Packs are as essential for the military as bullets and chow. But for decades, two rucks have weighed down more military backs than any others. That’s the O.G. All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment (ALICE) pack and the Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment (MOLLE) pack.
You’ve likely had an uncle who cherished his ALICE pack, taking it out on the trail or on a hunting trip long after his service in the U.S. military ended. But change is as inevitable as a high tide rolling in, and in the world of packs, high tide is the MOLLE pack.
Almost everyone has seen the MOLLE pack in action if they paid attention during Operation Enduring Freedom. It’s standard issue throughout the military. But, ask just about any Ranger, and they will tell you the ALICE pack reigns supreme.
What is the best pack comes down to personal preference, but there are noticeable differences between the two. Sgt. 1st Class Adam Klakowicz, a Green Beret for the better part of his 20 years in the Army, has used both packs over his lengthy career. He’s partial to the Mystery Ranch assault packs, but he helps break down the significant differences between the standard issue packs of the military.
The ALICE pack
Old reliable is what some call it, while others know it as the O.G. rucksack. Anyone who’s taken one on a long ruck will gripe about the weird aches and pains that accompany a 100 lb ALICE pack on your back for an unknown distance ruck march.
The ALICE pack has an external metal frame, a large internal compartment, and a few pouches on the outside. It generally comes in set sizes of medium or large. But, Rangers were issued a special XL version, which can hold a lot more ammo and everything else needed for a long combat movement.
But, its hardiness speaks for itself as it remains popular even among elite combat units. It’s the gold standard for airborne operations, as the frame will handle the impact of the jump. The MOLLE pack’s plastic frame may not withstand the weight and impact and could break.
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Klakowicz says that when he jumped into Robin Sage in the final stages of Special Forces training, his team used ALICE packs averaging 100 lbs or more. A fellow candidate’s ALICE pack frame hit too hard, which caused a big dent in the frame.
“One of us held it while he just stomped it and gave it a good kick, which bent it back into place, and it was fine for the rest of the exercise,” Klakowicz said. “That’s the only plus. A bend in the frame with that size of a rucksack probably would have cracked the frame on a MOLLE.”
The most significant fail point on the pack is the rivets. They can pop after wear and tear breaks. However, they are easy to repair. You can run 550 cord through the holes of the broken rivet or hold it together with duct tape.
A new ALICE pack requires some modifications to make it as silent as possible to cover or stop the squeaks and creaks built into the pack. You can use glue, tape, or 550 cord. If you don’t, the enemy will hear you coming from a mile away. Anyone who’s spent time under an ALICE pack can hear the creaking of the rivets when thinking about the pack.
The ALICE pack replaced the M-1956 Individual Load-Carrying Equipment (ILCE) and M-1967 Modernized Load-Carrying Equipment in 1973. However, change is inevitable in the military, especially upgrades in gear — but beware, not all ‘upgrades’ are alike.
The MOLLE Pack
The MOLLE pack was intended to replace the ALICE in 1997 but didn’t take hold until the early 2000s with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This modular pack has an internal plastic frame and different segmented compartments. The MOLLE pack can be lengthened or shortened, whereas the ALICE pack arrives in one of three sizes.
But a MOLLE’s polymer molded internal frame is one of a few complaints. Though it’s tough, the frames have been known to break during airborne jumps and other high-stress use If so, the pack’s structure becomes a nightmare for your back and shoulders.
The MOLLE is better padded than the ALICE pack and is designed to evenly distribute weight across shoulders, whereas the ALICE pack puts all the weight on the hips. “The shoulder straps on the ALICE pack will sometimes dig into you.
That MOLLE ruck has the shoulder straps that fit the contour of your body,” Klakowicz said. They’re better padded, and it goes all the way over your shoulder and underneath your armpits and kind of hugs your body.”
The MOLLE pack is lighter than its predecessor, and the webbing allows maximal modification with various pouches, allowing easy access to grenade or ammo pouches. It also has about 200 cubic inches or more capacity compared to the ALICE pack.
Though its padding is far above the ALICE pack’s shoulder straps and kidney pad, it affects airflow between your back and the pack. That’s more of a creature comfort than anything, but it may be a deal breaker if you love the airflow the ALICE pack provides.
What pack is on top?
Klakowicz says he prefers some of the civilian-designed packs used within the special operations ranks. But training schools across the military often issue one pack or the other, so it’s wise to train with the ruck you will be using.
“As far as government-issued equipment, it depends on where I was going. I could fit more shit in the MOLLE ruck. So, if I had to do something in the winter or the mountains, I would definitely use a MOLLE ruck. I’ll take the ALICE pack if I had to do something in the jungle.”
Personal preference will dictate what you like about each pack and why it can be better than the other, but the significant difference is where you carry the weight. ALICE packs will put the full weight on your hips, but you can undo your waist belt to transfer the weight back and forth to your shoulders and hips. The MOLLE pack plays the weight on your shoulders, and you can add a waist belt to it as well. The MOLLE pack is lighter and can pack more, but if you don’t need that, the ALICE pack is a hard-to-break pack that you can pack just about as much in.
For the inexperienced, the ALICE pack might be frustrating to pack. There are virtually no internal compartments, so you must exercise due diligence while packing so the weight is evenly spread across your shoulders. If done incorrectly, you will feel the weight digging the shoulder strap or kidney pad into you.
The MOLLE ruck is easier to pack, with zippered compartments to separate gear and better balance it. The webbing on the pack maximizes flexibility in packing your ruck while keeping it balanced. It’s out-of-the-box quiet, so you don’t have to silence any rivets. But given a strong blow or impact, the frame of a MOLLE has the potential to snap instead of bend like the ALICE pack.
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