Go into a military surplus store and you’ll see lots of kit that could be useful to backpackers. However, a watchful eye is needed. Although the kit is good quality there is no denying that a lot of it is heavy by backpacker standards. Ultralight (Ultralite) hikers might feel a bit queasy reading the last sentence! Some of it is, shall we say, well used too.
However, there are bargains to be had if you buy issued but unused or Grade A while keeping your eyes open for weight issues. You’ll have to be resigned to having kit made with DPM (camouflage) materials but that’s no bad thing if you are wild camping.
I own a fair bit of military surplus as it is ideal for bushcraft pursuits. Bushcrafters tend to static camp so weight isn’t that much of an issue. What follows below are things that I have found useful in both bushcraft and backpacking.
The German Army let a fair amount of good quality, unused equipment onto the market. The DPM is Flecktarn and it fits well with our woods and moorland. I own a poncho tarp that is the equal of the Golite Poncho tarp in size and has an internal drawstring to stop it flapping in wind but the cost is circa £12 compared to £45+. There is a weight penalty of 60g compared to the Golite that could be reduced if you swap out the paracord drawstring with Dyneema.
I also own a German Gore-Tex jacket. It needed re-proofing and cost £8. It performs extremely well and is no heavier than any Gore-Tex shell. Gore-Tex trousers are also available at similar prices. German Army knives are actually Swiss Army knives as they are made by Victorinox or Wenger and can be purchased for £10 or less. The German (and French) army also use a day sack similar to the one that Ray Mears uses but have green fabric and are waterproof. They have a large central compartment, two huge side pockets and a rear pocket plus loads of tie-on points for sleeping mats, etc. It is large enough (30-35 litres or so) to use for a weekend backpack in summer. Cost around £12-20.
The Swiss Army offer gel cookers (200g) complete with matches and pot stand. They are resealable and work very well albeit relatively slowly. I often use one. They can be refilled with Greenheat or Sterno. Cost is about £4.
Almost all armies offer a cooking system, many hexamine based. Cheap, cheerful and ultra-reliable. I like them but they do blacken the bottom of pots and are slow compared to gas. Wet grass or a used teabag can clean the soot. Cost is around £5 including fuel. New Hexi blocks are easily obtainable.
The Swedish Army uses a Trangia system akin to the mini-Trangia but with a far better windshield and packing system. Cost around £15 for new, under £10 issued but in good condition.
Typical British Army goodies (Woodland or Desert DPM) that can be found are tarps (about 350g for a 10ft x 8ft, all the tie-out points you could wish for, cost of £10-20), Gore-Tex gauntlets (ideal for use with a poncho – I paid £5 for an unissued pair). I paid £20 for an issued but unused Gore-tex bivvy bag that is large enough to get you and your kit inside. Mine weighs 700g-heavyish but not back-breaking.
Often available are Snugpak Sleeka jackets that are good to about -5C, with just a baselayer. They are filled with a synthetic insulator and are showerproof (pertex external layer). Mine is one of the best jackets I have ever owned. And they are green, not DPM! Weight is circa 800g. I paid £20 for an issued but unused one, retail is around £65 new.
Ration Packs (Rat packs) are often available. They are wet food so fairly heavy but can be eaten hot or cold. The shelf life is usually ten years. A British rat pack contains 5000 calories and include breakfast, lunch, three course dinner supplemented by biscuits, chocolate, toilet paper, water purifying tablets, brew kit, boiled sweets and other edibles. The food is actually very nice. I tend to take selected portions for the first night of a backpack. Expect to pay £10-12.
Military surplus can be useful to the backpacking community with certain provisos. Firstly, shop around as prices fluctuate. There is usually a weight penalty and you will be wearing camo. However the kit is cheap, durable and reliable.