Hiking, humping, rucking — whatever you want to call it, I’ve done it. I’ve done a lot of it, as any infantryman will during their career. The shoelace express is the most reliable means to get anywhere, albeit the slowest and easily least efficient means to invade an enemy country. Even though I hiked, humped, and rucked , no one ever taught me how to properly pack a ruck.
I was given a packing list, told not to fall out, and that was as far it went. You’d think I would’ve figured it out, but it took some random dude in Merrell sandals to teach me the basics of packing a ruck. I was in an outdoor store looking at boot laces and got to conversing with another guy. We talked hiking and, long story short, he was astounded I just shoved things in a pack. He praised the strength of youth and then walked me through how to pack a ruck.
Since no one taught me in my time in the service, maybe no one taught you. As such, here am I, your internet uncle armed with sage advice on how to save your back.
Breaking a ruck down
There are two pieces to most rucks. First, we have the main pouches where most of our crap fits. Second, we have the top pouch and external pockets. Every part of the ruck plays a role in packing your ruck properly. When packing a ruck, you’re trying to balance access to necessities while managing your physical balance and weight management.
You pack in a particular way to keep things accessible but balanced and comfortable. Trust me, a little effort and time will result in your back not hating you so dang much later on down the road. Packing correctly will preserve your energy and allow you to finish strong in training and not be dead tired in the field or on deployment.
Packing the ruck – bottom first
Obviously, we start at the bottom, and at the bottom, we want to place things that we will not need to access on the fly, and preferably lighter, fluffier stuff. Here is where you want to shove your warming layers, sleeping bags, and even some spare clothes. This gives you a nice little pad at the bottom of your pack to absorb shock and movement of all the heavy stuff you might be toting.
Working the core
On top of the soft stuff, you want to pack your heavy stuff. The heavier the object, the closer you want it to your back. If it’s heavy and away from your back, it will cause your ruck to pull on your shoulders and create great discomfort. Pack your extra boots, food, hydration bladder, radio batteries, and the like right here.
These are all items you won’t need immediately and are right where your hip strap lies, sitting on top of your sleeping bag and ruck—the heavy, dense gear resting closest to your back. Try to balance it out with the gear distributed on both sides of the pack.
At the top
At the very top, we put our lighter weight stuff that we might need in a hurry. Here I’d toss my poncho and tarp. When the rain comes, you want to get covered quickly. Rain is water, and water adds weight to your ruck. Protecting it from water helps protect your gear, and no one wants to be soaking wet.
At the top, it’s also smart to keep your important items that might not fit into a pocket. This includes maps, note-taking gear, electric goodies, and a snack or two. Depending on your mission and task, you might want to keep optics like binoculars and thermals up here for quick access, as well.
In the pockets
The pockets of a ruck allow you to also keep your small goods accessible and easy to find. Most rucks accommodate external water bottles, and you can never have too much water. You’ll find these pockets soften near the center of the pack because water is heavy.
These pockets are perfect for your cover, eye protection, gloves, weapon cleaning gear, sunscreen, bug spray, and similar little goodies you might want on hand rather quickly. They’re also perfect for storing your Skittles, which are a must-have.
A tight pack is a light pack
Do you know all those straps hanging down from your pack that seem kind of random? Those are likely there to be tightened down and to allow you to compress your pack. Why would you want to do that? Well, a tight pack is a light pack. When you compress your gear, you keep it from rocking, shifting, and moving around.
Gear moving around means the pack is moving around and tugging at your body. A loose, constantly shifting pack will work your lower back and core in a not-so-good way. Working stabilization muscles is important, but not when you are hiking 20 kilometers. Tighten your ruck down as much as possible. Get it nice and compressed, and secure the straps if possible.
Hitting the trails
I wish the sandal-wearing hippy dude who taught me how to pack a ruck would teach everyone. I also wish the military would pick better packs because the commercial market is way better than whatever the military dreams up. Anyway, I’ll hop off my soapbox now. Since you can’t choose a pack that fits your body, you’ll make the ruck fit you. Packing a ruck correctly does wonders for preserving your strength, improving your comfort, and making those miles a little more enjoyable.
If any vets or hiking hippies have tips for better packing techniques, let ’em fly below. Share the wisdom!
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Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Justin A. Bopp