It can be a daunting task this day and time selecting what to carry and how best to carry it. With the vast selection of government issue and commercial load carrying equipment available today. In this article I will be addressing the items of common U.S. military issue.
I’m constantly fielding questions from friends and coworkers about what system, manufacturer, and color/pattern is best. Well there is no easy answer so I will try to clear away some of the fog for everyone. I will be drawing on over 20 years of experience as a man whose wore many hats that included service with the U.S. Army (Airborne Infantry), Texas State Guard (MP), Private Security Officer, Civilian Police Officer and as a Private Contractor.
There are two basic groups to load carrying equipment the first is the combat/fighting load. This group will allow you to carry ammunition, water, some food, first aid kit, weapons maintenance kit as well as additional weapons such as a pistol and knife.
The second group of load carrying equipment is the existence load this is the backpack/rucksack component of your load. The existence load is for extended operations when the soldier will be in a field environment for an extended period of time. I might also add that this could be used for a bug out scenario for those of us who are preppers.
The two basic platforms in use today are ALICE and MOLLE though the CFP-90 rucksack from the IIFS system is still in use by some units.
The following is a fairly complete listing of the US military load bearing systems issued from the ALICE era to the present day:
ALICE-All Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment.
IIFS-Individual Integrated Fighting System.
MOLLE- Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment.
BALCS-Body Armor Load Carry System.(the ballistic upgrade of the MOLLE system)
SPEAR-Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements.
RACK-Ranger Assault Carry Kit.
ILBE-Improved Load Bearing Equipment used by the U.S. Marines.
All Purpose Lightweight Carrying Equipment (ALICE)
I have used this system and like it very much. The trick is to learn how to balance the harness so everything rides comfortably. Most of my time in service I served with units created to operate behind lines with little chance for re-supply so as soon as the new saw drum pouches began to arrive we started using two on each side of our harness instead of the standard 3 mag pouch for extra rifle/pistol mags and grenades, yes it was heavy but it is better to have and not need than to need and not have.
The basic ALICE platform consists of a utility belt, suspenders, butt pack, 2-canteens with cup and canteen covers, 1 compass/first aid pouch and 2 rifle ammo pouches. The butt pack though not always issued is useful in carrying a poncho and liner, food rations, additional ammo and other mission essential equipment. This system is very rugged, well balanced and well ventilated even with the addition of a knife and holster with side arm. Pouch placement is essential the butt pack is just that it is centered on your lower back with the canteens placed on the back side of your left and right hips. The rifle ammo pouches should be placed on the front of your left and right hips. The compass/first aid pouches are positioned on the loops located on the front shoulder of the suspenders. If carrying a pistol it is wise to carry 2 rifle mags pouches on the opposite side and 1 on your holster side for a better balance. Typically a good location for your knife is on the front suspender strap of your weak side, a little 100mph tape will help hold the sheath in place as well as silencing and securing other areas of your harness. We would also usually remove the metal ALICE clips and use 550 cord to tie the pouches in place, some would also use zip ties in place of the ALICE clips.
Though MOLLE is the new standard most would prefer to have the ALICE harness in areas when body armor or a heat retaining vest is not feasible such as jungle operations.
ALICE Pack Medium/Large
The Large ALICE pack is what I carried for most of my time in service. I was first issued this pack at my very first duty assignment which was with the 101 st Airborne Division. Overall I had very good experiences with the pack after I learned how to pack it correctly.
The ALICE pack is a very rugged external frame rucksack that is still a favorite among soldiers. It is still used by many special ops soldiers in place of the MOLLE rucksack because of its proven performance and its external metal frame that out performs the plastic frame used with the current MOLLE pack. The large ALICE pack has one large main compartment, a flat document pocket in the top flap, 3 large external pockets evenly spaced across the lower back of the pack with 3 smaller magazine sized pockets centered above them (large pack only). The pack has multiple ALICE attachment and strap loops on the sides and bottom of the pack for additional equipment such as e-tools, 2-qt canteens, sleeping pads and sleeping bags. The 2 outside large pockets on the pack have pass thru pockets for carrying long items such as skis and snowshoes. Many have even taken to attaching the MOLLE sleep system carrier to the bottom of the pack for their sleeping bags and additional equipment also the improved MOLLE pack waist belt can be used on the ALICE pack frame for improved comfort. The closure straps on the top are often used to carry a rolled up sleeping pad. There is also an internal pocket designed for carrying man pack sized radios. The pack has 3,800 cubic inches of storage and is rated to 70 pounds although I have carried loads over 100 pounds.
Individual Integrated Fighting System (IIFS)
Tactical Load Carrying Vest
The tactical load-carrying vest is constructed of a seven ounce nylon fabric printed in the woodland camouflage pattern and weighs 1.8 pounds empty. The tactical load-carrying vest is compatible with the standard individual equipment belt. The individual equipment belt is secured to the tactical load-carrying vest with 10 belt loops that use both hook and pile fasteners and snaps. The tactical load-carrying vest has four permanently attached ammunition pockets that can carry six 30-round cartridge magazines for the M-16 rifle. The pocket covers are secured by one snap and a strip of hook and pile. A pull tab is used to open the pocket. Located directly below the ammunition pockets are two fragmentation grenade pockets. The shoulders are protected by 1/2 inch [1.27 cm] foam padding. The tactical load-carrying vest closes in front with two chest straps using plastic quick release buckles. Two 2¼ inch [5.71 cm] webbing and two D-Rings sewn to the back of the tactical load-carrying vest can be used as equipment attachment points.
Combat Field Pack M-1990(CFP-90)
The CFP-90 was part of the Individual Integrated Fighting System(IIFS) first issued in the late 80’s and was very short lived soon to be replaced by the MOLLE system. My first experience with this pack was while I was serving with a Long Range Surveillance Detachment(LRSD) and later heard that only select units were issued this system. My experience with the pack was overall very good but I can’t say the same for the vest that accompanied it. The vest was very hot and did not ride well on me. The pack only had one downfall that I noticed was that when the patrol pack was attached to the pack(on the top of the pack) the combination rose very high above ones shoulders making it difficult to traverse under anything low hanging. I personally have carried loads well over 100 pounds with this ruck.
A well-designed suspension system based on two internal aluminum mainstays supports a two-chamber pack. This system with the padded shoulder straps and adjustable weight placement wins the approval of many who have deployed with this backpack. The main pack can be augmented by an optional attached patrol pack. In other words, a soldier can carry a major load to a base position and then detach the smaller and more convenient patrol pack to carry essential equipment and supplies for forays in the surrounding territory, leaving the major load behind. The detachable patrol pack stats are 1200 cubic inches of cargo space split between 2 compartments. The main compartment is padded to help protect the wearer from sharp items. This main compartment also has 2 tie-downs to help keep equipment in place and stable. Other features include a false bottom in the main compartment. This allows placing the major weight components high in the pack. A lower compartment for lighter components such as the sleeping bag. This false bottom can be removed to allow for one large compartment. One large pocket on the right side and two pockets on the left side. Foam pad at the small of the back to enhance airflow and minimize sweating while providing comfortable support. Vertically adjustable shoulder strap attachment system. Hip belt with padding to provide minimize discomfort under heavy load. Draw strings, snap buckles, zippers, etc. for convenient attachments and closures. Padding on the shoulder straps has a mesh back design to permit airflow where the load tightens to the skin. Because of the design of the suspension system, the pack can be adjusted to the desired high or low position on the back. In this manner it can be adjusted for large people as well as for average size or for smaller people. Rain-resistant nylon provides solid construction and durability, holding up well in heavy use. The capacity of this pack is 4,400-5,550 cu in (expanded).
Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment (MOLLE)
I have used this system and like it just fine but I prefer for the pouches to be mounted on the body armor rather than the FLC, its just a better fit and feel to me.
The basic MOLLE Fighting Load Carry set consists of the following pieces
1- MOLLE II Fighting Load Carrier (FLC) Vest
1- MOLLE II Camelbak Hydration Carrier
1- MOLLE II Camelbak Hydration Bladder
1- MOLLE II Waist Pack with Stowable Straps
2- MOLLE II Canteen/Utility Pouches
3- MOLLE II Double Mag Pouches (M16A2 – 30RD Carbine)
2- MOLLE II Frag Hand Grenade Pouches
1- MOLLE II Bandoleer Ammunition Pouch 6 Mag
The basic MOLLE platform consists of a vest with either ballistic or non ballistic properties with attaching points generally referred to as MOLLE or PALS(pouch attachment ladder system). The pouches have a strap system that is woven through the ladder straps on the outside of the vest and the back of the pouch. The vest is usually covered on the front, back and sides with a PALS grid system that allows the wearer to place the pouches on the vest that best suit’s the individuals preferences. Typically the vest will be set up as follow: the lower front of the stomach area wrapping around both sides will be where the rifle mag pouches would be placed, the front upper chest area weak side will have pistol mag pouches and above that will be a small compass/strobe pouch, the upper front strong side chest area will have a small general purpose/shotshell pouch making sure that there is no obstructions for your rifle stock placement. The weak side of the vest is typically reserved for an op-order/logistics pouch with the first aid/blow out pack placed on the strong side of the vest, the back top center of the vest is where your hydration bladder is placed and below that if carried is where you will place your general purpose/butt pouch. If needed you can also place additional 1quart canteens on either side of the back lower vest. Some systems allow for a hip belt that is attached to the bottom of the vest for additional carrying options these can also be extended with sub load carrying platforms such as a weak side mag dump or protective/gas mask pouch and a strong side drop leg holster. The various MOLLE platforms in use by the U.S. Military also include a number of chest harnesses. The most widely used is the Ranger Assault Carry Kit (RACK) system designed for the Army Rangers.
The MOLLE Rucksack
The MOLLE Large Ruck has a capacity of 4,000 cubic inches. The detachable side sustainment pouches can hold 500 cubic inches each. The detachable sleep system carrier
weighs 3 lbs and has a volume of 1,200 cubic inches. The detachable patrol pack can be attached directly to the MOLLE main ruck system or worn as a stand alone patrol pack. With a total capacity of over 1,700 cu inches the pack consists of a large main pocket, a zippered front cargo pocket and separate exterior hydration sleeve. Within the front cargo pocket is also a small utility pocket with Velcro flap closure for smaller items. The pack features a separate exterior slot pocket to integrate with hydration systems and MOLLE attachment points along the padded shoulder straps with quick-ditch buckles. Other features are quick ditch shoulder straps, adjustable sternum strap and low profile waist belt and external hydration sleeve, MOLLE webbing on the sides of the main pack and four lateral cinch straps to compress and stabilize interior contents. Main compartment capacity is 1,300 cu inches, outer cargo pocket capacity is 576 cu inches. The rucksack’s main body has a zippered internal load divider, and openings at the top and bottom ends, to allow a sleeping bag (or other gear) to be loaded and unloaded independently without the need for an external sleeping bag carrier. The top flap of the large ruck is a mesh pocket for documents. It is secured with a hook and loop closure. The large ruck has two large, removable sustainment pouches which attach to the side of the ruck using the same interlocking attachment system as the FLC pockets. These sustainment pouches each contain two D-rings on the sides, which allow them to be carried by a general purpose sling for alternate uses. The sustainment pouches can also be added to the side of the smaller assault pack. All of the large pouches of the MOLLE system have D-rings on the sides to allow the item to be slung with a GP sling.
Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements (SPEAR)
I have no first hand knowledge with this system but will include it for information purposes. The components of the SPEAR platform designed for special operations forces are listed below.
1 set vest panel (left and right)
1 set shoulder pad assembly
1 belt with buckle
1 set H harness assembly
1 set flotation element set (left & right & back & shoulder)
1 pouch, M4 Ammo (3 Mag) with Frag & multi-purpose grenade, right
1 pouch, M4 Ammo (3 Mag) with Frag & multi-purpose grenade, left
2 cover, canteen, 1 quart
2 pouch, general purpose (Large)
2 pouch, general purpose (Small)
2 Alice adapter
3 pouch, M4 ammo (2 Mag, 30 rd)
3 pouch, M4 ammo (1 Mag, 30 rd)
2 pouch, M60/SAW, 100 rd
2 cover, canteen, 2 quart
SPEAR/MOLLE Special Forces UM21 Backpack System
The system includes:
1 Main pack
1 Patrol Pack
1 butt pack
2 compression stuff sacks
2 patrol pack stuff packs
This modified commercial Backpack Subsystem consists of a backpack, patrol pack, and butt pack. The backpack’s state-of-the-art internal frame affords a stable platform sufficient to carry 120 pounds effectively. The backpack transfers load efficiently from the shoulders to the waist and provides adjustments to fit the 5th-95th percentile male SOF operator. The butt pack attaches to ELCS or the backpack; the patrol pack attaches to the backpack, and is compatible with the other Spear BALCS components. The one size subsystem weighs 17 pounds. This backpack system is part of the U. S. Government Body Armor Load Carry System (BALCS )and has seen extensive use by American special operations troops in Operation Enduring Freedom.
In addition to the packs patented suspension system, another key feature of this system is its modularity for use with the U. S. Government Load Carry System ELCS and is also compatible with Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements SPEAR and BALCS components. Developed for long-range reconnaissance missions, this backpack, composed of aircraft-grade aluminum stays, a sturdy internal framesheet, and an adjust-a-cant hip belt and patented Flo-Form II molding technology provides a highly efficient carrying system, capable of supporting extreme loads easily and comfortably. The pack design provides for customized distribution of weight to allow the wearer to locate the optimum adjustment for various terrain or conditions of any march. By utilizing the pack’s suspension adjustments, weight may be shifted entirely onto the hips, entirely onto the shoulders or distributed evenly between the two.
Ranger Assault Carry Kit (RACK)
I have used the RACK platform and found it to be a very stable package for short engagements but the wearer would be limited by the space that is available to actually attach your pouches. The area of the harness that allows for pouch attachment is from the upper chest down to the upper to middle stomach with a small area that wraps around a short distance on both sides. This is partially remedied by using the sub load pouches and platforms that are available from this package and other MOLLE platforms in common issue. This system was mainly designed for a limited fast assault which the Rangers have practically perfected. The RACK system uses the same rucksack as the standard MOLLE system.
The Ranger Assault Carry Kit contains a load-bearing vest platform, utility leg pouch and (11) additional pouches which includes the following:
1 RACK load bearing vest with stowable bib for extra munitions and gear
1 RACK leg bag with attachment strap
1 canteen/utility pouch (will also hold (5) 30RD USGI 5.56mm magazines)
4 30RD USGI 5.56mm magazine pouches with shotshell/light stick/cuff loops (8-magazine capacity)
4 fragmentation grenade pouches
2 radio pouches – one each for SABRE Radio and PRC-126 Radio
ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment)
Once again I have no field experience with this system but have researched it as a possible upgrade/addition to my own kit. I felt it should be included here for information purposes. I can assume that since my brethren the U.S. Marines are currently using this system it is probably a very capable system. The ILBE uses the same basic combat load as the current MOLLE system, it is just an improved rucksack over the current MOLLE rucksack.
The ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment) backpack, is the current backpack of choice for the U. S. Marine Corp. It was developed to replace the ALICE backpack, and the MOLLE system backpack. Designed by Arc’teryx’s LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) program and manufactured by Propper Inc., the USMC ILBE is made from Cordura 725 denier fabric, with pixilated Marpat printed onto it. The pack also bears a PALS grid for smaller modular attachments.
The ILBE system is comprised of three main components the main pack, the assault pack and the hydration system. Each of these can be swapped around depending on the requirements of the mission and the load a soldier needs to carry.
Because the ILBE has been designed to be configurable for the requirements of each mission, it has three main load configurations.
Assault Configuration allows the ILBE to carry primarily ammunition and water, and other essential fighting gear. It is the lightest configuration allowing marines the greatest amount of mobility during combat. The Assault Configuration uses the ILBE Assault Pack and the hydration system.
The Approach March Load is a heavier configuration designed to give 90% combat effectiveness to marines who will be faced with extended periods of time without re-supply. The Approach March Load uses the ILBE Main Pack and the hydration system for a medium sized load.
The Existence Load is the heaviest load, designed for longer periods of time where re-supply is not possible. Climate, season, and terrain determine what needs to be brought along for the mission. This is the full ILBE load that uses the Assault Pack, the Main Pack and the hydration system. It allows a Marine to carry a full 120 lbs of gear and equipment for extended missions.
Well that about concludes my overview on the different U.S. Military Load Carrying Platforms. I have tried to give a complete overview of each separate system with more in-depth comments on the systems that I have personal experience with, I was left to research some of the newer platforms that are reserved mainly for special ops soldiers and some of the improvements that have taken place on some of the systems since I last used them. Whatever the case, a new system will undergo numerous improvements as the soldiers using them in the field suggest certain changes. The thing to realize is there is a reason that some of the older systems developed decades ago are still in use today and that is they work, they are reliable and constant upgrades and improvements to the systems will extend the usefulness of them for many years to come. Typically a man will tend to use today what he was issued in his time of service with a few modifications or upgrades and that will probably be the case for future generations as well. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the ALICE, IIFS and MOLLE systems and can tell you that as far as I’m concerned each one definitely has a place in my prep locker.
JWR Adds: Some readers are probably wondering: “What on Earth would I do with a frag grenade pouch?” Fragmentation grenades are banned in most countries. (Here, Swiss citizens have us bested. In some cantons they can buy them at waffen shops.)
Those of us that buy surplus web gear end up with few of these pouches. I’ve learned that each compartment of a grenade pouch will fit any of the following:
- One standard U.S. military battle dressing (depending on its vintage.)
- Many multi-tool pliers
- Many compact LED flashlights (Surefire and other brands.)
- Most compasses
- Two 50-round boxes of .22 rimfire ammunition. (Wrap them in Ziploc bags first.)
- One 20 round box of 7.62×39 ammunition. (Again, wrap them in Ziploc bags first.)
- 5-round stripper clips for many bolt action rifles
Of course, grunts all round the world have also found that they also fit less crucial things like packs of cigarettes and iPods, and…