The Survival Rucksack (Backpack)

Nov. 19, 2004
More Ramblings Of An Old S.F. Trooper
Copyright 1 November 2003

The information contained in these writings represents the opinions of the author. The author assumes no responsibility for the use or misuse of the information contained herein

What if tonight you had to get up and walk out of your home for an undetermined period of time with only those items you carried in your hands and on your back.

A year ago it was unlikely, today it is quite probable

Dedicated to:
Jesus Christ who gave his life for me
My Father who taught me honor
My Mother who gave me life
“E” the love of my life
All of my Children
Old S.F. Buddies
Americans All

Why the Survival Rucksack? Ahh, that is the question!

For one thing, it's a really great place to keep all your gear so you can find it the next time you need it!

Mind set:
Your mission is to survive with your loved ones for whatever period of time necessary, with what you carry on your back and in your hands. Think of yourself as the tortoise, at home, totally self sufficient but all the while knowing you must be prepared to act as the Hare, able to scamper away quickly, with the tools needed for survival.

Below, you will find my ideas on what the best packs are for the money, how to rig them, and what to put in them for the purpose of survival.

My opinions are formed from 44 years of backpacking, both as a kid, and in the U.S. military with 26 years combined service as a Marine, an Army Special Forces Soldier and a Combat Engineer Trainer in the Army National Guard. I hope there is something within these writings that you find useful. Mine is by far not the last word on this subject. I invite your comments, good, bad and ugly (hopefully not too ugly).

You know what they say about opinions. Some of you will agree with me, others will not. I do not claim to be an expert at anything, only a student. Experts worry me. I was once asked by an old S.F. Demolition Sergeant if there were any Demo experts present. Naturally I eagerly raised both of my hands along with several other young troopers.

Wrong! The old Sergeant then proceeded to explain that there is no such thing as an expert, and we were incredibly foolish to assume we were. We were students and hopefully would someday become good ones; a point he made very clear. The definition of an expert he said is: Ex: a has-been, Spurt: a drip under pressure! I never described myself as an expert again. “Experts” can get you killed.

Survival is the same way. With a positive attitude, a fair amount of knowledge, and a little luck; mixed in with a dash of humility and some good common sense, you have an excellent chance of coming out on top.

Once upon a time an “expert” told me just moments before he broke the hollow pot metal handle off his Chinese made “Rambo Survival Knife”. “ Don't waste your money on expensive survival equipment, you probably won't need it anyway”. This was an unwise man. My experience has proven that you should always buy the best quality equipment you can afford. The low price paid for cheap equipment will quickly be forgotten when it fails at the time you need it most. Remember that cheap discount store rain poncho that ripped the very first time you used it?

Disclaimer: I have been told I'm a fair story teller, I never claimed I was much of a writer!

Notes: The 3 Levels of survival as they pertain to the Survival Rucksack.

Think Modular.
Each level below allows you to survive, although with a diminishing level of certainty and comfort.

1. Rucksack with attached patrol pack and web gear.
2. Patrol pack and web gear
3. Web gear

For the sake of redundancy to make a point I may repeat my self occasionally, plus I am an old guy and sometimes I tend to forget what I have already said. It happens.
Commercial or Military surplus packs, a dilemma.

U.S. Military (surplus, but in new or excellent condition).


Foreign Military

Civilian or Military equipment: Pros and Cons of each

Civilian, Pros: Usually more advanced
Usually very comfortable
Lighter than military

Cons: Usually not as rugged as military
Usually much more expensive
Fewer places to hang gear on outside of pack
Often times available only in bright colors (do you want to be seen)

Military, Pros: Much less expensive than civilian
Widely available
Very rugged
Subdued colors
More places to hang equipment on outside of pack
Generally more pockets for storing gear, easier to access more items of equipment
Some packs can be made quite comfortable with certain after market modifications

Cons: Often times not as comfortable as civilian packs
Usually heavier than civilian packs
Often not as well designed as civilian packs

For the money, I generally prefer the military pack over the civilian pack if it meets my criteria, but do not misunderstand, money is not the most important issue. If a military pack has the comfort and versatility or can be modified to that end to perform adequately, I will almost always go with the military over the civilian pack.

Some basic terms:

Rucksack: Same meaning as backpack.

Haversack: A small frameless pack like the ones used by the U.S.M.C and U. S. Army during WWII, Korea and the early days of Vietnam. Not recommended as a Survival Rucksack, but can be used in a “Daypack” role, attached to the Survival Rucksack.

Packboard: As used by our military from WWII, through Vietnam. As the name states, it is a contoured board, usually of plywood, painted OD to camouflage it and protect it from the elements.

Butt Pack: Just like the name says. You have seen the commercial ones, usually with a couple of water bottles attached, every time you have gone for a day hike.

Frameless pack: Essentially the same as a haversack, usually just bigger. I do not recommend these as your main Survival Rucksack or for carrying weights of over about 25 lbs.

External Frame Pack: Just as the name implies, it has the frame on the outside of the pack. I prefer the external frame pack as my Survival Rucksack of choice. They are usually more comfortable and the frame makes it easy to attach extra needed equipment. Additionally, the external frame holds the Rucksack away from your back, providing cooling to your body.

Internal Frame Pack: This pack has it's frame on the inside of the pack, next to your back, usually in the form of aluminum stays that can be bent to fit the contour of your back. If you get this pack and the stays properly fitted to your back it can be a very comfortable pack to carry. One advantage of this kind of pack is that if fit properly it moves well with your body. A big down side to this pack not often considered is that it makes you sweat very badly where it contacts your entire back. This often accelerates overheating in hot weather and it can lead to serious chilling in cold weather when you take the pack off. Even during winter weather, your back will get wet with this pack

Patrol Pack: Usually a small frameless daypack that clips onto your main rucksack and detaches for patrolling or getaway purposes. It usually carries enough food and gear for 1 - 3 days.

U.S. Packs I have used during my military career:

WWII Marine Corps Haversack:
An abomination then and now. Told we could carry up to 45 lbs it felt like 75. Very uncomfortable, the only advantage to this pack was that you could run well with it. It really tore up your shoulders and under your arms. Not recommended except as a patrol pack.

WWII Army Haversack:
A couple notches up from the Marine Corps pack. It had better padding but that is about all. Not recommended, except as a patrol pack to be used in conjunction with your main Ruck Sack.

WWII Army Packboard:
I carried up to 110 pounds on this packboard daily. I attached two Jungle Rucksack bags, one
above the other. This was a pretty good system for the day, but it lacked properly padded shoulder
straps and a good padded waist belt. This system carried a lot of gear if you were up to the task
but was a terrifying contraption to jump out of an airplane with -------but that's another story.

WWII Army Bergens Pack:
This was a knockoff of the Swiss alpine Rucksack and was used by U.S. Special Forces during the 50s and into the 60s. It had three outside pockets and one large main compartment. This also was a pretty good pack for the day, but it too lacked well padded shoulder straps, a good waist belt and it did not have ample attachment points to hang extra gear.

Jungle Ruck Sack, circa 1960s:
This was for it's day, the most poorly designed, uncomfortable piece of junk the U.S Military ever palmed off on the American G.I. A rather small nylon main bag with two outside pockets, it fit poorly, bounced up and down like a jack hammer when you ran, and carried all it's weight on your shoulders. After about 35 lbs, it became extremely uncomfortable. A code of honor in Special Forces stated that you never donned a rucksack that weighed less than 70 lbs. That amount of weight compared to today's standards with modern equipment was equal to at least 120 lbs. There are still some of them floating around out there. Stay away from this one unless you have a Chiropractor in the family.

One of my all time favorites. The ALICE often gets a bad rap, but I have some ideas on how to
make it into a first rate Survival Pack. There are two sizes of ALICE Pack. There is the Large
ALICE, and there is the Medium ALICE. Where is the Small ALICE you ask? I don't know. In
fact I have never met anyone who has ever seen one. There are civilian knockoff's (mostly
imports) that are called Small ALICE's, but I have never seen a U.S. issue Small ALICE pack.
Very interesting.

CFP 90 Internal Frame Rucksack:
Not a bad pack, I guess, but if you don't get the fit just right, it can be pretty tough on your back.
This pack was designed as the Special Ops pack for the Army about 15 years ago. It was
designed by a good civilian pack manufacturer, but by the time the Army got done messing
around with it, they had pretty well ruined it. A big pack with internal aluminum stays, it comes
with a detachable patrol pack. It's not great, but it's O.K. if fitted properly.

MOLLE: This is the new “Hoo-Yah” do everything for everybody modular rucksack that the
U.S. Military invested over $20,000,000 into developing at last count, and still don't have it right.
Soldiers often complain of it not fitting right and hurting their backs. Most of the old timers who
know what they are doing still won't give up their beloved ALICE Packs for this one. This
system is highly overrated and very pricey. If you can find a complete system for less than $500,
you should consider yourself as having found a bargain. An overpriced bargain that really looks
cool and often hurts your back , but a bargain just the same.

Italian Army Mountain Rucksack:
Current issue in woodland Camouflage w/detachable patrol pack. I have found a few foreign
military packs I like, but not many. For one thing, most I have tried are not very comfortable.
This is an excellent pack that is comfortable and will carry a huge load. The only thing it is
seriously missing is a sternum strap, which is easy to fabricate or buy at a backpacking store. This
pack sports a very interesting external - polycarbonate half frame that works very nicely. These
packs usually run from $100 - $129 in new condition. It's probably the best foreign rucksack I
have ever used; a real winner. I have several brand new in the wrapper that I will sell for $100
each (sorry for the commercialism). In case you are wondering why I have so many of these
things it is because I wanted a sample to test and I refuse to pay retail so I bought 13 of them and
saved a bunch of money (?).

Things to consider when buying a Survival Rucksack:

Load bearing capability (how much weight does it (you) have to carry)

Before we go further, let's discuss the rule of 3 (or 4 depending on who's talking)

You can live:
About three minutes without air
About three hours without shelter (in an extreme cold climate)
About three days without water
About three weeks without food

I would also like to add security. Without security, you may live only about 3 seconds.

So, what are the priorities?
1. Security - first and foremost, always, immediately secure you area!
2. Air - probably not an issue here unless someone is choking you.
3. Shelter, probably not as critical an issue, unless it is snowing or worse yet, you are in a freezing rain
4. Water next to security will likely be your most urgent concern.
5. Food, although listed last, be sure you have plenty in your pack.

Remember, #1or #3 are no more important than #4 or #5. All are equally important; you can not live without each one of them. I have only prioritized them in the order death normally occurs without them.

Let's talk about each of these priorities individually.

Security: Safety and protection from predators, either two legged or four. Safety also from natural disasters such as wildfire, storms, earthquakes, etc. Consider the tools needed for the job.

Shelter: Since we are speaking of this in the context of the Survival Rucksack, in my opinion, your shelter needs to be the kind carried on your back. Remember the tortoise? So what to carry?

My first choice is the Bivy Sack. It should be made out of Gore Tex or some other high quality breathable material. The bivy sack (or bag) is nothing but a large envelope of breathable, waterproof material that zips up with you, your sleeping bag and hopefully some room left for your gear. I have slept in very rainy weather inside a good bivy, all the while staying warm and dry. The U.S. Military has been using them for some time now and they are available on the surplus market in new and used excellent condition.

Second choice, I would consider a good one man tent; a rugged one that is light weight. The problem here is that these can get quite pricey and are still heavier than a bivy or lightweight nylon tarp shelter.

My third choice shelter is an oversized poncho like tarp at least 7' X 9' in a drab color. I prefer a rip stop nylon material with several grommets around the edges and loops for suspending it from a tree. There is one available from some of the outdoor catalog companies called the S.A.S Shelter. Be sure to require that it is the authentic item. This is a reasonably priced item and it gives you a better field of view of your surrounding area than a tent.

Water: Real simple. To carry only 1 quart of water is folly. You need to carry an absolute minimum of 2 quarts; but a more realistic quantity is up to 4 quarts. I repeat, 2 quarts of water is the absolute minimum that should be carried by an adult. Two additional 1 quart canteens or a lightweight 2 quart jungle canteen can be carried empty when you are in an area that has ample water and filled as needed in drier areas. Water rehydration bladders are all the rage these days and they do work well, but they are a bit fragile. I would not rely on them solely. Also keep in mind it is very easy for an adult to go through 4 quarts of water a day when carrying a rucksack in warm weather.

Food: Food is your final priority, but it is as important as any of the others; you can't live without it, and it is the one hardest to replace. I know all the Rambo's out there are laughing now, but trust me, food is harder to acquire than you might think. “ I'll just kill me a deer or a bar”, O.K., but see how far Bambi goes when everyone out there has the same idea. I have hunted the High Sierras on several occasions and the only thing I saw were Chipmunks. Maybe I'm just a poor hunter.

I have taught survival in the Army and I have rarely seen anyone put on weight on one of these outings unless they had smuggled in a gas mask carrier full of Hershey bars. The best answer I know of is to carry as much high calorie, high protein, light weight food as you can manage. Of course, if you had a stash under a rock someplace that would be great, but then you would not need your rucksack would you. Always remember Murphy,s Law. “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. On your back is where you want your food.

Now about the food.

Question: How much food do I need in my rucksack?.
Answer: How long do you want to live? Pretty simple when you look at it that way.

I realize you can't carry a one year supply of food around on your back, but if you carried the right kind you could carry: 3, 5, 7, 10 or even 15 days worth without too much trouble.

Question: How many calories per day do I need?
Answer: You should plan on around 2000-3000 calories per day, depending on your activity. 2000 calories is probably plenty if you are hunkered down and not doing much. If you are beating the bush, carrying your rucksack, you can easily consume 3000 calories or more a day.

This of course is in mild weather. If you are in a very cold environment, you can easily add a third to a half more calories for the same period.

Remember, we are not talking weight watchers here. You want calories, that means fats, carbs and protein.

Weight, how much does this stuff weigh?

Question: What type of food should I have in my Survival Rucksack?
Answer: The kind that keeps you going! This is usually Military type food. There are basically three types that will do a good job. They are: Freeze Dried, Dehydrated and flexible pouch (MRE type). There are also canned rations, which due to their bulk, weight and short shelf life are hardly worth considering.

The lightest to pack are Freeze Dried, (containing approximately 2-3 % moisture) and are easily the best tasting.

Dehydrated (containing approximately 5-10 % moisture).
Commercial “dried” (containing approximately 20% moisture) is another choice, but has a short shelf life.
MRE type foods are much heavier that the Freeze Dried or Dehydrated (usually about three times heavier).
Canned foods are even heavier than MRE's.

Each type of food has its own unique qualities.

Freeze Dried usually tastes better and has the best storage life. Average preparation time for a Freeze Dried meal including heating water is around 20 minutes.

Dehydrated: Taste is not usually as good, but vegetables and pastas can be quite good. Keeps well if in an oxygen barrier package. Average time to prepare a full meal including heating water is about 60 minutes.

MRE's: Much heavier than Freeze Dried or Dehydrated but is the quickest of all to prepare. Just tear the envelope open and gobble it down. Taste generally considered fair (C - ). Short shelf life if stored in a hot environment.

Canned Food: Normally the least desirable from the stand point of weight and nutrition, even heavier than MRE's. Very quick to open and serve (be sure you have a good can opener). Shelf life (about 1-2 years tops) is normally the shortest of any of the above listed foods. Very sensitive to heat.

Some myths exposed :
A common myth is that MRE's contain 3500 to 4500 calories each. Not so, an MRE contains approximately 1300 - 1500 calories, depending upon the menu. The misconception comes from the term “ration”, which is construed to mean one meal. The historical term “ration” as used by the military normally means “one day food supply”, hence the misunderstanding concerning calorie count. The truth is, two complete MRE's in temperate weather will usually keep a man going pretty well for a full day.

Field strip your MRE's: Get rid of the cardboard boxes they put everything in. Take out the things you don't need. Example, the tobasco sauce they put in almost every meal. The gum, tea, and the other things you usually won't use. By doing this you will reduce the size to the point that you can put two meals into one MRE bag and save considerable weight in doing so.

Shelf life of MRE's:
The U.S. Army conducted extensive testing on the shelf life of MRE's. They deemed them “acceptable”, for 130 months (over 10 years) when stored at a constant 60 degrees, which means they will sustain a soldier in a field environment, but they found that the MRE failed after just 6 months (that's right 6 months) when stored at a constant 120 degrees. Now you say you will not store your MRE's at 120 degrees. That's right, but at a constant 80 degrees, they were only good for about 5 years. The point is, MRE's are very sensitive to heat, so be careful where you store them. Automobile trunks, attics and garages are not good places for them. A few years ago I received a memo through official military channels that convalescing medical patients were not to be fed MRE's under any circumstances, go figure.

Shelf life on Freexe Dried Foods: These are the best by far of any of the foods. They are far less affected by heat than the other foods and can last for decades when stored properly.

In 1976 I packed a 55 gallon barrel full of Freeze Dried Foods for an expedition up Mt Ararat in search of a large boat. The food was never shipped, as the intended user was not able to get clearance for his forth assent (the local communists did not care much for Christians). I have dragged that barrel around for over a quarter of a century now, opening it every couple of years to supply pack trips and the food is still excellent. If you ever want to hear the rest of that story email me at:

Weights of Food:

Fresh: About three pounds per day

MRE: About 2 pounds plus per day

Freeze Dried: About 1 pound per day

Dehydrated: About 1 pound per day

Dried: About 1 - 1 1/2 pounds per day

Question: What is a good mix of the different types of food to carry in my pack, IE: F.D. to MRE, etc.

I like a mix of about 80% Freeze Dried with some dehydrated foods to 20% field stripped MRE items. Using this formula I can carry 15 days of food weighing in around 17-19 pounds.

The stuff that goes into your Survival Pack:
Note: Also see ALICE Pack packing list

1 roll consisting of 1 undershirt, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of heavy boot socks
1 extra pair of socks (total of 2 pairs of socks)
Hat or cap
Gloves or glove liners for cold weather
6 empty plastic MRE bags or other strong plastic bags of like size
Vitamins, minimum 30 days worth
Prescriptions, minimum 30 days worth
Toiletries: tooth brush (cut down), small tube of toothpaste (1/2oz), dental floss, soap
Toilet paper (very important), 1 roll divided up into three separate bundles in MRE bags
Sleeping bag
Bivy bag, tent or tarp
Sleeping mat (preferably self inflating)
Poncho (military)
Jacket w/cold weather liner or sweater
Water Purification Filter (capable of filtering to less than _ micron)
Pouch containing: 1oz plastic bottle of liquid dishwashing soap, small scrubbing pad
Tube of military bug repellent, pain medication,
550 cord (parachute cord), minimum of 30'
2 quart jungle canteen or equivalent
Nail clippers (small)


Harness or vest
Ammo belt
1 - 3 days of food
2 Military canteens, canteen cups and carriers
Butt pack if compatible with rucksack, if not, attached to rucksack
Survival kit carried on harness or in butt pack
Survival kit with: Fire starting materials, snare kit, water purification tablets, signal mirror.

Now divide your equipment into three piles:

Pile # 1 Must have (mission essential, totally necessary)
Pile # 2 Nice to have but not totally necessary
Pile # 3 Not needed (non mission essential)

After throwing out pile #3 (that goes back in your closet) load pile #1into your rucksack along with pile #2, put rucksack on and see if you can stand up. If not, continue taking items out of pile # 2 until you arrive at a manageable weight. Now go out and walk around the neighborhood. Come home and continue taking stuff out of pile # 2 until you think you have it right (you're getting the picture now). When you can walk at a brisk pace for 4 - 5 miles wearing your rucksack and it is not killing you, you are well on your way to becoming a bonafide “rucker”.

Loading your rucksack: In general.

Keep the load close to your back - heaviest items forward and high.

Weight of the rucksack and personal gear.

This is an individual matter, but generally the entire weight of your equipment should not exceed
one fourth to one third of your total body weight. With practice you will probably find yourself
exceeding these weights, but be careful. With much training, specialized soldiers often carry from
one half to more than their own body weight, but this is not recommended for the average mortal.

Once you have become fully infected by the “ruckers disease” you must be careful as you may
become exposed to and infected by “The Crazy Bastard's Disease“, also known as the “Ultra light
or minimalist backpackers infection” I used to have the disease and felt I had recovered from it
by getting old. Worked really good!

You have all seen these lunatics, usually running up mountain trails half naked, cursing the old
folks (anyone over 35) for not getting out of their way fast enough, bota bag slung over their
shoulder now only about _ full and carrying what you would think was only a day pack. Actually
they have everything needed (except enough wine) for at least a few days while usually keeping
the weight to about 20 pounds or so.

I ran across one of these nut jobs recently; turns out he's on my county S.A.R team. I thought I
had fully recovered from the disease but it seams it lays dormant in the host until the death of
said host. After only one evening with this guy, I found I had been hopelessly reinfected by the
“Crazy Bastard's Disease” and have not been right since. I realized the severity of the reinfection
a couple weeks ago when I was cutting and trimming all the extra weight off my ALICE Pack and
web gear. That was not the scary part, the scary part was when I found myself running into the
kitchen and weighing all the stuff I had just cut off; all 5 _ ounces.

WWWF: No this is not World Wide Wrestling Federation, it is my own little acronym for Weapon,
Webgear, Water, and Food. These are also the first things you pick up in case of emergency.
If this helps you to remember these things, then use it. This acronym describes those items
Normally carried on a harness called web gear, LBE (load bearing equipment) or LBV (load
bearing Vest). In my belief the combined weight of this gear should not exceed 25-30 lbs.

Conditioning Hikes: Warning, be sure to check with your doctor before doing this.

It's a very good idea to get yourself in condition by using your pack, should you ever need it for it's intended purpose. It is great exercise that can pay you big dividends while you train. Some of my most pleasant times are spent hiking at a brisk pace (and some times just strolling) with my pack down some of the local trails beside the old irrigation ditch.

A good standard to use for conditioning hikes is the one used by the U.S. Army. The Army Forced March
is a very brisk walk that maintains a pace of 4 miles per hour. When you get up to that pace and can keep it up for 5 - 7 miles with a 35 lb pack on your back you can consider yourself to be in very good condition; probably better than 95% of the civilian population out there.

The Army considers 3 - 4 times a week to be ideal, with at least one workout to be on the light side.
Be sure to consult your doctor before you undertake such an exercise program.

As a side note, 35 years ago the forced march was 5 miles per hour with full gear. You had to run part of the way to keep up that pace.

They used to tell us “no pain - no gain”. Well, I'm here to tell you it does not need to be that way. Regularity and consistency in your workouts is the key and by the way, if you keep to it you should find that the term workout will change to “play out”, I can almost guarantee it. In addition to this, the confidence you will gain in knowing you can survive will in itself more than compensate for the energy

Remember what farmers say about machinery. A good machine will rust out long before it wears out. Keep the rust off!

Now go do it!

It is the belief of this author that America faces great danger and that the hour is late. These writings are offered free of charge only to subscribers of the North East Intelligence Network's Intel Alert and may not be reproduced in any way except for the personal use of said subscribers and their immediate families. Anyone else desiring a copy please send $5 for electronic or hard copy.

The information contained in these writings represents the opinions of the author. The author assumes no liability whatsoever for the use or misuse of the information contained herein.

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