What Are ALICE Packs? (And the Best Mods for Bag and Frame)

What Are ALICE Packs? Plus, the Best Bag and Frame Mods!

You need some sort of gear carrying system if you’re gonna go innawoods.

You can fit a good amount of stuff into cargo pockets but good luck carrying everything you’ll need for a week’s wilderness survival in just your pants and jackets!

Then there are modern bugout bags.

Field expedition packs.

Day bags.

Assault packs.

If you want it, somebody’s made a $200+ backpack almost-but-not-quite perfect for your purpose.

Sometimes this modernity is good. Other times, the classics work best, especially once you modify them to work just right for you.

Despite the plethora of modern backpack technology, my most-used outdoor bag remains a humble milsurp ALICE pack.

Though, it’s almost unidentifiable as an ALICE pack!

What Are ALICE Packs?

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the US Army decided that their old load-bearing equipment gear was heavy, awkward to use, and absorbed way too much water for operations in Vietnam.

In 1973 the military replaced the old standards with the new ALICE system[1].

U.S. G.I. Medium Olive Drab Military Surplus Alice Pack with Straps Issued Rucksack
This is an LC-1 medium pack. You can find them at military surplus stores or online. Click this image for more info.

ALICE is short for “All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment” and it was a great advancement in technology.

Nylon replaced canvas.

Modularity replaced carrying everything at once.

Aluminum replaced brass and steel.

Pockets were designed to be quick to open rather than fiddly and hard to open.

Though ALICE is a complete system, the most commonly known piece of kit is the ALICE pack, properly known as the LC-1 Field Pack.

It’s a multiple-pocket rucksack that attaches to an aluminum frame for stability and improved weight-bearing capability.

The LC-1 frame was designed to hold a medium field pack, a large field pack (no mercy for the smaller fellas), or a cargo support shelf.

The same qualities which made ALICE packs great for the military also made them great for outdoors folks such as hunters, bushcrafters, and survivalists.

Should You Still Use an ALICE Pack Today?

The ALICE system has been superseded by the MOLLE II system, which has proven to be even more modular[2].

US Military Surplus MOLLE Rucksack Backpack ACU Camo Upgraded ALICE System
Military surplus MOLLE backpacks are also nice but I prefer ALICE packs myself.

Most of the armed forces have transitioned to MOLLE but some ALICE gear is still produced for the National Guard and for some smaller units, especially those undergoing training.

Does this make the ALICE system completely obsolete?

Nope!

At its core, the ALICE pack is still a solid external frame backpack system.

It’s not as “advanced” as the “best” modern backpacks but works great for most intents and purposes.

Also, the ALICE system has two major advantages:

  1. Many of them were made and some are still being made, so you can get ALICE frames and bags for less than other comparable backpacks.
  2. The ALICE pack is very easy to modify to suit your specific needs.

It’s for these reasons why my bugout bag is an ALICE pack and why I’d recommend for you to try one out, too.

Before You Upgrade Your ALICE Pack

There are a couple of things you need to keep in mind before you modify your ALICE bag.

Inspect the Frame and Pack

A.L.I.C.E. BackPack Frame shoulder straps lower back pad waist kidney belt rivets
Be sure to look over your frame carefully! This one, for example, is a Rothco reproduction made from aluminum. It’s lighter than a milsurp frame but also not as durable.

ALICE packs are great but the design still has some weaknesses.

Primarily, ALICE rucksacks don’t have as much stress point reinforcement as modern field packs.

Also, the frame is riveted together. This is stable and great, up until it isn’t.

So, when buying a new (to you) ALICE frame and pack, be sure to examine all of the rivets and stitching.

A bit of loose stitching can be fixed up so that’s not a big deal. Still, why start with a bag you need to repair?

Rivets, however, are another story.

If your frame isn’t held together properly then it may fail in the field.

Such failure is uncommon but, if you’re using an abused vintage frame or a low-quality reproduction, it’s been known to happen.

Start your modding from a solid base.

Know How to Sew (Or Know Someone Who Sews)

Many of the mods below involve sewing.

Sewing is an essential skill for anybody who wants to survive without modern society (how else will you repair your equipment in the field?) so you should have this covered.

Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl how to upgrade ALICE pack best mods what skills necessary
Every outdoors person should have a Speedy Stitches sewing awl at the very least!

If, however, your sewing skills are best relegated for field repairs and not high-quality modifications, then it’s okay to outsource your sewing.

I have a close friend who loves to sew, so that wasn’t a problem for me.

If you’re not so charismatic, though, then there are a number of websites which can modify your ALICE pack for you.

It’ll cost a bit of money but may not be as expensive as buying a new bag outright that’s not as individualized, so I’d still recommend it.

The Best ALICE Pack Mods

The following is a list of many ALICE pack upgrades.

It’s not an exhaustive list I’m sure.

But you can use it to turn your mediocre rucksack into an amazing piece of survival gear.

Surely you’ll be inspired to do something cool, too!

Waterproof the Darn Thing

How to waterproof ALICE bag US Army Issued Backpack Wheel Cover Desert Camo
Wheel covers make halfway-decent backpack covers.

Part of the ALICE system’s selling point was improved water and rot resistance compared with the older gear used.

When soaked through, ALICE packs only weigh a little more than the older load-bearing equipment systems which weighed almost half-again more when wet.

But ALICE packs are not waterproof.

They have those drain holes in the bottom for a reason.

Now, you can impregnate the nylon with modern waterproofing chemicals, which will help a lot.

However, the top flap may still allow water in. There are three solutions for this:

Use a Pack Cover

You can envelop the entire ALICE pack in a waterproof cover.

Some places make covers specifically for this purpose.

Or, you can modify a rain poncho to cover the ALICE pack.

Use Waterproof Bags Inside the ALICE Pack

This is the system I use.

Every pocket has a waterproof bag inside.

I use giant freezer bags for the smaller pockets and a heavyweight trash bag for the main compartment.

I’m sure you can find ALICE-pack specific waterproof bags if you look hard enough, though.

Add a Storm Flap

Finally, you can sew in circular section of nylon with a hole in the middle inside the top compartment’s opening.

Add a drawstring to that hole in the middle so you can pull the whole thing closed and your pack will be able to keep out a lot more water.

Reinforce Stress Points

Another highly-recommended mod is to reinforce certain stress points on the field pack.

The most important locations are where the pack mounts to the frame, as this is where all the weight is concentrated.

You might also want to shore up the corners of pockets, especially if you tend to carry heavy gear within them.

Some extra stitching in a zig-zag pattern should help!

ALICE frame hurts hot spots how to pad make more comfortable USGI OD Sleeping Mats
Better than using one for sleeping…

Pad the Frame

The ALICE system doesn’t have as much padding as modern external frame backpacks.

You can add your own padding, though!

I’d recommend wearing the frame and pack, with weight inside, to figure out where there might be any hot spots.

Then, add some foam to the frame at those places.

You can use cut-up milsurp sleeping pads for maximum surplus-ness.

Only attach the foam to the side touching your back.

I’ve found that I needed to pad the frame’s upper sides and the bottom middle.

Add a Carry Handle

You might be tempted to grab the ALICE pack from the padded section at the top.

Don’t do this!

That part is designed to hold onto the frame and won’t survive repeated stress from carrying a fully-loaded pack.

Instead, add a carry handle to the frame.

You can use ballistic nylon straps for this, but personally, I’d recommend creating a paracord carrying handle.

The Cobra Weave looks great, works great, and can be taken apart if you need cordage in a survival situation.

Add Fastex BucklesAlice pack mods Fastex buckles faster easier entry use bag open storage

The ALICE buckles were an improvement over preceding buckles but are slow and awkward today.

Fastex buckles are inexpensive, mil-spec (like that means much…), work very well, and are not difficult to install.

You can also keep the old ALICE buckles as a backup in case the Fastex buckles fail.

Use the Space Between the Frame and Your Back

As an external frame backpack, ALICE packs have a gap between the rucksack and your back.

There’s enough room there to add gear you might need to use in a hurry.

I created a web of paracord between the frame’s tubes to add all of my stuff to this area.

Canteen or Water Bladder

You always need more water in the wilderness.

You can easily fit a thin canteen between the bag and your back.

Even better would be a water bladder, which carries more water with less bulk and weight.

First Aid Kit

If you or a friend get injured, especially in an artery, then you need to be able to administer first aid in moments instead of minutes.

Avoid having to dig for your first aid kit by mounting it to the inside of your ALICE pack’s frame.

Knife and Handgun Holsters

Another advantage of this area is that it’s pretty hidden when you’re wearing the bag, yet you can still reach back there with your hands.

I have a handgun holster mounted inside my frame for a right-handed draw and a sheath for my Ontario survival knife mounted for a left-handed draw.

Yes, I know that off-body carry is typically not recommended.

But this is wilderness carry, not tromping around in civilization with a loaded gun.

Also, this way you can grab one bag and already be armed with a gun and a knife.

Insert a Wastebasket

One of the odder mods is to find a wastebasket that fits the large, central compartment, and stick it inside.

This adds rigidity to the pack, which cuts down on the weight sliding around, making your rucksack more comfortable.

You can drill holes in the bottom to drain water and/or slip a plastic cover over the top to keep that from being an issue in the first place.

I wasn’t sure about this mod at first but it grew on me after a while.

Add Outside Pockets

ALICE field bags have plenty of external space.

Why not sew on more pockets?

You can find any number of bags, cases, etc which you can permanently attach to the outside of your ALICE pack.

Add Tool Holders

In the same vein as the previous mod, you can add straps to carry tools on the outside of your rucksack.

Bushcrafting axes and entrenching tools are great choices for mounting outside your bag.

You can also add a rifle retention strap for cross-country hunting.

Add Internal Dividers

Padded Velcro divider to better use ALICE rucksack internal compartment
This is just an example of what Velcro dividers look like. You’ll likely have to fabricate your own.

One of the ALICE pack’s weaknesses is that the central pocket is a singular huge void.

Internal dividers are a good way to prevent your gear from becoming a messy pile of chaos and “where the heck is my sunscreen.”

If you want, you can permanently sew in dividers.

I prefer to add hook-and-loop fields to the inside of the bag (soft side, of course) so I can use the magic of Velcro to add and move dividers depending on how I feel that day.

Slap Some MOLLE Webbing On

Instead of permanent external pockets, fill up some of the blank space with MOLLE webbing.

That way you can add pockets when you need to carry more stuff and remove them when you don’t.

It’s a good idea to use MOLLE webbing attached to a thick backing because the ALICE pack’s sides are flimsy nylon.

The Hellcat Mod

One of the best known ALICE pack mods is to turn it into the Hellcat.

ALICE packs are comfortable enough when not fully loaded but, even with additional foam padding, can still lack comfort and adjustability.

That’s why you may want to mate the ALICE pack with its MOLLE successor.

Old military MOLLE pack bits can still be found for sale at military surplus stores. Use them to improve the ALICE pack.

ALICE Frame and Medium Rucksack

Many people prefer the ALICE system over the newer MOLLE packs when it comes to actually carrying the gear.

So, take your frame and rucksack, and remove the shoulder and waist straps.

MOLLE Shoulder StrapsMOLLE II Enhanced Shoulder Straps HELLCAT mod for ALICE packs more comfortable adjustable

ALICE’s shoulder straps aren’t as padded or adjustable as the later MOLLE shoulder straps.

Thankfully, the MOLLE shoulder straps are compatible with the ALICE frame without permanent modification.

It takes a bit of strapping kung-fu to attach MOLLE straps to the ALICE frame. I followed the instructions from Liberty Tree Blog[3].

MOLLE Kidney Pad

The MOLLE kidney pad is much more comfortable than the ALICE waist strap.Us Army Molle Desert Camo Molded Kidney Waist Belt add to ALICE pack improve comfort

Attaching the kidney pad is much more intuitive than attaching the shoulder straps. Still, you can find the instructions I linked above.

One important thing is that the kidney pad looks like it’s upside down when installed properly.

The bulge goes down.

Yes, this is important!

Otherwise, it won’t sit properly and can cause blistering!

MOLLE Sleep System Carrier

I didn’t use the MOLLE sleep system carrier when modifying my personal ALICE pack but you can use it if you want.

Follow the instructions above to learn how to add this system to your ALICE pack.

Conclusion

ALICE packs may seem like outdated technology but they are much used and loved by many people who spend serious time in the great outdoors, even today.

Two good reasons for this is their economy and customizability.

You can get a milsurp ALICE pack and modify it match exactly what you need without spending hundreds of dollars.

I’m a fan of saving money AND of having unique, individualized gear!

Don’t discount ALICE packs because of their age.

Get one, upgrade it, and fall in love with ALICE.

What are your favorite ALICE pack mods?

FAQs

Are ALICE Packs Good for Hiking?

While I love my ALICE pack, I don’t use it every time I go into the wilderness.

Even the medium field pack is too large for shorter trips.

You can use a smaller bag, such as a three-day pack, for shorter trips.

Are ALICE Packs Good School Bags?

Again, I’d say no.

Any external frame pack will be too large and bulky for carrying around your school supplies.

You’ll want something smaller and stiffer that can carry your school books without them sliding around and damaging your papers and notebooks.

What’s the ALICE Pack Carrying Capacity?

The medium ALICE field pack can hold 2,350 cubic inches.

The large version’s capacity is 3,800 cubic inches, 2,800 cubic inches in the main compartment.

Both can be expanded to hold more gear with the above mods!

Resources

  1. https://olive-drab.com/od_soldiers_gear_alice.php
  2. https://www.military.com/equipment/modular-lightweight-load-carrying-equipment-molle
  3. http://libertytreeblogs.blogspot.com/2011/04/building-hellcat-hybrid-ruck-from-us.html

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