We know, as crazy as the zombie apocalypse sounds, many use this “never-gonna-happen” scenario as an excuse to build up and kit out.
Even though our visions of battling the walking dead in Coolguy kits may never come to fruition, there are plenty of justifiable, relevant reasons to own some tactical gear.
Just take a look at the riots and political conflicts happening on the streets today. We do not bother to take sides.
If you are even a casual follower of the news, you will see plenty of images of folks with broken noses, bloody heads, and bruises.
One shooting, one rally, one march, and it easily could escalate to real danger in your quiet neighborhood.
What SHTF-approved, tactical gear makes sense for you in those apocalyptic times (political riots, looters, WW3, and zombies alike)?
We will dive into what you need to stay protected and ready to navigate through contested areas and violent folks. The gear and discussions below are recommended based on the real military and combat experience of our veteran advisor.
Some say his opinion is just a tad more validated than those soft-skinned airsoft players on YouTube rocking OCP combat shirts and high-cut helmets with daddy’s money.
So, want a professional’s opinion on what tactical gear you should own for a SHTF scenario? Ignore that “special forces” loot crate and tune in. Let’s go!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, where I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Note: It's important that you do your own research to see what the local, state, and federal laws are for your area to know what you can legally own and carry on you.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is the real stuff the military uses. It should be #1 on your SHTF list. It certainly is on ours.
It is the stuff that protects your head, junk, and mushy bits from conflict and injury. PPE does not have to be that Tier 1 stuff you saw when you watched Zero Dark Thirty.
Also, it certainly is not the stuff those YouTubers wear. However, some are admirable in recreating the real thing.
PPE changes based on your environment and needs. However, it always consists of a few basic components. Those would be a helmet, gloves, boots, eye protection, ear protection, and most importantly, armor.
Let's dive into the details next.
The helmet, pot, brain bucket, what have you, is usually made of Kevlar. It is not meant to be just a bullet buster.
A decent helmet is intended to be lightweight yet protective against blunt force trauma and shrapnel. There are two things you are likely to encounter in a real “SHTF” scenario rather than a bullet to the head.
If you want the real thing on a budget, check out police trades or eBay. You will easily find a military surplus, current-issue BAE Systems ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet) for under $200.
ACH Helmets are NIJ Certified to provide Level III ballistic protection as required by the U.S. military. They are also relatively lightweight. A medium ACH weighs just three pounds.
If you want to go the Coolguy route, you can find some small, niche manufacturers producing high-cut ballistic helmets for $250 to $400.
These helmets are Kevlar, but they are usually not NIJ Certified. These companies will often slyly show NIJ test results of certain weapon calibers not penetrating their helmets. They will claim quality, but that does not mean their helmets are truly certified.
If you want a proven, ultra-lightweight, non-ballistic helmet that still protects your gray matter from baseball bats and bottles, check out Ops-Core’s FAST Bump Helmet.
They are the same company producing the real high-cuts for special operations. Their high-cut Bump Helmet is an affordable, non-Kevlar alternative that is very comfortable and lightweight at 1.3 lbs.
We consider pads optional unless you plan on crawling through some questionable spaces. Pads restrict movement and feel bulky.
If you want good pads for elbow and knee protection, check out the HWI Pads from US Patriot Tactical. They are a favorite among service members and riot police teams.
Another popular option is the K-P Industries Knee Pro Ultra Flex III pads.
If you want some pads that are a little less obvious, check out our top list of knee pads for any activity.
To keep the glove discussion simple, we recommend rigid knuckled gloves with a leather palm and fingers. You want to keep your trigger finger agile and dexterous.
You don't have to go expensive, as Mechanix Gloves are great at providing basic protection. They made our list of the top tactical gloves.
The boots you select are the most important of these three items. A good pair of boots should protect against nails and debris, insulate, resist rolling ankles, provide comfort, and last a long time.
Again, we can look to the military and go with a pair of classic, current-issue Combat Boots by Altama or Bates.
We like Bate’s 922 8” boot for a balance of comfort and ankle support.
It is a quiet boot with a flexible, tough-as-hell sole with moisture-wicking Gore-Tex fabric inside.
It is a favorite among SEALs and ODA.
These are the ones that you often see US military personnel wearing. They will serve any SHTF survivor well. You can get them in many different colors, including black.
Shirt and Pants
Your SHTF shirt and pants of choice depend upon your environment.
You should not wear a cotton tee if you are bugging out into the northwestern mountains during the rainy season. You definitely should not be wearing a wool sweater if you are dealing with riots in the summer heat.
In general, we strongly recommend maintaining a seasonal wardrobe that accommodates every condition: wool for winter and moisture-wicking, flame-retardant shirts for summer.
That said, some common garments will serve you well in any environment.
We recommend a pair of the 5.11 Taclite Pro pants.
These pants have a nice mix of polyester and cotton, with a ripstop pattern to avoid rips and tears.
The polyester will help wick moisture away from your body, keeping you at a more comfortable temperature in a variety of environments.
They also have a nice Teflon finish to help prevent stains
For a good SHTF shirt, look at long-sleeve FR Performance Moisture Wicking shirts for the summer.
Invest in a good hunting jacket or military surplus uniform jacket for winter and cooler climates. Medium weight fleece is a good middle layer.
This is the big one. A plate carrier and armor will be your primary point of protection against any threat. It should be comfortable, sized well, and should accommodate the gear you need for your rifle and general survival needs.
First, avoid cheap plate carriers. You can find some online for under $100. These are Chinese-made with poor stitching. They will not last in a long-term SHTF scenario.
Like your helmet, your plate carrier is meant to function as a protector of your critical organs. Do not cut corners here.
Our veteran advisor personally recommends the Warrior DCS Plate Carrier. This lightweight armor carrier accommodates standard 10 x 12 plates and 6 x 8 side plates.
This plate carrier has become a favorite among military units and police thanks to its shooter’s cut, standard MOLLE webbing, mesh lining, low profile, and high shoulder straps that avoid interference with a rifle stock.
Armor plates matter just as much as the plate carrier. You can opt for USGI plates. However, we actually recommend against this because the military’s plates are ceramic and can have microscopic fractures which compromise their protection.
We personally like the soft and hard armor AR500 Armor puts out. Their armor has received official Level III ballistic ratings and comes in soft (Kevlar) and hard (steel) configurations.
Storage will be as important to your survival as your PPE. Let’s break down some critical components you should consider as part of your SHTF kit.
Your backpack provides storage for the items you need to sustain life. It should be able to keep your clothing, bedding, electronics, food, personal items, fire starters, and other critical equipment dry and secure.
Your backpack should be able to accommodate additional goods and items you pick up or find as you travel, as well. We go into great detail in our article on bug out bags.
If you guessed that we are looking at military equipment, you guessed right. We recommend the current-issue MOLLE II Rucksack.
It provides around 4,000 cubic inches of capacity without sustainment pouches.
With additional pouches, you are looking at over 5,000 cubic inches. In the world of backpacking, that is seriously impressive for its size and weight.
The MOLLE II offers plenty of comfort features including a padded, cummerbund, padded backing, and adjustable waist strap which keeps weight distributed and off your shoulders.
It uses a rigid plastic frame that is incredibly lightweight yet strong. The ultra-tough 1000D Cordura material comprising the pack itself is resistant to water.
If you prefer something more backpack-like, then the most popular option is the 5.11 Rush series.
For SHTF, you will want lots of space, so the Rush 72 is going to be the right choice.
It is made out of 1050D Nylon with a water repellent coating.
The compartment layout is superb and let's you pack your gear in a very organized manner.
You can choose from several different color or camo options as well. If you want to explore more options like this one, check out our article on tactical backpacks.
A belt is a simple accessory, but in a SHTF scenario, it provides some critical extra storage for tools and equipment.
We prefer to stay away from belts with pre-set cinches because they often either provide too tight or too loose of a fit. Your clothing and gear will often change how tight you need your belt to be.
We recommend looking at Viking Tactics Cobra Belt. Another service member favorite, the Cobra belt provides a quick-release latch like a seatbelt for easy removal.
An infinitely adjustable strap retention system ensures the belt stays perfectly sized when worn. The Cobra belt is approximately 1-5/8” wide and is made of a Cordura-like cloth instead of leather. This belt may also be used as an improvised tourniquet.
The Cobra Belt can also be integrated with Viking’s Battle Belt. The Battle Belt features a popular, low-profile cummerbund that integrates with most plate carriers to provide additional webbing and storage.
Weapons and Defense
All that kit is no good if you cannot actively meet a threat head on and neutralize it. Your weapons matter just as much as your PPE and storage.
A good STHF kit utilizes only critical weapons that can handle every engagement: deterrence, nonlethal dispatch at close, medium and long-range.
Our veteran advisor again advocates for keeping it simple. Stick with a knife, a handgun, and a rifle. You can also consider backup options like tactical pens and pepper spray.
A best practice is to invest in weapons with common calibers. By doing so, you will not be lugging around 500 rounds of rifle ammo for days or weeks on end.
If you are in a high-threat environment or if s*** actually hits the fan, you may encounter the need and opportunity to replenish.
Weapons with calibers that law enforcement and common retail centers carry are best. Based on that criteria, we recommend the following:
Invest in a 9mm, .40 S&W, or another common handgun caliber. Your handgun of choice should be reliable with moderate accuracy and capacity.
Go for a popular model that has been proven to work reliable even after firing thousands of rounds through it without cleaning.
We do not often get into the authoritative stance of suggesting specific models, but we particularly like Glock, Springfield, and Sig Sauer.
Invest in a rifle with, once again, a common caliber with moderate accuracy, reliability, and capacity.
You have likely inferred through even simple research that the AR platform is the SHTF rifle of choice. We agree.
The AR-15 is heavily inspired by the common military service rifle. It offers a lightweight configuration, 30-round or greater capacity, surprising accuracy, and moderate stopping power with plenty of trauma per hit beyond 300 yards.
Better yet, the AR-15 is the most bought and sold rifle in U.S. so ammo is always plentiful. Check out our extensive guide on how to build your own AR-15.
Knives are like guns. There are thousands of options to choose from with nearly infinite configurations.
To keep it simple, we recommend investing in around a 6-inch blade knife with AUS-8, 1095 Cro Van, 420 HC, or similar quality steel.
AUS-8 steel provides a perfect balance of metal hardness, sharpness retention, and corrosion resistance.
A popular choice is the classic KA-BAR USMC fighting knife. Tried and true, this knife has been through combat many times. It is made out of 1095 Cro Van steel.
Of course, our veteran advisor prefers something even simpler but more reliable: The Air Force Survival Knife, built by the Ontario Knife Company. Another classic choice.
This 5-inch carbon steel blade-equipped knife comes with a zinc phosphate coating, steel butt cap for shattering glass, and a convenient, rugged leather case with belt loop and sharpening stone.
It is the definition of a survivor’s knife and will retain an edge with extreme strength and sharpness. Sharpening can take some time.
If you want to explore even more options, check out our list of the top tactical knives.
Often, non-lethal detainment will grant you much more leverage in a SHTF conflict than outright combat and lethal contact if it can be avoided.
The ability to subdue and detain an assailant will usually yield valuable resources, information, and even protection against others.
With that said, we advocate carrying a nonlethal weapon that can incapacitate: pepper spray.
As with any other protective or offensive device, we never advocate for cutting corners. Go for the best.
A great option is SABRE Red pepper gel. It shoots in a stream of gel that works much better against wind compared to other sprays.
UDAP Jogger Fogger provides some of the most concentrated Capsaicin irritant available on the market and has a 10-foot reach. This handheld spray is easily concealable in any pouch or pocket.
Capsaicin spray causes immediate irritation of the corneal nerves resulting in temporary blindness. It also irritates the nerves and air sacs in the lungs, severely inhibiting an attacker’s ability to carry on the fight.
Our veteran advisor carries UDAP spray for bears and in sensitive environments where a concealed weapon is not always feasible.
There are many great options out there to choose from. SABRE is a popular brand that does a great job. If you want to check out other options, see our list of top pepper sprays.
Incapacitating an assailant is no good if one cannot detain them. A good set of zip cuffs provides the security needed to easily detain an attacker.
Handcuffs may suffice, but they can generally only be used for one purpose. Zip cuffs are highly versatile and can double as tie-downs and jerry rigs.
South Main Hardware Handcuff Cable Ties are excellent zip cuffs, providing 250 pounds of tensile strength. These slim, lightweight ties come in a pack of 25 and store easily.
Although optional, we highly recommend a durable, waterproof flashlight. We advocate for a 2-in-1 flashlight that can be weapon-mounted or handheld.
The Streamlight ProTac is a wonderfully effective flashlight that is IP67 waterproof, and in anecdotal experience, quite bomb-proof.
Our veteran advisor carried one on his M4 for many years. It took plenty of abuse and never failed.
The ProTac offers 350 lumens of power using a CR123A battery and 150 lumens with regular AAs.
On low power, it provides over 14 hours of light which makes it perfect for overnight use. You can get the handheld version or the mountable one that is easily removable from any weapon-mounted Picatinny rail for handheld use.
Food for Thought
All of the recommendations above have been field tested and have often doubled as extensive hiking and camping equipment in adverse environments.
This gear is not “Gucci.” It is not the sexiest, the newest, the absolutely lightest or the most tricked out.
Like any respectable prepper or self-taught survivalist, we advocate that you conduct your own research.
You will find alternatives to every piece of gear listed above.
All we can say is this: The above gear, to us, represents the ultimate SHTF loadout based on reliability, price, ruggedness, weight, comfort, and quality.
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