Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Military Surplus Gear


Military surplus equipment is a rather popular way for people to get the gear they need for various activities. Simply put, military surplus (or "mil-surp") gear is known for generally being very cost effective. Mil-surp encompasses a very wide variety of equipment, from small pouches all the way up to ships. This article, however, will be exploring mil-surp gear that can be used for outdoor activities, including packs, sleeping bags, clothing, boots, mess kits, etc.

Explanation of Military Surplus Gear

First of all, let me explain the nature of military gear in general and military surplus gear in particular. When a nation want to equip its military, it generally goes through a process of putting out requirements for a specific piece of equipment then taking bids from various contractors. There is usually testing of various prototypes, then the contract goes out to the company with the lowest bid who met the requirements. They then manufacture the item for the military in very large quantities.

After a time of military service, the military may deem that they no longer want to use some or all of a particular piece of gear that is in service. Sometimes, it might be replaced by a different piece of gear for various reasons. Other times, the piece of gear is still in use, but some that have been used for a while are wearing out and need to be replaced by the same piece of gear. And still other times, the military may simply have more of a piece of gear in inventory than they need.

However, the gear in question may not always be instantly surplussed. It may first be mothballed for an extended period of time. The military may keep it in storage for a while so that they have a supply of older, useable gear to supplement their supply of newer gear in an emergency. For example, if a country got into a major war and had to draft 500,000 men, they may not have enough newer equipment for such a surge in demand. By keeping the older gear in storage, they at least have something to equip their soldiers with in such a situation. This is why a lot of gear that suddenly shows up on the surplus market is decades old and hasn't been used in years. But as time goes on, even the gear they have mothballed eventually gets surplussed.

US surplus mess kit and canteen cup.

Advantages of Military Surplus Gear

Now that I have provided a description of mil-surp gear, I will now get to what this article is really about, starting with advantages.

1. Price

When a military gets rid of their older equipment, they do so because they no longer want to have it on hand. Therefore, they have no desire to maximize profits and sell it very cheaply just to ged rid of it quickly. Because of this, there are some excellent deals to be had on mil-surp gear. Let me give you a few of examples from my own collection.

The sleeping bag that I currently use is a surplus Czech military police sleeping bag. I find it to be quite comfortable and it has kept me warm in temperatures down to about freezing. I paid $20 for it.

There are two packs that I use, an ILBE main pack and ILBE assault pack. I use the larger main pack for overnight backpacking trips and the smaller assault pack for shorter day hikes. These packs were designed by Arc'teryx and manufactured by Propper. They are both very comfortable and durable packs and work very well. I paid about $150 combined for them.

My favorite pair of boots was made by Belleville. They are very comfortable and rugged. They normally retail for about $150, but I got them surplus for $30.

One other note about price: military surplus items follow a rather unusual, yet predictable, supply and demand curve. When a new surplus item is brought to market, it is done in very high numbers and supply usually surpasses demand. This causes prices to be very low. But the supply, no matter how large it is, is limited; no more will be released based on market demand. As time goes by (anywhere from months to decades), that supply is used up until a point is reached when demand is greater than supply and prices go up. Eventually, it may even reach a point where it is considered a collector's item and then prices really go up. If you see a mil-surp item that you like at a good price, get it now. It may not be available in the future at that same price, if at all.

Czech military police sleeping bag, ILBE main pack, and ILBE assault pack

2. Durability

Military gear often has to go through some very rough conditions. Conditions on the battlefield are not tolerant of fragile gear. Gear that has the chance of being blown up, run over by a tank, or, worst of all, being handled and used by grunts on a daily basis, has to be tough in order to last very long. When choosing gear to use, durability is a huge priority for a military. As a result, the surplus gear that get passed down to the civilian market is quite tough. Be assured that if you buy a piece of mil-surp gear, it is a very tough piece of gear that will be able to withstand a lot of hard use for a long time.

On the flip side of this, there are some people who use a lot of mil-surp gear who think that it is tougher than anything on the civilian market. This is simply not true. There is actually a lot of equipment that is as tough or even tougher than mil-surp gear made by companies like Arc'teryx and Patagonia. However, this toughness comes at a price (literally). These are high end brands that charge a lot of money for a very high quality product. A pair of pants can cost $300. A parka can cost $500. A main pack can cost $800. Then there are custom gear manufacturers that charge even more. They all offer excellent products made out of exotic materials that can be very tough, but they are equally expensive. Military surplus gear has the advantage of offering toughness at a much lower price.

3. MOLLE/PALS Compatible

Modular Lightweight Load-carry Equipment, or MOLLE (pronounced "molly," like the female name), is a system that allows users to customize their gear. 1" straps are horizontally attached 1" apart from each other on different pieces of gear to which various pouches can be attached. This can also be seen as a disadvantage as it adds weight, and of course not all military surplus gear is MOLLE compatible. But the gear that does has a level of customizability that most civilian gear lacks (though I will admit that I have seen a handful of civilian packs that have PALS webbing; however, it is definitely not common). Extra pouches, including specialty pouches designed for specific pieces of gear, can be added to many packs, vests, and belts. Holsters, magazine pouches, canteen pouches, first-aid kit pouches, e-tool pouches, and a plethora of general purpose pouches, can be easily added or removed as the user desires. In addition to customizability, the extra pouches also allow quicker access to specific items. For example, if someone was hurt and I wanted to get to my first aid kit quickly, I don't have to rummage through my pack to get it. It is right there in a dedicated pouch on the outside of my pack for quick, easy access.

There are some things that are simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage, so I am listing them in a separate category.

1. Usability

Military gear is usually subjected to all kinds of testing and is only put into service if it meets a certain level of performance. Basically, the military only adopts gear that works. Also, the military contains personnel with a wide range of intelligence levels, and gear is usually designed with the lowest common denominator in mind. In other words, it is usually designed to be easy to figure out. Therefore, you can generally expect mil-surp gear to be simple and able to get the job done.

On the other hand, while it is designed to work, it it not necessarily designed to work well, only well enough. For example, a lot a military gear is usually heavy (more on that later). While it still works well enough with the extra weight, it would work better if it were lighter. Also, just because soemthing is easy to figure out does not mean it is easy to use.

2. Appearance

Military gear typically comes in different camouflage patterns and earth tones, and it just has this certain look to it that just says "military." It is great to have camouflage if you plan on doing any type of hunting. Personally, I prefer to have more subtle tones that don't stand out when outdoors anyway. Some of the really bright colors that civilian gear usually comes in I consider to be a bit of an eyesore in the wilderness, and I know I am not alone in this thought.

However, you also have the issue of associating military gear with actually being in the military (a natural association to make). This takes one of two forms. First, people may think that you are or were in the military. This is not so big of a deal if it is true for you, but for someone like me, a civilian who uses a lot of mil-surp gear, this can create some awkward situations. I have had a few people ask me if I was in the military. Recently I even had someone forego that question and go straight to asking me which branch of the military I served in (and the only military gear I had was boots and a pair of OD green BDU pants). It was kind of awkward to explain to her that I had not been in the military at all.

Second, people may think that you are not in the military but like to pretend that you are. You may get weird looks and attitudes from people who think you are out playing soldier. But this is especially awkward from people who are in the military who think you are pretending just to get the respect of being considered in the military. The term for this is stolen valor. This is not my intention at all and I carefully try to avoid this. I have the utmost respect for those who have served in the military and have no desire to steal any of the respect they deserve and have similar attitudes as veterans themselves toward those who try.


1. Weight

This is probably the biggest disadvantage of military surplus gear. While the military wants gear that is tough and that works, they are really not too concerned about weight. For example, the Czech sleeping bag that I mentioned earlier weighs 7 pounds; it is also bulky and takes up a lot of space in my ILBE main pack, which itself weighs 8-9 pounds. Add in my 4 pound tent and I am carrying close to 20 pounds already without any food, water, mess kit, or clothing. If you stock up on nothing but surplus gear, expect to carry a lot of weight.

2. Age

Mil-surp gear tends to be kind of old, sometimes decades old. It has been sitting around for a while. There is a certain smell that surplus tends to have, and while it is not a terrible smell, it is usually there. Just walk into a military surplus store and you will instantly know what I am talking about. The military usually does a good job of storing their gear, so I have not had very many issues with things like mold, water damage, or damage from moths and other insects, but some items still do not age well. For example, I recently purchased a US issue canteen. It was made from a plastic/rubber like material and 1997 was printed on it as the date of manufature. After an initial cleaning with soap and hot water, I tried to drink out of it. The water had a strong plastice taste to it. Not a big deal, I thought; I have experienced this before with some other canteens and the taste would fade away over time. Well, I used this canteen several times and the taste never went away; it never even faded. Eventually, I ended up throwing it away because the plastic taste just would not go away.

3. Size availability

This can be frustrating when looking for a specific size of something wearable. There is very inconsistent availability of sizes, and there are some things that you just will not be able to find in your size. I was recently looking at some boots online and they were only available in two sizes: 4 and 14, with nothing in between.

My beloved Belleville boots in action. I was able to find them in my size.

Comparisons to Civilian Gear

In my opinion, there are three traits to any piece of gear: light weight, high durability/functionality, and low price. You can find gear that has any two of these three traits, but not all three. Let us consider the different combinations.

Light weight and high durability/functionality.
This is the high end brands like Arc'teryx and Patagonia. Their items items are lightweight, and work very well. However, they are very expensive.

Low cost and light weight.
This is the low end brands like Coleman. Basically, anything you would find in the outdoor aisle at Wal Mart. They tend to be fairly light weight. The high end brands may be even lighter, but they are still lighter than most mil-surp gear. They are also inexpensive. However, their durability/functionality is the lowest. They will typically only hold up to light to moderate use.

Low cost and high durability/functionality.
This, of course, is where the military surplus gear comes in. It is low cost and has high durability/functionality, but it weighs a lot.

Closing Thoughts

So, should you buy military surplus gear or civilian gear? Well, that depends on several factors, including what activities you plan on doing, how often and under what conditions it will be used, and what your budget is. Military surplus gear is most popular among those on a small budget who want quality gear that can withstand some abuse, and it fills that role nicely. If all you want to do is some light hiking and car camping a few times in the summer, the lower end civilian gear should be perfectly adequate. And if you want something that is tough and lighweight and you have a larger budget, the high end civilian brands will serve you very well.

Personally, I own mostly military surplus gear, but that is in part because I am on a fairly limited budget. My main pack, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, boots, and mess kit are all mil-surp. The only major item I have that is not mil-surp is my tent, which is a one man tent made by Alps Mountaineering and weights 4 pounds. As time goes on, I will probably invest in some better civilian gear to cut down on weight, starting with a lighter sleeping bag (I already have my eye on a down bag from REI that weighs only 3 pounds). However, I don't think I will ever completely stop using surplus gear. Despite the weight, I really like my ILBE main pack and plan on getting years of use out of it. I also love my Belleville boots and won't be giving them up any time soon.

Your choice of gear may be different than mine, and that is fine. We all have different needs, different budgets, and different preferences. I hope that this article has served to help those who are looking into military surplus gear. But ultimately, get the gear that will get the job done. That is being a tactical outdoorsman.

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