Your Ultimate Survival Backpack Buyers Guide

Your ultimate guide to buying and packing a survival backpack.

Have you heard the term bug-out bag before? If not, get ready for our crash course on buying and packing the best survival backpack. It’s easy to dismiss survival backpacks as excessive-preparedness for people who fear a zombie apocalypse. But with climate change, worldwide pandemics, and frequent extreme weather events, everyone should take disaster preparedness seriously. Whether your home is at risk for hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, or tsunamis, a tactical backpack lets you grab one pack with everything you need during an emergency evacuation. Keep reading to learn about the essential stuff every survival backpack should have, the best backpacks for 2020, and how to pack your bug-out bag.

What is a Survival Backpack?

A survival backpack holds all the gear you might need during a natural disaster or emergency evacuation.
A survival backpack is more than just the bag. It’s also the gear you pack inside.

A survival backpack is a bag that holds enough gear and equipment to help you survive for days or even weeks away from home. They carry food, water, shelter, and first-aid equipment. You should already have a disaster preparedness kit for your home with equipment and food in case of a power outage. A survival backpack is what you grab when you have to evacuate your home. Even if you’re heading to a hotel or Red Cross shelter, the essential equipment in your bug-out bag can still help you and others. Here are a few occasions when you might need a bug-out bag:

  • Wildfire: with climate change, fires are more frequent and harder to control. In 2019, both California and Australia dealt with the worst seasons of wildfire on record. Many people had to evacuate their homes with little warning and no time to pack.
  • Earthquake: after an earthquake, there may be gas main leaks, structural instability in your home, and devastation in your community. You won’t have time to pack before evacuating to a safe location.
  • Tsunami: you may only have minutes of warning before a tsunami, just enough time to get inland to safety, but not enough time to pack a bag for yourself and your family.
  • Hurricane: while meteorologists are getting better at predicting hurricanes all the time, a storm’s path and intensity can still be unpredictable. Authorities may evacuate your neighborhood without much time to prepare.
  • Tornado: the 2020 Nashville tornado showed how fast a storm could turn deadly. They’re one of the most destructive weather forces on the planet, and in recent years Tornado Alley has shifted to include more of the US.
  • Flash flood: in the right conditions, a thunderstorm can turn dangerous by causing flash floods. Or, crumbling infrastructure like the Michigan dam collapse can force an entire town to evacuate on short notice.
  • Sinkhole: around 20% of the US is at risk for a sinkhole opening up. The ground collapses with no warning, sometimes swallowing entire homes.
  • Blizzard: while staying at home is safest during a snowstorm, if you have to travel, a bug-out bag in your car prepares you for whatever might happen on the road.
  • Drought: as extended droughts become more commonplace, so will rolling blackouts and extreme heat. While you may have more time to pack for a town evacuation, with a survival backpack at the ready, you’ll know you have everything you need.

No one wants to have to deal with emergencies, but refusing to prepare yourself doesn’t guarantee your neighborhood will never face disaster or evacuation. By getting a survival backpack ready, you’ll always be prepared for whatever nature throws at you, and better able to take care of yourself and others.

What is a Good Bug-Out Bag?

Picking a good bug out bag depends on where you live, and how you'll use your survival backpack.
Decide what features are the most important to you before shopping for a bug out bag.

The features and contents of a functional bug-out bag change depending on whose it is. You should be able to carry it comfortably for an extended time. You also want the stuff inside specialized to where you live and your needs. While you should work from our guidelines, keep in mind, they’re just suggestions; adapt them to meet the needs of you and your family.

What’s proper survival gear for you may not be right for your partner, or your next-door neighbors. Make sure you’re realistic about how much you can carry. Include equipment you’re comfortable using and will need if you’re away from home for several days, or weeks if a disaster destroys your home.

Kids should also have a bug-out bag that’s small enough for them to carry. Their pack should contain gear, but also items of comfort that they choose. Pick out a copy of a favorite book or a special toy that stays in the bag. Comforting things and snacks will help keep kids calm during evacuations and maintain a sense of normalcy.

Bug-out bags are more than just an emergency kit. They function as your home away from home during a disaster.

Features Every Survival Backpack Should Have

Some features are essential in a survival backpack, like comfort and plenty of storage.
It’s essential your survival backpack be comfortable to carry for a long time.

Now that you know why you need a survival backpack, we’ll get into the critical features that the best survivalist backpacks must have to support you during a disaster.

Hydration Bladder

During a disaster, access to clean potable water gets difficult. A hydration bladder lets you carry up to three liters of water on your back. A pack’s hydration bladder compartment also works as a secure place to keep important documents and valuables when away from home.

Padded shoulder straps

An uncomfortable backpack for survival almost creates more problems than it’s worth. If you can’t carry the bag, then what’s the point?

Internal frame

While this one is a matter of preference, backpacks with internal frames provide benefits you’ll want for your bug-out bag. They hold the load closer to the body and transfers the weight to the hips, so you’re fast and agile even while carrying the pack.

Water-Resistant

There’s nothing more demoralizing than dealing with wet gear and clothing. Since so many extreme weather events involve precipitation, your pack has to be water-resistant at the least; waterproof is better.

Hip Belt

Take the load off your shoulders with a hip belt. You’ll be able to carry a heavier pack further with an ergonomic carrying system.

Compression Straps

These are essential for fitting more stuff into your survivalist backpack, like a tent and air mattress. They also contain bulky items, so your pack is more comfortable to carry and less cluttered. Opt for elastic compression straps when you have a choice.

Easy Access Compartments

You want to grab essential items, like your ID, first aid kit, and extra clothing layers, without a lot of hassle. Make sure you can quickly get into the main compartment of the bag.

Integrated MOLLE Webbing System

MOLLE stands for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. It’s a system of straps and webbing to help you add accessories to the outside of your bug-out-bag. It’s modular and adjustable so you can customize your survival backpack to your needs.

Durable Material

Most survival packs are made with nylon or polyester for durability and water-resistance. The higher the denier-number, the more durable the fabric. While 1000d nylon fabric is more robust and lighter, it’s also more expensive. On the other hand, 600d polyester receives a heavy coat of PVC backing, making it both durable and more affordable.

What’s the Best Survival Backpack?

Finding the right survival backpack takes some research and comparison shopping.
Don’t minimize personal preference, after all, this is the bag to help you survive during a disaster.

When shopping for a survival backpack, you can go about it two ways. There are some pros and cons to each option, which we’ll go over before breaking down a few of our favorite survival backpacks for 2020.

Survival Systems

A survival system is a backpack that includes gear for surviving 72-hours or longer. They’re thoroughly researched and include many of the items discussed in the next section.

  • Pros:
  1. It’s a low-stress, single purchase.
  2. All the gear is already fit into the pack.
  3. You know how much the backpack will weigh, with gear, before you buy it.
  4. They often include instructions for using the equipment, and what to do in an emergency.
  • Cons:
  1. They’re expensive, well into the hundreds of dollars.
  2. You may end up with stuff you don’t need.
  3. You don’t know the quality of the equipment that comes with the pack.
  4. They’re not modular, so it’s hard to add packs as you would with a MOLLE webbing system.

Survival Backpack Alone

The other option is to buy an internal frame backpack and turn it into a tactical backpack through purchasing gear on your own.

  • Pros:
  1. You can buy a pack you love and fits well, rather than compromise with a survival kit.
  2. Buy shopping sales you can save considerable money.
  3. You customize everything to your needs.
  4. Buy the brands and tools that you want, rather than just taking what a pre-made kit gives you.
  • Cons:
  1. It’s harder than you might think to keep the weight of a tactical backpack down.
  2. Takes longer to piece together all the components of your emergency kit.
  3. You can’t blame some company if you forget an essential part of the pack and don’t realize it until disaster strikes.

It comes down to convenience and ease over customization and cost. We can’t stress enough how fast the weight of a tactical backpack adds up. So if you end up choosing to buy a bag on its own, be very careful about how much gear you’re trying to pack into it.

5.11 Tactical RUSH24 Military Backpack

While this rucksack doesn’t have a hip belt for stability, the main compartment still offers plenty of room for packing the essentials for the first 24-hours of a disaster. The streamlined profile is part of what we love about it. You won’t draw a lot of attention to yourself by carrying a massive survival backpack. It’s perfect for fast evacuation from your house, whether you’re heading to a community center or elsewhere.

  • Capacity: 37 Liter
  • Material: Water-repellant 1050D nylon
  • Features: Molle webbing over the exterior, padded shoulder straps, chest strap, and 29 individual compartments

Teton Sports Explorer Internal Frame Backpack

If you’re not into the para-military aesthetic, this internal frame backpack offers a sporty alternative. The fit’s so adjustable that Teton recommends it for men, women, and youths. With sensible packing, it can hold enough gear for five days.

  • Capacity: 65 Liters
  • Material: 600D Diamond Ripstop
  • Features: Hip belt, padded shoulder straps, chest strap, 3- liter hydration capacity, daisy-chain gear ties, included rain-fly, many external pouches, compression straps, and sleeping bag compartment.

AmazonBasics Internal Frame Hiking Backpack

If you’re trying to prepare for emergencies, but keep to a budget, the AmazonBasics are your best bet. Reviews rave about how durable this pack is, but it’s not great at carrying a lot of weight. So, you won’t be able to use this bag to take a lot of heavy survival gear like food and fuel.

  • Capacity: 55, 65, or 75 Liter
  • Material: Water- repellant polyester.
  • Features: Large sleeping roll compartment with compression straps, airflow cushioning along the back, with a hip belt, padded shoulder straps, and chest strap, variety of external pouches, includes a rainfly for heavy rain-fall.

Deuter Kikki- Kid’s Multipurpose Backpack

There’s a variety of kids’ options for bug-out bags, including some with camouflage prints and MOLLE webbing systems. For younger kids, in the four- to seven-year-old range, we like the Deuter Kikki for its bug-out buddy on the pack. Keep a water bottle in the exterior pouch, and some snacks, extra clothing, and survival basics in the main compartment.

  • Capacity: 8 Liter
  • Material: Fabric
  • Features: Padded shoulder straps, chest strap, exterior pockets, ID patch inside the main compartment, and a fun animal friend face and ears.

What Should I Have in My Survival Backpack?

Your survival backpack should include all the essentials and nothing extraneous.
The gear that goes into your but out bag depends on where you live, and your emergency response plan.

Now that you’ve found the perfect survival backpack for your needs, it’s time to get the gear to go inside. Hopefully, you’ll never need your tactical backpack in a disaster situation. But in case you do, you don’t want to get caught without this essential gear.

  • Face Mask
  • Water Filtration/Purification
  • First Aid Kit
  • Protein Bars
  • Gloves
  • Rain Gear
  • Flashlight/Headlamp
  • Glowsticks
  • Personal care items: toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper.
  • Communication Devices:
  • GPS Tracking System:
  • Hand crank radio:
  • Documentation: copies of your social security card, driver’s license, and birth certificate, and copies of your home insurance information.
  • Cash
  • Prescriptions
  • Waterproof Matches/Firestarters
  • Extra Clothes
  • Multi-tool
  • Tent
  • Space Blanket
  • Sleeping Bag

This is just a starting list, designed to help with the first 72-hours of a disaster situation. If you’re planning on using your survival backpack in the backcountry, the list grows to include hand tools and navigation devices. Consider where you live and what disaster most threatens your community.

How Much Should a Survival Backpack Weigh?

If a survival backpack's too heavy, it won't do you any good.
Don’t wait for an emergency to put on your survival backpack for the first time.

This figure is a function both of how much you’re able to carry and for how long you’ll be toting the weight. If you expect to travel by car while evacuating your home, your pack might weigh more than if you plan on walking for several days. Backpacks for survival should never weigh so much that you’re unable to lift them or carry them for several hours at a time. As a basic guideline, your pack should never weigh over 20% of your total body weight and aim to keep it around 10% of your weight. For example, if you weight 150 pounds, your bag should weigh about 17 pounds, but can weigh as much as 35 pounds.

Your body weight x .15= approximate backpack weight

Once you load your best survival backpack, put it on, and spend some time walking around your house and neighborhood. If you’re able, take it on a hike for several miles to see how it feels after several hours. Test treks will help you adjust the fit and weight of the bag before you’re in a survival situation.

How To Pack a Survival Backpack

Practice packing your survival backpack a few times so you know where everything's located.
Pack and unpack your survival backpack a few times to make sure you know where everything’s located.

Once your family’s purchased their survival backpacks and gear for inside, you’re ready to pack them. The idea is once you’ve packed your bug-out bag, you leave it until it’s time to bug-out. The best practice is to unpack it once a year, check the expiration dates on relevant gear, make sure everything’s still functional, and then re-pack it. Do it the same day each year. Get in the habit of performing this chore at the same time you go through your home disaster-readiness supplies. Spend time with kids to go through their gear and pack their bags, so they know where their essential items are; their ID, cellphone, and GPS device.

Basics of packing survival backpacks:

  • Heavy items at the bottom.
  • Less used items go at the bottom.
  • Light items away from your back.
  • Essential items at the top.

Practice packing and unpacking the bag several times to get an idea of each item’s location inside the pack. That way, you’ll know where everything is, even during an emergency when you’re rushing, distracted, and adrenaline’s flooding your system. You don’t want to tear the whole tactical backpack apart, looking for copies of your insurance cards or first aid kit.

Bottom of the Pack

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Hammock (if you include one)

This is the gear you won’t need to get until you’re resting for the night and will have time to re-pack your bag the following day. Obviously, you don’t want your rain gear at the bottom where you’ll have to dig through everything to get it.

Middle of the Pack

  • Cooking gear (if you include it)
  • Extra clothing layers
  • Food
  • Water Filtration
  • Glow sticks and lanterns
  • Hand crank radio
  • Prescription drugs

We already discussed how individuals customize survival stuff to their needs to create the best survival backpack. That means the core of your pack might contain some of the listed items and some things we haven’t discussed. Just keep the heavier items closer to your back, and light items towards the front of the bag.

Top of the Pack

  • Water bottle
  • Personal documents
  • Cell phone
  • GPS
  • Cash
  • Spare batteries

While you should keep your personal documents safe within an internal pouch, you also want them within easy access in case you need to show them at a checkpoint or what cash for a fast transaction. Depending on the weather, you may also keep an extra layer at the top of the pack. Use the top of your pack and the MOLLE webbing together for easy access to essential items. Just keep heavier gear, like extra battery packs, inside and close to your body.

MOLLE Webbing

  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Protein bars
  • Rain gear
  • Face mask

For easy access, the MOLLE webbing system is the best. You can customize the outside of your bug-out bag with everything that you want to have close at hand. You can purchase gear that comes with MOLLE-ready straps, or purchase empty pouches and fill them with the items to which you know you want easy access. With kids, help them build their backpack so they know where their essential gear and documents are; the family rendezvous point, their ID, cellphone, GPS tracker.

How to Fit a Survival Backpack

Getting the fit right on your survival backpack takes time, but the added comfort is worth it.
Take the time to get the fit right on your bug out bag, it’ll let you carry it longer and more comfortably.

Once you have all your gear loaded, it’s time to fit your internal frame bag to your body to make sure you’re wearing it correctly. Even the best survival backpacks won’t perform the way you expect if you don’t take time to adjust the shoulder straps, hip belt, and sternum strap. These are the same techniques for fitting a hiking backpack and work anytime you’re carrying a lot of gear in a backpack.

  • Hip belt: position it one inch above the top of your hip bones, buckle it in place and pull it snug. You should be able to fit your fingers into the belt and feel your hip bones just below the top of the hip belt.
  • Should straps: pull the adjustable straps tight once your hip belt is snug. The shoulder straps should follow the contour of your body, with no gap between the straps and your shoulder blades.
  • Sternum straps: pull the adjustable strap tight enough to keep the shoulder straps from falling down the shoulder, but not so tight that they’ll rub on your neck.

Once you feel you have the pack adjusted for your body, lean forward slightly to test where on your body you can feel the weight. A properly fitted backpack will have your hips and legs carrying most of the load, less on your shoulders.

65% of a pack’s weight should be on the hips and legs, not on the shoulders.

Practice Readiness

Having a bug out bag close at hand means your ready whenever disaster strikes.
You never know when disaster will strike, make sure you’re ready with a bug out bag.

Putting together a tactical backpack takes investing both time and money, but the peace of mind it brings you is priceless. Once you have backpack survival crossed off your disaster preparedness list, you don’t have to think about it again. Instead, you’ll know with confidence that in case of any disaster, community evacuation, or extreme weather event, you’ll have everything you need to get through the first 72-hours.