ALICE packs vs MOLLE packs

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alice-vs-molle

Alright, now right off the bat, the mole to your left is a joke.  That’s because “MOLLE” is pronounced like the name “Molly”, but it always just kind of looked like “Mole” to me – so I made a graphic in it’s honor!  Actually, “ALICE” doesn’t refer to a character in a fiction movie either.  “MOLLE” and “ALICE” are both acronyms – the military loves acronyms, and in this article, we’re going to look at the contrast of ALICE vs MOLLE.

Military style backpacks are experiencing a resurgence in popularity among civilians. The two popular bags are the ALICE and MOLLE rucksacks. In this article a brief description of each will be given along with the benefits and disadvantages of each. A short summary of the differences between the two styles with a few ideas on how to best use each pack.

What is an ALICE pack?

ALICE (all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment) is an equipment attachment system and accessory set officially adopted by the military in 1973. The ALICE pack has been standard-issue-alice-packphased out of military service, but some units still prefer to use this style today. ALICE packs were designed as a two component system.  First, the belt system, with entrenching carrier, two small cases, canteen cover and suspenders. Second, the elements comprising the bag itself which include the cover, bag and frame.

What’s good about ALICE?

One of the main advantages of the ALICE setup is its ruggedness. This pack is capable of carrying large loads and have the added benefit of being moisture resistant. There are no zippers to break, allowing for some serious gear stuffing.  I happen to know from experience that a US Marine can pack ALL necessary field gear into one of these puppies.  ALICE packs can be used with or without a frame but the external frame definitely helps balance the load – otherwise, these packs get pretty center-fat.

What’s bad about ALICE?

The pack can be uncomfortable especially with heavy loads and some of the straps for lashing gear to the bag get in the way. The old style of metal strap adjustments make closing the compartments a bit tedious. There is no easy access pockets for things like water bottles although with the external frame, you can rig something up pretty easily.

MOLLE packs

MOLLE (pronounced like the name “Molly”) packs (modular lightweight load-carrying basic-molle-packequipment) is the current rucksack for most military units.  Implemented in 1997, this is a totally fresh and rethought design and it’s kicking ass out there!  With the MOLLE system, gear attachment is made simple, fast and easy – in fact, this was one of the main driving ideas behind the design.  The main components of a MOLLE pack are: the tactical assault panel, the rucksack, a hydration bladder and numerous modular pouches.

What’s the best part of MOLLE?

Yes.  The benefits of the MOLLE setup are many in number. First, the interior of a MOLLE pack has several locking pouches for securely transporting small items. A hydration pouch(sort of like the CamelBak stuff) is included in most packs – thus eliminating the need for a canteen. The strap system allows for individuals to customize the pack for carrying the gear they need. Access to gear is simple and quick – because you can attach your gear in so many ways, nothing is out of reach.  On the large models, there is an internal sleep system carrier which has a zipper for easy access.

Is there anything bad about MOLLE?

While there is little room to complain, nothing is perfect and the MOLLE setup isn’t any different.  My main gripe is the Velcro on these packs tends to be a bit noisy – what Velcro isn’t?  The easy addition of components can lead to taking too much gear along in which case you almost become a pack-rat, which to be fair, is merely proof that you’re spoiled(in a military way). Also, external pockets may get in the way when hiking through thick brush. Early models of the MOLLE had plastic frames that were subject to breakage but luckily, that’s since been resolved. Most of these packs are not waterproof either which isn’t a deal breaker but hey, when you compare all the ups of MOLLE to the downs of ALICE, who’s complaining?

The main differences between the ALICE and MOLLE

The biggest difference between the two styles of packs is the manner of storing gear. In the ALICE pack, gear is carried in one large compartment, with smaller gear going into the side pockets. The MOLLE uses a series of small pouches for most of the gear. Another difference is access to the gear. The ALICE uses a strap system for enclosing the gear, while the MOLLE has zippers on the compartments.

How do I choose which of these packs will be best for me?

Decisions, decisions – both the ALICE and MOLLE are fine examples of military backpacks but  if I had to break it down a bit, I would say the ALICE pack is good for the adventurer, hunter and survivalist. Built with rugged materials designed to withstand the rigors of extreme conditions. The large storage compartment is great for hauling bulky equipment. People who demand the most from their equipment will appreciate the toughness of this bag.  The MOLLE on the other hand, will be loved by hikers and campers alike who will most enjoy the light weight of the pack. The streamlined design is good for most hikers, especially for short trips.  A hydration pouch means the hiker will not have to carry an extra water bottle and the straps allow the user to add small items without adding much to the bulk.  One of our favorite hiking packs is the 5.11 Rush 24.

Questions?  Post a comment below and I’ll answer them!

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Meet the Author

I'm a former US Marine, full-time father and husband, and part-time survivalist. I like old things, like music, furniture and time-tested survival technique, but there's always a place in my heart for new technology such as weapons and sleeping bag fill. I'm here to share my knowledge and experience, and I hope you'll share yours as well.

57 comments… add one
  • David Brackett Dec 26, 2014, 8:07 pm

    i have owned perhaps a dozen or so large and medium alice packs
    i have also owned many of the tacticool packs by eagle ind, maxpidition, blackhawk, spec ops, ect.
    i keep going back to alice but using molle ll shoulder straps and waistbelt aka hellcat mod.
    the setup vastly improves the comfort of system.
    recently i purchased a brand spanking new USMC Filbe setup, having only fielded it twice i cannot give an honest opinion as to its reliability although initial impressions are quite good…..still i won’t be getting rid of alice anytime soon!…woods

    • Mike Dec 30, 2014, 10:58 pm

      No need to get rid of Alice. She treated me well in the field during all operations the USMC involved me in. Ole’ Faithful….. For certain. The Alice pack might be old school, and, maybe it’s nowhere near as good as a newer MOLLE pack…. But I remember packing a dozen pair of socks into my old alice pack prior to field operations – and that, is worth something to me.

  • surviver14/15 Jan 5, 2015, 10:35 pm

    Alice for sure. Great when packing pump drills for fire or wood to camp, plus no Velcro.

    • Mike Jan 6, 2015, 8:32 am

      Yes – that illustrates the fact that there are definitely strong arguments for either style – Each has unique strengths.

  • jay Jan 30, 2015, 12:11 pm

    I have many different packs of different styles and always wind up grabbing my Alice pack. I just feel it carries just what I need for the task at hand, and is most comfortable on the body.

    • Mike Jan 30, 2015, 12:31 pm

      Oh yeah – I know many people who still use the ALICE for most things. It’s got a really good feel to it. I had one from years back that I loved and I took it everywhere and used it for everything like you do – then, like an idiot, I left it in my car with the door unlocked(in a mall parking lot mind you) and it was stolen – what a moron.

  • Jose Apr 18, 2015, 8:43 pm

    When I was in the Marines, I only ever got access to the Alice. Lately, I’ve been thinking about purchasing a surplus pack for camping and this article was extremely helpful. Thanks for doing it!

    • Mike Apr 20, 2015, 4:17 pm

      Glad you like it! Good luck choosing your pack Jose – Semper Fidelis!

  • Mark Jun 22, 2015, 9:49 pm

    My favourite pack in the last 35 years is the Alice and I managed to snag one and a frame when I was in the US last time. The frame is what I love as it is very comfortable and allows for proper airflow around the back. I appreciate the benefits of the Molle but is there any Molle that has or that can use a frame like the Alice?
    Also, is there such a thing as a SMALL Alice frame?

    • Mike Jun 24, 2015, 8:43 pm

      Mark, everyone is moving away from external frames. While they have their place, simplicity is winning that battle. The MOLLE system is just not set up for any external frames, but I bet you could attach a modern pack to an old frame – might be worth a try. As far as I know, the ALICE frame was only in one size.

    • Ash Nov 3, 2015, 3:48 pm

      Hey Mark yea you can get smaller frames for the alice pack. We still use Alice packs in the NZ Army we can request for smaller frames if needed

  • Nugg Jun 26, 2015, 5:03 pm

    Love love love the Alice Pack. A smart packer will divvy their stuff in different sacks, and place them inside accordingly, no harm in not having sewn-in pockets. Clipping stuff the the outside of the pack (per Molle) guarantees weight far & away from your back. Which will result in a painful hike and hunched over effect. Go go Alice ! ?

    • Mike Jun 27, 2015, 7:32 am

      Well, despite having the three large pouches in in the front, in the Corps, all I remember packing is dry socks, dry socks, and more dry socks.

  • Victor Jun 26, 2015, 11:03 pm

    I need help, ok I got a hold of a old Alice pack and while looking at it I can not figure out how I’m surpose to attach the shoulder straps back up(I got it with the shoulder straps unattached) I know it all surpose to be put back together some how but it confused the living hell out of me. If anyone got any knowledge on these old Alice packs please can someone give me any advice.

    • Mike Jun 27, 2015, 7:34 am

      Send a couple pics of your setup to me. mike(at)militarybackpackguide.com

      We’ll get it figured out. Nice that they are detachable, but I seem to remember there being a certain mystery to them.

    • Nathan Sep 28, 2015, 11:03 pm

      Where do you live, Victor? If you are close to Indianapolis, I can show you how to do it. Or maybe go to a surplus store. Those guys know how they work.

    • Randal Dec 17, 2015, 3:30 am

      In the old Corps I was a RTO …..the Alice carried my prick 77 ,2 rolls of comwire3 battery’s …. Tape antenna whip antenna…..4 pops smokes, 2_pop ups ….now let’s add my personal gear….If ya live and Win ALICE All the way……molle lame child’s toy. In my opinion a get you killed price of equipment….

    • Paul Champagne May 25, 2016, 11:37 pm

      If I remember correctly, the top strap had 2 rings on it and the bottom strap ended in a thinner piece of strap. You thread the thin strap up through both rings and then down over the top ring and under the bottom one and cinch it tight. I hope I am answering the correct question and that it helps.

  • Sam Jul 5, 2015, 11:06 am

    Gotta love Alice. I have limited use with any of these bags but alice seems to always win out for me. I like the large area and smaller pouches. I do have a cheap alice so the straps are uncomfortable and hard to get on. I do want to get a better one.
    Right now I am shopping for a molle pack because its modular. I want a every day bag that I can take on day trips as well. Something I can carry water, lunch and a first aid kit in for two then turn around and fill up with a few reference books and a volt meter.

    • Mike Jul 7, 2015, 4:41 pm

      MOLLE and Alice have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s very situational when you come right down to it, although preference definitely plays a role. What’s the volt meter for?

  • Ulysses Duran Jul 14, 2015, 8:51 pm

    Definitely Alice, I spend 20 days in the field as a explorer, and is very comfortable in long walk through the desert and Sierra in Mexico, my problem the water. Thanks
    my English is not so good

    • Mike Jul 16, 2015, 8:25 pm

      Yeah, in terms of water, if I’m using an ALICE pack, I just throw a hydration bladder in the pack somewhere. It’s not specifically designed for it, but it works.

  • James Jul 29, 2015, 6:39 pm

    Great article. Fyi for Alice pack there is 3 sizes. Small is half of frame with bed roll taking up other half. Medium is 2/3 of the frame(maybe tad more) and large is whole frame and larger in all directions. I personally Carry medium. For me it’s not to big and not to small

    • Mike Jul 29, 2015, 11:27 pm

      Yeah, when I served in the Marine Corps, we had a small pack. You know, we would have been so much better off with a nice internal frame setup and therm-a-rest setup. Uncle Sam wouldn’t sign off on that though.

  • rachid Aug 2, 2015, 5:38 am

    I started off using the Alice pack when I first went into the Marines back in late ’97-’98. The pack itself isn’t really all that large but i was quite amazed at how well we became acquainted with making all our gear somehow fit into it. And it sure can take beating too. It was our primary pack (along with the good ole sea bags) all the way until 2000 when they issued us the shiny new Molle gear for the 26th MEU. From that point on, it was pretty much Molle everywhere.

    However, I personally preferred the Alice and even today I still bring it out whenever I feel the need to go rucking once in a while. But 60lbs sure feels lot heavier than what is use to be :).

    • Mike Aug 5, 2015, 10:54 am

      I all but forgot about Seabags! What a memory it was, packing that thing for my first deployment – thanks for the jog down memory lane.

  • rachid Aug 23, 2015, 7:55 pm

    Heh, yeah seabags! I still remember that very night in Parris Island when we all were stuffing all this strange green gear into them for the first time. I recall my straps weren’t full attached yet before the DIs rushed us all into the next room. It was at that point was when I thought to myself “what the hell did I get myself into”. Was in for quite a surprise later on, heh.

    Also, I’ve been trying to read up more on this “USMC Pack” which is being used by Marines now to replace the ILBE pack. Got any good intel on that one, Mike?

    • Mike Aug 24, 2015, 12:51 am

      Are you talking about the ILBE?

      • rachid Sep 28, 2015, 4:35 pm

        Originally was called the FIBLE, to replace the ILBE. Now it’s referred to as simple USMC Pack.

  • Steve Correira Aug 25, 2015, 4:30 pm

    What is the absolute best way to wear the Alice Pack (w/frame), weight bearing belt & straps WITH a plate carrier?? Would you guys keep the old school set up or switch to a molly suspenders and belt system?? Thanks.

    • Mike Aug 25, 2015, 11:12 pm

      Most plate carriers are fairly bulky, plus you’ve got the extra set of shoulder straps. The ALICE pack with frame is a fickle monster. Some folks like and and others just can’t get comfortable. I’ve never donned both the ALICE pack frame and a plate carrier together, but if I’m living in today, I’d be situating myself with a fully MOLLE compliant outfit. In my days served in our beloved corps, we didn’t have a choice, but then again, we didn’t have plate carriers either. Instead, it was a 782 outfit with a LBV(load bearing vest) and cartridge belt. Sort of a halfway house between an ALICE setup and the new MOLLE rigs. It was sort of a transition period.

  • Tom Edgington Oct 22, 2015, 12:07 pm

    I am a deer hunter and am looking for a pack that I can frequently wash for scent control. Can an ALICE pack be machine washed?

    Many thanks!

    • Mike Nov 18, 2015, 2:23 am

      I’ve machine washed mine many, many times. I would not suggest machine drying though.

  • Sean Jan 31, 2016, 5:32 pm

    The Alice has better support then the ruck. After 40lbs the rucks plastic frame bends essentially forcing your shoulders to bear the weight. Where the Alice dosent cause such a issue due to the metal frame

  • Travis Feb 1, 2016, 9:57 pm

    Tactical Tailor does some REALLY good ALICE pack mods. The addition of a 3L hydration bladder in its own pack is my favorite. Also I really liked having them eliminate the straps and snap buckles and switching everything to Fastex buckles.I use mine for backpacking/long hikes and had them add a bladder to both sides. I suggest checking them out…not cheap but for around $300 you will have the best pack you could imagine. Oh, DEFINITELY suggest doing the “Hellcat” mod as well. Thats simply using the MOLLE shoulder straps and Kidney belt on the ALICE frame, and I added the MOLLE sleep system as well. This pack is amazing and ill never switch.

    • Mike Feb 3, 2016, 1:25 pm

      Thank you for this. I’ve checked them out online, but I’ve yet to purchase any of their services. I will likely do that in the future.

  • Jeff Maxwell Mar 21, 2016, 12:16 pm

    I recently purchased MOLLE bags from Explorer tactical – a 17″ multicompartment, a 20″ and 24″ bag with the intention of using them for different hiking: day hikes, short overnights and longer overnights. These bags, in my opinion, were designed for the adolescent – their waist belts are very short and other features seem to lend themselves to light loads and younger hiker. That being as it is, have you any experience with attaching a MOLLE bag system to an ALICE frame?

    Thanks

    • Mike Mar 22, 2016, 12:09 am

      Are you talking about MOLLE attachments themselves? They only have the 1″ straps, so if you’re trying to attach them to the actual frame of an ALICE pack, There’s really only one way to do it – wrap around and snap.

  • Lauren Mar 24, 2016, 11:27 pm

    This was a great article! So informative to someone like me who knows nothing about these things!

    My husband is in the Marine corps and I want to buy him an Alice pack for his birthday. do you have any suggestions on where to purchase one? Or any add ons? In your article you mention a frame for it, is that a good idea. The comment above me seems like they completely personalized it!

    I just want to make sure I’m getting the best pack for my buck and that he will use it and it will be beneficial to him!

    • Mike Mar 25, 2016, 12:25 am

      Hey Lauren! When did your husband join the Corps? Do you know what his interest is in an ALICE pack? Will he even like it? I ask, because most modern-day Marines whom have never used the ALICE pack would take one look at one and say “What the hell is this crap?”. When I was in the Corps, the ALICE was our pack, so I went through Boot Camp with one, and into IRAQ as well. Let me know a little more, and I can make a recommendation.

      • Lauren Mar 26, 2016, 1:30 am

        He joined last year. But he’s old fashioned , loves all things tactical. Prior to Marine corps (still does this for his unit actually) he sharpened knives. Carves things out of wood. He specifically said a couple weeks ago he wanted an ALICE pack. Then when I started doing research and I realized it was a bit out of date I was confused. But he’s a research person and I feel like he’d know.

        I don’t know if job makes a difference in deciding if it’d be good, but he’s an 0331, and goes to the field quite a bit.

        I also realized it doesn’t have a canteen compartment. But he’s BIG on hydration.

        Hope that was helpful to help me! Lol

        • Mike Mar 28, 2016, 3:12 pm

          Lauren, the ALICE pack has three outboard pockets and a canteen will fit in one of those, but if he’s into the old-school, then he’s certainly got 782 gear with a cartridge belt, which the canteen clips onto. I guess you couldn’t go wrong with a standard ALICE and also external frame. If he’s not into the frame, the two are easily separated.

          Here’s a nice ALICE by Rothco – here.

          Here’s a frame to go with it – here

          Let me know if you’ve got any other questions. Thanks Lauren!

  • Steve Jun 23, 2016, 12:42 am

    Hi there,
    After letting my grand-daughter take my Swedish LK35, needed another. Found a genuine used U.S. army surplus ALICE large pack as a replacement. I was apprehensive, having read stories about how they needed mods to make them comfortable, etc, but very pleasently surprised. I packed it with shopping, so could hardly lift it, then walked several miles back home. It was the most comfortable pack I have ever used. Perfect fit on me, no weight on the shoulders, no cutting from the harness. Much better than my old British army bergan pack. First class piece of kit, all metal fittings, quick release straps, etc. This one is a keeper.

    • Mike Jun 24, 2016, 12:25 pm

      Glad you like it Steve! I sure always loved mine.

  • vocalpatriot Jul 24, 2016, 7:22 pm

    I had owned MANY different backpacks over the years and even made some…
    where molle doesn’t suck, neither does alice…
    I would prefer molle type setups for small kick around edc type bags,
    but alice is my go to girl for excursions, in any terrain and in “trying and kick the stuffing out of it”…type situations. I used them during my time in service, where i learned my love for it.
    I have had my alice pack longer than I have had my kids (over thirty years)
    and it has not needed ANY maintenance or repair other than a bit of cleaning…and tightening a few loose stitches here and there…
    I rarely stuff it full to over 35 pounds…

  • Rick Sep 22, 2016, 6:49 am

    G’day from Down Under Mike, I have an older style ruck that I was looking to upgrade, its handy because I have all my hunt gear in it. This has helped me somewhat, ill need to check if either will fit a Remington 7600 Police Patrol rifle, as thats a major part of the hunt kit.

    • Mike Sep 26, 2016, 1:09 pm

      That’s a nice rifle Rick. I thought Australia had a ban on guns? Or was that just hand guns? Nonsense.

  • Deniz Home Oct 8, 2016, 2:19 pm

    Hi Mike,
    I am in need of a good support backpack (ergonomic frame, in particular) to carry a senior blind dog- approx. 25 lb. Child carriers and hiking backpacks won’t work, because the dog needs to fit in a 12″x16″x 6″ framed bed to be secured to the pack . Should I consider Alice? Thank you!

    Deniz

    • Mike Oct 18, 2016, 7:42 pm

      Deniz, ALICE was made for military men and women, and as such, isn’t always the most comfortable thing. I would highly recommend scouring the civilian market for what you need. Have you called around to some veterinarian offices? I was also picturing what your challenge looks like, and I thought you might check also, with your local Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers (for advice of course), as well as the organization that works with service dogs. I would imagine someone would have some sort of lead for you and your loyal travel partner.

      Good luck! If you strike out there, let me know, and I’ll keep thinking of more places to contact!

  • John G Oct 23, 2016, 9:59 pm

    Great article, thanks! Can’t speak to MOLLE (after my time ), but the large ALICE served me well for 20 years (15 on jump status). I’ve carried it from the Artic, to the jungle, to the sands of the Middle East, through the woods and in combat with out a lick
    of problems. To me, any ruck that can survive parachute jumps, getting tossed into the back of a deuce and a half, and riding strapped to the back of a Hum-V has met and exceeded the torture test LOL. Still have one, and just got back from a Boyscout camping trip with my son where she came through again. I might mention here that it’s been with me since I retired in ’95. I’ve tried quite a few civilian backpacks, but always go back to old faithful! I will agree with the comment that carrying 60 pounds was a lot easier 25 years ago….but properly packed the fact I can still carry it says a lot for the equipment!

    • Mike Nov 2, 2016, 1:59 pm

      ALICE is pretty impressive. It was a wonderful piece of gear.

  • Devon Nov 14, 2016, 9:54 pm

    As an active duty Marine, i will say that the new molle is far better than the ALICE (which i was given when i first joined). That being said, the frames leave something to be desired. Our Weapons Marines carrying the 50s and 81s replace the plastic frame with the ALICE and buy better straps. The combo of the FILBE with a ALICE frame seems to be the best marriage of space efficiency and a frame that can center and lift the load high on our backs.

    • Mike Nov 21, 2016, 2:27 pm

      Semper Fi Shrimp n Fries!

      Thanks for the comment Devon – and thank you for your service. I remember the 81’s… I hated carrying them around the armory (2111), glad I didn’t have to carry them in the field:)

  • Rebecca Dec 15, 2016, 12:38 am

    This has been a great page full of awesome information for me! My boyfriend is actually on Parris Island right now, graduating in just 4 weeks! I heard when they travel to MOS they need to pack papers and back-up uniforms in a carry-on. All he has is an old gym bag and a falling apart backpack… I know they leave MCRD with a sea-bag, but are they ever issued any other backpacks? If not, I would like to get him something that he can use as a carry-on but also out in the field, everyday activities, adventuring, ect. He’s a little older than your typical recruit and really loves old school things. I think he would love the “vintage” significance of the ALICE. But he used the MOLLE throughout boot camp…will he eventually be issued a MOLLE?

    I second Lauren’s comment on the fact that I know nothing of these things and want to get him something that he will actually use and be of benefit to him. Any thoughts or advice would be much appreciated!!

    • Mike Dec 15, 2016, 9:53 pm

      Rebecca – congrats to your boyfriend for taking the plunge – it will forever change him.

      Really, MOS school, most of the time, is pretty restrictive. They still sort of treat you like a recruit in many ways – at least they did in my MOS 2111. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not able to use the pack he wants during this period. Once he gets out in the field, and to his first duty station, it is all up to the command he is a part of. Most commands will let you use alternative gear provided it’s reasonable. ALICE packs are nice, and definitely a blast from the past, but compared to what’s available now, they are pretty impractical. He will definitely be issued the latest gear, which will be utilize the MOLLE system. It’s just really practical. Me personally? I have always loved ALICE packs. I think he’d love it if you got him an ALICE pack. That’s just a neat bag to own, like part of a collection.

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