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

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In Part 2 we talked about modifications to the ALICE pack itself. In Part 3, I’ll focus on ALICE Frame and Suspension Upgrade options. It is fair to say that the weakest link of the ALICE pack system was the issue suspension system and the tubular aluminum frame. The LC-1 version of the frame was especially prone to breakage and Supply Sergeants had to keep a steady supply on hand for replacements. Especially in Airborne units where a number would be expected to be non-mission capable after each and every jump. The LC-2 version was reinforced and was indeed somewhat more durable but only to a point.

Arguably it wasn’t so much a flaw in the concept or the design but rather in the execution. It was the result of a deliberate compromise between strength, light weight and low cost. A couple of companies like Tactical Tailor and TAG make heavier duty metal frames for ALICE and ALICE clones. Both are welded rather than riveted like the issue frame. I have handled both and they do seem more robust and I have heard good things about them. However, as far as I know no Service has done any evaluations or issued any for rigorous troop testing. Nor have I used one personally. But if you prefer a metal frame to the newer non-metal versions then these would appear to be a significant improvement over the issue frame in terms of strength.

The search for a new frame for the ALICE packs goes way back. At least to the early 80s. Initiated not by the Army but rather by soldiers. The first candidate was the commercial Coleman pack frame. Individuals, myself included, experimented with using this frame in two ways. Some kept the frame intact. Instead modifying the ALICE pack itself with web tabs and grommets so that it could be attached to the frame just like the civilian Coleman backpacks. More of us actually cut the frame down with a hot knife so that it could be inserted into the envelope pad of the ALICE. This also reduced the length of the frame so that it was approximately the size of the issue frame. I used this cut down version for a couple of years. It was a little more comfortable than the GI frame. But it also tended to flex too much for my satisfaction when under load. So the search continued for a suitable replacement.

Other options were scarce for a long time. The Services began concentrating on internal frame designs like the CFP 90 in the late 80s. The tactical industry was quite small in those days. Some companies like Eagle made packs that utilized the ALICE frame but none were making modernized frames. And that didn’t change until the MOLLE System was developed in the late 90s. Some might not realize that, among other things, MOLLE was the last pack system that the USMC and the Army adopted concurrently. It also signaled at least a partial return to the external frame design. Although SOCOM’s SPEAR system was initially fielded about the same time. The first MOLLE pack frame had a ball and socket contraption that integrated the vest component to the pack component. That awkward innovation didn’t last long. MOLLE I was not well liked. And soldiers said so loudly in the AARs from the early engagements in Afghanistan in 2001-2. And the same was true of the SPEAR pack as well.

The initial reviews were so bad that shortly afterwards the USMC went a different way and tried the internal frame option one more time with the ILBE. The Army chose instead to issue a modified MOLLE II suite and has continued to update the base system ever since. The USMC eventually decided on an alternate external frame design called FILBE. MOLLE II now uses the DEI “GEN 4” 1603 frame and the FILBE uses their 1606 MC frame. I have a little personal history with the 1606 frame development. I was never issued the MOLLE rucksack but I did borrow one for a couple of days in early 2008 just out of curiosity. I immediately disliked the 1603 frame. I’m not a small guy but the frame was a little too wide to be comfortable for me and interfered with the natural movement of my arms. But I did like the concept and wondered if they had – or would be interested in producing – a smaller version. So I looked up the company and found they had just developed the 1606 which at the time came with a “hammerhead” rather than square top configuration. I asked if it would work on the ALICE? In response they sent me a sample. I think it was the only free piece of kit I ever received that I didn’t get from the government.

The hammerhead would not fit into the ALICE envelop pad. So I cut off and sanded smooth the ends so that it would fit. I provided a write up and some photos back to DEI explaining that if they squared off the head and made it compatible with ALICE and clones there would be a market IMO. They thanked me but said no thanks because they were concentrating on proprietary packs for the 1606 project and would continue in that direction. I kept using the 1606 I had modified and liked it a lot. Two years passed and I guess I wasn’t the only one that told DEI they were missing an opportunity. Because they started producing their 1606 AC (ALICE Compatible) version as well as the hammerhead 1606. Eventually they stopped production of the hammerhead all together. And, as they say, the rest is history. The 1606 was selected by the USMC for the FILBE and now for the Army’s Airborne 4000 pack as well as other commercial packs. The 1606 even works quite well on the Large MOLLE (top right). And of course the 1606 can be retrofitted to any ALICE or clone. If you still run one of those packs I would suggest the 1606 is well worth checking out.

After market shoulder straps or separate comfort pad sets started being produced and purchased by soldiers soon after the ALICE was fielded. The Army itself issued at least 3 different strap sets. The LC1 version had thin padding and only one quick release on the left strap. The LC2 had a thicker but shorter padded portion and dual quick releases. And finally, OD and woodland strap sets were produced that had better padding that extended the full length of the strap. However, inexplicably, that third set did not have sewn in attaching straps like its predecessors. A separate 1” strap was routed through a web bar on the shoulder strap to connect the padded portion to the ALICE frame. This arrangement was not an improvement. But that shoulder strap version did come with a sternum strap for the first time. Sternum straps are simple and very useful additions to any pack’s suspension and are ubiquitous on packs of any size today. Back then they were common on many of the after market strap sets or were fabricated by soldiers themselves for their ALICE packs.

HSGI used to produce what they called the Alipad (top center) and LBT still has a similar integrated suspension padding upgrade. I did not use the Alipad while on active duty because I liked having some open space between my back and the pack frame for ventilation. However, I have used it quite a bit in the last few years and have become more of a fan. Because it is a one piece design the Alipad “ties in” the suspension without adding too much bulk. In my experience there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to added padding. Usually wider is better than thicker on the shoulders and lower back. However, this is an area when individuals definitely need to experiment themselves to find out what is right for them. One solution will not be right for all.

I’ll close by repeating some things I have already said. A “combat ruck” is any rucksack you have on your back when the shooting starts. A GOOD combat ruck is one that not only helps you carry the load but doesn’t make it harder for you to survive that encounter with the enemy. I again assure everyone that I am not, nor have I ever been, enamored with ALICE as issued. I have spent decades trying to improve ALICE for my own personal benefit if for nothing else. And I have eagerly tried every new wonder-pack that has come along in all those years. Always looking for something appreciably better for the direct combat role than ALICE. And I haven’t run into it yet.

Because despite its well cataloged shortcomings, I do believe the Large ALICE still represents the soundest design for a combat rucksack in terms of basic geometry. It does need modifications and modernization especially the frame and suspension as discussed in these last two articles. And I also believe that the Army would have been better served in the 80s if it had done what it has done with MOLLE. Concentrating on upgrading rather than fixating on replacing ALICE. CFP 90, SPEAR, ILBE and the other “better” packs didn’t fail because people were nostalgic or Luddites. Those packs failed because they weren’t really well suited to the mission. Much as the M16 has evolved over time into the M4 and countless individualized AR platforms. I would submit that ALICE is still a solid foundation or worthy template from which to build a truly better combat rucksack.

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

Next: Cargo shelves and Pack Boards.

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

  1. Dev says:

    I’m no physiotherapist or human body specialist, but I was told that the modernised ALICE frames made in one piece (TAG, Tactical Tailor) was too stiff and doesn’t flex with the body gait unlike the plastic 1606 frames.

    Either way my “personal journey” to search for the ideal pack went a little like this:

    1603 frame (Crossfire DG-6, pre NICE frame version) -> TAG ALICE -> 1606 frame -> NICE frame from Mystery Ranch -> 1606 frame.

    The best in terms of fit and comfort had to be the NICE, but unfortunately doesn’t permit a belt rig to be worn together with the pack and suspension system.

    Thanks for the series and history lessons, looking forward to the next installation.

  2. Chris says:

    A solid article no doubt. Just wanted to add Tyr Tactical’s frame and jungle ruck to the conversation. At 1 lbs the PLUMA frame is an updated version of the ALICE. Utilizing carbon fiber and aluminum joined together with epoxy and rivets, coupled with a more ergonomic design, it brings marked improvement to a time tested favorite. Check it out.

    • sooth says:

      Carbon fiber is great in a lot of applications. It’s the frame material for two of my bikes and many other pieces of gear. I know they use it in aerospace but I haven’t seen data/testing beyond anecdotal (Hey, they use it in spaceships, good enough for me) evidence that proves viability in the specific application of combat backpack frame. Two things I wonder about before I’d use it as a pack frame, especially one I would carry into battle or on a long trip in the mountains/polar where I’d be living out of the ruck, is that when it breaks (based on experience with cracked bike frame and ski poles) it is extremely sharp and not something I’d want strapped to my body, armored or not. The other question is carbon’s cold weather integrity/ cold wx “drop test” durability. Let’s say the carbon frame with 90lbs of combat&winter gear in the ruck reaches ambient temp of a not-really-cold -10F strapped to the side of a truck/armored vehicle as we head down to Delta Junction/Black Rapids in February. Maybe it was left outside my bivy sack with my rifle at -30F for a couple of hours. What happens when it is then thrown/dropped/etc. exposed to normal trng/combat use…when it is thrown/dropped 100+ times? I question whether there is a perfect mix of carbon flexibility and durability vs aluminum stays or aluminum ALICE frames. I wonder how it compares to aluminum and some of the ski industry plastics out there with decades of usage data, etc. I’m not bashing carbon and certainly not Tyr who are, along with maybe 2 or 3 other companies, out there making legit gear with real world cold wx ops in mind (despite a world most appear to live in that is evidently free of melt/freeze precip where too many are running open-bungee mag pouches). I’ve seen ALICE welds break in both warm and cold conditions. MR’s NICE is damn near unbreakable but heavy and as someone mentioned here doesn’t work great with some load-bearing kit. But at this point, and I’m open-minded if the data is there, I wonder if carbon is a reliable/proven material for combat ruck frame, especially in the cold.

  3. Riceball says:

    Once again, a great post. It really brings back memories although I really didn’t all that much experience with the ALICE and even less with the frame. I really only used the full pack with frame in boot camp and when I got to my unit I only got a the pack and no frame. Even then, I’d hardly used it, only on humps and even it was maybe one or two humps and that was it, never took it with me to CAX. I did get to play with the MOLLE (or the pre-cursor to the MOLLE, it had the separate 3 day pack and a compartment to hold the sleeping bag) pack once on an AT to Norway, that was pretty nice although it was used just as a suitcase and I never had to hump it, lots of room to carry stuff.

  4. Philip says:

    Another outstanding post, LTC Baldwin!

  5. cimg says:

    LTC Baldwin, have you had any personal time with the USMC FILBE? It seems to follow the basic premise of the Large ALICE, incorporating some lessons learned. (may be a tad too large IMHO). Wanted to know your, or others here, opinions.

    • Terry B. says:

      cimg,

      All I know about the FILBE bag is what I have been able to find on the internet. It does obviously share some characteristics with ALICE and with the Army’s MOLLE Large.

      I believe the FILBE has the same internal volume as the Large MOLLE and similar sized external sustainment pouches. The biggest advantage FILBE has over MOLLE IMO is that the USMC chose the 1606 over the 1603.

      As I mentioned I have used the 1606 frame itself on my ALICE almost exclusively since 2008. I much prefer the ergonomics of it to the 1603 or the GI ALICE frame. I guess you could say I’m a fan of the 1606.

      TLB

  6. Tom says:

    The NICE frame from Mystery Ranch is probably one of the best upgrades for a large alice pack money can buy. I bought a Gen1 when they first came out, it distributes the load better than any other aftermarket frame I’ve tried. Not sure if they still sell it as a separate piece or not.

  7. Dirty Leg says:

    Mystery Ranch stuff got a lot of play in my unit. I couldn’t afford one but a lot of dudes liked them. ALICE is still my girl though.

  8. lcpl1066 says:

    Could anyone shed light on the strength of the ‘hammerhead’ frame compared to a 1603 frame? I’ve been thinking of investing in a FILBE but am skeptical of plastic frames after having 1603 frames crack after jumps/ carrying heavy loads.

    • jjj0309 says:

      DEI improved 1606AC to more robust, heavier successor named 1606MC. 1606AC has some benting/cracking issue right at the middle portion of frame. 1606MC improved that by reinforcing the part and it’s latest product from DEI. Theoretically it’s durable as 1603, if not better.

  9. majrod says:

    Could you name the frames from L-R on the bottom of the picture?

    As usual, a great article but a little hard to follow if one doesn’t recognize the specific gear mentioned.

    • jkiger says:

      The bottom row from left to right appears to be a standard ALICE frame, a Coleman frame, a Coleman frame with the top cut off, a 1606MM frame with the ‘hammerheads’ cut off, a 1606AC.

  10. Stacy0311 says:

    Saw many ALICE frames “reinforced” with duct tape and/or 550 cord. And extra padding from ammo crates covering the vertical and horizontal crossbars

  11. Luke says:

    Not my go-to pack but I used an ALICE frame, TT belt, and HPG straps with a homemade copy of MR/OV’s NICE lifter kits to make the system as comfortable as I could get it. A FILBE bag rounds out the monstrosity, I prefer it to the ALICE or MOLLE bags.

  12. paul says:

    I’ve been using the 1606AC for a few years now with a large modified ALICE ruck. I started with Tactical Tailors shoulder straps and waist pad and that was fine, the waist pad is not meant to fit the 1606AC at all and I had to bust out the sewing machine to make it work. I eventually ditched the waist pad for the MOLLE II waist pad and that was money. I currently have the LBT harness hooked up with old LC-1 shoulder straps and waist belt – this setup, while super comfy, sucked the life out of me on a 6 mile ruck the other day with a mere 45lb load. I’m going back to the MOLLE II shoulder and waist straps but still using the 1606AC and ALICE frame. This is the best overall setup I’ve found – 1606AC/large ALICE/MOLLE II suspension.

    • paul says:

      Oh ya, I also tried to use the Coleman frame. It let the pack ride nice and high but wasn’t as comfortable under heavy load. Instead of cutting the frame down, some guys purchased the “kids size” frame. I think the large frame is 21 inches and the kids is 17 inches?

  13. SGT Rock says:

    When I was a young Soldier earlier in my Army career I was the assigned RTO for a Light Infantry scout PLT @ Ft. Ord. Considering the amount of weight I was carrying, on avg 75 lbs plus, I must have snapped, broken, or bent at least 6 or 8 ALICE frames until I gave up on the POS materials and design. I finally had my dad weld me a frame made out of rebar and never had another single problem. That frame became the heat around the BDE and all the RTO/COMMO guys wanted one. I even had some of the DIV LRS guys stop me in the field and ask about the custom frame job. I should have had my dad start a side business, he would have made a killing.

  14. Rob Collins says:

    Not a soldier, but I’ve screwed with trying to make an ALICE work for me. They just suck. ALICE pack bags mount easily on my Kifaru Duplex frame. That solution beats the crap out of cobbling CFP-90 parts or other belts and shoulder straps together. On that frame, I can comfortably ‘shoulder’ (the weight really rests on my hips, unlike the ALICE frame) more than my legs can carry. I don’t work for Kifaru, but I use the heck out of their stuff, and backpack a LOT in CO, WY, often hunting & carrying a rifle.

    If you’re looking for a pack to carry heavy loads well, including for military or hunting use, look at Kifaru..

  15. Great article Sir! I’ve done all these tricks with ALICE over the years too. Tried cutting down a Coleman frame. It broke pretty quickly with the loads I was carrying. I think that loading my M-5 bag under the top lid is what broke that frame. I used the TT shoulder and waist straps for awhile too. I got rid of them as I thought they were way too thick and cumbersome. My favorite ALICE pack was a USGI large that I had TT add a sleeping bag compartment onto and reinforce. Added my own side release buckles to the external pouches and compression straps and sewed my own snow color onto it. Eventually sewed a “Claymore” sized pouch to the top lid also. Tried the HSGI Alipad in later years as an experiment.. Added too much bulk and IMHO didn’t really do much for the comfort. Went back to the LC2 straps and frame.

    Bought a Kifaru Navigator and Marauder in 2003 and never really looked back at ALICE. Luckily for me I was in units where I could use “private purchase” gear. Traded the Navigator for a Kifaru Zulu. With two external pouches, I could carry the same, if not more, in it than a large ALICE pack. Way more comfortable too.

    Can’t wait to see what you write about next!

    Take care,

  16. PAK says:

    Another great article LTC Baldwin. Studying the lessons of the past creates better solutions for the future.

    The first MOLLE pack frame with a ball and socket contraption, that integrated the vest component to the pack component, was a request from soldiers. They were looking to transfer some equipment weight to the hips and legs to reduce fatigue, reduce injuries, and improve survivability. The execution had several issues including back pain, parts failure, and difficulty donning. The need, however, still exists.

    Fully integrated equipment is the way of the future.

    SPD 9 – Weight Redistribution Device looked at this problem. SSD described the solution: “But, in our opinion, until armor, fighting, and sustainment loads are all looked at as load problems and a common chassis is developed to support them in a modular and scalable manner, then we will continue to see increased weight due to redundancy.”

    The wonder-pack that you and other soldiers have been looking for can be found in a system that integrates all equipment and transfers the weight to the hips or bionic legs of the future.

    Thanks for taking time to look at ALICE!

    • Terry B. says:

      PAK,

      I just took a look at your site and saw your product line. Lots of interesting stuff.

      I would agree that fully integrating equipment is the desirable future. But in the near term – at least for the military services – requirements are still habitually piecemealed and disconnected.

      Functional Kit integration gets a lot of lip service but just isn’t enough of a priority.

      TLB

  17. El Terryble' says:

    I found these series of articles very informative and helpful.