What’s The Difference Between A Tactical And Hiking Backpack?

There has been a rising interest in tactical gear and military surplus among civilians who are interested in the durability and functionality it has to offer.

tactical vs. hiking backpacks
tactical vs. hiking backpacks

Within the camping and hiking community online a lot of experienced enthusiasts are showcasing how tactical backpacks might have an advantage out in the wilderness as opposed to traditional hiking backpacks.

The differences between the two types of backpacks are distinct enough to merit separate categories, yet you’d be surprised at the lack of knowledge regarding what those differences are. Many new to the world of backpacking probably couldn’t tell you which is which.

Tactical backpacks are meant to be used to survive and are sturdier and more functional. Hiking backpacks are designed for long-distance travel with camping gear and accessories, and have the wearers’ comfort in mind.

However, saying that doesn’t deny the benefits that the average hiker would have using a tactical backpack.

There are some really comfortable and functional tactical packs on the market that would work just fine for civilians.

Although, the mindset you have to go in with is what would you value more, comfort or functionality?

Tactical BackpacksHiking Backpacks
Materials are more durable to withstand abuse while traveling.Build material is more geared towards waterproofing and being lightweight.
International standard webbing on all tactical packs to add modular attachments for storage.Generally has loops for carabiners to hook items on the outside. Various straps allow for the attachment of gear underneath.
Generally heavier for the military equipment used. Built in straps provide hip and shoulder support.Lightweight for the average hiker. May sometimes incorporate a frame for additional support.
Organization is strongest with various pouches and zippered pockets.Generally a large rucksack style where you place organized items inside the main bag.

Both backpack styles have multiple variations based on how much the bag can hold, materials made, and final construction.

While these concepts can intermingle as manufacturers of both types of bags take from the designs of both styles and implement them in some fashion.


Hiking backpacks are made for the trail with their simple layouts and light materials. You’ll often find these bags can fit multiple people as they have different torso lengths and adjustments for anything else you would possibly need.

Tactical packs are produced to cover the average length of a soldier, and don’t have all the adjustments you’d typically see.

One of the best designs for a tactical bag are the ones with a zippered cover that extends down to open the bag in a tri-zip format.

These allow full access to the main compartment just by lying the bag down, much like a camera bag. Most hiking bags open from the top or have access in the front.

a green backpack with molle webbing
a green tactical backpack with Molle webbing


In more recent years tactical and hiking backpacks have been sharing materials between styles.

A lot of manufacturers are turning to materials such as Dyneema or X-PAC which are lightweight and strong fabrics that come with a high price tag.

Hiking backpacks generally use a form of nylon called ripstop nylon that is tear-resistant and waterproof.

These types of backpacks may not survive a tumble down the side of a cliff-like their tactical counterparts.

Older-style military packs were made of heavy canvas materials that were incredibly durable. This added some weight to the pack but provided a watertight and rugged carrying solution.

Additional Storage

Tactical backpacks have an interesting system called a Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment (“MOLLE”) which is a series of webbing loops on the outside of the backpack that is designed for extra pouches and bags to effectively be clipped on before leaving.

The MOLLE system is universal and bag manufacturers around the world use it which makes it a huge advantage over hiking packs in terms of modularity.

This system was put in place because it made it easier to pack than reorganize the inside of a bag.

One of the best designs for a tactical bag are the ones with a zippered cover that extends down to open the bag in a tri-zip format like the one here.

These allow full access to the main compartment just by lying the bag down, much like a camera bag. Most hiking bags open from the top or have limited access in the front.

Since tactical backpacks are made for the military, manufacturers want to make everything as easily accessible as possible, which is why they are so popular as day packs.

a hiking backpack
a hiking backpack


A lot of tactical backpacks are made of some form of canvas as it is both durable and waterproof but it does add quite a bit of weight.

Both backpack styles have padded shoulders and hip support, although hiking pack manufacturers tend to focus more on these systems.


A lot of tactical backpacks are in smaller capacities, usually between 15-20 liters, as that is what people generally buy as day packs.

There are larger capacity bags but those can be expensive due to the increase in costs as you add pockets and add-ons.

Hiking backpacks you’ll find in the 30 – 110 liter range which are more suited for long-distance hauling.

These packs are often supported with multiple suspension systems and adjustable straps. This allows the packs to fit on a variety of people and still be fitted for their body shape and strength.

Choose The Backpack That Fits Your Gear

With the lines blurring between what a tactical pack is versus a hiking pack there are still some distinct differences that should make your decision a little easier.

If you are going on a multi-week long trip with lots of miles being covered then a hiking backpack would benefit you with its variety of support systems and lightweight material.

Needing a new compact day pack or going on a camping trip that is close by? Tactical packs provide easy access and the modular MOLLE system where clipping on additional pouches and packs is simple to swap out gear depending on the situation.

3 thoughts on “What’s The Difference Between A Tactical And Hiking Backpack?”

  1. You want to bring everything you need that may include your food, water, and first aid supplies, but you also don’t want the backpack to hurt your back. The backpack should be a good balance between comfort and significance. Remember to stuff your bag with enough gear to last you for at least 72 hours or longer if you’re planning to go somewhere else.

  2. I feel like military backpacks are best for hiking, they have so much space in them, I prefer to use military backpacks for hiking. It’s comfortable from my perspective.

  3. Get the most out of your military backpack contents especially if it is Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment to pack your gear in the most convenient way without taking up much space. Secure the heaviest things, such as your sleeping bag, and the bulkiest equipment, such as entrenching gear, at the bottom of the backpack.


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