The top ten U.S. military gear for backpackers listed in this article are great options for backpackers to consider. I am acknowledging at the beginning of this article that most backpackers have their gear choices already set. However, military surplus gear is a favorite among many people. The following list is not meant to suggest that every item be substituted for your favorite gear. By contrast, if you are considering some military surplus gear, the following items are a good starting point for adjusting your packing list. U.S. Army surplus gear is durable, reliable, and available in most military surplus stores.
1. The U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife (NSN 7340-00-098-4327)
Some backpackers like to carry a fixed-blade knife with them on the trail. If that applies to you then, the U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife tops the list of U.S. military gear to consider for your kit. For those with limitations on their spending, the pilot’s survival knife (PSK) is the best high-quality and budget-friendly surplus item for your next hike. Outdoor and survival experts agree that a knife is the most critical tool that you will have at your disposal in a survival situation. You will not go wrong with this knife.
The knife is currently produced by the Ontario Knife Company (OKC) as the 499 Survival Knife. However, the knife is no longer part of the U.S. Government inventory. OKC sells the knife for around $50-60, in most outdoor stores like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse. If you are interested in more information about this knife, you can read my previous article on the history of the U.S. Air Force Pilot’s Survival Knife.
2. Gerber MP-600 (USA) Multitool (NSN: 5110-01-394-6252)
Backpackers can always use a good multitool. One of the best military-issued multitools is the Gerber Gear MP-600. It is made in the United States and comes with a Berry-Compliant sheath. There are many detractors of Gerber products. However, I was issued one of these multitools before deploying to Iraq in 2006 as part of our Rapid Fielding Issue (RFI) load out. This multitool is still with me today, and it is as useful as ever when I go backpacking. It is size does works well with most of my loadouts
The Gerber MP-600 is designed to be a one-hand opening multitool. Its folded dimension is 4.9 inches in length and 1.5 inches in width. Thus, this multitool is about the size of a 3 x 5 index card when collapsed and in its sheath. There are multiple versions of the MP-600 (USA). I prefer the standard needle-nose pliers version over the blunt-nosed version. Gerber advertises the multitool as having fourteen tool options. However, it actually has nine tools in the handles. Some of these tools have a dual-use, such as the bottle opener with a flat-tip screwdriver head. The other options that Gerber counts as tools are the standard and metric rulers on the handles. The military-issued MP-600 has replaceable wire cutter heads. Additionally, the MP-600 comes in an oxide black or stainless steel option. However, the MP-600 that is issued to the U.S. servicemember is the black oxide version.
The MP-600 has been on the market long enough to find written and video reviews of it online. Thus, if you are looking for another multitool option, the Gerber MP-600 (USA) is a reasonable consideration.
3. 1-Quart Canteen Set
Military canteens are favorite items for most people. They are readily available in most surplus stores. The U.S. military 1-quart canteens (NSN 8465-01-115-0026) that are the most common on the market are made of heavy-duty plastic. It is rare to find a U.S. military canteen that is stainless steel. However, there are some companies producing replicas in stainless steel with a narrow mouth. These military canteens represent World War II and Korea War versions.
The U.S. canteen comes with a stainless steel nesting cup (NSN 8465-01-314-4282), a canteen cup stand used as a stove (NSN 8465-01-250-3632), that fits into a canteen pouch (NSN 8465-01-525-0585). I call this a set; however, each item must be purchased separately. The military does not issue these four items as a complete set. Nevertheless, if you are buying the plastic canteen, I recommend purchasing the canteen cup and stove to make it a complete backpacking-worthy kit.
One disadvantage of plastic canteens is that they are more susceptible to getting mold on the inside. Surplus stores, usually, do not clean the canteens out before they sell them. Therefore, after purchasing one, ensure it is bleached out, washed, and dried before putting drinking water in it.
4. Watch Cap
The military watch cap has been part of the winter clothing for servicemembers for many decades. Watch caps were made of 100% wool. However, in recent times, the bulky wool and acrylic watch caps have been replaced by the synthetic fleece watch cap. I have been issued both types of watch caps during my military service. Both caps are exceptional clothing items to consider as you prepare for your next outdoor adventure. My personal preference is the wool watch cap. However, for those wanting to save space, the fleece watch cap should be your consideration.
Wool is an efficient clothing material for field use. It retains its ability to keep you warm even if it is wet and also dries quickly when wet. However, some people have allergies to wool. Consequently, the U.S. Army phased out wool material in favor of synthetics such as acrylic, fleece, and Gore-Tex. Moreover, I have provided two options for the watch cap: 100% wool (NSN 8405-01-006-1074) and synthetic fleece (NSN 8405-01-524-2671).
Additionally, remember that national stock numbers are assigned to different colors and sizes of military-issued clothing items. The stock numbers, here, are for the black watch caps. If you desire to have a different color, then follow the links to the vendors. The stock numbers, here, are just a reference for your further investigation and knowledge.
5. Military Cravat Triangular Bandage (NSN: 6510-00-201-1755)
One of the most versatile gear items issued to the military is the triangular bandage. In Vietnam, the infantrymen of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps called it the “drive-on rag.” Many service members in Vietnam also began to use them as head wraps.
Their dimensions are 37 inches by 37 inches by 52 inches. They come folding in a compact, vacuum-sealed plastic bag that measures 3.5 inches by 3 inches by .75 inches. Two stainless steel safety pins come with each bandage. The size of the folded triangular bandage makes them ideal for backpackers.
The military cravat is primarily a medical first-aid item. However, because it is made of 100% cotton, there are many other survival uses for this item. It has multiple ways it can be utilized as a bandage, head wrap, face mask, camouflage aid, or making charred cloth for making fires. It is larger than a standard bandana. Therefore, it is a better item to carry with you on your next backpacking activity.
6. 3H Lensatic Compass (NSN: 6605-01-196-6971)
Land navigation on the trail is a must to ensure that you arrive home safely. Many backpackers love the Garmin® GPS devices and smartphone applications like All Trails to navigate hiking trails. However, these electronic means of land navigation can fail in the middle of a hike. The analog version for land navigation is a paper map, compass, and map protractor.
The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps still train using the analog method of land navigation. The compass they use is the 3H Tritium Lensatic Compass produced by Cammenga. The full designation of this compass is the M1950 Lensatic Compass. If you are interested in military compass development, you can read my article on the short history of the military compass.
The conversation about preferences concerning compasses is varied across the internet. I have found that those who have had a bad experience with the military lensatic compass, usually, do not recommend its use. My spending many hours and days on military land navigation courses reveal that the ex-military people who shy away from the military lensatic compass most likely had a hard time passing the land navigation task using this compass.
However, if you are curious about the use and function of the military lensatic compass, the Cammenga 3H Tritium Compass is one that you should consider for your next backpacking adventure.
7. Gore-Tex Bivy Sack (NSN 8465-01-416-8517)
Another surplus item to consider for your packing list is the Gore-Tex Bivy sack from the military modular sleep system (MSS) produced by Tennier Industries. There are two versions available on the market, woodland camouflage and Army Combat Uniform (Foliage) camouflage. I prefer the woodland camouflage version. However, the camouflage pattern does not matter because the bivys are identical except for the coloring. As of this writing, I am not sure if Tennier is producing an operational combat uniform (OCP/Multicam) version.
Gore-Tex is an excellent material for the field as it is waterproof, windproof, and abrasion-resistant. That does not mean that it is immune from tearing. It means that it will last a long time before any holes or tears appear with proper use. Furthermore, the bivy can be used as a hasty shelter in an emergency in conjunction with an emergency blanket or bivy. Thus, as a piece of survival gear, you will not be disappointed by the Gore-Tex bivy sack from the military modular sleep system.
8. Military Rain Poncho/Woodland Camouflage (NSN 8405-01-100-0976)
Shelter considerations are a focus for backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The military rain poncho is one that some people have found to be a shelter solution on the trail.
The military rain poncho has been with the U.S. military at least since the U.S. Civil War when they were made of oil-penetrated canvas. However, most people are familiar with the military rain poncho used during the Vietnam War. These ponchos are made of rip-stop nylon. They will fit in the large center pocket of the ALICE rucksack when folded and rolled correctly.
A military rain poncho has several uses in the field. Its primary function is as a piece of wet weather clothing to keep you and your get dry. A secondary role is that it can be used as a tarp shelter or cover after the hood is tied off to prevent leaking. There are many sources of information on using tarps for shelters. These tarp configurations also apply to the military rain poncho. Other options that a military poncho can be used for is a hasty litter, game hauler, or hasty sleeping bag when used with the poncho liner.
9. Military Poncho Liner/Woodland Camouflage (NSN 8405-00-889-3683)
Another versatile piece of military gear for backpackers is the liner for the military rain poncho. The poncho liner is, in essence, a light microfiber-filled blanket. However, it is more than a liner for the rain poncho. It can be used as a liner for your sleeping bag, a hasty shelter, or a blanket. The poncho liner is lightweight and measures around 82 inches by 62 inches. Some poncho liners that you can buy have a zipper that allows you to fold them in half and zip them up for a hasty sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner.
A drawback with the poncho liner is that it does not come with its storage mechanism. Those who want a little more organization to their packs will want to put this in a cinch sack or mesh bag. Another way to store the poncho liner is to roll it up and secure it with a couple of gear straps from Sea-To-Summit or Redpoint. Additionally, the rain poncho also can be stored using a cinch sack or gear straps.
If you are looking for a quality piece of military surplus gear, the military poncho liner is your solution to keeping warm while bivouacking on the trail.
10. M-1966 Jungle Hammock (NSN 8460-00-935-6397)
An interesting military surplus item is the jungle hammock. Many backpackers like to use hammocks. If your shelter and bedding preference is a hammock and tarp, you might want to consider the M-1966 Jungle Hammock. You have to be careful when looking for this item as some people will sell the larger M-1965 Hammock system as the hammock we are discussing in this article. The M-1966 Jungle Hammock is comparable to the Warbonnet Traveler hammock.
It is a little bulky compared to most commercial hammocks, such as those sold by Eno. However, if you are curious about a military hammock, then the M-1966 Jungle Hammock is a great military surplus item.
As backpackers, we are all curious about different gear options. Military surplus field gear has been in use for generations. These ten gear options are excellent items to think about substituting in your pack. As mentioned above, these gear recommendations are not intended to swap out any of your preferred items completely. However, if you are looking from some military surplus items to add to your packing list, these surplus items are a place to start thinking through what you want.
Also, when looking for U.S. military surplus make sure that you check it for proper labeling. Genuine issued military surplus gear will have the national stock number and nomenclature on it somewhere, either as a tag or stencil. There are many knock-offs out there on the market. If you want to get the real stuff then you should inspect it before purchasing it.
Remember that you have already purchased U.S. military field gear indirectly through your federal income tax. Part of your federal income tax goes to purchasing this rugged and reliable gear for our military service members. You will not go wrong adding some of this excellent gear into your packing list. It has stood the test of time. It is reliable, practical, and will continue to last if it is properly maintained.