Tactical vs. Hiking Backpacks: What are the Differences?

No matter what you need a pack for, whether it is hiking, camping, hauling gear to the range, or serving as a bug out bag, you’ll find no shortage of backpacks to choose from.

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Choosing the right pack is fundamentally important, but this decision is harder than ever thanks to the sheer variety out there.

You’ll find military style tactical packs, hiking packs, and fusions of the two.

Which one is right for you? Are the differences just aesthetics? Are you missing out on critical advantages going with one over the other? Just what are the differences between tactical and hiking packs?

Broadly, hiking backpacks tend to focus on lightweight materials, waterproofing, visibility and user comfort, whereas tactical packs put emphasis on expansion capability, low profile colors, durability, and carrying capacity.

Believe me, that is the simplest possible explanation between the two, but the nuances are important.

You might be just fine with either one, but depending on your preferences and objectives, either a tactical or a hiking backpack might be perfect for you.

It helps to understand what to expect, generally, when you are looking at either one and I’ll tell you all about the typical differences down below.

Yes and no. Tactical and hiking backpacks have a lot in common, namely that they are purpose-designed to haul a lot of gear and supplies on your back.

But, don’t be deluded into thinking it’s simply an aesthetic difference. Getting the little things right is an important part…

If you choose the wrong pack, it might not have enough room for all your gear, it might be cripplingly uncomfortable, or it might fail you in any number of other ways, including breaking, being too visible, not visible enough, or lacking the flexibility to carry special items.

For this reason, it’s worth assessing both tactical and hiking backpacks on their own stereotypical merits.

If you take a tactical and a hiking backpack of equal size, and from any manufacturers, and lay them side by side one of the first things you will notice is that the hiking backpack is made of lighter weight material.

This, obviously, is done to save weight, making hiking backpacks lighter as a rule.

Whereas most tactical backpacks are made from 1000d or 500d ballistic nylon weave, hiking packs are made from thinner, lighter but still sturdy materials typically of a synthetic nature.

If properly constructed, a hiking backpack can still be quite durable when it comes to stitching and assembly, meaning you won’t suffer from an unfortunate blowout, but the material itself is easier to puncture and tear up.

This reflects the notion that a hiking backpack is not going to be subjected to quite the same rigors as a tactical pack that is carried in a conflict zone or on an active battlefield.

Concerning material construction, tactical packs usually have hiking backpacks beat when it comes to sheer durability.

This is because the materials they are made from are thicker, more abrasion resistant, more difficult to puncture and less likely to come undone when they are damaged.

Conversely, the thinner and more delicate the material that an average hiking backpack is made from can be easily damaged from a slash or scrape, and is highly likely to get worse quickly.

Of course, manufacturer procedures and quality control makes a big difference here: a top of the line hiking backpack will probably prove to be more durable overall than a “flea market special” tactical pack.

The reverse is also true, with very cheap hiking packs proving to be shockingly frail, and top of the line tactical packs being almost impervious to damage.

Although picking any pack that can carry a sizable enough load is important, because you want to be able to haul all of the gear you need, tactical packs emphasize carrying capacity.

Note that carrying capacity isn’t necessarily a function of volume alone.

The overbuilt, heavy-duty construction of a tactical pack means they can be loaded to the gills, nearly to bursting, and are more likely to hold up compared to a similarly stuffed and heavy hiking pack.

Yes, seasoned hikers and campers tend to snicker at newbies who bring everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, weighing themselves down and setting the stage for injury or disaster, but sometimes you really do need a pack that can perform in those circumstances.

This is where the tactical pack shines, considering their “DNA” of these packs is from the issued packs of soldiers.

Soldiers who are expected to carry absolutely everything they need to not only survive but to execute their mission!

If you know you’re going to be loading heavy, really heavy, a tactical pack is probably the better choice – as long as you can handle the weight yourself!

Certainly the most readily apparent difference between a hiking and a tactical pack is going to be the color.

Tactical packs invariably come in some low profile color if not an outright camouflage pattern.

You’ll hardly ever see anything other than some variation of tan or dark earth, olive drab green, black and so on.

Hiking packs are just the opposite, coming in every shade of the rainbow and garish patterns from time to time.

The most subtle colors you’ll usually see on a hiking pack are a dusty charcoal gray and a cool or pale accent color. Exceptions do exist, of course.

The choice here is a simple one: a tactical pack invariably wants to avoid drawing attention to the person who carries it, when the consequences of being spotted are usually being shot at.

A hiking pack is either more visible on purpose or bright enough to help draw attention, and potentially rescue!

A cursory examination of a tactful pack will show that it’s almost always covered from stem to stern with PALs or MOLLE webbing, and a variety of other loops, openings, straps and more for attaching additional pouches or carrying external gear.

This is because a tactical pack must be, to a degree, mission configurable and highly adaptable. Or else it needs to support the occupational specialty of the trooper that carries it.

Hiking packs, although often featuring a few choice attachment points, are rarely covered in webbing in the same way.

However, we have seen a sort of fusion between the two design ideologies in recent decades, and you’ll find plenty of purpose-built hiking packs that have a few panels of webbing on the outside or one on the inside from time to time.

The lack of such attachment points on most hiking packs is indicative of their intent; externally carried gear is rarely efficient or comfortable on a pack, and most seasoned hikers prefer not to if at all possible.

Accordingly, designers and manufacturers of these packs believe that most of their users would probably avoid doing so, and so have no need of the capability.

Opening up our packs, another thing you’ll notice straight away is that most hiking packs tend to be one step removed from a big duffel bag or rucksack.

They usually have one, huge main compartment and possibly a small inner pouch or lid for small odds and ends.

Users are expected to pack their belongings inside in such a way that they are secure, efficient and comfortable to carry.

Tactical-style packs, on the other hand, usually follow this philosophy as well but place added emphasis on internal storage and organization.

This might be a divider in the main compartment, a selection of zipper pouches stitched on the inside of the lid, a pouch serving as a top over the opening in the main compartment, and so on.

These additional pouches gobble up a little bit of room that could otherwise be used in the main compartment, but they make it very easy to locate gear stowed within them, even in the dark.

As you might imagine, in any kind of tactical situation when seconds count and lives are on the line, being able to open up a pack and immediately go to and access critical gear might make the difference.

Most modern backpacks, of either kind, offer a little bit of water resistance or even outright waterproofing built into the design, but it is hiking packs that put extra emphasis on it.

Many hiking packs are created with materials that are either partially or completely waterproof on their own, or constructed in such a way that water is less likely to soak into them.

Tactical packs, on the other hand, are usually made from thick, chunky nylon fabrics that are fairly thirsty by comparison, readily absorbing water.

This is another symptom of the design philosophy behind the pack, considering the most tactical packs are carried by people who simply will not care or have the luxury of stopping just because it is raining.

But also because everything that they carry must, to a degree, be completely weatherproof in order to fulfill a mission.

Circling back to the hiking packs, we see that many are designed and built in such a way as to offer a modicum of weather protection for the things that they carry.

Do keep in mind, this capability is pretty dependent upon the manufacturer and so don’t assume any pack is or isn’t waterproof.

Make sure you read that feature sheet, and more importantly test your survival backpack.

Whether tactical or hiking in nature, some packs feature an integrated rain fly or cover that can be deployed to shield the pack and its contents from a serious downpour, and of course you can always purchase a rain fly or a dry bag for the job.

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