Best Tactical Backpacks for Hauling Gear and Buggin’ Out

by Travis Pike

June 7, 2021

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Who doesn’t love backpacks? Without them, you’d have tied a belt around your school books to tote them around.

Now, as adults, it’s nice to see a massive selection of high-quality backpacks to help us carry our crap. Modern backpacks come in all shapes and sizes, and without a doubt, some of the best are tactical backpacks.

Lots of things are called tactical these days, and the phrase often means nothing. When you have tactical dog leashes, tactical socks, and tactical band-aids, it’s easy to take the phrase tactical with a grain of salt. I get the eye roll at the words tactical, but tactical backpacks offer valid differences over your standard Nike tote bag.

Let’s dive deep into what tactical backpacks are and what they offer the end-user.

The Tactical Backpack Defined

Tactical Backpacks break from the norm by offering an extremely durable platform to carry your junk in. More than that, they often offer an easily expandable platform that often offers enhanced organizational capabilities. Tactical backpacks offer more capacity than most standard backpacks and are made to be worn.

These packs are made to be worn with heavy loads and be comfortable when doing so. Padding and the internal design make it easy to pack in three days worth of supplies without destroying your back and shoulders.

These packs resist rain, have no struggles with being tossed around, and pack in and out a ton of gear with minimal issue.

Not a Big Boy

A tactical backpack is different from a big ole hiking pack. These packs often share a lot of the same qualities in terms of durability, organization, expansion, and comfort. However, they also differ a good bit in terms of size and design.

You can use a tactical backpack on a short hike or overnight trip, but it’s not a sustainment pack made to get you across the Appalachian Trail. Tactical backpacks may utilize an internal frame, but it’s rare. Hiking packs will always utilize a frame of some kind or another, including external frames.

A tactical backpack would be at home on a short hike or in the streets of any American city. It’s appropriately sized to be a carry-on most of the time and will fit easily in a subway, an uber, or tossed haphazardly in the back of your car.

Tactical backpacks designers aim for low profile and compact designs, and hiking packs aim for large, easily packable designs.

What’s The Point of a Tactical Backpack?

Why would you choose a tactical backpack over the aforementioned Nike backpack? Well, let’s explore that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that Nike backpack, it just might not offer the capabilities you need.

Tactical backpacks offer users a very versatile option for a wide variety of tasks. If you want a pack, you can load up to take on the road, and vacation with you are covered. Maybe you want to go on an overnight and explore the great outdoors; well, with the right backpack, you’re covered. Maybe you are going on a day hike and wanna bring some water, a first aid kit, a change of socks, some food, and such, and you also want something comfortable, well, you’re covered.

Tactical backpacks offer you a great option if you are getting into rucking. As far as physical fitness goes, rucking gives you a real burn. A tough pack capable of holding anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds is a must for rucking, and a tactical backpack gives you that strength and durability.

Emergency Load-outs

The organizational ability of a tactical backpack often makes it perfect for prepping emergency load-outs. The strength and durability of the pack ensure it doesn’t bust a seam when you need it most and gives you a rugged all-terrain option when you have to take the shoelace express.

A larger tactical backpack offers you plenty of room to build a bug-out bag in. You can pack your three days’ worth of supplies into your bag and hit the road should a natural or man-made disaster erupt near you.

I use one tactical backpack as a vehicle emergency kit. I keep everything I need to make changing a tire or do minor car repairs easy in any environment. I have a poncho, a flashlight, a headlamp, tools, and vehicle-centric tools like an air pump, plus flares, reflectors, and all that fun stuff.

Police officers and servicemembers can pack a tactical backpack for any situation that might meet them. From a field op to an active shooter situation, a tactical backpack can be handy to have. Having a bag that you can grab, toss on your back and get after your mission is extremely valuable.

Everyday Carry

Tactical backpacks have evolved to keep up with the modern person as well. They make excellent EDC packs. You can stash all your normal stuff, laptops, a tablet, spare chargers, a simple IFAK, and all the other junk you might need to maneuver your way through your day.

The tactical industry took note of the everyday use of tactical backpacks and began designing smaller packs with modern features to make the pack just as useful to the everyday commuter as it is to a Green Beret.

Tactical backpacks can be used for a wide variety of modern tasks that do not require shooting bad guys or saving lives. These packs are often well suited for a wide variety of tasks that might require lots of heavy gear over a variety of terrain.

Photographers, wildland firefighters, range officers, and general adventurers are all well suited by high-end tactical backpacks.

Best Tactical Backpacks

Tactical Backpacks

5.11 Tactical’s Rush series has been around for over a decade, and recently, 5.11 updated it with the 2.0 series. They kept everything users loved while adding a laptop compartment as well as a concealed carry pouch hidden from the rest of the pack. Little tweaks here and there made small but important improvements to the old Rush series.

The Rush24 gives users a mid-size pack ready for any mission. It’s compact enough for EDC use and large enough to go on short weekend length trips. Inside the Rush24 offers tons of room and slots for everything. This makes organizing your pack easy.

A built-in dedicated hydration pouch makes adding a bladder quick and easy for off-road use. The concealed carry pocket is very well hidden, and outside of a firearm, the pocket is well suited for anything requiring discretion. The thick straps and integral pads ensure comfort for long hauls.

I’ve been using the Rush24 to pack with weight to keep in shape for the Wildfighter Fitness test, and it’s held up for many miles with 45 pounds of weight strapped to it. If you want something smaller, peek at the Rush18, same features but less size.

Rush24 2.0 Pros and Cons

  • Lots of Room
  • Comfortable
  • Easy to Organize
  • A little big for school or the gym.

Mystery Ranch needs no introduction. They make some of the world’s best packs and attract the best pack designers in the world. Mystery Ranch utilizes customer feedback for all walks of life and builds packs in use by special operations across the military. The Urban Assault 24 is a foray into the EDC market.

The Urban Assault 24 takes inspiration from the assault packs Mystery Ranch makes for military use. On the outside, it just looks like a backpack, and discretion was seemingly at the forefront of the design process. At 24 liters, the Urban Assault 24 provides a compact storage option for urban dwellers.

The Urban Assault gives you plenty of room and easy access to all your goods through the 3-ZIP design. It opens and gives you instant access to almost everything. You do have external access to the laptop sleeve and water bottle pouch to get to the essentials asap.

Inside the main pouch are tons of room, pouches, and compartments for easy organization. The straps are nice and thick fitted with high-end foam for supreme comfort. They even come in a multitude of colors to keep the pack discreet.

Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 24 Pros and Cons

  • Lightweight
  • Extremely Well Made
  • Discreet
  • Somewhat Small

So yeah, the knife guys made a pack.

The TOC 20 is a 20-liter pack that’s rather small and very compact. The SOG TOC 20 provides you with an urban dwelling pack that can replace your briefcase in style. It comes in discrete colors, but the design is not very discreet at all. You get a big SOG skull and logo as well as a MOLLE panel for easy expansion.

The SOG TOC 20 opens up almost entirely gives you quick access to all your goodies on the inside. Inside the main pouch, you have a small pouch for easy access. You get lots of little zippered pockets and a few pouches here and there to provide you down and dirty organized storage.

I really like the top pouch. This molded top pocket provides you a quasi-hard case for your goods. This bulbous pocket has internal organization and is perfect for stashing small goods as well as more fragile goods like glasses, cell phones, and other small electronics. It’s also perfect for making into a dedicated medkit for quick and easy access in emergencies.

The SOG TOC 20 keeps the size small and makes it an easy pack to transport on a subway, in a taxi, or wherever else. It also squeezes with ease into a gym locker which is a nice touch.

SOG TOC 20 Pros and Cons

  • Small and Lightweight
  • Lots of Organization Potential
  • That Molded pocket rocks.
  • Could be discrete but uses large logos

The Bandit combines elements from the EDC world, the tactical world, and the hiking world to give you a very interesting bag. Focused more on outdoor use and hiking, the Bandit combines small size with hiking pack performance. At a little over 15 liters in size, the pack is somewhat small. Yet, it offers an optional waistband for long hikes through rough terrain.

The Bandit doesn’t scream tactical, even with the laser cut MOLLE panel at the rear of the pack. It looks more like something you’d get at REI than 5.11 Tactical. External pouches make it easy to get to your water, and you can pack a hydration pack should you so choose.

You can gain access to the entire pack with a single zipper. It opens up the entire pack for instant access to absolutely everything. I love this on big backs, and I love it on the Bandit. The Bandit doesn’t offer the room you might need for a three-day hunt, but for an overnight trip or day hike, it’s perfect.

The Bandit offers a nice combination of shoulder straps and rear back pads that delivers a lot of comfort for long hikes. Add on the waistband, and you get small pockets for easy storage and even more comfort for long humps.

Eberlestock Bandit Pros and Cons

  • Lightweight
  • Super Tough
  • High-quality zippers and buckles
  • Fifteen liters isn’t much storage capacity.

The Grey Ghost Griff offers you not only a discreet tactical backpack but a stylish option. The Griff offers you 30 liters of capacity, putting it square in the middle size-wise and appropriate for a compact bug-out bag, EDC pack, or camping and hiking use. It can be spun into a wide variety of uses.

Inside the pack, we get a wide variety of organization options with loops, pockets, and hook and loop material for adding your own pouches as needed. The Grey Ghost Gear Griff middle compartment is the main pouch for adding gear and is also full of hook and loop material. You can add a wide variety of pouches or leave it open to pack the big stuff.

Inside the rear pouch is a combination of compartments to carry laptops and tablets. These pockets are fully padded and protect your pricey electronics. You also get a hidden concealed carry panel for stashing a gun or other hidden items. Add in the mesh-lined pads and wide shoulder straps, and you get a strong, well-designed pack for easy daily carry.

Grey Ghost Gear Griff Pros and Cons

  • Lots of Internal Expansion
  • Excellent Size
  • Discreet
  • A little heavy

I have a tendency to like retro stuff, and since I get to write this list, I’m choosing a pack that fits my retro style. The Maxpedition Prepared Citizen 2.0 resembles an old-school day pack designed in the 1960s. However, appearances can be deceiving, and deception is a viable survival strategy. The Prepared Citizen gives you an old school look with new school function.

This includes built-in concealed carry pouches, a panel designed for an armored panel, and inside, you get tons of modern organizational tools. It’s like a resto-mod but in backpack form. Inside is plenty of mini pouches, hook and loop material, and mesh pockets for organizing and storing all your stuff for easy and quick access.

The Prepared Citizen Classic 2.0 gives you plenty of room for storage too. It’s quite large, and the 2.0 model is the most discreet tactical backpack currently on the market. It will blend in anywhere, and you’re more likely to be thought of as a hipster than a concealed carrier.

Maxpedition Prepared Citizen Classic 2.0 Pros and Cons

  • Discreet
  • Plenty of Room
  • Tons Of Organizational Options
  • Thin straps

Lots of tactical backpacks are very obviously tactical in nature. That’s fine for most users, but for those who prefer something more discreet, Elite Survival Systems has you covered. The Echo gives users the durability and comfort of a tactical backpack in a sanitized platform that looks like any other backpack.

It’s available in non-tactical colors like Navy blue, green, and classic black. A keen eye will notice the padded straps that provide excellent comfort. We also have some thin integrated mesh pads for comfort’s sake.

The Echo provides plenty of pockets for your gear. We are looking at water bottle pockets, an admin pouch with a built-in organizer, the main pouch has a laptop pocket and even a hidden pouch designed for concealed carry. The main compartment offers an internal MOLLE ladder to attaches pouches and goods for further organization.

The Echo looks like any average pack and blends in with ease. Yet it provides you all the tactical accouterments many use tactical backpacks for. Plus, you even get a slot for ballistic protection and can implement a soft armor panel. You can’t beat that.

Elite Survival Systems Echo Pros and Cons

  • Discreet
  • Easy Internal Organization
  • Affordable
  • No External Expansion

Picking the Right Pack

Before we dive too deep into the features of tactical backpacks, let’s talk about discretion. Lots of tactical backpacks are designed to be loud and proud about their tacticality. MOLLE webbing, camo patterns, and tons of Velcro make it obvious what the pack is.

That’s fine, but you might want to consider a lower profile pack if your primary environment is urban. Lower profile packs often blend in better with urban environments and are less likely to draw attention than a loud and proud tactical pack.

Oftentimes these obvious tactical packs make it easy to target you for theft, or it may imply you are packing a firearm. Kind of like a big NRA sticker on your car. It might mean nothing, or it might get your pack stolen.

Ability to Access and Organize

An important aspect of a tactical backpack is your ability to organize your gear and to access it. In terms of access, a wide mouth main pouch design is incredibly handy. When you can open the entire packs and lay it out with complete access to anything inside, you’ll appreciate it dearly. It makes getting the must-haves out quick and easy. When it starts raining, being able to reach in and grab a tarp and jacket is invaluable.

Organizational ability falls right into that same thought process. Being able to organize your gear effectively provides easy access to the must-haves in your pack. A pack with small pouches and internal organizational pockets allows you to have easy access to the immediate must-haves. Medkits, water bottles, and the like can be packed for quick access, while gear you’re less likely to need can be stored elsewhere.

Capacity

Packs are often measured in liters for capacity’s sake. Your own capacity depends on what you need to carry. For easy reference, 37 liters is roughly on the large end of the backpack scale. Beyond that and things get a little larger than your average backpack. Twenty-four liters is rather compact, and 30 liters tends to be the just-right size for a backpack.

Ability to Expand

One valuable component to any tactical backpack, or tactical anything, is the presence of MOLLE or hook and loop material. These two elements allow you to add pouches outside and inside of the pouch. Outside the pack, pouches expand total carrying capacity. Internal pouches allow for easy organization.

For a low profile pack, your expansion options are limited to mostly internal options. MOLLE paneling is often a dead giveaway to the pack’s tactical design.

Comfort

A good tactical backpack should prioritize users’ comfort for the long haul. A regular backpack is designed to haul some books or gym clothes 100 yards from your car to your locker or classroom. A tactical backpack should be designed to allow the user to carry a heavy load anywhere.

This includes off-road, on-road, up hills, and down mountains. Durability makes up one component, but comfort is another. Pads placed at the back and thick padded straps increase comfort for those long hauls. They keep the pack from kicking your butt and killing your back and shoulders.

The Little Things

Lastly, consider the little things. The little things being zippers and buckles. Pay attention when a company mentions these two things as they will brag about the quality they use. For zippers, YKK is king, and for buckles, Duraflex rules.

Packed Up

A good tactical backpack can take you as far as you can take it. Like most things in the tactical industry, the rule of thumb is buy once or cry once. Those ultra-cheap no-name packs that litter the world are cute and costume quality at best. Go with professional-grade packs that will last.

Who has time for compromise?

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About Travis Pike

Travis is a former United States Marine Corps Infantryman and currently a firearms writer, instructor, and works in Emergency Management.

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