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Why You Should Not Use Military Backpacks For Hiking

Military backpacks are often durable and designed for “rucking”, which is what the military calls hiking under load. They’re function driven, not comfort driven. In a mission, you want to take all your supplies and guns without worrying if the pack will rip, but how comfortable it feels on your back or whether the straps will burn your shoulder skin is a secondary concern. Additionally, even though civilian hiking packs aren’t subtle at all, there’s no mistaking the additional attention you’ll receive on the trail or around a campsite when you’re hiking with a camo pack.

Using military backpacks for hiking is often a problem as you end up with a sore lumbar, a hurt shoulder, and your daily mileage will start to go down. Military rucksacks may pack everything you need in their extensive pockets, but you can carry the same load on a civilian pack and still hike longer and more comfortably. A long-time survivalist and former military officer shared this on a recent forum discussion:

Keep in mind that military backpack contracts are decided by bureaucrats, sometimes go to the lowest bidder (sometimes not), and they are typically colored for rural combat — not for avoiding attention in a populated environment. I don’t see much use for them. – Paul from Minnesota

The Obvious Warning

Clearly, you may choose to use military hiking packs if you plan on carrying really heavy loads and you’re fit enough to do so, or if you already have a good-enough pack and are not looking to spend any extra money right now. I know plenty of guys that carry 50-60lbs on their ILBEs and can still hike 15-20 miles a day. However, the average backpacker will greatly benefit from a lighter, streamlined civilian backpack.

Two Ways To Define Military Backpacking Packs

Okay, so exactly are we talking about when we say “military hiking packs”?

We’re referring to packs that were 1 – used in active service or 2 – designed for active service. You will see a number of military day packs that have been designed this way, and you must ensure you are prepared to use a pack that is meant to be used on all terrain without a thought of comfort. The comfort in a military backpack is in the space saved, and you will note how simple it is to fill up when you are ready.

Military backpacks are often made from hard canvas, unlikely to ever tear, and they often rely on MOLLE straps so you can attach accessories/pouches to them. The idea behind these tactical backpacks is to carry heavier military equipment like guns, ammos, and radios, and to handle any punishment you dole out, but not necessary to reduce your load or to provide the most comfortable fit on your back.

But MOLLE Backpacks Are A Brilliant Invention!

MOLLE (pronounced Molly) straps can be part of a many tactical gear kits, as they give you the ability to quick attach any number of pouches, ammo clips, knifes, radios, and configure your pack load at will. Some packs have MOLLE straps so that you can attach an entire secondary backpack to it – like the USLM ILBE. However, most hiking backpacks come with enough adjustable straps that you’ll be pressed to find a reason to miss it. And, in case you really want MOLLE on your backpack, you can DYI the straps with a bit of sewing knowledge:

MOLLE grid system uses horizontal rows of 1″ Mil-W-43668 Type III nylon webbing (you can try to find Type IIIa), spaced 1″ apart, and reattached to the backing at 1.5″ intervals. Some people love them:

I have been happy with the packs I have used for years because they allow me to straddle the line between the comfort I need and the space I want. I have many trips planned that are all made possible by the packs I have found, and I would encourage someone who is looking for a better pack to look over each MOLLE pack and their cousins to find something that works. – Aramcheck, SurvivalistBoards.com forum

The Best Military Backpacks

Below is a list of the most popular military backpacks for hiking, along with their key characteristics. Take a look and then compare these to the civilian backpacks we highlight further down the post.

USMC-ILBE-2ndGen-MilitaryBackpack

#1 – USMC ILBE MAIN PACK – 2ND GEN

The ILBE is popular because it is used by the Marine Corps, and you may use it on the strength of that recommendation alone. The ILBE Pack is designed to carry a load of up to 120lbs, which is really only possible thanks to the internal metal frames with 2 metal ribs on the outer sides and 2 larger spars in the middle, which help distribute the load. However, the pack weights close to 10lbs.

maxxpedition-falcon-II-backpack-military-specs

#2 – MAXPEDITION FALCON II

The Maxpedition is a hybrid pack that will serve you well in a number of instances. You are attempting to balance price and comfort with the Maxpedition, and you have met your match.

big-alice-pack-lc1-frame

#3 – LARGE A.L.I.C.E. PACK WITH FRAME LC-1

The Large Alice comes with a frame that will help you pack everything in a safe place. It is simpler to use the Alice because of the frame, and there are many people who swear by it every year.

Military Hiking Backpacks Comparison

Pack Name Pack Weight Capacity Avg Price Link
USMC ILBE MAIN PACK – 2ND GEN 10 lbs 120 lbs $199 Shop Now
MAXPEDITION FALCON II 4 lbs 1400 cu.in. / 23L $170 Shop Now
LARGE A.L.I.C.E. PACK 3 lbs 1 oz 3,800 cu.in. $70 Shop Now

Civilian Hiking Packs

Granite Gear packs seem to perform better than any other because of their heavy-duty construction. You will quite enjoy using the best military backpack for hiking, and each will last even through some of the worst punishment that is taken.

You need not have a pack that will carry 100 pounds of equipment as you may not carry that much on your hike. You will do quite well with a pack that is rated for 60-80 pounds, and you will avoid the problems that come along with a pack that weighs too much. You may use Granite Gear, or you may choose to use a lighter pack that is rated around your hiking level. You know how far you will go with each pack, and you are wasting your time if you purchase a pack that is simply too big for you.

The Best Civilian Hiking Packs

If you’re looking for a solid all-around pack, these are some of the highest-rated packs and are often praised by hiking pros like Andrew Skurka and Phillip Werner:

Arcterix-Altra-65-Backpack-Diablo-Reda

#1 – ARC’TERYX ALTRA 65

Light at four pounds, but you will have all the room you need in a bag that may carry up to 65 liters worth of material. You may try this pack when you are trying to split the difference between weight and capacity, and you will enjoy hiking with something that feels like a feather when it is unloaded.

OSPREY-ATMOS-65-AG-sml

#2 – OSPREY ATMOS 65 AG

The pack is only four and a half pounds, and you will have 65 liters of space to carry your materials. You are picking up a bit of weight on this pack, but it will help you when you have a little bit of room to pack everything. You are doing yourself a favor by using a pack that helps you organize yourself well, and you will avoid losing space because of its many pockets and features.

GREGORY BALTORO 65

#3 – GREGORY BALTORO 65

The five and half pound pack will give you 65 liters of space to pack yourself for a trip, and it will help you when you are attempting to take a trip that will require a bit of rugged terrain. The pack may be heavier, but it is small enough to keep out of your way on the worst parts of the hike.

Top Civilian Hiking Backpacks Comparison

Pack Name Pack Weight Capacity Avg Price Link
ARC’TERYX ALTRA 65 4 lbs 15 oz 45-60 lbs $450 Shop Now
OSPREY ATMOS 65 AG 4.5 lbs 30-50 lbs $260 Shop Now
GREGORY BALTORO 65 5.5 lbs 40-55 lbs $290 Shop Now

What About UltraLight Backpacks?

As you start to hike more miles every day, you’ll notice that reducing your load has a direct impact in your overall hike enjoyment. Some backpackers take this to extreme and count every single ounce in their packs – that’s the ultralight backpacking community.

Top ultralight packs are slightly less durable than normal civilian backpacks, but they often come out lighter than 3 lbs and can still carry loads of 30-50 lbs. The most popular ones are from ULA Equipment and Hyperlite. If you’re starting to backpack now, an ultralight pack might not fit your needs as they’re focused on minimal gear loads. Stick with a more robust and fully-featured civilian pack that can also double as a good camping backpack.

Why NOT Use Military Backpacks for Hiking?

As you’ve seen, military backpacks are made for specific military functions (rucking) and often overlook comforts expected when you’re hiking for pleasure. They’re often cheaper and more durable than civilian packs, but have a lot less features. The biggest drawback to using military backpacks when you’re hiking is the amount of attention they draw and the position that might put you in.

In truth, civilian backpacks are far from being subtle or even fashionable, but they’re everywhere so it doesnt draw as much attention. And yes, they’re more expensive than military packs, but they can be just as durable and come with a lot more features and much more comfort.

Civilian vs Military Hiking Backpacks Comparison

Pack Name Pack Weight Capacity Avg Price Link
USMC ILBE MAIN PACK – 2ND GEN 10 lbs 120 lbs $199 Shop Now
MAXPEDITION FALCON II 4 lbs 1400 cu.in. / 23L $170 Shop Now
LARGE A.L.I.C.E. PACK 3 lbs 1 oz 3,800 cu.in. $70 Shop Now
ARC’TERYX ALTRA 65 4 lbs 15 oz 45-60 lbs $450 Shop Now
OSPREY ATMOS 65 AG 4.5 lbs 30-50 lbs $260 Shop Now
GREGORY BALTORO 65 5.5 lbs 40-55 lbs $290 Shop Now

What Real Users Are Saying

I used my old Large Alice for about 20 years, but now use an Osprey. I like keeping the sleeping bag inside the bag a lot. It keeps dry and carries better. I do not miss the outside MRE pouches on the Alice pack. I greatly prefer the Osprey. It is far more comfortable, better padding and overall more ergonomic. It cost about $100, so if money is an issue, the Alice pack will work, but it is a crude substitute. – KaBar67, New York user at SurvivalistBoards.com

Do you have experience with any packs we discussed here? Let us know in the comments. There are quite a few ways to hike efficiently, and you may decide to completely ignore our advice. We’d like to know what you decide either way.

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