Prepper folks see it all the time. “Tactical” gear abounds, and the tactical label has been applied to everything from firearms to bacon, and pretty much anything in between. In fact if it can have a camouflage, desert tan, or black finish applied to it, or some paracord added, it magically becomes “tactical.” Heck, there are even tactical sporks!
In some cases, the tactical label is clearly meant as a gag. Everyone should know that a can of bacon isn’t tactical, and the Ka-Bar spork is cool, but the label makes it even cooler and more fun. But just what is tactical, and why are so many products labeled with that term, and should we really care?
The Rise Of Tactical Gear
On the surface, tactical gear should represent something that is well, tactical. Although what tactical means is somewhat up for debate. Generally speaking though, tactical gear should be useful for military or armed response operations, in support of those operations, or at least useful in organized first response activities like search and rescue.
That said, we can see pretty quick how a truly tactical piece of gear would be of great use to preppers for any number of reasons. The gun owners among us will quickly recognize the gold standard of durability, performance, and function that comes with “military grade”. Of course in the small arms world, there is so much two-way transfer of technology between sporting and military markets, that the line really blurs.
Weapons aside though, things meant to hold up for military, law enforcement and first responder use will be attractive due to durability, uniformity, and often with common parts and methods. The army’s MOLLE pack system has been widely adopted by civilian companies, to the point where it is often a default way to customize a backpack or load carrying gear.
So clearly, there are practical consumer needs for tactical gear. But pretty soon, it starts getting weird…
It Gets Weird
Let’s face it, selling gear with implied connections to military or combat capabilities is a method as old as time. The garbage junk changes with social trends, but the method remains in the same. In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it was all about the kind of gear a lone wolf soldier of fortune might have. Amazing survival knives that magically turned you into Rambo, and camouflage clothing that would help you better make use of that knife with the Soviets invaded Red Dawn style.
Today, it’s hip soldier gear that apparently is useful for some ill-defined action in a desert somewhere, or perhaps on the mean urban streets. You clearly need a desert tan shirt, and without a tactical keychain, your odds of surviving a street mugging vanish. Because apparently a tan shirt makes you a terrorist fighting machine, and you’ll leave a gun or taser at home, but bring a keychain for close hand to hand fighting. Got it.
There is a term for this kind of gear, and the people who buy it thinking it gives them some sort of combative or tactical edge; we call them Mall Ninjas.
Here is where a huge market exists for all manner of tactical things, and where it creates confusion for the novice prepper and bogs down the marketplace with questionable junk. The mall ninja isn’t actually doing anything except looking and feeling tough. One might say they play act at being a tough guy ready to take on anything, and there is a healthy market of junk that serves them.
Junk vs Fun vs Good Stuff
Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes you can just have fun with stereotypes. The tactical bacon I mentioned earlier clearly falls into that realm. It’s bacon. In a can. With a funny label, and is a nice thing to add a can of two into your survival gear. It isn’t cheap imported airsoft parts marked as some sort of super sniper laser sight or combat boots that will fall apart on your first hike.
And sometimes when you build high-quality gear, you might as well make it work for the valid tactical market. If it has a tactical flair to it and is of good quality, then that is an endorsement as to the validity of the use it is marketed to. You can usually spot this kind of stuff by the higher price tag and visibly higher quality.
So as a prepper, how do you filter out all the tactical noise from the tactical signal, or do you just want to ignore tactical gear altogether? Let’s take a closer look at that.
What You Want, What You Really, Really Want
I don’t want to harp on the cheesy aspect of tactical gear too much. It’s negative and the smart prepper can tell the difference between a garbage $5 “tactical flashlight” and a flashlight you can actually trust in an emergency.
Here is the tricky part. You probably don’t need everything to be tactical when it comes down to choosing prepping supplies. What’s worse, is that sometimes companies slap a bit of Kydex, or some other polymer around on a product, change the color to black, green or tan, and label it tactical. The underlying product is still just as good, but now it’s even cooler!
And there is nothing wrong with that, but even if you buy “tactical” things, you might just be getting a regular consumer grade product with edgy packaging. Or, you might actually be buying tactical gear. It just depends on the product and who the primary market is. But I come back to the original point, tactical is both real, and a gimmick, and sometimes is just a state of mind, and these points must factor into buying your survival gear.
Take a look and consider your emergency preps. What are you prepping for? One of the biggest markets for “tactical” gear are people who think they are somehow going to single-handedly fend off the enemies of civilization on their own, and that they can only do that if they have Navy SEAL tier tactical tools.
The reality is that folks who prep for reality might have tactical gear simply because it fits their preps best. This isn’t to disparage being armed and prepared to protect yourself or your family, but to take a realistic approach to the matter, and not get hung up on becoming a mall ninja or gear junky.
Skills are even more important than gear, and a well-practiced person can do more in an emergency with fewer tools than somebody burdened down with all the latest whiz-bang gadgets and no skills.
The Tactical Conclusion
Buy what you need first, what you want second, and what’s cool third. I confess, sometimes I buy things that look cool, but only if they are functional as well. Sometimes I pass up cool looking gear because I have no justification for it.
If you want to select quality tactical gear for the function and reliability it offers, that is a valid approach. Just don’t think that having combat grade gear makes you more than the sum of your skills. A black paint job and strategically placed nylon straps don’t make you a survival expert, and a fancy combat knife won’t cut open a box any better than a regular knife.
The prepper and survival world is constantly targeted and even preyed on by companies looking to unload junk that appears tough and rugged because it fits a military grade aesthetic. We are constantly told that this knife, or that flashlight, or some type of boot will make you a better, tougher, stronger prepper who can take on the world.
By now the point should have been clearly made. Tactical is mostly a marketing gimmick. True tactical products don’t need tough guy marketing, they speak and stand for themselves. If you are relying on something being “tactical” to see you through an emergency, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment.
The smart prepper instead relies on what works, not what is glitzy and shiny. It might feel good to have the exact same thing used by some elite military force, but that won’t make you more skillful, or capable of doing more than what you already can. Odds are an equally serviceable tool can be had for far less cost, which lets you roll the savings into other important things like food storage.
There is a big market out there for things labeled tactical, but a small real-world use for them, and there is no real reason to give in to the desire to gear up tactical style. Save that for the movies, and people who need to wrap their self-worth up in what kind of gear they have and how it works. The rest of us can quietly prep for the worst and hope it never happens.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.