Back to Basics - A (Re)introduction to Surplus Military Kit by Padraig Croke

Back to Basics

A (Re)introduction to Surplus Military Kit


Surplus military equipment has always been a staple source of gear for people getting into the outdoors. It’s an affordable way to kit oneself out, ready to hit the woods without investing huge chunks of cash into new equipment. It is not without its drawbacks however. Although there are definitely some go-to pieces out there, that are tried and tested and known for their reliability… just because its military issue, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually a good piece of kit, and many people don't realise this. They end up buying unreliable and cheaply made gear that ultimately fails them at the worst possible moment. Getting caught in a storm in a tent, only to find that the waterproofing does not work in the slightest. Or realising that there is a reason things are not made from 12oz cotton canvas any more, because it weighs an absolute tonne, especially when wet. My aim with this article is to give you a brief breakdown of some of the equipment I have used in the past, to go out for a camp with this gear and talk to how it performs compared to today's modern options. 

A brief history of military surplus Surplus stores, at least in the USA, found their beginnings after the Civil War. Prior to this, soldiers were not issued their uniforms or equipment, but were required to outfit themselves. But the Union and the Confederacy equipped their troops with mass produced equipment and after the war there was a huge surplus of supplies left over. The government began auctioning this off to civilians. Small shop owners across the country took advantage of this by buying up cartloads of the stock at discounted prices and selling it in their stores. One of the biggest of these was Bannermans in New York. It would ultimately become a huge 40,000 square foot store, selling everything from arms, to uniforms, horse and cavalry supplies and even canons! Mercenaries fighting in the Spanish American Civil War used Bannermans to outfit themselves before heading off to war.

Fast forward to WWII, and again the market was flooded with the massive amount of government issued leftover stock. This led to a surgence of surplus stores popping up all over the United States, which were then resupplied again in the 70s after Vietnam. However, the surplus store as we know it has taken a different route in the last few decades due to the changing nature of war and how soldiers are equipped, as well as the internet and online shopping. This has led to these stores resorting to stocking their stores with military “style” clothing and supplies. Cheap Chinese knockoff gear that bears little resemblance to the quality seen in the past.

However there are a few stores still stocking the old fashioned way. One such store is Military Mart in Lancashire. I know from working with them personally that they are passionate about stocking quality genuine military gear, so naturally I turned to them for help with this article. I asked them to help me put together a list of the best surplus kit out there, which I could then purchase and kit myself fully to get out camping. There are for sure some staples out there when it comes to this kind of equipment, a lot of which I turned to at the beginning of my outdoor journey. Time and testing has lent credence to the endurance of these pieces, but that is not to say that all surplus gear is created equal. There are definitely some stinkers out there, probably due to cheap contract deals from third-party suppliers to the armies of the past. So without further adieu, let’s take a dive into what is out there, and what to go for when picking up your first surplus fitout.

Load bearing system

One of the first pieces we all need to consider when heading into the wild is how we are going to hold our equipment! Our backpack. There are so many great options available in this category. A few that spring to mind are the Norwegian army "Telemark" pack, The Berghaus Atlas and the British PLCE pack. But what I have chosen has achieved a cult status unlike any other pack I know of, and it was my first serious outdoor pack. The Swedish LK35 external frame pack, made by Haglofs in the 70’s was still standard issue up into the late 80s in Sweden. Due to such a long run, there were a huge amount of these packs available to the civilian market for quite a few years, and are available in both a cotton canvas and a cordura material. It was my first outdoor pack, discovering it after typing “bushcraft” into YouTube back in the day, to see what all the fuss was about. What came up was MCQ and I proceeded to binge his entire back catalogue of video content. It’s a natural thing, when starting out, to emulate the people you look up to that are an inspiration to why you get outside… and Mike had the coolest pack I had ever seen. Pimped out and modified with side pouches, improved straps and all sorts of other cool and interesting ways to tailor it to his own needs. Previous to this, I was used to buying off the shelf new stuff, and it had never occurred to me that someone could personalise this old equipment to create something entirely bespoke and unique.That is another advantage to starting with surplus gear. You can mod it, change it up and stitch all sorts of strange parts to it, without much fear of destroying it… unlike if you were to go out and buy a brand new £200 backpack.

Some of the key features of the LK35, and why, in my opinion, it’s such a popular choice, include a sturdy cotton canvas material, a steel external frame, from which all sundry of equipment can be strapped, rugged oversized fastening straps, allowing for external packing of bulkier items such as your sleeping bag or bedroll, and a generous sized internal “dump” style storage system. There is also an elasticated compartment inside this, originally for holding a water bladder, but can be used for separating some of the smaller pieces of kit you might need. Such a simple pack means very little can go wrong with it, and the absence of zippers makes it a good choice for hard-wearing gear.  Disadvantages. It’s not the lightest pack out there, and the standard straps are not the most comfortable or padded. On top of this, there is no standard hip belt to take the weight on your hips. So the LK35 does need to be packed smartly, and its limitations need to be respected. Saying that, I can comfortably fit an overnighter of about 13kg of weight into it without much discomfort. One remedy for this is to modify it with a new strap system. In my case I used USMC Molle 2 straps and hip belt on my first LK35, which I have since passed on to a friend. This made for an extremely comfortable, albeit a little bulky, pack. There is a wealth of information about these packs online, but if you want a comprehensive look, I would recommend checking out MCQ Bushcrafts video on it HERE

Because my LK35 is a new pack, and I have not modified it with side pouches, today I am supplementing the loadout with a Polish bread bag, recommended to me by Military Mart. These bags were traditionally issued to soldiers to carry their rations in, as well as any small personal items one might want to carry on their person. It’s a great size for my Dutch army canteen, coffee supply, cutting tools, fire kit (contained in a leather M39 Swedish magazine pouch) and my gloves, and I’ve attached it to the top of my LK using the straps. When figuring out how to load this system I originally had it on the front of the pack, but the weight of it, so far back in the system tends to pull the pack away from your back and makes for an uncomfortable weight. For this same reason, I always avoid packs that extend too far away from my body, preferring instead to go for taller packs. The load bearing of a tall pack is much more manageable than a wide load behind you.

Shelter system

For my shelter system, I have chosen another cult classic. The Polish Army Lavvu, again a staple of the surplus world that has seen countless iterations, modifications and customisations from enthusiasts all over the internet. Another heavy piece of kit, the lavvu is made from a tough canvas and comes in two parts. The idea being that two soldiers can carry one piece each, and “Because my LK35 is a new pack, and I have not modified it with side pouches, today I am supplementing the loadout with a Polish bread bag, recommended to me by Military Mart. These bags were traditionally issued to soldiers to carry their rations in, as well as any small personal items one might want to carry on their person.  button them together to create an enclosed tent shelter. One of the cool features of this shelter is that it doubles as a poncho in a pinch when separated in two pieces, with holes in the sides to allow for the arms to come out.

This is a truly versatile piece of kit and it can be configured in many formations, including a simple lean to style shelter when used as just one piece. The rugged material also allows for a small fire to be set up close to it in the colder months, without fear of it being destroyed by loose embers. Just be careful with pine and other types of material prone to sparking. The sleeve holes can also be modified with a fireproof material to allow a small tent stove to be introduced. The only disadvantage I can speak to with this shelter is probably its biggest downfall, and that’s its weight. If you are carrying both sides of this shelter with you, you’re looking at about 3kgs of weight! That’s a lot, especially for someone like myself, weighing 65kgs. Realistically, these are also not the cheapest pieces of kit, despite being old surplus. Due mainly to their increasing popularity and demand you can expect to spend about £40 for a full tent. This is roughly the same price as a new DD 3x3 tarp, which is much lighter and more versatile. But for the sake of the article, we’re going to use only surplus kit, and you could do a lot worse than having a cozy lavvu in the cold winter months.

Sleeping system

My weapon of choice for sleeping in this camp will be the Czech Army bedroll. This piece of kit is something I will admit I am totally new to, so it will be interesting to get the maiden voyage experience with this right here with you, the reader. In the past, my sleep system was the British Army “bouncing bomb” winter sleeping bag and Goretex bivi bag combo. Although still surplus, this was entirely different, and this bedroll is much more retro than what I am used to. In fact I still use this bivi bag, and I have yet to find something, modern or otherwise, that competes with it. It has seen me through torrential nights spent under holly bushes without so much as a dribble getting in. So this will be an interesting experience. A side note, I would also recommend the above as a fantastic option. The BA winter bag is incredibly comfortable and warm, with a comfort level of -8ºC. Combined with the Goretex bivi, which will add an extra layer of heat retention, I would anticipate many a comfortable night in the winter months. But for this experience we are going to use the Czech bedroll, and I’m interested to see what the hype is. These bedrolls are difficult to get nowadays, as their popularity has grown amongst the retro camping community. But at just £20, I felt it was a worthy price to try out this system. A modular piece of kit that includes 3 separate layers that button together, the Czech bedroll is one of the quirkier pieces of kit I’ve had the pleasure of using. The outer layer is a synthetic polyester material, although not waterproof, it would not be recommended to use this outside of a shelter system. The second layer is a thick fleece blanket and provides the majority of the heat retention. This is followed by an inner layer consisting of a simple cotton liner. I am sleeping in the early Autumn months here in Sweden, and as of now the weather is somewhat warm still. I fully expect this to provide me a comfortable night's sleep. But we shall see. I expect that the layered system should add some heat retention also, rather than one bulky layer, as with the sleeping bag. The rest of my kit The rest of my kit includes mostly surplus items, although I have made a few decisions that, although not surplus, is still very affordable and reasonable for a beginners startup kit.

The list is as follows;

• Swedish M59 cotton shirt

• Norwegian Norgee shirt

• Austian Army M65 GoreTex parka

• Dutch Army canteen/bottle set

• German rubberised groundsheet • Morakniv Companion

• Light My Fire firesteel

• Thermarest ProLite R (the most expensive piece of kit I have with me)

Lets go!

With my kit layed out in front of me, my first task was figuring out just how to pack it all. Because it’s all from different camping systems, there was no real way to fit it together neatly. Thankfully the LK35s huge main compartment allowed for some pretty convenient packing, especially with these bulky items I was dealing with. These days I use a Savotta Jakkari L, and I’ve managed to create a lightweight system in almost all parts of my base loadout, which now runs in around the 8kg mark (minus food and water). Returning to this old surplus kit set my brain into a dull panic. Was this going to work? How heavy is it going to be? I realised then that I had grown somewhat soft, thanks to the aid of modern equipment. You will never appreciate the comfort of a modern load bearing system more than when you go back to the no-frills style of retro military backpacks. My chosen means of transport was going to be simply my feet and my walk into the woods would be roughly 6km. Not too much of a slog and I’m well used to walks of this length, even with a heavy rucking pack of 23kg on my back (one-third of my own body weight). So this should be no problem, I try to assure myself.

I was wrong… Full transparency here, due to the fact that I was also filming and photographing this camp for the article you are reading, the added weight of an SLR, a drone, my tripod and various other pieces of recording kit, I had to add a 10 litre dry bag to hold it all. This I would have to carry in my hand. Ultimately it all proved just a little too unwieldy, bringing my overall loadout close to 30kg! and so I chose instead to canoe to my destination and travel on foot a little into the woods. For this reason, I cannot truthfully speak to the weight of carrying this kit across a significant distance, But I will tell you it was quite heavy. The addition of a hip belt, taken from my Savotta, did alleviate some of this strain, and the modular quality of the LK35 once again proved its worth here.

With the canoe packed I set off from Immeln around 3pm. The weather had been miserable for the past few days, but today it was perfect. Fluffy stratocumulous clouds peppered an otherwise blue sky, and the breeze was gentle. Fantastic paddling conditions. I took my time, despite it being a little later in the day than I had anticipated leaving. The lazy pace of the countryside bustle was infectious, and as I made my way out of the bay I listened to the sounds coming from the homes along the shores. I heard the tapping of a hammer from two men building a timber roof frame in their garden, and a leaf blower at work somewhere, presumably already battling the first leaves of the coming Autumn. As I made my way further north into the lake it opened out, and the humdrum died away behind me. What remained was just the sound of the water against the side of my canoe and the breeze in my ears. I was glad of my choice to paddle today.

My journey took about 40 minutes. I was heading to a peninsula I was familiar with, and I knew it had the perfect spot to pitch the lavvu. I pulled up on a small beach, about 100 meters from the campsite and had a small can of beer while I sat and gathered my thoughts about how to shoot this video. It’s a process that needs to be carefully considered and does require a “work mode” frame of mind, which can sometimes distract from the joy of simply being out. But today I found a balance. While sitting there I noticed some bramble bushes beside me full of black and red berries, and I picked myself some particularly ripe ones to go with the beer. An unusual combination. I set up the camera, and after a few takes had my intro recorded. Time to get moving. From the tiny beach I made my way through the brambles and into the woods up a gentle slope. Before too long I came across the well-worn trail that leads to the place I wanted to camp. It’s a relatively high point on the land, offering a scenic view of the lake, and from the top of the hill a steep slab of granite, smooth from countless generations of conversation with the elements, slides into the water below. On top of this hill is where I will light my fire. A collection of rocks and boulders surround me and create a sheltered spot to sit into and away from the breeze. Behind this, slightly further back, is a flat area between five pine trees, and here I start to get to work unfolding the lavvu.

Setting up camp

I had the luxury of preparing the lavvu before I left, something that is always recommended. Because this shelter comes in two parts, it’s easier to simply button it together before packing. Speaking of buttons, the lavvu is sturdy, that much is clear, and all the areas of connection are double flapped, so no seams are exposed for water or wind to pass through. The downside of this system is that it’s somewhat finicky, and the eyelets are tough to get the buttons through. Even in this mild weather and bare hands it’s tricky, so I can only imagine the difficulty of this task in cold weather, or even worse, with gloves on!

I staked out the 6 points around the shelter, but due to the roots and rocks here, I had a difficult time getting the shelter to sit flush with the ground, leaving a gap around the bottom where air freely flowed under. This lavvu could do with a skirt, I thought to myself. On top of this, having left one side open to get in and out of, even a slight uneven tension on each stakeout means that my tent entrance was misaligned, making buttoning up at night impossible. This, I only realised right before bed, and so had to reposition some of the stakes in order to close the tent. Unbuttoning to get out of the tent is not something I’d want to have to do in a hurry, should nature call in the night.

The weight of this shelter, its awkward button system and its small village of folds and seams should make this tent a bad choice… But for some reason I still love it! Generally speaking, this is just something you put up with when it comes to surplus kit. You take those nuances and quirks as part of the package, often having them grow on you. Like a lovable rescue dog, with a chunk of its ear and some teeth missing, its imperfections become part of its charm. I will admit that despite these shortcomings, I will happily use my lavvu again. The space inside the shelter is relatively good. Me being 5’8” tall, I had no problems with space for sleeping, and there was plenty of leftover room for my pack and my camera kit. I am looking forward to upgrading this with a small wood burning stove for winter camping, although an alternative solution to the center pole will have to be devised for this to work. I have seen people hang these shelters from ridgelines, or from tripods constructed over the top, so I think that will work nicely.

Another nice thing about the lavuu is how thick the fabric is. Like any cotton tent, the fabric works against the rain by simply absorbing enough of it to expand the fibres of the material, hindering any further penetration from the rain. This is also how waxed canvas jackets work, and the fabric almost reacts with its conditions organically. If you have ever worn a Barbour in damp, cold conditions and noticed how rigid the material of the jacket becomes, then you will know what I’m talking about. With the Lavvu it’s the same thing. The fabric is thick, and effectively shelters you from the elements. It will also work to keep heat in much better than a polyester tent, especially if a tent stove is introduced. The thickness also adds to the light inside. This tent blacks out the light far more than any shelter I’ve used up to this point, and you will get a better night's sleep, especially in the summer, when the sun rises early.

With the shelter setup I moved my ground sheet and sleep system in. The Czech bedroll, which I am deeply sceptical of, with all of its bulky layers. The thickness of it feels more like a summer sleeping bag, minus the packability and the weight of the latter. Under this I put my Therm-a-Rest, which would probably do a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to heat retention that night. But the fleece blanket of the bedroll seemed nice, and I was curious to see how it performed once temperatures dropped.

The Evenings Pace

By this stage it was getting to about 6pm, and the day was starting to give way to the evening. The sun took on that characteristic golden glow you get up here in the evenings, thanks to the clear sky of the day. I am always struck at the quality of light and the depth of the shadows this far north, compared to the silver skies I am used to back home in Ireland. The golden hour doesn’t often show up there. But here in Sweden she makes her appearance known, before the stars take over the show.

I lit my fire, using some birch bark and a ferro rod, which I keep in my leather Swedish army magazine pouch. I shot some photos, got water from the lake on the boil and settled into a flow for the evening. I felt it was time to relax, and it was then that my stomach started asking for attention. My water bottle and canteen are Dutch surplus, and were given to me by a good friend a few years ago. I have gone back to it many times, despite owning more modern equipment. Manufactured by Avon in the UK, these hard plastic bottles are arguably one of the best out there, and hold a full litre of water. This nests into an equally impressive kidney shaped mug. It's deep and tough, and perfect for boiling a brew in, as well as for eating from. The oversized handles, due to the fact that they are the same height as the mug, are perfect for balancing the cup on the ground when fully extended, and their width and thickness allow for the mug to be held easily with gloved hands. A solid piece of kit I would recommend anyone have in their arsenal.

My dinner that evening was scrambled eggs, which I had premixed into a 33cl bottle, two slices of buttered Swedish rye bread and a can of beer. This I cooked in the top lid of a Trangia storm kitchen. I made the mistake of forgetting the clamp to hold the pan, and so I had to resort to a balancing act on the rocks around the fire, while tentatively holding one side with a gloved hand. Not the most graceful cooking experience, but it got the job done, and ate on the granite hill with my victory meal while watching the last rays of the day disappear in the western sky.

That night, while I sat by the fire, my Polish bread bag beside me kept any small items I needed. Head torch, power bank for my phone, another can of beer, my gloves, my knife. It’s always handy to have a small pouch or knapsack with you in the evenings. Especially when your shelter is a bit away from your fire, or when camping with others, when the conversations are flowing. You can keep your small items together without having to go back and forth to your shelter.

At around 11.30 I got into my tent and fumbled with the buttons of my quirky tent and the layers of blankets in my bedroll before drifting off to a solid night in the dark comfort of the lavvu.

Morning I woke at around 6.30 to a cool blustery wind coming off the lake under my tent. I could feel the first whispers of Autumn coming, a sure sign of the season ahead. This tent really needs a skirt, I thought once more, and my presumptions were correct with this breeze rudely interrupting an otherwise restful night. The darkness inside the lavvu allowed me to sleep soundly, even with the sun coming up probably about an hour before that. I got up and put my boots on unlaced and tried to quickly unbutton the door to have a standard morning tinkle. Again my presumptions were correct. This is not a tent you would want to try to get out of in a hurry. The water today was rough! Probably some of the choppiest waves I had seen on this lake, and I began to worry about the prospect of paddling home in it. A strong wind was coming from the north west and I knew I had a bit of a task ahead of me getting across this open area I was in. But once I got into the narrower part of the lake, I knew the wind would be on my back and from there should be plain sailing. Normally, on the last morning of a camp I don’t relight my fire, but this morning I decided to spark it back up to get myself a coffee and chase out the small chill I felt in my bones. My Swedish M59 shirt and Norwegian Norgee sweater went on, and I gathered enough materials for a small fire. As I sat drinking my coffee, I looked out at the waves and once again considered my options. Checking the weather on my phone confirmed that the wind was to get worse as the day progressed. There was nothing to be done it seemed. I had to just go for it… the sooner the better. Necking the last of the morning brew, some warmth and energy had been restored to me. I proceeded to pack down, not paying very much attention to where anything was going. I just wanted to get moving, and so I hastily packed the canoe, loose kit here and there. I set off and zig zagged myself to keep head on or back on with the waves, slowly making my way across the open part of the lake. Within 15 mins I was into the narrow end and the pace slowed nicely. Calm and relaxed I paddled back to Immeln, satisfied I had a camp story worth sharing.

A Return to the Source

This was a very fun challenge for me, and it was something I had wanted to try for a while. We all fall into the trap from time to time of getting obsessed with having the latest kit. The expensive GoreTex jackets, Capilene baselayers and cuben fiber tarps all have their place for sure. And the deeper you get into your niche, the more specialised your equipment will become. Rightly so! But what this has taught me is that, despite the weight and bulk of this surplus kit, the experience of being out in the wild is basically the same. That being said, the right choices of kit are still important, and research is always recommended before you make a decision. When I started on this pursuit of bushcraft knowledge, I definitely made mistakes with my purchases. Things broke, or didn’t work in the first place. Shelters leaked, fabrics ripped… It's simply part of the learning process.

What will always be important is the act of expanding your skillset and your knowledge, and with this will come the equipment needed to progress. But that doesn’t mean that this military kit isn’t just as valid, and sometimes it’s still better than modern equivalents. So why not dust off that old canvas pack under the stairs, or take your Morakniv Companion for a drive? It will take you back to the beginning of your journey, when everything was still a little daunting, and you’ll remember why you started getting out there in the first place.


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