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Military Surplus Checklist: The Best Military Surplus Items to Bring Camping

military surplus items displayed on a table next to a pad of paper

Military Surplus Checklist: The Best Military Surplus Items to Bring Camping

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

If you’re getting into camping on a tight budget odds are you can’t afford exactly what you want, camping gear-wise.

While it’s nice to have brand new, lightweight, durable, and comfortable camping gear from the most trusted brands, not everyone wants to fork up  for the the high prices associated them.


How then can you get the camping gear you need without paying an arm and a leg?

Two words…

Military surplus.

If you live in a country (like the US) where it’s legal for civilians to buy military surplus, you’ll find a veritable treasure trove of rugged, durable, and affordable camping gear. 

That said, don’t buy military surplus thinking it’s going to be as great as camping-specific gear. While military surplus is great for campers on a budget, you may want to treat them simply as a starting point and slowly replace them once you can. 

Affordable and Heavy-Duty Military Surplus 

If you’re looking for the most bang-for-your-buck military surplus to bring camping then this article is for you. Below we’ve listed only the most essential gear which should be available in most military surplus stores. 

1. Modular Sleep System: Cold-Weather Sleeping Bag 

One of the most popular military surplus items for campers is the Modular Sleep System (MSS). As its name suggests, the MSS is a modular sleeping bag system that consists of a lightweight mummy-style patrol sleeping bag, an intermediate mummy-style cold weather sleeping bag, a camouflaged, waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex bivy cover, and a 6 or 9-strap compression sack to store and carry the system. 

If you’re planning some extreme cold-weather camping, then the MSS is definitely for you. The lightweight patrol bag gives protection from 35 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit while the intermediate bag provides cold weather protection from 5 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Used together, both bags give cold-weather protection up to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (and up to -50 if you’re wearing appropriate cold-weather clothes). 

2. P38 Can Opener: The Size of Two Pennies 

If you’re thinking of bringing canned food on your short trip but can’t find enough space for a full-sized can opener, then the P38 is the can opener for you. 

The P38 was invented in 1942 and issued to US military personnel until the 1980s. This two-penny-sized can opener is not extremely easy but also very strong and dependable. It’s 1.5 inches long, with a short metal blade handle with a small, hinged metal tooth that folds out to pierce the can lid. A notch just under the hinge point keeps the opener secured around the can’s rim as you “walk” the device around to cut the lid out. 

If you have large hands, you may prefer the larger P-51 version with a handle that doubles as a screwdriver. 

3. Collapsible Entrenching Tool: Hole Digger and Emergency Weapon

An entrenching tool or E-tool is a collapsible spade used by military forces for a variety of military purposes. The modern NATO standard issue entrenching tool has a lightweight plastic and steel trifold design handle with a collapsible steel spade. An E-tool can weigh anything from 1.5 to 2.5 pounds.

Being such a simple and easy-to-use tool, it’s no surprise that everyone from freedivers to survivalists has also found this tool very useful for their own adventures. You can use an E-tool for digging foxholes and latrines, it can help you make shelter, and dig holes for hygiene purposes, and you can even cook on it (all-steel only). In a pinch, you can even use it as a weapon in case you need to ward off wild animals. 

4. Metal Mess Kit: No Nonsense and Tough  

A mess kit is a collection of silverware and cookware used during extended military campaigns, as well as for backpacking and camping. Militaries have historically issued mess kits to their troops and have also offered them for sale to the public. 

Military surplus mess kits can consist of a heavy-duty aluminum skillet, food tray, canteen, and cup. The skillet and cup will usually have a folded wire handle. All pieces are designed to contain and cover each other for maximum space savings. 

If you want just the barest essentials, you can get away with bringing just the cup and canteen. These two items should be enough to let you boil water and cook/heat your food. 

5. Boonie Hat: Ideal for Hot Conditions 

A Boonie hat or bush hat is a wide-brim hat commonly used by military personnel in hot conditions. 

It looks similar to a bucket hat but with a stiffer brim and with a fabric tape band of ‘branch loops’ sewn around its crown which may be vented with rivets or mesh panels. You can use the strap for more stability and additional snaps may help you fix the brim in the style of an Australian bush hat.

This is a great hat for camping or hiking in hot and humid weather conditions. It keeps the rain off your face and mitigates moisture loss through sweating. It also shields you from the sun and allows air circulation. 

6. Ultralight Hammock: Sleep Off the Ground  

If you’re camping in hot and humid conditions, such as in a jungle or swamp, you may want to forego the MSS and use an ultralight military hammock instead. 

Unlike tents, hammocks are extremely easy to set up, are ultra-light and easy to store, and can be used on any terrain (as long as there are trees). Military hammocks can keep you dry thanks to their rain sheet. 

Since you’re also off the ground, you can safely sleep away from any snakes, bugs, and other creepy crawlies. Additionally, military hammocks usually come with fine mesh netting so you can avoid even those pesky mosquitoes.

  • Modular Sleep System
  • P38 Can Opener
  • Collapsible Entrenching Tool
  • Metal Mess Kit
  • Boonie Hat
  • Ultralight Hammock



I'm David Aston, Founding Nomad of AdventureHacks, Inc. My mission is to inspire adventure on the ground, in the water and through the air. If I also happen to inspire you to purchase gear, my team and I plant a tree in its native environment for every order.

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