A recent letter about reaching a retreat on foot caused me to think back over 20 years to when I was in the Marine Corps and I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned about trying to walk long distances with heavy packs in hostile environments.
In the Corps, as you can imagine, we ‘humped’ a lot (for you soldiers or civilians that’s Marine speak for road marching, rucking or hiking) and if I learned anything it was that walking long distances with heavy loads, weapons, communications equipment, water, clothes and food is tough for even the toughest at times.
First, despite the phenomenal shape we were in as Marines we generally never attempted long road marches without working up to them first. Sure, if we had to hump 20 miles we’d do it right then and there but if we had time (and presumably we as American’s still have time) then we wouldn’t attempt that without first working up to it.
To work up to such strenuous hiking we’d start with light gear (782 gear to Marines, or just Deuce Gear is I think TA-50 to Soldiers: standard issue web gear, combat gear, or field equipment.). We’d step off in Utilities (“Utes”, also called BDUs by the Army) and boots and hump a good 5 miles at a brisk pace. During these short humps we didn’t stop and kept about a 5 mile per hour pace. We called these ‘Utes and Boots’ runs if we dropped the 782 gear and picked up the pace. It is tough if you’re not used to it so starting off at a 3 mph or 4 mph pace might be better for a civilian trying to train up – but don’t forget to increase the pace later on when carrying light loads. Of course since we ran PT in formation at a very brisk pace (I once clocked our formation run at a 7 minute pace – that’s 3 miles in 21 minutes in formation) we could start off humping a 5 miler at a much faster pace than you might imagine. 5 miles an hour is tough and more like a walk/run then a walk but it’s doable, indeed we once humped 5 miles in 45 minutes but that was more a run than anything else – side note: don’t volunteer as a road guard when the commander decides to set records in Utes and Boots and 782!
To survive the beating your feet will get, powder them well and wear good boots – Marine Corps combat boots were not the best back then, but we mostly had them modified ourselves to improve the comfort and reduce the shock of long road marches. Any good cobbler/shoe maker can take a combat boot and change the sole, eyelets etc to improve the boot so don’t be afraid to have it done if you plan to wear military issue (unless the new ones are as good as I’m told).
Once we did this for a couple weeks (once or twice a week mixed in with regular PT schedule) we’d step it up to two 5 milers and a 10 miler. By this time we either ran the 5 miles or carried a heavier load (782 plus Alice pack with Air Alert gear — 2nd set of Utilities, extra socks, poncho and liner etc etc plus MREs). For the ten milers we carried the medium load also and kept a steady pace but stopped at 5 miles to change socks and powder our feet.
By the end of the 4th week we were hitting 15 miles with fairly heavy ALICE Packs etc and stopping 3 or 4 times for sock changes and foot powder and by the 5th week 20 miles was the norm.
By the end of about six weeks of serious humping (often spending part of the time in the field and humping from AO to AO) we were ready for anything and if deploying somewhere would take the MCRES (Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation Systems) test of 25+ miles in under 8 hours with no more than 10% losses. We generally did this at night since there had been too many heat casualties during the day in the summer.
In 1988 we did 32 miles in 7 hours and 50 minutes and lost 10% of our 2,000 man BLT (Battalion Landing Team). Humping 25-30 miles at a 4+ mile pace with a heavy load takes its toll and many succumb to heat exhaustion, sprained or broken ankles, twisted knees and worse and we were highly trained and very fit Marines but that doesn’t change the dynamics of humping long distance at night carrying a heavy load and injuries will happen.
At the end of the 8 hours of walking with over 100 lbs of gear (I also carried the PRC-77 [14-pound VHF transceiver] for 7-1/2 miles during that march) I’d pulled some ligaments in my left foot and was dragging it, I had more bruises (from gear) then you might imagine and could barely get into the back of a 5 Ton for the ride to the barracks!
Planning on bugging out and carrying a heavy load might be something you can do, but I want you to understand the risks involved and the serious training required if it’s longer then a few miles that you have to walk carrying a heavy load.
Things you should consider if you plan to walk to your retreat even after much training:
1. Change your socks with dry socks every five miles and powder your feet with foot powder when you do – so carry extra socks and plan to dry the wet ones by hanging them on the back of your ruck if it’s dry out.
2. Bring along fruit to graze on if you can — eating an orange along the route will boost your energy and a banana will help with foot cramps due to electrolytes lost during the hump.
3. Plan to drink at least one gallon of water! You will sweat out massive amounts and must replace what you lose or you will cramp or worse. Perhaps keep some electrolyte mix and mix it up during the sock change break.
4. Plan points along your route that you can hole up in for a day or two in case of injury — it is possible you will sprain an ankle in the first 5 miles and will need to rest before moving on so doing so in a safe place is important. While you may not be able to rest for two weeks, even a two day break will give your ankle etc time to recover a bit and with a slower pace and perhaps a splint you may be able to continue then.
6. Carry a walking stick if possible and sling your weapon if you can (if in dangerous country do not sling [your rifle over your shoulder], instead carry using a ‘Swiss sling’ which keeps the weapon hanging comfortably in front of you ready for action).
7. Remember, the old saying: ‘If you can’t Ruck it, Truck it – if you can’t Truck it, Chuck It’. Seriously, carrying more than 50 lbs of gear for 10-25 miles or more is tough if you are not used to it. Carrying 100 lbs for 10-20 miles is very hard, carrying 150 lbs is for the best trained hikers only! You won’t make it 5 miles with that load if you aren’t prepared, trained, and well hydrated.
8. Keep first aid kit handy – concentrate on pain killers, mole skin (for blisters) and splint making materials. Expect injury, plan for it and if you make the long march without one all the better. But don’t assume you can make it! I’ve seen tough Marines collapse under a 100 pound pack after 15 miles with their eyes rolled up and feet kicking! We called that the ‘funky chicken’ and while that might not be nice it helps me stress a point: Do not think that can’t happen to you, it can if you aren’t prepared or went out drinking the night before and suddenly find yourself 15 miles down the road, exhausted, dehydrated and overheating.
9. Keep light snacks in your pockets in an accessible place (having some gum or a little hard candy can really help when you’re at the 15 mile mark and starting to seriously drag).
10. Make sure you have a good water filter or purifier handy because you will drink more than you think and may need an alternate source of water. Water weighs nearly 8 pounds per gallon so if you have just 4 canteens you’re now 8 lbs less gear you can carry. If you have two gallons (canteens and camelback maybe) then you’re carrying 16 lbs of water — think about it.
For those who have a chafing problem my advice is “work up to it”. While some Marines did try things like nylon stockings, Vaseline and other ‘fixes’ I found that briefs and Utilities were all that is required (sorry, but boxers were the worst thing to wear on a 25 mile hump) provided you trained that way and allowed the body to get used to the constant walking (rubbing). I lifted weights for many years like a lot of Marines and had big thighs but chafing wasn’t an issue after a month or two of constant humping in the North Carolina humidity. Your body will adjust usually. If it doesn’t then try spandex shorts – these will provide the relief you need, guaranteed.
Hydrate, eat lots of carbs before each hike and plan each one carefully and you will be happy you did if TSHTF and you’ve got to ruck up and step out. Semper Fi, – Erik M.