Repurposing Military Surplus Gear: Camping Old School Style

Repurposed military surplus gear makes a perfect and cheap camp set up.

Camping gear can be expensive or cheap—depending on how much you are willing to spend. If you are planning on camping this year and need some new equipment, have you thought about repurposing military surplus gear? For light backpacking, primitive and car camping, mil-surp gear will save you a ton of money. Military surplus gear is also perfect for the kid’s backyard camping adventures.

All surplus gear once served some sort of necessary function. Even though you probably aren’t going into battle, buying military surplus gear still makes sense. Originally designed and built to military standards, it will stand up to rugged field use.

Repurposed military surplus gear makes a perfect and cheap camp set up.
Repurposed military surplus gear makes a perfect and cheap camp set up.

Used and unissued military surplus gear was abundant after WWII. The rise of the Army-Navy store was especially popular with youngsters—when spare change went a long way and kids had fun rummaging through bins of OD green hats, chest rigs and dump pouches.

I love military surplus stores. Old flight suits, pea coats, gas masks and sailor caps are some of my favorite finds. The weirder collector items fascinate me as well, such as surgical pumps, trip wires and other interesting things. Most of all, I like military surplus because of the price. It’s generally really cheap and well constructed.

The United States military gets their equipment from big name companies such as BAE Systems. How do we end up with it? The military gives up obsolete, excess and out-of-date gear and equipment to Defense Disposition Services, who in turn sells or auctions it off. sells a wide variety of military surplus gear from all over the world. Some of the surplus gear is used; some of it is new. For a great price, you can find almost everything you will need for a weekend camping trip. Now is the time to buy however, unfortunately military surplus items are getting difficult to find.

Yugoslavian Complete Mess Kit in Carrying Bag, MLT-9098

Even though this is a little more expensive, it comes with everything you need to cook up  and eat any meal for one person. It includes a metal pot, two serving containers or cups, canteen, utensils and a can opener. Also, it’s cool because Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore. A nylon carrying case with two straps on the back holds the kit.

Mess kit with everything you need to make a meal.
Mess kit with everything you need to make a meal.

The nylon carrying case has a tough, metal, button-style flap closure. Inside the carrying pouch, sewn into the side is  an open pouch where the utensils are stored. The utensil set includes a full-sized metal fork, spoon and knife. The knife’s handle doubles as a can opener—surprisingly still sharp!

There are two plastic containers, one small and one large. You could use either as a container or cup. The large one measures 3.5-inches tall and 4.4-inches wide. The cup or smaller container is 2-inches tall and 3.5-inches wide. There is also a plastic canteen with a screw top lid. All of these items fit inside a metal cooking pot with metal handle. The metal handle folds up to bind the set together.

The mess kit we used was in excellent condition; but as common with military-surplus items, condition will vary so some kits may be of lesser condition. Either way, it’s ideal for the price.

The NSN number on the carrying bag indicates a modern bag made after the Vietnam War, while the canteen is stamped 1996.
The NSN number on the carrying bag indicates a modern bag made after the Vietnam War, while the canteen is stamped 1996.

U.S. Two-Quart Canteen Set, MLT-4406

In the exact same price point as the Yugo mess kit, is an unissued U.S. surplus canteen with multi-purpose carrying bag. The plastic canteen holds two quarts and includes a nylon case with ALICE clips. The textured, flexible canteen has a screw top lid and is collapsible. Inside the lid is a rubber tire-style valve. On top of the lid is a plastic cover that snaps into place covering the valve. The multi-purpose bag is the real winner here. It has two metal ALICE clips on the back. There are two D-rings on each side and the front has a small, Velcro-close pouch that will fit water tablets.

A plastic clip closes the bag with two tongs you squeeze to open. The fur-lined interior includes sewn-in instructions on how to fill your canteen. Also included is an adjustable nylon sling with two gear clips. The NSN number on the carrying bag indicates a modern bag made after the Vietnam War, while the canteen is stamped 1996. Both are in excellent, unused condition.

Swiss Gel Fuel M1 Stove Kit and Five-Gallon Water Bag, CAMP-245 and ZBB-993

At six ounces, this little aluminum stove comes with a reusable burner and fuel. The fuel will burn for about two hours, so you can use it to heat up coffee and more than one meal. The sterno-style can and burner supports up to 25 pounds while cooking.

The five-gallon water bag, labeled in German, Italian and French, has rope carry handles. It’s great for carrying drinking water or you could leave the black rubber bag out in the sun to heat up water for a shower. The Swiss chose rubber over other materials because of the cold weather during winter. The rubber construction makes it easier to break the ice if the water inside has frozen.

Original Czech Army Three-Piece Sleep System, MLT-4951

This lightweight, used, original Czech Army three-piece sleep system keeps you warm down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. It features a water-resistant nylon outer bag, a fleece bag that buttons into the outer bag and a linen liner. The bag measures 6-feet 4-inches long and 27 inches wide. There are three compression straps to roll up the bag and attach it to your pack.

The outer, lightweight bag is weather-resistant and has a zipper along one side. The bag lays out flat. Inside are a blue linen sheet and a fleece blanket. The blanket and sheet button along the full length of the sleeping bag. You can use any combination of the all three together or separate the pieces for different uses. The hood on the bag has bungee cords on either side to tighten the bag around your head. A six-foot, lean man fits inside the bag perfectly with his head inside the hood. A shorter person, like me (I’m five-foot-five), has plenty of room. Even though the bag is used, it comes in excellent condition. There are no rips or tears and all buttons are intact. For $20 this bag is a great buy.

The Polish rucksack fairs well for car camping.
The Polish rucksack fairs well for car camping.

Polish Puma Camo Rucksack, MLT-6126

More rucksack than backpack, the large Polish Puma camo bag is made of cotton canvas with a vinyl bottom, adjustable shoulder straps and a drawstring top. The drawstring top has a flap closure with straps and buckles to tighten the fold-over flap. Additionally, there is another drawstring section to keep your gear secure.

The wide, nylon, adjustable shoulder straps are sewn into the top of the bag. However, it includes metal clip hardware which offers a few customizable choices on how to carry the bag. At the bottom of the rucksack are three D rings to attach the shoulder straps in different positions.

Measuring 25 inches wide and 21 inches long, I fit my clothes for two nights and three days, the mess kit, paracord, canteen kit, stove kit, water bladder, coffee, and a flashlight with a little room left over. For a taller person, (over six feet), filled with camping equipment the bag was floppy and uncomfortable to carry. However, a shorter stature person such as myself with the shoulder straps tightened, the bag was fine as a backpack, because it did not flop over. Either way, this rucksack is not a good pack for hiking or serious backpacking for an extended period.

Other useful military surplus gear for camping:

What surplus gear have you repurposed? Tell me about it in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (5)

  1. I love used military gear for camping. I picked up a CFP-90 Ranger Pack / Assault Pack camo Mil-Spec- 2237 for $40 at an auction in Florida and it is my best friend. I can load up everything except the kitchen sink inside and still be comfortable wearing it. Also with something soft in the bottom like clothe’s or my sleeping bag it rest’s on the back seat of my motorcycle for easy riding and a nice backrest for long trips. That and my saddlebags I can carry enough supply’s for a 5-7 day camping trip by myself with no need to resupply.

    I also have other various piece’s such as a P51 can opener {Life Saver} And many many more I use every camping trip. Have yet to ever need to replace anything I have purchased due to failure…. cant say the same thing about some retail supply’s. I try to stick with Surplus as much as I can and I can basically get everything I need cheap and in great condition that will last a long time.

    If you cant tell I am big into minimalist camping. If I can find a place with no power and wifi…. just a piece of dirt and a nice lake close by I am a happy guy.

  2. I still use my rucksack from when I was a paratrooper in the early 1980’s. I also have several of the old, thick, OD green ponchos. They may not roll up as small as the new, camouflage kind, but they are much more weather resistant. I prefer the padded web gear suspenders that replaced the LC-1 type. If you hand ammo pouches on the pistol belt, you can fill the magazine pouches on the suspenders with survival items. All a decent size buttpack and you have an entire survival kit. Although it was not military issue, the Rambo survival knife that I bought 30 years ago is still in action.

  3. When I was in the Scouts in the early to mid-80’s, I had some commercial camping gear, but a lot of the essentials such as my canteens, mess kit, and accessories were 60’s-70’s surplus LC-1 ALICE webbing, and lot of the other kids had same gear. Best pants I had for camping and hiking were Vietnam-era surplus jungle fatigue pants…used them until they finally wore out.

  4. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we did’nt have anything else BUT used army gear for ca;mping. My dad bought all kinds of things and I still have many of them today. The older mess kits and web gear were built far superior than some of the low end stuff today. Grant it, the older stuff has metal clips and such and can be less “stealthy” but it is less likely to break like the plastic stuff now. For the money, I’d go with durability over quiet anyday.

  5. This is the only kind of gear we knew existed in late 50’s and early 60’s in the Boy Scouts. It worked great for us.

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