How to choose a gray man backpack – 9 features to consider

gray man backpack

As discussed in our What is a Gray Man blog post, we talk about one’s ability to have options for all situations while maintaining a condition that does not draw attention. In other words, be ready for anything, but don’t broadcast it … Blend in, mold to your environment, etc. You need to have the proper mindset, physical ability, and skill to do what you need to do.

Once those blocks are checked off, you can support your mindset, physical ability, and education with the proper gear and tools. Be mindful, I’m not just talking about some end of the world catastrophic disaster. This applies to everyday life and being prepared for what the day will throw at you.

Once you’ve assessed where you are going, what you are doing, and you acquire the gear you need, how are you going to carry it? If you recall, we previously discussed the Three Tiers of Everyday Carry (EDC). In that article, we explained the differences and carry options for your Tier 1 (Primary EDC), Tier 2 (Secondary EDC), and Tier 3 (Extended EDC).

My feeling is that a backpack is a solid option for carrying all your gear when it comes to your Secondary EDC. It’s probably something you will carry on a regular basis so it needs to be functional and comfortable without sacrificing utility.

“Don’t rely so much on gear you become paralyzed by it. Nothing replaces mindset and knowledge. Be able to adapt and manipulate your environment and use your gear to supplement what you already know.”

When it comes to choosing a backpack for this purpose, the big question is, “what should I choose?” This can be somewhat intimidating in a lot of cases. There are a ton of choices, features, colors, materials, weights, dimensions, etc., that are available to the typical consumer.

If you have no concern about blending into your environment, or if there is no need to, there is absolutely nothing wrong with carrying an olive drab pack covered in PALS webbing and velcro. It can be super effective at organizing and attaching gear, morale patches, etc. I have several myself, which I use for various things.

However, if you want something a little more discreet, this option will not work. So, what do you look for when you want a backpack that fits better into the gray man philosophy? What types of features does a person focus on when looking for a gray man backpack?

When choosing a backpack for gray man purposes, here are the 9 features you need to focus on:

  • Look or appearance
  • Capacity or volume
  • Access
  • Organization
  • Hydration
  • Grab handle
  • Shoulder straps
  • Overall weight
  • Fit


The first thing you need to do is get away from the tactical look if you are trying to keep a low profile. While perfectly fine for a variety of applications, it more than likely will not blend into the general populace. This pack needs to be discreet with a slim/smooth profile. I do not like extra features prone to hanging or snagging on things.

Some backpacks allow you to hide or store various straps, which really helps in reducing the excess. If you are in a congested environment, you need to be able to move as freely as possible without restraint.

man carrying backpack

An example of a low profile backpack.

I prefer a backpack with little to no webbing, velcro, patches, etc. It needs to be something the average Joe would be carrying. Many folks would describe this as a boring, plain Jane style. Heck, some folks may even consider it to look more like a diaper bag than a gear bag. Even better!


Size is probably the biggest hangup for a lot of folks. We live in a society where bigger is better. Sometimes, this may be true, but I don’t believe it relates in terms of a gray man pack. My preference is to get the smallest pack that will do the job. Having extra space means I tend to overpack. Overpacking equals extra weight I do not need to be carrying. 

Identify what gear you want or need to carry and buy a backpack that has the capacity to accommodate those items. Remember, less volume and less weight equal speed, mobility, and comfort. I usually find 25 liters is the sweet spot for me. Obviously, this can vary depending on what I’m doing and where I’m going. I find seasonal considerations can also influence capacity requirements for a lot of folks. If the weather requires you to carry a few extra layers of clothing, you may need a bigger pack.


In terms of access, I want something with quick access to critical gear. This starts with good zippers. Personally, I prefer YKK zippers and they have proven themselves time and time again. I have had little to no failure with YKK zippers properly sized to the gear they are being used on. In contrast, I have had countless zipper failures from inferior brands.

An often overlooked feature when it comes to zippers are the zipper pulls. Some packs come with good zipper pulls and some do not include them at all. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker because you can always add your own. However, they are vitally important in stressful situations. Having zippers which are easy to find and grab can make a big difference when you need quick access to your gear.

Be mindful of the type of access that works best for you. Do you prefer a top opening or front opening (clamshell)? Which will work better for the gear you are carrying and how fast do you need to be able to access it?


Another thing I look for is how the backpack is set up in terms of organization. I like my EDC pack to be highly organized as opposed to the “bucket” style where everything is dumped into one main compartment. A highly organized pack means you can store gear and tools in the exact same spot every time. 

This will allow you the ability to find critical items in adverse conditions, such as a smoke or dust-filled environment. If you prefer the bucket style, be sure to have a way to organize your gear for easy access.

Having an interior with color contrast also makes it easier to visually identify and locate certain gear. Having a black interior, with black gear, and black organizers can make things a bit tricky. Look for some contrast to make things stand out.

If using organizers or pouches in the interior, I like to incorporate colored paracord onto the zipper pulls or other easily identifiable places. For example, you could use red for first-aid, orange for your fire kit, blue for hydration, etc. Again, make sure there is enough color contrast to distinguish certain items. Keep in mind, more organization equals more weight. You need to find the right balance for you and your needs.


In terms of hydration, I like my backpacks to have at least one exterior water pocket or water bottle holder. I may be alone in this regard, but I do not like to stop, open up my pack, and remove my water bottle just to get a drink. I like to grab it on the go without interference.

My personal preference is to use a 32 oz. (1 quart) Nalgene as my standard for size. I know a lot of folks carry water bottles with a much slimmer profile, but if my pack can accommodate a Nalgene it should be able to handle anything else with ease.

Just make sure your pack has a way to tighten down on smaller bottles to prevent unnecessary movement or loss.

Grab Handle

I also look for a pack with a robust grab handle on the top. This comes in really handy if you have taken off your backpack and placed it beside you while sitting down. In the rare scenario, you have to leave in a rapid fashion, you may not have the opportunity to don your pack.

However, you can easily grab a top-mounted grab handle and take off. Once you have removed yourself from the area and the conditions are favorable, you can properly put it on.

Shoulder Straps

This leads me to the next feature I look for, and that is the quality of the shoulder straps. In general, the shoulder straps need to be properly padded, distribute weight accordingly, and have proper placement.

I’ve seen a number of packs fail in these areas. Unfortunately, the only way to test out these features is to get the pack, load it up, and give it a go. You can research and read reviews as much as you want, but sometimes you have to go hands-on.


Another area of concern is the overall weight of the pack. When you start tallying all your gear, tools, pouches, organizers, water, the weight of the pack, etc., it can really add up. Keep in mind, you want to be prepared, but you want to be mobile as well. Keep your overall weight as light as possible.


The last area of concern is the overall fit of the pack. If your pack does not fit you properly, you will never wear it. Make sure you find one that fits your torso length and hip size. Remember, your torso length is not necessarily based on your overall height.

Take the time to get an accurate measurement. Having a properly fitting pack can make all the difference in the world, especially if you find yourself wearing it for long amounts of time while covering a lot of miles.

A bonus feature some manufacturers are taking into consideration is the ability to accommodate a ballistic insert. While it may not be for everyone, it is a nice feature for those who are interested.

Besides being used for a ballistic panel, you can use it store a number of things, such as a laptop, in a more concealed fashion. Just something to think about!


Don’t rely so much on gear you become paralyzed by it. Nothing replaces mindset and knowledge. Be able to adapt and manipulate your environment and use your gear to supplement what you already know. 

To quote Cody Lundin in a recent interview he did with RECOIL OFFGRID, “The more you know, the less you need.”

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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