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Published Sep 13, 2022 10:48 AM

The rise of tactical knee pads in the U.S. military isn’t a totally new development. U.S. military personnel have been spotted wearing various brands of tactical knee pads since the early 1990s. That said, the days of Rangers and SFOD-D operators running through the streets of Mogadishu wearing knee pads meant for skaters and construction workers are over. Today, the various U.S. military services are increasingly adopting knee pads that simply integrate with combat pants, removing the risks that come with finicky straps that slide around. Pants by Crye Precision have become so ubiquitous in the ranks, that any pair of pants that have tactical knee pads built in is often referred to simply as “Cryes.”

These days, the best tactical knee pads are high-tech offerings, scientifically developed to provide protection from pavement, gravel, and other common hazards in a tactical environment. Here are the best options for tactical knee pads for your next trip into the field.

Crye Precision is one of the mainstays of the modern tactical gear world, and the company’s genre-defining designs don’t just set the standard for body armor, but pants, as well. Crye’s approach to ergonomically-designed tactical pants with slots for integrated kneepads shook the world of combat uniforms and became all but synonymous with the latter half of the Global War on Terror. The G3 Combat Pants, when combined with Crye’s Airflex knee pads, make for durable protection that can be adjusted to your body on the fly and stay out of the way.

The G3 pants offer fantastic mobility, owing to adjustment straps on the waist, knees, and cuffs of the pants, as well as four-way stretch panels around the knees, below the waistband, and in the crotch. The Airflex knee pads themselves feature a two-stage design that includes a protruding rubberized plate that extends past the trapezoidal opening to protect from abrasion and an internal soft anti-impact layer that’s protected by the fabric of the pants. Both elements are easily removable and the knee pockets can be closed up for comfort, which is great on long hikes where you don’t anticipate suddenly taking a knee into rocks or gravel. Finally, there’s an undeniable cool factor to owning a pair of Cryes since, up until recently, they’ve been the exclusive purview of elite units.

The choice to use Velcro on the kneepads makes for easy deliberate removal, but it also means that I’ve personally had the kneepads get partially torn out when taking a knee in swampy ground, or when the lip of the protruding rubberized plate got caught on a rock while moving. The prolific use of Velcro on all pockets also means that opening your pockets is not only noisy for those who fancy themselves stealthy, but also that sand and dirt can foul the Velcro. I personally prefer buttons. Finally, several users have reported burst seams around the stretch panels, especially the one in the crotch, which can lead to embarrassing results.

Product Specs
  • Colors: Multicam, ranger green, navy blue, black, multicam tropic, multicam black, multicam arid, various rarer patterns and colors
  • Materials: 50/50 nylon-cotton ripstop, proprietary 4-way stretch panels
  • Fastening method: Kneepads insert into knee pockets, held in by Velcro
  • Protection: Abrasion and impact resistance
  • Country of manufacture: USA
Why It Made The Cut
  • Arguably the tactical pants with kneepads in the minds of many, these pants, combined with the separately sold Airflex knee pads, keep your knees safe from scrapes and bruises without limiting your mobility.
PROS

Excellent mobility and comfort

Two-stage knee pad design provides abrasion and impact protection in one package

They just look cool

CONS

Velcro knee pads can come loose if you kneel down on soft ground or get them caught on objects

Velcro pocket fasteners can foul with dirt

Crotch stitching bursts easily

Popular high-end outdoor brand Arc’teryx isn’t usually cited as being the best budget option anywhere. However, its Law Enforcement and Armed Forces (LEAF) sub-brand includes some of the best external tactical knee pads I’ve ever used. These aren’t your father’s Blackhawk(!) knee pads. They’re designed for maximum mobility and protection while avoiding a lot of the slippage and mobility limits that affect other, less-refined brands.

The biggest advantage of these kneepads is that they’re totally independent of any pair of pants, making these arguably the best tactical knee pads for Marines, in particular, since most are not authorized to wear the unobtanium Crye Precision G3s in MARPAT. Furthermore, these are supremely comfortable and impact-resistant knee pads, so far that I tested them by strapping them on and having a friend take a stick to my knees, which they stopped handily. Finally, the design is ingenious, with a protective plate that tapers below the knee to flex naturally, a non-elastic lower strap to prevent movement, but an elastic upper strap to further enable knee mobility, and porous foam that doesn’t smother your knee but which still can take a beating.

Despite the fact that the foam is porous and the padding narrows right below the kneecap to not cover more space than is necessary, these are still very hot on warmer days, and you will get sweaty knees. Additionally, the clips have failed on multiple users after prolonged use, and they’ve taken to doing their own swaps of more durable buckles. Finally, the porous foam, after being exposed to human sweat and various impacts for long periods of time, will break down, so these won’t last forever.

Product Specs
  • Colors: Crocodile (dark earth), black
  • Materials: Plastic outer shell, foam inner pad, one static strap, one elastic strap, plastic buckles
  • Fastening method: Plastic dovetail buckles
  • Protection: Puncture, impac, and abrasion resistance
  • Country of manufacture: Canada
Why It Made The Cut
  • These knee pads attach more traditionally to your knees regardless of what pants you’re wearing, but perfect the formula with high-tech materials and construction.
PROS

Work with any pants

Outstanding cushioning

Designed to prevent slipping and movement

CONS

Fragile clips

Very hot on warm days

Foam degrades after prolonged use

Best for Comfort

UF Pro is a brand that most buyers in the United States may not know, but really should. Hailing from Slovenia, the company has provided tactical clothing to some of the most elite special operations units in Europe, and its momentum is catching on here. Unlike many other tactical brands, it totally eschews copying Crye pants and instead radically departs with innovative, if controversial designs. I personally own a full set of the Striker X combat uniform in French CCE camouflage, and have found it to be the best for my body type, in spite of its bizarre appearance.

The Striker X uniform is designed to be nearly indestructible and to be easily repairable in the event that you do tear something. A large part of that is due to features like reinforced “Canadian buttons” that are held in with ribbon rather than string, dense double stitching around every seam, and 500D cordura belt loops, cuffs, and knees, among other unique features. In addition, the Striker X is fantastically comfortable, with the entire seat of the pants being made of stretch material, meaning that the ass, at least, fits like yoga pants. Finally, the kneepads can be scaled to what you need at the moment. I usually take mine out if I’ll be walking long distances, which can be easily done through a top-loading zipper, but you can add puncture layers, your choice of an impact-resistant tactical knee pad or a soft tactical knee pad that focuses more on cushioning, or a combination of these.

Whenever people compare UF Pro to Crye, their biggest complaint is that, unlike Crye pants, the Striker X knee pads cannot be adjusted for height, only width. Some people have unusually long shins or femurs and their knee is at a different spot on their leg, and this is very important. Another large issue is that this brand is relatively unknown in the United States, so asking someone to spend hundreds of dollars on their pants (not including the knee pad inserts and thermal liner) is a big ask. Finally, and frankly, a lot of people find UF Pro’s styling to be ugly and overdone, and they lack a lot of the sleek coolness of Crye for some.

Product Specs
  • Colors: Multicam, flecktarn, steel gray, brown gray, various limited edition colors
  • Materials: 50/50 NyCo ripstop, 500D cordura outer knees, belt loops, and cuffs, Schoeller-Dynamic seat and knee stretch panels
  • Fastening method: Zipper knee pocket
  • Protection: Selectable puncture, abrasion, and impact resistance
  • Country of manufacture: Slovenia
Why It Made The Cut
  • This offbeat Slovenian brand makes some of the strongest, most comfortable tactical pants on the market, featuring an innovative three-layer design.
PROS

Extremely durable

Outstanding comfort

Kneepads can be scaled at will

CONS

Kneepads are not adjustable for height

Brand is relatively unknown in the U.S.

Controversial styling

Things to consider before buying tactical knee pads

All of the kneepads featured on this list excel in certain situations, and knowing what you need in a tactical knee pad can be very helpful to ensure you make the right purchase.

Needed protection

People who are in largely urban environments with hard pavement and dangerous detritus like nails and broken glass will likely need maximum comfort and puncture protection, whereas those in the desert or forest might not need as much padding, and may prioritize keeping their knees cooler and forego kneepads altogether. Making sure that your knee pads are easy to remove, or picking a scalable system like the UF Pro 3D knee pads, can be helpful.

Type of pants worn

Certain knee pads are dependent on the pants that you wear, and those who want to wear plain pants like 5.11 Tactical pants with knee pads will likely want to rely on external knee pads like the Arc’teryx LEAF Combat Knee Caps. Kneepad options like the Crye Airflex need to be used with compatible pants, and others like the UF Pro 3D knee pads are only compatible with their brand’s pants.

FAQs about tactical knee pads

Q: How do I choose knee pads?

A: Choosing knee pads depends on your intended use. For instance, some people only wear one knee pad on their dominant knee to keep the other cool. If you mostly walk long distances or your tactical environment is mostly or almost entirely soft surfaces, you can likely get away without knee pads. However, if you frequently move through rocky, paved, or otherwise hard terrain, knee pads are a must.

Q: Can you run with knee pads?

A: Modern kneepads like the ones on this list don’t inhibit running as much as older models did. The Arc’teryx knee pads have the capability to slip and inhibit running, but the integrated ones don’t do that at all, especially when properly adjusted.

Q: How do you know what size to get tactical knee pads in?

A: Most of them are one-size-fits-all, but for extremely small or slim people, especially children and teens, I’ve seen some cases where they strap on elbow pads rather than wear knee pads. However, it’s fairly telling that Crye’s female-fit combat pants don’t use any different-size knee pads, despite being cut slimmer.

Q: Are knee pads considered PPE?

A: I don’t know what else you think they’re doing to your knees.

Final thoughts

Kneepads are a tricky topic to tackle. The overall zeitgeist of tactical gear design has moved away from external kneepads and almost entirely to integrated knee pads. This is because modern materials allow internal kneepads to do everything that the external ones do while offering improved mobility, cooling, and other protective features. The Crye Precision G3 Combat Pants are the biggest example of this and are still considered the gold standard that most other brands simply emulate.

Methodology 

Every knee pad option on this list has been personally tested by me in various environments and in different applications. I’ve personally owned combat pants by Crye, Beyond, Arktis, UF Pro, and 5.11, and I have tested the Arc’teryx knee pads with my issued MARPAT FROG trousers. Every option was required to protect against abrasions and impacts at the minimum, with puncture resistance being considered an added bonus. None of these options personally failed me, and most other users concur with their experiences.