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How to Pack a Rucksack

Updated on September 11, 2010


US Army ALICE Pack
US Army ALICE Pack

Packing a Rucksack Properly

How you pack a rucksack has a large impact on the amount of weight you can carry, the condition of the contents when you unpack them, and how easy it is to get at what you need quickly. This hub is focused from the perspective of a deployed infantryman, so some tips might not apply or the balance between several factors may change if you are hiking in the woods.

When I was in the Army, we frequently carried a rucksack. The importance of it could not be overstated. Everything you needed for 3-14 days was carried on your back, and depending on the mission it may weigh anywhere from 35-80 lbs. Carrying that much gear could be difficult, but the packing technique could drastically change the ease of carrying it as well as how useful and easily accessible the equipment was.

The first thing to keep in mind is that any weight you carry will cost you. If you are on a long movement, several days or weeks, you should really make sure that everything you are taking with you is necessary. If, after careful consideration, you decide that you really must have this widget, maybe there is a lighter weight version of it you could purchase, or some multitasker that will reduce weight. Once you have your packing list pared down to the minimum, you can consider placement of the items.

Your back, like anything else, is subject to leverage. This means if you have something heavy, the further it is from your back, the heavier it will feel. The first general packing rule is you should strive to put heavier things close to the top of your pack and near to your back.

That concern has to be balanced with the accessibility of equipment. The US Army's ALICE pack has a large main compartment, with a smaller section near the top of the pack as well as numerous exterior pouches. Small items, like extra batteries, a headlamp, or GPS unit can be easily lost. These things also tend to settle to the bottom of a pack, making them harder to get at quickly and also making them more prone to damage. Small things, and anything you may need to get at quickly, like wet weather gear or first aid, should be packed in compartments of appropriate size to keep them safe and accessible. I would keep my wet weather top, bottom, and poncho in the three outer pockets of the ALICE pack. If it began to rain, I would be able to get at the wet weather gear without messing with the main pack.

Don't forget weather. A good thing to do is keep a waterproof bag in the pack, and put everything inside of it, regardless of if the pack itself is waterproof. This gives you an extra layer of protection. For a final layer, put things like socks, batteries, and notebooks in their own heavy duty plastic bags. This will ensure that if you are caught in a rainstorm, you will at least have something to change into, regardless of how much it pours on you.

Finally, the pack must be tight. A heavy item in the pack that bounces as you walk or shifts left and right as you turn will put extra stress on your body. Things shifting around also makes it hard to find items when you need them. An appropriate sized pack is important, so you don't have too much extra space, but other "fluff" items can be used to take up space and keep the load stable without adding much weight.

If you keep these things in mind, your next trip to the woods will be much easier to handle! And take the new guy who has a half empty pack with some heavy junk bouncing around aside and give him a few tips!


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      John D. Nichols USMC (Ret.) 11 months ago

      Thanks brother for your input. I concur with everything you said. As first a squad leader then a platoon sergeant, I spent many an hour teaching the young boots how to pack their ruc. I just retired after serving twenty years in the Marines and often wonder where time went. But it does seem like yesterday when we were getting ready for the field to play our little ranger patrol games. Again, thanks for the word brother.

      Semper Fi,

      John D. Nichols Staff Sergeant USMC (Ret.)