What Is Tactical Gear and How Has It Become a Trend?

By Nathan Thomas
Updated on
What Is tactical/combat gear and Why has it become so popular
Photo by Andy Gin

In the past, tactical gear existed solely to fulfill one purpose: outfit the armed forces. It was predominantly in use by members of the military and law enforcement officers. However, as time has gone on, the variety of people utilizing tactical gear has expanded. Nowadays, it’s no longer just for professional use. It has successfully cemented itself in the mainstream.

By mainstream, I am not talking about the clothes worn on runways during fashion week. (Although, oddly enough, the ‘style’ of tactical gear has indeed featured there many times.) Instead, I am referring to the predominant civilian use of tactical gear. Many civilians have woken up to the benefits of clothing that serves a specific purpose outside of simple aesthetics.

In this article, I’ll be walking you through everything you need to know about tactical gear. I’ll cover everything from its definition to its history, all the way through to your legal standing as a citizen in tactical gear. You don’t have to be a serving soldier to make use of the practical benefits of tactical clothing. You just have to know which elements could benefit you the most. There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get right into it.

The Definition of Tactical Gear

Let’s start with the absolute basics: What is actical gear, and how is it identifiable from regular clothing?

The primary difference is the purpose behind the clothing. While ordinary clothing might be a form of self-expression, tactical clothing serves a specific practical purpose.

These purposes vary enormously and depend on your intended uses for the tactical gear. For example, a law enforcement officer’s tactical gear would differ widely from the tactical gear a hunter would wear. Both people can wear equipment, but they need their clothing to serve very different functions. A hunter doesn’t require a bulletproof vest. Likewise, law enforcement doesn’t require extra pocket space for food and water reserves.

It’s also essential to remember that tactical gear isn’t just items of clothing. Gadgets from the standard binoculars up to night vision goggles fall into the category of tactical gear. You can also count extra-durable flashlights, water-resistant pouches, pocketknives, and even sunglasses as gear. What ties all these items together is their robust durability.

Hunters, campers, and hikers are some of the countless examples of civilians who make use of these reliable products. Many people invest in the latest gear as a vocation. There’s no hard and fast rule on who can make use of tactical gear. One of the main reasons that tactical gear is so in-demand is that you can apply it to countless circumstances. You don’t have to be an intrepid explorer or former military personnel to see the benefits of clothes with functionality.

How the Military Tactical Gear Has Become a Trend

From sophisticated backpacks to tech-enhanced body armor, tactical gear has seen a swell of innovations in the past century. The demand for new products hasn’t stopped yet. In actuality, it seems to be growing. This surge in interest is one of the reasons so many invest in tactical gear purely for vocational reasons. Watching the industry evolve is fascinating.

When Did the Tactical Gear Industry First Originate?: The History

Strictly speaking, the origins of tactical gear date back over a thousand years, in the sense that armor and utility clothing count as tactical gear due to their purposes in battle. Military equipment and tactical gear share an intertwined history. However, these days, when someone mentions tactical clothing, they probably aren’t talking about full chain-mail.

The true boom of popularity in tactical gear for civilians arrived in the late twentieth century and continues to grow to this day. Initially, people wore tactical clothing with a specific purpose in mind. However, in the past decade, it has become common to see clothing inspired by law enforcement and military personnel as a staple in high street fashion.

A fashion statement isn’t what the majority of tactical gear enthusiasts are trying to make. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the high street might be guilty of hopping on a trend to make a bit of money through camo prints and multi-pocket vests. But, surprisingly enough, the origins of civilian-use tactical gear have roots in a similar scheme.

While the world has always been at war in some capacity, vast stockpiles of military equipment haven’t always been necessary. The phrase ‘tactical gear’ came about as a way to rebrand some of the unneeded military gear and sell it to the public. Similarly, manufacturers created and distributed variations on equipment utilized by law enforcement.

These days, this equipment is ubiquitous as ‘tactical gear,’ and most people don’t bother distinguishing the different items by its origin. Whether the military or law enforcement inspires it, it all falls under the same umbrella. The notion that civilians could now have military-grade equipment was understandably appealing, and a new market came into being.

Fully equipped tactical outfit
Military Tactical Outfit – Photo by Ольга Пашко

The Rise in Popularity

Demand continues to increase for tactical gear as more and more people wake up to its many uses. Even the most average of citizens can find worth in items such as rugged flashlights. With their technology and durability, tactical gear is no longer a market aimed at a specific demographic. Almost everyone can benefit from having the proper tools.

Marketers understand this, so they have capitalized on it for years. A vast array of brands exists that pride themselves on creating next-level gear for the many practical demands we face in daily life. A simple Google search of ‘tactical clothing’ will provide you with a seemingly endless supply of sites all vying for your business.

Of course, not all of them deserve that business. As is the case with any industry, there’s an abundance of companies out there just wanting to profit from something popular. If you are new to purchasing tactical gear, make sure you check out a brand’s history before buying from them. Check the section below titled ‘What Gear Should You Have?’ where I go into depth on what you need to look out for and what to avoid.

Tactical gear and clothing are so much more than just a trend or novelty, which is why it has achieved longevity. Each item of clothing or piece of equipment serves a specific purpose. The industry continues to evolve to match the ever-changing needs of its customers, so its popularity has never dwindled.

The Future of Tactical Gear

As I mentioned before, part of the fascination with tactical gear emerges from how it continues to grow and evolve over the years. Just as the tech world continues to expand and innovate in new and exciting ways, so does the world of tactical gear. They often go hand in hand. For this reason, imagining what is tactical gear going to look like in the future is exciting, especially as so many tools become more refined with advancements in technology.

I admit it’s impossible to know what will become available for civilian use. However, one way to project what may be hitting the tactical gear market is by keeping an eye on the military’s new equipment.

The world of tactical gear generally operates on a trickle-down basis. The military or law enforcement have first access (of course) to the newest editions of equipment. From there, the availability of the equipment proceeds down the chain until it’s ready for commercial sale. The amount of time it takes for an item to make it to the retail market depends on a variety of factors, perhaps most notably how appropriate the item in question is for civilian use.

If we look to the troops of today for an insight into what civilian gear may look like in the future, it’s a pretty exciting sight. The military is continually looking for new ways to give their troops the cutting edge in both technology and equipment. Thanks to their efforts, soldiers can look like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie.

From complex network communication systems to state-of-the-art navigation devices, today’s soldiers boast a robust array of tools at their disposal. Some of the cooler inventions most recently rolled out are the additions of helmets that possess real-time positioning data. I’ve also seen body armor pieces that not only protect the wearer but also function as efficient computers.

Of course, a lot of the innovations made for troops are for combat. For the average civilian, this equipment may not be as useful. You don’t need a visor to provide you with thermal readings of fellow shoppers when wandering through Walmart. What is exciting is how the average Joe can repurpose these devices to serve non-violent purposes. A long-distance thermal reading visor is a fantastic addition to a hunter’s arsenal, for instance.

In many ways, the future of tactical gear is much like its past. It will continue to grow and evolve to meet new requirements. Technological leaps are happening every day, and it isn’t just your smartphone or laptop that benefits from these advancements. The very clothes you wear can become revolutionized with new, practical tech.

What Makes Up a Tactical Gear Outfit?

As a civilian, it isn’t likely that that you will ever be in a situation that requires a full tactical gear outfit from head to toe. At the same time, knowing each of the components and what they can offer is crucial. As I wrote above, tactical clothing is only effective because of its specific purpose. Each item achieves a different goal.

What is tactical gear for civilian use? When deciding what kind of tactical gear you need, consider what you are using it for, what problem you are trying to solve, and how that specific item is going to help you. If you are new to tactical gear, then you are in the right place. Below, I have broken down each of the critical elements of a full tactical outfit and what function they serve.

Backpacks

When thinking about innovations in the tactical gear world, our minds tend to drift to the impressive technological leaps in electronic devices. But in actuality, the humble backpack has gone through a transformation over the years. Many backpacks these days don’t even rest on your back.

The classic canvas knapsack has evolved numerous times to become the practical backpacks we have today. From internal frames that help distribute weight to modular lightweight load-carrying equipment (MOLLE) with lines of heavy-duty nylon for easy attachment, the modern backpack is not something to dismiss. In many cases, it is an integral part of a tactical outfit.

Pants

The term tactical pants first appeared in 1992, after a meeting between FBI agents and the brand 5.11. The partnership involved creating a standard uniform for all serving agents. Since then, tactical pants are no longer exclusively for law enforcement. They possess a wide variety of practical uses in civilian life.

Some of the tactical pants’ critical characteristics include their deep pockets (of which there are usually multiple). They also feature strengthened stitching to bear the weight of frequent movement in varying positions. Some even feature disguised knee-pad protection, all while remaining entirely comfortable. They’ve come a long way since 1992.

Boots

One of the most important aspects to consider in a tactical outfit is your footwear. You need durability if you plan to wear your shoes or boots for extended periods in rugged terrain. Every soldier is familiar with the dangers of trench foot. The right boots can help to avoid it.

When shopping for tactical boots of high quality, you need to take into account their durability, comfort, and waterproofing. I also recommend thinking about how breathable they are overall.

A foot or leg injury from uncomfortable or poorly made shoes will cut short any hunt or hike and potentially put you in danger. Make sure to give careful consideration to your boots before making any purchase to reduce the risk of muscle strain and injury.

Watches

Tactical watches are distinct from their standard counterparts due to their heightened durability and waterproofing.

Time is an essential factor in any mission, but today’s watches can even monitor your biometrics to give you clear insight into your body’s overall condition. This data can prove vital in situations where you are exerting yourself.

Gloves

Your hands need adequate protection, too. This point is especially true if you are traversing rugged terrain that may include climbing. Some tactical gloves offer specific pressure-point padding to ensure the total minimization of any potential injury. They also will feature special lining to protect from extreme weather conditions.

Belts

If you are looking to create a full tactical outfit, most likely, you are going to be carrying a fair bit of tactical equipment around with you, too. Tactical utility belts are the perfect answer to the many problems that come with hauling equipment.

Your tactical backpack should bear most of the weight of what you bring with you—however, some items you need to have at hand quickly. By attaching them to a tactical belt, you have them right where you need them when you need them.

I usually have several items attached to my belt, including a tactical knife and flashlight. Even if I’m going out in the day, my military training has taught me to prepare for the unexpected.

Tactical belts can hold far more weight than a standard belt. Most also have multiple clips to attach whatever you deem necessary.

Holsters

Like belts, holsters are an excellent way to carry specific equipment that makes them readily available for use.

The practical applications of holsters can vary enormously. Quick access to camping or hunting tools is just one example. You could also utilize a holster for your rugged flashlight, among other items.

Holsters usually attach around your waist. For a subtler appearance, you can wear them beneath the arms and fasten around your chest beneath clothing.

Vests

There are two kinds of vests I will talk about here: utility vests and body armor vests.

Utility vests generally feature all of the same qualities you may expect from tactical pants and belts. They possess multiple deep pockets and max out how much you can carry without dragging you down with excess weight.

Body armor vests protect from either assault or accidental harm. They can be bulletproof, though not all are. There are varying degrees of protection offered. The US National Institute of Justice ranks the protective qualities of body armor vests from Level IIA to Level IV. You can read more about the specifics of their ratings via this link.

Of course, you don’t need to utilize every one of these components to create an efficient tactical outfit. Mix and match whatever you need whenever you need it, and try new things for the best results. Some items might initially look like it could never apply to you or your living circumstances, but you may be surprised by how helpful these products can be.

Tactical Gear for Self-Defense

If you don’t fall into the category of military personnel or intrepid explorer, maybe you are researching tactical gear for self-defense purposes. Lots of people possess some form of tactical self-defense equipment and with good reason. It pays to prepare.

Tactical Knives

Tactical knives can appeal to a broader audience. There is a variety available, both folding and straight, that you can use as a tool or as a form of self-defense. These tools are easy to conceal and can give you the benefit of intimidation when you find yourself in a potentially combative situation.

Flashlights

A flashlight may not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about self-defense. However, the tool’s stealthiness is what makes it so effective. You can catch any assailant off guard by merely directing a blinding beam in their face. Tactical flashlights are also highly durable. They are a tremendous multipurpose tactical tool.

Pens

Often designed with reinforced metal and pressurized ink cartridges, the tactical pen is nobody’s first choice in combat. But in a pinch, they can be a supremely handy tool. They’re easy to store and carry, and they provide the maximum benefit of the element of surprise.

They also function as regular pens, which can be handy for drawing out maps or tracking routes. Don’t underestimate the power of the pen.

What Gear Should You Have?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tactical gear. The equipment and/or clothing you acquire depends entirely on your situation, your intentions, and how you want to achieve your specific aims. However, with my military background, I can offer you some advice about what has helped me out in the field.

There are a few cornerstones you can adhere to when purchasing tactical gear for the first time. Whether you are new to tactical gear or already possess an impressive collection, knowing what you need to look out for in potential equipment or clothing is integral to making a practical purchase. Luckily, it isn’t a challenging set of rules to remember, as most of it is pretty self-explanatory.

Step One: What Do You Need It for?

This question is relatively standard to ask yourself when purchasing anything, but it’s especially crucial for tactical gear. The entire point behind these items of clothing or pieces of equipment is to perform a function. The purpose drives its design, and each item fulfills that purpose differently. So, what are you planning on doing with it? What problem are you trying to solve?

If your current problem is that you need to carry a heavy load on your back for a grueling hike, then a penknife isn’t going to help. What would help is a reversible backpack designed so that you can switch it around to alternate weight strain between your back and chest. Maybe you need to keep your camping gear protected with a waterproof pouch. Or, perhaps, you could use some durable boots that improve maneuverability.

If you don’t know why you need an item of tactical gear, revisit why you started thinking about purchasing in the first place. What was the instigating thought that led you to this decision? Was it related to wilderness survival, day to day life, security, or something else entirely? The origin of your thought process will lead you to what you need most.

Another way of thinking about this question is to consider what your ‘mission’ is. Even if you don’t have a hunt or hike in mind, you may have an objective you want to achieve. This question is another way of asking yourself about your intention. Identify your mission, and you can more efficiently identify what you may need to complete it.

Besides the purpose, you also want to think about where you’ll be using the gear. In some instances, you don’t want a bright orange vest that makes you stick out—you want to be stealth. The purpose goes hand in hand with the environment.

Step Two: Problem Management

Once you have identified your intention for your tactical gear, it is time to start thinking of all the things that could go wrong on your ‘mission.’ Planning for the worst is a surefire way to prevent problems arising that you could easily have solved with the right equipment.

Problem management is step one inverted. Instead of thinking about what you might need specific items for, start thinking about what would cause a problem if you didn’t have it on your person.

Your imagination might run wild here, so catch yourself if you start to overthink it. The key to efficient use of the tactical gear is achieving all of your projected requirements without overloading yourself since that can lead to a host of new problems.

It can be incredibly tempting to load up on the latest gear because it’s shiny and exciting. But from my time in the military, I can tell you that this approach can be highly counterproductive. Of course, if you are collecting tactical gear for vocational reasons, then this is fine. However, if you’re preparing for a specific activity, it’s imperative to understand the rule of less is more.

Step Three: Know Who to Shop with

One of the unfortunate effects of tactical gear becoming so popular is that everyone seems to be producing it nowadays. That availability means you don’t always get the best quality, so I recommend being mindful about who you give your hard-earned buck.

First, you need to look at the brand’s history. Have they always been in the tactical gear market, or are they a general clothing brand that happens to feature tactical gear? That distinction is crucial because it’s the difference between a maker dedicated to what they produce and a fly-by designer cashing in on a trend. You can’t expect quality tactical gear from a company that treats it as an afterthought.

When looking at tactical clothing, there are three things you need to keep in mind:

  • Fabric
  • Fit
  • Features

These three Fs of tactical gear are the critical components of any worthy purchase. The fabric needs to possess durability. Preferably, the material should be a mix of synthetics as opposed to pure cotton bases. Cotton absorbs sweat, which can lead to heat rashes or pneumonia, depending on the weather. The fit is vital, too. If it isn’t comfortable, your clothing is going to slow down or impinge on your movement.

Finally, the features the gear boasts are arguably the most integral. A piece of tactical clothing that’s durable and fits well is excellent, but you can usually find that in most standard clothing stores. What function does the article of clothing or gear perform?

When I talk about tactical clothing, I am not just referring to jackets, vests, or pants. I am talking about the whole outfit—belts, gloves, sunglasses, etc. For a fully optimized outfit, you need to be critical of each component. One poor quality piece can throw off your entire fit.

Concerning The Law: Is It Legal for Civilians to Wear Tactical Gear?

What is tactical gear law in the US? Well, the laws surrounding tactical gear in the United States vary from state to state, but generally speaking, most items are perfectly legal to purchase and possess. Still, you must know the law in your area before buying any form of tactical gear. This research is especially necessary when it comes to self-defense items that could count as weaponry.

The long history of the civilian use of tactical gear means its legal status is not in question. However, with such an enormous variety of equipment out there, you can never be 100% sure unless you check with your local legislation. For example, in most states, it is illegal for civilians to purchase or own military-grade, level three bulletproof vests.

Some states allow gear, but specific sale circumstances apply. For instance, if you purchase body armor in Connecticut, you have to do so face-to-face. In every other state, you can buy it online. These small differences may seem menial, but you have to adhere to them. Otherwise, you may face serious legal repercussions.

One law that can potentially infringe upon your ability to utilize tactical gear is the law against impersonating military personnel. Armored vests and headgear are generally acceptable, but if you start to look a little too much like a member of the military, you may face legal charges.

In most cases, a lot of the legislation relates to common sense. Is the piece of tactical gear you want to possess a potentially high-risk item? Then it’s likely some laws are surrounding it. There usually isn’t an outright ban or anything similar, but there are requirements by which you must abide.

Conclusion

The history of tactical gear is fascinating, and the future of tactical gear remains intriguing as innovations develop every day. Whatever your reason for investing in tactical gear, there’s sure to be a gadget or item of clothing that meets your needs.

From the military to law enforcement, to the general public, tactical gear is widely popular. It offers durability, affordability, and multipurpose efficiency. The demands of modern life sometimes require more than your average tools, and tactical gear exists solely to solve those problems.