Author note 23 Mar 2021: since first publishing this article it’s been brought to my attention how much ALICE packs cost today. I purchased the one I discuss in this article for $60 shipped about 5 or 6 years ago and I ran a standard one (which I still have) for many years before that including patrolling with it and a PRC-119 in the Marines. At such an economical price the pack was a great jumping off point for a working man with a family or a young guy just getting started at $60 or less, and from what I see stuff going for now I could easily double my money with it. But to spend over $100 on one you’re starting to get into the range of other packs that might be a better choice. I recently picked up a Granite Gear Chief Patrol pack for $250 shipped and it’s larger, lighter, and more comfortable. That being said the ALICE system is still very viable, at least the USMC still thinks so, just be careful of what you’re spending your money on and make sure you know what you’re getting for it.
I’ve been asked quite a few times about what my “go to” pack is and I think the answer I give is oftentimes a surprise. I still run the hell out of a medium ALICE, although a highly modified one compared to the original 1974 version. In the past I’ve written about other packs as I’ve tried them out but I always come back to ALICE.
When it comes to selecting a pack, or any other gear for that matter, I’ve learned to really be honest with myself about my intended use. Tactics and gear are mission dependent after all. I’ve also learned to not just run and buy another piece of gear every time I think I need to. In other words, can I improvise and make what I already have work? Can I do something different or better to satisfy that need or fix that problem?
For me I need a pack that I can live out of for three days without resupply. That’s really not that hard to do assuming the weather is above freezing and you’ve packed the right equipment and have the skills to back it up. Come to a class and I’d be happy to show you all that and more. It needs to be comfortable to carry and work with my load bearing equipment. It needs to be durable as well. I also prefer simple designs. I don’t need zippers and pockets and buckles so that I can do ten different things. That’s just extra weight when I’m not doing those things. Keep it simple; your pack shouldn’t be more complicated than your rifle. You should be able to find the gear you need in your ruck in the dark by feel. You won’t get that level of familiarity by reconfiguring your pack every time you go out.
When it comes to selecting a pack, things can get sticky in a hurry. Even if we only count military packs that have been awarded an NSN number, there are a lot of packs out there. I don’t have the budget or time to test a $500+ pack to find out I don’t really like it that much. When it comes to field packs I don’t really look at anything that isn’t military approved. They are typically “overbuilt” for the usual trails that civilian packs are built for, but this blog ain’t about trail hiking. For serious field use you can’t go wrong looking at a military approved pack. And with so many designs to choose from you have just as many design options as civilian packs.
In the world of packs you can start to sort them according to a few characteristics. External or internal frame? Top or side loading? Carrying capacity? Intended use?
Even if I had an unlimited budget I’d still pick a pack with similar characteristics to the one I already have, although there is still room for improvement.
I like true top loading packs. I don’t like the book bag style packs with a big zipper running around the edge of the pack. I don’t really want any zippers at all in fact; it’s something to fail. With a true top loading pack you can squeeze every cubic inch out of your pack. You can literally stuff everything in. There’s a reason they are also referred to as a bucket design.
Another reason it is nice to stuff your pack is that you can densely pack your items. This is important for stability. The more stable your pack is the less it will tire you as you’re hiking with it. If you’re carrying a sack on your back with a bunch of stuff rolling around it’s going to wear you out pretty quick.
The next feature I like is an external frame. While I have used some very comfortable internal frame packs (ILBE and Kelty Redwing), they aren’t as useful. Think of an external frame like a flat bed trailer. Anything you can fit on it you can carry as long as you strap it down. With the ALICE frame it’s the same way. The shoulder straps and hip belt mount to the frame so you can completely remove the pack portion and strap anything to the frame. I’ve done this in the past with a 5 gallon bucket and a 30 liter dry bag and it’s actually made a pretty nice system.
Another reason I like the external frame is that there is a gap between my back and the pack which is great for air flow and also can be used to store items, cordage or my Camelbak.
One interesting fact about the ALICE system is that it is a lot like Glocks and AR’s; there are a ton of accessories and different pack designs out there that are all interchangeable with each other. My own pack is an example. It has an ALICE frame and pack but MOLLE II shoulder straps and hip belt. And I’m looking at upgrading the hip belt to the Tactical Tailor Super Belt. You can literally build an entire pack system to your liking by mixing and matching components (hence this article series). The USMC current issue pack, the FILBE is another example of this. It’s completely ALICE compatible without being an ALICE pack. You can take a 1974 issued ALICE pack and put it on a FILBE frame and vice versa.
When it comes to capacity there are a few different sets of terminology I’ve seen to describe a packs size. Some use cubic liters, others cubic inches, and some just state how many days you can expect to use it for. I tend to prefer to use liters for my packs and cubic inches for my V-Twins.
The capacity you need may change as your requirements and weather change. A particular “3 day” pack might seem plenty large enough in the summer yet be too small to pack enough winter gear 6 months later. Of course you could just buy the biggest pack you can find and then you’re covered, right? Not exactly. If you’re only planning on being out for three days and you have a giant ruck sack you’re either A) going to pack only what you need (good for you) and have a very sloppy and unstable pack or B) fill your pack up with way more stuff because you have all that extra room. (Ask me how I know…)
This is why I like a modular pack system. Something I can add to or subtract from as I need to. The idea is to only bring what’s necessary while still recognizing that sometimes you need more things than at other times.
My pack is a woodland camo medium ALICE with custom Krylon spray paint finish. I purchased my pack from a gentleman online who was stationed at Ft. Bragg and had it modified while he was there. He had a modification done to install fastex buckles on the lid and pouches to make it easier to get into. This is a very worthwhile modification and can actually be done at home easily with this kit.
In addition to that I’ve added a few easy modifications as well. Using a foot of 550 cord looped through the frame and 5” of 3/8” rubber hose tied off with a blood knot and two security knots I made a grab handle at the top. There are also kits to do this as well. This is a stupid simple mod that is very handy.
The next modification I did was to add a molle admin pouch on the rear of the pack for some additional storage. I mostly keep this as a grab and go bag should I need to ditch my pack with survival gear in it and a larger radio antenna.
The next modification I’ve done is to add a side compression strap. The rear pouches on the back are great to store gear that you want to get to regularly but they can sway and make noise at times. Also if the internal portion of the pack has items that are loose adding a compression strap will tighten everything up. I just route the webbing through the loops on the pockets and attach it to the frame with triglides. I also use a fastex buckle to release it quickly if need be.
The next modification is I’ve installed Grimloks on the lid to help tie things on and also underneath the shoulder straps to hang my Camelbak with. This allows me to use it while hiking without having it stuffed in my pack. Later it’s simple to remove it to wear with my chest rig if need be.
As far as the frame is concerned it is a standard ALICE metal frame. I don’t have a dog in the fight when it comes to metal or polymer frames, I’ve used both and they both work.
The suspension as I’ve said before is Molle II shoulder straps and waist belt. I like the back pad the MOLLE II has built into the shoulder straps. The waist belt does the job well but I think I will enjoy trying a thicker one. The thought of 1.5” foam on the Tactical Tailor belt sounds pretty luxurious to me.
That’s it. As I said – simple. It doesn’t turn into a transformer or have 20 different pockets for pens and laptops. It’s a field ruck designed for field use.
My Wish List
The following are some improvements I would like to make yet to my pack:
- Zippered Claymore pouch on the lid. That’s the one thing I miss about every other pack I’ve had is that utility pouch on top.
- MOLLE webbing on the sides and bottom
- A drawstring storm flap for the main pack compartment
- Drawstring storm flaps for the outside pockets
- An elastic skirt on the lid to help keep debris and water out better
- A pack mule to carry it for me
Stay tuned for part 2 of this exciting series where I show how to pack even more stuff onto a medium ALICE pack!