Choosing the right bug out backpack is more important than you might think. It will determine where you are able to go, how far you are able to travel, and how much gear you can comfortably carry.
The question is: How do you choose the best bug out bag? What should you look for how do you navigate through the many choices?
In this article, I will answer all these questions:
First, I will show you the 10 factors you need to consider when choosing a backpack. And then I will walk you through three bags that meet these criteria (all handpicked by me).
Let’s jump right in.
Choosing the best bug out backpack– the big picture overview
The market for bug out bags is huge. Go to any outdoor store and you will probably find at least a hundred options to choose from.
But picking the right pack doesn’t have to be difficult or confusing. In fact, if you know what to look for, you can quickly narrow down the many choices to just a handful of candidates.
There are 10 elements I look for when choosing a bug out backpack.
Let’s cover each one in more detail.
Factor #1: Backpack style
Bug out backpacks come in two flavors:
- Military backpacks
- Hiking backpacks
Because they both have their pros and cons, there is no perfect choice. Some people will be comfortable with a military backpack while others will be more satisfied with a hiking backpack.
Here are the main differences between the two:
|Military backpacks||Hiking backpacks|
|Very strong and durable construction||Less strong and durable construction|
|Plenty of pockets and compartments for easy gear organization||Fewer pockets and compartments for gear organization|
|MOLLE system allows you to attach gear to the exterior of the pack||No MOLLE system – gear is typically stored inside the pack|
|Hight weight-to-volume ratio||Low weight-to-volume ratio|
|Can draw unwanted attention in a disaster situation||Less likely to draw unwanted attention in a disaster scenario|
|Can be uncomfortable to wear||Typically very comfortable to wear|
As you can see, military backpacks are very durable, have lots of compartments for easy gear organization, and typically feature a MOLLE system that allows you to attach equipment to the outside of the bag.
But because they are made of a strong and thick material, military backpacks can be quite heavy. They are also likely to draw unwanted attention because they don’t look like a normal backpack.
As a good friend of mine said:
They scream military and prepared.
As a rule of thumb, you should choose a military backpack if…
- You live in a rural area there you are less likely to run into other survivors
- If durability is more important to you than weight
Hiking backpacks, on the other hand, are much lighter. They are extremely comfortable to wear, even over long distances – and are less likely to draw unwanted attention because they don’t look like a regular backpack.
The main problem with this hiking backpacks is that they don’t have a lot of pockets and compartments, making it harder to organize your gear.
Some people will also argue that they are less durable than their military counterparts.
You should choose a hiking backpack if…
- You plan to bug out in an urban area where you are likely to stumble into other survivors
- If you plan to travel over long distances on foot
Factor#2: Frame style
The next decision you will have to make is which frame style to choose.
When looking for a backpack, you will come across two types of frames:
- Internal frames
- External frames
Note: Some backpacks are frameless – but because they offer little support, I wouldn’t recommend using them for a BOB. In other words, stick to either an internal or external frame backpack.
Below I have highlighted the key differences between the two.
|External frame packs||Internal frame packs|
|Can handle heavy loads with ease||Not suited for heavy loads|
|Excellent ventilation and airflow||Poor ventilation and airflow|
|Relatively inexpensive||Relatively expensive|
|Heavy and bulky||Lightweight and compact|
|Ability to attach gear to the frame||No ability to attach gear to the frame|
|Difficult to meaneuver – especially in problematic terrain||Easy to maneuver – even in problematic terrain|
|Plenty of pockets and compartments||Fewer pockets and compartments|
Notice that external frame backpacks are best suited for heavy loads and warm weather conditions where you want plenty of space between you and the pack to avoid sweating and dehydration.
On external frame backpacks the weight is positioned high on the back, allowing good load transfer to the hips and a more upright walking posture.
However, this can also be a disadvantage.
As the team over at Backpacker puts it:
The downsides to externals are that, because they carry the weight high and away from your back, they don’t have the best stability. So, you run the risk of feeling tippy and off- balance during scrambling maneuvers or when climbing or descending dicey terrain.
Internal frame backpacks don’t have this problem: They feel almost like they are part of you and won’t shift side to side when navigating through challenging paths or trails.
One thing to keep in mind about internals, however, is that they only have one main compartment and 3-5 smaller pockets and compartments, which can make gear organization more challenging.
But I don’t see that as a problem at all. As Cam Honan, founder of The Hiking Life, puts it:
Greater inner storage space means you have less strapped to the outside of your pack, thus less chance of snagging gear on branches, bushes, etc.
Another common argument against internal frame backpacks is that they are not suited for heavy loads.
Again, I only see that as an advantage as it forces you to think smart, pack light, and prioritize the important stuff.
So which frame style should you choose?
For most people I would recommend an internal frame backpack – it is lightweight, comfortable, and easy to maneuver.
That said, if you are out of shape and plan to bring everything under the sun, consider getting an external backpack instead.
Factor #3: Comfort
It goes without saying that your bug out backpack needs to be comfortable to wear.
The easiest way to make sure that the backpack feels comfortable is to try it on before you buy it. Most outdoor stores can add weight bags to the pack, so you can see how it feels when loaded.
When searching for a bug out bag, there are a few indicators to look for to get an idea of how comfortable it is…
- Adjustable hip belt – a good hip belt will make your backpack feel 80-90 % lighter than it is by transferring weight from your back and shoulders to your hips.
- Shoulder straps – proper shoulder straps will help take the pressure off your back, thus lowering the risk of pain and discomfort. The straps should be wide and have ample padding, so they don’t dig into your shoulders and cause blisters and sores.
- Chest straps – most backpacks nowadays come with chest straps for added support and stability. While not a must-have feature, chest straps give a more secure feeling.
Factor #4: Capacity
Choosing the right size is extremely important when buying a bug out backpack. If it is too small, you won’t be able to fit everything you need inside. And if it is too big, you will be carrying around too much extra storage space.
Ideally, you want to choose a pack with just a bit more space than you need. That way you can always add extra gear if necessary or replace existing items with new ones.
In my experience, most people will be fine with a pack capacity of 30-60 liters:
|1-3 nights||3-5 nights||5+ nights|
|30-50 liters||50-80 liters||70+ liters|
If you are not sure how much storage space you need, consider collecting your gear first. That way it is much easier to find a backpack that can hold all the equipment.
You can also use the following formulas to calculate the ideal and maximum pack weight:
- Ideal pack weight = 10 % of your body weight
- Maximum pack weight = 20 % of your body weight
For example, if you weight 200 pounds (100 kg), the ideal weight of your bug out bag (including gear and supplies) is 20 pounds and the maximum weight is 40 pounds.
Armed with these numbers you should have a pretty good idea of how large a backpack you need.
Factor #5: The right fit
A backpack that doesn’t fit is likely to cause pain and discomfort – especially when you wear it for an extended period of time.
To determine the right fit you need the following two measurements:
- Torso length – which is measured from the bone at the base of your neck to your hips
- Hip size – which is measured from hip bone to hip bone
When you have these two lengths, use the table below to find the ideal fit.
For example, if you have a torso length of 18½, look for a medium sized backpack.
Factor #6: Accessibility
Being able to access your gear when you need it is critical in any disaster emergency scenario.
For example, if you accidentally cut yourself, you want to quickly be able to access your first-aid kit, so you can treat the injury.
To make sure that you can easily find the items you need when you need them it is important to stay organized.
Choose a backpack with plenty of pockets and compartments, and use Ziploc bags to store things such as your fire-starting and hygiene items.
And while it sounds like a good idea on paper, remember that it also draws uneccesary attention – which is rarely a good idea in a bug out scenario.
It is typically better to keep a low profile to avoid that other people (desperate for food and water) steal your gear and supplies.
That’s why I prefer backpacks without a MOLLE system.
Factor #7: Durability
When it comes to durability, it is important to consider the material that the backpack is made from.
As a rule of thumb, avoid cotton – it is slow-drying and heavy (especially when wet). I like my pack to be made of nylon. It is lightweight, strong, and quick-drying.
The most popular nylon fabrics used in backpacks today include:
- Pack cloth nylon
- Condura nylon
- Rip-stop nylon
You want to make sure that the backpack is waterproof as well. While it doesn’t need to be 100 % waterproof, it should be semi-waterproof, so everything doesn’t get wet and drizzle.
As Matt Kepness, the author of “How to travel the world on $50 per day” puts it:
I should be able to pour a cup of water over it without the insides getting wet.
Factor #8: Price
The price is particular important if you are on a tight budget. Most backpacks fall within the $100-$300 range, but I have seen some packs cost as much as $500.
I would recommend steering away from backpacks that are too expensive. They typically come with too many bells and whistles. There is simply too much that can break, rip, or go wrong.
Keep it simple. A $200 backpack is fine and has all the features you need. Sure, it may not have a popular brand logo printed on the side, but who cares?
At the end of the day, all that matters is that it can hold your gear and supplies without causing pain and injury.
Pro tip: How to get backpacks cheaper than the listing price
One way to save money on your backpack is to buy last years models at a discounted price at an outlet store. This way you can easily save 30-50 % off the regular price.
If you decide to go this route, check out REI Garage. They offer many amazing deals that you won’t find anywhere else.
Factor #9: Weight
Your backpack will typically be one of the heaviest items in your survival kit (right after food, water, clothing, and shelter).
Carrying a heavy load comes with several problems:
- It will cause pain and discomfort. In a disaster situation, avoiding injuries can often mean the difference between life and death.
- It will slow you down and extend the time it takes to reach your bug out destination. Unless you are in peak physical condition, you will fatigue rather quickly.
For these reasons, you should choose a bug out backpack weighs no more than 2-3 pounds.
Can a backpack be too light?
Yes. If you find a backpack that weighs less than two pounds, chances are that it is not very strong and durable.
That’s why you should always aim for a nice sweet spot. It should neither be too heavy; nor too light. A semi-lightweight backpack wins the day.
Factor #10: Extra features
Nowadays backpacks come with a plethora of extra features. Many of these can be useful. But more often than not they just add extra weight and complexity to your pack.
Here is a quick walkthrough of the most commonly found backpack features:
This can be a great add on – especially because it makes it easier for you to consume water, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will stay hydrated.
If you plan to reach your bug out destination on bike and like the convenience that a hydration pack provides, it is definitely something you should consider getting.
But in my opinion, a hydration pack is not necessary for most people and should never replace a regular water bottle.
A water bottle simply has a number of survival functions that a hydration pack doesn’t, including:
- Boiling and purifying water (if it is made of metal)
- Building a powerful silencer for your gun
- Creating simple emergency cordage
For these reasons, I almost always prefer a water bottle over a hydration pack.
Philip Werner, founder of Section Hiker, defines a top lid as:
A detachable pocket on the top of a backpack that can be used to carry more gear when the packs main compartment is full.
If you choose the right backpack from the outset, you most likely won’t need a top lid.
This is a feature you should only consider if you plan to bring a lot of gear and equipement (which I don’t recommend you do).
Hip belt pockets
This is a must-have feature for any serious survivalist.
With proper hip belt pockets you can easily reach down and grab critical items such as your compass, map, or signal mirror.
In other words, they take accessibility to the next level.
Sleeping bag compartment
There are different opinions about whether a dedicated sleeping bag compartment is a worthy addition or not.
Some people argue that it adds uneccesary weight to your pack and forces you to buy a certain sleeping bag (so it fits the compartment).
Other people say that it makes it easier for you to access your sleeping bag because you don’t have to unpack everything first.
Bottom line: There is no right or wrong answer here. It is ultimately a matter of personal taste.
Water bottle pocket
I highly suggest buying a backpack with a water bottle pocket. Imagine having to take it out of the pack every time you need a sip of water.
Or worse, suppose you open your backpack and find all your gear wet and damp because the bottle has leaked.
When looking for a bug out backpack make sure the water bottle pocket is large enough. On some backpacks it is simply too small to hold a bottle. On other packs it is difficult to reach.
Again, try the backpack on before you buy. That’s the best way to know if it is worth your money.
Three suggested bug out backpacks
Now that you know what to look for in a backpack, it is time to show you three packs that meet the criteria listed above.
I spent a lot of time researching, comparing, and testing these packs – so you don’t have to. Below you will find a brief description of the winners.
Note: I have only included internal frame backpacks in this review. As I mentioned earlier, I believe they are the best option for most people.
If you are interested in buying an external frame backpack instead, check out the resources below.
Backpack #1: Mariposa 60 lightweight backpack
This is my personal favorite. It comes with plenty of storage space, seven built-in pockets for easy gear organization, and an internal, removable frame.
Clocking in at less than two pounds, the Mariposa 60 is also one of the lightest backpacks on the market. At the same time, it is very durable and can withstand a lot of abuse. The pockets are strong and even if you puncture a small hole, you can be confident that it won’t spread further.
This also happens to be the backpack that my friend Josh ended up with when we set out to build an ultra lightweight survival kit, and so far he is loving it.
I am probably turning into a bit of a sales man for the Mariposa 60. But I honestly believe that it is the best bug out bag that you can get.
Backpack #2: Osprey Exos 58
The Exos 58 is lightweight, comfortable, and very sturdy. Unlike most lightweight backpacks it comes with a lot of extra features – such as a removable top lid, ice tool attachment loop, and an internal hydration sleeve. Yet it only weighs a little over 2 pounds.
Another thing I like about the Exos 58 is that it has a suspended back mesh system that allows good airflow between you and the pack.
The backpack also offers excellent gear organization. It features one main compartment and 7 additional pockets – including two side pockets that are perfectly angled for easy access to a water bottle.
The hip belt pockets could be larger, and some people would probably appreciate a separate sleeping bag department.
Overall, the Exos 58 is an outstanding backpack that offers the perfect trade-off between weight and durability. It may not be suited for heavy loads, but if you want to keep pack weight to a minimum without sacrificing comfort and luxury, this is the only pack you should consider.
Backpack #3: Granite Gear Blaze A.C. 60
The Blaze A.C 60 is a high-volume, lightweight backpack that is very comfortable to wear. It has a super simple construction – no frills, no zippers, no pulls.
Another benefit is the unique back panel that is designed to draw heat and moisture away from your back and keep you ventilated. This is a plus, especially in warm and dry climates.
I don’t like, however, that the pack only has one main compartment and 3 external pockets. While it does help reduce the overall pack weight, it also makes gear organization difficult.
I also found it hard to grab the water bottle. This may seem like a minor problem, but having to remove the pack every time you need a sip of water is very frustrating.
Combined with a relatively high price tag, these factors were the major reasons I didn’t rank it higher.
Make no mistake, the Blaze A.C. 60 is a great backpack. It meets all the criteria discussed earlier in this article. But it just doesn’t compare to some of the other packs listed above (in my opinion).
Download a free backpack checklist
- Includes all 10 factors mentioned in the article, plus 2 bonus tips that very few people in the survival community talk about
- Easily safe as a PDF or use as a reference guide when buying your next bug out bag to avoid costly mistakes