While I did very little overnight backpacking I would easily wear out a pair of hiking boots each season tromping the local trails and roads.
Along the way I developed a strong interest in - some would say an obsession with - the bric-a-brac of outdoor life and adventure. This accounts for my fascination with knives. I also developed a slightly weird fascination with backpacks. I think it started with my realization that the old, square canvas Boy Scout knapsacks we used as kids were, well, let's be honest here - they were simply lousy load carrying devices. It took this lowly and somewhat dim Tenderfoot only about two outings to realize there had to be something better out there.
This was about the time the lightweight backpacking craze was sweeping America, fueled in large part by Colin Fletcher's classic bible of backpacking, 'The Complete Walker'. The pages of of the outdoor magazines were filled with sexy shots of hikers on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail sporting the latest in load carrying technology from companies like Kelty or JanSport. These newfangled aluminum and nylon concoctions were a bit more than I needed for schlepping the local trails. A lot of them made you look like you were hauling a refrigerator on your back, but they showed the way to the future.
Then one rainy Saturday afternoon I caught the movie 'The Mountain' with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner. Set in the French Alps, it's the story of two brothers who climb a mountain to reach a plane crash site and plunder the belongings of the crash victims. This was the first and only time I've seen the movie. While I remember the story line as being somewhat interesting what really caught my eye were the backpacks they used in the climbing scenes. These were the classic teardrop-shaped Alpine style rucksacks. I was fascinated by them - so those are what serious climbers use! They are soooo cool! The image was burned into my memory and launched me on a lifetime quest to find the perfect rucksack, just like the one Spencer Tracy used in the movie.
It's been a long, enjoyable and slightly frustrating quest, and I've come to realize that the perfect and perfectly cool Alpine rucksack like they used in the movie simply doesn't exist. Or at least I haven't been able to find it after decades of searching. No matter, I've found plenty of great substitutes along the way.
In this and subsequent posts we'll have a look at some of the rucksacks I've come across and why they work (or don't work). I've had a lot of rucksacks on my back over the years, and I've lived out of them for weeks (and in one case months) at a time. Most of this experience has been with the US Army's ALICE system rucksack (which we'll tackle in a later post). But living with and depending on a piece of gear for so long gives you a good perspective as to what works and what doesn't. Now it takes me about three minutes wearing a pack under load to determine if that particular bag is good or bad (for me). What counts is comfort (always the #1 consideration), ruggedness, good design and execution. Surprisingly weight becomes a secondary consideration; ruggedness and quality of execution impose their own weight requirements.
Let's start with my current favorite, and it's a design I'm fairly new to. In the 1980s the Army realized that the old ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) system was badly outdated and a new Soldier load carrying system was needed. This triggered a complete rethinking of military load carrying technology and out of it came the MOLLE system (MOdular Lightweight Load carrying Equipment). The MOLLE system went into general issue with the Army in the early 2000's at about the time I retired. The system is in its second generation (MOLLE II) and may be headed to a third generation upgrade. As the name indicates, the system is designed to be modular. The MOLLE system consists of external frame packs of different sizes, rucksacks, pouches and bags all of which can clip or snap together in various configurations. Soldiers can combine different components of the MOLLE system depending on specific mission requirements.
As was bound to happen, soon after adoption MOLLE equipment began to leak out into the civilian market. Some of this was from Soldiers selling their field gear after they left the service, some was from contract over-runs by the manufacturers and some was surplus releases of used equipment by the US military. The one MOLLE component that quickly became a hit with civilian users is the MOLLE II Assault Pack (NSN 8465-01-524-0001).
|MOLLE II Assault Pack front view|
The Assault Pack is what civilians would classify as a large day pack. It's a common design - a half clamshell secured by a large zipper, with load compression straps on the side and a large exterior pouch. Where the Assault Pack shines is in the details. Because it was designed to be worn over body armor the shoulder straps are very generous and well positioned for a guy with my body type (that's a polite way of saying I'm overweight). The pack also incorporates an internal plastic stiffener that provides shape to the pack and shields the wearer's back from poking and prodding by items inside the pack. The pack is manufactured of heavy nylon and all seams are taped and double stitched. Stress points are all reinforced. There are plenty of external straps and attachment points for mounting pouches or other do-dads.
|MOLLE II Assault Pack rear view. That is a GPS receiver pouch|
mounted on the right strap, a wrist compass on the left.
Where the Assault Pack really shines is carry comfort. This is perhaps the most comfortable large day pack pack I've ever used. I routinely load this pack up to about 23 lbs (water, first aid kit, jacket, GPS receiver, maps, binoculars, survival kit, knife and other small items). It's a full load, but a comfortable load. The shoulder straps look thin in profile but the design does a very good job of distributing the load. The shoulder strap design means the straps stay in place regardless of what you are wearing. There is enough adjusting strap length that it's easy to loosen the shoulder straps wide, toss the bag onto your back and roll your shoulders while tugging on the straps to get a perfect fit. The internal stiffener allows the pack to rest comfortably against your back and keeps the loads from shifting around.
Other small details add to the usefulness of this pack. You can use it with a hydration bladder and there are covered drinking tube openings on each side of the drag handle (although these openings are not really there for use with a drinking tube - more on that in just a bit). Each shoulder strap has a 'dump' buckle - unsnap the buckle cover (think of it as a safety) and pull up on the web tab and the shoulder strap and adjusting strap separate. The zippers are the heaviest YKK self-repairing nylon zippers I've ever seen and the Fastex-type buckles that secure all the webbing are heavy duty.
This pack is designed for use on parachute jumps and it comes with stitched-in webbing for attaching to a parachute harness. This is really what the two 'drinking tube' flaps on each side of the drag handle are for. You route the straps out from the inside of the pack through these slits. There is also a lowering line attachment loop sewn into the bag.
There are some quibbles, but they are minor. The bottom of the bag is not reinforced. Some double layered protection would have been nice. I have to be fair, though, and mention that the bottom of my ALICE rucksack that saw me through over 12 years of service didn't have a reinforced bottom and it survived just fine.
I'm also not a big fan of clamshell design packs. Zippers can fail, and when they do there go the contents of your pack. The Assault Pack mitigates this somewhat by being only a half clamshell design and the compression straps help take the strain off of the zipper. Clamshell designs are also not very waterproof. In fact, they leak like a sieve. The main pouch zipper has only a small, thin weather flap covering it. This isn't a pack designed for use in wet weather. I much prefer a top-loading design with a cover flap.
And then there's the camouflage pattern. Most of the packs coming onto the market today are made with the Army's ACU digital camo pattern (also known as the Universal Camouflage Pattern). This pattern has served the Army well through almost 10 years of war in the Middle East, but it is really too light for effective use in more vegetated regions. This pattern, especially after it starts to fade a bit, really stands out in the forests of North America. I'd much prefer olive drab, but you take what you can get.
Speaking of camouflage patterns, the Army produced this pack in the old woodland (BDU) pattern, the desert (DCU) pattern, of course the ACU pattern, and is now making them in the new Army MultiCam pattern. Since so few were made in the woodland and desert pattern they are harder to find and good examples command relatively higher prices. The new MultiCam patterned bags are just starting to appear and they command outrageous prices - I saw one go on eBay in the last few weeks for about $150.
But right now the ACU pattern Assault Pack can be found at bargain prices. There's always examples for sale on eBay and internet storefronts like Uncle Sam's Retail Outlet are selling them new for as low as $59.99. That's one heck of a deal for a great bag that costs the real Uncle Sam something close to $90.
|The detachable multi-purpose pouch, designed originally|
to hold the Army 1qt canteen, does a fine job holding a
1 qt Nalgene water bottle
In my opinion the MOLLE II Assault Pack is destined to be a minor classic in military equipment, akin to items like the M6 gas mask bag, the Chinook helicopter, the Jeep and MREs; the right design at the right time that ended up filling roles the designers could never have imagined.