General Disservice: The Comedy of Britain’s Lost Generation of Personal Gear

Part II of our series, “Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking in Dry Heat.”

Imagine your daughter is a figure skater with Olympic potential. She needs new skates. Should you spend money now on a good pair that she will outgrow? Or should you gamble for now on budget skates while you save money?

Now imagine you’re also worried that, with the right skates, your daughter might overthrow the British government and declare martial law.

This was the predicament that Britain faced with its load-carrying gear and mishandled farcically. And here we will begin our story of South Africa’s contrasting success in developing its really ingenious gear. Because South Africa made it look so easy, we can only appreciate their achievement by comparing it to the contemporaneous British effort, which advanced as quickly and decisively as an elderly person working at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles while also having a stroke.

This guy is wearing a shovel from his head to his bum, so he’s only smiling because he was ordered to. The Brits still had some people wearing this stuff right into the Seventies.

Britain in the Seventies was less a land of hope and glory than one of stagflation and dinginess, and its standard of living had fallen to the second-lowest in Europe.

The British government was slashing its military in size and kind. They scaled down their commitments and forces, closed bases, withdrew garrisons, and shrank the order of battle. The Navy was even made to auction off its two remaining aircraft carriers.

And to the forces that survived the cuts, the government also gave less of everything: less materiel, less training time, and less new equipment.

And quite apart from the bad budgetary climate, the Army was suspected and feared by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who sincerely thought it might be plotting to depose him in a military coup. He was not in a mood to strengthen their hand any further.

Another R&D fiasco from austerity Britain, “a scandal of plastic and metal” and “perhaps the worst modern military rifle.”

In this atmosphere of desperation, like a drought in which gaunt, delirious animals gather round the shrinking water hole, you did not have to look far for quixotic absurdities of governance and management. The Army badly needed to replace its huge main battle rifle with a smaller, modern gun, but it was condemned to wait for a slow-growing monstrosity designed by engineers who (and this is true) had never even fired a rifle before, much less engineered one from scratch. After a decade, what they finally got was the L85A1, widely deemed “perhaps worst modern military rifle” and “a scandal of plastic and metal.”

In the Fifties, the British Army stole this kid’s knapsack and made their poor soldiers wear it for the next 30 years.

But for us, dear reader, what’s relevant is that the Brits needed better load-carrying gear, but they weren’t getting it. During this period, they probably cared less about rucksacks than almost anything else on their very long list of problems. Certainly nobody in the Ministry of Defence was having urgent meetings about backpacks.

So some British soldiers were still stuck with gear from the 1930s. Even Britain’s “newest” gear, adopted in 1958, still hadn’t changed much from World War II. Made of heavy, uncomfortable canvas, it gave soldiers two inconveniently-shaped “kidney pouches” and a 3’ shovel running between them down their backs, and perched atop this awkward Tin Man suit was a small haversack that looks like the ones in mawkish Norman Rockwell paintings of Boy Scouts.

If ever there was a thankless task, this was it. It fell to the “Stores and Clothing Research & Development Establishment” (SCRDE) to consult all the many, many, many stakeholders around Britain’s disintegrating planet-wide empire and get them all to agree on one set of equipment.

Many Masters, Many Disasters: The Problem With Committees

Compromising between just two things is pretty do-able. The Kalashnikov successfully combined the roles of the sub gun and rifle. In PLA nomenclature, it was actually classified as a submachine gun (冲锋枪).

Committees suck. It’s possible for two people to compromise and balance two competing interests. Three is a lot harder. And at four or more, you start getting “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Everyone sacrifices and dislikes the end product. 

And when bosses try to devise something “universal” for all use-cases, it is easy to fail at all of them. The famous US example is the M14 rifle, which tried to do the work of a submachine gun, a rifle, and a light machine gun (!) and ended up sucking at all of them. 

(The Communist Bloc did much better with the Kalashnikov, where the undisputed masters of “satis-ficing” and economizing combined the roles of rifle and submachine gun only. And very successfully.)


The US Army’s infamous “universal camouflage pattern” (UCP). Meant to camouflage people in any environment, it actually made them glow in all environments.

And as anyone knows who has served on a large enough committee, institutions can be very dumb, even ones comprising only exceptional people, when they are thrust into absurd circumstances. And certainly, if you were made responsible for the suffering British military’s rucksacks and load-carrying gear in this period, you were definitely dropped into the soup.

The poor British designers were pulled in a half-dozen directions by different constituencies. The lightly equipped foot patrols in Northern Ireland needed something different than the heavy, mechanized infantry defending Germany. Then there were the jungle fighters in the Far Eastern Land Forces, who wanted smaller packs that could fit through brush and foliage lining a narrow trail in the bush. And the Arctic fighters wanted much bigger packs for all their bulky cold weather gear. But the parachutists wanted packs short enough to jump with, which militated against the long, tall design favored by the Arctic guys. 

US Army researchers offered some decent, scientifically tested options. But instead, the Army adopted an untested fourth suited only to operating in strip mall furniture showrooms offering easy credit.

And that was just the infantry! There were all the other branches like armor, artillery, and signals. They would have to use this “general service” stuff too, and they didn’t want all the attention going to the infantry, since they had needs of their own. For instance, the one thing that pretty much all the infantry guys agreed on was that they loved framed packs. Finally, some consensus! But then the tankers weighed in: they hated frames. They wanted a pack they could cram into a Challenger tank’s few empty nooks.   

Starting in the Middle

Worse still, the designers at SCRDE weren’t told quite what they were designing for. They needed to allow for future developments in body armor, but no one could predict what those would be. Same for “NBC” equipment, protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. How were they supposed to design equipment to hold other equipment that was still TBD and also not get in the way of the hypothetical future body armor that also didn’t exist yet?

Worse still, they knew the Army was changing rifles in a few years, meaning different ammunition, magazines, tactics, and heaven-knows-what else. So the designers knew that whatever load-carrying gear they made now would soon be obsolescent.

Variously called the Pattern 58 Mk II or the experimental 1975 pattern, this was the same 50s design with better fabric. In the end, the troops didn’t even get this consolation prize, because #budget.

So after years of temporizing, the developers decided to forget about anything ambitious. Instead they proposed a temporary measure. In the terms of the figure skating analogy, they proposed a cheap pair of temporary skates.

For web gear–the belts and suspenders that hold the most important items–they whipped up a batch of their same old 1950s gear, but in place of the old heavy duck canvas they substituted modern materials like nylon. In this way, the designers hoped they could help the squaddies through the next few years. The guys in the field would still be saddled with the weird kidney pouches and shrimpy knapsack, but at least it wouldn’t be made of smelly, waterlogged cotton. And sure enough, even though it was  a consolation prize, in trials the squaddies in the field appreciated that at least it was lighter, more waterproof, and cooler than their sweaty canvas.

But the Ministry’s money people still said no. Try to guess the reason … It was just a temporary measure and didn’t improve much on the old design! So now, after ten years of research and development, there was still no tangible progress, nor even any decisive choices. Back to another ten years of smelly, wet canvas for Tommy and the squaddies.

The Rucksack War

Hilarity ensued over the issue of rucksacks in particular. The plucky designers bravely threw themselves at their task, which was essentially “design a rucksack to unknown specifications so that it costs virtually nothing and pleases everyone.”

Despite the farcical constraints, the designers gamely accomplished as much as human ingenuity could. They trialed a compromise “general service” or “GS” rucksack for the entire British Army, and they answer they got was, “Hey, good enough! It’s better than our skimpy 1950s Boy Scout haversack.” The designers must have been rightfully proud of themselves, because it was one of those rare moments in a big organization when you offer a one-size-fits-most solution that draws at least a resigned shrug from everyone.

Almost everyone, that is. Only the Royal Marines complained. A lot.

The GS rucksack was the one good thing to come out of this fandango. However, even though it was already an economy/compromise design, the Ministry still balked at the cost. At first they only issued it to the Royal Marines, the one group who really didn’t like it, and sat on the design for the next 10 years. They only issued it for “general service” in the mid-80s, after a change of government and the embarrassing questions they received after the Falklands War.

The Royal Marines were high-speed Arctic warfare studs, specialist troops with specialist needs. They did not like the one-size-fits-most “general service” ruck because it was too small. They had a mountain of bulky Arctic gear and they needed a huge, specialized rucksack to carry it. Arguably they were among the only soldiers who really relied every day on their rucksacks. However, they had to “lump it” and make do with what they were given, because Big Army needed to settle on just one general service rucksack.

But in the end, the Ministry decided not to issue the “general service” pack to everyone because it was too expensive, just the specialists. So now the high-speed Royal Marines got the very pack that they never liked and the “general service” got nothing!

In other words, the Royal Marines compromised in vain. It was like when you order a pizza and reluctantly settle for crappy vegetarian toppings so your friends can have some, but then they bail on you and now you’re still stuck with a pineapple and onion pizza.

If this were a movie, a corpulent supply officer with a plummy accent would now say acidly, “Really! As if the honor of British arms will ever depend on Arctic rucksacks!” Then in the very next scene, a Whitehall mandarin picks up an ornate phone and says, “I say, we’re about to fight an Arctic war out of our carry-on luggage. How are we sorted for rucksacks?”

For the Royal Marines, “The Great Yomp” as it came to be known was perhaps the proudest moment in their modern history, and the ultimate “I told you so.” Suffice it to say, after that they got their huge specialist rucksacks, and the rest of the Army finally got their General Service rucks.

For apparently the Ruck Gods were miffed at being slighted. In 1982 Britain found itself pitched almost overnight into … an Arctic war! And by incredible mischance, they lost most of their helicopters and had to hike in their materiel by rucksack.

The supply people were caught with their pants down. “Serious clothing deficiencies for soldiers were corrected only after the intervention of an officer’s father in the House of Lords,” writes Kenneth Privratsky. “Eventually, the [Ministry of Defence] scoured civilian shops to obtain bergens [rucksacks] for the soldiers, but supply still fell short…”

Media showed troops boarding ships with blue packs that were obviously not military, and the Ministry began to be asked embarrassing questions, like “What have you people been doing for twelve years?” and “Don’t we have more sophisticated war plans than just ‘send an intern to Target with a credit card?'”

The Ministry assured Parliament and the public that they had things well in hand, but that is a matter of interpretation. Even after that scandal, they still took another seven years more to begin issuing replacement for the old 1958 pattern webbing, with the troops receiving it in the 1990s, just in time for Operation Desert Storm.

What they eventually received–a system called “PLCE” (Personal Load-Carrying Equipment)–was and is superb stuff. But some of the troops who received it where teenagers conceived after their equipment was! And a whole “lost generation” of British troops before them were left to schlep around heavy wet canvas with shovels attached to their backs.

* * * *

South Africa started their own saga with almost the same equipment as Britain, but it ended up with stuff far better, partly through good luck, partly desperation, and partly by being the outsider who must make its own way and ends up with something unique and brilliant. We will continue our series there, with the reasons that where Britain flopped, South Africa shone.

Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking In Dry Heat

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.

Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral. 

Lean Solid Girl says I’m really a springer spaniel. If stuck indoors, I chew on the woodwork. Better to have me wrecking things outdoors.

But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.

So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.

Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors

Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!


China excels in that old Second World genius for “low cost, high concept” design. On their long border with Mongolia, for example, troops traded their vehicles for camels. In a featureless landscape plagued by sandstorms, drivers have trouble seeing roads, but the camels have an unerring internal compass.

And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence. 

And then there’s … South Africa?

I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis. 

The South African Defense Force (SADF) in Namibia, in the last of the great East-West proxy wars. This is also what it looks like a stone’s throw over my back fence.

Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not the Anglosphere. Only one South African in 10 speaks English as their first language. For most, it’s Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans, or another of their eleven (!!) official languages. The culture of the SADF was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, not English.

Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.

And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.

That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.

Today’s US mine-resistant vehicles are descended from the South African Buffel (“Buffalo”). Happily, my town is largely free of mines so I drive a Honda.

And we care about this … why?

Like the American military after the Cold War, the SADF of 1980 was orienting itself more to the desert. Where before they thought of themselves as a conventional mechanized army defending against Soviet-style armored formations, now their enemies were increasingly conducting a Maoist insurgency along their long borders, and that meant foot-mobile desert warfare.

Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…

None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.

See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.

But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.

Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.

The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.

For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the best systems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.

They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.

This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.

But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:

If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.

However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks–don’t ask me to explain). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.

If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”

But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.

What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.

With my shield or on it

Ten years ago, a young entrepreneur with a struggling backpack company wanted publicity photos of real people using his backpacks in rough-and-tumble ways. So he held the first-ever GORUCK Challenge, in which 20 or so hooah weirdos paid good money to sign up for an event of unknown distance carrying backpacks of bricks punctuated by PT beatdowns at the hands of an ex-Green Beret.

The famous “sugar cookie.” Soak yourself and then coat your body in sand so that no skin is visible. Remember to get your face!

People loved the Challenge so much that they wanted more, and entrepreneur and SF vet Jason McCarthy realized that he wasn’t so much in the business of making tough rucksacks as tough ruck beatdown events.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Class 001. I don’t know how ready I am. I’ve rucked little in the last two months while healing an injury, and though I’ve been blazing away on the kettlebells in the meantime, I didn’t really know where my aerobic base is right now.

Here’s what I do know:

  • I’m waaaaaay more experienced now than at my first awesome GORUCK event two years ago. I’ve troubleshot my gear, made friends with the horror of hypothermia, and learned that the emotional/physical lows are soon followed by great highs.
  • I’ve packed enough peanut butter M&Ms, cashews, and caffeine for a one-man ruck rampage through six counties.
  • I have great mentors and advisors: Sgt. Šileika, Scott, Griff, I’m looking at you.
  • And there’s no substitute on earth for this kind of camaraderie.

And finally, I know that I won’t quit. I’ll be back tomorrow, with my shield or on it!

A Ruck Full of Smurfs: Sgt. Šileika on Third-Line Gear

Scenario 2: Pack on pack. In the background, a Pattern 64 pack (Canada’s answer to the ALICE) with a Camelbak pack added on top.

Lean Solid Dogs is honored to present our first guest post by Sgt. Šileika, a kindred “marching philosopher” and my oldest and most reliable mentor in everything related to rucking. I dearly hope that one day he will write a whole autobiography, but the part of his resume that concerns us here is that the good sergeant has logged many, many, many miles on his feet, first as a vagabond-adventurer-pilgrim, then as an infantryman of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada serving overseas, and later as a reservist in his homeland of Lithuania.

Sgt. Šileika sent this advice to Lean Solid HQ in response to my recent curiosity about the idea of “third-line” equipment, items that you don’t need to carry attached to your person (the absolutely essential “first-line” gear) or in your ruck (“second-line”) but would still be nice to stash somewhere in the field.

The info is too good to keep to myself, so with the Baltic trail Yoda’s permission, we are publishing it here for the benefit of lean, solid dogs everywhere.

Over years of experimenting with “third line” equipment, I’ve come up with my own “formula” designed for the three most common scenarios:

Scenario 1) You will operate out of a vehicle. In this case, you have lucked out. You can bring all the third-line equipment you want. Pack it in a duffel and leave it in the vehicle. In fact, go ahead and pack a huge steamer trunk if you want. When Theodore Roosevelt embarked on his African safari, he brought leather-bound editions of Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, Milton, Dante, and 54 other volumes. It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t carrying them all. Personally, I’d have skipped Walter Scott’s sentimental Victorian genre fiction to make room for Carl Jung’s Red Book and a modest kettlebell instead, but it’s immaterial: you can go bonkers on third-line gear provided you’re leaving it in a vehicle. 

Scenario 2) You will carry everything into the field on foot, set up your own base camp/staging area, and operate from there. When I was in recce platoon, usually there would be an ORV (objective rendez-vous) prior to the objective itself, and that was where we’d drop kit, and some would stay to man the radios and others of us would continue on to patrol, man the vantage point, or hunt for chantarelles and catch butterflies. 

I would carry third-line kit in an ALICE pack or Canadian Pattern 64 pack, and to the top of that I would lash a small pack containing second-line gear. (See image above. It’s grainy, but in the background you can just make out a Pattern 64 with a small Camelbak pack on top.) That way, when we hit the base camp, I could shed the main pack and continue on with the small pack. When we returned, I simply attached the small pack back onto the ALICE/64 pack and carried on. That saved me from repacking things hurriedly, which usually devolved into a frantic goat rope. 

Here the general principle is modular packing, so you can shed gear and pick it back up quickly, without fuss. You can drop it and go, then recover it and go, with just one or two clicks of a buckle.

The Pattern 64 and ALICE packs are great for modular packing because of their big external frames: they’re perfect for lashing stuff to. But if you don’t have one, you can just attach your small pack under the bottom of your larger back, where you would traditionally strap your sleeping bag, or you can attach it under the floating lid of a modern pack. 

Scenario 3) Surprise! You have to carry extra things! Sometimes you’re just on foot and there won’t be any further base camp/staging area. You’ll be carrying everything, so you’re not bringing any third-line gear to stash along the way. If you’re bringing it at all, you’ll be carrying it the whole time. 

But now—surprise!!—you stumble across a pot of leprechaun gold. Are you just going to leave it there and hike back to look for a truck? Hell, no. You have to carry it.

The worst way to haul something heavy or awkward is to actually carry it in your hands. It’s slow, uncomfortable, and fatiguing. And carrying it on your shoulder like a stevedore isn’t much nicer. Instead, if you can somehow put it on your back, the difference will be like night and day. 

To prepare for this possibility, you have two options, which I call “pack in a pack” or “partly empty pack.” I go with the first option: inside my small pack, I keep an empty “crunch pack,” some sort of satchel or other carrying device that scrunches down to 1L or less. If I discover buried pirate treasure (which used to happen all the time in Quebec), I fill the satchel and lash it to the top or bottom of my pack.

The second option is cheaper: you just carry an oversized pack, with more room than you need for your gear. If you meet a village full of Smurfs who want to stow away with you, you just expand your pack to its full size and then dump them in on top your field stove. Close up the pack and no one will be the wiser, unless they burst into song.

Use discretion. In some environments, if you are caught with a rucksack full of Smurfs, questions will be asked.

Captain America and the Welfare Check

Being part 2 of my field notes from a glorious 48 hours with my boots on. (Find part 1 here.)

The anguish of my unrecognized comic genius: At one point, the command post radioed our group to make sure that we hadn’t eloped with sasquatches or been eaten by raccoons. In the terse language of the Incident Command System, this came out as “Team Twelve: welfare check?” I wanted to drawl, “Thank you kindly, but we work for a living.” I’m pretty sure they weren’t in a mood for my mirth on a command channel, so I kept the fun to myself. But it hurts to be blessed with talent like mine and not be able to share it with the world. One day… One day search base will see me for the genius that I am!!

By odd coincidence, the searcher next to me was a map-loving Russian emigré from Siberia.

Map-reading and cognitive load: Since childhood I’ve loved maps, an unsurprising love for an intellectual, someone who interacts with the world more through concept and abstraction than through his moment-to-moment senses. When you read a map, you encounter the earth through a sort of “God’s-eye view,” taking in at once a panoply of information about the surroundings that far exceed what any one observer on the ground can see. But being a basically unobservant person, I must work hard to reconcile what I see on a map with what my eyes see. If I am in a canyon surrounded by distinctive ridgelines and peaks, then in principle I should be able to find those formations represented on a topographic map and thus find my location, but I’ve found it far harder to do in practice than in theory. Imagine that.

But I keep on practicing, and finally I’ve been succeeding. On this trip I played a game with my hiking buddy: occasionally I tried, in my comical professorial way, to guess our location with just a map and eyeballs and then he checked my guess against GPS or a compass. And … it worked! Pretty consistently! 

But fatigue blunts mental acuity. One teammate, Gunny, told me about a mud run he used to organize. Between wall climbs and rope swings, participants had to stop at other stations and solve math problems in their heads and other brain teasers. I would suck at that. When I suck wind, my head gets “thick” and turbid, like the thoughts are wading in knee-deep Jello. During the search I was navigating non-stop for hours in dense, tiring vegetation, and by the end of our assignment I lost 30 IQ points.

What to do about this? I’m sure practice and experience helps: the first time you “grid” a nasty slope of tough foliage, you’re at the steep part of the learning curve. I’m sure the tenth time is a different experience than the first. And it helps to travel as light as possible. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, researchers have quantified how much extra energy you burn by hauling unnecessary pounds. (Especially on the feet—we’ll return to that point soon in our post on French boots.) 

With the right tricks, it’s shockingly easy to approach a 1.5x bodyweight bench, double-bodyweight squat, and 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. After that, things get complicated and difficult.

However, beyond that, another factor is aerobic conditioning, and that’s squarely in your control. As an erstwhile strength athletes, it pains me to say this but there is no substitute for cardio, and I doubt you can ever have enough cardio, simply because I can’t imagine a time when you couldn’t improve further, or be better prepared for an emergency, just by having a bigger gas tank, better speed, and longer range. Don’t get me wrong—I still love strength, strength is still important, and most people have plenty of “room to grow” and get noticeably stronger with just a small investment in “easy strength” training. But in strength there are some very real points of diminishing returns. One is that, for almost any activity except powerlifting and maybe certain positions in American football, there comes a point when enough strength is enough. As we’ve written here before, Navy researchers found that aspiring SEALs who were too strong in certain events actually fared worse in training. Their explanation? If you’re deadlifting with such focus that you pull triple bodyweight, you’re robbing training time from equally important things like running and swimming and pullups. That is, you’re over-focusing. This brings us to the second point, which is efficiency. It takes almost nothing to train a healthy man to deadlift two “wheels” (225#, about 100kg). From there, it takes only a little more time to pull three wheels (315#). Four wheels takes a lot longer, and five (495#) takes many years. For six, you need several of the following: freakish talent, drugs, good coaching, a willingness to sacrifice your health, and many years of persistence. Each level gets harder, takes longer, and gives you less improvement in exchange for your time. Once you’re at the top of your game, you might spend a year trying to bump up a given lift just 10 pounds. You’ve become a highly specialized athlete and sacrificed lots of other attributes to become a strength specialist.

In my own life, I won’t run into many problems that call for a 500# deadlift. But I often would like the freedom to move farther faster longer and with more surplus energy and mental clarity that comes from a huge aerobic gas tank. And I can maintain a deadlift of close to 400# without thinking about it. That’s enough for a deadlift—for cardio, I don’t think enough is ever enough.

Captain America and “third-line” equipment: Many teammates have introduced me to the idea of what some describe as “first-line” and “second-line” equipment, meaning roughly the stuff that’s so essential that you attach it directly to your body (e.g. in a pocket or a belt pouch) and the stuff that you relegate to your pack. That way, in case you get separated from your pack, you’ve still got the indispensable “must-haves” for staying/getting out of trouble.

But this weekend, a teammate’s example got me thinking about what I guess could be called “third-line” gear, stuff that you can’t schlep around all over the field and probably won’t need—but you’d still like to have options. Normally I keep that kind of “just in case” stuff in my car—tons of water, a hatchet and shovel and knife, ropes, lights, and spare clothes. And that’s great—until I catch a ride to a call in someone else’s car! This other teammate, a lantern-jawed Captain America-type, had a better idea: he showed up at staging with both a pack and an elephant-sized duffel bag that he stashed in the truck. As he told me, “Sometimes you can’t be sure what to bring, so I bring everything.”

This sounds like a good piece of insurance for when I show up at a call and find a situation that’s different from what I expected—which is every blessed time. I always arrive to find weather or terrain or something that’s different from what I expected. And in that moment, I think, “I can get by with my usual boots/gloves/layers/whatever, but I would have brought something specific if I’d known it would be this swampy/parched/dusty/thorny/humid/ drizzly/windy/cold/hot/rocky/slippery.

Food, Non-eating of: I still prefer not to eat much in the field. Over two days I spent about 4000 calories more than I ate, subsisting mostly on milk and pistachios, and it was only late in the second day that I developed more than a casual interest in food. If the keto crowd are right, this means that I’m sufficiently “fat-adapted” to draw my energy directly from fat stores (which I have in plenitude right now). This is a nice perk. Aside from mere convenience, I love being liberated from the alternating hunger and nausea I felt during the Star Course, when I was all sugared up.

Chest rig and dump pouches: At the big search, the chest rig was a dream. As often happens, I suddenly had to start manipulating a bunch of tools at once and clear space in pouches for a second radio and batteries, and the chest rig kept everything in order almost effortlessly. Losing stuff is a thing of the past for me—thank you, chest rig! And I finally I realized what I should be using those thigh pockets for: dump pouches. When somebody thrusts a jumble of spare radio parts into my already full hands just as I need to ruck up and jump on a departing vehicle in a hurry, I can either (a) juggle like a circus clown, (b) lose stuff, (c) drop everything on the ground and start sorting the puzzle pieces while everyone waits there, or (d) use those big thigh pockets as dump pouches and then sort out the whole Rube Goldberg machine when there’s a quiet moment. I’ve tried A through C before, with unimpressive results. But D looks like a winner! 

Notes From 48 Hours in the Field (part 1)

Without meaning to, this weekend I got to spend 48 hours in the field. A buddy and I planned a weighted ruck and gear test in the mountains, and we came home gloriously delirious and trashed, and just as I planned to slip into a hot bath, I got an opportunity to join a major search operation elsewhere in the mountains. So instead of a lavender-scented bath, I got a hasty resupply and a 3:00am departure. It was awesome!

Did it really count as being “in the field” for 48 hours, given that I made it home between the hike and the search? Not precisely, but my inner lawyer argues thus: “Yes, your honor, I did get one hot meal. But it was week-old ravioli re-heated in a microwave and eating standing up at 2am. And granted, I did sleep in a bed with sheets. But it was only for 2.5 hours and I was wearing dirty BDUs. And if the court will allow me to approach the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, they will find in my favor just based on how I smell.”

It was paradise, or some near-synonym that means “something gloriously horrible that you would like to do again soon.” And I learned tons, which I will dump out into print here:

1) Options for dressing for high heat

How should you dress for prolonged exercise in high heat? One school of thought says you should wear shorts and a tank top, like a marathoner, and be cooled by sweat and breezes. The other school says to protect yourself from radiant heat by covering up, like a farmer. Both philosophies make intelligent points and science has tried to adjudicate between the two philosophies. But the results are inconclusive.

So my hiking buddy and I ran an unscientific test of our own. We were the perfect pair of subjects: I like to hike in short shorts (though normally I wear long sleeves on top) and he is farmer and works every day covered up in hot sun. So I wore French surplus, which is the ideal type of the “sweat and breeze” approach, and he wore inexpensive technical pants and shirt, ably representing the “block the rays” approach.

On this particular hike, I was the lucky one. We walked in shade for much of the way, sparing me from a lot of radiant heat. And we were carrying moderately heavy weight (45 lbs./20kg for each) with significant climb, generating lots of body heat. We both agreed that I got the better bargain that day. Even with all of our huffing puffing, my body heat dissipated right away, his did not. And despite my exposed skin, I had the luxury of intermittent, partial shade; I did not have to provide all my own shade with my clothing.

Though I lucked out that day, I could also have lost under some circumstances. It is hard to be certain of the conditions you will find in an unfamiliar environment, and as Goggins says of environmental stress, “…more than any other variable [it] can break a motherfucker down fast.” From what I’ve experienced, people can compensate for heat and cold for a long time, but once we cross some threshold, we collapse suddenly and badly. Once that happens, we are so compromised that it’s extremely difficult to save the situation by our own actions.

So on training hikes like this, I might as well carry more gear. After all, once I’ve decided to haul 45# for the hell of it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t trade some of the steel plates or bricks for clothes, shelter-building supplies, batteries, tools, and three days of food instead. So my next experiment in romping will be to devise an easy on/easy off weight so that I can do my weighted rucks with my regular, homely, lovable, eminently useful SAR pack.

2) Map is not territory: On the search, I got lucky and was placed with one of our team’s “tribal elders,” so to speak, who has half a lifetime of lessons to teach about searching. She pointed out how wrong the topographic lines on our maps were. The maps were composed from aerial photographs of the tree tops, she explained, and the cartographers’ (highly) educated guesses about the ground below. But they might have had no way to know about some deep, narrow fold in the earth that we were struggling across where the map showed no obstacle.

3) The compass is king: All of our search teachers emphasized map and compass skills, and early on they told us that the compass isn’t just an analog backup in case your GPS breaks. But only now have I come to understand why. First, my GPS is great at telling my location and my track, but it sucks at telling my direction. Even more importantly, if I’m staring at my GPS unit, I’m not searching, I’m just walking. With a compass, I can set a heading, find a landmark to walk toward, and then keep my eyes up and moving. (Uncle Ron, one of our nav gurus, even teaches a clever, quick trick for laying your compass on top of your GPS screen and getting map bearings to a distant objective. Then you can put your GPS away, glance down at your compass only occasionally, and still arrive at your destination.)

The Unglamorous Favorite: La Musette F1/F2

Part II in our series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus”

Can you call something your “favorite” if you find it uninteresting and humdrum but you still choose it over most other things? If so, meet my favorite daypack, the French “musette F1/F2.”

This particular F1 has endured 40 years of people doing stupid things to it, like loading it with 50 lbs. (23kg) of bricks, and it’s still as strong as the day it was made.

I guess I love this thing. It’s basic and boring, but based on my actual behavior, it must be my favorite, because I use it literally every day and take it into the field several times a month.

My SAR pack, a tricked out F2

In about the Seventies, the French army replaced their simple canvas modèle 50, which they’d carried through their Indochina and Algeria campaigns, with the musette F1, made of a clever rubberized fabric to keep water out. In the late Eighties they issued a slightly enlarged version, the F2.

You can find both on the surplus market for a little as $20. Also available but far less common are Austrian rucks that seem clearly like improved homages to the F2.

For a 1970s design, these bomb-proof French packs ride pretty comfortably, sitting nice and high on the back. I can pack almost 40# (18kg) of bricks into an unmodified F1 before it grinds against my low back.

Though the straps can scarcely be adjusted, they have the golden ingredient for comfort: they are broad. Not padded, but broad. (I owe this discovery to Sgt. Šileika, the Lithuanian trail Yoda.)

Broad straps are comfortable. Not padded, but broad.

All I can criticize the straps for is that you cannot adjust them for length. However, we fix that in just a few minutes. We just need to replace the original “quick” attach hook.

This “quick” attach hook is anything but quick. It also leaves no way to adjust the strap length.

See, the pack was designed with the idea that first you’d put your right arm through the strap and then, instead of awkwardly slipping your left through another tight strap, you would just have that left strap flopping free and then re-attach it to the pack with a hook near your left hip. (This may even have been necessary to make it fit with the FAMAS rifle’s unusual sling.)

But that hook is impossibly clumsy and slow (at least for me), and you can’t shorten or lengthen the strap to cinch it up to your body.

Happily, you can change all that for $1. Cut that hook off and replace it with a “G hook” and a short length of 1″ (25mm) webbing. And, regardez! You have an adjustable strap. (Believe me, if I can do this, you can do this.)

Replace it with a little webbing and a G hook. They’re $1 apiece. (You could also use a new spring hook or a spring bolt, but this cheap, faster to use, and adjustable.)

While you’re at it, replace the buckles, which as one commenter writes at La Tranchée Militaire, “… are almost impossible to use because they give you so little room to pass the straps through,” and you have to thread/unthread two long straps through two slots each.

The original buckles are slow and clumsy, but you can replace them.

Instead, buy a pair of 25mm “split-bar” buckles. You can slip them right on and you don’t even have to remove the original buckles.

Finally, take my advice and get six “web dominators,” which are basically little bungee spools for loose straps flapping all over. You’ll want them because this thing has about 2m of extra straps, and unless you’re currently using them all to strap stuff all over the outside of your pack, you’ll want them out of the way.

Chest Rigs: A Love Song

Other than kettlebells, if any object screamed aloud for the attention of Lean, Solid Dogs, it would have to be some kind of (a) surplus outdoor equipment (b) made to carry heavy loads over long distances, (c) especially in hot, dry climates, and (d) with a Communist parentage. What if I told you that such a thing exists? And that it’s been upgraded by Western capitalists for comfort?

As you can see, I’ve had some work done to make my cheekbones and jaw more prominent.

Ladies, gentlemen, lean solid dogs, I present to you [drumroll] … the South African Pattern 83 chest rig.

The weird brown bib got to South Africa by a circuitous road from China that led through Israel.

During the Cold War, what did South Africa and Israel have in common? Both were Western-style states outnumbered by neighboring hostile Soviet client states, but for political reasons they had to be as self-sufficient as possible for arms and so they produced more of their own military equipment than would otherwise have been rational for countries their size. This included everything from nuclear weapons to small arms and “soldier systems,” the everyday items of individual clothing and equipment.

In the Sixties, both Israel and South Africa were using the standard rifle of the Western-leaning world, the FN FAL. Dubbed “the right arm of the free world,” the Belgian-designed FAL was used by most Commonwealth and NATO countries (except the United States) and their African and Latin American client states, being as ubiquitous and iconic among anti-Communist armies as the Kalashnikov was among their enemies.

Americans who recognize the FAL mostly know it from coverage of the Falklands war, where it was used by both sides. (Royal Marines Museum, Portsmouth)

The FAL and the Kalashnikov also symbolized the very different strategies of the Cold War’s two rival camps. In the Kalashnikov, the Communist Bloc had pioneered a new direction in small arms: a rifle requiring little training. The Kalashnikov used a small, light-shooting cartridge that conscripts could learn to use adequately with less marksmanship training. And famously, the Kalashnikov tolerated abuse, neglect, and harsh climates. It was ideal for the mass conscript armies for which the Soviets designed it, and later for Third World insurgents and part-time guerrillas. 

The FAL’s big cartridge (on the right) is seldom used as a rifle round anymore. It shoots farther, flatter, and harder than its old ComBloc rival (left), but it is harder to shoot well and weighs too much. (Photo by ammotogo.com)

The FAL continued to use an older style full-strength rifle cartridge like those of the World Wars, which offered terrific knockdown power and accuracy at the longer ranges where the NATO armies planned to engage any Communist spearheads in West Germany.  The powerful FAL was commensurately harder to control and slower to shoot, but the NATO armies could afford the extra time and expense of training their troops to a high standard in traditional rifle marksmanship, so they accepted the tradeoff. (The big NATO round is also just a lot heavier, and this is not a small thing—ammunition gets heavy. It may have helped that NATO expected to be fighting a defensive battle with supply lines only getting shorter as their armies sagged under the impact of Soviet tank armies. In contrast, the Soviets planned for their columns to race forward at top speed, and they always had to worry about keeping them supplied from their own fairly primitive logistical infrastructure. They must have been happy to save weight and bulk.)

IDF with FALs in 1965. The following year these rifles did not fare well in air thick with particles kicked up by the tanks.

Being in the Western orbit, Israel and South Africa kept things simple and used the FAL in the Sixties. That is, until the Six Day War of 1966. Israeli soldiers had trouble keeping their FALs clear of airborne sand and dust, and many soldiers armed themselves instead with Uzi submachine guns or captured Kalashnikovs. After the war, when the Israeli Defense Force looked for a new rifle, they ultimately chose to manufacture their own version of the Kalashnikov!

South Africa enters this story in 1980, when they replaced their own FALs. The international pariah had few other sources of arms and military expertise than Israel, which was almost as hungry for allies as the South Africans, and the Israelis had proven the worth of their homegrown Kalashnikov variant in dusty conditions like the ones in which the South Africans were fighting the Border War. So the South African Defense Force (SADF) chose to manufacture a licensed variant of the Israeli rifle.

In selecting a Soviet design and improving it, the two countries were doing something that China had been doing expertly for decades. China was also a country surrounded by enemies, beginning with the Soviet Union itself. The two Communist countries divorced messily in 1956, and China abruptly lost access to Soviet help for its arms industry. Nevertheless, by then the whole Chinese military was already outfitted in basically Soviet style, so henceforth their designers would begin from inherited Soviet designs (even reverse-engineering later Soviet inventions, like the famous RPG-7) and then improve upon them.

Their proudest achievement was the chest rig. When the Soviets invented the Kalashnikov, they created a great rifle but never got around to inventing a good way to carry those big, heavy “banana magazines.” Soviet soldiers were given long, floppy belt pouches holding almost 5 lbs. of ammo to hang on their belts, along with a canteen and a shovel and other items. The Chinese copied this set-up at first and hated it. When you stood, the gear pulled the back of your pants down—the Chinese are a slender people and this was not working for them. When you crawled or climbed a tree, you might accidentally crawl right out of your equipment belt. And when you ran, gear flopped in all directions like a beaded dress on a go-go dancer. As we say in Chinese, bù xíng: “no-go.”  

In response, they invented the chest rig. Or to use its colloquial Chinese name, the “belly bag” (肚兜). Other people had experimented before with ways to carry gear, guns, and ammo on the torso instead of the waist—people in America began wearing shoulder holsters in the 1870s for pistols, ammo, and other items, and the British tried a “jerkin” full of pockets and pouches. But the Chinese chest rig hit some kind ergonomic sweet spot. It let you carry plenty of weight and bulk reasonably comfortably. It was quick to get on and off. It’s cool to wear and does not chafe. It leaves your arms free and stays snug when you run. You can crouch, lie, crawl, and roll. And you can access your gear, with either hand, without looking, even while sitting or walking. 

The South Africans took notice—and southern Africa now had plenty of Chinese armaments floating around—and when they adopted a Kalashnikov, they adopted the Chinese idea of the chest rig too and upgraded it along the way. The South African chest rig was now made of a water-resistant nylon instead of canvas, adjusted easily with slide buckles, and closed with Velcro instead of Chinese frog buttons. And South Africa padded the straps for despicable capitalist comfort. 

And in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, chest rigs seem to have gone mainstream around the world, a fact of which the Chinese internet is extremely proud. “Score-keeping” of national accomplishments, inventions, and slights is a prominent feature of national psychology in the People’s Republic, and one site features multiple articles with titles like “Even the US Military Likes Our Army’s Soldier Systems and the Soviets Copied Them Massively” and “Even American Soldiers Like the Chinese Type 56 Chest Rig.” But they are right. In Afghanistan the Soviets picked up the Chinese chest rigs from their enemies and came up with their own version in the Eighties dubbed the lifchik (“bra”). And we have photos of American troops wearing Chinese chest rigs in Vietnam and early in the Allied war in Afghanistan.

American Ranger in Vietnam, Soviet airborne soldier in Afghanistan, and some kind of American specops ninjas early in the Afghanistan war, all wearing the Chinese Type 56 prior to their services developing their own chest rigs. (Photos from kknews.cc)

*          *          *

I tried the South African rig to replace the Coaxsher radio harness I was issued for search & rescue work. Though many people like the Coaxsher, I kept loosing things out of its tight elastic sleeves. I would try to shimmy my radio in hastily with both hands, often while moving or juggling other tools, and soon I would find that it was wriggling out under pressure from the stretchy sleeve material. One night during a long search, the radio popped right out and went missing in the underbrush. Happily a teammate found it hours later, but I now had to dummy-cord the radio to prevent it from inching out. Yet on my very next search I lost my GPS unit! The reason was the same: it did not fit into the tight elastic sleeve well and would squeeze out if I put it in hastily, without stopping to coax it in with both hands.

The big chest rig solved that. Even while moving, I can drop my clunky brick of a radio into the roomy pouches one-handed every time, and when the Velcro closes over it, it’s not going anywhere.

Still being a search and rescue newbie, it’s often enough that I’m nervously looking at a map in one hand, a GPS in the other, dangling my radio by its antenna with my teeth, and trying to grow an extra hand to flip open a compass. If I have to be all thumbs with the equipment that I do have, I’d rather not lose any extra bits.

And like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, the chest rig seems to fit everything I try to stuff in. Presently mine contains various batteries, pens, a notebook, a radio, a GPS unit, two compasses, drink mixes, food, plastic bags, gloves, gauze, sunglasses, cellphone, a flashlight, and a pair of chopsticks (long story). Everything is right under my nose, like a toolbox that floats in the air in front of me, and I can get at most things with either hand without looking.

Thus I love and cherish this chest rig more than any other piece of equipment: I have many boots, many rucksacks, many tents and sleeping bags and kettlebells, and though I have my preferences, I can make do with any of them. But the chest rig is the best damn piece of outdoor gear I own and I’ll never go back.

And nowadays they are everywhere. Capitalism has done its magic and made chest rigs available cheaply for thirty bucks on Amazon, in lots of different configurations. For whatever it might be worth, among new production items, the closest thing I know to the South African is made by Blackhawk for AKs, and they offer an innocuous gray color that does not make you look like a door-kicker.