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Pack Like A Special Operations Guy

If there was one thing the military taught me right that would be packing. They have decades of modern conventional and unconventional experience in packing techniques to meet the demands of the mission at hand. I took those skills and to some degree made it an art form because it really is.
For me there are three types of traveling that you can pack for: The 1-3 day, the full week to two weeks and the entire month. I typically fall in the latter two. Packing a short one week trip to the BENELUX for example does not mean bringing everything short of the kitchen sink. I believe most of us have common sense to figure that out. I know traveling is subjective. it all depends on what you plan on doing within that timeframe. I’m positing this to those travelers who want to streamline their packing efforts and lighten their load. What ever your traveling style may be there is always new methods to being practical in the packing and packs/luggage you choose. It means you will need to develop a pack-centric mindset in order to lighten your load. Not feeling weighed down by too much is a satisfying relief when zipping through the airport, train stations or leaving your hotel.
To get started you need to have the basic essentials (eg. Toothbrush, floss, sanitary napkins, underwear, socks etc). Second, you’ll need to determine how many per each clothing items is truly necessary for the duration of your trip. Third, choose a pack that will carry all the things you need and perhaps leave a little more room for unforeseen things along the way like a sweater if it gets too cold or a nice pair of shorts and flip flops for the beach.
When packing I roll my clothes. Even the socks. By rolling you’re able to compact the items better for space conservation. For example, I’ll take a t-shirt and fold it in half the long way (sleeve meeting sleeve) and then roll it up like making tortillas. Do that with your other foldable items. I will designate quadrants in my pack. All my socks will go first at the bottom followed by pant(s). Then shirts. And last a light weight jacket or hoodie. I will put extra things like gloves and underwear in a separate compartments. Extra pairs of shoes/sandals will be tucked inside the main compartment toward the sides.
The following list is purely for those who prefer back packs as a primary way of carrying stuff or for those who really never considered backpacks as a viable option over their modern luggage.
Important thing to remember is that you will count the clothes you will be wearing as part of your things to bring.
For 1-3 days I recommend the Osprey Synchro 12 or the Gregory Salvo 24. These two have air cooling systems for the back. Considering your trip is anytime in early spring to early fall The Osprey Synchro is ideal for keeping all you need while enabling you to get around freely without the bulk. The Gregory is perfect for carrying more if you feel the need to have items like a laptop or pro camera and accessories.
For the full week-2 week I still recommend the Gregory Salvo 24 or Osprey’s equivalent Metron 24 Pack. A 24 liter pack can effectively get you through two weeks in Europe. This will mean you’re doing laundry a few more times than you’d like. Full disclosure - I went on a three week trip to England with only three pairs of underwear. But if you want more space then I recommend the Osprey Atmos AG 50.
For the full month trip again I recommend the Osprey Atmos AG 50 because it’s capable of transcending both traveling durations. The 50, 55, into the 65 liter are what I consider to be the sweet spots for a full month trip. But if you want more space I recommend the Gregory Jade 53 and the Paragon 58. The packs I’m suggesting can be found online at Osprey and Gregory. You can also go to the nearest REI store and try them on (which I recommend) and figure out which works best for you.

Posted by
8245 posts

I tell my family that they can take anything they want on a 2 week trip as long as it weighs 22 lbs. or less and fits into a TravelPro ultra light 21 inch swivel wheel carry on bag. We no longer check luggage. I actually follow Rick Steve's packing list--somewhat.

Many travelers are not strong enough to deal with backpacks. I like the swivel wheel bags as they can be pushed sideways down airplane aisles. I'm dealing with 2 bags without any assistance. My wife is riding a folding personal scooter that is gate checked at the airplane door.

Traveling very light, we always have some clothes we never get around to wearing.

Posted by
294 posts

Rolling vs. Folding

Some like one or the other.

Others use a combination of both.

I recently saw the term Ranger Roll or Army Roll for the rolling method, so I Googled it.

It is not just rolling. The method keeps the clothes rolled. Haven't tried it yet, but looks better than just rolling.

This is how I've always stored socks. Roll them up from the toe and turn the cuff over to make a little sausage roll. This is how Mom always did socks.

But in the video the guy rolled shirts, pants, underwear and even a puffy jacket as well as socks.

Army Roll

Maybe all y'all already knew this, but if not, Google Ranger Roll or Army Roll and check it out. Or check the link I watched.

Posted by
19170 posts

Many travelers are not strong enough to deal with backpacks.

Most travelers could deal with a backpack if they didn't insist on overpacking. Since refining my packing method in the first years of this century, I've made seven 2 or 3 week trips to Europe with only a 12½# carry-on.

I'm now 80, and I just finished a 6 day trip to Seattle with only carry-on. Because it was a busy travel time (Memorial Day weekend) and I thought I possibly would have to gate-check my carry-on bag, I was staying in a B&B with a washer, and I needed some nice clothes to attend a church service, I packed a little differently, but my carry-on plus personal item still weighed only 13½#. Still no problem to carry as a backpack. It was nice to have my hands free while knowing that everything I absolutely needed would be there when I arrived.

Posted by
842 posts

I would think that if someone is not strong enough to deal with a backpack, they also would not be able to hoist their bag into the luggage compartment when carrying it on a plane. Since many people who carry on also have some sort of other bag, the “not strong enough” is not so.

Posted by
294 posts

Many travelers are not strong enough to deal with backpacks.

Some of us don't like the idea of having to take it on and off, having the straps damage clothing, dealing with it in the airport (like using the restroom), having pockets on your back you can't keep an eye or hand on, bumping into others or things because you are twice as deep or more than normal, strain on the back and shoulders, feeling off balance with it on, potentially putting all your "valuables" in a location (overhead bin) that is not in your control at all times.

"Not strong enough" applies to any carry-on being put in the overhead bin, not just backpacks. I'm one who can lift straight up, but up and forward is a different story.

Do what works best for you.

Posted by
722 posts

At the risk of being the contrarian, I'm curious what makes special operation guys uniquely qualified at packing that I should emulate them? Trail hiking influenced the way I pack for travel. Packing styles are not the same but I hung onto packing light. I do remember watching young military guys cutting their section hikes short because they packed too heavy with a lot of overbuilt gear.

Posted by
497 posts

I was curious about the folding technique, whether or not you put your clothes in a backpack or a roller bag when you finish. After watching a few videos it seems like it would take a longer time to do and you’d need a flat surface like a table top or desk to do it. Bending over a bed wouldn’t work very well.

I’m curious to hear from folks that use this method what they think?

Posted by
3262 posts

I recently saw the term Ranger Roll or Army Roll for the rolling method,

I start out with this method and find it rather fun to do. I start out with a very neat bag. However, once I wear the item, that's when the system begins to fall apart for me. Partially dirty clothes are not as fun to roll perfectly... And then there are those that are truly dirty and awaiting laundering... However, I'll keep trying to perfect this system. I perhaps need a sergeant on my trip standing over me yelling at me....Gomer Pyle blasting from my past... LOL.

Posted by
1265 posts

@Guy in Upper Left Hand Corner

As ex-military, you might appreciate this:

This bugout bag is the medium weight consumer version of the bag used by the US military and is made overseas.

I have used this bag for trips from 2 days to 3 weeks over the last 9 years. I really do not pack too differently between short and long trips. I may carry a few more socks, underwear and shirts in longer trip, but they add very little weight. The heavy stuff is the essential (to me) electronics and toiletries/liquids.

This bag has lots of internal and external compression straps to cinch it down if I pack less. It is also expandable and all the straps stow away if I buy a lot of stuff and need to check in the bag. The key for me is the hip belt which take loads off the shoulder. It also has two internal aluminum stays to provide structure and weight transfer to the hips. They are removable if I want to save a little bit of weight.

I have a sackpack for daily use or if I need to use it as a personal item on the plane in order to split weight to make the carry-on limit.

In the last 2 years, I adopted packing cubes for organization. I really appreciated their usefulness when some of our hotels did not have clothes drawers.

Posted by
28 posts


Thank you for the link and your thoughts on the pack. I like investigating new stuff for me to make my trips less cluttered, bulky and stress free as possible.

Posted by
28 posts


“I'm curious what makes special operation guys uniquely qualified at packing that I should emulate them?“

Not saying anyone should strictly adopt a style of folding/packing. As I implied in my original post this knowledge is for anyone who has never applied these techniques with their materials they bring. The military and civilian sectors have a great interconnection of knowledge transfer. What works in the civilian world will be emulated in the military.
Conversely, what works in the military will be adopted into the civilian.
It’s all about knowledge sharing. I’m not about to say that rolling is the best method. But it’s quite an effective method when packing.

Posted by
28 posts


Nice vid.
To another’s comment on the video yes you “roll” almost everything. To achieve that goal with some items it’s best to fold before you roll. And no, one does not require a table or flat surface. I use my thigh or set it on my backpack. Most often I just use my chest and chin support. Easy!

Posted by
294 posts

Posted by Wray

I start out with this method and find it rather fun to do. I start out
with a very neat bag. However, once I wear the item, that's when the
system begins to fall apart for me.

I'm wondering about how to roll things like shirts with tails instead of straight hems. Or blouses that are fuller on one side than the other because of pleats or gathers so they don't lay flat.

But I'm still enjoying the clarification on rolling so that things stay rolled.