Monday, January 11, 2010

Praxis: The ALICE Pack -- A classic combat pack, but still the best for militia use?

ALICE pack, as issued, circa 1980s-1990s


I received this email request early this morning:

Sent: Mon, Jan 11, 2010 12:54 am
Subject: Gear

Dear Sir,

First, I appreciate your efforts and enjoy reading your work. Thanks!

I am looking for some durable packs suitable for a few days in the woods. I hoped you might point me in the right direction.



Now, my experience with lugging packs around in the boonies was limited to a few years (mostly of intensive cache preparation) back in the 90s. Then, I became quite fond of the ALICE system. It had the advantage of being the only easily obtainable and inexpensive military pack around back then. I also liked its modularity. The same frame and straps could carry a pack, or, with the removal of the pack and installation of shelves, the frame could be used as a cargo carrier which was much more robust than the old plywood packboards.

Indeed, I probably used the ALICE system with the shelves more than the pack back then as we assiduously prepared for the time when the Clintonistas might get froggy. They didn't. The caches are still there, however, awaiting froggy Obamanoids, Chinese bill collectors, societal collapse or interstellar interlopers with cookbooks entitled, "To Serve Man." Preparedness is still a virtue, regardless of the threat.

My old friend, the ALICE cargo frame.

I also came to appreciate these little boogers:

Meet NSN 8465-00-001-6477 Strap, Cargo Tie-Down, LC-1. These are handy substitutes for rope, the poor man's load binder. And believe me, I speak from experience. After several dumped loads with shifting rope, I found these to be slicker than snot on a doorknob.

Fifty-three inches long, one end has a metal hook permanently attached by folding the strap upon itself and sewing. A metal buckle can slide along the length of the strap and can not slide off since the other end of the strap has a stop formed by rolling three turns of material and then sewing together. They make loading and unloading an ALICE frame oh so quick and easy. I'm still picking these up as I find them cheap. They are so mundane and so specialized that they interest few military collectors or even other militia folk, so often I can find them for as little as fifty cents or a buck apiece.

But I digress. The original question from Keith was for a "durable pack suitable for a few days in the woods." The ALICE system is still widely available and cheap, although experience has shown that the original can greatly benefit from a few upgrades. One of these I covered a little while back in my post Breathing New Life Into an Old ALICE Pack.

Another necessary mod is replacing the old thin and narrow shoulder straps with more robust and comfortable ones. For example, this is a set of SuperStraps from Tactical Tailor. They are twice as long as the issue straps and are made with 3/4" foam padding for added comfort with heavy loads. Thyey are better contoured to fit your shoulders than the issue set and feature an adjustable sternum strap to help distribute weight. They are available in Coyote Brown, OD and ACU and sell for $40.00.

Tactical Tailor's SuperStraps.

A better kidney pad is also a great addition. Here is a commercial example of an upgraded ALICE pack from PackMasters.

This mod was a steal, in my opinion, at $75.00 per, and I have several friends, younger, much more tactically savvy than me, who swear by them.

Designed by an ex-Ranger, here are some of the particulars from the description at FreezeDryGuy.

Alice Pack Heavy Duty, Light Weight Suspension System

* Heavy Duty shoulder straps and waist belt.
* Heavy Duty materials used throughout.
* Heavy Duty pack cloth construction.
* The best closed cell foam available in the back pack industry.
* Contoured shoulder straps.
* Heavy Duty "FASTEX" brand buckles used exclusively.
* Exceeds military specifications.
* Unequaled comfort from your ALICE Pack.
* Reduces the "Felt Weight" of your ALICE Pack by up to 40%.
* Waist Belt: contoured 1" thick wrap around closed cell foam for your comfort.
* Belt has 2" nylon webbing for hanging ammo pouches, canteens, and other LC2 gear.
* Suspension compatible with LBE/LBV.
* Closely approximates the comfort of a fine civilian pack.
* This system offers the greatest comfort you will ever experience with an ALICE Pack.
* You will walk farther and with less fatigue with this suspension system than any other.

Note well that comment, "Suspension compatible with LBE/LBV." Are there many civilian packs which are lighter and better designed, taking advantage of modern materials, ergonomics and CAD design? Absolutely. But try to find one that wears well over a combat harness or load-bearing vest.

LATER: Unfortunately, a quick call to FreezeDryGuy this morning revealed that they are out of the complete systems and do not expect to get them in anytime soon. They do still offer the belt/kidney pad but those are now $55.00 each. This came as a distinct disappointment to me, because I was so impressed by the system. I suppose that you can take your existing ALICE and retrofit the PackMaster belt and good set of replacement straps, but the overall cost of doing that makes this much less attractive to the cash-strapped militiaman. Still, if you already have the ALICE . . .

PackMaster can be contacted here:

FREEZE DRY GUY, P.O. Box 1476, Grass Valley, CA 95945. Phone: 866.404.3663. Email:

There are other commercially available ALICE mods, notably this one from Tactical Tailor:

Dubbed the MALICE Pack, for "Modified ALICE," this system is big and like everything from Tactical Tailor, very well made and expensive. For the purposes outlined by Keith, it is too big in my opinion, and too expensive for the average militiaman.

This gets to the question of what sort of pack you need. A large sustainment pack carrying everything you need for weeks in the bush? Or, as Keith is seeking, a combat pack for short-term sustainment to carry "snivel gear," dry socks, extra ammo, more dry socks, more ammo and more dry socks? Did I mention more ammo and dry socks?

The medium ALICE, with modifications, is excellent for this purpose. A word about sizes and provenance. The military procured ALICEs in Medium and Large. If you find a "Small" ALICE, it is certainly civilian production and most likely of PRC manufacture and shoddy construction. Remember you get what you pay for. Ideally, when looking for a serviceable ALICE, you should be trying to get what the government paid for already. I learned early that civilian ALICE packs and cheap replacement parts were a waste of time and money. The same goes for frames. (Obviously this doesn't apply to quality military products made by PackMasters or Tactical Tailor.)

Look, the best made GI frame will pop a rivet or two under maximum load and stress. The civvy frames are far more fragile, which is the last thing you want in a pack frame. (Popped rivets can be repaired by drilling them out with a 7/32� drill bit and replacing them with one inch 10-32 stainless steel bolts. Use a locking washer and Loc-Tite. Some guys do this with all their rivets prophylactically, but that always struck me as too much trouble.)

Another thing to remember is never hoist a pack under maximum load by a single shoulder strap. Install a grab handle made of strapping or even para-cord on the top of the frame so you can move it around without causing a catastrophic failure of the system.

A word about the belly band. ALICEs originally did not have a belly band to help steady the load over difficult terrain. Later ones were issued, but in tip-of-the-spear outfits like the 82nd Airborne, these were more often removed and here's why:

The as-issued straps were long and, when unbuckled, trailed and flapped miserably. Yet, if you were on the approach march and suddenly came into contact with the OPFOR, the dumping of the pack by way of the quick-release buckles on the straps was mandatory to get light and fight. If the belly band buckle was forgotten in haste, the trooper would be pulled down from behind by the weight of the falling pack, often becoming, for a few critical moments, hopelessly entangled and out of the fight. In the 90s, I passed this bit of wisdom on to the men and women of 1ACR and we most often removed them. ALICEs without belly-bands were most often seen when training exercises took us into the Talladega National Forest. (I have always been a fan of the butt pack, too, but that's another post.)

A PackMaster ALICE viewed from the front.

A modification of the PackMaster ALICE that I saw recently impressed me as a solution to this problem. The militiaman had taken the band fasteners and sewed onto them, one on each side, a fastex buckle component to fit that part of the buckle that corresponded. Thus, he would buckle the band back in place when marching in most terrain, or when contact might be expected, thus keeping the two straps from dragging. When moving over rough terrain, or when contact was very unlikely, he would fasten the buckle in front to keep the pack from shifting. Altogether a useful modification. Of course, he didn't use the belly band/kidney pad to hang a canteen or pouches on as in the illustration above, but then that is what his combat harness was for. The ALICE rode nicely over top and above the back of his vest.

You can read more about the ALICE system here, and there is an excellent discussion of the ALICE pack from a user's point of view at the here.

The above, then, is the extent of my knowledge and recommendations regarding packs. Whether the ALICE is still the best combination of features, price and utility for the modern militia is, of course, open to discussion. Which is why I post the question here, with the hope that other Irregulars can fill in the gaps of my own knowledge. Comments?



Flight-ER-Doc said...

One more word about the Alice packs:

In theory, the medium sized packs can be used with just shoulder straps (not with a frame)....

This is a bad idea! As long ago as the mid 1980's the Army started noticing (officially) that a lot of troops were suffering nerve damage (from slow to heal, to permanent) from the pressure of the alice shoulder straps in the brachial plexus (a cluster of nerves in the shoulder). The pack without the frame and waist band will pull down and put too much pressure on these nerves, causing the damage.

So, if you're going to use the ALICE packs, use the frame! While the frame is better sized and suited to skinny 19 year old guys, older folks can use them with a lot more comfort with aftermarket straps as you mention.

And I've had my ALICE pack (large) modified by Tactical Tailor, they do good work. In particular, I had it modified with pockets (on both sides, the desert gets hot) for hydration bladders. Good stuff!

I still have my ALICE gear, but for a pack I've switched to a multicam Kifaru, which is the finest pack system I've ever seen.

Doc Enigma said...

A lot of the operators over in the sandbox are purportedly using the 'eberlestock' systems. Feedback is positive on these relative new comers. Many are 'front loaders' and have integrated dragbags....

Expensive, to be sure, but man....what a pack!

gandalf23 said...

A guy going by the name Enforcer on has a great ALICE pack mod called the Hellcat that uses the straps and kidney/waist belt from the new MOLLE pack on an ALICE pack. And a sleeping bag carrier from the MOLLE system, too.

I was able to find the sleeping bag carrier for $5 each, used, online, here:

The MOLLE pack straps I got from Gunny Surplus for $25 for the straps and waist belt, and he also has ALICE packs and frames:

Although I saw some bare frames on eBay for a few dollars cheaper, maybe $7 each? And the same guy had Large ALICE packs for $8 or $10. Aha! Found him again, leathernecksmilitarysurplus:

Finally, you can get 20 nice Swiss military straps with ITW Nexus Fastex buckles from SportsmansGuide for $15:

My package was 15 long ones and 5 short ones, not 10 and 10 like advertised, just so y'all know. The ones I received fit with the USGI buckles on the MOLLE assault pack I have. I cut a few of the smaller straps and used the buckles to modify my ALICE packs like in your previous Praxis column. Although I see that new buckles are pretty inexpensive from Supply Captain:

Anonymous said...

OOOOh I love PRAXIS posts!!!

I have been in the market for a long time, I was considering just getting an ALICE to save money for other gear, but I splurged instead and got a Maxpedition pack. Maxpedition has some pretty awesome packs, most notably the Condor-II and the slightly larger Vulture-II, I got the latter. It's an awesome pack, very well made:

Check out the video review below to see all the features.
I got mine mainly to carry my stuff in while out hunting or bushcrafting or whatever but it would make a damn good combat pack.

Instead of a big draw string and flap for the main opening, it has heavy zippers that come about 3/4 of the way down, which is great for quick access in the field because you can just open it up and greab what you want out, whereas with a top-loader like the ALICE you have to dig from the top, taking stuff out and making a mess. And on the waist band issue that you were talking about, on the Vulture you can fold the waistbelt into a little pocket when not in use and it's like it's not even there. I can't say enough about the pack, I'm very happy with it.

BUT since this post is about making the most out of ALICE, I have a link to a very cool modification you can do to the system I found on the, second post down:

Involves replacing the less than stellar original issue pad and straps with the newer, better and easily obtainable MOLLE stuff. Very cool.

Hope this helps,

-Anonymous gear-whore


Anonymous said...

First, let me say I have never used a pack in a tactical military situation. I was a squid.

However, I have been a backpacker since childhood, as well as a hunter since dad first let me tote the shotgun, and have spent a lot of time trucking around the boonies.

The ALICE pack, especially with the modifications discussed in this praxis article, is a good strong pack, and can be comfortable with any load that's within reason. That's the thing with any pack, no matter how well designed- you won't be comfortable using it if you are overloaded. Packing light is always important, and even more so if there's certain gear mandatory for your operation. Carrying a rifle and ammunition, and/or extra water for a desert trek, or extra bedding for an Arctic trek, will severely limit the additional weight that can be carried without strain.



Elkad said...

Back in my 82nd days, we simply folded the pack belly band back around the frame and buckled it. For most movement, I could get the kidney pad tucked between my canteens and my kidneys (riding just above my web belt). The canteens and buttpack helped transfer a good portion of the weight to my hips, and partially secured the pack from shifting about.

If we were mountain climbing or something, the waist belt was still there to be used normally, but that was a pretty rare occurrence.

Part of making this comfortable was replacing all the ALICE clips on my web gear with paracord, as otherwise the pack's kidney belt would drive the fasteners into your skin. The fasteners at the end of the LBE suspenders were particularly critical to replace. Lace paracord through the web belt and suspender ends in a M shape.

With the LBE web belt buckled, your pack transferred weight from the kidney pad to your entire web belt. If you pulled the quick-releases on your shoulder straps, the pack would pivot around your canteens somewhat while falling, but generally avoided hitting you in the back of the knees and knocking you down.

You may need to adjust your LBE to wear a little long. Around the hips rather than up on the waist. But this makes it more comfortable when low-crawling anyway, if you unbuckle the waist to get your ammo pouches out from under you.

Of course removing all the metal fasteners and such meant you had to keep another set of regulation web gear for parade duty, but at least it was already clean.

Crustyrusty said...

I still have my ALICE gear too, medium and large. We usually used the large pack to haul our stuff to the AO, and used our butt packs for daily ops. I never used the medium pack a whole lot, so I couldn't speak to whether it kills your shoulders or not.

tjbbpgobIII said...

In the 60's I was a RTO and the butt pack would handle a lot of gear. Strap a poncho underneath and a M65 field jacket on the top, all fitting rather well below the PRC-25 radio. Later when I went into a regular squad in Viet Nam and as soon as I could I recoverd a vc rucksack and loaded it down plus my butt pack as I carried bou cou 5.56 ammo and 200 rounds of 7.62 belted for the pigs. Everyone carried an extra 200 rounds of 7.62 mg ammo.