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Bushcrafters, survivalists, preppers and outdoorsmen have a lot to thank the military for when it comes to kit and equipment. Necessity has driven the armed forces to develop the skills, training and equipment to allow men and women to operate 1. in harsh climates 2. far from support and 3. under many of the worst imaginable conditions.
Even as far back as the first ‘special forces’; e.g the Rogers Rangers who operated deep inside enemy territory during the Seven Year War some 250 years ago, soldiers have had to survive both the elements and the threat of the enemy. Experience soon shaped tactics and equipment for these newly emerging “special forces” so they could remain comfortable and combat effective even for long periods in whatever conditions they found themselves in.
Survival equipment, skills and training became even more important with the advent of military aviation where airmen run the risk of being stranded far behind enemy lines with only very basic equipment. To help these airmen, survival equipment and gear became smaller and smaller, so it would fit in with the minimal equipment which could be stashed in a pilot or crew members kit of military survival gear.
Along with the innovation that stems from necessity (it’s literally life or death) when it comes to military gear, there are also plenty of companies vying for lucrative military contracts that are trying to innovate and improve on existing gear. When these companies are successful it’s only a matter of time before that kit becomes available to civilians either through military surplus channels or directly from manufacturers.
Surplus equipment represents some of the best value survival gear for both outdoors and urban environments. In contrast the fact that a company makes a product for the military or that it was designed for the military can sometimes be used as a marketing ploy to considerably inflate the price when marketed directly to civilians. That is of course not always the case and there is some fantastic gear out there if you know where to look. The purpose of this article is to point you towards the very best gear made for, or inspired by the military, while avoiding the overpriced junk that a lot of military-ish gear ends up being.
The Best Military Survival Knives
We’ll start with the most important survival tool of all… knives. Now obviously the military has no monopoly on knives, people have been using knives since long before steel, or any metal at all for that matter. After all, blades of flint, chert, obsidian or even of polished bone were tools of survival for thousands of years before steel was ever forged by humans. Nowadays, we have the benefit of high-tech steel tools. There are plenty of adequate survival knives without military credentials out there, but there are also a few knives designed for the military which you should seriously consider if you are in the market for a top notch survival knife that won’t ever let you down (we recommend you read our in depth breakdown of the best survival knives here).
Don’t confuse survival tools with some other knives that might have a place in the gear of a special forces soldier though. For example, perhaps one of the most famous military knives of all time is the Fairbairn Sykes Commando Dagger but it is not a survival tool, it is designed for one thing and one thing alone; combat… and it excels at that.
Think of bayonets as another example – they are weapons, and aren’t designed as all-purpose survival tools. The blade profiles of knives that are designed for stabbing and double sided edges (both edges are sharp) make the knife impossible to use with any kind of support on the back of the blade which you will need for the fine carving required for firecraft, trap making and other common survival tasks. So forget fighting knives and consider a few of these.
Buying a knife for survival is all about finding something that can get the job done and last a long time. Many military issue knives are perfect for combat and will last a few days, but they are not designed for the hard and continuous work of survival.
The knife of the pilots of the Swedish Airforce since 1995, the F3 is one of the most popular survival knives in the world and has cultivated an incredible reputation. With a blade of 3.8 inches its relatively small size means that not everyone agrees that it is a true “survival knife” whatever that means. Also, remember that this knife needs to fit in a pilots ejection kit so it can’t be too large.
What it lacks in size though it more than makes up for in the quality of it’s construction. A laminated blade of Japanese VG-10 steel (upgraded steel are available on higher end models of the F1) gives you incredible strength combined with a hard edge for sharpness and edge retention. A full convex grind makes the edge very strong as well as razor sharp and relatively easy to maintain in the field. The thermorun handle protects bare hands from cold weather (here’s a specific list of cold weather survival gear and provides plenty of grip. While it isn’t cheap at around $130 it does represent excellent value for money.
Issued to SEALS during BUDS(Basic Underwater Demolition, the name for the core on Navy SEALS training) the cold steel SRK gives you a larger blade than the Fallkniven F1 which makes it a little more versatile as a survival knife allowing you to more easily tackle heavy duty tasks such as batoning. The basic model doesn’t give you the super high quality Japanese steel of the F1 (although for a bit more money there are versions of the SRK available in San Mai III steel) or the strong convex edge but it is very functional. It’s a great choice for anyone who wants an all-around great survival knife that’s versatile and useful in many situations.
This is a huge category and there are plenty of manufacturers who make a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ however that name comes from the original pocket knife made for and issued to Swiss soldiers which combined a blade and other tools for maintain the Schmidt-Rubin rifle used by the Swiss Army at the time. You might not think of a Swiss Army Knife as “military inspired”, but it’s in the name. The first Swiss knife was specifically designed to be useful to soldiers in the field.
These knives were originally made by a German company but in 1891 manufacturing moved to Switzerland where they were made by the company that in 1909 would become Victorinox who still (among many other companies) make pocket knives known as Swiss Army Knives today.
These knives are incredibly useful for survival, not only because they include important tools like scissors, screwdrivers and can openers as well as a simple blade, but because you are far more likely to have a pocket knife on you at all times that you are a large fixed blade knife. Remember they saying “the best survival knife is the one you have on you”. However good your fixed blade knife is it won’t help you if it’s not on you when you need it but your Swiss Army Knife might. If you’re interested in getting a swiss knife, you might also be interested in taking a look at our list of the best multitools for survival – a multitool is the Swiss knife’s slightly larger, more versatile brother.
Another knife that we frequently recommend here is the USMC KABAR Knife, a knife that was issued to US marines in World War 2. It’s a no frills, classic design that’s utilitarian and serves its purpose well. It’s one of the most recognizable and well known knife designs in the world for good reason. This KABAR knife is made in the USA and comes with a durable leather sheath.
We also like the ESEE-3MIL-P knife thanks mostly to the well-designed blade that makes it perfect for cutting all types of material. The width of the blade itself adds to the durability while the ergonomic handle provides comfort for cutting apart twigs, slicing into cans, and even heavier work like cutting and chopping for meals in the wild. The molded polymer sheath provides a solid grip, so there’s little difficulty in handling the knife. Plus, it sharpens easily, so it stays at the ready when needed.
Beyond Knives: More of the Best Military Survival Gear
While knives are integral to successful survival, there’s more that you need if you want to have access to the survival tools that the military have.
M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon
Part of the survival kits aboard US air force aircraft from the 1950’s until the 1970’s, this firearm combining .22 hornet and .410 shotgun barrels, allowed downed aircrew to hunt for food. It wasn’t uncommon for weapons for hunting to be issued to aircrew, the Luftwaffe issued a ‘drillings’, a three barreled firearms with two shotgun barrels and a single 9.3mm rifle barrel, to it’s aircrew operating in North Africa as a defense against wild animals and for subsistence. Believe it or not even Russian cosmonauts were issued a survival pistol combining a shotgun and rifle barrel for self defense and hunting in case cosmonauts were stranded in Siberia after landings.
While any of these specific firearms would now be collectors’ items they have inspired a number of light weight, portable firearms for hunting such as the Savage model 42 which combines the .22 and .410 like the M6 does. Alternatively the Henry AR-7 or the Chiapa Little Badger are both compact rifles which would fit inside your average backpack without taking up much more space than tent poles. While these firearms might not feature the semi-automatic, NATO equivalent calibers and tactical accessories favored by preppers they are far more practical and useful for backwoods and wilderness survival.
For years flint and steel have been the way to make fire, friction fire is of course a possibility with practice – but as we state over and over, the point of preparing for survival is that hopefully you will have everything you need without having to improvise. Matches and survival lighters are vulnerable to moisture and breakage so the best piece of firestarting gear for survival is the ferrocerium rod. Often mistakenly referred to as flint and steel this piece of kit is actually a rod of an alloy including iron and other elements.
This material wasn’t first made until 1903 and has since been adopted and issued to military forces as part of their survival equipment. There are several major manufacturers of ferrocerium rods – Titan being one of the most notable, and we like their SurvivorSteel ferro rods (they also make one of our favorite paracord survival bracelets). Ferrocerium rods have been issued to a lot of armed forces personnel over time for a good reason. The ferro rod is the most versatile and reliable firestarting options available, which is why so many countries around the world issue them to soldiers. We actually have an entire list of the best ferro rod firestarters right here for those interested.
Everyone (on this site at least) should be familiar with the old reliable survival rule of threes – in a survival situation you will last three hours without shelter in adverse conditions, three days without water, and three weeks without food. In the event of an injury though those estimates are meaningless.
A catastrophic bleed could easily kill you and while the accepted wisdom has fluctuated over the years the accepted advice now though is that even civilian first aiders should use tourniquets if necessary. This could quite easily be the difference between life and death. Far better than improvising from a belt, military issue tourniquets are also included in many civilian first aid kits and should be part of yours too. In the event of a bad wound or injury, without the time you can buy yourself with properly applied first aid none of the rest of your survival gear is going to matter.
See also: The Best First Aid Kits for Survival
Compact survival items and tools are in important part of miniature survival kits and the wire saw is one of those innovations that is particularly useful. The wire saw was originally developed as an addition to the survival kit for airmen – it’s extremely compact, perfect for the very minimal amount of gear that those who fly get to carry with them in case of genuine emergencies.
A proper bow saw or folding pruning saw would be far more effective, and these compact wire saws take a little practice and getting used to – but they provide an incredibly compact tool for preparing firewood and shelter poles in a survival situation, and they met one of the military’s greatest needs – a saw that’s as compact as possible for use in the minimalist survival kit that air force pilots get to have with them in case of ejection. You may not be flying planes, but if maximizing your maneuverability and keeping your pack light is a priority (as it is for many survivalists), then a wire saw makes a lot of sense.
The e tool, short for entrenching tool (and sometimes known as a survival shovel as well) is a small military style shovel that was used for digging trenches as well as a variety of other military functions.
The history of the entrenching tool dates (believe it or not) all the way back to Roman times. Roman soldiers used spades to dig trenches and build ramparts as a way to fortify their position even when on the march. Obviously they were essential in the trench warfare of World War I, and in World War II, the first foldable e tools were developed and were included in the standard issue equipment for soldiers in many countries. The e tool / survival shovel remains standard issue today in the US military.
We actually have an entire article about the best e tool and survival shovels which you can find here. The US military standard issue e tools are widely available and can be found on amazon. While the US army model isn’t the absolute best survival shovel out there, it’s very good value and does what it’s designed for very well. It lacks the features of some of the more innovative survival shovels that other companies have put out, but if you’re looking for genuine military issue gear, the US military e tool should definitely be on the list.
Compact survival firearms give you something to hunt for food with and your knife us everything you need to build simple traps but fishing is also an excellent way to provide food in a survival situation.
The speedhook is issued to the US military (currently a part of the Cold Weather Survival Kits issued to the US Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Reserves) and allows you to set unsupervised fishing lines which will ‘strike’ and set a hook for you and making survival fishing far more effective. In fact they can be so effective that they are outlawed in some states as a precaution to prevent overfishing.
This might be considered by some to be a luxury but it provides a really great water filtration option, without one you would have to improvise from a sock or a scarf or some other item of material or clothing but considering that these bags weigh next to nothing, take up hardly any space and have an ideal size weave for filtering out small debris and suspended particles in water before it is purified.
These cost next to nothing and will save you the inconvenience of having to improvise a filter from something else. They are also practically indestructible and incredibly cheap compared to modern water filters. Obviously, the level of filtration is not to the standard of a more conventional backcountry water filter (we have a list of the best survival water filters here), but it’s definitely better than nothing and if you know how to choose relatively safe sources of water you’ll be fine.
Millbank bags were issued to British soldiers in World War 2 , so they’re not exactly cutting edge. It’s also advisable that you boil the water after you use the bag. To be honest, this is one of those areas where what we have nowadays is better than the old school military issue stuff. We’d rather have one of these recommended survival water filters than a millbank bag if we were stranded in the wild – nevertheless, the millbank bag is a classic solution to an age old problem, and it practically weighs nothing and takes up no space.
Military / Tactical Flashlight
Your flashlight is definitely one item that you do not want to skimp out on. There is no need to buy the most expensive one, but be prepared to shell out a bit for something that is robust and reliable. You want to look for flashlights made from treated metal, as these are the best way to ensure that their delicate insides will not be damaged. For a survival setting, we’d go for something small and light, as a big flashlight can get heavy pretty quickly once you have been holding it for a long time.
One of our recommendations here is the Hyper-V Tactical Flashlight from J5. What we really like about this is apart from the compact size is the incredible 400-lumen output. That provides me with good self-protection and can attract attention from far away. The three settings include high, low, and strobe which can disorient would-be attackers. Plus, it’s great that it runs off three AAA batteries, so no need for recharging or looking for obscure battery types.
Another attribute is the solid construction which we like – in a pinch, the flashlight can be used as a striking weapon. Plus, the LED light is robust and durable, holding up well against all the bumps, scrapes, and impacts.
One mistake that many people make with their survival kits is buying fancy camping and hiking backpacks. These are expensive, overly complicated and flimsy for real survival situations. You want to look at standard military issue backpacks. They do not look like much, but they are tough, perfectly designed for storing survival gear and very cheap compared to fancy hiking gear.
We’ve spend many days outdoors with my Mardington Military Backpack and loved every minute. It’s the perfect size to carry my supplies, tent, and sleeping bag for treks out into the woods. The MOLLE webbing lets me attach small items to the outside with no difficulty. Another reason why this backpack has become my favorite is the sturdy, durable, polyester material that is water-resistant and holds plenty of supplies and gear comfortably.
The side gear straps can be cinched down quickly so that the backpack fits more comfortably and the large front zipper pocket provides easy access to the tools I use when camping. This is a great backpack for a three-day hiking adventure.
We’ve also heard good things about the Tactical Rush72 Military Backpack for those of you who want the absolute best of the best. It’s more expensive but I’ve heard nothing but good things and that seems to be the consensus from pretty much anyone who’s bought the Rush72 Tactical.
A good sleeping bag is an essential part of survival gear for any trip, trek, or mission that lasts overnight. Choosing the right one for your camping needs is critical because proper sleep is vital to staying sharp.
Size Of Your Sleeping Bag Is Important
You’ll need plenty of room inside, so be sure to choose a sleeping bag that lets your body move around at night. You may need to keep items like your clothes and socks inside, so you’ll have something warm to wear in the morning.
First, you’ll need to select a sleeping bag that is temperature rated well below what you expect to encounter while out in the wild. If the lowest temperature is 35F degrees, for example, choose one that is rated at 25F degrees just in case. You’ll be thankful for having a comfortable sleeping bag when the cold unexpectedly hits.
Good Accessories For Your Sleeping Bag
Your bag should have decent accessories such as a liner, storage sack or stuff sack so you can easily carry it along. A built-in hood is nice, but you can always wear your own, so it is not a necessity.
We can tell you from personal experience that having a warm, cozy sleeping bag is a must. A good night’s rest is vital to keep you awake and alert during the day.
We go camping a lot during the winter, and this Coleman North Rim Extreme Weather Sleeping Bag has proven irreplaceable over the years. The excellent design, 100% polyester construction and filling, and smart comfort technology will keep you warm and cozy even on the coldest nights. The excellent insulation and smartly designed opening makes getting into the bag easy and removes all the drafts. It’s also compact enough to be easily carried.
Plus, on nights that are not so cold, you can unzip the bottom which provides for better ventilation. This is a fantastic sleeping bag for cold winter nights that we can heartily recommend.
Military Surplus Clothing
The biggest trick to remember when buying military surplus clothing (or military style clothing) is to make sure that they are the genuine article. A lot of military surplus stores will also carry big ticket jackets and pants that cost more and perform worse than standard Army issue gear. Remember that no one is going to be judging you on fashion in a survival situation, so you want the genuine article because it will last longer and perform better when you are wet, cold, and so on.
When I’m out camping, hiking, or on military maneuvers, the Rothco Long-Sleeve T-Shirt provides comfort in warm and cool weather conditions. What makes the t-shirt special is the comfortable materials combined with the high-quality cuffs and collar that ensure a great fit. I like the camo t-shirt design, but no matter the color, it feels like a second skin when out in the wild.
One reader has suggested that he likes Crye Precision for military style clothing. While it’s a bit pricier than other brands, the quality is unbeatable. You can really tell that Crye Precision engineers their products for use in the field, and if you can afford it we’d recommend their product.
The Propper BDU Trousers are another camping or hiking must, thanks in large part to the reinforced, felled seams. The 60% cotton, 40% polyester blend provides great comfort when camping, hiking, or just working around the home. We also like the adjustable waist tabs for secure fitting and reinforced knee and seat area which holds up year after year.
We cannot stress enough the difference between a combat boot and a survival boot. Combat boots are made tough, but they are not designed to be comfortable or warm or to be ideal for some of the challenges that you may face in a survival situation. My survival boots are all heavy duty hiking boots that can be used in the desert too. You want hiking boots because you will need to be moving around in a lot of different situations and terrain. You want them to be heavy so that they are durable, warm and waterproof, and you should not have to worry about walking long distances in them. Here comes my favorite one:
The right hiking boots make all the difference when you are out in the wild. Your feet are taking the brunt of the impact, and you’ll need them in tip-top shape if you are hiking over several miles of uneven terrain. The new TR550 from Belleville offers a considerable amount of comfort, durability, and flexibility that have been invaluable on hiking trips.
First, the boots are crafted with leather and a nylon mesh upper which means that they hold together over time and let my feet breathe. The leather is a great material because it is flexible, breathable, and very durable with minimal maintenance. However, what has really impressed us is the Vibram sole that takes away the sharp impacts from rocks and other hard objects that otherwise are damaging to the wearer’s knees and feet.
The TR-1 premium insole also removes the bumps and impacts which make walking over rugged terrain even more comfortable. In addition, we’ve noticed improved mobility, allowing for surer footing as we’ve crossed streams, rocky areas, and other types of terrain that otherwise would slow me down considerably. The combination of traction, impact resistance and comfort have really sold me on the TR550 from Belleville.
The “high top” effect is also nice as having it grip above the ankles provides more confidence in the boot itself. Plus, the heel and toe bumpers are deeply serrated which means surer footing when having to climb steep angles of terrain. Frankly, the Belleville TR550 Hybrid Boot is one of the best military-style survival boots we’ve found, it has all the advantages of a ‘combat boot’ but without the discomfort.
While this is not an exhaustive list of military survival gear, it does highlight some of the most important pieces of survival equipment to be inspired by or directly issued by the military. With the exception of the survival rifle, which depending on what country you’re from might for legal reasons be unavailable (most of our readers are from the US, so it’s an option for a lot of them), there is no reason that all these things shouldn’t form part of a comprehensive military style survival kit that you take with you on treks, hikes, and so forth. They will all genuinely help you out both in the wilderness and in any genuine survival situations you end up in.
Amongst the items listed here you have your most important tool; a knife – as well as the means to filter and purify water, catch food, start fires, and stay warm and sheltered, which covers all your bases from the perspective of the survival rule of threes.
In terms of shelter, we do have non military agencies like NASA to thank for Mylar survival blankets (see the best survival blankets here) and many people choose to use military pattern poncho’s and so forth for survival shelter options – but honestly, compared to the things on the civilian market like DD tarps for example, military shelter options don’t have anything to offer over and above what is easily available on the civilian market.
A lot of the best survival gear we have access to is thanks to the military and their innovations and designs. As your prepare for outdoor excursions (or just general prepping) you would be foolish not to consider adding some of these items to your stash of survival gear.
Just to mention – in past years a lot of military surplus was carried in physical stores found in many major U.S. cities and an assortment of smaller towns. While a number of those shops may still be around, more and more shop owners have taken their product lines to the web using sites like Amazon and Ebay to sell a wide variety of supplies (though we link to a couple products in this article, if you have a military surplus store in your local town, check them out sometime. You never know what you’re going to find or what kind of deals the shop owner may be willing to make that day).
Take Your Time And Compare Prices When Shopping For Military Gear
The final piece of advice that we’d like to give you about shopping military survival gear, either at military surplus stores or online, is to take their time and compare prices. As mentioned, not every piece of equipment may be “military issue” but still carried by military surplus stores due to either it’s usefulness as an outdoor survival product or simply because there’s a demand for it.
If you’re not cognizant of pricing, you can easily walk into one of these stores, buy everything on your survival list, and come out paying ten times what you should have for what turns out to be low-quality gear. There are many companies that are trying to present as as high quality, military gear when in reality their products are cheap and poorly made. Just because it’s camo patterned doesn’t mean it’s actually high quality or effective.
When it comes to survival gear at military surplus stores, or even Amazon where private sellers often feature their products, keep in mind that the best gear will be reasonably priced and not flashy. Take the time to really check out each piece of equipment before you buy it, and make sure that you are getting it for a good price.