User Review: U.S. Armed Forces MOLLE Pack
Source: bought it new
Price Paid: $85
Extremely efficient weight transfer to the hips. Very high capacity. Good system called PALS for adding pouches to make items more convenient or to increase volume.
- Weight transfer to hips
- High capacity
- Load stays below neck level, so good for trails with impaired headspace
- People will tease you about it
- Need to pack it so that weight stays forward, but design accommodates that need.
For better copy of this review (with pictures and better formatting) ask me via email JohnLaff (at) gmail (dot) com.
People assume that I am nuts to hike with a backpack that weighs over 10 lbs empty, but I thought I’d outline what I like about the MOLLE II backpack.
The MOLLE II is a standard issue army backpack available online (new) for about $100. It has a very sturdy plastic external frame which conforms well to the shape of the back, a generous set of harness (slash) shoulder straps, a well-padded waist belt and a 3000 cu inch capacity main pack including a front pocket. One would usually add a 1600 cubic inch “sleep system carrier” below the main pack.
It has a great deal of modularity allowing more added components using the PALS attachment system. I use it often with two 500 cubic inch side “sustainment pouches” mounted at shoulder level. With all four of these components, you get about 92 liters of space without overfilling the pack on the top. I would estimate that you can fairly easily add another 500 cubic inches inside the snow collar that can project above the normal top of the pack. (I try to avoid high-loading it and rarely have to.)
The basic 4600 cu inch configuration, without the side sustainment pouches but somewhat overfilled at the top, is shown in the two photos at top right. The picture at middle right shows my own pack with the main pack loaded low and two side-mounted sustainment pouches. Below right is a drawing with two more added components, a daypack (or assault pack, probably 2000 cu inches) rearward of the main pack and a fanny pack below the sleep compartment. That configuration is probably well over 110 Liters (but I would find it awkward).
When I started winter camping I started to need a higher volume pack and usually heavier weights. Once I learned that I could handle the heavier weights on snowshoes, it seemed obvious that just walking with a heavy pack was less of a big deal than I assumed. I started exploring higher volume packs and experimenting with what they allowed me to do. I particularly liked the ability to increase days in the backcountry between resupplies.
I realized that some stuff wasn’t all that heavy, but added volume beyond what a smaller pack would accommodate. I have come to prefer polar fleece over down for clothing because fleece does not absorb water and therefore stays warm even if it gets wet from rain, a fall in water, sweat or whatever. And fleece requires volume. While this factor applies most strongly in the winter, it is nice even in shoulder season backpacking to include pretty bulky fleece wear.
I also find that with higher pack volume I don’t need to compress my down sleeping bag as much as I did with lower pack volumes, which allows it to maintain more loft as the trip progresses. And I can easily carry a closed cell foam sleeping pad when needed and inside the pack rather than lashed on. I also found that once I had a higher volume pack, I was less likely to leave home things I like: a piece of pumice, foot powder and other things that weren’t heavy but were bulky. And there was never a need for “hangers” (other than a pair of socks drying out).
I was worried, of course, by the added weight on the pack. It was about 5 lbs heavier than the packs I was used to. But the sturdy plastic frame and the hip belt (pictured at right) transfer an amazing amount of the weight from my shoulders and torso to my hips and a locking “blast” buckle on the belt keeps it tight for hours of hiking, rather than gradually loosening, as has been my experience with several other packs. It took a bit of accustoming my hips to the added pressure of the belt, but once I did, I estimate that with a 45 lb load inside (55 lbs total) my back and torso is actually carrying less weight than with my old pack, though of course my legs are carrying 5 lbs more.
Think of it this way. It used to be said that a well-designed pack would transfer no more than 20% of weight to the hips and that minimal packs concentrated almost all the weight on the shoulders or torso. If we assume that the minimal pack weighs 2 lbs, the well-designed conventional pack weighs 5 lbs, and with this pack at 10 lbs, the following loads would apply if one filled the pack with 30 lbs of gear, food and water and makes the assumptions below re weight transfer.
weight Empty pack weight Load on legs % wt transfer to hips Load on torso (slash) shoulders
30 2 32 10% 28.8
30 5 35 20% 28.0
30 10 40 50% 20.0
At heavier content weights, the factor becomes more pronounced.
weight Empty pack weight Load on legs % wt transfer to hips Load on torso (slash) shoulders
45 2 47 10% 42.3
45 5 50 20% 40.0
45 10 55 50% 27.5
I find that my legs handle the added 5 lbs of load well and my shoulders and torso are happy to have their load reduced. Wearing the hipbelt tight, which is my preference, and the pack high, virtually no weight is on my shoulders and a quite tolerable load rides on the upper back and on the chest.
The extremely well-padded shoulder harness keeps weight off the top of the shoulders and concentrates it on a broad area of the upper back and on the pectoral area.
I have always preferred external frame packs, but I always acknowledged the truth of one of the standard criticisms of external frame packs – that the load tended to shift around too easily. A slight mis-step often resulted in a shift of the weight on your back, which tended to raise the risk of a stumble turning into a fall. The MOLLE pretty much eliminates that problem. The frame is so stiff and the weight transfer so solid, that the pack just sticks to your back like glue (while still allowing air circulation, keeping you back cooler).
The volume distribution of the pack is quite unusual. Most high-volume packs require you to carry a lot of weight quite high, well above shoulder level. This moves your center of gravity upward and also creates a problem when you have to walk in trees with branches just above head level. If you don’t overfill the MOLLE above its natural top level, all of the pack is below neck level. (See the middle picture on the first page) This also allows you to look over your shoulder when you want to look at something behind you (e.g., a person you are hiking with, or a sound that’s interesting). The MOLLE also avoids low weight. Nothing hangs down at butt level, an uncomfortable problem with some packs. (See the same picture)
The MOLLE avoids high and low weight by having a front-to-back dimension (particularly in the sleep system carrier) which is much deeper than on any other pack I’ve seen. Once again, the picture of my pack at middle right on page 1 illustrates this. This feature worried me until I learned that the pack is designed to allow it to be easily packed with high-weight items kept high and close to the back and high-volume items to fill the lower and rearward parts of the pack.
In filling the sleep system compartment, you just lie the empty pack on the ground with the frame downward and first load the heavy things you need at night – shelter, sleeping pad, ground cloth, maybe some dense food items that you won’t need that day. Then put in the high-volume low-weight items like expedition weight fleece layer, sleeping bag. The weight is thus close to your back, while the volume is in the back.
Once the lower compartment is full with things you won’t need until nighttime, set the pack upright (it will stay upright on the base created by the sleep system). Inside the main pack is an optional internal “radio pouch”, which can be firmly attached centered high and tight to your back, and where you can insert your bearcan filled with your heaviest items (usually food). If you don’t need a bearcan, the radio pouch can just be filled directly with higher weight items. The remainder of the volume of the main pack than can be filled with lighter weight items.
The result is a weight distribution that keeps the center of gravity as close as possible to your natural center of gravity with a pack. While any pack will require somewhat of a forward lean to compensate for weight on the back, this one requires surprisingly little lean (particularly compared to what it looks like).
The Army’s MOLLE system comes with PALS attachment points for various added gear to fit your needs. Most of the components have lash points that corresponds to attachment straps (shown in picture to the right) on a wide variety of available pouches and containers. The lash points create a very tight meld of the pack to the additions so things don’t flop around as you walk.
I prefer to keep some items within easy reach. I keep handy a water bottle, map, compass, GPS (or cell phone), altimeter, pencil and pen, notepaper, suntan lotion, mosquito repellant, sunglasses, binoculars (or camera), and Spot Tracker, all in distinct locations on the hipbelt, shoulder straps or sternum strap. These are items I want to access without the need to stop and take off my pack. I use four standard-issue military pouches -- a mapcase pouch, a canteen pouch (or 200-round SAW gunner pouch) and two different sizes of grenade pouch -- on the hipbelt and several civilian grade attachment devices on the sternum strap and shoulder straps.
The configuration of the pack (especially the wide, flat bottom of the sleep system compartment) makes it easy to just find a convenient rock (or log) and sit on it and let the pack stay attached but with all the weight transferred to the rock. On a longer rest stop, the shoulder straps have a quick release buckle which can be popped open with a pull on a lanyard and easily re-attached afterward. The packframe also makes a quite comfortable backrest to lean against.
In my experience, the buckle on the hipbelt is often a weak point on transferring weight to the hips. The MOLLE has a very sturdy, locking “blast” buckle at the waist that just stays locked in place once you tighten it to your comfort level. I like my hipbelt quite tight, and always previously have slowly had buckles that seem to allow just enough movement that the belt gradually loosens perceptibly, allowing the weight to gradually shift away from the hips and back onto the shoulders.
There is a very large clear map case under the top flap of the main compartment. While this is more than you are likely to need for maps, it provides added water protection to the contents of the main pack and is a convenient place to put your rain jacket for prompt access and so that it doesn’t get all balled up (repeated folding adversely affects raingear’s DWR coating).
For stuff you will need during the day (e.g., lunch) there is a compartment on the back of the main pack that holds items you need to access easily. The side sustainment pouches also provide easy access to gear. (I tend to put kitchen items on one side and toileting, emergency and repair items on the other side.) As noted above, a variety of add-on pouches are available.
The pack is quite waterproof. While I would put any down gear in a waterproof sack where I have a risk of falling into a stream, the pack protects my gear well in pretty heavy rain.
This is definitely “bomber” level for durability. While I carry some replacement buckles in case one breaks, the construction seems about as durable as can be imagined. Army specs call for it to be capable of carrying a 120 lb and surviving a 10 foot vertical drop. I inadvertently put is down once on some volcanic rock that would have torn any normal fabric, and I couldn’t even see any abrasion. It is fair to say that some of the weight of the pack is devoted to more durability than we are likely to need, it’s nice to know that a pack failure is VERY unlikely to spoil your trip. Also, you can probably let your grandchildren inherit it someday.
The parts that might wear out with heavy use (hipbelt, shoulder harness) can readily be replaced from available online sources. Field repair kits for buckles are also readily available online
If you use the two side “sustainment pouches”, your pack will be somewhat wider (left to right) than your shoulders. See picture to right. On my recent nine-day Grand Canyon trip, this once required me to take the pack off to take it through a narrow area between two big rocks on either side of the trail. But it was only that once, and the Grand Canyon trails involve more narrow passages than trails in the Sierra. The fact that the pack stays below neck level (see the same picture) meant that overhangs were less problematic than with a more typically configured high-volume pack, which often rises above head level.
Buckles and closures:
The various buckles and zippers are sized so that they can be opened and closed with gloved hands. They are quite sturdy.
Unfortunately, it is only available in various tones of camouflage. Mine is “Desert tan”.
Note that the current MOLLE large ruck is slightly different than the version reviewed (the 3000 cu inch main pack and the 1600 cu inch sleep system carrier have been downsized and combined into a single divided 3730 cu inch bag). But the version reviewed, with a separate sleep system carrier below the main bag, is the one generally now available for sale cheaply on the Internet at present.
You can see the newer modification of the pack at the link below (though the prices quoted at this site are way higher than you can find elsewhere for the earlier version reviewed in the attachment)
Further information and pictures here:
If you buy it, it will generally arrive as components that you must assemble yourself. Assembly instructions, which will also give you a good view of the pack, are available in this video:
There are variations on the basic MOLLE design for various purposes, various camouflage patterns, and some changes over time. The particular components that for the basis of the above review are listed below. The NSN numbers, in particular, will identify the particular version I reviewed. Note that different camouflage patterns have different NSNs – these are for desert tan:
Packframe (tan) NSN 8465-01-519-6440 DEI P (slash) N #1603 manufactured by Down East, Inc. (I also own an earlier, slightly different, version of the frame in black plastic NSN 8465-01-465-2158)
Shoulder straps NSN 8465-01-491-7513 SP0100-04-D-4183-0007 Lot No 1 manufactured by Specialty Defense Systems
Molded Waistbelt NSN 8465-01-491-7429 SP0100-04-D-4183-0007 Lot No 1 manufactured by Specialty Defense Systems including “Blast buckle” imprinted with “ITW NEXUS ILL 4 Patented”
Main pack 3000 cu inch capacity NSN#8465-01-491-7519 SP0100-04-D-4183-0001
Sleep System Carrier 1600 cu inch capacity NSN# 8465-01-491-7508 SP0100-04-D-4184 (slash) 0001 Date: M10-5-05 (the second-bought MOLLE)
Radio pouch (internal to the main pack) approx 430 cu inch capacity NSN 8465-01-491-7446
2 Sustainment pouches 500 cu inch capacity each NSN 8465-01-491-7511
Canteen (slash) general purpose pouch (I wear this mounted on the hipbelt for binoculars, compass and mosquito repellant) NSN 8465-01-494-0272; 200-round SAW gunner pouch (alternative to canteen pouch), administrative pouch (for maps and writing material) and 2 versions of grenade pouches (fit sunglasses, suntan lotion and Spot Tracker)
Not reviewed, but I also own: Pack cover (IMHO, useless); Waist Pack (aka fanny pack) NSN 8465-01-491-7445 SP0100-04-D-4183-0003 Lot No 1 manufactured by Specialty Defense System: Replacement Buckle Set NSN 8465-01-465-2080
My weight measurements:
- 2 lb 3 oz frame
- 3 lb 10.5 oz frame plus shoulder straps
- 4 lb 13.5 oz. frame, shoulder straps & hipbelt
- 7 lbs 5 oz. add 3000 cu in main pack
- 8 lbs 9.5 oz. add 1600 cu in sleep system
- 9 lbs 3 oz. add internal radio pouch to main pack
- 10 lbs 2 oz add 2 sustainment packs
- 10 lbs 14 oz. - add fanny pack
Feel free to contact me with questions. JohnLadd@gmail (dot) or 415-648-9279.
Misc. additional pictures on following page
Frame Side-mounted sustainment pouches
200-round SAW gunner
pouch (mounts on hipbelt) Field repair buckle set