Low Visibility in Urban Settings: Backpacks

We spend about half our time on the street and half in the office.  While at home or abroad, the principle of blending into an environment remains stable: posture, acceleration and speed, clothing and shoes, and eye contact and engagement.  The short acronym is PACE (posture, acceleration, clothing, and engagement) -- borrowed from PACE in planning (primary, alternative, contingent, and emergency). 

Having the right backpack for the environment is just as important as other signs, and thinking about these issues are similar in M/LE (military, law enforcement), but the journalist's work has wider applications and frankly more varied scheduling.  We've found journalists may be in a meeting in the morning, outside at a refugee camp during the day, and at a cafe for dinner or perhaps another interview.

In the domain of clothing and shoes, backpacks often tell a long story: who, what, when, and why.  For example, on the DC metro or VRE train, commuters carry all types of backpacks for the hour-long ride.  Military out-of-uniform often have the traditional tactical packs, some even standard issue.  Contractors and civilians working in law enforcement or defense stand out usually by shoes and packs:

color, size, material, brands, outer zippers and webbing, construction of any anchors or rings (plastic or metal), and overall design

And do not dismiss for a second that organized protestors know these signs during riots and civil unrest.  They will spot any M/LE in the crowd based on packs, as regular gun show enthusiasts have learned to spot ATFE agents based on clothing, shoes, and packs.

The "tactical civilian" industry has taken over the everyday carry world and initially (circa 2007-2008) flooded the market with M/LE gear, but recently in the last five years moved toward discreet "low profile" packs.  Most of them are still not low visibility.

1.  Packs to avoid

Generally, when choosing a backpack to carry while in the field -- for journalists perhaps doing interviews, taking photos, or going to a protest -- avoid large packs.  Anything more than 20 liters is unnecessary.  Carry from 15 to 20 liter packs for essentials.  That is plenty of space.

Avoid solid black, camouflage, army or ranger green, and bright colors.  Go with brown, ripstop light green, maybe a navy blue, or grey.  Grey is becoming the most popular in the market.

Avoid too many pockets, zippers, cords, and straps.  Just keep it sleek and simple, minimal and smooth.  The key is to avoid lots of movements -- no swinging straps and extra compartments.  Like in the wilderness, animals (e.g., people) are attracted to movement.

Avoid, absolutely, all MOLLE webbing.  This is the number one trait to break the baseline in natural urban settings.

a.  GORUCK Bullet pack: this is a fantastic pack for outdoors, but the webbing is too much for urban settings.  The Velcro patch is a no-go.  Carabiner on outside is a no-go.

b.  5.11 Rush packs: okay for warzones, but terrible anywhere else.  5.11 was one of the first companies to get "tacti-cool" with backpacks, and they are functional, but even their so-called low-profile ones are still too "busy" for the eyes.  The COVRT18 has too many compartments and zippers and holders.  Avoid all the rest by Tactical Tailor, Blackhawk, Maxpedition, Condor, and many others.

b.  Kifaru International E&E: This is one of the finest small packs available, and we hate to avoid it, but ultimately the outer MOLLE webbing and straps are conspicuous.  The other indicator to avoid is the hook-and-loop velcro for patches.  No patches on the job.

2.  Packs to purchase

In short, there are plenty of urban day packs that blend in most U.S. cities.  Depending on the location abroad, some fit in okay, but mostly try to find one in that country that locals already use.

You want a functional backpack that doesn't stand out, but is rugged and high quality. 

Here are samples with descriptions.

a.  The MIIR 20L Daypack: water resistant, high quality nylon, 20 liters, non-padded straps, more urban design than most for inner cities.

b. The Grey Ghost Stealth Operator backpack: great color and design, quality nylon, organized inner compartments, and small enough.  We could do without the over-the-top name, but the small cloth label on the exterior is easily removed with a thread cutter.

c.  The Arc'Teryx Blade 20: expensive but quality, sleek, and functional enough for inner cities. 

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d.   The Filson Day Pack: this is just as functional and rugged as the others plus a better fit for more rural settings where the Arc'Teryx and Miir may be too urban.  Filson is a great company with many high quality luggage and back options.

3.  Some in-between options

a.  The Vertex EDC commuter sling: we could do without the Velcro and multiple zippers, but on the whole it's a decent option, nice colors, and satisfactory construction.  Same with EDC Gamut.

b.  Vertex EDC ready: without the strip of Velcro, this would be a go-to option, but because of that indicator it's on the border of recommended.  Also too many flopping zippers.


c.  The new Grey Ghost Griff Pack: larger than the Stealth pack, but still somewhat compact, this is okay for the streets, but we would not recommend as first choice based on signs of compression straps, Velcro, and the stitched logo that cannot be removed.

4.  High-end backpacks

The journalism community is unique because they work in many professional settings, but may need some of the field-type functionality (minus firearms and such).  The M/LE would probably benefit too from having a few high-end packs.  The standard civilian M/LE market just won't cut it in an office spot or to impress a source, etc.

a.  Burberry Leather Trim London Check: Of the Burberry options, this is the most tac-friendly, and has the front compartment for easy access.

b.  Filson Twill pack for Brooks Brothers: great color, water resistant, and fits in East and West US cities.

c.  Filson Leather Journeyman Pack: similar design to the one they did for BB, but in full leather.