I love the questions on web gear. Best advice I can give, having gone through multiple iterations of trying this and that, is to divide up your load. What do I mean by this?
In the military they have a “combat load” and an “approach load” concept. Your “combat load” is the web gear that you see troops with all the time – their “battle rattle.” On the other hand the “approach load” is similar to what we would refer to as a survival load (roughly).
The major problem with web gear is that it does not work with any backpack that has a waist belt unless you set it up to not carry anything on the pistol belt unless it is carried with a drop leg (thigh) type of setup. Oops, no ammo pouches or canteens on the pistol belt. That means that forget the cheap ALICE gear etc. unless you plan on walking only for a day and not even spending the night in bad weather. You have to go with a vest type setup right out of the gate if you want to use a large backpack.
Personally, I have used an Enhanced Load Bearing Vest (ELBV) and H-harness that can carry eight M16 magazines in chest mounted pouches, or a no-name (custom made) survival vest that carries magazine pouches on the belly with some success. I prefer the ELBV as it can take all the cheap ALICE gear in a pinch. It also does not dig into me when I go prone like the other vest (which I only use when I am out hunting any more as it makes the perfect day pack with minimal survival gear – which is what it was designed for). I then have my pistol in a drop leg holster so that it rides below both the pistol belt and the backpack waist belt. On the other side I have a knife in a drop sheath and pistol magazine pouches in a drop leg configuration (holster and magazine pouches from Black hawk).
Water is in a hydration bladder inside the backpack as well as two one quart canteens (you can’t beat the old canteen cup and canteen cup stove with any modern gear) and two two quart canteens in or on the backpack. I would recommend people look at the Kifaru line of backpacks – they are rock solid (mine has survived three trips to the Middle East and one swing through Afghanistan) and built by the guy that started Mountain Smith. They are pricey but they don’t fail in the field and wear like a dream.
I also carry on the outside of the backpack a Camelbak hydration pack with 100 ounces of water. It has just enough carrying capacity to make up for the butt pack that I used to carry on my pistol belt (poncho, some food, and SERE gear). In a fight I can ditch the backpack in under a minute, get the Camelbak on, get one of the two one quart canteens clipped on, and shove the Russian Spetsnaz shovel into the loops on the Camelbak (designed to carry ice axes) after I take it off of the larger backpack. So, while not perfect it is the best thing I have found to date.
A couple of tips no matter what brand/setup you go with. First, go prone and roll around on the ground. Your magazine pouches should not dig (try to land on one if it digs into your diaphragm …) and at least some of them should be accessible regardless of the position you are in. Second, you should be able to roll over and over and low crawl with the rig. I saw one kid with a ton of gear not be able to get low enough behind a street curb one time and he ended up a casualty. [JWR Adds: One reason that I prefer traditional pistol belts and suspenders is that by simply unbuckling the pistol belt latch, any pouches in the front can be pushed to the sides (putting all the weight on the suspenders), allowing the wearer to low crawl effectively.] Remember that hard objects in your backpack become shrapnel when hit by bullets. Third, when you jump up and down you should not make any noise.
When you are done with your web gear buying and backpack buying and you start to load up, keep this in mind. On your web gear you only want those things that you will need in a fight.
The Colonel that was portrayed in the movie “Blackhawk Down” now has an infantry battalion in Iraq. Because of his experience with the [Mogadishu] “Blackhawk Down” affair he now never leaves his compound without having at least 30 loaded magazines on him. Plus he carries a combat lifesaver kit. This outfit has the best ones on the market today. – Hugh D.