Which boots are best for selection? Is it ok to train with an ALICE pack?
These are 2 of the most common questions I receive about SFAS prep, and it’s time to provide a 1 stop-shop for all things gear. Before we dive in, I want to make sure I emphasize the following up front: your gear will not decide your fate.
Those who are destined to make it will do so regardless of which gear they choose to bring or train with. If you’re blade-running such that your selection outcome is decided by a poor gear choice, you’re not the right fit anyway.
I want to bring to your attention what I call the “Little League Baseball Paradox”. I call it that because I first noticed it as a little league baseball player, and my dad and I used to talk back and forth about it. The paradox is this: The guys who invest the most bandwidth and money into their equipment typically don’t perform well.
Using the little league example, the kids on my team with the most expensive bat, glove, and cleats were the worst players on the team. In fact, the only reason they ever played (batting 9th, playing right field - aka the area of the field least likely to see action in little league) was because it was little league, where everyone gets a chance to take the field.
To add to the irony, these same individuals also were very protective of their bats. Anyone who played little league (and was able to make contact with the ball) knows that the aluminum bats would dent over time. And although the 2,3,4 hitters were typically stuck using the less gucci, very much dented bats, they still performed well enough to be the 2,3,4 hitters (the best hitters on the team in the vast majority of cases).
The nice bat would sit between the legs of its owner, dentless and in its individual bat bag (they were also the only ones to keep their bat in a separate bat bag - this is stuff I couldn't possibly make up).
I continued to observe this paradox throughout my career in the Army, beginning before selection. Typically, the guys who put the most thought into which boots they were going to bring, their sock arsenal, and how they set up their kit and ruck typically didn’t fare well as well as the guys who just did the damn thing.
Flash forward to my career in 10th and 3rd Group, and the paradox lived on, in the form of “gear-dos” (pronounced to rhyme with weirdos - a term I didn't learn till arriving in group). Although there were certainly exceptions, many of those who spent an inordinate amount of time searching for, purchasing, tinkering with, and refining their gear in an effort to look “high speed”, typically didn’t back it up with performance. Don't get me wrong, I’m all for setting yourself up for success by making your gear as efficient and personalized as possible, but there’s undoubtedly a point of diminishing returns.
As a youngster, I would often inquisitively ask my dad why the kids on my team who owned the nicest bats struggled to hit a fair ball in batting practice (let alone hit a fastball in an actual game), and why those with the nicest gloves couldn't catch a routine pop up or field an easy ground ball. My dad’s simple, but powerful response was always “it’s not the bat - it’s the batter” and “It’s not the glove, it’s the fielder”. As you read the rest of this article, and continue on your journey to chasing your SF dreams, keep these words in the back of your mind.
Part 1; Boot Selection
What Are the best boots for SFAS?
It’s common for many different thoughts to ruminate inside SF hopefuls’ heads prior to attending selection. Doubts, concerns, what-ifs. This is normal. You’re not alone. But thoughts that should own little to no real estate in your head is which boots to choose. There are many factors that can ultimately decide your fate at selection, most of which are in your control, and some of which are not (but all of which you’re responsible for).
I can say with confidence that no candidate’s fate in the history of SFAS has ever been determined by their boot selection. Zero people. No one ever failed to get selected because they used Bellvilles instead of Rocky’s. No one ever barely squeaked by because they had the "SOPC specials" instead of the Nikes.
A factor that very well may decide your fate, however, is that you decide on a couple pairs of boots, your plan A and plan B, and break them in. Beyond that, you break your feet in. Blisters are the most common “injury” at SFAS, and although many people will say blisters are inevitable, I don’t agree. But even if you do get hot spots and/or blisters, they’re manageable if you don’t neglect them.
*I’ve personally had one blister throughout my entire Selection/Ranger school endeavors, and it was purely due to negligence. I left my trusty, old-school Nikes (far better than the newer Nikes, in my opinion) next to the fire overnight at SMU selection, and woke up to find the soles completely separated from the boots.
I was then left with no choice but to use my less broken in, unworn for 3+ weeks, backup boots (the Garmont T8 Bifidas) and succumbed to a blister on my right heel (not my left, I think my heels are asymmetrical) during the 40 mile ruck on the last day.*
Although my mostly blister free experience is the exception, not the rule (most people get blisters and have to manage them), you can become an exception too if you prepare your feet properly. What’s that look like?
There’s no magic formula. It all boils down to wearing your boots a lot. Rucking a lot. Keeping your feet clean. Developing calluses, and keeping them in check. Trimming your nails often, but not too short.
You can toughen your feet, but many people don’t take the time to do it, or they try to short-cut a process for which short cuts don't exist. It just requires consistency and diligence. A lot of people will think I’m full of shit to claim that it’s indeed possible to navigate selection blister-free, and you don't have to believe me. But the fact remains - choose a pair of boots as your 1a). Choose another pair as your 1b). Break both of them in. Toughen your feet. Never think about it again.
Although many people will recommend a “lightweight” pair of boots for the gated events and a more heavy duty pair for land nav and team week, I don’t even think this is a necessary consideration. Ruck in your best boots. Not your most expensive boots. Not another guy's favorite boots. Your best boots. For you.
If one is physically and mentally prepared, I truly believe that any and all authorized Army boots are sufficient for all 3 weeks at SFAS. Candidly, I fell into the trap of using lightweight boots for the speed rucks and heavier duty boots for the remainder of SFAS, but it wasn’t necessary.
I was older and wiser (both about army stuff and fitness stuff) when I took The Long Walk, and If it hadn’t been for the negligent fire incident, I would’ve worn the same set of lightweight Nikes from start to finish.
This particular selection takes place in the mountains of West Virginia (and a bit in some neighboring states), a significantly less forgiving environment for walking with a ruck on than the sandhills of North Carolina where SFAS occurs. And the Nikes were the perfect choice for me.
I wasn’t aware of any other candidate in my class that wore Nikes, but that’s fine. I knew they were right for me - they didn’t have to be right for anyone else. *Just to note, I’m referring to the older Nikes. The new ones (SFBs) are not the greatest rucking boots in my opinion.
Although the above message is what I want you to take away most from this article, I’ll still provide some boot suggestions. I’ll provide some of my personal favorites that I’ve used throughout my career, as well as a few boot choices others have spoken highly of.
My go-to boots (other than the old Nikes, which they don’t make in coyote brown anymore)
(if I were to go to selection tomorrow):
My 1a) Belleville Mini-Mills - these are as close to a minimalist boot as you’re going to find. If you’re not used to minimalist walking/rucking, these ARE NOT the best option. I would wear these for everything besides the gated rucks, as ruck running in minimalist boots would prove slightly less optimal.
My 1b) Oakley SI lights - great for speed rucking, not overly durable. I would wear these during the gated rucks and in garrison only (not for land nav/team week).
My Cold weather option (it would need to be VERY cold) - Garmont T8 extreme insulite - This will inevitably be a thicker, heavier boot. But if you happen to hit a cold winter SFAS class, they’re probably a good pair to have on hand.
Other people seem to like
Rocky S2Vs (heavier duty - I used these in the later stages of SFAS)
Rocky C4Ts (lighter)
Belleville Xero c320
Just remember this - while you’re playing mental gymnastics on which boots are best, someone else is out there training. They’re improving their fitness, breaking in their boots and toughening their feet. You could be that person too. You don’t need perfect boots. You need to prepare your feet and break in the boots you choose. That’s it.
Part 2 - Ruck Selection
Should I train with a MOLLE or can I use another ruck?
This is another valid concern, usually held by aspiring 18X-rays. If you’re already in the Army, you’ve been issued the standard MOLLE rucksack (at the time of this writing, at least), which also happens to be the ruck you’ll use at selection. If you’re looking to go to selection and do not own another rucksack, training with the MOLLE is likely a no brainer. Being familiar with your gear is important, and in this situation, it makes logical sense to train with what you’ve got.
The following advice will be highly controversial. My opinion on ruck selection for train-up differs from most other individuals who help candidates prepare for selection. But I’m going to explain why, if given the choice, you should consider training with a non-MOLLE ruck if you have access to an ALICE pack or a MALICE pack. Here we go.
If you own another ruck and are already familiar with the (few) pros and (many) cons of the MOLLE ruck, training with your preferred ruck is, wait for it, totally fine. Yes, I said it. You do not need to train with the MOLLE if you prefer a different ruck. In fact, you may be better off in the long run training with your alternate ruck.
Why? Anyone who has used an ALICE or MALICE pack will likely agree that they’re far superior to the MOLLE. But many argue that you should train with the same gear you’ll be assessed in, which is a valid argument. I’m all for specificity. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them.
Put simply, the MOLLE ruck has a short shelf-life. You can only load so much weight in it and ruck so many miles with it before it begins to make your life miserable. The straps and strap fasteners are by and large the most annoying aspect of this particular ruck. With repetitive loading and consistent rucking, the strap fasteners simply don’t last. After a while, you're constantly having to re-tighten the straps on your shoulders. The more you use this ruck, the less secure the strap fasteners become.
I reached a point towards the end of the Q course (before I purchased my trusty MALICE) where I’d need to re-tighten the straps every 5-10 steps. Yes, 5-10 steps. They were, by all intents and purposes, useless.
At selection, this was less of a problem, but still something I and other candidates had to contend with periodically, especially during team week event where excess load was places on the ruck frame in the form of an apparatus (e.g. downed pilot). I also had only had this particular MOLLE for a couple of months prior to selection. I used it a bit before SOPC (now called SFPC?) and a lot during SOPC, but that was about it. This brief period of high frequency use was enough to degrade the straps and strap fasteners enough to make the ruck another nuisance to contend with at selection.
If you’re currently active duty and you’ve consistently used your MOLLE for several years, if the straps aren’t defective yet, it’s only a matter of time. If you’re able to DX your straps prior to going, then fine, train in your MOLLE. If you only own a MOLLE and are able to DX your straps before going, I highly suggest doing so. You will thank me for this recommendation during team week when your ruck is staying snug on your back while many of the other candidates are continuously having to pull on their straps to tighten them.
The MOLLE frame is another bewildering piece of equipment. It's made of good ole plastic, and if you've been in the Army longer than 2 days and have yet to snap a MOLLE frame, it's just a matter of time.
These things break constantly. Although the frame typically breaks from blunt force trauma (ruck flops, dropping the ruck, etc.) and is less likely to break from typical ruck training (but not impossible, one of my clients' frame broke while conducting a training ruck), the more worn and weathered your ruck becomes, the weaker the frame will become. This is another item to consider DX-ing prior to selection if you have the means.
If you’re an 18X-ray, I suggest purchasing another ruck besides the MOLLE to train with before joining. The MOLLE is not rocket science. It’s just a ruck. You’ll be able to figure it out quickly once you’re issued it in basic training, and you’ll have plenty of time to experiment with different configurations and modifications.
But if you purchase one before you go, you’ll have 2 MOLLES. One issued one, and one on which you spent hard-earned money. Put differently, you’ll have 2 shitty, non-trustworthy rucks, and one will collect dust throughout your career. If you’re looking to purchase a ruck to train with before leaving for OSUT, I highly suggest an ALICE pack or a MALICE pack.
Use the MOLLE you’re issued when required to, but when you’re rucking on your own (whether before you go to OSUT or during the time between Airborne and SFPC), you can absolutely rest assured that training in your non-MOLLE ruck will not be your demise.
Future-casting, once you’re done with the SFQC and are assigned to your group, you’ll be able to wear whatever ruck you want (when I went through, candidates were permitted to wear their ruck of choice in Robin Sage).
Yes, you’ll get issued “high speed” rucks when you get to Group. But I put high speed in quotations because although the Mystery Ranch rucks are expensive, they’re not the best option for long rucks in my opinion. The MR assault pack isn’t bad, but the full size ruck acted as a duffel bag for my entire career. Any time I did any real rucking, I used my MALICE pack.
*Quick story: Before I left for basic training, I did not purchase a ruck. I was 21 years old, pretty much broke, and didn't have any access to internet forums with mass quantities of information on how to go about preparing as an 18X-ray. I knew you needed to be good at rucking - no question.
But I didn’t even consider purchasing a ruck. As a true example of how ignorant I was, I genuinely thought wearing a ruck would be just about the same as wearing a backpack. So that’s what I did. I did 100% of my pre-army ruck training wearing none other than a Jansport backpack. I knew nothing about packing the ruck. I knew nothing about the value of the waist strap.
I just threw two 25 lbs dumbbells in the Jansport, and off I went. I also ran the entirety of every ruck I went on. I knew that being a fast rucker would improve my chances at getting selected, and common sense told me that running is faster than walking, so that’s what I did.*
The point of this story is not to tell you to do what I did. In fact, please don’t. This is far from the same way I would approach rucking and prep today knowing what I know now about strength and conditioning, as well as the intricacies of selection and SF.
The point is to try and convince you that the ruck you train in will not decide your fate. If you can run, walk, and think with a ruck on (any ruck), and you’re sufficiently prepared. Flash forward 6 years, and I decided to take a shot at SMU selection. My MOLLE ruck at this point was rendered useless.
The straps had no hope. If I had more than 30lbs in it, I basically had to keep my hand on the end of the strap to keep it from not loosening. At this particular selection, the MOLLE is also the required ruck. But luckily, they issue you one when you arrive, and the one I received was relatively (or completely) new.
But guess how many times I rucked in my MOLLE during my prep? Zero. Guess how much it mattered when I showed up, did my thing, and got selected? Zero. I never once had the thought “man, I sure wish I used the MOLLE instead of the MALICE during my prep”.
I’m here to tell you, It’s not an issue. If you’ve messed with a MOLLE before (which everyone will have before attending SFAS), you’re sufficiently familiar with it. If the ruck you prepared in just so happens to not be the exact ruck you’ll use at selection, you’ll be fine.
All in all, just like your boots won’t decide your fate at selection, neither will the ruck you chose to prepare in. Put a ruck on, lace up your boots, and get to work.