Selecting a Backpack

From the mundane to the opulent, we've tested a wide variety of backpacks for sustainment, fieldcraft, and emergencies. Here are some of our takeaways.

June 27, 2020
ISG Team


What does the perfect backpack look like? If you were only able to choose one, what would it be? 
What would you require of it, and what would you be willing to compromise?

While the answers are going to vary from person to person, there are some common things we've seen across the spectrum with versatile bags that will help you keep it together when times get tough.

In the past, we've discussed the conceptual framework for why we don't really buy the mainstream notion of "bug out bags" or their more imaginative cousins, the GOOD (get out of dodge) and INCH (I'm never coming home) bags that have infected the collective imagination of preparedness-minded people, so this article is going to focus specifically on the features that make a backpack useful.

Not just as a utility item, but as one that seamlessly blends with your everyday carry equipment and gives some ideas of what to look for when traversing the post disaster environment, or just enjoying yourself while adventuring.

It bears saying that the majority of emergencies we are likely to face do *not* require us to grab a backpack and head out on foot in an "I'm never coming home" fantasy... and those that do typically relegate us to "refugee" status. Here's the reality: if you need a bag, it'll probably be to scout, collect resources, or get home when trouble breaks out... not restart society.

For that reason, we want to encourage anyone who's serious about self-reliance and emergency preparedness to think about their backpack less as an all-encompassing loadout to meet your every need, and more in terms of covering the basics while you execute your plans.

The implicit assumption in this is that you have a plan, so don't ignore the importance of an area study, and a cogent Understanding of Emergencies.

So, let's start out with a quick word on what your backpack is *not*, and then move on to what to look for:

  1. Your backpack is not to hold everything you can imagine. Keep it lean, and remember that weight has a dramatic affect on your mobility and task efficiency.
  2. Your backpack isn't a way to store tools that are required to solve Type I emergencies off your body, unless for specific circumstances.

    For example, if at all possible, things like your defensive tools, lights, and tools to treat bleeding should be on your body. In the case of Type I emergencies (High intensity, short duration), we rarely have time to go collect those tools and rush them back for a good outcome. Since we can't *always* be carrying a backpack, but we can *usually* keep an EDC on us, the backpack should expand on the EDC and pick up where it leaves off. If we ditch our pack, we should still have all our EDC items on us.
  3. Your backpack isn't to live out of indefinitely - but we should pack it in such a way that we address the non-negotiable, prerequisites to staying alive, such as water and shelter. That means having a high quality water filter of a proven design and sufficient supplies to make shelter (to include sleeping equipment).

A couple final thoughts to buoy us as we move into the land of actionable information: 

  1. The more knowledge and experience you have, the less 'stuff' you'll need.
  2. Local knowledge is crucial. This article cannot take into account every variable of your environment, and what will work in Fairbanks, Alaska is probably drastically different than what you can get away with in West Texas.
Each of which have their own pros and cons... organized from lightest to heaviest, least durable to most durable.

With that out of the way, let's talk about the thought process that goes into making a solid selection, and finding a bag that will facilitate your goals.

Construction and Design

Of all the elements of a backpack, nothing is more important than it's durability. A great layout on a bag that rips and tears under a few months hard use runs counter to our need for consistency and avoiding "planned obsolescence". If a product is made to be trendy, it's probably not meant to live longer than the trend, and if you're new and just starting out looking for a decent field pack, there are a staggering number of options and designs.

Most of them are serviceable enough for short term, but there are some tried and true materials that really do outperform and outlast in the long run. So, let's break it down a little further and talk about the elements that make a good bag, starting with durability.


Durability is largely a function of the material used, and how it's constructed.

Material is a massive void of terms and phrases you probably won't use unless you're really interested in debating the minutiae of what fabrics work best with a specific warp and weave, so let's break it down as simply as we can and still be reasonably accurate; the main materials we'll be discussing are:

  1. Nylon
  2. Cordura/Kodra
  3. Waxed Cotton Canvas
  4. Leather

Each type of material has a ton of derivatives, and one of the fastest ways to tell if you're looking at a higher or lower quality derivative is price point... Good leather, for example, won't be on sale for $80 from Amazon, and if you choose an ultralite bag designed for day trips, don't be surprised if it's very comfortable, but end up with abrasions or punctures easily.

In short, our first challenge in selecting a backpack is a balancing act between budget, durability, and weight by finding a suitable material to start with.

Once we've got an idea of what material we're looking at, and what best suits our needs, it's time to start looking at some of the things that differentiate just randomly throwing on a backpack from deliberately planning our load around the concept of sustainment.


The next area to give attention in selecting a backpack is the design and layout, which brings us to our next points to focus on:

  1. Does the backpack seamless integrated with our EDC/1st line, or does it make accessing those tools difficult/impossible?

    If the backpack cripples our ability to access tools we might need for instantaneous emergencies (Type I), we end up with a problem that reduces our options. The goal of selecting a proper backpack is that it should allow you access to all of your equipment worn as a part of your EDC without interruption. For example, is your waist strap covering your CCW? Does your backpack block access to your multi-tool, handgun, or flashlight? If so, do you have a more accessible alternative? How immediately are you likely to need the tools, and how difficult are they to get at when wearing your pack?
  2. Does the pack have storage options that allow us to prioritize access?

    The pack's layout is crucial in that we want to be able to access items we use frequently more quickly than those that only get used when you're setting up a camp, or similar. For example, water is something you'll need to access throughout the day. Medical equipment isn't needed often, but when it is, it's needed quickly. Bedding and shelter construction are typically only needed once you're stopped for the day.

    We want to lay our pack out to reflect this, and certain designs facilitate this, while others make it more difficult.
  3. Does the design keep the backpack and internal equipment secure when moving?

    This is a wildly underrepresented aspect of choosing a good pack - you want something that will distribute the weight of your pack as symmetrical as possible, so that the load balances well on your back.

    In addition, security applies to the items in and on our backpack as well; for example, it's really common for good quality packs to have a couple pouches on the side that fit 32oz Nalgene bottles nicely. However, they often don't have a way to secure the bottles, so if you run, jump, or take a spill, those bottles get banished to the burning nowhere if they're not dummy-corded on.

    The interior and exterior pouches should provide secure access points that provide dummy cording via d-rings or flap pouches that can be secured by fastex buckles, straps, or even zippers.

    The second part of this section is that you don't want to take a jump and have the backpack trailing behind you by the strap length. More often than not, the way people keep the pack secure is hip belts and sternum straps, which complicate point 1 (as it usually occludes/prevents access to the belt).
  4. Is the size sufficient to maintain necessary gear, allow for some addition, and still allow you to move through tight spaces?

    Generally those that work best for lightweight bags that can be used equally well around town or in emergencies are between 20-35 liters. However, if you're in an extremely cold climate, and can't get away with lightweight shelter/sleeping options, you may need something larger.

    Likewise, while we typically want something that's as comfortable downtown as it is in the woods, if you live in a predominantly urban or rural area, your needs might change to reflect your location.
  5. Signature

    Signature is a concept that defines how much a backpack makes you stand out. There are a million takes on signature and most pay lip service to neutral colors and clothing that don't make you look like a tactitard, but like all things, there are fads that just can't be escaped, and the backpack is probably the least of your concerns, as military style packs have begun to permeate society, from college campuses to rural drifters. In short, not standing out generally means being comfortable and looking natural. If you're following the tactical industry trends, you're never going to be 'gray', no matter what backpack you choose.

    Here's the good news: most people really don't care, and the ones who know are going to spot you either way unless you're a 65-year-old female librarian.

So, with these elements of design in mind, it's time to start thinking about intent, and how we need to set our pack up to keep our plans in motion as long as possible.


The fundamental calling is geared around being "Responder Zero" and "always an asset" as a method of helping during disasters. We try and think of our sustainment kit more as a tool to accomplish a goal and get home, than bug out. The role of the backpack is pretty simple: 

Be a bridge between the "Rule of 3's" and a fighting chance. Our bag needs to help us establish shelter, water, and food if necessary, as well as the tools to keep us mobile and healthy during protracted emergencies.

While this may differ from person to person, and climate to climate, we want to be able to gather supplies, gain entry, produce power and establish communications, and solve problems with our pack. They need to do so while maintaining a reasonable load of about 20% of our body weight, they need to look 'at home' in any environment, and be nonchalant.

We want to maintain as much mobility and capability as we can while not drawing attention. That means the ability to climb and crawl through narrow spaces, walk under your load for 5-6 hours (moving 12-20 miles), and, if necessary, defend ourselves under our equipment without crippling amounts of fatigue. Since most of what's written on this topic comes from military tactics, it's common to see people train to "ditch" their ruck in contact. If you don't have kit for gunfights, ditching your bag costs you your lifeline.

As much as is possible, we want to avoid conflict and keep moving, often this means using the environment in conjunction with lightweight, stopgap options that are high efficiency, such as high quality pump water filters, and ultralite sleeping bag with an emergency bivy as an insert.

More Realistically...

While our equipment is made to see us through emergencies, the benefit of setting up kit in this way is that it's perfect for recreational adventure. It's light enough that you'll be able to carry it for anything from a day hike to several days in the bush... longer, if you know your craft. More importantly, you'll actually find that you're better equipped to find enjoyable adventures if you've got a well set up sustainment bag. It may seem off-color, but simply being able to enjoy yourself *while* being well-prepared is a part of the ISG philosophy. There's no reason to leave the bag sit in some dank dungeon waiting for the apocalypse. Grab the thing and go have some fun. Not only will it improve your fitness, but it'll allow you to work out any kinks before you find yourself in an emergency.

Selecting a Backpack

We very rarely endorse companies by name, but some of the products that have great quality, generally reasonable prices, solid construction, and layouts that lend themselves to our goals will follow.

While there are always some compromises, we feel most people would be served very well with equipment from Mystery Ranch, Camelbak, Osprey, Hill People Gear, GoRuck, London Bridge Trading, and Frost River.

All are makers of quality packs that hold up well under hard use. While there are almost certainly others, they are either new enough that we can't say for sure, or are priced out of most peoples' budgets. Further, we have years of collective experience with these bags, and have put them through the paces in some pretty rough places, from conflict zones to disaster areas.

As for the bag design itself, we expect no standardization, but the main components I look for are:

  1. Bilateral, exterior pockets for Nalgene bottles/canteens. As described in "Water in Emergencies", a bladder is great, but when it comes to securing a way of filtering and boiling water, you'll need multiple containers, to include something that you're able to use to boil water. A pack that can keep water in an easy to access, exterior pouch is a major plus.
  2. An exterior, or rapidly accessible pouch for medical equipment, or a small First Aid/Trauma kit.
  3. A pouch that can be accessed quickly that can hold navigation/orienteering equipment.

Beyond that, it's largely up to us to pack the rest of our equipment in a way that makes sense to us, fits our plans, skills, and situation, and compliments those we work with. I typically keep things I might need while on the move (water pump, quick calories, batteries, tools) towards the top of my bag, and things like clean clothes, ground pad, talcum powder, and fishing/snare equipment towards the bottom.

The reasoning is there are certain tasks that need to happen quick, while on the move, and others that can wait until you've found a good spot to hold up.

In short, this is about sustaining yourself. Optimizing a layout in a bag that is made of high-quality materials is the discipline... and simply having a bunch of stuff tossed in a bag to "bug out" sells the severity of living out of a backpack woefully short.


Selecting a backpack is similar to selecting a holster - both are very difficult to give advice on, even though they're important pieces of equipment meant for years of service. Like most, you'll probably end up with a few trying to dial in exactly what works best, holds up to your lifestyle, and compliments your skillset... but that's not all bad. Use those extras to help others, pack secondary loadouts, and use the lessons learned to establish a best practice that allows you to not only prepare a kit for the worst case scenario, but one that you can use frequently, whether during an emergency, around town, or out enjoying life. It might seem excessive to have things like a water filter or ground pad on you if you're just strolling in the park. That's fine - there's no reason you can't just keep a bin to scale up or down as necessary.

Let your experiences define your necessities.

While the overwhelming majority of articles from the self-protection or self-reliance industry focus on fighting, we're pretty convinced you'll need a solid water filter and medical kit before you need a plate carrier, and the backpack is a easy way of establishing that lifeline without looking like your next stop is the bank to finance some Hawaiian shirts and night vision for the imminent war between man and government.

As we say often, preparedness doesn't have to be weird, and a good pack with some basic equipment is a good step away from the eye-rolling weirdness of the tacticult industry and towards function, rational preparedness that we hope you can look at now, in the age of COVID19 and widespread rioting, and say "Well, ISG aged well."


ISG Team

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