Gents, if nothing else if you’re serious about preparing you should be getting in shape. It may not be as cool or as fun as picking up the latest in greatest in kit or throwing the new laser on your rifle, however, nothing will help you be more effective on the battlefield and day to day life than physical fitness. If you’re serious about being prepared for all contingencies, your health and stamina should be a priority. I’ve got news for you! Getting in shape is cheap too!
While I lift and enjoy going to the gym, my favorite form of exercise is ruck marching. Rucking is also super practical and is a good cross over of infantry skills and working out. That being said, I’ve never met anyone that was good at running and sucked at rucking. Rucking, at it’s foundation is a cardio workout but also provides the benefits of strengthening your legs, back, shoulders, core and giving you the knees of a 85 year old man. However, with some of these tips, I hope to help you avoid destroyed knees, blistered feet and uncomfortable rucking mistakes. After all, no one wants to be that guy running around with their straps all tangled and everything falling apart on mile 2.
First things first, lets start with the ruck itself. You don’t have to break the bank on a decent rucksack. I would recommend a durable, external frame pack that is compatible with whatever you are running for second line kit. I personally have experience with a wide variety of rucksacks and can tell you that proper fit is far more important than how Gucci your pack is. Don’t get me wrong, you get what you pay for but you can comfortable traverse the trails with a cheap surplus ruck. If you are getting into rucking and are on a budget I suggest picking up one of the following rucks: Medium or Large ALICE pack, FILBE, ILBE or a British Bergen. Personally, I would avoid the Molle 2 rucksack like the plague. I used the molle 2 extensively while in the army and I broke 2 frames and at least 3 shoulder straps. The Molle 2 is not durable, does not distribute the weight well and has poor organization. However, if that’s what you have, I have had good success flipping the waist pad upside down, adjusting the load lifters and wrenching the compression straps tight and gritting it out.
For the money, I really like the ILBE. Mine is ten years old and I have backpacked a lot with varying loads. The ruck is plentiful on ebay and can be configured to comfortably carry a lot of weight. It also interfaces well with a chest rig. However, if you’re going to be running belt kit or a plate carrier, you’re better off with a shorter ruck with a different frame. I am currently utilizing a medium ALICE pack and have it interfaced with a VELSYS Jungle Rig. This set up allows me to carry approximately 3 days worth of supplies, 10 magazines, 4 quarts of water and all my mission essential gear.
When packing a ruck, certain principles apply that will make your life easier in the field. For starters, try to keep everything within your ruck or inside a pouch on your ruck. Nothing is worse than items hanging off your ruck in every which direction snagging on branches or swinging and cranking you in the face when you get in the prone, ask me how I know…. I place my heaviest items closest to the frame of the pack and as close to the top of the ruck as I can get them. Generally, I try to organize my ruck in the order I’m going to need items. Nothing sucks worse than digging through your whole pack to find your wet weather gear when it’s pouring. I’ll generally start by putting my sleep system and spare clothing (in a dry bag) on the bottom of my rucksack as these items will only be accessed at night on a long halt. Typically, I’ll place a head lamp, wet weather gear, snivel cap, extra socks, maps, batteries, 1 or 2 meals close to the top of the pack or in an external pocket so it’s easy to access. I also keep a 2 quart canteen, extra magazines and bungees/bank line secured to the outside of the pack or in an external pouch.
Instead of worrying about a weight, I pack my ruck with the gear I will actually be using in the field. I wear my kit topped off on water and ammo and load my ruck with the equipment I intend to bring for several days in the field. My ruck weighs about 35lbs dry and my belt kit is around 20lbs. I have rucked super heavy rucks and can tell you it sucks balls. If you can avoid it, cut out stuff you don’t need and use civilian backpacking equipment where you can spare it.
Water is one of the heaviest things in your pack. That being said, use the water in your ruck before using the water on your kit. This will lighten your load and insure you always have water on your person if you need to ditch your ruck. The same concept can be applied with food and ammunition. Tape up all your excess straps minus the straps that physically close the ruck sack flap. I typically tighten the compression straps so they’re tight on the ruck and tape them off. This insures nothing is snagging on branches or getting caught in anything. The tighter your pack, the less side to side flop you’ll get while moving. If your pack lacks compression straps, you can also fasten bungees around the pack to accomplish the same thing. I keep my shoulder straps free of tape so I can adjust them throughout the ruck. The ruck flap straps I will snug down and tie in a girth hitch to itself and tuck the excess. This gives me the option to adjust the flap to accommodate more items if we need to cross load gear but also keeps the straps from hanging up on brush. I often pack my poncho just inside the top of the main compartment to add a little extra water resistance to the contents of the main pack. Waterproof all your gear in trash bags or wet weather bags. The smaller items can be stored in zip locks or pelican cases. Keep all items organized in bags or pouches so you don’t have to bumblefuck and search all over your ruck to find batteries or a spoon when you need it. Load your ruck the same way every time if possible so you can find things in the dark.
FITTING YOUR RUCK
Your rucksack should sit so the majority of the weight is on your hips and the main pack is close to your body. You want the majority of the weight to sit high and close to your body so you can comfortably stand upright under the load. If you have to lean forward or the load is pulling you backwards, your pack is incorrectly adjusted. When I was in the infantry, using the waist belt was seen as sacrilege. To put it in context, they also would rather we froze and got soaked rather than use the inclement weather gear in our ruck because it was unmanly. This is foolish. The waist strap is on your rucksack for a reason. Use the strap to position the majority of the load on your hips. As your legs fatigue, you can adjust the shoulder and waist straps to put more of the weight on your shoulders and vice versa. However, if you are moving in an area where contact is likely it’s prudent to undo your waist strap. I personally run my sling under my rucksack so it’s easier to ditch the ruck while reacting to contact. I learned the hard way getting choked out by my ruck tangled in my sling. However, if you’re carrying a SAW or 240, the frame on the ruck can be utilized to bear some of the weight. Don’t be afraid to take your ruck to REI or a similar store and see if the backpack people will help fit it to your body. I am tall and prefer the load higher up on my back. To accomplish this, I set the waist strap up low on the frame and the shoulders as low on the frame as possible. This lifts the load up higher on my shoulders and helps it sit close to my body.
DURING A RUCK
Okay, so you’ve stepped off. It’s official, you are freaking out the granolas in your local stretch of public land, cooking around the mountains with your kit and pack. From a fitness perspective, I shoot for 15 minute miles. This is EIB pace in the army. However, this is on flat ground. In the woods you can still accomplish a similar pace but know that terrain, elevation and ground conditions can greatly impact your speed. Don’t get too hung up on the pace. Get out there and put one foot in front of the other. Try to stand tall and keep from leaning aggressively one way or the other to avoid straining your neck or shoulders. I keep high-energy snacks in my pocket and make sure I have water readily accessible while rucking. This way I can keep up my energy and hydration without stopping. If taking a short halt, leave your ruck on and flop down against a tree or on top of your helmet. It is far easier than trying to wrestle your pack back on. When putting on a ruck, the smart way to do it is to put it in a truck bed or on the ground, sit down and get into the straps and adjust it prior to standing up. You may look like a weirdo but it will help preserve your back over time. Adjust your waist and shoulder straps throughout to help change the location of the load to give muscles a break.
It’s hard to talk about rucks and not talk about your feet and chaffing. Personally, while Rucking I will wear silkies under my fatigues or go commando. I find that to be more comfortable and reduce chaffing. I have also had good luck with compression shorts. It’s a good idea to powder your crotch and feet prior to and after a ruck. I always make sure change my socks on a halt and if possible reapply foot powder. If you know you have hot spots, tape them up or use moleskin. Personally, I have not had much luck with moleskin and prefer medical tape. Good insoles are critical to a comfortable boot. Do some research and understand your foot shape. I have high arches so I am sure to replace the insoles in my dedicated field boots. I prefer a well broken in boot with good ankle support that is 8 inches and not waterproof. I’d rather have a boot that drains quickly when I cross a water obstacle than a gortex boot that keeps you dry in a puddle and soaked for hours when crossing anything deeper. Carrying a 2nd set of insoles in your ruck is a good way to quickly dry wet boots.
After a ruck I always change my t shirt and apply body powder right away. I carry a pair of crocks or flip flops in my truck and let my feet air out on the ride home. Make sure you stretch properly before and after, and go crush some protein.
Hopefully you learned something from these tips and don’t have to learn the hard way like me. When you take care packing your ruck and do your due diligence in maintaining your body, rucking is a great endurance workout. It’s also very applicable to preparedness and a fun way to get in the woods.