ALICE packs were originally designed for use by the United States Army, adopted in 1973 as a lighter alternative to the previous standard-issue backpack.
Since it was so widely used (and continues to be used, in small capacities) by the military and is available for much cheaper than most packs that were designed specifically for backpacking, many people who already own an ALICE pack or who are hoping to save a few bucks consider using them for backpacking.
But, is an ALICE pack good for backpacking? The short answer is not particularly. ALICE packs tend to be much heavier than, say, an equally sized Osprey or Arc’teryx backpack which are designed with long-distance hiking and comfort in mind. ALICE packs are also bulkier and more cumbersome to carry, and just generally uncomfortable for extended wear.
If you are considering a day hike or a short overnight trip, an ALICE pack will suffice for carrying your camping gear, but for anything longer and especially for a thru-hike, you’ll want to invest in a comfortable lightweight backpacking pack.
What Does ALICE Stand For in ALICE Pack?
ALICE stands for All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment. These packs were designed as part of the LINCLOE (Lightweight Individual Clothing And Equipment) program that was implemented starting in 1965 to lighten soldiers’ carrying loads.
These Vietnam-War-era packs have since been almost entirely phased out by the military in favor of MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) packs and subsequently ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment) packs.
Components of ALICE Packs
- The original components of the ALICE system included the individual belt, which came in various sizes depending on your waist measurement, and was designed with several eyelets for attaching equipment like canteens and so forth.
- Suspenders could also be added, to hold the belt in place and provide additional space to attach pouches, knife sheaths, etc.
- For the ALICE packs themselves, an optional aluminum pack frame could be used with the medium or large size pack attached.
- Additional components include padded shoulder straps and a padded kidney protector with a waist belt.
The pack system could be used in conjunction with the belt and suspenders in order to carry even more gear.
The essential design of ALICE packs is one large compartment with three smaller compartments on the exterior. The ability to attach other accouterments on the belt, shoulder straps, and gear loops of the pack itself means these packs are somewhat modular and can be reconfigured for different purposes and pack weights.
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Different Sizes of ALICE Packs
Although originally designed to include a small, medium, and large size option, only the medium and large ALICE packs were deemed necessary by the military after testing. However, there have since been non-military-affiliated small ALICE packs created.
Small ALICE Packs
As I mentioned, non-military-affiliated size small ALICE packs exist and are sold by retailers like armysurplusworld.com. This small size pack measures 13 x 16 x 7 inches, and is not designed to be used with a frame. However, since there was never an official small ALICE pack, there are several different types and sizes available.
For this particular example of the small pack, it has a capacity of about 1,400 cubic inches or approximately 24 liters.
This is a basic version of an ALICE pack, with the classic design of one large main compartment and three smaller exterior pouches. The small packs have non-removable adjustable shoulder straps and do not include a waist belt.
Due to the small size of this pack, it would not be appropriate for backpacking, unless you pack extremely light. It would be best suited for a day hike or for casual use.
Medium ALICE Packs
Medium ALICE packs can be used with or without a frame, and it is recommended to carry up to 50 pounds of gear. The dimensions of the main compartment are 19 x 11.5 x 9.5 inches and the three additional pouches each measure 5 x 2.5 x 9 inches, which brings the total capacity to approximately 40 liters, or 2,412 cubic inches.
You can purchase brand new medium-sized ALICE packs that are made in the U.S., although since they are discontinued military items and are no longer in production, supplies may be limited.
These packs come with the aluminum pack frame as well as an extra-wide kidney pad and padded shoulder straps to make carrying heavy loads more comfortable.
Medium ALICE packs are more feasible for backpacking, especially when used with the aluminum frame. However, keep in mind that most modern backpacking packs are designed in such a way that they can forgo heavy metal frames and still manage loads and weight distribution well, while also being more comfortable.
Large ALICE Packs
The large size of ALICE packs must be used with a frame and it can hold more than 100 pounds of gear. However, if you are carrying 100 pounds of gear while backpacking, you will probably become tired extremely quickly and may need to reevaluate your gear.
The large size of ALICE pack measures 22 x 6 x 14 inches for the main pouch and has six external pouches in all, which total to about 3,800 cubic inches or approximately 62 liters. It has three external utility pouches plus three mag pouches which, obviously, for backpacking could be used to carry things other than ammunition.
While these packs are extremely rugged and withstand quite heavy loads and abuse, they are easy to overload to such an extent that it can be difficult to lift the pack.
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Pros and Cons of ALICE Packs for Backpacking
- Extremely rugged and tough
- Will last a long time
- Can carry massive amounts of gear
- Heavy base weight
- Uses heavy and outdated metal snaps/buckles/closures/adjusters
- Does not have pockets that can be accessed while wearing the pack
- Not waterproof
Also read: What Size Backpack is Good for Backpacking?
Other Military Packs That Can Be Used For Backpacking
The military has since replaced nearly all ALICE packs with two generations of MOLLE packs and the even newer ILBE and FILBE packs. These packs have been significantly improved in terms of comfort and weight when compared to the ALICE packs, as I’ll briefly outline here:
MOLLE packs are currently on their second iteration and are widely used still by the U.S. Army and several other NATO armed forces. They were introduced in 1997 and have been revamped in order to be effectively used with other ever-changing components of military gear like body armor and so forth.
MOLLE packs employ PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing to allow for modular attachment and arrangement of accessory pouches.
These packs are overall less bulky and more comfortable and customizable than ALICE packs, although they might still be overkill for a backpacking expedition.
ILBE packs were designed for the U.S. Marine Corps by Arc’teryx (a high-end outdoor outfitter that specializes in recreational backpacking pack design) as a part of the LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) program. This pack also uses the PALS system to attach modular equipment pouches.
The ILBE pack system actually includes six different packs: a 75-liter main pack, a 90-liter recon main pack, a 27-liter assault pack, a 39-liter corpsman assault pack, a 39-liter recon assault pack, a 5-liter recon accessory pouch, and a 3-liter hydration system. There are also three sizes of waterproof bags that are designed to work with this pack system.
These packs were eventually redesigned to accommodate the latest Marine Corps body armor systems, which led to the introduction of FILBE (Family of Improved Load Bearing Equipment) packs. FILBE packs are perhaps the most well-suited for recreational backpacking since they employ modern technology to make them relatively comfortable and more ergonomically designed for long-distance hiking.
However, they are still heavier than a recreational pack and are overbuilt for a backpacking expedition.
The Bottom Line
While ALICE packs are certainly rugged and capable of carrying all the gear necessary for long backpacking trips, they are uncomfortable, unnecessarily heavy, and employ outdated 50-year-old materials and technology.
In my opinion, it’s telling that the Marine Corps opted to have Arc’teryx design their more recent packs, because Arc’teryx is quite invested in creating comfortable, extremely lightweight, and very functional recreational packs, which undoubtedly can be modified to serve the military’s purposes.
The bottom line is that ALICE packs are not well-suited for recreational backpacking, nor for that matter, are any military packs. Packs designed for recreational backpacking are lighter, more comfortable, and created specifically for that purpose while military packs are designed to literally withstand a war.
While you may be able to save some money by purchasing a military pack rather than a recreational pack, it’s not worth it. Plus, retailers like REI sell backpacking packs at quite reasonable prices and offer several sales and discounts throughout the year which lower prices even further. They also offer lifetime warranties — something you definitely won’t get from the military.
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