Finding Your Ideal Survival Backpack
Updated: May 14
When choosing a backpack for your bug-out bag or emergency kit there are many options. The purpose of an emergency kit, bug-out bag, or 72-hour kit is to be stored and kept ready only in the event you actually need it. The very fact that you may never use your backpack leads some to put little thought into what they use to contain their essential emergency and survival gear. However, the backpack you choose may be just as important to your survival as the items inside. Here is some useful information to help you determine the best backpack for your survival kit.
The first thing you will want to determine is the contents of your survival kit. How many people is your kit going to support, how much food do you need, what type of climate do you live in? Knowing the answer to these questions will help you when you need to determine the size, material, color, and other aspects of your survival backpack.
Size & Volume
The volume of your survival backpack will be based on your needs. An individual will be able to pack their complete emergency kit in a smaller backpack while groups or families may need a large backpack or more than one. If your children are old enough to carry their own backpack then they certainly can. Just make sure they aren’t still at the age where they tire easily and you may end up carrying two!
For our purposes, we will assume a 3 day supply emergency kit. This is based on guidelines provided by FEMA. It may be right for your family or organization to plan for a longer period of time, however, survival backpacks, bug-out bags, go-bags, etc are intended to get you through a short term evacuation or displacement from a major disaster or event.
With efficient packing and compact items, packing all the essential survival needs for 2 people to survive a period of 3 days can be done in a 20-30 liter volume backpack. This would include food, water, hygiene items, flashlight, first aid kit, radios, weather protection, a change of clothes, and possibly a small survival tent. Your personal needs and preferences will determine if you need to use a larger or smaller backpack to contain your gear. If you plan to maintain a go-bag or bug-out bag with extensive survival tools and equipment it may take a backpack with a volume of 50 liters or more to hold everything.
If you have a backpack or are shopping for one you can easily determine the overall volume it will carry. The simplest way is to measure the backpack’s height, width, and depth. If you have a tactical backpack with multiple compartments, measure the height, width, and depth of each one. Then add their volume together for the total volume of the backpack. Many backpack manufacturers will express volume in cubic inches or liters. As long as you know the dimensions you can easily calculate your volume.
This calculator will convert your measurements in inches to volume in liters:
Volume is not the only size factor in a backpack. Your torso length should be taken into account. All 40-liter backpacks will not have the same dimensions. Measuring from the top of your hip bones to just above where your t-shirt color would be on your neck, can give you a guide to help determine how tall of a backpack would fit you best. Backpack manufacturers typically have a sizing chart that will tell you what size backpack you need depending on your torso measurement. This is less important for small go-bags that you may plan to stow in your car or closet for “bugging-in” but it never hurts to be ready if you would have to carry your survival backpack for an extended period.
Choosing a Color
The color or pattern of your emergency/survival backpack is more important than you make think. A color can send a message, and if your plan is to provide yourself security then you don’t want to send the wrong message. Consider what your surroundings are, where you will store your backpack, and who needs to have access to it.
A red backpack will stand out. This is a great option for family and office emergency kits. If you want something that is easy to spot quickly among the other items stored in your closest this may be the best option. Red or orange can be especially beneficial in the event that someone who doesn’t know where you store your emergency kit is needing to find it. You can even get custom backpacks with specific labels and embroidery to help family members or employees easily identify the emergency kit.
Red is a great color when you want your survival kit to be conspicuous in a home or office. But, outside in a busy or crowded area, this may not be ideal. If you live in an apartment or urban area, a disaster may force you to evacuate or move to a public shelter. A black or gray backpack will not draw as much attention in this setting and can keep your possessions safer from nosey neighbors or thieves.
If you plan to assemble a survival kit for your children, you can pick their favorite colors or characters. Obviously children don’t make rational decisions about their safety. A backpack that they enjoy can provide some distraction and increase the likelihood that your child won’t want to lose or leave their backpack behind.
Choosing a Material
Backpacks today are made of many different materials. Canvas, nylon, polyester, and others. It is important to note the material thickness, often measured in Denier. For example, 600D (denier) Polyester is commonly used in tactical and military-style backpacks. It provides good strength, durability, and abrasion resistance. When looking for a strong and durable backpack make sure to check the label, some backpacks will have a PVC backing for added strength. Do also note that most materials and fabrics used in the manufacture of commercial and military strength backpacks are not waterproof by themselves, they require a special spray-on coating. The label or product description should indicate if it is water-resistant.
Deciding what material strength is best for you depends on your needs. If you are going to require a backpack that will be carried daily and subject to the elements, then go with a 600d polyester backpack or one of even greater thickness. If you just need a grab and go bag that you will keep in your car, you may be fine with a less expensive backpack, however many 600D polyester bags are very affordable.
The straps of a backpack are crucial. Weak straps can break if you are carrying heavy items and poor padding and non-adjustable straps can make carrying your backpack a painful task.
When you make your backpack selection, be sure to consider what kind of weight your straps will need to handle. Consider the width of the pads and make sure you can adjust the straps to fit you properly. If you plan to carry a heavy load for long periods of time you will want a bag that has a hip belt. When fitted properly the hip belt will take the brunt of the backpack’s weight, relieving your shoulders from the burden.
“Load Lifters” are the tiny straps at the top of many backpacks & rucksacks intended for hiking. They are often ignored but they can make a big difference in the distribution of the weight of your backpack. The chest strap is another neglected strap that will help to take away the pain of your shoulder straps rubbing in one area.
An additional feature of many tactical style backpacks is the “drag” or "grab" handle on the top. This handle can make grabbing and lifting your survival kit much easier. Without this handle you have to lift the bag with a shoulder strap; this is less convenient and can lead to wear over time. Ideally, this handle should be strong enough to support the full weight of your loaded survival backpack.
Large tactical backpacks and rucksacks may include adjustable straps on either side of the main storage compartment. These straps can take the strain from all the weight off the zippers. They can also help you compress your load, bringing the weight of your load into a more comfortable position.
Padding varies on different tactical backpacks. In general, more padding will provide more comfort. But, bulky shoulder straps and pads can make your backpack cumbersome. Larger shoulder straps and belts may not fit your body type, making it hard to comfortably carry your tactical survival pack.
Back padding can provide comfort but also keep space between you and your bag. This provides much-needed air movement around you helping to reduce moisture from sweat. Many backpacks offer mesh padded shoulder straps and pads to aid this function. Don't overlook this aspect of choosing a tactical backpack.
A good survival backpack needs to provide pockets and compartments that will make accessing crucial items easy while keeping them secure. There are many styles and configurations of backpacks on the market. As with the size, color, and material, the storage features you desire in a tactical backpack will depend on your needs and preferences. However, here are some features that you may find useful when packing and accessing your emergency gear in a pinch. Expandable - As the name suggests, this feature provides the ability to compress your bag when empty or near empty with straps or zippers. Making for easier travel and handling. When you need more space you can easily expand to the full capacity and carry all your essential survival gear.
Clamshell compartment - A zipper that spans nearly all the way around the perimeter of the backpack may seem unnecessary. However, when opened you can lay your backpack out flat like a book and easily pack your clothes and larger items securely inside using the provided straps and clips.
Protected Zippers - Strong zippers, with good stitching are very important. Quality zippers will open and close smoothly and not get snagged on the cloth or material of the backpack. The zippers should have a protective cover to limit moisture from getting inside each compartment.
MOLLE - If you are not familiar with MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment), it is the "webbing" or nylon/poly straps sewn all over the front and sides of most tactical backpacks. It allows the user to customize their bag by adding additional pouches, belts, holsters, tools, etc.
How do you know what MOLLE configuration to get on your backpack? You can answer this question after you determine what additional pouches or tools you want to secure to the outside of your survival kit. First aid kits, water containers, & knives can be easily attached with a MOLLE set up for easy access. If you are a frequent hunter, hiker, or camper your survival kit will likely evolve over time as your needs change. MOLLE will give you the ability to adapt and change so when choosing a tactical backpack for your survival kit you can opt for MOLLE even if you don't think you will use it initially.
It can be hard to keep items organized and distributed evenly in common backpacks. You want to select a backpack that has internal straps and pockets inside the compartments. Adjustable internal straps will help to secure and organize clothing along with other larger items. You can even find tactical bags with clips and "D" rings for attaching smaller items inside your bag with paracord. This makes it easy to quickly pull out things like compasses, flashlights, etc.
A variety of pocket and slip sizes will give you options for things like laptops, note pads, ammunition, etc. If you plan to use a hydration bladder with your survival kit, be sure that there is a port for the tube and clips or a specific compartment to keep the bladder secure.
There are tactical backpacks that have an option for, a companion rain cover to keep out the rain. This is a nice feature, but it can be improvised with a poncho or trash bag. However, if you live in a wet climate it may be worth the investment.
Zippers - Robust zippers can make a huge difference when your survival kit is under heavy use. You want a smooth zipper that does not catch or snag as you pull it. Zipper pulls can be made from nylon cord, hard plastic, or other materials. They should be easy to grab and strong enough to be pulled on hard without breaking.
No matter what your survival kit needs are, you can find a suitable tactical backpack to build your kit around. Making the choice of what backpack to use will ultimately depend on your personal needs and preferences. Hopefully, this article provided you with some tips and helpful insights for selecting your perfect survival backpack.