Choosing The Best Bug Out Bag: Military or Civilian?

What is the best choice for your bug out bag?

Heated debates surface rapidly when the subject of bug out bags enter the battlegrounds and for obvious reasons; you want your gear stowed in the most practical bag possible. You have two choices available when choosing a bug out bag: The Military style ALICE/Molle packs or the civilian backpacking varieties like something you’d see on the wall at REI. Both certainly have pro’s and con’s but as I will show you – making a decision is not as black and white as many of these discussions would have you believe.

The Argument

Opponents of the military pack suggest that using a camouflaged pack draws too much attention to yourself – especially in a city. In a survival scenario others might take notice and assume you have important resources. This could result in a violent encounter with individuals desperate to survive or acquire resources. Proponents of the military pack think this argument is overblown and a non-issue. They cite the durability of the military pack and its other advantages which I will cover in this post.

Military Packs

Lets take a look at your garden variety military pack. These packs have literally been battle tested. Mil-spec packs are issued to all branches of the military and designed to withstand the pressures of a combative environment. This makes them extremely durable and resilient. Two styles of military packs are available: the ALICE and the Molle (pronounced like “Molly”.)


The Military issued ALICE pack

The ALICE (All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) packs were introduced to the military in 1973 but have been phased out in favor of Molle. ALICE packs spawned from the radically different fighting conditions present in the Vietnam war that weren’t seen in WWI and II. Conditions had switched from trench warfare to jungle warfare and this meant soldiers would be carrying their packs greater distances. In 1965 the military began working on a new load-bearing design that eventually became the ALICE.

The ALICE introduced a number of changes from previous military packs: Water absorbing cotton material was replaced with nylon and all of the steel components present in older models were replaced with aluminum. These changes made the pack lighter and extremely water resistant. ALICE packs work with a specialized external frame designed for heavy loads. ALICE packs are easily had for cheap online or at your local military surplus depot.


The Molle pack is the new standard for the military and noted for its external webbing system

Molle (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) style backpacks are the latest iteration of load bearing backpacks used by British and U.S. military forces. Molle packs use a specialized webbing system known as PALS (pouch attachment ladder system.) This webbing is used in a modular fashion to attach gear to the outside of the pack giving the Molle increased versatility over the ALICE.

Pros of using a military pack:

  • Extremely durable
  • Built to last
  • Lots of space
  • External webbing system is very convenient
  • Camouflaged (if you’re going woodland stealth mode)
  • Water resistant
  • Dirt cheap
  • External frame allows you to carry massive loads

Cons of using a military pack:

  • Not as comfortable as civilian packs
  • Less pockets for organization
  • You can’t easily get to your gear with it on
  • Looking military might draw unwanted attention
  • Beware of Chinese knock-offs!

Civilian Packs

Many individuals choose to keep their bug out gear in a civilian backpack. Backpacks like the Kelty Redwing are durable, offer lots of space and come fully loaded with a variety of organizational pockets for all your gear. The options available for civilian packs and all the various designs can be mind boggling. If you have requirements civilian packs give you many unique options. I’ve experienced both military and civilian packs and I can say this; civilian packs can rival the durability of their military counterparts while offering increased versatility and comfort.

The Kelty Red Wing 32 Liter backpack is a roomy and sturdy pack that won’t draw attention from desperate citizens.

Pros of using a civilian pack:

  • Comfortable
  • Many options to choose from
  • Versatile
  • Lightweight
  • Blends in well with the city

Cons of using a civilian pack:

  • Expensive
  • Less durable than a military pack (marginally)
  • No external webbing system (Molle)

So which to choose?

At the end of the day it’s all about surviving. Whatever pack you choose make sure it’s strong, comfortable, large enough for your gear and suited to the pressures of a survival situation. In a rural area with lots of woodland available you might opt for an ALICE for it’s durability and storage capacity. In the city you might choose a civilian pack if you think the argument I mentioned above holds water.

The 5.11 Rush – best of both worlds?

The 5.11 Rush is a bag I really love and use. It features all the best aspects of a civilian bag with the strength and durability of a military pack. The external Molle webbing system on the outside of the pack is an absolute game changer. Webbing isn’t something you see on civilian backpacks. The pack is pure black so even in the city it looks like your run-of-the-mill day pack.

The tactical 5.11 Rush bag is a great hyrbid option
The tactical 5.11 Rush bag is a great hybrid option


What do you think?

Let me know what you think about this debate in the comment section.




One Reply to “Choosing The Best Bug Out Bag: Military or Civilian?”

  1. I think it’s pretty odd that people would think that a military bag would attract unwanted attention during a survival scenario. I’ve seen camouflage designs on tons of items, and I haven’t assumed that the person wearing or using them would be better equipped to survive. Granted, the better organization capabilities of a civilian pack may be nice, but I don’t think you should choose to go with a civilian pack over a military one just so you don’t stand out as much.

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