The best survival backpacks for overcoming unexpected emergencies

It’s not the strongest or most intelligent who survive, but rather those who can best manage change.

Best Overall

Osprey Kestrel 38

Osprey Kestrel 38

See It

Best Value

REI Co-op Trail 40

REI Co-op Trail 40

See It

Best for Wilderness

Mystery Ranch Coulee 40

Mystery Ranch Coulee 40

See It

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

In an emergency, a properly equipped survival backpack may be all that stands between life and death. Survival is a simple task that has become surprisingly difficult for the modern American. When chaos rules the day, obtaining food, water, warmth, and shelter become disastrously difficult for the unprepared. Throw in a medical emergency or an aggressive predator, and a miniature apocalypse can demolish your chances of survival. However, the trained and equipped individual with the right mindset (and quality gear) can overcome all.

While these packs do share some overlap with bug out bags, go bags, and EDC bags, a dedicated survival backpack is loaded with everything you need to survive a given situation and nothing more. These packs are tough for customers able to resist the weather, the environment, and your own rough treatment while being as user-friendly as possible. Not sure what that looks like? We got you covered.

Best Overall

Osprey Kestrel 38

See It

Best Value

REI Co-op Trail 40

See It

Best for Wilderness

Mystery Ranch Coulee 40

See It

Best for Urban Settings

5.11 Tactical Covrt18 2.0

See It

Best for Backpacking

Gregory Zulu 40

See It

Best with Rifle Holder

Eberlestock G2 Gunslinger II

See It

Things to consider before buying a survival backpack

Survival conditions

Sometimes, the simplest things are the easiest to overlook. Before buying a survival backpack, think about what conditions you are likely to endure during a survival situation. Start by focusing on three factors: environment, duration, and party.

Consider your likely survival environments (yes, that’s plural). Are you likely to encounter urban, suburban, or rural emergencies, or some combination thereof? What about local geography, weather conditions, weather emergencies, local wildlife, etc? Anticipate if you are likely to endure days, weeks, or months on your own, and pay attention to how many people you’re likely to have with you, especially those who rely on you for care, such as children or elderly parents.

Types of survival backpacks

Very few manufacturers produce dedicated “survival backpacks,” so selecting a survival pack requires a case-by-case evaluation of various backpacks. Shopping around could net you an emergency-ready backpack that may originally have been designed for hiking, backpacking, “tactical” use, or even school. That said, survival packs, like bug-out bags, can be classified according to their intended emergency setting: urban, wilderness, and tactical.

As the name implies, urban survival packs look right at home in a metropolitan or suburban setting with repurposed school and EDC bags filling the role well. Compared to urban bags, wilderness backpacks tend to be tougher, lighter, and more “technical” (i.e., utilitarian) in their design and features; hiking and hunting backpacks fill this role most often. Tactical or military survival packs are heavier-duty (and heavier) than wild survival bags and have lots of PALS webbing (a.k.a., MOLLE) to accommodate extra gear.

Key features of a survival backpack

A true survival backpack includes plenty of features found on other packs, but their quality matters more than most. Additionally, how a specific collection of features comes together can determine a pack’s suitability for emergency survival. As such, pay close attention to a backpack’s design, focusing on ease of access, organization, external gear attachment points (including placement), and water storage options, such as a hydration reservoir pouch.

Other critical features include a backpack’s weight, durability, and cargo capacity (usually 30 to 45 liters). Since survival packs use thick, tough materials to attain greater durability, they tend to be on the heavier side, so bags weighing around three pounds can be considered relatively lightweight. Weather-resistant features, such as a rain cover, waterproof zippers, and waterproof construction materials can literally save your life by protecting critical gear. A quality suspension system can make or break a pack — and you. Look for a backpack with load lifters, padded and contoured shoulder straps, and a load-bearing hip belt. If you carry a larger load, take a close look at framed packs. Finally, make sure the pack fits you properly; true survival packs are not one-size-fits-all affairs.

Pricing

By nature, survival backpacks often demand a bit more from your wallet than other packs. A survival pack needs to withstand some tough situations, and its materials, features, and overall build quality tend to cost a good bit more than your typical Jansport. As such, plan to drop at least $100 on an entry-level bag. High-end bags will cost you another Benjamin Franklin or two, but a $200 to $300 backpack should last you many, many years of hard use.

FAQs about survival backpacks

Q: Is there a difference between a survival backpack and a bug-out backpack?

A: Yes and no; the backpacks themselves can be identical. The contents inside are what differentiate a survival backpack from a bug-out backpack, although to the untrained individual, the differences may be almost indistinguishable.

Q: What should you always carry in a survival pack?

A: Your survival backpack loadout will depend on your specific environment and situation. That said, all survival packs should include tools for a water filter or purifier, fire starters, shelter (skip the tent), medical care, comms, essential tools (including nav gear, like a map and compass), illumination, hygiene essentials (primarily baby wipes), food, and clothing essentials (mainly a skivvy roll and weather protection). 

Q: How much weight can a survival backpack hold?

A: Backpack weight capacities vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, although higher-end packs can handle up to 35 pounds. Your loadout (including the pack) should weigh no more than 20 percent of your body weight, so look for a pack that can handle slightly more than that.

Q: How long will a survival backpack last?

A: A survival backpack’s lifespan will depend heavily on many factors. A lightly loaded pack that never gets used could last indefinitely, while an overloaded pack that gets thrown around on a regular basis likely won’t last more than a year or two. Of course, build quality also plays into the equation, so predictably, higher quality will last longer than a cheaper one.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, the best all-around survival backpack we found is the Osprey Kestrel 38. It manages to combine trail-friendly characteristics, good weight-bearing features, and a user-friendly design without compromising on durability, comfort, or convenience. While it does run a little on the expensive side, the Kestrel 38 (and women’s Kyte 36) offers a good bang for your buck, making it a tough act to beat.

Methodology 

When selecting these packs, I started by looking for packs in the 30- to 45-liter range, with 40 liters being the sweet spot, and I focused primarily on hunting, hiking, and backpacking packs. High build quality, durability/toughness, load-bearing features, a padded and ventilated suspension system, hydration reservoir compatibility, and water resistance were absolute musts. I also placed a premium on adjustable suspension systems, easy access, interior organization, low weight (under 3.5 pounds), multiple torso sizes, including rain covers, and well-placed external gear attachment points, although packs lacking one or two of these were not completely ruled out.

This may come as a surprise to some, but very few (no?) manufacturers sell or market dedicated survival backpacks beyond the occasional pre-built option. As such, I started this project with lots of research planned. Thankfully, Task & Purpose’s own Steven C. Harbert Jr. is an Army SERE instructor who provided me with plenty of details to fill in some gaps. For outside research, I leaned on information and reviews from AK Backpacking & Outdoors, Backcountry Exposure, CNET, The English Hiker, Garand Thumb, GearWeAre.com, gideonstactical, Her Packing List, Off the Reservation Tactical, Outdoor Crunch, Paul’s Wanderings, Pepper Jack Adventures, Recoil Offgrid, REI, Survival World, Tiborasaurus Rex, Trailspace, and WanderinThru. I also leaned a bit on my own experience with the 5.11 Tactical Covrt18 2.0.

Share

Brian Smyth Avatar

Brian Smyth

Contributing Writer

Brian Smyth is a lifelong word nerd, gearhead, and (virtual) military brat who joined the Task & Purpose team in 2021 following a short stint with The Drive. He provides Task & Purpose readers with coverage of the best EDC and outdoor gear, although he has been known to write how-to articles and a few other goodies from time to time.