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The Baldwin Articles – ALICE Pack Trilogy: Part 2 of 3

Last time I talked about how functional a combat patrolling rucksack the Large ALICE pack was as issued. But at the same time it also certainly falls well short of being my idea of the perfect solution. So I’m going to cover some of the most common and useful tweaks, tune ups and upgrades that can be applied to make the pack itself better. I am limited in my visual aids for this portion since my personal ALICE packs only have a small number of bag modifications. Over the years I had experimented with some of the other options but I settled on those which were most useful for my needs and mission. This is definitely an area in which personal preference and your mission parameters will drive your decisions. If you live near a larger Military base there will likely be local sew shops that can do a professional grade job for you. Right now I think Tactical Tailor is the only place that provides Nation-wide mail in sewing service.

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I’m going to start with two additions that are probably the most universally useful. The first is the mounting of fastex buckles on the exterior pockets and the two long cinch straps. This is also probably the most common upgrade and makes getting in and out of the pack much easier. Not expensive and well worth the money. The Army probably would have put fastex on ALICE by the 90s if the emphasis had not been on replacing it with a new system. Instead we continued to purchase the metal buckle version until the contract eventually lapsed. The second addition is a carrying handle. Without a carrying handle people tend to grab the ALICE by the envelop pad and rip it loose. We used to fabricate handles out of 550 cord or better yet 1” tubular nylon and attach it to the top of the frame. Later those sew shops I mentioned stated putting even better webbing handles directly onto the bag itself for their customers. With ALICE, the one handle on top got the job dome. The Large MOLLE II also has a sewn in handle and the USMC’s FILBE even comes with handles on the sides as well.

Let’s talk about pockets. There are a number of high quality ALICE clones that come with 8-10-12 pocket options. Or you can have that many sewn onto your USGI ALICE pack. If you need that many pockets I say go for it. But if you want more pockets because you “want to carry more stuff”, I’d say think again. I would recommend adding only enough pockets to move critical or frequent use items from the interior to the exterior of your pack. I eventually settled on a total of five pockets. Two claymore pockets, one on the back and one on top as shown. A small pocket on top that I kept a survival kit in and two long hydration pockets which I had sewn on the inside on either side of the bag. It behooves you to keep the profile of your pack – any pack – in all dimensions as small as you can manage. And it is especially desirable if at all possible not to expand the flanks of the pack out much wider than your shoulders.

Sleeping bag extensions are a fairly popular option. I haven’t seen the need myself but then again I have not been working in extremely frigid environments for many years. A light bag and a bivy have been enough for my needs and didn’t take up enough space to justify the extension. However, if you expect or need to carry the full military sleep system or civilian equivalent then it would be worth it. And much better than strapping your sleeping bag underneath the pack. Or burying your sleeping gear at the bottom of the pack so that you have to unload everything to get to it. As readers may recall, the first generation of MOLLE was actually a two part system with main pack and a separate sleeping system carrier that could be strapped underneath. The MOLLE II combined the two and has a crescent shaped zippered opening on the bottom quarter for separate access to a sleeping bag. The FILBE has a similar arrangement.

Adding straps to secure 2-Quart Canteens and E-Tools to the sides of the ALICE (or MOLLE for that matter) is also helpful. I used these for many years and recommend them if you are routinely carrying those items. Besides providing additional security these straps keep the items from flopping around when moving. While I was in the infantry I used one of each. In Special Forces it was two of the 2-Quarts since I had much less use for an E-tool. Then eventually I transitioned to Camelbaks carried inside as I already mentioned. PALS webbing or panels are not as common a modification. But they are something that Tactical Tailor offers for the sides of the ALICE or their MALICE version. This will allow you to add MOLLE type pouches to the outside of the pack. As with the directly sewn on pockets I would caution anyone not to add pockets that are not essential for your mission.

Storm collars are common on most top loading rucksacks today, even the smallest. It is a useful modification to consider applying to your ALICE. All of the long packs I spoke of in Part 1 had storm collars. Oddly, the Large MOLLE I & II did not initially come with one. However, the latest version of MOLLE does now have a storm collar as does FILBE. Side compression straps are also common on most packs today whether side or top loaders. However, this has not been a very popular modification for ALICE packs. Partly because you can compress the ALICE down pretty small with the main pack straps. And perhaps also because many people chose to add pockets on the sides instead. MOLLE II had 2 compression straps per side but now comes with 3 per side. FILBE has 2 per side.

RTO zippers are an excellent mission enhancing alteration for any RTO or anyone carrying a larger radio. I tried it myself on one of my packs years ago. Not because I was performing RTO duties, but because I wanted quick access to the radio pouch inside. I used to keep star clusters, parachute flares and smoke grenades in there. That worked pretty well. Later, I added the claymore pouch on top and moved my pyrotechnics there. And that worked even better. As with storm collars, MOLLE did not have RTO zippers until the latest iteration was fielded. FILBR also has a zipper. Likewise, the addition of antenna or hydration tube ports has gained in popularity over the years. Primarily because more and more people started to carry hydration bladders in their packs as well as considerably more electronic gear. A note of caution here. As I mentioned earlier I settled on only a handful of the options that I considered mission enhancing. If you think you need to apply most or ALL of these adjustments to get the pack you want. Then I would say the USGI ALICE is not the rucksack you need to be spending your money on. Look at commercial clones or other quality manufacturer’s products instead.

Piggyback assault packs. For many years I have used the Patrol Pack from the CFP 90 (top left) as what I always called my “actions on the objective pack”. Not to carry more of my stuff. Rather, I used it to collect what we now call SSE material off an objective or prisoner. Otherwise it remained mostly empty but there if I needed it. It was common in the 90s and early 2000s for SFQC candidates to carry a variety of small after-market packs on top of their ALICE for similar purposes. I guess that is considered outdated TTP now. The SPEAR pack came with what could only be described as a full-fledged 3-Day pack that was supposed to ride on the back of the main pack. MOLLE II came with a somewhat more reasonably sized Assault Pack. The problem is that today each of these small(er) packs are usually filled to capacity. And are always additive to the weight and bulk of the main pack’s load.

Load planning and load discipline may need to be a separate topic for another day but I will touch on it now. There was a time when we didn’t have so many options and we organized our gear in three discrete echelons. The fighting load which involved only two ammo pouches for magazines and grenades, two canteens and maybe a buttpack with poncho and a meal. In the rucksack was the existence load which was mission essential gear: comms, ammo, water and some environmental clothing (wet weather and / or cold weather) and minimum sleep gear. Items “common to all” as we used to say. Everything else went into the duffel bag or kit bag to be delivered later because those items were NOT mission essential. I know that is an old school SOP and even then was violated on a regular basis. But the fact is we’ve long ago lost sight of load planning fundamentals. Now, everything and the kitchen sink has migrated onto the soldiers’ backs. Just in case. We’ve added the significant weight of body armor and we’ve removed nothing. And instead of addressing the problem we keep making the packs bigger! There is no commonsense in that and no sound tactical reason to allow that to happen.

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I have included a fairly famous photo of a hard charging paratrooper from the 173d ABCT after the jump on an airfield not far from Irbil in Northern Iraq. Note that he is heavily overburdened. The irony is there was no compelling need for his leaders to load him up that way. He jumped onto an airfield already secured by Kurdish Peshmerga and US Special Forces. An airfield where US aircraft had already been airlanding in the nights prior. An airfield that additional US aircraft continued to utilize almost immediately after the jump, exactly as planned. So why did this soldier’s chain of command think he needed to carry all of this stuff on his back during the initial insertion? I don’t know. But I will tell you it is just one example of bad load planning and failed load discipline that was a daily occurrence for US Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we damn well know better. We just can’t seem to muster the collective will to reverse this trend and actually manage the soldiers load. In the end, it’s not about what style of pack we issue, it is about leadership.

LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (RET) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments.

Next: Part 3, ALICE Frame and Suspension Upgrades and Replacements.

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24 Responses to “The Baldwin Articles – ALICE Pack Trilogy: Part 2 of 3”

  1. Jon, OPT says:

    That’s actually a picture of multiple Soldiers in a row, still a ton of shit, but not quite as much as it looks like.

    Jon, OPT

    • Cool Arrow Kicker says:

      It’s not a “ton of sh..”

      They’re just “Gear Bombs” with NCOs who don’t know how to conduct PCCs/PCIs

    • BillC says:

      I haven’t seen this picture in years. Still annoys me when people think too that it’s just one dude. It’s at least several.

      • Terry B. says:

        Jon, BillC,

        Yes, this is one of a series of photos and there is more than one soldier in the small group. Not trying to trick or confuse anyone.

        But I used this one because it was widely publicized in 2003 and is therefore already known to most of the people here.

        And it is still a great example of soldiers being overloaded for no sound tactical reason. And it is still happening today.

        TLB

      • Steve says:

        It may be more than one guy, but the only things you see in the pic not attached to the Dude In Question is the woody camo leg/sleeve and plastic hardshell elbow pad under the ruck mounted 2-qt, the background guy’s leg/foot between the DIQ’s legs and the rear end of a weapon stock in front of the DIQ. All the woody camo shit piled on top of his ruck (CB Mule, Gortex parka) is still attached to the DIQ. Besides sympathy points, he earns Old School points for wearing a smoking jacket, hiked up LBE with ALICE pouches and taped mags.

  2. Historia says:

    Sir, thank you for another great article, I hope you submit a design for the next issue ruck.

    • PAK says:

      Another good article. I think a pack could be designed off the popular modifications that were made to the Alice. Seems easy.

      • Historia says:

        if an alice like pack could dock with your system. It might bring the sticker price down, since you cracked the nut on fighting load, hip belt, and ruck. Those of us with to much crap already can just buy your belt and frame.

      • Terry B. says:

        PAK,

        It doesn’t seem to be as easy as you or I might expect it to be. And the Services (customers) haven’t always been clear in articulating needs vs wants.

        We all want reasonable comfort but we absolutely need something that we can effectively fight with on our backs. Some of these requirements are mutually exclusive.

        And frankly, if you can get the soldiers’ load down to a more reasonable size, any pack will be more comfortable!

        TLB

  3. Harry says:

    Ahh the soldier’s load, everyone says they’re lightening it but, it seems to get heavier and more bulky with time and technology. Soldiers drowned from loads they carried on D Day, troopers deployed to Grenada lugging winter DRF packing lists, and the new packs get taller and wider. Someone should dust off a Soldier’s Load and the mobility of a Nation for a quick read.
    Great article that brought back many memories!!! I don’t think a perfect pack exists but, the Large Alice offered great performance at a low bidder price.

    • Dev says:

      Blame Gaius Marius

      • safire says:

        Great article as usual. I’d be more inclined to blame the fact that MOST units aren’t training to conduct ops in austere environments for long time periods, living out of the ruck, largely due to the concept that such training has lost it’s relevance and relying on the theory that resupply is always around the corner, we’ll always have FOBs and overwhelming control of the LOC’s, airspace, night, etc. that allow “RTB in time to hit breakfast and a morning crossfit” mindset to dominate. Hopefully we can continue this, but I wouldn’t count on it. The perfect pack is the one a soldier has vetted extensively during training and is suited to the task at hand…plus not having to jump through the hoops as the GO’s recite their CYA and good idea factory checklists to ensure nothing inessential is left behind. Some of the better schools still focus on this, but now that there will be ladies in the ranks, even amongst our elite, I suspect there will be even more clamor/justification for sleeping in climate-controlled quarters.

      • PJ says:

        Even the legions had a mule to every 10 men.

    • Historia says:

      Thanks for the tip will read “Soldier’s Load and the mobility of a Nation”

  4. Lee Lanauco says:

    Paraphrasing here, but the old quote is that “the U.S. soldier will always carry 100 lbs of the lightest weight equipment available.”

  5. Francis says:

    I remember that pic. Body armor is hard to argue against these days since it’s a proven life saver, but the amount of crap we strap on our guys is just insane. There really needs to be a better way.

  6. Dellis says:

    My uncle jumped on D-Day….at around age 60 he was just about confined to a wheelchair. He blamed the heavy packs and gear.

    Looks like the guy in the above picture is goin down the same road with a few more jumps burden down like that…..my knees and back aches just lookin at that!

    • jose says:

      The most common issues with Paratroopers after the get out: Knees, Ankles, back, maybe shoulder. Hopefully, I don’t get to spend time in a wheel chair.. Not uncommon to see TL, MG, Sqd Ldr, Plt Sgt, PL, RTO, jump over 70-100 lbs in 82nd during 93-95, I was gonna jump 100 lbs as a TL into JRTC, my buddy M60 gunner was 110lbs. Did it make sense? No way in hell, but we were young and dumb so we just did it..

      • z0phi3l says:

        You forgot neck, between the heavy ass k pot from the 90’s to all the other junk we carried.

        I was not a grunt, but as a Rigger our loadouts for jumps were conservatively 70+ lbs.

        I always felt bad for the skinny kid that barely weighed 200 lbs wet carrying the mortar plate whenever we helped get the guys rigged up

  7. Patrick says:

    My first rotation in Afghanistan with the 82nd, they had a group of researchers weigh us twice: once in pt shorts and nothing else, and once in full battle rattle with a complete combat load. I’d have to check with him, but I am almost positive that my buddy who was an assitant gunner on a 240 team was within about 10 pounds of doubling his weight. It was insane, and a miserable year.

    (As a side note: a few years later another guy from my old platoon sent us the outcome of the research, and I shit you not, it was called something like “Infantry Solderis Are Carrying Too Much Weight”. I wonder how many tax payers dollars it took them to figure that out.)

  8. Linz says:

    Hmmmmm….have a look at the ALICE packs used by the ADF since year dot: the issue pack was such it spawned an entire industry of custom Alice designs with many of the above mods as baseline standard. That & they love external pockets.

  9. majrod says:

    Another outstanding article and you ended it with a bang.

    There are many reasons we overload our soldiers. Some have been mentioned e.g. operating from FOB’s on short duration missions means troops are tempted to carry too much because they know when the mission is going ti end as well as the pain. The lost skill or practice of load planning and conducting PCI’s/supervising.

    There’s another though and that is our leaders are risk averse to an extreme. Instead of doing a METT-T analysis, ACCEPTING risk and MAKING decisions (they will be responsible for) the kitchen sink is carried.

    Look at body armor, O6’s and above are directing what is to be worn instead of delegating it so as to avoid having to explain why a soldier was wounded or killed because he didn’t wear every piece of body armor invented.

    Risk aversion is hurting us from what we carry to how we design our vehicles to dictating our strategic decisions. The enemy doesn’t have to defeat us anymore. They just have to scare us about having to justify decisions taken to defeat them.

  10. Jon Meyer says:

    Great article and it ends with pure truth.

    We carried absolutely too much sh*t. Period.

    It was poor leadership and like majrod mentioned, risk aversion. I also believe it was bullsh*t ego as well. “Hey look, let’s see how much crap we can carry to appease our sensitive ego and manhood..” God damn joke is what it was. Carrying that much weight would brake guys down so much had any formidable contact from an enemy force been received it would have been hell. Imagine a true force on force foe, say Russia or China, with the weight we carry.

    mobility > humping the combat equivalent of costco

  11. philiprvn says:

    Nice summary. I would also mention about replacing old Alu carrying frame with composite one (DEI 1606) or using MOLLE II waist belt and shoulder and sternum straps.

    When I introduced storm collar I decided to replace the entire flap. New one has more capacity (it is like a box sitting on the top of rucksdack) and with long zipper. Additional you can rise ot in order to take full adnantage of storm collar.

    Another upgrade is vertical compression system (as in FILBE) so the whole pack don’t stick too much.