When it comes to choosing outdoor gear, there are a few things we like to look out for in order to make sure we’re getting something worth our time that will actually fit our needs. For instance, a well-known brand is always going to be more promising than an unheard-of start up, at least from a ‘what you can expect’ perspective. But, more than just that, we like to look into the materials from which the products are made, as well as where they come from, and by whom they were crafted.
Some of the most sought-after types of gear often come tagged with one very specific phrase: mil-spec. While the term generally gives folks the impression that the gear is built to meet military standards or that it’s tough enough to survive some of the worst conditions, there’s a lot more to it than that. And sometimes, it can be a little bit misleading. To clear the water, we’ve done some in-depth research into the subject, so as to better explain what mil-spec means, how it applies to outdoor gear, and the types of systems and materials you can expect to come across.
The Nitty Gritty
While the usage and accuracy of the term can be a little bit murky at times, there’s actually a very clear-cut definition as to what mil-spec itself actually means. Short for ‘Military Specification,’ mil-spec refers to any material or item that has gone through the rigorous testing and certification requirements to meet the exacting standards of a specific military – most commonly that of the United States. You see, every branch of the military has specific requirements for every single thing they use – from the largest of warships to the smallest details, like the types of fastening buttons on uniforms. Every branch of the military has specific requirements for every single thing they use.They are all well-documented and, while there may be some variations across different organizations or even within specific branches, each is entirely standardized.
The reason behind standardizing gear is several-fold. First, it ensures that everything used by the military shares the same general appearance – a uniform of sorts. This makes things more easily identifiable and cohesive, like pieces of a larger puzzle. Imagine for a moment, if you will, that every aircraft had a different and unique paint job; it would be nigh-impossible to visually differentiate friendlies from bogeys. Sure, there are other identifiers in the modern age, but this kind of standardization goes back centuries – long before technology allowed for other options. So, making sure everything looks the same creates a unity between all of the smaller parts of a whole.
Secondly, putting gear and materials through the paces and only using those which meet or exceed expectations is a pretty good means by which to ensure that every single member of a given military is given the most capable gear to use in the field. The quality of military hardware can often mean the difference between victory and death, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. So, little variation in quality from one piece of gear to the next is necessary to give soldiers the absolute best possible tools. Setting an unwavering standard makes certain of that. If an item can’t stand up to the kinds of punishment necessary out in the field, it’s not going to do anyone any good.
Fact Or Fiction
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Here’s where things get a little bit rough. Outside of buying things directly from military surplus, it can be very hard to tell whether mil-spec is referring to something actually approved for military use or if it’s just a buzz word tacked onto something vaguely military-looking by a brand’s marketing department. What’s even worse is that there’s not actually a good way to tell the difference. Marketing buzz words aren’t closely regulated by any governing body – with exceptions for things like American-Made, but even that one is sometimes stretched a bit. Outside of glaring false advertising, using a phrase like ‘mil-spec’ is up to the discretion of the brand; and brands are run by people; and people can be wrong. It’s also worth noting that, technically speaking, nothing sold to the public by a third party brand without actual documented military certification is literally mil-spec, as it hasn’t been inspected for military use by an actual military inspector.Outside of glaring false advertising, using a phrase like ‘mil-spec’ is up to the discretion of the brand. So, for our purposes, ‘mil-spec’ actually refers to things built using military standards but not necessarily approved for military use.
There are, however, a couple of things you can use to judge the accuracy of the terminology. For starters, you can rely on the court of public opinion. Thanks to the internet, there are a gargantuan number of ways to find out if so-called ‘mil-spec’ gear is up to snuff – including forums, reviews (both professional and amateur), and gear sites. Chances are, if you do a cursory Google search, you can gather up a good deal of information about any piece of gear you might be considering. People on the internet aren’t afraid to share their experiences with good stuff – and they’re even less tight-lipped about shoddy gear. Just make sure you take individual accounts with a grain of salt, as you can expect mildly bad experiences to be amplified in negative reviews, thanks to overly emotional reactions. But, if you find a well-documented expert give an in-depth opinion, you can also weigh that more heavily.
Finally, it’s also important to point out that it is possible for a part of a piece of gear to be mil-spec while the rest of that item is not. For instance, if there is a manufacturer that makes a specific type of fabric used in military applications, they can (potentially) sell that same fabric to non-military gear brands – who will then use it to make a bag or backpack. In this case, the material is considered mil-spec, but the rest of the bag might not be. Still, you’ll see the brand use the word in marketing materials. This is not technically wrong, but it can be misleading. It’s also worth noting that not everything approved for military use can be sold to the public. As it turns out, the military has some secrets and proprietary equipment they’d like to keep private and there are laws that dictate what the public can have (for safety’s sake). So don’t take a brand’s word for it. If you want to know if something is mil-spec, the makers who are allowed to sell their products to civilians are very transparent about the fact that they sell to the military – as it can be considered a marketing boon in itself.
There’s plenty of gear that meets the rigorous standards of military specification; you just have to know where to look.While the term “mil-spec” gets tossed around a lot and is often misused, that doesn’t mean that everything tacked with the phrase isn’t up to snuff. As we mentioned, there’s plenty of gear that meets the rigorous standards of military specification; you just have to know where to look. One feature we see a lot incorporated into carry gear is modular systems. These are most often realized as webbing or grid attachment systems on the inside or outside of gear which allows the user to add on compartments or pouches to their existing gear as a means to expand and customize the available carry space. There are many of these systems, some of which that are proprietary designs developed by specific brands. However, two very common terms associated with modularity originate with military use, describe a specific type of modular system, and are often incorrectly used interchangeably. They are, of course, MOLLE and PALS.
Pronounced ‘molly’ (like the name), MOLLE is an acronym for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. Now, it’s important to note that MOLLE does not refer to a specific modular webbing system, but rather the larger category of current-generation load-bearing equipment used by some of the NATO armed forces – most specifically the United States and British armies. Comprised of bags, backpacks, pouches, and more, the category encompasses a grouping of gear, almost all of which is fitted with PALS webbing. So, when something is referred to as ‘MOLLE-compatible’ or ‘MOLLE-ready,’ the overall point is that it is equipped to function in conjunction with other PALS-equipped carry gear or alongside a number of other pieces of gear designed to fit into PALS-webbed gear (like a standard 3-liter hydration bladder). It’s also worth noting that phrases like ‘MOLLE-ready’ does not necessarily mean mil-spec, just that it can function with other modular equipment using the same generalized system.
Short for Pouch Attachment Ladder System, PALS is to what most people are referring when talking about MOLLE-equipped gear. Originally designed and put into use by the United States Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC or Natick Labs, for short), PALS is the actual webbing grid that makes something “MOLLE-compatible.” The greater purpose of PALS webbing is to provide a platform onto which smaller pouches and bags can be attached to larger load-bearing equipment without the need to change the structure of either pieces of equipment. It’s also easily and infinitely customized, can be altered quickly (meaning pouches can be added or removed on-the-fly), and doesn’t impede the functionality of the geater load-bearing equipment nor the additional modular pouches. It’s important to note, however, that just because something features PALS webbing, that does not mean it’s necessarily MOLLE-ready. For instance, Interceptor body armor, used by the United States Armed Forces from the ’90s to the 2000s, featured PALS webbing, but was not actually a piece of MOLLE gear.
Common Materials & Gear
A good way to garner whether a specific piece of gear might qualify as mil-spec is to pay attention to the materials out of which it is crafted. Even if a bag, EDC knife, multi-tool, or whatever else isn’t actually used by the military itself, it still might be built from the same materials the military uses in the construction of their own stuff. Now, this does make whether those things are mil-spec or not even murkier, but it’s a good bet that if something is built from worthwhile materials, it’s likely a pretty good piece of gear (so long as you’re not dealing with a snake oil salesman lying about the construction). The following are some of the more common materials you can find on or used in the building of outdoor gear that are also used by militaries around the world.
Probably the most common ‘mil-spec’ material is ballistic nylon. And while it sounds like a generic term, the real stuff is actually a lot more specific. Originally made by DuPont for use in WWII, ballistic nylon was specifically designed to be exceedingly tough, abrasion resistant, and durable – as it was put into practice to protect aircraft personnel safe from ballistic impact – like shrapnel and bullets – hence, the name. No, ballistic nylon is not bulletproof, but it is a good deal tougher than most other fabric materials on the market. Typically, ballistic nylon is comprised of at least 1000 denier threat, but those with a lower denier rating can still be ballistic, as the term actually refers to the type of weave used to make the product – most commonly a 2×2 basket weave. The benefits of this construction is that it creates a fabric that’s exceptionally tear-resistant in every direction, resistant to punctures, and has a natural water-resistance (a byproduct of nylon itself).
You will often see the word “ripstop” associated with mil-spec gear. And while the fabric itself is often of excellent quality, the term itself does not indicate use in military applications. Yes, it is ripstop fabric that is used in military-grade parachutes, but that doesn’t mean that all ripstop nylon would be up to mil-spec quality. Ripstop is just a manufacturing technique that reinforces a fabric against tearing. And that’s all it means. Typically, this fabric is used as a liner in bags, though it has other applications in apparel and gear. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s hard to make heads or tails as to whether ripstop fabrics are, indeed, mil-spec. Again, however, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile.
Type III 550 Paracord
Short for parachute cord, paracord was originally used to suspend the lines of – you guessed it – parachutes. Constructed from a lightweight nylon kernmantle rope, this material has an incredible tensile strength and is able to support a load of up to 550 pounds (hence the 550 in the title). And while it was originally used specifically for parachuting, now it has become a more general-purpose material commonly used by both military personnel, civilians, and survivalists. Now it can be found sold in bunches or built into other pieces of gear – such as paracord bracelets, watch straps, keychain carabiners, and more. It’s an excellent material for building survival shelters, animal traps, binding wounds, and much more. Honestly, in a survival situation, type III paracord is one of the most valuable things you can have on your person.
M35 Military Truck Tarp
One of the things you may come across often is things made from military truck tarpaulin. This canvas material, which is most frequently found repurposed into bags – like backpacks, duffels, messengers, dopp kits, and more – is the same tarp that’s used to cover the bed of large military M35 personnel transport trucks. It’s incredibly tough, waterproof, tear- and puncture-resistant, and can stand up to a tremendous amount of punishment, as a result. It’s not as common of some of the other mil-spec materials on our list, so it can be on the pricey side of the spectrum. Thankfully, however, the price of a piece of gear – at least in this case – can be an indicator of its authenticity. If you see something with M83 tarp in its construction and the price seems a little too low to be true, it probably is.
AustriAlpin Cobra Buckles
A prime example of something that’s up to military-specifications but is also available for civilian purchase, AustriAlpin is the manufacturer of the famous Cobra Buckle – the same ones used on tactical gear in the hands of Special Forces and Navy SEALs. These buckles are as extreme as it gets – offering both excellent security when connected, but also giving the wearer unrivaled speed when it comes to undoing them. This is one of the cases in which you can be certain of the value of the product by whether or not the company that owns the patent is also the one who made it. If you see something called a “Cobra Buckle,” but you can’t verify that it was made by AustriAlpin – it wasn’t.
Military/Aerospace Grade Metals
Frequently, when looking through outdoor or everyday carry gear, we’ll see the phrases “military-grade” and “aerospace-grade.” Though these, like mil-spec, seem like buzzwords – they’re actually a lot more easy to verify. You see, there are a finite number of material-manufacturing companies responsible for creating things like steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, and more. And it’s easy to trace which materials are used in military and aerospace applications, as nobody is particularly tight-lipped about it. Plus, in order for any of them to carry a specific designation, they have to meet the standards of that designation. Similarly, many materials are proprietary – so it is in the best interests of the companies behind them to keep them up to spec, as the sale of those materials depends upon it. With rare exception, “military-grade” is one of the few buzzwords we are more inclined to trust.
Sound & Fury
In short, unless you are purchasing gear from a military surplus store, from a certified manufacturer, or you acquired it through military service yourself or through someone who served, you’re not technically getting a piece of mil-spec gear. That doesn’t, however, mean that the gear itself isn’t built to the same rigorous standards held by the military, but rather that the equipment hasn’t technically gone through military inspection. Typically speaking, brands that make military-grade gear for civilian sale are some of the same brands that actually make the same (or remarkably similar) gear for military use. That or they gathered enough information to make passable imitations. Still, there’s room for both human error and misinformation on both sides of the gear space. There’s room for both human error and misinformation on both sides of the gear space.So, if you are searching for mil-spec gear, don’t take anyone’s word at face value. Do a little bit of research online, in forums, and through sales spaces and you can typically gather whether or not a specific item is up to the standards of the greater community.
Furthermore, if a piece of “mil-spec” gear comes from a reputable source, you can probably count on it being tough enough to weather the same kinds of punishment a soldier might put it through in the field. That being said, it’s always a good idea to be wary of buzz words associated with the armed forces – like MOLLE-ready, military-grade, etc. – as the gear industry is largely unregulated in that regard. Unfortunately, it’s always going to be a gamble, but that can be mitigated by leaning on the knowledge of the community, industry experts, and brands that have taken a hard stance on crafting high-quality gear with uncompromising standards.