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Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part II

The year is 2017. Your correspondent recently purchased and reviewed an ALICE large field pack and frame, plus some modifications, to make a package sometimes known as the ALICE Hellcat1. Or rather, reviewed in part: no review of field gear can be considered complete without some actual field time, and that’s what this article addresses.

If you, like me, do not live under a rock, you may have heard that there was recently (at time of writing) a total solar eclipse. You can be sure I wasn’t going to miss my chance at seeing one, and you can be similarly sure that I wasn’t going to spend the money on a hotel. Some college friends decided a camping trip was in order, and I decided to tag along. The destination: Shawnee National Forest. The plan: unimproved camping near the Garden of the Gods2.

That brings me to the first part of this review: how roomy is the pack? Well, it’s complicated. The ALICE pack is shorter than your average backpacking pack from top to bottom, but wider and deeper. This has its upsides and its downsides. In the bottom of the pack, I could fit things next to my sleeping bag in both directions—both toward the front face of the pack3 and to the sides. I packed my ground cloth in front of my sleeping bag, and used the space to the side for the base of my tent.

On that note, my gear generally is not backpacking gear—although I grew up camping, I mostly grew up camping out of cars. The family two-man tent comes in a bag twenty-seven inches tall, and weighs something like eight or ten pounds4. My sleeping bag is a backpacking model, I suppose, but it’s also a three-season bag, and as such doesn’t pack down as small as a summer model might. In general, I made no particular effort to bring lightweight or compact gear, and overpacked generally for the sake of the experiment5. I ended up with a pack which weighed about thirty-five or forty pounds and filled most of the available volume of the pack. As the packing list in the footnote there suggests, this was not an ultralight or even an efficient trip. Packing as luxuriously as I did, an overnight or weekend trip is plausible. I expect I would have very little trouble packing for a longer stay if I had more appropriate gear—with access to water on-site, compact dehydrated food, and no extra-fancy mess equipment, I suspect I could pack a good week’s worth of summer clothing.

Now that we’ve loaded the pack, we can talk about how it fits and how well it carries weight. As far as fit goes, I don’t know if I could recommend it to someone very much taller than me. As I said in the previous article, I’m USGI-standard height, a hair over 5’9″. The MOLLE straps on my frame can be adjusted to ride lower on it (thereby moving the hip pad nearer to the shoulder straps for a shorter person), but they’re already at the upper limit of their adjustment. On my back, the pack fits perfectly, with the MOLLE hip belt extending from about belly-button height to my hip bones. I had a few taller people give it a try, and it didn’t fit them nearly as well. I suspect there is some further room for adjustment—by lengthening the bottom of the shoulder straps, the pack could be made to ride lower, and likely fit long torsos better—but the primary adjustment, that effected by moving the entire yoke up and down, is only really useful for average-to-short men and short-to-tall women.

We’ve established it fits people my size and smaller well. How does the ALICE Hellcat carry weight, though? As described above, the ALICE pack is short and squat relative to modern backpacking gear. Taller, flatter packs, such as the latter, put the center of gravity higher and closer to your back. Well-packed, they’ll primarily press down on your hips; the shoulder straps are primarily to stabilize the load and keep it close to your body. The load on the shoulders tends to be a downward load. The ALICE pack is a little different. It is, once again, short. Even with a sleeping roll lashed to the top, it only comes up to about the middle of my head. It doesn’t exert a downward force exclusively; rather, it exerts a sort of pivoting torque in addition to downward pressure. It’s as though the waist belt is an axle, and the pack is trying to fall away from your back.

I wouldn’t characterize this as bad, though. It’s just different. The weight on the shoulder straps, is on your upper chest just below the shoulders. The pivoting movement helps to hold the pack onto the hip pad. My forty-pound pack was no less comfortable than I would expect out of a more traditional pack. Some adjustment of the shoulder straps is necessary; there’s a middle ground I had to find between, “Too tight up top, weighing on my shoulders,” and, “Too loose up top, pulling me backwards.” Once I found it, though, I found myself able to carry it neither bent forward nor pulled backward, and as an added bonus, the smaller top-to-bottom height made for easier crouching under obstacles.

As far as hiking goes, we only had to walk a few hundred yards in total with our packs. I can’t speak to the Hellcat’s comfort over the course of a long hike. I have no reason to think it would be significantly worse than it was with my static testing and light hiking. The MOLLE straps are excellently padded and provided good comfort, even when loaded heavily by backpacking standards.

So, we got to the campsite. How is the pack to live with? Again, not bad, if perhaps not up to the same standard as present-day backpacking gear. One of the bigger things to note (again) is that the ALICE rucksack has no bottom access. It’s traditional to pack a sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack: something bulky but not terribly heavy. Many modern packs have a zipper or some other means by which items at the very bottom of the pack may be gotten at without having to unpack everything on top of them. With the Hellcat, you have to pack a little more carefully. Follow the two cardinal rules of packing (rarely accessed things go at the bottom, eavy things go closer to the frame) and you’ll be fine.

All convenience is not lost, though. The ALICE large pack has six exterior pockets, plus one pocket in the top flap. The six pockets come in three different sizes: three small (up top), two medium (on the sides down below), and one large (bottom center). The large pocket fits a mess kit and notebook with room to spare. The medium pockets are roughly three-espresso-cup moka pot-sized. The small pockets are large enough to fit a hard-sided glasses case, or an alcohol burner, pot rack, and folded aluminum foil windbreak. All are easily accessible without opening the pack or even loosening the compression straps. The top flap pocket was originally designated a map pocket and is not rated for heavy items, but it is very roomy. It easily held my maps, flashlight, phone, charger, cables, and earbuds, and could have fit much more.

The lashing points, too, are a wonderful piece of old-time fun. Putting the MOLLE straps onto the ALICE frame yielded a pair of straps used to secure the ALICE shoulder straps to the frame; I borrowed those, ran them through the buckles on my British P37 canteen carrier, and attached it to the outside of my pack. There are a good dozen or so lashing points spread out over the pack. The full Hellcat pack uses some of them to attach the MOLLE sleep system carrier, and potentially uses others to attach the MOLLE sustainment pouches, but even that would leave a number of them open for other gear. The compression straps are also very generous in length, and can readily be used both to hold gear to the top of the pack (I had a fire kit, a sleeping pad, and a spare water bottle up there) and to tie it to the bottom of the pack. If you want more strappage, you can find MOLLE accessory straps on Amazon which should serve just fine for lashing items to the pack.

Speaking of lashing and straps, the pack has exactly zero zippers. All the external pockets close with snaps. The main compartment has a drawstring closure, and the compression straps hold the top flap down on top of it. Despite that lack, I didn’t find opening the pack to be all that inconvenient. A little on the slow side, perhaps, since you generally have to loosen both compression straps, but certainly livable.

Lastly, the ALICE pack is definitively not waterproof, or even water resistant, and doesn’t come with a pack cover or dry bags6. You’ll have to work out your own solution for keeping things dry. For myself, it was lots of ziploc bags, some garbage bags, and one garbage bag big enough to serve as a pack cover. The lack of waterproofing out of the box is freeing, in a sense; it doesn’t lock you into any one solution.

So, the bottom line. Is it worth the buy? Provided it fits you, I say it is. My pack cost $70, including shipping, and if you have a nearby surplus store you can probably find one for a similar price. (That is, the pack and the frame together.) The MOLLE straps and belt came to about $30, again including shipping, and again with the similar caveat about brick-and-mortar storefronts. For the money, you get more pack, and more durable pack, than you might shopping for a traditional backpacking pack on the same budget. That said, I wouldn’t pay much more than $100 for the whole setup unless you’re very into the Hellcat’s modularity7. Once you get to, say, $150, you’re in the range where you can get a used or discounted pack from REI. $200 will buy you a new one. The quality of life there is, admittedly, better, and you have a warranty to go with it.

All told, though, I’m happy with my purchase. For my very occasional backpacking trips, a proper pack makes little financial sense. For a solid discount over even cheap hiking packs, I have something which works very nearly as well. Who can argue with that?

  1. Well, kind of. As I say in the previous article, one of the characteristics of the Hellcat is the MOLLE sleep system carrier attached to the bottom of the ALICE medium pack; I just went for a large pack right off the bat, which yields approximately the same capacity. 
  2. The one in Illinois, obviously, not the one in Colorado. 
  3. That is, the side opposite the straps. 
  4. It’s an excellent tent. It’s been bone-dry inside after taking a full day of rain on the fly. It just isn’t small or light. 
  5. For reference, I brought the following: sleeping bag and pad, tent, large cooking pot, mess kit, dinner for the whole group (three cans of chunk chicken, two boxes of rice and beans), an alcohol-burning stove, pot stand, and foil windbreak, a moka pot for coffee, coffee and stove fuel, a hoodie, cargo pants and cargo shorts, pajama pants, three t-shirts, three pairs each of underwear and socks, my trusty P37 canteen, a separate 20-oz. water bottle, maps, phone charger, sunglasses, various plastic bags to hold things and serve as pack covers, a pad for sitting on, and earbuds. 
  6. At least mine didn’t. It was issued with dry bags, though, and the full kit list did include a pack cover. 
  7. Which is to say, you like the idea of bringing the sleep system carrier and sustainment pouches as necessary, or leaving them behind when you don’t need them. 

Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part I

The year is 1975. The brand-new ALICE load-carrying equipment has been released, and it brings relief for American soldiers worldwide from a system of equipment which has its roots in the mid-1950s. Improved webbing, nylon for everyone, not just the men in Vietnam, better pouches, suspenders, and belts, and at last, a proper frame pack as part of the general issue kit1, with both a medium and large rucksack available.

ALICE generally, though it’s an interesting system and what I would call the first truly modern American load-carrying equipment pattern2, is not our topic for today. Our topic for today is, instead, the ALICE pack frame, its associated belts and straps, and the large ALICE rucksack.

First, the frame. Primarily constructed of tubular aluminum, it also has some flat aluminum crossmembers for rigidity. Some D-rings at the top provide a place for shoulder straps to attach, and the waist pad attaches through larger D-rings at the bottom. Some holes in the waist pad bracing provide bottom attachment points for the shoulder straps. The ALICE straps need no further attachment points, and accordingly, the frame doesn’t provide them.

Next, the rucksack itself. As packs go, it’s very large, but not quite as large as your average expedition pack. I’ve seen figures from 3800 to 5000 cubic inches cited (about 65L to 80L, for you metric fans/backpackers), which ranges from ‘enough for long trips with smart packing’ to ‘enough for long trips’. Curiously, given American experience in Vietnam, the pack itself is not waterproof3. There is a waterproof compartment in the lid, but it isn’t large enough to fit much or rated for heavy weights. The pockets and main compartment all feature drain holes to let out any water that gets in.

Speaking of external pockets, it has six: three large ones at the bottom, and three smaller ones nearer the top of the pack. The bottom pockets close by means of straps, as does the main pack; the bottom pockets, at least, feature snaps for quick-opening goodness4. The main compartment is divided in two; a smaller, secondary compartment on the frame side has inside compression straps. (It might also be a place to put a water bladder, if you have such a thing.) This compartment is absurdly spacious by backpacking standards; although it isn’t especially large in the absolute sense, the maximum cross-sectional area of the pack is significantly greater than your average modern backpacking pack5 of the same size. The outside of the pack is festooned with gear attachment points, loops of fabric through which you can tie, lash, or otherwise secure equipment to the pack. Of course, being a 1970s-vintage pack, it has none of the modern conveniences like bottom access, vertically separated internal compartments, a built-in rain cover, a dedicated hydration bladder compartment, zippers, a water bottle pocket… In the interests of saving space, let me say this instead. It is a large sack with pockets. That’s about all there is to it.

The large pack fits onto the frame by means of a large padded envelope at its top edge, as well as some retaining straps which attach to the frame near the bottom. The padded envelope at the top does double duty as the padding on the pack side of a more modern yoke. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do a very good job.

Let’s back up a bit first. I ordered an ALICE pack from an eBay surplus outlet because I wanted something I could take on backpacking trips (in particular, a camping trip for the upcoming eclipse) that I couldn’t break, and something which wouldn’t break the bank. Military surplus fits the bill on both accounts, and ALICE is cheaper and yes, more hipster than the current state-of-the-American-art, MOLLE6. Then I put it on, and realized that, although the frame and pack are solid, the parts you actually have to wear are not.

First: the shoulder straps. That’s literally all they are. Very little padding and no sternum strap. Nobody ever told the GI of the day that soldiering would be easy, but for a pack designed to carry a load of seventy pounds7, adding an extra eight ounces of softness in the straps seems like a no-brainer that the Army managed to brainlessly miss. The waist belt is a similar case: the padding reaches more or less from kidney to kidney; the official name for the padded piece is the ‘kidney pad’. It’s maybe three inches from top to bottom and eight across, and remember, behind the kidney pad there are two D-rings to hold it and nothing else. The pad has to isolate the wearer from a lot of force applied over a very small area. It doesn’t pay to skimp. Lastly, the padded envelope at the top of the pack does not do a very good job at keeping the frame off of the wearer’s back. I wore it for five minutes unloaded, and there was very little comfort to speak of. Something would have to change.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The ALICE pack is still popular among some ex-military who liked it during their days in the service, and also has a following among the prepper crowd8, as well as in the cheap-outdoorsman crowd (to which yours truly belongs). Someone from one or another crowd worked out how to attach the MOLLE yoke and waist belt to the ALICE frame, making what the internet calls the ALICE Hellcat9. Since I had foreseen the problems with the raw ALICE gear, I ordered some surplus MOLLE items at the same time. The MOLLE pack straps are a proper yoke, with padding for the upper back; the MOLLE waist pad is gigantic—it wraps around nearly to the front of my hips—and both stiffer and softer than the ALICE equivalent.

I won’t repeat the build instructions here; you can find them pretty easily by searching for ‘ALICE Hellcat’. After some time spent in assembly10, and some time spent with a kitchen lighter melting a frayed strap end back to something approaching integrity, I was ready to try it out. Most of my camping gear lives away from my apartment, so I had to improvise. A pillow on the bottom of the pack simulated a sleeping bag. A pair of ammo cans and a bunch of 7.62×39 simulated my heavy kit—rations, tent, mess and cooking equipment. Those ended up pushed against the frame by ‘clothes’, another pillow stuffed in the front and top of the pack. I cinched everything down, put the pack on, and tightened up up the straps. All told, the load was about 35 pounds, and the pack weighs five or six pounds itself.

And it was surprisingly comfortable. I’ve heard bad things about ALICE, even with the MOLLE upgrades, but in ten minutes of wearing the pack around my apartment11 with a fairly heavy load by backpacking standards12, I experienced neither the bounce and wobble people talk about (the MOLLE waist belt doesn’t quite fit the ALICE frame perfectly; it’s a touch loose) nor the frame digging into my back at any point. I should note that I’m very nearly ALICE-sized: the frame was designed with a 5’10” man in mind, and I am a 5’9″ man. Larger or smaller people may have different experiences. The MOLLE straps in particular are a worthwhile investment. Proper padding at the top of the pack is payoff enough for the price of admission. Beyond that, they also have a sternum strap and load-adjustment straps, so you can change the weight balance between hips and shoulders on the fly. Beyond the serious ergonomic gains, I now have some spare ALICE attachment straps I intend to loop through some of the lashing points for utility purposes. For instance, they may carry my Pattern 37 British canteen, so I have some water on the outside of the pack. In a similar vein, I expect I could use them to secure other parts of my Pattern 37 webbing to the pack if I need extra capacity.

That’s all the testing I did—or at least all the testing I’m going to report before the inaugural trip. “It works in my apartment” is not a ringing endorsement of outdoors gear, and there are some outstanding questions about this setup. Will my frame attachment straps hold? Does the pack provide adequate access to supplies on the march? Will the lack of waterproofing be a serious problem? The trip is in about two weeks, and although it’s only an overnight, it should provide a much better indication of how the Hellcat Light works in actual practice. Expect Part II after I return.

  1. It’s my understanding that frame packs were issued starting in about 1965, but they were issued alongside the 1956 and 1967-pattern load-carrying gear, rather than being part of either set. 
  2. I think a reasonable marker for modern load-carrying gear is, “Has an associated frame pack.” By that measure, the British didn’t have modern load-carrying gear until the Pattern of 1985 PLCE. 
  3. It may be that American experience in Vietnam suggested that making something with as much stitching as pack waterproof was doomed from the start. Troops were issued waterproof liners of various sizes instead. 
  4. Not as quick as a zipper, obviously. 
  5. The ALICE packs had to fit above a pistol belt, so rather than build tall, they built wide and deep instead. 
  6. It’s a shame we didn’t name our other web kit so creatively. BETTY in WW2, say. I suppose acroynm-sanity is a modern phenomenon. 
  7. S.L.A. Marshall wasn’t even dead yet, and he still would have been rolling in his grave. 
  8. Because it’s surplus, and preppers love them some surplus. 
  9. Technically, the standard Hellcat is a medium ALICE ruck on the ALICE frame. The medium pack rides high enough to put a MOLLE sleep system carrier beneath it, attaching to some of the pack lashing points. This makes for a pack about as large as the unmodified large ALICE rucksack in volume terms, with extra compartmentalization, which substitutes for bottom access. If ever I’m interested in a serious backpacking trip, though, I can still add the sleep system carrier and/or MOLLE sustainment pouches; doing both with the large rucksack makes a pack with something like 8000 cubic inches/130L of volume, which is more gear than I could carry for very far. 
  10. When connecting the MOLLE straps to the ALICE frame, the attachment straps make two laps. Once around the frame, once through the buckle, then repeat around the frame and through the buckle again. Otherwise they slip. 
  11. To my wife’s amusement. 
  12. I’m not an experienced backpacker by any means, but it’s my understanding that packs north of thirty pounds are out of vogue among the lightweight backpacking set nowadays.