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 Hellcat. 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 Gods.
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 pack 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 pounds. 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 experiment. 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, heavy 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 bags. 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 modularity. 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?