Less is More, Part 1: Considerations for Lightening the Field Load

It’s come to my attention from running the Fieldcraft and Bush Tactics courses that the weight students carry is inversely proportional to their performance. In other words, the higher the weight the lower their performance and vice versa. Of course this isn’t exactly a novel concept, but it’s caused me to start to examine and study alternative ways of “skinning the cat”. I’ll be writing a series of articles documenting these techniques and ideas with the intent to help students and readers be better prepared for their own back country adventures.

Adopting an ultralight mindset

For many years I’ve approached equipping myself based upon my previous experience as a Marine grunt. This has been beneficial in some ways, and not so much in others. One major way it hasn’t been beneficial is I took away some bad habits when it came to considering the weight of my equipment.

Part of this is because Uncle Sugar doesn’t exactly give a young grunt the opportunity to select the make and model of his equipment. There is no “shopping around” for the lightest options. You carry what’s on the gear list, period. The thought of weighing your equipment just didn’t exist, let alone worrying about ounces or grams. Besides, everyone is carrying the same stuff, so it really became more about toughening up than lightening your load.

Having carried many crew served weapons components up the sides of mountains can skew a persons outlook on weight. Who cares if pack A is two pounds lighter than pack B if you are carrying a SMAW and rockets or a .50 cal machine gun receiver strapped to your ruck? So naturally, coming from this environment I wasn’t about to go down to REI and see which sleeping system the purple haired dude behind the counter recommended. Besides, just do more squats, right?

While I’m not going to say the guy at REI couldn’t use some toughening up, it’s this mentality that can also lead us to ignore the weights of our items completely and quickly over burden ourselves.

So as I’ve gotten older and got into teaching I’ve decided to start researching more of the ultralight style of hiking in order to find the tools and techniques that I can utilize to help my students perform better in the field. I’ve found many that are useful, and some that aren’t. There are very established hikers and hunters who take advantage of modern materials and are every bit as tough as a Marine grunt, and it’s foolish not to learn from their experiences.

In the last couple months I’ve taken to weighing EVERYTHING. I bought a 50 pound fishing scale that is sensitive to the nearest ounce and I keep track of everything in an Excel spreadsheet where I can plug in different numbers to calculate what particular combinations weigh. I’ve even gathered numbers off of manufacturers websites to plug in to see if certain equipment would be beneficial. This has allowed me to quickly determine certain areas that I can reduce weight in drastically. While it has cost me money to do these replacements, I feel that my capabilities have actually been increased while drastically reducing the overall weight I’m carrying. I would highly suggest you do the same with your gear.

The Spectrum of Fieldcraft

There are many skills and techniques wrapped up into the subject of “Fieldcraft”, and depending on the end users purpose (or his defined mission from his METT-TC) some of these skills are going to be more applicable than others. For instance, if my mission is of a tactical nature, making a large warming fire isn’t very practical, even though fire making is a Fieldcraft skill. It’s this distinction we have to keep in mind as we train and equip ourselves too.

In my mind this creates a sort of spectrum, with something like hunting on one end, and reconnaissance style patrolling on the other. I say “reconnaissance style” because there are multiple ways of patrolling, with reconnaissance typically the one that places the highest emphasis on maneuverability and stealth.

What creates the spectrum between these two is the level of the threat faced. For the hunter, the threat is lower, typically in the different forms that nature can present a threat. But as we work our way to the other end, we begin to increase the threat presented by other men until we are in an organized patrol against an organized threat. Of course in the squishy part in the middle are variations of both threats, and our responses.

Where we are on this spectrum will determine what equipment and tactics are appropriate. For instance, a large 10×10 tarp might be a nice “Tarp Mahal” for a hunting base camp, but might be too big of a profile, and therefore unnecessary weight, on a reconnaissance patrol.

Our equipment as an enabler

We often talk about “enablers” – Night vision, radios, thermals, optics, etc. But what about the rest of our equipment? I can’t say how many times I’ve seen a student with $5,000 worth of Night vision equipment yet they are still using a surplus sleep system that weighs ten pounds. Of course it works, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up in down pours and been bone dry inside my military issue Gore-Tex bivy. But I can also name just as many times where I’ve been straining to carry all the weight of my issue gear up and down hills and mountains.

We definitely should be looking to equip ourselves to the best of our abilities. This typically means investing in the “best” gear we can afford after evaluating what “best” means to us. I have piles of equipment that was a “good bang for the buck” based on reviews from complete strangers that I’ve replaced by equipment that was the “right tool for the job“ based on my own experience. When we are talking about carrying this equipment personally we should be looking for the lightest “right tool for the job”.

Gear selection factors

Besides establishing the need for selecting the best tools we can, we have a few other factors to consider as well. These first three were shared with me by a friend who is a back country guide in Alaska and has lived the primitive survival life style for many moons.

Mobility: Movement is life. Does my gear hinder me in such a manner that it makes me less effective in a fight or traversing a mountain? I think many US infantrymen can relate to this as they were out paced by insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Versatility: Similar to working in small teams where each member has to wear many hats, I prefer my gear to have many functions. This is the best way to ensure we are “spending” our weight allowance smartly.

Sustainability: Can my body sustain carrying X amount of gear for 10 to 14 days? The lighter our gear, the less impact it is on us to carry it for extended periods of time.

We also have to start looking at our gear and asking ourselves “why do I want to bring this?” We need to be miserly with spending our “weight allowance”, and looking at our equipment through these lenses can help us prioritize what we bring.

Critical: Is a particular piece of gear critical to helping me accomplish my goals, either directly, such as an observation tool if that’s part of my mission, or indirectly, as in clothing to help me maintain my core body temperature?

Comfort: Or is it a comfort item? Something brought with to make yourself more comfortable? A basic level of comfort can be beneficial if it helps us recover and stay effective, but becoming obsessed with our comfort can also be a way to quickly add too much gear. Having an appropriately rated sleep system to give our bodies a chance to recover is one thing, packing a 0 degree bag because we are afraid of being cold in 40 degree weather is another.

Convenience: We also have to ask ourselves if we are bringing something because it is a convenience item, something that makes our life easier in the field. Sometimes these items can be an intelligent choice, like carrying a jet boil flash in the winter time to quickly heat water, or other times it’s not as smart, like carrying that same heavy jet boil flash in the summer when a lighter weight stove would work fine.

The weight allowance

We each only have a finite amount of weight we can carry at any given time, based upon our physical conditioning and energy levels, and I think of this as our “weight allowance”. 100 pounds of lightweight gear still weighs 100 pounds, and if that’s more than you are capable of carrying then you’ll be worn out in no time. We have to be frugal with how we spend our weight allowance. From my own experiences and studying the experiences of others I’ve got a few ideas of how to roughly determine your weight allowance.

Some have put forth the concept that your equipment shouldn’t weigh anymore than 30% of your body weight. I think it’s a good place to start, but there are other factors we have to consider as well. That number could be wildly different for two different people, and depending on their physical condition it may not make any difference at all. A man that is 100 pounds over weight most likely will not have the stamina to carry any amount of weight, which brings me to my next point – physical strength.

In my own unscientific experience a bar bell squat is an excellent exercise to improve your hiking or rucking ability. It’s an exercise that is simple and natural, yet benefits many more muscles in our body then just our legs.

(On a side note, The StrongLifts 5×5 program is an excellent beginner to intermediate weight lifting program, and the squat is a core movement to it. It goes hand in hand with Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength).

At my strongest, I’ve been able to squat well over four times the weight of my equipment, 325 pounds to be exact, for 5 sets of 5 reps with a 2-3 minute break between sets. This was last fall around the time I went to the On Point Jaeger class. During the class I could hike over rough terrain and the weight I was carrying (roughly 25- 65 pounds) was not a factor, in other words my gear was not tiring me. I also wasn’t a big, swollen, muscled up dude, I could move quickly and efficiently still.

While these two data points are useful in predicting how much weight we should be able to carry, we still need to confirm it with our actual equipment. While a squat is a great exercise for strengthening the muscles, it’s not the same as figuring out the nuances of packing your own pack and adjusting the suspension until it fits properly. To figure these things out you’ll need to actually go ruck. This doesn’t however mean you should only ruck. I know that it’s an exercise that people do now, but done incorrectly too often it can tear up joints too.

I would suggest starting out, once every other week, go on a three mile hike over varied terrain. That means some incline, some decline, and some flat portions. Also try to use a route that isn’t paved, hard surfaces increase the shock to your joints and besides, most places in the field aren’t paved. If you do this during inclement weather you’ll get a good feel for how to dress while rucking in different conditions, as well as how you like your boots and socks. Bear in mind if you’re a tender foot you’ll probably get a few blisters and have to develop some calluses to toughen your feet in this process.

As far as weight, I’d approach it in the same manner as Mark Rippetoe does, incrementally. Start with 20 pounds and add 5 pounds each time. While you could do this with bricks or other weight, get in the habit of doing it with your actual gear. Then, if at some point you run out of gear to put in your pack you can use bricks or other weight to continue to increase.

As far as a rate, it will depend on your actual physical condition and the route you are using. I think something in the 2-3 MPH range should be sufficient.

I hope I’ve been able to set a foundation as I get more specific for the next articles in the different systems I’m experimenting with and as usual I’d like to hear your thoughts as well.

A friend of mine sent this video to me after reading this article, and I think it is full of great information. While the gentleman in the video is discussing the subject in relation to a guided mountain sheep hunt, it doesn’t reduce the applicability of the information to any other adventure either.

14 comments

  1. Looking forward to this. I’ve been wanting to go more the direction of “travel light, freeze at night” on my 50miler GHB, but have been putting it off. This served as a good kick in the butt for me to get it done. Thanks Devil Dog! – from an old 0331

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good article ! I can relate when I was guiding elk hunters my mantra was ” underwear and socks that’s all you need to pack extra.” rather than an entire sporting goods store because an “EXPERT’ said it was required. Real World experience will .tell you what you need if you are astute enough to listen .. Look forward to the next segment !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sam, the “what if?” monster can definitely cause us to add a bunch of extra weight, I’m guilty of it myself. You’re exactly correct, your experience will teach you what you actually need. I know from many cold and wet days and nights that my GI poncho is always going to be with me, and because of that I don’t carry other dedicated rain gear. Thanks for your input!

      Like

  3. As I ruck trained last summer, I went from 25 lbs in the ruck to nearly 60 lbs. I would do somewhere between 3 and 3.5 miles an hour.

    As you add weight, I’d suggest trying to add water. It’s fluid nature requires you to stabilize the core to a greater extent than simply adding a brick (or weight plate which I used). A 32 oz Gatorade bottle with water is about 2 lbs, which gives you a a finer increment to the weight addition.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I rucked daily and I added weight every 10-14 days; the program I followed was 75 Hard. Went for 81 days when I finally stopped.

        I did as many hills and public staircases as I could; there are a number of both in my town. I also wore a medium ALICE specifically because it was uncomfortable.

        The reason I did all of this was to improve my ability to perform as a volunteer FF in my town; that level of discomfort is far more than my turnout gear and SCBA.

        I had a pretty nasty repetition injury in my right foot at the end of it. Coming back into this, I now ruck about every 3rd or 4th day, I dialed the weight back to 35 lbs plus back, and am mostly focusing on the hills/stairs. I’ll probably stop at about 45-50 lbs this time. There is foot pain from time to time but it’s more manageable.

        In retrospect the frequency was probably too much. My dog loved it however.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks man, I appreciate you sharing your experience. The routine you were following reminds me a lot of Infantry school. Daily “hikes” carrying our fighting load and a day pack a couple miles out to different ranges to practice different things, then a legit conditioning hike every other week with heavier and heavier weight and more distance. While at the time it didn’t seem excessive, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t 18 and being paid by Uncle Sam. Personally I think it’s a counterproductive routine if done any longer than a few months. I have lots of interesting body complications that show up after I’ve been in the field for a few days, guess it just comes with the territory lol. Thanks!

        Like

  4. This was a very outstanding article to read. Applying much to my own personal training and plan to encourage my wonderful wife to so the same. The current events in world affairs highly dictate a personal boost in physical strength and conditioning! I will also be sharing such fantastic information out to our local community group as this article is chock full of great advice no matter ones age! Keep em coming BR! Godspeed!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As for starting strength program. It is one of the finest strength programs around. got into Rip’s training back in early 2000’s and at the time and age got stronger than ever before in previous 20 some odd years of training or should I say many years of over training is what it amounted to. Glad to see you guys post such a solid program for gaining strength that doesn’t invest eating up 2 hours of gym time per day (5/6 days a week) on silly split programs! SS is a Godsend to young and old lifters alike. Give it a go if you have not taken that program on, you will be amazed at the powerful gains made.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I’m happy to hear you had good results. I have as well, and the fact that it’s every other day, and only 30-45 minutes each makes it very easy to implement. Thanks for your input!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s