15 March 2010

Survival - Pack Concepts - 1

When examining emergency preparedness and if you are pre-planning JIC (Just In Case) you have to 'bug out' (leave home with whatever you can carry) I have found one of the most contentious areas to be that of the backpack/rucksack area as it has numerous supporters of different ideas of what to have, but also why you want it. This is, however, one of the more personal decisions as it depends on your ability to carry much of anything. And the variables in that will, naturally, lead to different final end-goals and what can and will fit those end goals. I have hiked with various types of packs, depending on situations, but most of that was pre-1990 and I needed to update my views and expectations in the packing realm.

That realm started with a mammoth sized Duluth pack, that included a forehead strap to help you 'lean into' the load. I've hiked with one of those fully loaded in my younger days and, at one point, had that and a medium ALICE pack plus canoe on my shoulders. Really, as the ALICE pack went in front and the canoe was up top, I had a reasonable center of mass, and I have no estimation as to final weight of all that, save the canoe was 50 lbs. all on its lonesome.

What did I learn from that experience?

Pack sparingly.

At that point I was carrying the load for myself (a young teen) and five children aged 9-12. For a week's outing I brought all of two changes of clothes: one for the camp and one to hike back in if I couldn't get my first day's set dry. Which I couldn't. Out of the 10 miles, I would estimate that 7 of them were with that large load, and I did take breaks and sucked down water at a phenomenal rate. Mind you getting to the camping site was then a few miles of canoe trip, a portage and then a mile or so hike in from the disembarking point.

So, pack sparingly.


As a geologist and recreational packer I used a Kelty pack that was lightweight and had decent cargo space, and an internal frame. At Field Camp the base camp would handle food and cooking, so all I had to do was handle myself, tent, sleeping bag, ground cloth, clothing, medical supplies and miscellaneous supplies necessary for highland desert camping. A 1 Gal. canteen also found its way into the kit during a 'clean yourself and your clothes' break at a small town. Add in good Swiss hiking boots and I was set. For personal hiking, that would only be for a day or two, and for those it was usually a smaller pack that was actually just a 'day pack' that I could wedge my tent and stuff into. The Kelty was more an Alpine pack (long and less than shoulder width) which suited the few places I actually did have to rock climb with the thing.

Thus my experience has been with commercial 1970-80's and 1970's vintage military packs.

Today, the updating of my expectation and knowledge has taken some time and the design idea of 'modular pack loading' has come into being. That is not just the concept of similar sizing and mass for certain loads, but an entirely new system to allow the easy placement of pouches and other equipment on to packs or less than packs. I will start with the older system and work to the newer one on the military side.

ALICE - All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment

ALICE, from what I can read on it, is an outgrowth of the Viet Nam war experience, and the problems faced with the older Model series of packs (M.1956, M.1944, M.1936, M.1922). I have, actually, picked up an M-1936 pack/haversack and it is an unfolding affair that, if you have all the interior equipment, then allows for the nestling of said equipment compactly into the pack once you wrap it all up. Plus it has a strap arrangement for a bedroll, and an internal ammo belt for storing extra rounds for your rifle. That series also had a backboard added to it in WWII so that bulkier containers (gasoline, ammo, etc) in cans could be lashed to it. The board, itself, was normally plywood and used the canvas strap arrangement of whatever the pack system was at the time. Unfortunately those were designed with a series of supply depots in mind, and moving supplies constantly forward so that one was never far away from a depot. At Bastogne that would see major problems when US forces were cut off from their supply lines during the Battle of the Bulge. Similarly, in Korea, when the front line collapsed, the entire supply system then became a 'use it or lose it' affair as the amount of troops from China could not be handled by then modern mechanized warfare until their supply lines were cut.

Airpower was making a difference in how we fought on the ground and Viet Nam would be the first conflict to see many older ideas of supply lines had to be re-thought. Additionally the older weapons systems for soldiers (M-1, M-14, M-1A1) were getting replaced by more modern weapons (M-16) that were more lightweight. Finally, jungle warfare is not open ground, flatland warfare and while there was still a 'front line' the fighting often took place where there was no 'front', no overland supply routes and where jungle conditions often made air-resupply problematical. Air Cavalry meant that a new way of approaching the entire system of what you took and how you took it had to move from an essential design dating back to the first armies and reformulate them for the modern age. If you have no supply lines, then you are stuck with what you have with you and the type of mission then drives what you have to carry. Even though ammo in magazines had been around for a long time, Viet Nam was the first war of lightweight, fully automatic weapons with selective fire and they ate up ammo at a fast rate. No longer was it possible to sit down and unpack some loose ammo or from belt loop ammo in your pack into a clip or magazine... especially when you were waist deep in water. What came out of that, starting in the early 1960's, was the idea of a 'sustainment pack' and a 'patrol pack'. If you were going out on a day or two patrol, you needed one set of equipment for a given time in the field between drop-off and pick-up, and if you were moving from one forward base to another or being put on a long mission of a week or more, you needed to carry everything you needed with you for that time period.

How you fought also required a change in the idea of how you carried things. This meant that larger magazine/clip storage containers needed to be 'handy'. 'Handy' being right at your hand where you could easily reach it without digging into your pack. Clothes and cooking supplies don't need to be handy, ammo, medical supplies, water, entrenching tool (e-tool) and things like bug spray did need to be handy, and so must migrate from inside the pack to outside the pack to an easy to reach position. As the pack load, itself, would increase, the entire system required an external frame that was lightweight yet sturdy, and that would be aluminum. Packs would come in a variety of materials, but nylon would slowly replace canvas. Finally light patrols, long patrols, and sustainment based missions would each gather their own pack size (small, medium, large) but only after the Viet Nam conflict had ended. The Medium Pack was one that could do without the frame, in a pinch, if you packed it well, and the Small Pack (mostly civilian use) was likewise so endowed. In theory you could do that with the Large Pack... in theory.

ALICE modularized things to an extent and the place to attach 'handy' materials was on to your belt. Thus the ALICE belt clip became the fasten-all way of adapting anything (military or civilian) to the ALICE pack/belt/load bearing system. Georgia Outfitters has a nice scan of the 1973 year of issue manual for the ALICE equipment system and I will use here:

ALICE 1011

The belt clips are spring metal clips, normally in a three piece affair, that slide one piece up and down into a hole for the tab of the piece being slid up and down. And a load carrier looks like this:

ALICE 0607

Even better is that the ALICE packs come with nylon strap webbing sewn at a few places on the outside that allow you to put equipment on the outside of the pack, along with grommets in case you need to do some lashing with paracord or carabiners. Additionally the ALICE frame can have two shelves for those bulky items (like ammo cans or gas cans) and still have room for a small pack or you can just haul a lot of ammo or other bulky goods on base:

ALICE 2425

The lower shelf, all on its own, helps get the ALICE pack out of its primordial state by giving it a foundation: it is no longer without shape nor without form. That last is the truth as ALICE has one, central, huge compartment. How big? I've seen other 'large' packs from the Swiss, Swedes and even Germans that can fit INSIDE a large ALICE pack. The thing is huge.

Large ALICE Pk & Frame
Photo: J and A Discount Military, LLC

So, an integrated load-bearing system with huge pack (at the Large size, at least) and a number of outside pockets plus a handy-dandy way to keep handy goods at hand! What could go wrong?

If you need to carry a lot on a budget, it is the way to go, but there are some things that need serious updating on the pack.

First the outer pockets of the pack, itself, are not easy to get at when you are wearing them, which is why all the really handy stuff needs to be on your belt or side panels of the pack. The pack has no side panel pockets.

Second, the webbing system is straight out of the early days of packing, without an easy buckle or quiet zipper to be seen, and noisy velcro for the map pocket at the top (which lacks a clear plastic window to see the map without opening the pocket.

Third, those small pockets are small and really too small to carry all but bare essentials.

Fourth, the frame is not adjustable, which is a popular aftermarket DIY thing to do if you like drilling out rivets and putting in bolts and then getting the frame anodized.

Fifth, the pack lacks side-to-side stability that a couple of easy straps could have solved at the start, but become an aftermarket thing for you to do.

Sixth, ALICE clips work can work free with the rubbing of the metal tab on fabric as you hike, thus making re-adjustment necessary.

There are, actually, a lot of quibbling problems with what is, essentially, a low cost pack. That rig from J&A up there is $25, and you can't go wrong for that if all you want is to haul a lot of stuff around. And if you don't have a tailor that can do modifications locally, there is always Tactical Tailor who can do a number of modifications for you that are standard and are able to do some non-standard ones as well. Once I found them, I knew that there really were a number of things that needed to be done to make the ALICE concept 'user friendly'.

I will skip ahead a couple of decades to the next pack system.

MOLLE - MOdular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment

MOLLE is all about keeping the handy stuff handy and doing so in an extremely modularized way. The MOLLE system, like the ALICE system, has its own way of integrating equipment, and the MOLLE way is via webbing of set size and spacing with a strap/clip that then weaves between the webbing of the equipment you wear and the equipment you carry. There are also ALICE to MOLLE (and vice-versa) adapters so that the two equipment systems cross-integrate with each other. The MOLLE frame is polycarbonate with set spacing openings so that MOLLE and even ALICE packs can be secured to it, and that system eliminates precious weight from the frame. MOLLE starts out with coated ripstop nylon (aka. cordura) as its preferred cloth both for its rain shedding capacity and tear resistance, which tends to add some weight back to the system. A number of MOLLE packs don't need the frame, however, and civilian versions will use aluminum stays inside packs to form an internal frame while keeping MOLLE attachment loops all over the outside of the pack to add on to it.

For me trying out the MOLLE system was an experience and I went with a milsurp MOLLE II Rifleman's Pack:

Riflemans Pack Load Up
Photo courtesy: LoadUp.com

I will give you the idea of scaling and sizing in a bit, but the main point of the MOLLE system are those horizontal lines of webbing that are evenly stitched onto the back of the pack, and the sides which have sustainment pouches on them. to give a better idea of this, here is a High Speed Gear Inc. T.R.A.S.H. Bag Pack that is nearly all MOLLE loops:

Photo courtesy: HSGI

Yes that is a MOLLE pack attached to an ALICE frame. And the HSGI TRASH Bag pack starts to hit into the ALICE realm of hauling...

The milsurp Rifleman's set is about $60, tax and shipping not included, and the HSGI one is $220, tax and shipping not included.

Now there are newer military MOLLE packs, most notably if you can get your hands on the ones the 10MD orders, you will get a truly awesome pack that holds a ton of stuff right into the ALICE range of things. But I don't have that sort of cash for either the HSGI or newer 10MD milsurp if you can find it.

I have bulky materials for two, plus standard survival equipment and need weapons carrying capability with a pack... but hauling is first and foremost, and I may still spring for the HSGI TRASH Bag at some future point in time for its true adaptability. Hauling is the key, and that means cubic inches of space which can, actually, be somewhat divided and apportioned out. That led me to a little item on the cheap which is the Mounted Crewman Compartmented Equipment Bag (MCCEB):

MCCEB Gunnys
Photo courtesy: Gunnys Surplus

That is actually a huge pack, clocking in at over 6,000 ci (if you count the pockets you are well and away over 6,000 ci), and available suplus used from Gunnys for $25 in the Bag section. This bag was designed for the tankers of the M1 Abrams and falls between the ALICE and MOLLE period.

Its features are many: reinforced lower compartment good for tools or (as intended) for your sleep carrier system, a good sized central compartment that would easily fit a daypack into it, and a drawstring top compartment just a bit smaller than the central compartment. The top main pocket is large, I've packed 6 MRE entrees along with some emergency supplies in it, and the smaller pockets on the central compartment are hefty affairs for those smaller things you may need in the way of tools or ammo carrying. It has the standard velcro map pocket on top. The added feature is the reinforced bottom compartment has outside tool pockets for your wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers or pistol of choice.

Its lacks are killer: miniscule carrying harness, not fit for a day pack, no MOLLE or ALICE loop rigging, no waist pad. Its not made for hauling a rifle or shotgun and the internal compartment dividers are permanent: if you take them out they are out forever.

One weirdness is that the truly huge zippers go all the way to the back so you can easily set the thing on its side, open each compartment and pull back on top and bottom to get at all compartments simultaneously. Also it is trapezoidal so your largest compartment is at the bottom, the smallest at the top though only by a few inches... its 16" wide at the middle, 19" wide at the bottom and about 14" wide at the top. If there were a $200 MOLLE version of this to go with the frame, I would buy it at a shot: put fully MOLLE webbing along the sides, attachment points for a frame along the front, put a hydration system on the inside and sacrifice half the size of the top pocket and it would be awesome.

Instead I sent it to Tactical Tailors, paid more but it was worth it to get something adaptable to the modern era.

Its a beast, but a primitive one.

So what do the packs look like with my stuff in them? The first batch of ALICE and MOLLE ones are from my old camera, so you will suffer with poor quality images, but should be able to get the idea. First is the ALICE pack with MOLLE sleep system carrier which I found to be necessary for what I wanted to carry:

ALICE with carrier front
Front/frame side.
ALICE with carrier rear

Chock-a-block loaded to the gills, including the sleep carrier (MSSC). That is one loaded pack.

The problems with it are that it needed lashing every which way to keep things secure. A 1.5" cotton webbing strap goes around the entire pack between the top and bottom pockets to give it lateral stability and to get a better attachment to the frame (which is that big strap draped over the back of the pack). The MSSC needed lashing straps on the sides to pull it up and give it lateral stability, as it bounced up and down and from side-to-side. Not pictured is the ALICE shelf between the main pack and the MSSC to allow for lashing of the main pack and MSSC to the shelf and, thusly, the frame. At this point there were three additional pouches/pockets/waist pack added to the pack: a long ACU pocket, an olive drab pouch, plus a woodlands camo MOLLE waist pack done vertically along the side of the pack. With those extras I was able to get some excess cargo space for small items which was a first in my pack journeys. ALICE Large packs are for pure haulage and it shows.

Note the upgraded waist belt, that is damned necessary as the standard one is not padded enough to be worth anything. It added some nice MOLLE tabs on the waist, but not enough to actually make a difference. I was also seriously thinking of upgraded shoulder straps but the lack of weapons capability finally dissuaded me from further investment in the ALICE system.

ALICE systems lack any easy attachment system for weapons carriers, and lashing straps with your creativity is the order of the day. No matter how I tried it I could never integrate an Eberlestock Tactical Weapon Scabbard with the ALICE pack:

Tactical Weapon Scabbard
Photo courtesy: Eberlestock

To be seen in a bit in ACU.

That is meant to be a centerline part of a pack system, inboard of the pack. ALICE with shelf doesn't like that. ALICE without shelf has too much stuff flopping around. I did try a verticle lashing down the back of the pack, but it left a lot to be desired and shifted the center of balance back when two guns were put in the scabbard and nothing would actually get the top of the scabbard to where I could grab anything and still have the scabbard be secure.

What is really needed is a carbon fiber rod frame to attach to either a MOLLE or ALICE frame to leave room for the scabbard and impede the area of the pack a bit, if you are doing a buy a piece here and there deal. I do not have the time or skill necessary to make one.

Thus for all the cargo hauling ability I love for ALICE packs, if you have to do an add-on for it for weapon hauling, it had better be just for hauling and not ready access. I do not have short long guns that really permit the use of the smaller scabbards.

So on to a MOLLE II Rifleman's pack:

MOLLE Rifleman front
Front/frame side
MOLLE Rifleman rear

Yes these are sitting on a large trash can!

By this point I had unpacked the the Rifleman's pack as it was just too damned small, even without the scabbard inboard of the pack and MSSC. If I was going solo, then this would be the pack I want... then the scabbard and the rest do a good job working together. But packing for two means that no matter how lovely the pack is, it just isn't up to the job. It now has a nice home with a family member. I had added the MOLLE waistpack and was barely able to fit the majority of equipment, and with lashing straps it held together. It could be made about as stable as the ALICE pack, but it was meant as a one person general base change pack not a full haul everything pack. It is interesting that the 5 quart water bladder I picked up fit easily into the MOLLE radio pouch but only with difficulty into the ALICE top flap pouch.

All original straps. This one was just close enough that it convinced me the Tanker's Pack was worth getting MOLLEfied by Tactical Tailors.

I needed a new frame and pads so I went to ArmyGear.net for those in Desert camo/tan. They proved to be even cheaper than an Ebay buy, which amazed me no end. So what you will see is woodland camo on desert camo/tan, and the slow disappearance of that as more and more stuff is put on it.

As I had to do a bit of re-packing I decided to take pictures so you could get an idea of how it all fits together. I took out a rifle case with the Mosin-Nagant opposite the scabbard, but they both do fit and balance relatively well. With that said here is the first set:

Frame side top right.
Frame side, left.

Now that's a pack!

The folks at Tactical Tailors did a great job on the attachment points, as well as you can do for a pack never made to be on a frame, at least. I utilized the existing pads and straps from the pack and attached them around and through the frame, itself, which is critical for dampening side-to-side sway. Most of the frame has disappeared under all the straps and the additional couple of pads I've made for it to help distribute the weight a bit better on my hips and back. Note the Eberlestock scabbard on the pack. Still not perfectly situated but it is adjustable via lashing straps so that it can be shifted forward for easier access. Note that I've removed one lashing strap normally used to keep it in place so as to look more closely at other work

Back right.
Back, center.
Back, left.

Here you get a good back view of the modified pack. Note the three MOLLE panels, one per side and one over the top pocket flap. The garish green camo is a Czech e-tool which needs a better pouch. Inside the scabbard is a Browning Auto-5 that comes in about 48" long, and it goes a bit into the top cover area.

When I noted previously that those pockets on the pack were large, I meant it. When you consider I can get at least 6 MREs plus extras into the top pocket and could put 2-3 e-tools per pocket in the bottom ones, you have a lot of capacity on the outside of the pack beyond just the internal areas. The top cover also has a zipper to replace the velcro that was there on the original.

I am particularly pleased that from the direct back and low angle sides you cannot see the desert camo and tan of the frame: a MOLLE frame and its straps disappear completely from view. I do need to make a woodland camo shroud for the scabbard, but that is minor compared to the benefits of actually being able to carry it. I have had it centerline, inboard of the pack, but then it is nearly impossible to get anything out of it, and there is no how, no way, that it fits between the frame and the straps.

Now a close-up or two fo the Tactical Tailor work:

MOLLE panel, left.
Top pocket, MOLLE half panel.
Top compartment, rain cover.

Excellent work!

For the rifle case, I just slip it between the sustainment pouch and the pack on the right side and use a lashing strap between the frame and the MOLLE loops. That makes it fixed position, but it balances out the A-5 nearly perfectly.

Beyond the MOLLE panels the rain cover allows for even more material to be stuffed into the upper compartment. I pulled it up a bit to expose it, normally it sits under the map flap.

Some final close-ups:

Back, lower pockets.
Side tool pocket, with scabbard.
Bottom compartment unzipped.
Bottom with unit marking.

So is this a Bug Out Bag?

If you use the traditional sense of 'Dear God I only have 10 minutes to get everything I need to survive and high tail it out of here' sort of Bug Out Bag... well, yes, but a damned heavy one. This is not a grab'n'go bag.. it is a get your boots on with a decent shirt and heft the bag to the car and rush back to get any other important items sort of bag. If it came to no transportation available beyond feet, then this is the 5 mile bag: with a good morning start I can get 5 miles to somewhere to think about what to do next. If I can get a car journey in, then that widens many options as to destination, plus the car has its own emergency supplies.

This is the 'Staged Regrouping Bag'. By geography and climate there are very, very few things that will make a Bug Out necessary where I live... yes I can think of what they are, and those that could make it necessary also remove the infrastructure of the region. A slower, longer term set of problems, however, are more likely and this is the sort of thing that is necessary to prepare for that. For that you must prepare seasonal adjustments which require a second bag per major season, save Summer which you pack for to have some clothes in the bag.

As a pack, however, its wonderful. And if we can get past the major problems ahead of us, then this is the sort of pack well suited to carrying a full camping suite for 3 or 4 people, while they carry their own clothes and food.

From this experience I can say that the modular concept of equipment and how one packs is a far, far change from my early packing and hiking days. The hard work done by the military to regularize and adjust equipment types to fit in with carrying systems has brought great benefits to civilian life, if not civilian packs. While a sleek alpine pack is perfect for alpine conditions, most people aren't packing into such conditions and require a somewhat more varied pack load and system to allow them to adjust to different climate regimes over multiple trips. Polyurethane coated cordura is not a modernistic, lightweight fabric, but a rugged one made to resist rips, tears and weather simultaneously. MOLLE webbing is extra weight, but it adds versatility and makes equipment secure and handy at the same time, which means you don't carry the sleekest of outlines but do have a wide array of options of what you can do with the pack still on your back. That trade-off between weight and versatility will be with us for awhile yet as carbon nanotube technology hasn't gotten into the fabric industry to offer low weight, weather durability and tear resistance.

When it comes to internal vs. external frame, I'm an agnostic. I will say that if you are to have an external frame, then it really should be able to do more than just support a pack. The MOLLE frame is perfect for that as it allows a wide array of attachment options for more than just packs. What it isn't good for, and what the ALICE frame is good for, is changing regimes from pack to heavy gear hauling: without a shelf the MOLLE system does less well with gas cans or ammo cans than the ALICE frame. Thus while the MOLLE frame is good for things made to be packed and lashed, the ALICE frame is adaptable to those that aren't made that way and are bulky and oblong without web attachment points. MOLLE is more rugged and ergonomic, ALICE is more suited to the really heavy stuff and just getting it there, don't mind some chafing along the way. Internal frame packs are excellent for low visibility and not having a frame to catch on things as you hike, while offering lightweight stability and lateral mass control. Internal frames don't give you great external options if you have to go from a pack to hauling 5 gallon fuel cans around.

Thus what you choose is based on what you expect to need and designing your equipment type around your needs. The benefits of one way of doing things at the start then determine the types, kinds and amount of choices you have to deal with later. Yet the concepts of economizing your load and packing efficiently are as important as the style and type of pack you get, and what you expect to need and the types of events you expect to encounter then starts to point out which way you should go. Economics then limits your purchase decisions, and those are prioritized by your expected needs.

For myself, at some point, I will probably end up constructing a pack to suit my needs. But that will be awhile.

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