Survival vests have long been worn by aviators. The idea behind the vest is that if the aviator is ejected from the plane and unable to get to the emergency kit, they still have essential survival supplies with them.
Now, survival vests are popular with preppers who want to prepare for the worst.
If you are looking for the best survival vest for emergency preparedness, here are our top picks and a guide to choosing the right one for you.
Lightweight and customizable, with an adjustable length and durability, the Rothco is a well-priced choice to add to your survival gear.
Will carry your holster, mags, and other gear in its 17 pockets without making you stick out in a crowd.
Why Get a Survival Vest?
A lot of people consider getting a survival vest as an alternative to a Bug Out Bag. In some situations, this might make sense. However, a survival vest can’t carry the same type or amount of gear as a BOB. Good luck trying to get a bivy bag into a survival vest!
Instead, it is probably better to have a survival vest as a secondary Bug Out Bag. If you had to ditch your BOB, you would still have the vest on with essential gear.
A tactical vest is also great to have for home defense. In a SHTF situation, you could just grab the survival vest and be ready.
How to Choose a Survival Vest
As when choosing any survival gear, you should first identify the problems you are trying to solve. Only then can you find the best gear.
For example, if your goal is to flee through an urban environment stealthily, a tactical vest is not going to help. You’d be better off with a discreet fishing vest that can hold a small survival kit.
I highly suggest you first make a list of goals you want your survival vest to accomplish, as well as a list of gear to include in the vest. Once you have this list, you’ll be able to use the following parameters to choose the best survival vest.
Types of Vest
If you search for “survival vests,” you’ll probably end up with a bunch of low-quality commando-style vests (most of which are made in China).
Instead, I encourage you to think outside the box.
For example, these can all make good survival vests:
- Tactical vests
- Law enforcement vests
- Fishing vests
- Hunting vests
- Photography vests
- Air force vests
- MOLLE vests
- Coast guard vests
Quality of Vest
I’ve tried a lot of survival vests and can tell you that there is a huge difference in quality. Some of those cheap survival vests rip very easily. Cheap vests also tend to fit poorly.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on an expensive survival vest. Just be careful not to get caught up in the style of the vest and instead look for these signs of quality:
- High-denier or ripstop fabric
- Double stitching or reinforced tact stitching
- Made by a well-known brand
- Strong zippers
- Lots of positive reviews
Comfort of Vest
How comfortable a vest is mostly depends on its fit. However, you also need to consider whether you’ll be wearing the vest with a backpack or seat belt.
Seat belt and backpack straps might go over the vest’s gear pouches, causing gear to dig into your body. To prevent this, look for survival vests which have more side pockets than front pockets.
Vests with back pockets are still usable, you’ll just need to keep flat gear like tarps or maps in them.
Fit of the Vest
The fit of a survival vest is incredibly important. A survival vest which is too big will get caught on things like branches. When worn for a long time, a poorly-fitted vest can also dig into your shoulders and armpits and cause chaffing.
For fit, pay particular attention to the length of the vest. At some point, you will be sitting down while wearing the vest. Gear in the lower pockets of the vest will dig into your waist while sitting (especially if you have a larger belly).
It might look a bit dorky, but good tactical vests don’t go further than your belly button.
The best vests will have interior flaps so you can adjust the size.
Avoid vests which can’t be adjusted. It might fit your body frame perfectly during summer, but will be tight if you have to wear the vest with more layers of clothing under it.
The best survival vests also can have their length adjusted. This feature isn’t very common though, so be sure you pay attention to how long the survival vest is.
Utility Features of Survival Vests
As mentioned before, you should first make a list of survival equipment you want to put in your vest. Then you can find a vest which has enough pockets to accommodate this gear.
Types of Pockets to Look for:
- Holster (exterior or hidden interior pistol pockets)
- Mag pouches
- Large back pockets (for carrying survival blankets, tarps, maps, or other flat gear)
- Radio pouch
- Cell phone pouch
- ID pockets
- Water bladder or canteen pouch
- Body armor slots
- Life preserver slot
Instead of getting a survival vest with lots of pockets, you might consider a MOLLE vest instead.
These vests give you a lot more flexibility with how much gear you can carry. However, all those MOLLE attachment pouches can end up costing a lot.
Expect to pay at least $300 to build a complete MOLLE survival vest.
Survival Vests Reviewed
5.11 Tactical PacLite Pro Vest
Adjustable: No | Material: 35% cotton, 65% polyester | Molle: No
Torso Size: Small to XXX large | Lengh: Varies | Weight: 6.15 ounces
Here is a survival vest made by 5.11. Unlike their MOLLE version, this one is made to be discreet for everyday wear.
Don’t let the subtle appearance fool you. The vest is still suitable for tough situations. It features durable-yet-lightweight ripstop material and quad stitching, so will hold up in outdoor environments.
At just 6 ounces, the survival vest is really comfortable to wear. It is cut a bit long and may go over your belt (depending on how tall you are). However, this design was intentional as a way of concealing your sidearm.
As for pockets, there are 17 of them in the TacLite Pro vest. It even has mag pouches and a hidden handgun compartment. Do note that you’ll probably need to buy the 5.11 holster, or your gun will bounce around in the vest.
Some of the pockets are hidden within the interior of the vest. You’ll love that none of the pockets stick out too much.
The only issue with the TacLite Pro vest is its price. You can find similar vests for much cheaper. However, don’t expect them to hold up as well as this vest due to its quality stitching.
- Discreet style
- 17 pockets
- Two concealed carry compartments
- Incredibly well made
- A bit pricey
- Should purchase 5.11 holster to wear with concealed handgun
- Thin material will eventually wear down
Best For: Preppers who want the best, discreet survival vest available.
Rothco Cross Draw MOLLE System
Adjustable: Yes | Material: 1000D Cordura nylon | Molle: Yes
Torso Size: up to 3XL | Lengh: Adjustable | Weight: 5lbs
The Rothco Cross Draw MOLLE System is a tactical vest with an adjustable design that accommodates most body types. It offers a fully adjustable length at the shoulders and girth, with quick-release utility clips and a front zipper. The vest comes with six secure attachments for the survival belt, which can be removed if needed.
The belt is designed to hold gear comfortably and features a quick-release buckle. The vest has rows of loops for attaching Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE), with the top rungs having a Velcro background for rip-away pouches. However, there are reports that some magazines are too big for the ammo pouches.
The Cross Draw vest is lightweight and lined with mesh for breathability. It has minimal padding on the shoulders, which can be uncomfortable for some users. The vest is made from a combination of 1000D Cordura nylon and polyester, making it abrasion and weather-resistant.
The vest has good storage capacity, with three rifle-mag pouches and an abundance of pistol mag pouches. It also has two mesh pockets inside for additional storage. The back can hold a camel bladder or an armor plate, but there is no armor-bearing capacity for the front panels.
Despite some minor flaws, the Rothco Cross Draw is practical for various uses. It offers easy access to ammo pouches and has a clear back for shouldering a pack or bug-out bag. The vest is designed for right-handed shooters, but left-handed users can attach a holster to the survival belt or add a leg holster.
Read our full Rothco Cross Draw MOLLE System review.
- Easy to access ammo pouches
- Convenient shoulder D-rings
- Plenty of maneuverability
- Easy to wear with a backpack
- Spot to add armor plate in back
- Plenty of ammo storage for pistols
- Disappointing holster
- No side breakaway clips
- Awkward cinching straps
- Limited ammo storage for rifles
- No communications pouch
Best For: Hardcore survivalists who need to reliably carry a lot of heavy gear.
Rothco Uncle Milty Vest
Adjustable: No | Material: 55% cotton, 45% polyester | Molle: No
Torso Size: Small to XXX large | Lengh: Varies | Weight: Under 1lb
If you are looking for a more discreet style survival vest, this one by Rothco is worth considering. It is designed to be a travel or camping vest, so it doesn’t have mag pouches or a holster. However, it does have 17 pockets that can fit a lot of small survival gear like your compass, whistle, and water purification tablets.
Considering the price, the Uncle Milty vest is of very good quality. However, the material is a bit thin. If you load up the vest with heavy items, expect the pockets to start fraying. I’m guessing it would also tear easily if snagged on bushes.
I wouldn’t rely on this vest to get you through a complete SHTF situation, but it is a good cheap solution for carrying survival gear every day without drawing attention to yourself.
- 17 pockets
- Suitable for everyday wear
- Hangs past belt line
- Thin material
- Not suitable for heavy gear
Best For: Outdoorsmen who want a survival vest they can wear everywhere.
5.11 MOLLE LBE Vest
Adjustable: Yes | Material: Stiffened Nylon Mesh | Molle: Yes
Torso Size: US sizes 34-68 | Lengh: Adjustable | Weight: 2.86lbs
5.11 is a really popular brand for survival vests and their products are great quality. Even though this MOLLE vest was made in China, it is still the “real deal.” The nylon mesh is sturdy, and the seams are secure.
The MOLLE webbing goes over the entire vest (including the back), so it is completely customizable. Of course, you’ll have to pay for these customization pouches and it can take some time to get the vest just right.
I really like that the MOLLE vest comes in multiple sizes and is adjustable. Even its length is adjustable, which is a feature you don’t find in many other survival vests. The vest is designed in a way that doesn’t affect the MOLLE attachments as you adjust it.
In addition to the MOLLE, you also get two interior pockets (one on each side) for holding flat items like maps. The back pocket is approximately 13×15 inches and can easily hold a 100-ounce water bladder.
The only major complaint you might have with this MOLLE vest is that there is no belt or loops. There are plastic tabs on the bottom of the vest, but these are for leg holsters. If you want to attach a belt, you’ll have to use your own loops.
Also, the base weight of the vest is a bit heavy at 2.86 pounds. By the time you’ve added your MOLLE pouches, the vest is quite heavy.
- Hidden interior pockets
- Excellent quality
- Rear hydration pouch
- Fully adjustable in multiple sizes
- Requires a lot of customization
- Makes some noise when moving
- Heavy weight
- No belt or loops
- Stiff – requires lots of breaking in
Best For: People who are prepared to fully customize their survival vest.
Barska Loaded Gear Survival Vest
Adjustable: Yes | Material: 600 denier ballistic polyester | Molle: Yes
Torso Size: 38 to 50 inches | Lengh: 22 inches | Weight: 3.15lbs
At first glance, the Barksa survival vest looks like the perfect tactical vest. It has a lot of pockets, including mag pouches and hidden interior pockets. The pockets are positioned in a way that distributes the weight very well.
The material is a sturdy 600-denier ballistic polyester with a webbing system for breathability. The polyester thread is high tensile strength and the pockets should stay attached well. For such an affordable tactical vest, it is great quality.
Upon further inspection, we do find some issues with the Barska vest (which isn’t surprising considering the cheap price). The main issue with this vest is its pistol holster. It seems like the holster was made for a different vest but just added on. As a result, the holster sticks out. It also points the pistol toward your body, which could be a safety risk.
Some reviewers also reported that the holster doesn’t carry larger pistols. The holster is detachable, so you may need to replace it with a different holster.
- Easy to adjust
- Numerous pockets
- Adjustable rifle mag pouches
- Good value
- Pistol holster doesn’t stay in position well
- Holster won’t fit larger pistols
- Belt size runs small
Best For: Survivalists who want a decent tactical vest without spending a fortune.
Leave a comment
A super article. This is an avenue I had not considered until reading. Thank you. Another possibility would be to use the very selfsame survival vests used by aviators that you refer to at the beginning. They can be fairly cheap at militaria outlets.
Thanks Tom – they wouldn’t be for everyone but certainly worth considering for some. Good tip about the military surplus stores – some great bargains to be had there.
Speaking of surplus, I have considered going old ALICE LBE, like Vietnam to the 90s era, for the vest become popular.
I guess women who want to survive won’t need beats since this is all about men’s tactical and survival vests. At least acknowledge women and say how things have to be modified or are there women’s vests too.
Fair point Moni but the truth is there are very few tactical vests available for women. I did find a female hunting vest on Amazon and the reviews seem positive. You can see it here.
I was looking for a vest suitable for a woman 5′-10″ & 315 lb, one that wouldn’t look too tactical, to be low profile. Did find a women’s size chart, not much help with breast size tho, C-cup or a bit larger iwas hoping to fit. Mabe best to take her to a cabela or other store.
I agree about the female issues. Even if we have to wear men’s products, can at least acknowledge we may use them too and it’s not just about the “men.”
I often find myself wearing clothing made for teen boys (I’m very petite). They fit well and are a lot cheaper than the pink equivalents that they make for women!
I bought a 5.11 khaki men’s vest at a thrift store near an airbase. Paid 10.00 and was going to give it to a friend of mine. Decided to keep it when I looked at it closer. It was never worn n had 17 pockets. I immediately filled with what I thought would be gear for a couple of days. I own 65 acres n walk it frequently wearing this vest. It carries a ton of gear n my hands n back are free for whatever I need them for. I am a woman n this vest is a 2x n a little big but will go over winter clothing too. I would recommend this vest for sure. Thanks for a great article.
That’s a great find. I’m also a woman and constantly have a hard time finding clothing with enough pockets! 😀
As noted there aren’t a lot of choices for vests specifically designed for to for the female torso. Not many to fit an old large fat man either. We must do the best we can, remembering what the purpose of the vest is, and that is to supply the minimum equipment necessary to support a single individual for a minimum of about 3 days afoot in the environment that they must travel to reach their objective.
Beyond that, a frame pack or Ruck is probably a much better choice.