Outfitted by G.I. Joe – Military Surplus Gear

Military surplus gear is often heavy, bulky and not suitable for much backcountry use. But buried among the heavy packs, canvas sleeping bags and MASH-style tents,  there are some items that are a good bargain and works well for outdoor fun.

At the start of the modern backpacking era (post- World War Two or so), it was very common for an outdoors person to stop by their local military surplus store for their camping and backpacking needs.: A Mountain Troop rucksack,  GI issue poncho, compass and knife was used by Earl Shaffer on his historic 1948 AT thru-hike.   More than a few people started off their backpacking career by hitting up the Army-Navy store for their packs, sleeping bags and tent. . And many outdoor activities were had while clad in surplus olive drab clothing.

But as the outdoor industry came of age, the often bulky and heavy military gear was replaced by lighter, better engineered and more efficient clothing and gear.

Cotton twill pants were replaced by nylon pants that dried quicker.   Camelbaks replaced canteens.  The heavy canvas tents gave way to quicker drying and lighter material.

The outdoor industry surpassed the military issued gear enough where the military started adopting and modifying civilian gear for its own use.

Along the way though, , there was a perception change.

“Real” outdoor enthusiasts don’t use surplus.  That’s only for ATVers, hunters and the people who stockpile five years of food.

Like wise, the other “real outdoor people” who hunt, fish and ride their ATVs won’t shop at REI and other “yuppie” outdoor stores.

Which is a shame.

A good camping tent is a good camping tent. And a rugged and light technical clothing works be it hiking up a 14er or at an elk camp.

Conversely, many of the people who do shop at REI and/or specialty lightweight gear manufacturers are missing out on some surprisingly good gear. Gear and clothing  that is functional, lighter than expected and inexpensive.

Listed below are some items found in surplus stores other people or myself have found to be good alternatives to more mainstream gear.

I picked items that are more feasible for the modern outdoor recreationist and make sense from a price and use situation.. As an example, a MOLLE pack may be serviceable enough but there are more suitable packs that are lighter for backpacking.

Likewise the Gen III ECWCS line  has some nice items and is durable, but are often heavier and around the same price as similar clothing from such stores as REI.  (In fact, some of the newer ECWCS items were designed by commercial manufacturers).

Note: Not all items are necessarily issued by the military. Some items are third party but allowed to be used with the regulation uniform. Others are items often found next to the military issued items and usually found in your typical surplus store.

Have some personal favorites not listed below? Feel free to add them in the comments section!


M-65 Field Jacket Liner (Ebay) A dirt bagger favorite. Light, warm, compressible and inexpensive. With a little sewing, fashion your own Patagonia Puffy clone. 
Liner Pants (EBay) The companion to the above. Not as light as down pants, but still pretty light. For $10 a pair, quite the bargain. Order the long version if you can otherwise the pants reach shin high. (Or wear combat boots. 😉 )
550 Cord Also known as parachute cord. Set up your tarp, bear bag, tie down gear, make some repairs. You get the idea.
Fleece Watch Cap (EBay) The classic  wool ones you have seen on your favorite longshoremen has been replaced with a light, warm and more modern looking warm hat.
Boonie Hat My main stay hat for outdoor use. Rain and sun protection with the classic look (?!)
Wool glove liners A four season favorite of mine. Pair them with a light shell mitt and you have great versatility in all kinds of conditions. .
BDU pants (EBay) I would not take BDU pants for most outdoor activities, but for trail work they are tough and durable. Love them for base camping when I don’t want to ruin more expensive and less durable technical pants.
P-38 Can Opener A light and small item that opens can…among many other things. Heck, I’ve been told Ray Jardine even carries one! 🙂  Keep it on a keychain. The P-51 version is a little larger but easier to use.
Polypro Glove Liners (EBay) I prefer the wool ones myself, but some like the quicker drying properties of the polypro ones.
Therma–a-rest Sleeping Pad ((Military issue) EBay link On the heavier side for three-season backpacking but not too bad for winter backpacking and base camping. Usually steeply discounted vs the ones you buy in REI as they are used, may need some minor repairs and most people don’t want OD green gear. 🙂
Foam sleeping pad Nothing special vs the blue foamer, but may find one at the same time mixed in with all the other goodies on this list and save time.
ECWCS polypro thermal underwear (Ebay) If found at the right price, the silk and mid weights can be a good deal. The expedition weight seems better priced than than the commercial counterparts if with a slight weight penalty.
100 MPH Tape Duct tape on steroids. If you are an outdoors person, I don’t think you need to know the beauty of duct tape.  🙂
“Bear” Fleece (EBay) The older version of the military issue fleece. Roughly equivalent to a 300 wt PolarTech fleece in terms of warmth but usually  less expensive.  Bear fleece bib pants are avail. too.
Military issue Camelbak (EBay) If you find them (gently) used, the price may be very competitive compared to the civilian version. I included this item as it is a  great example of how the US military adopted commercial outdoor gear for its use.
Poncho Liner (Ebay) Essentially a nylon quilted blanket. Similar to the jacket liner in terms of material and filling. For warm regions, an inexpensive choice for sleeping gear. Also works well as an under-quilt if hammock camping.   Good to have stashed in the camp box if base camping. Very versatile item.
PT Shorts Just your standard nylon running shorts that also happened to be used by the military
Wicking Shirt (EBay) As above, just a standard piece of athletic clothing. The wicking t is better than the old cotton t, though.   Both the shorts and t-shirts are similar in price to the C9 clothing at Target.
Wool pants (EBay) Anywhere from $10 on up. The original soft shell: Resists wind, snow, are warm and breathes well. Love ’em for Nordic skiing. These very experienced winter enthusiasts love them too. 
Bunny Boots (EBay) Quite possibly the warmest boots you can buy for winter. The less warm  Mickey Boots can be an option too.  Don’t mind the bulk but want something for the coldest conditions? Go with bunny boots.
Four way fleece hood It’s a hood! A neck warmer! A face mask! A balaclava!  It’s also military issue, warm and $10.
Flyer’s Kit Bag (Ebay) A bag for hauling your gear in for road trips on the way to hiking, backpacking, camping, climbing and so on.  Used, they cost ~$20. Very durable and spacious (~5300 CI).  I prefer these to the standard duffel bag.


There are of course other goodies from what is listed here. The Sportsman’s Guide and other online companies often have items listed from other countries.  These items  work well and often aren’t avail locally.

Have a particular surplus item you love for backcountry use? Share in the comments section below!


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8 years ago

The LWCWUS (Light Weight Cold Weather Underwear Set) is inexpensive and quite warm. The quarter zip shirt and drawers are polyester and commonly available in brown. The LWCWUS is my every day base layer.
There is also a grid fleece underwear system, the drawers of which I have, that is quite warm. With the ECWCS, LWCWUS and MCWCS, there are a number of inexpensive clothing choices and the quality is very good.

8 years ago

Mags. Which front shops have you frequented?

8 years ago
Reply to  Casey

Edit. Frontrange shops…

7 years ago

I love my m1951 nylon shells pants. Pretty baggy, I lived in them when I worked in the Florida Keys back country and Everglades against no-see-ums and mosquitoes and sun. Lots of pockets, built in waste string (that’s cotton??? so needs to be replaced), and also ankle strings (also cotton) In the winter they go over my fleece pants (when downhill skiing, they flap wickedly, but are a brushed nylon, so not so slippery when inadvertent horizontal position occurs). Not so good for XC skiing, as they are too baggy. But snowshoeing they are great as they can vent easily… Read more »

James M
James M
6 years ago

Do you prefer the liner pants with or without the buttons up the side?