- Buyer's Guide
A Beginner’s Guide to Tactical EDC Backpacks and MOLLE
What makes a Tactical EDC Backpack…”Tactical”?
You’ve heard the term before; tactical backpack. It’s hard to avoid, in fact. It’s impossible to deny that “tactical” packs are a trend that isn’t going away any time soon in the carry world. In fact, at this point it may not even be a trend, but one of the pillar groups. How did this happen? Well, as long as there has been military, there have been people who want to use the gear for their civilian lives (the common day tshirt is a perfect example of gear popularized by military design and use). And just to be clear, civilians using military gear is awesome. As long as you’re not going around claiming you’re a soldier when you’re not. That’s not cool. Otherwise, feel free to enjoy the benefits of these awesome packs and gear. In one way or another, you’ve already paid for them via taxes!
What is the point of a tactical backpack?
People are drawn to this rugged gear for good reason. Packs, clothing, and kit that is designed specifically for armed forces are all meant to go to war. Literally. They’re focused on strength, durability, modularity, high activity, and premium quality materials/hardware. Fashion is not even considered. It’s all pure function here. That being said, some may think tactical packs are a bit loud/attention-grabbing, so they’ll want something a bit more subdued. Everyone has their own preferences, which we dig.
Long story short, in this particular case the term “tactical” is essentially another word for “military” or “military-inspired”.
What is MOLLE?
One of the things that makes a pack visually scream “tactical” is the MOLLE webbing (and in some cases, laser cut fabrics with MOLLE “holes”). MOLLE is short for “Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment”. The whole purpose of the MOLLE system is for attachment of external gear and pouches. If Brand A has a MOLLE backpack, you should be able to put accessories on from Brand B, Brand X, onto infinity. It’s a standard that brands follow worldwide. MOLLE is awesome because you can build out your pack based on what you’re doing. A trip to the market versus 10 days in Southeast Asia can make your MOLLE backpack look wildly different. MOLLE webbing can also be on the inside of a pack for organizing less used gear or expensive gear that you want to keep on the interior.
As the title states, this is a breakdown of tactical EDC packs for beginners. An introduction. So let’s dig in and explore what makes one functional tactical pack great versus a cheap knock-off for fashion’s sake.
Authentic (military surplus) is best, right?
The military uses this actual pack in combat, so the real deal must be the best, right? Not necessarily.
Yes, *actual* military packs are awesome for a lot of reasons. But sometimes other brands and design teams do it better. One issue is that these original packs are indeed actually made for war. They’re made to fit an M18A1 Claymore Mine or a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS)…probably not necessary for your run to the coffee shop or even a Tough Mudder race. These packs probably don’t have a pocket for your iPhone 26 or your VR headset for your pet Samsquamch.
Not to mention, we all know how cheap the government can be. Government runs the armed forces. They write the checks for the gear. Sometimes they’ll cut corners (imagine that), and use heavier material, cheaper hardware, etc. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to make something as nice as it should/could be, because they need to make 20 million units of them versus 200 units.
I own a lot of military surplus packs from various timeframes. One of my favorite packs in my collection is a WWII era backpack made in Switzerland for Swiss soldiers. The material is still rainproof today. While it might be heavy and clunky, it was ultralight back in its time (and there are a few examples of this pack that are actually made out of Swiss pony fur, for wintertime warfare). Another favorite is an old leather WWI map case. And there’s just something about the East German “rain camo” fabric used on a couple of vintage packs I own.
These packs are all cool and I can adapt my gear to fit into all of them, which is fine, but not ideal. Generally they’re too big, as they’re meant to carry a lot of gear into the field. They’re too heavy, since soldiers are usually young men/women in peak physical shape. Etc. Long story short, authentic is not always best. So let’s see what to look for when hunting down your new tactical EDC backpack.
What to look for in a tactical backpack?
We’re material geeks over here. And generally military tactical packs all should be made from quality fabrics that can take a beating. As a general rule of thumb, they should be made from 500D – 1200D CORDURA nylon fabric (or better). Not 200D. Not Kodra. Not polyester. This is an easy one. Some packs may even use nicer materials, such as X-Pac (VX) fabric. Usually these fabrics are heavier (not always), but they’re weather resistant and take a fall down a mountain or twenty.
Look for brand names listed in the pack’s specifications. Brands to look for are YKK, TiZip, ITW Nexus, AustriAlpin, and more. If you haven’t heard of the brand (or if it’s intentionally left off), it probably doesn’t have a reputation of having a great track record. These parts can make or break (literally) a pack, so you’ll want something you can trust. If you’re deep in the wilderness and a buckle that keeps your shoulder straps attached busts on you, you’re out of luck.
This one is tough. Anyone can say “built tough” or “high-quality construction”. But these details can be hidden away from the untrained eye. What this really means might be “brand reputation”. If you’re able to find out what kind of thread they’re using, search for nylon thread. And look for brands that are using a solid third party factory or have their own factory under their own roof. All of this information isn’t normally quite public, so the best bet here is to dig through reviews on our site and other websites that can help you learn more about the products and brand’s reputation for quality. Take all reviews with a grain of salt, as you’re well aware. Lastly, a solid warranty never hurts!
Are tactical backpacks comfortable? Well, many brands have their own proprietary suspension system to transfer weight from your shoulders down to your hips. They’re all genius in their own ways. Some rely just on super comfortable shoulder straps, which is fine if you don’t plan to load out your pack with tons of weight. While I have my favorites, I have my own body type and preferences. So this one requires a bit of legwork on your end. Try on the packs, see if you can load them down with weight, and have a feel. Find what works best for you for your requirements, body type, and comfort preferences.
How do you get into the pack and its compartments? Is there one massive cavernous compartment? Are there a few smaller easy-to-access zippered pockets to store your small gadgets? Is it a clamshell that opens to expose everything inside? Does it have a 3-ZIP (Tri-Zip) style opening? There are pros and cons to all of these. I lean towards a full clamshell opening and Tri-Zip myself, as I find they provide excellent and easy access to everything inside. Rolltops provide a large main compartment but can be a bit cumbersome when you’re armpit deep in your pack’s opening that looks like a largemouth bass’s mouth, trying to get your fingertips on a Tic Tac mint you dropped at the very bottom.
Country of Manufacture:
This is one tough nut to crack. And I’m going to set the record straight here. Some folks swear by Made In USA packs. Some folks want a pack that’s manufactured in their own country. Some folks don’t care. The simple answer is…it doesn’t matter. Yes, I said it. I know some factories in Vietnam that are MUCH better at making packs than dozens of USA factories. On the inverse, I know some USA factories that are better than Vietnamese factories. For the US military, it is a requirement that the packs be made in the USA (via the Berry Amendment). So unless you’re an actual enlisted soldier, this shouldn’t matter to you. Because in that case, you’re being issued your gear anyway. It really depends on the pride that each individual factory and each individual sewer puts into their product.
Yes, I talked about how military/tactical packs are made for function. They are. But you’re more than likely a civilian walking around on urban city streets. So this is really up to you. How loud do you want to be? These packs are visually covered in MOLLE webbing which translates to “military” to most onlookers, whether they realize why or not. Most of these packs come in my favorite color, black. In my opinion, black is the best way to rock a tactical pack without shouting “military”! But they also come in a variety of other colors and camouflage patterns. A subdued olive drab green can look super handsome and MultiCam (or MultiCam black) can be fun too. Just think about this before you commit to the purchase. Even with my all-black Triple Aught Design FAST Pack Litespeed, I’ll have people casually ask me when/where I served while I’m in the security line at airports.
Additionally, do you like Velcro patches? These are generally called “morale patches”. Inspired from actual armed forces with a civilian spin on them. Some people think they’re cool and funny. Some think they’re tacticool. There are hundreds of manufacturers of fun and serious patches to adorn your pack. Depending on which vibe you’re going for, look for a panel or strip of female/loop Velcro on the exterior of the pack. Some brands even offer packs in Velcro-less options, to maximize your “gray man” status. Check out some morale patches from our friends over at ITS Tactical.
What will YOU be using your tactical backpack for?
Now that we’ve knocked out the basics, what exactly do you have planned for yourself? What expectations do you have from your pack? Do you want a pack that is designed to go to war, knowing that you will only carry your laptop and office supplies to the office? That’s totally fine. But it’s different than someone who might be using a tactical pack solely for GORUCK Challenges. When it comes down to it, if you’ve checked off all the boxes above, it really comes down to volume and organization.
Generally speaking, 15-26 liters is what most people are looking for in an EDC backpack for an even mix of office use, light hikes, coffee shop runs, errand running, and 1-3 day trips. So if this is your sweet spot, then focus on a pack that has 15-26 liters. Though some may want upwards to 30 liters for their EDC bag.
Are tactical backpacks good for travel? Yes, they can be, assuming their aesthetic will fit in with where you’re going. Often they provide good access and organization for your gear. But if you want a tactical pack to travel the world with or go hiking for 3 weeks on end, a larger volume is obviously better. More gear = more volume. There are many schools of thought here; some can handle as low as 26 liters for these epic voyages, but most will want 30-60 liters. That really depends on you, your practice of minimalism versus hoarding, your gear, and your activity.
Here’s what really makes a pack “for you” or not. In the past, I used to love more pockets, more zippers, more hidden compartments. I could fit X into this pocket, then Y into this separate area, and then Z into its own compartment. The thing is, separate pockets and compartments mean extra construction = extra cost, extra material/hardware = extra weight/cost, and it takes some impressive memory skills if you swap out packs as often as I do.
Personally I lean more towards Inception Packing, with multiple visually recognizable organizer pouches. I prefer one large compartment for bulky items with maybe 1 (maybe 2) extra pockets for small stuff that I want to access quickly. That’s what I like in my setup. And I recommend this for most.
But maybe you like having one pack that you don’t swap out. So this is where dedicated pocketing can be intriguing for some. Just remember, gear advances in technology. Gear grows and shrinks in size depending on technology. So that pocket for an iPhone 4 definitely won’t fit the new iPhone 8 Plus. In this case, try fitting some of your must-have gear in the pack before committing.
Best Tactical EDC Backpack Recommendations:
Mystery Ranch ASAP ($300)
There was no chance this wasn’t making the list. We write about this one a lot (example one and example two). This one hits all of the marks in flying colors, with the 3-ZIP access, made in USA, from 500D Cordura nylon fabric, using YKK zippers and ITW hardware, and one super comfortable Futura Yoke suspension, made by one of the most trusted brands on earth with one of the best reputations for quality ever.
It has one large compartment and one top zipper for accessories. I’ve used this pack traveling the world and still can’t believe it’s only 15 liters. When necessary, I’ve added external MOLLE backpack pouches on the exterior to fit even more gear. If you like this pack, but don’t care about MOLLE and don’t care about Made in USA, you can get the stripped down version (the Urban Assault) for only $139!
You get a whole lot of pack for the price here, as you can see here. Made in the USA with 1000D Cordura nylon and so much modularity, it’s practically a Transformer. It’s a bit larger, coming in at 22 liters. With a full clamshell opening, you’ll have access to all your gear you shove in there too. This one also checks all the boxes with YKK zippers, ITW hardware, a HDPE frame sheet to make it comfortable, and so much more.
I’ve seen photos of these packs loaded up for serious excursions, but also stripped down to be super slick and clean. Whatever your preference may be, this pack can adapt to you. Likely the “smartest” pack on this list, if that makes sense. Additionally, TAD makes my favorite MOLLE backpack pouch/accessory which mates perfectly with the FPL backpack; the OP1 (available here, review here).
GORUCK GR1 ($325)
Yep, you knew this one would be on here. The cult classic…the GORUCK GR1. Now also coming in at a slightly smaller 21 liters, this size is nearly perfect for EDC (versus the slightly larger original at 26 liters). It also comes in my favorite color, black. Back when this pack was first released, it only came in black, which I thought was super rad. 1000D Cordura nylon stitched together in the USA makes this pack a favorite for durability.
It has one massive main compartment with some mesh organization/pockets in there and then one simple zippered pocket on the outside. The dream layout in my opinion. What’s nice about this pack is there are (only) 3 rows of MOLLE webbing for attaching additional pouches. Minimal but functional.
Both the most expensive and largest (30 liters) pack on this list from Arc’teryx’s LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) division, but it definitely deserves to be here. The renamed Khard 30, now called the Assault Pack 30. The silhouette of this is just magic. But it’s not all looks here. This pack is made from 500D Cordura HT (high tenacity) nylon fabric, with YKK zippers, and ITW hardware. Removable hipbelt and aluminum frame stays for full suspension customization. I love the access and organization here.
A full “3D clamshell” gives you deep unobstructed access to everything inside. Female/loop Velcro inside for attachment of modular pouches and pods. Two side zippered pockets and a top lid pocket for organizing small items. Thin vertical MOLLE webbing allows you to attach gear to the outside, but it doesn’t actually look like MOLLE which is nice to blend in. Speaking of blending in, Arc’teryx spent a whole lot of time on their “wolf” colorway, which blends into almost all urban environments. Hello, Gray man.
Love the lines and the access of this pack. It’s got all the checkmarks, without looking overly tactical. That’s probably because they’re using the MOLLE in a tactful manner, vertically down the shoulder straps. Rather than use MOLLE on the rear-facing exterior, they have elastic cordage for additional storage, with nylon loops to attach gear to.
Optional super comfortable padded hipbelt. 500D Cordura nylon, YKK zippers, made in the USA (California specifically). This has the silhouette of an outdoor pack with all the features of a military pack. We dig this pack.
Vertx Gamut 2.0 ($242)
This pack can fill up 25 liters without a problem. This is a really clever pack on the list, almost a “best of” all the packs here. It has a “3D clamshell” that opens flat similar to the Assault Pack 30, giving you uninhibited access to a large main compartment as well as a built-in admin pocket towards the top. This has loads of Velcro on the inside, for the attachment of modular pouches for organization.
One thing you’ll notice is that there are no MOLLE webbing strips visible on this pack…but I did mention this is a clever pack. You simply pull down on a discreet loop on the front outside and the entire panel drops down to expose several rows of MOLLE that will give you endless setups. While they only list “nylon” for the materials (the other details are also mysteriously left off), this example makes up for it with loads and loads of organization/features and great reviews from die-hard fans.
5.11 Tactical RUSH12 2.0 ($105)
A budget-level pack that is packed (pun) with a load of features seen in some of the pricier options above. While it’s not made with genuine Cordura nylon and it is made in Asia (if that matters to you), it is indeed made with 1050D nylon to take some serious abuse.
High-quality and beefy YKK zippers are present. And while I prefer the minimalistic compartments, this one boasts 16 individual compartments, including a fleece-lined sunglasses pocket. It will swallow up to 24 liters of EDC gear. Definitely a solid contender for just over a bill.
Maxpedition Falcon-II ($136.04)
While I’m not a fan of this pack when at full price ($179), it generally can be found for much less. At its retail MSRP, you’re just too close to some serious packs to justify saving $30-$40. But at that lower price point, it is definitely a contender.
It uses off-brand 1050 ballistic nylon fabric, YKK zippers, and Duraflex hardware to keep things going strong. This one also has several pockets, so if that is your particular thing, you might dig this option.
Sure, none of us will be storming Normandy (thankfully because of those who did before). Most of us will beat up our gear along adventures, travels, daily life, and more. And for those customers who demand the best, we can use these rugged, durable, and modular tactical packs that were directly inspired from military gear that is designed for the harshest of all conditions.
So now that we’ve covered the basics of tactical EDC packs, what do you think? What’s your vibe? Are you thinking a subdued black colorway is your thing? Or do you lean towards the MultiCam camouflage pattern? Will you strap MOLLE backpack organizer pouches all over the exterior or interior based on different activities? This list of suggested packs is nowhere close to near a complete list of everything out there; what are some of your favorite tactical EDC backpacks that aren’t listed here?
*Feature image by PFC Jamill Ford
*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
This article was originally published on 5 October 2017 and recently updated.