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.

The GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you with one.

“Bush Shoes” (Chaussures de brousse)

Part 3 in our series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus”

The Palladium Pallabrousse, first introduced in 1949.

In the 1940s, the world was still enamored with rubber-soled canvas sneakers. It might be too much to say sneakers were glamorous, but they were still modern and cool. In America, Converse All-Stars gained popularity in the Twenties and Thirties and broke through to celebrity as the shoe of the US Olympic team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. And they won adoption by the US Army as their PT shoe during World War II.

Chinese “Liberation Shoes.” For the enlightenment of you, my readers, I have purchased a pair for nearly $4 and will review them this fall.

While American servicemen only wore their All-Stars while exercising, other countries actually tried marching and fighting in sneakers. And they loved it! China fought the whole Korean War in the cheap green sneakers they called “Liberation Shoes” (解放鞋), and they thought they were much, much better shod than their Allied foes in leather boots.

In footwear, as in many things, France was somewhere between the Americans and the Chinese. Strange as that sounds, France shared some important things in common with China. They had a relatively low-budget military, indebted to but aloof from their nearest superpower, and they were very interested in low-intensity insurgent warfare in agrarian societies. Accordingly, both countries prized light infantry who could move themselves quickly around austere environments.

That meant being scrappy and fit so they could travel light. Where Americans might tackle a problem with machinery, materiel, and vehicles–which is great if you have them!–both the French and the Chinese could be pretty sure they wouldn’t have that luxury. The solution? Easy, just be ready to walk everywhere and carry everything!

As I repeat here often, you can carry a lot more weight in your pack if you wear less weight on your feet. As one Chinese source puts it, “The Chinese army had what many foreign researchers considered ‘the best light infantry’ of the 20th century,” and their canvas sneakers “played an important role.”

The Palladium Pampa, France’s original “bush shoe,” still sells well today. Depicted here are Pampa clones made by Mil-Tec. About half the price of the Pampa, they have a harder, stiffer sole that is slower on smooth paths but good for nasty surfaces.

Of course, the French were not crazy enough to wear sneakers in the Alpine snows–to make that kind of sacrifice you have to be a Communist. But they did dream up a lightweight canvas-and-rubber boot for hot weather. The French Foreign Legion knew a thing or two about hot weather. For decades they had been marching long distances around North Africa in leather boots, but in 1947 they began also to issue canvas “bush shoes” (chaussures de brousse).

Think of French “bush shoes” as the lost twin of Chinese army sneakers, raised in a country with more money and fashion sense and a very serious commitment to walking long distances under load in the desert.

The shoes were supplied by at least two firms. From what I can tell, the first was a tire manufacturer called Palladium. In 1947 they created the “Pampa” model, which resembled a Converse high-top with the sole of a hiking boot. Two years later they added the “Pallabrousse.” In 1950 another supplier entered the game, a company named Pataugas, and it became common in French to refer to all bush shoes generically as pataugas.

What’s special about French “bush shoes?”

They’re fast. At just 500g each, the Palladium boots are far lighter than my beloved Rocky S2Vs (850g) and wicked fast. I tried them on two of my benchmark hikes, one on flat ground and the other on slopes of unpleasant igneous rock, and I smoked them. In both cases, I was almost 14% faster in the light Palladiums.

The Mil-Tec clones are heavier (650g each), stiffer, and hence not as fast. But they have other virtues, as we will see below.

Last summer I was enjoying GORUCK’s first-gen MACV-1 boots. Like the Palladiums, these were light, fast, and flexible. But the GORUCK tread was shallow and I kept falling on trails, so I reluctantly retired them. (GORUCK has since addressed the tread issue.)

They grip well. This is huge, because it doesn’t matter if your boots are lighter than helium if you slip and fall on rocks. Happily, the bush shoes have giant treads that dig in and keep me on my feet on steep, crumbly slopes, even if I’m unusually top-heavy with an 80# (36kg) load.

They are cheap. My cherished Rockies cost about $165. Not bad! They served me through almost a year of heavy use. But Palladium Pampas and Pallabrousses run less than half that, and the stiff-soled Pampa clones made by Mil-Tec can be found for under $40. (Apparently they look chic too. The first time I wore them, I actually received a compliment. From a woman. On my shoes. Incroyable! That was before I wore them to clamber through timber slash–I don’t get compliments anymore.)

How long will they last? I’ll let you know in a year.

They dry fast. To handle sweat, modern hot weather boots add ventilation holes or mesh panels. But these old-school canvas boots dry your foot differently. Instead of holes or mesh, you just have, well, the canvas. When your feet sweat, it soaks right through the canvas and evaporates in the sun. After a serious hike, your boots will be as wet with sweat as your shirt, and when they dry, you might find faint white streaks of dried salt.

Unless you do a lot of one-legged yoga poses, you probably have forgotten your medial glutes. Ten miles of bad road in the Palladiums will reacquaint you!

The Palladiums demand a more active foot. With a flexible sole and no shank, your foot muscles have to work hard. This is probably a good thing for your performance and podiatric health in the medium and long term, but I needed a couple days to get used to it. And on rock terrain, I need to place my feet more carefully than usual. When I walk on a nasty surface in heavy boots, I can bulldoze over sharp rocks and pebbles and let my feet fall where they will. But in these light shoes, there is little padding for the bones in the ball of my foot, so either I need to take sharp rocks on the meat of the mid foot or step between them entirely, especially when traveling downhill. That means that I have to walk very actively on bad terrain, and after 10 miles on intensely undulating volcanic rock, I trashed my gluteus medius, the under-appreciated muscle that shifts your hips side to side when you’re on one foot.

Because the Mil-Tecs have stiffer soles, they feel much harder and more nearly permit you to “steamroll” obstacles like you would in a traditional hiking boot. You still have to provide your own ankle stability, but you can easily walk over rocks and dead fall.

An unresolved concern is whether I trip on rocks more in the Palladiums. When I blew away my old PR on the volcanic slopes, which were littered with loose stones, several times I caught the Palladium’s long toe against a trip hazard, twice even really unbalancing me. I would like to blame that on nothing more than the fatigue involved in a mad dash for a PR, but I will need to assess this honestly over time.

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.