backpack for you too.
Ditch the briefcase, already.