Any nut-job like me, with a thing for military surplus has at least heard of the ILBE set. Well, I read so much about it that in the end I had to get one to see it with my own eyes. And so I did. Now, after a year of extremely heavy use, it’s time to do a review. I will review each part of the set in a separate post, starting at the ILBE assault pack.
Note: I do not want to spoil this article with my potato-quality camera phone pictures. I’ll use images found online until I get some better camera gear.
For those who are not very familiar with it, the ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment) pack set was issued to the USMC (United States Marine Corps) in 2004 to replace the ALICE pack and was replaced with the FILBE set in 2012, as it was apparently very uncomfortable to wear combined with body armor. Apart from that, this set is almost perfect for backpacking / hiking and camping.
The set consists of three items:
- A 25l (1500 cu.in.) assault pack (which is what I will cover in this article).
- An 80l rucksack. I will review this in a future post once I get to try it out.
- A 3l (100 oz) hydration bladder carrier.
The ILBE assault pack
The ILBE assault pack has become the daypack I use when hiking, as well as the one I take when I go grocery-shopping on foot. Designed by Arc’teryx and developed by Propper Inc, it is a bit disappointing for everyday use, especially for the Arc’teryx standards. Still, an extremely durable backpack worth its value. Its purpose was to replace the butt pack issued with the MOLLE II set, practically carrying an assault load: Ammo and water.
The civilian version
Shortly after the pack’s issue in 2004, Arc’teryx created a slightly better version of the pack for its LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) line, with better materials and a few differences in the PALS systems and attachment points. This pack was called the Arc’teryx Charlie, it came in three colors and was discontinued shortly after (probably since it costed way too much for an uncomfortable pack). You can read a short description and see some images of the Charlie in militarymorons.com.
Description of the ILBE assault pack
The ILBE assault pack is a pretty straightforward pack. It has two compartments: A main compartment with a hydration bladder insert, and a tube port above it and a flat zippered front pocket. Above the front pocket, there are two more ports, apparently for radio antennas. Both compartments have very good quality zippers, with some protection. The main compartment also has a drainage hole on the bottom.
There are two compression straps on each side, which are ideal for compressing and stabilizing the load and attaching things on the outside of the pack. In the front of the pack and above the pocket, there is a 5 by 6 PALS grid and two 4 by 3 grids on the sides of the pack, underneath the lower compression straps. There is a 1″ carry handle on the top of the pack.
The backpack includes a 2″ webbing hip belt, which can be tucked behind the lumbar panel on the back side. The shoulder straps are lightly padded and are 2.3″ wide, with quick-release buckles and an adjustable sternum strap. Each shoulder strap has an elastic hydration hose loop and a length of 1″ webbing from top to bottom.
- Material: 725d Cordura fabric
- Volume: 1500 cu.in
- Weight: 1.17 Kg / 2.6 lbs
This pack has some truly excellent qualities. Here are some:
Survivalists like to use the word “bomb-proof”, and the ILBE assault pack is one of the items this word really applies to. We are talking about a 725d Cordura backpack which is virtually indestructible. In the last year I’ve taken it grocery shopping, carrying 10kgs (22lbs) worth of beers. I’ve taken it for day hikes and thrown it around in the dirt. I’ve taken it in airplanes and boats. This backpack has seen places and has suffered in my hands. And apart from getting a little dirty, it’s still in perfect shape and all the stitches are good as new. All in all, it’s a friggin’ beast.
The ILBE assault pack has two compression straps from each side, which serve their purpose pretty well. They are very tough and very good at compressing and stabilizing the contents of the pack. I usually keep my trekking poles and rain jacket there, or a sleeping pad if I’m doing an overnighter.
Modularity and expansibility
Like all modern military backpacks, the ILBE assault pack features PALS (pouch attachment ladder system) grids. It has one 4×3 grid on each side and one bigger 5×6 grid in the front. This means that various PALS pouches can be attached. Now if you use this as a daypack, you will have more than enough space for your things. If not, go straight to the ugly, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
You can get this pack brand new at a maximum of $100 on eBay. You can probably get it used in decent condition for something like $20-30, which is pretty good for the quality.
Nothing is perfect, and neither is this backpack. Here are the drawbacks I’ve found:
Oh my God, I hate these straps. I’m sorry Arc’teryx, but you done goofed up. I really cannot imagine how someone would purchase this pack on its own or even worse, purchase the Charlie version which must have cost a small fortune (remember I bought mine in a package deal with the full ILBE and MSS sets).
These nightmares are not only extremely bad on your shoulders, but the bottom part “digs” into your ribs as well (it’s a bit of a tricky feeling to describe). Yes, they are lightly padded and yes, they are supposed to be fine for the load this pack is supposed to carry, but they’re not. In fact, the shoulder straps are the biggest complaint ILBE assault pack owners have.
In the winter when I’m wearing a thick fleece or insulating layer underneath, this problem is much less noticeable. In warm days though, with three liters of water and some basic gear, it’s absolutely intolerable without the hip belt, and uncomfortable and annoying with it.
Same as the straps (extremely uncomfortable) with the added bonus of getting soaked wet when you sweat. Lumbar support is non existent. This adds to the whole uncomfortability of the pack.
There are some properties of this pack which are neither bad nor good… but they mostly seem bad. Here are some examples:
The PALS grids
Wait, wasn’t this in the list of good things? Well yes and no. The PALS grids of the ILBE assault pack are not the greatest. The side grids are too small (although they can fit canteen pouches and 200 round SAW pouches) and the bigger one in the front is a bit weird, for two reasons:
- Not sure if it’s a defect of my own pack or it’s the rule, but the last column of webbing loops is a little narrower than the first, making the stitching uneven (check yours out and leave a comment, I’m curious).
- 5 columns of webbing is a very random number. As far as I’m concerned, no pouches come with a horizontal distance of 5 columns between clips. This means that when you add pouches with a horizontal distance of 4 columns, they will either sit on the left or on the right of the pack, making it look uneven and awkward.
As stated previously, the backpack is not ideal for multiple-day trips. Even a single overnighter can prove to be challenging with the limited volume the ILBE assault pack can take. So if you want to be able to use it for an overnight trip and grab some z’s, you better add some extra pouches or pockets.
The antenna ports
These are just useless for civilians and can only cause issues in a rain or storm. Dirt can also get in from there. I’d consider sewing them shut or even better, sewing a velcro panel on top of them.
Although it’s nothing too heavy, the ILBE assault pack is not exactly ultralight. That may be an issue for some, I find it ok though.
I realize that MARPAT is a very effective camouflage, but I don’t like it for a pack that I use in town as well. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel a bit weird. People are fast to judge people who like military gear, so I would either use a more classic camouflage like US Woodland, or I would go for a single color pack. I would definitely use it much more if it weren’t for the camo.
Should I lose this backpack (since it will probably outlast me), would I re-purcahse it? Short answer: Yes, but I wouldn’t pay more than $30 for it. As tough as it might be, it still is a small and uncomfortable backpack. I would probably prefer paying more for a bigger, more comfortable pack without a camouflage pattern. The ILBE assault pack needs some serious additions and modifications, after which it might become a great pack, but not as-is.
If you’re interested, here are some of my ideas for modifications on the ILBE assault pack.