Ruck and living in the field

Found at: Max Velocity

Gear, Rucks & Living in the Field

There have been some recent very useful articles about packing rucks and living in the field from both Mountain Guerrilla HERE and American Mercenary HERE. They spurred me to write a post of my own on the subject, and I have also been asked for my own comments. So here you go:
The first thing to say is that you must remain flexible and do what is appropriate to the circumstances. The assumption for this post is that you are looking to conduct some form of light infantry style/ resistance light-fighter operations out in the boonies. This is not exactly the same as packing ‘bug out bags’ for you family, where you have to make sure you don’t forget the diapers etc. So we are thinking about ‘living in the field’ as an infantryman/resistance fighter. I will attempt to cram in some tips that you can take away and adapt to your own use as circumstances dictate. So yes, this will be heavily based on soldiering experience and will allow you to take away what you will.
There are really two levels of training and experience to put in a post such as this. The first is the training/school experience about ‘how we trained’ and the second is how that gets adapted on operations. Just so you know where I am coming from, a good example is British Infantry training: when conducted on many of the training areas in the UK, many patrol bases tend to be set up in pine style forestry blocks. The history of these blocks is that they were often planted or at least had been cut and managed in the upland training areas to mimic the similar forestry blocks on the German plain, to train for Soviet invasion. So, they are ideal for FTX style infantry triangular patrol bases in the woods. If you find yourself in Iraq or Afghanistan you will likely be setting up in a compound or building, so you have to adapt. That’s my point, just adapt and be flexible.
Personal Gear for dismounted light infantry operations:
The basic load will be your rifle with some form of ‘load out’ gear. This can be any form that you are comfortable with, and may also be adapted to allow you to adopt various profiles from an overt fighter to someone who has to transit areas where you may be seen. Adapt accordingly. You will need to consider your basic load being made up of options such as: battle belt (this can be suspenders (harness)/belt like the old ALICE style), some kind of tactical vest and/or plate carrier (PC)/body armor; whatever combination works for you.
Within this load you will need basic fighting and survival gear such that if you are separated from your ruck/patrol pack you will have enough to fight out, break contact, and navigate back to a safe area while being able to purify drinking water, lubricate your weapon, treat basic wounds and eat high energy emergency rations.
Note that for light infantry operations, dismounted, it is advantageous to go ‘old school’ by using a full ‘battle belt’ with harness /suspenders. If you have a battle belt rigged up in such a way with pouches running from hip to hip around your butt, well lashed together so they don’t flap about, you will be able to carry ammo, weapon cleaning kit, canteens, emergency rations, change of socks, paracord and all that. If you have a tactical vest style rig or PC you may have less load carrying ability. Anything that does not go on this first line of equipment close to your body will have to go in your patrol pack/ruck. More to follow on that!
BTW: this is all discussed in detail in ‘Contact! A Tactical Manual for Post Collapse Survival’
 One of the other lesser known advantages of wearing a belt with full pouches/harness is that your patrol pack/ruck will rest on top of your rear utility pouches and support the weight. It’s a good set-up, something more old school from before the days of the modern systems with full body armor/PCs.
The ruck debate:
It is true that ‘patrol packs’ have gained a life of their own. Such patrol packs are often now ‘mini-rucks’ and are bulky or have frames that mean they can only be used on their own. That is ideal for vehicle mounted operations where you are patrolling from vehicles or you are doing nothing more than perhaps three days patrols from a firm base, like a FOB. The problem with that is that you can’t do anything with such a patrol pack, it’s too unwieldy and it is all you can carry.
If you are doing light infantry operations you will need a ruck. What type of ruck is up to you. I have used versions with both internal and external frames. Remember that if you are not fully utilizing a ruck, you can tighten it down to remove volume. I like the large ALICE pack and versions, and other types I have used in the past. The key thing is that to conduct any extended operations you need a ruck. Just like a hiker needs a ruck. If you are hiking the Appalachian Trail, you take a ruck. Granted, you may either be on one extreme a super-light hiker or on the other one of those with canteens swinging off the pack, but you still take a ruck. BTW, don’t have things swinging off your ruck, and if you are infanteering, and not just hiking, then super light is pretty much out once you have ammo, batteries, night vision, rations etc…
(For ‘Former Sapper’: The US equivalent of the ‘Bergan’ is the ‘Ruck’, short for rucksack.)
So that leads us to the trick: even if you are out in the woods infanteering, you will not always want to carry your ruck. You may want to leave it in a patrol base, or cache it at an ORP (Objective Rally Point) before going in and doing what you have to do. So you still want the ability, from some base in the woods, to have a patrol pack. The trick is to have a softer smaller patrol pack, maybe of a 30 liter type size. One without a frame. In this ruck you pack what is essential equipment going into the objective, but it is also an emergency ‘grab bag’ for if you have to bug out and leave your ruck. So you want the essential stuff that will not go on your battle belt/tactical vest/PC to be in this patrol pack. This pack is then an extension of your basic load, and it should contain things like night vision gear, batteries, more spare ammo, medical gear, basic snivel gear (freeze at night), and basic spare rations. You want to be able to be effective (not desperate) with your patrol pack for about three days at a time, if you have to go on an extended patrol with just that pack and your basic load.
What you do it this: you don’t ever unpack the patrol pack to pack it away and roll it up in the ruck. When carrying your full load with ruck, you put the patrol pack on the ruck. You either put it under the lid of the ruck, or strap it on top. You can then grab it in a hurry if you have to leave your ruck, or go on patrol, or whatever
So remember, with this load, you are not really travelling light. You will still be freezing at night, because you can’t fit in more snivel gear, but you need your combat load, night vision, basic rations, spare socks and foot powder etc. Don’t try and carry too much water if it is freely available – have a system such as iodine tablets, whatever, to purify it. Carry basic rations, even one MRE per day, to get you through it.
Even with the patrol pack you should try and fit in some shelter/warm gear. You can carry your poncho/tarp so you can put up shelter, and you can also carry the military poncho liner (‘woobie’) to wrap around yourself. Given the discussion about the ‘thermal poncho’, as a resistance fighter you should have one and have it with you  on the outside of your patrol pack at all times and that will suffice as shelter as well as cover from thermal surveillance. Rather than a straight up poncho liner, you can have someone sew in a zipper to the folded liner that turns it into a lightweight sleeping bag. Or you can just take a jungle style lightweight sleeping bag cinched down in a stuff-sack and be done with it. There are lots of options and the ‘big army issue’ option is not always best.
If you are out with just your patrol pack and you need to sleep, you have the option of putting up your poncho/’thermal poncho’ for shelter and getting in whatever poncho liner or lightweight sleeping bag you brought. You won’t have a thermal mat so you can either use vegetation or mostly you can just get your upper body up on a mix of your patrol pack and maybe even your battle belt to insulate yourself from the ground.
I’m not going to get into specific weight and what you should or should not carry but the bottom line is that if you are moving with your team out on patrol with full combat load including rucks it is not a light affair. You may be carrying 100lbs to sustain yourselves with ammunition, rations, sleeping gear, water, ancillary equipment etc. It is a plod, a slow hike. You will move into the area of your operations and establish a patrol base, then conduct operations from there until it is time to move on or go get resupply etc. But just because you have to carry the weight does not mean you are immobile. You just have to be fit and keep walking and you can cover a lot of miles.
Living in the field:
Short term operations with just your patrol pack can be considered maybe a 72 hour thing and you will expect to be uncomfortable. Living out of your ruck you should not be. You should be packing shelter, sleeping gear and rations appropriate to the season/location. “Any fool can be uncomfortable.” When ‘growing up’ in the British Army being good at living in the field was essential because the weather is often that worst combination of wet windy cold that will chill you to the bone and bring on hypothermia rapidly. You have to get the right gear and be on top of your game to remain effective.
Remember that when packing your ruck you need to keep the weight high and try not to concentrate it in one place – a rookie ruck march mistake is to use a very heavy object to make up weight which makes the pack very unwieldy.
You will need a therma-rest/thermal roll mat to sleep on and prevent your heat being sucked into the cold ground. You then need a sleeping bag appropriate to the season inside a Gore-Tex bivvy bag to keep it dry. Don’t use the stuff sack for the sleeping system – just leave the sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag and stuff the whole thing at the bottom of your ruck. It can then go in and out easily when you come off/go on sentry duty. Remember that when going on sentry duty or whenever not sleeping in your bag your gear is always put away and ready to go. You don’t leave it all nicely laid out under your poncho. You also need all gear in the ruck to be packed in water proof bags. Canoe style bags are ideal, so even if you have to do a river crossing your gear will float and stay dry.
Poncho: I am always surprised at when I hear about how people sleep and how they are amazed by techniques that I consider basic, simply because they were necessary to me. Whenever you stop to sleep, during the hours of darkness, you put up your poncho. It might not be raining now, but it will be later. This is a tarp, but often ponchos are used as tarps, hence the name. Another name is ‘basha’. This is not the same as the ‘thermal poncho’ that I have discussed at length – but the idea for that came from this technique. If it is raining badly during the day, then put up your poncho, but always keep it low to the ground so it is not seen easily.
Usually a basha is put up to sleep a buddy pair, in a designated position along a perimeter, sometimes over a ‘shell scrape’ shallow trench to get the pair below ground. Have either paracord or even better bungee cords permanently affixed to the corners and the side eyelet grommets on the poncho and put it up like a tarp. Make sure it does not sag in the center and therefore collect water. I will work on some photos of examples, but you can put one side to the ground, or have it like a tent, or any number of configurations. If you lack ideal trees, then use cut tent poles with tent pegs to get the basha put up.
In terms of routine, before you go to sleep you need to powder your feet and change your socks. You will then put your boots back on and tie them loosely, before getting in your bag. You may wear some sort of TEVA style sandal that you could wear to fight in an emergency. You will only have limited resupplies of socks so wear them for a day, swap them, then switch feet, then turn them inside out, then back again. The wet ones you take off can go in your armpits to dry while you sleep, or hung up if it is hot. Make sure you look after your feet!
If you are in a wet or humid environment then you may want to consider a wet kit/dry kit routine. This is most common in the jungle – before getting in your bag, put on dry clothes, change into the wet ones in the morning. Remain dry when pulling sentry duty. Even if you are not changing your pants, make sure you change out any wet inner garments like t-shirts. And don’t wear cotton t-shirts (unless you face a likely fire threat, like vehicle crews do) because they will chill you when they get wet. The other thing to remember is to strip down when you get in your bag to your basic uniform. If you wear your warm gear /snivel gear it will lose its effectiveness. Put the warm gear back on when you get out of your bag , for something like sentry duty. Whatever you do, don’t wear your rain /Gore-Tex gear in your bag, you may actually go hypothermic if you get in there fully wet and cold.
Notice how I keep mentioning sentry duty? Yes, you will learn to love it. On that note, if you are compromised and attacked in your patrol base, you will need to bug out. The drill is to return fire in your buddy pairs and then one guy packs the gear away (just the sleeping system and tarp should be out) while the other covers; when they are ready, they put their rucks on and peel out with the squad. Of course, if the contact gets heavy, you just grab your patrol packs/grab bags and fight out.
Cooking: you may want to heat up food or even heat water for a coffee. MREs are great with the heater they come with, but you may not have them so many months/years into the fight. The British Army issues the foldable sold fuel (hexamine) cookers which are ideal to use with either mess tins or metal mugs. You place the mug on the cooker with something like a boil-in-the-bag ration in water in the mug. Once the water heats the ration you can make a hot drink with the water in the mug. Awesome.
But you will not be having open fires and you will be using light-discipline; only small red penlights, if at all. Therefore if you are going to cook you need to do it on these stoves during daylight and you dig the stove into a little hole so the flickering flames can’t be seen. Enemy proximity is obviously a judgment call with this! If you don’t have access to resupply of items such as the sold fuel hexamine blocks, then a good solution would be to carry those small rocket stoves that will burn twigs, so you can dig them in and at least do some cooking. Remember that you may have to boil rice or something similar once the conveniences of modern rations have run out.
Alternate sleeping arrangements:
The types of sleeping arrangements I have described so far are designed for temperate environments, out in the woods, where you can sleep on the ground. Urban and jungle type environments may need different arrangements.
Jungle: you will always want to avoid sleeping on the ground. Either because it is swamp/wet or crawling with insects and crawlies. You will only sleep on the ground for short term exigencies such as an LUP (lie Up Position) perhaps an ORP before an attack or an Observation Post (OP) or similar. You will try and keep off the ground. To do so you can cut wood and build something like an A-Frame basha or a simple platform above the ground or you can use a hammock. With the hammock you put it up between trees then you put a poncho/tarp over the top and drape a bug net down over the hammock. You climb inside and go to sleep, not forgetting to put your dry clothes and TEVA sandals on.
Which reminds me: you have the option, when operating where you may sleep on the ground or use a tarp, of using a ‘hoop bivvy’ or small lightweight tent system. This encloses you and keeps the bugs away while, giving you room to administrate yourself. But of course it is slower to get out of in a hurry. If you are really worried about bugs and snakes on the ground a small tent or hoop bivvy may be the thing for you. You have to remember that if it is raining, the only way to get out of the rain to do any administration of yourself is to put up shelter, whether that is a tarp, bivvy or a tent. If you are just in a bivvy bag there is nothing you can do except cower in there away from the rain.
Urban: you will likely be in buildings. There may even be furniture. A practice from Afghanistan is to use the military style cot beds for any kind of long term patrol base. You get issued really neat hoop mosquito net systems that will sit on these cot beds. You just climb in and zip them up and it keeps the nasties away.
To conclude, that is what comes to mind right now. No doubt I will be recalling things and editing them in. If there are any questions or I have forgotten to address an area in the right detail, please ask a question in comments and I will answer you there. In writing this post I realized that much of what I may take for granted as ‘stuff that you just do’ may well be new to many so please feel free to ask the details.
There are descriptions of some of this in here:
  1. You are going to pay for boiling a plastic bag in water and then drinking it. The inside of the bag is lined, the outside is not. Poison, no matter how you look at it. It may not make you sick today, or tomorrow, but in the end you will suffer for it. Burn the plastic bag and stick your face over it, healthy isn’t it? Look at how many times we have changed plastic drink bottles over the last few decades, and they’re still not healthy. Same goes for aluminum cook gear. Don’t do it!
    No matter what the internet experts tell you, it’s all toxic poison.
    Stainless steel seems to be about the best there is, use it.

    Great article though, M.

  2. Ooops: the deal with the BritMil ’24 hour rat pack’ is that unlike MREs it comes in one box with a full day’s meals contained, breakfast, lunch snacks and dinner entree’s. Although every Brit only ever wanted to get hold of MREs, the ‘rat pack’ is actually pretty good. In the ‘old days’ it contained small tins for your entrees which were pierced and boiled in water in your mess tins to heat up when you did not have to eat them cold). Better, the food was mixed in either a mess tin or sometimes for team ‘scoff’ an ‘all in’ ‘airborne stew’ was created, better yet in an appropriated grenade tin. This would feed a team and was mixed with spices/curry powder. If available Ramen noodle type additions would be mixed in. This is the origin of the ‘racing spoon’ – every Brit will have a spoon attached to his gear, unlike in the US where there is a spoon in every MRE pouch. The racing aspect is because if you are not fast enough, you go hungry! You have to be ready to go with your spoon at any moment….

    Mess tins and metal mugs and grenade tins are probably aluminum…..

    The newer ‘boil in the bag’ rations look a little like MRE entree pouches. They are silver in color and may even be Mylar. No-one I know ever questioned drinking the water the pouches were heated up in. They were not plastic, but now you mention it it may be an issue….ooops. Sometimes the hot water was used for shaving, and sometimes water was heated up on its own for a brew, but given time constraints it was too convenient to heat your food and make a hot drink at the same time.

  3. My mom was the WO-5 (Health) inspector for the MRE program in the 80s-90s. She told me that the outer coating on the inner(food) bags in the MRE pouch is toxic, and to NEVER drink water used to heat MRE (food) bags. 

  4. Well, if Brit boil in the bags are made of the same stuff, someone better tell the British Army! It doesn’t look exactly the same though and I know that there are very similar (or were) commercial equivalents sold in hiking stores that are boil in the bag. I wonder if they have a warning about the water?
    However, you would of course never drink the little bit of water used in the heater bags with the MREs, because that is toxic due to the heating chemical used….could there be a a little bit of confusion there? 

  5. Max,
    I ate some of the old Brit 24 hr meals when they still used cans. We did several NATO ops in ’75 with the Royal Marines in Italy and Turkey, ( I have a Donald Duck cap from the HMS Intrepid) what great meals! except for the mock turtle soup and kidney pie. Got my first big (P-51) can opener out of one too, still on my dog tag chain. The Italian meals had a small plastic bag of Cognac in them!!!
    However, the plastic bags of US MRE’s are not fit to boil in water, and then drink the hot water from the cooking vessel. It emits chemicals into the water as it heats, same thing with the PBA water bottles that have disappeared from sport shop shelves. Many said ‘Do not microwave’ not just because they melt, but it gets toxic as it heats up, emitting fumes and chemicals. The new Brit boil bags may have that mylar layer that somehow protects the meal from the plastic, who knows.
    I can’t imagine how much rusty metal went thru my guts from the old C-Rat cans and P-38 can openers. Ever look in the juice at the bottom of a fruit can? Lots of tiny metal shavings, straight down to my stomach. And nobody ever warned us not to eat those either. 

  6. No sir no confusion, I called and asked her about it this morning, she says that until she retired in the 90s the shiny inner food bags were “treated” and listed in her guidelines as toxic. She told me that the water will draw the toxin out of the plastic when heated. She said this was a big deal to the brass in the 80s but when they invented the “flameless heater” they stoped trying to “fix” it. 

  7. Yeah, my experiences of using water to cook food tins with, is that you never get off enough of the label and its glue off the tin. I wouldn’t consider drinking the water that heated up an MRE entree. But hot water is nice to have as a byproduct of getting warm food into the belly.

    There’s a cooking solution for Spam lovers that I’d like to pass along. If eating Spam, save the can. You can fill it with dirt, add gasoline to the dirt to a level achieved by practice, and then put any vented can or any pot or cup on top of that miniature desert stove, and cook your meal or brew your beverage. Spam cans are good for mini desert stoves, because their shape accepts other shapes above them with ventilation. I have tried Jet A for this type of cooking, and it is not good. Diesel would probably not work either. But if you have mogas, a spam can, and some dirt to fill the can with, you have a decent dirty cookstove.

    Prairie Fire 

  8. Now a spam can, yeah, that is some useful info! All that other blather, nah. Texas Rangers made do with thin cotton clothing and some rudimentary cooking utinsils, and they whipped both the Mexicans and the Comanches! It’s the will to win that will win in the end, not all that hi-tech b.s. Oh, I didn’t see any mention of a poncho? 

  9. We’ll be using that poncho for your body bag with that kind of attitude. Hope it keeps working for ya, your knowledge base sure won’t. 

  10. SemperFido- We used the C-Rat cookie cans to make small stoves for heating coffee using sand and Huey fuel. (Jet A) maybe it is the difference between using sand and dirt that makes it work? 

  11. Makes what work? 

  12. I think you were addressing Prairie Fire, not me.
    The original name for the sand and gas stove was the Benghazi Stove, from the Afrika Korps/Desert Rat fighting. Brits went apeshit trying to brew tea with little to no firewood, until someone came up with a simple sand and gas cooker. They work better with sand than dirt, sand breathes and doesn’t absorb the gas like dirt, which makes mud.
    Another technique is to put a roll of toilet paper in a coffee can, soak it full with gas and light. Works on same principle.


  13. Here’s a bit of post-injury advice: Wear arch supports when rucking. The other day I was doing my regular routine of 2 miles with a 50# ruck. Almost at finish and immense pain starts in arch of right foot. I’m wearing GI issue combat boots but no arch supports.

    Consider arch supports. Take it for what it is worth. 

    1. Good advice. Consider arch supports and also ones that cushion your feet – shock absorbing ones. If you can get orthopedic ones that will support your feet in the right way, balancing them, that is even better – they do these for your running shoes at the running store (it may be runners world or the running store or some similar name, can’t quite recall), where they analyse your feet and create the supports. You can put these supports in your boots.
      When I was an instructor at the Para Training Company, they had a specialist on staff at the physiotherapy department who would analyse recruits feet when they were injured. Apparently most people either pronate or antenate, feet leaning in or out. Over time and enough exercise, this can effect your whole leg. Imagine that if you pronate with your feet leaning slightly inwards, that will effect your whole leg and can even put twist on your knees. I even had some supports made up by that guy. I always have arch supports and put them in my boots. The more miles you do, the more relevant it becomes. 

    2. Went on a backpacking trip in the Wind River Mtn’s here in Wyoming last year. My buddy and I were both turning 58, so we took off for 3 days to investigate some old indian archaeology sites above 11,000′ elev.
      4 miles into a 6 mile hike, I twisted my ankle on a small rock, my 48 lb pack threw me down hill and I heard my ankle pop. Dislocated! I jumped up and walked it out, on arriving in camp, my ankle was bigger than a grapefruit and purple. Walked another 12 miles over the next 2 days, up to 11,600′ and down to the vehicles. It took about 4 months to heal. Also pulled the muscles from my hip up to my neck. Front to back motion was fine, sideways almost left me screaming.
      Point of story. I was wearing near new mid height Asolo hiking boots, not enough ankle support. I now have taller Meindl Denali boots for this summer. My Meindl hunting boots are even taller. When carrying weight, tall fully supported boots are required, low or thin boots will set you up for injury too. 

    3. True. Particularly if you end up moving at night or over rough terrain not on trails, or both, as you will do tactically. There is the catastrophic ankle ‘twist’ but there is the lesser but painful ankle ‘turn’. Oh how I hate that! Once it starts, yo will keep doing it, until you go see a therapist and get to learn some exercises like the wobble board to rebuild the reaction to stop the turn from happening. I always wear high style combat boots.
      I was once on a course in the UK which involved ruck marching at speed over hills. Long distances between check points with times marked out as 4 km/h as the crow flies. This means moving fast and running downhill to make the times. There was a lot of what we oddly called ‘babies heads’ underfoot – it’s where the grass grows in clumps making it very difficult underfoot, someone must have thought it was like walking on small heads…..hmmmmm. Following a sheep track was always a good idea if you could. Anyway, I would wear military style hiking boots and under my socks I bought some specially designed ankle supports. I’d tie down the boots snug over those supports and go for it. Always take care when running downhill, be ready to arrest with the other leg if an ankle starts to turn. It worked for me.

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