How to Pack a Rucksack

A light infantryman’s pack is his life. One of the biggest focuses of the upcoming Jäger Course is living for a week out of your rucksack, carrying everything you need to survive and conduct operations during that time. This is not meant to break you by carrying a lot of weight. On the contrary, I want you to pack as light as possible while still carrying the essentials for life in the field.

If you are not an experienced backpacker or have never trained to do patrol base (PB) operations, this may be a bit intimidating. In this article I will cover what you need in your ruck, how to pack it, and other considerations for living out of your pack in the field.

What do You Need to Pack?

There are a TON of videos, articles, and podcasts about “bugout bags”, “patrol bags”, etc., detailing long lists of items that they insist you must buy. Sadly, many of the items in those videos are unnecessary crap with the goal of either trying to sell you a product or validate someone’s purchase by telling you how awesome it is. I’m not going to do that. What I will do is tell you what you should be considering when you load your ruck.

We as humans have 4 basic needs for survival: water, food, shelter, and sanitation. Let’s look at each one of these and consider how we can meet these needs with our packs.

  • Water; You cannot live without water for very long, and when you are in the field hiking, digging, and fighting, you will need more fluids to replace what you sweat out. So you need to carry water, but water is bulky and heavy. 1 gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Assuming you drink a gallon a day (which you will definitely do in the field), a week in the field would require you to carry 6 gallons of water weighing about 50 pounds! That’s a lot of weight and bulk to carry for just water, so this is not realistic in many scenarios. What you should carry is 1-2 days of supply (DOS) of water and have the ability to disinfect water in the field. Make sure that you have a way to carry some water on your kit for when you have to cache your pack.
    One more thing. At least some of your water should be in hard containers like canteens. Camelbacks are nice until they pop (which they often do), so make sure that you have water bottles as a backup for if your bladder pops.
  • Food; You need calories to provide the energy to patrol, fight, and stay awake on watch. Expect to eat about 2500 calories per day. Whatever you take for food, try as much as possible to take rations that do not need to be heated. Open fires in a tactical scenario are usually a very bad idea. Also consider how much trash your food packaging generates, as you will need to carry it all out of the field with you.
  • Shelter; You need shelter from (depending on your environment) precipitation, wind, direct sunlight, and cold. Whatever you use for a shelter (preferably a lightweight tarp instead of a tent) should be at the top of or strapped to the outside of your pack so you can set it up quickly.
    • Precipitation: Getting wet is not only bad for your morale, it encourages all sorts of bad things like chafing and trench foot. Plus, wet gear is heavier. Have at least a poncho for rain gear. Gore-tex clothing works, but can make you overheat and sweat more in summer. In your patrol base, your shelter needs to keep rain/snow off of you and your gear.
    • Wind: In cold weather, wind amplifies the effect of the cold on your body. Ensure that your shelter is windproof (if it’s waterproof then it will be windproof also) and low enough to the ground to protect you. Wearable shells like gore-tex protect you from wind as well.
    • Direct sunlight: In hot weather you need to be shaded from the sun to stay cool, and if you are in a desert environment where there is no natural shade like trees, you will need to make your own. Direct sunlight will at the least make you uncomfortable, and at the worst make you become a heat casualty.
    • Cold: In winter, you may be comfortable on the move, but once you halt and your heart rate slows down, your extremities will start to get cold quickly. If the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you need to pack extra layers for when you are static at night. Layers that go over your uniform are ideal because you can shed them easily once you start moving and warm up again.
  • Sanitation: If you get an infection, stomach bug, or severe chafing on a patrol, you become a liability to your team. For this reason, you need to pack a small hygiene kit to take care of yourself. At a minimum, you will need hand sanitizer, baby wipes/microfiber cloth for “field showers”, a small toothbrush with toothpaste, and a small roll of toilet paper. You will not stay fully clean in the field, but with these items you can prevent the vast majority of illnesses and ailments that would make you combat ineffective.

These are the bare necessities for living in the field. Bear in mind that you are in the field to accomplish a mission, and you will need to carry any equipment necessary for that mission (radio batteries, ammunition, smoke grenades, etc.), so you should have extra space in your pack for these items.

One final note before we move on; you need to balance comfort with weight. The more “comfort items” you pack, the heavier your pack will be. That said, comfort is not entirely bad in the field; the more comfortable you are the higher your morale is, and the more alert you are. It is up to you to balance comfort with weight. I, personally, am a little bit of a masochist, and sacrifice a lot of comfort at the halt for a lighter pack and comfort on the move. You will need to find your own balance. Your total load (including kit) should weigh no more than 1/3 of your body weight, but a good goal is 45 pounds dry (no water).

Packing your Ruck

Once you’ve determined what to pack, the next step is loading it all into your ruck. Where you pack your equipment is almost as important as what you pack. You need to consider weight distribution, accessibility, and consistency.

Weight distribution is important so you don’t become overly fatigued while hiking. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the heavier items should be closer to your back and higher. This puts the bulk of the weight straight down on the waist belt, not on your shoulders. You want the weight on your hips because your waist doesn’t fatigue like your shoulders do.

Once you have finished packing your bag, cinch down any straps on the sides of the pack to keep your gear from shifting around. This helps hold everything closer to your back and is more comfortable while hiking.

The next thing you want to consider is accessibility of the items in your pack. Items that are used frequently (tarp, rain gear, hygiene kit) should be in outer pouches or closer to the top of the pack. Items that get used less often (sleeping bag, extra clothes) should be deeper in the pack.

The last consideration for where your gear goes is consistency. You should be able to get anything out of your ruck, in the dark, without using a flashlight. To do this you should pack your ruck the same way every time so you can remember where everything is. Organization is key.

Other Considerations

Waterproof anything in your ruck that shouldn’t get wet (clothes, sleeping bag, etc.) by putting it in some kind of waterproof bag. I don’t care how “water resistant” your pack may be, water finds its way anywhere if you let it. I always pack my ruck with the assumption that everything in there will be fully submerged in water at some point. This is not unrealistic, you never know when you will need to ford a river.

I strongly recommend using several small waterproof bags instead of one large waterproof bag. This will help you organize the contents of your ruck. For example, I put my skivvy rolls in one bag, my sleeping gear in another, and my warming layers in another. That way when I want something I can just grab its’ waterproof sack instead of digging through a mess of gear in one large bag.

A bonus to waterproofing the contents of your pack like this is that you can use your pack as a flotation device if you need to cross a deep body of water. Do this by removing the pack, holding it in front of you in the water, and resting your rifle on the top as you push it in front of you.

A bonus to waterproofing the contents of your pack like this is that you can use your pack as a flotation device if you need to cross a deep body of water. Do this by removing the pack, holding it in front of you in the water, and resting your rifle on the top as you push it in front of you.

Contents of the main pouch of my pack. Note the three waterproof sacks.

Some people have the tendency to pull a lot of stuff out of their rucks in the field and leave it spread out on the ground. We called this “exploded packs”, and it is a very bad habit. If your patrol base is suddenly attacked, you may need to just grab your pack and run, leaving behind a lot of goodies for the enemy. When you need to pull something out of your ruck, only pull out that one thing and immediately repack and close the pouch that you opened.

Make sure that you have a way to stow your trash. You shouldn’t leave garbage in the field for the enemy to find, so you must plan to carry it out with you. Do so in a neat way that doesn’t mess up the other stuff in your ruck.

Summary

By now you should have enough information to start putting together your pack. Review the four basic survival needs and ensure that you have something to take care of each one. When you begin to load your ruck, make sure you use proper weight distribution to reduce fatigue while hiking. Ensure that everything is waterproofed, and that it is organized. Remember to keep it as light as possible.

Once you have your ruck set up, test it! Start with a 3-5 mile hike, adjusting straps as necessary and noting how the weight distribution feels. Then do an overnight camping trip where you hike a few miles, eat supper, sleep outside under your shelter, eat breakfast and hike back. This is great activity to do with the other members of your team, by the way.

For the curious, my current pack setup can be found here. If you would like to sign up for the upcoming Jäger Course, shoot me an email or use my contact form. I look forward to training with you!

Published by vonsteubentraining

Mike is the owner and chief instructor of Von Steuben Training & Consulting (VSTAC). A self-described “Tactical Scholar,” he spent 6 years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator and small-unit tactics instructor. He has dedicated his life to honing the tactical prowess of himself and his fellow patriots, guided by the wisdom of his commanding officer, Jesus Christ. He can be contacted via email at vonsteubentraining@protonmail.com

10 thoughts on “How to Pack a Rucksack

  1. Let the church say Amen! One years worth of humping the boonies in the Nam taught me all that you set forth in this article, and let me say you are on target. Even in places it doesn’t rain much, you need those water proof bags. Short on dough? You can use garbage bags, either tied off or knotted to themselves at the top. Won’t last that long, so bring extra unused bags. And the weight distribution is VERY important. Ask someone like me what it’s like to get boils on your back from poor weight distribution, in the field. It can be agony. And your advice to pack it and test it on the trail is great. You’ll find out before spicy times if your gear is set right. Be critical, and be smart. Leave the crap, take the important stuff. Wear yourself out humping a load of crap, and Charlie is going to stitch you up.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Trash bags are excellent improvised waterproofing bags, particularly the black ones. I’ll be writing separate articles on each point I made here, going in depth on little tricks like this.

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  2. One thought – wouldn’t using clear trash bags be more useful, so can be used for water transpiration on tree branches ? Maybe replacing one or more of the black bags with the clear so to increase options without adding weight

    Thank you very much for writing this. My locale has very few flowing water sources (outside of livestock windmills). Most of those water sources, as well as the ground water in our shallow water table are saline, so will require distillation to be consumed. Procuring water will not be an easy task. So any shortcuts will be appreciated.

    Thanks again sir – I enjoy reading and learning from your content.

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    1. That could work from a survivalist’s perspective. However, I am approaching this problem from a tactical perspective as well, trying to stay hidden while I am living in the field. Unfortunately, clear trash bags wrapped around tree branches/bushes will be pretty easy to see from a ways away.

      Your AO sounds a bit challenging, and you are correct to look for alternative ways to collect water. It sounds like your AO would be perfect for setting up solar stills, which are much easier to hide in the ground. Set up multiple to sustain your needs.

      You should also consider discreet methods of collecting rainwater. I don’t know how much rainfall you get, but this could also be a potential source. Set up a tarp or trash bag so that you can suspend the corners and have the center hanging low to collect water. You may choose to cut a hole in the center and place a water bottle underneath to collect what falls. If using a trash bag for this, try to get brown ones (very uncommon, I know) so that it’s still somewhat camouflaged.

      If all else fails, you can distill salt water using a small stove like a jetboil, or a discreet fire. It is possible to make a mini distillation kit that you can still pack out. Happy experimenting!

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      1. Oh – GREAT point on that plastic bag shine. I’ve seen that myself, plastic shopping bags caught in tree limbs. Yes, definitely not a good thing. Living near the Texas / Mexico border country, drones and aerostats are extensively used to patrol illegal foot traffic from South.

        Rainfall is sporadic and water caching could work, given the opportunity to be at right place and fill those water tanks.

        Thank you for your suggestions above.

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