Some military surplus items are perfect for travellers; light weight, not to expensive, still available from unused stock and many different ways to use them. The US army patients effects bag is such an item.
When wounded soldiers were taken to a (field) hospital, staff placed an injured soldier’s personal belongings such as wedding rings, watches, glasses or letters in these bags. Each bag has two drawstrings on top and a gusseted bottom to stand upright when full. Inside the bag is a rubberised pocket to separate items. On the outside of the US GI personal effects bags is a small white square where the soldier’s name would be written. Another version which is not so common is meant for dead soldiers and has a label which much more details to be filled in. Among the details; Killed in action. Measuring 12 inches tall and 15 inches wide, these cloth bags make perfect toiletry bags, laundry bags, or other small item bags for campers, Scouts or travellers.
The French army F1 backpack was in use till the mid 90s. Nowadays you can still find them in many (online) army surplus shops. Main reason for that is because they are extremely durable and made out of tough heavy duty materials. This backpack is super strong and won’t disappoint you.
The French army F1 backpack is compared to a modern lightweight backpack a bit heavy (2,2 Kg) and a bit uncomfortable. Actually it is more a very luxury duffel bag. For example; it doesn’t have side pockets and it has grip handles on both sides. Besides that you can also wear it on your back. Fully expanded it has a huge storage volume. Some sources claim it is 65 litre while other mention even 80 litres. There are two different closing cords. This allows you to use the backpack in normal mode or in fully expanded mode. Where the Polish (puma camouflage) backpack is equipped with two sets of closure buckles to assure closing at different heights, the French F1 backpack uses extra ordinary long closure straps to close the pack at all possible heights. The shoulder straps are padded but not with the softness of a modern backpack or rucksack. There is a hip belt but this is a very minimalistic belt. Most people will attach both sides of the hip belt to another point of the bag and not use it. The bottom of the pack is covered with a thick rubber that comes 20 cm of the ground. This will prevent your stuff from getting wet when you place the pack in a damp underground or a small puddle of water. Behind the rubber is a small pocket that is sealed with Velcro. This can be used to store a padlock and the ends of the very long closing straps. The covering lid with a top pocket also has a rubber lining to protect your stuff from the rain.
Closable with a padlock.
Another great feature of this backpack is that you can close the top with a pad lock. To do this you have to remove the upper binding cord and replace it with a extra high padlock. This will make it a lot harder for thieves to steal from your bag. Especially in buses between the city centre and the ferry pier to the harbour and on long distance buses to the southern islands theft is very common. Usually the luggage handling personnel works together and hide one small guy in the luggage compartment under the bus.
A padlock from Abus type 85/40 can be used to tighten the back through aal the rings on top of the bag.
Just like most military surplus backpacks it is possible to upgrade them with parts from other backpacks. One of the possible upgrades is to attach the shoulder straps of a modern backpack to the D ring on top of the backside of this backpack. Since the original straps are very small it is possible to wind them through most buckles that will come with a the well padded shoulder straps of an old backpack. The original shoulder padding can be attached with duct tape over the extra soft and longer backpack straps.
As mentioned the Polish army backpack with puma or frog camouflage is somehow comparable with this backpack. Another back that might be the starting point for designing the French F1 backpack is the WW2 US army jungle pack. This was a much bigger backpack than normal and uses extensively by the USMC in their battles against the Japanese in the Pacific. Especially when you look at the olive green version of this pack instead of the pacific jungle camouflage version you’ll notice the similarities. One single compartment with a closure top lid that has a pocket with a zipper. Both packs also have small straps attached to the shoulder straps for carrying extra equipment in front of you.
The Rucksack Other Arms from the British army and the Osprey Porter are both “single” compartment backpacks where you can hide the shoulder straps. This allows you to use it as a hand carrying bag. Both the backpacks are not very high compared to their width.
If you spend most of your time carrying your luggage at your back when hiking or going to the woods and mountains, then a real backpack is most suitable. If your backpack spends most of its time in a luggage compartment of a bus, train, airplane, mini van, taxi etc. then a single compartment bag with no extra straps or side pockets is more suitable. This setup comes close to a suitcase that you carry on your back. Hiding the shoulder straps prevents your bag from being strangled with other parts of a vehicle or other luggage. Side pockets are normally for direct access to small frequently used items. When your main luggage stays in a luggage compartment you can’t reach it. So extra side pockets are not useful. The absence of these extra pockets makes the bag lighter and prevents stuff from falling out or get stolen. You always keep in you hand carrying bag or day pack. The extra straps and belts on a typical backpack are for attaching other items like a sleeping bag or a bedroll. Extra items attached on the outside of a backpack might come of, get stolen or get strangled with other parts of a vehicle. So therefore it is wise to keep all your luggage in one big solid compartment. Both the Other Arms bergen and the Osprey Porter have a single big solid compartment and don’t have extra straps that you might not use. Normal suitcases have a hard shell and always keep the same size and shape. This makes it very often difficult to impossible to fit them in the trunk of a car or mini-van. While travelling in Thailand you will see people struggling with this. There these backpacks have a soft shell you won’t have this problem.
The Other Arms Rucksack was issued to non infantry units like engineers or armoured vehicle crews of the British army. They do have to carry their clothes and equipment with them when moving from their barracks to field bases etc. But unlike their infantry counterparts they usually don’t have to carry it for long distances on their back over muddy trails in the woods. This backpack is also known as: The Turtle backpack, The engineer’s backpack, Other arms bergen and some other nicknames. The main construction material of the pack is heavy duty 1000 Denier Cordura. Most of them were produced with the woodland DPM camouflage pattern. But versions in black and olive green are also know. Just like the other Bergen types, the pack can be extended with two side pouches from 10 litle each. These are also known as the rocket pouches. Where most urban backpacks attach side pouches with two small straps, the side pouches on the Bergen type backpacks are attached with 4 fast release buckles and two realy heavy duty zippers. This setup makes that they won’t bounce back and forward all the time as they do on most commercial backpacks. The two side pouches can be zipped into a daypack with the use of a so called yoke (shoulder straps). Most backpacks and rucksacks have a covering flap over the full top of the bag for closure and protection. The All Arms rucksack however has a double ended zip at the top of the bag. This zip is protected with a small covering flap.
The Osprey Porter comes in two sizes: The Osprey Porter 46 and the Osprey Porter 65. They are made of 420 Denier Nylon Hex Diamond Ripstop fabric. While normal duffel bags or suitcases have little to no options for compressing the luggage into a smaller size, the Osprey Porter has two compression straps. These will bend the semi rigid side walls down to the middle of the bag. This will also protect the zippers. In the unlikely event of of a broken zipper you still have these straps covering the contents of your bag. The zippers can be opened over the full length of the pack. This makes it a top loader just like a suitcase. Where the shoulder straps of the Other Arms bergen can be tucked away behind a covering flap that is sealed with velcro, the Osprey Porter does this with a zipper. This seems to be a more rigid and strong solution. The 46 litre pack does match the requirements of most airlines to take the pack as hand carry luggage. The two grap handles on the pack are very strong and padded. This makes very easy to carry it with your bare hands instead of with the shoulder straps. The All arms bergen has only one hand carry handle which is not padded. Especially with a fully loaded pack this might be not very uncomfortable. Where most backpacks have a inner pocket to store magazines, or a laptop on the side close to your ruck, the Osprey Porter has a pocket to store a laptop and other office items on the front side of the bag. This pocket is accessible from the outside.
Other so called “Travelpacks” with a similar design are the Osprey Farpoint and the Lowe Alpine Voyager. The Osprey Farpoint is almost identical with the Osprey Porter but it has two sleeves on the front where you hand put a bottle or a folded map inside. The Lowe Alpine Voyager comes with an extra strong anti-theft zipper. Not a bad idea since zippers on suitcases and backpacks are very easily to break open with a sharp tool or a simple ballpoint. After stealing your luggage (usually by luggage handling personnel) the thief will close the zipper as if nothing ever happened.
When you are traveling you need to wash your clothes sooner or later. Luckily you can find many laundry services in Thailand. They will wash and dry your dirty clothes for 40 to 200 Thai Bath. But sometimes you just want to wash one or two items or you just stay one night in a place. Then it is an option to do a quick hand wash in a bucket or in the bathroom sink. For these situations it is super handy to have your own small rubber bucket with you. It is light and it doesn’t take much space in your suitcase or backpack. In case you don’t have soap with you you can always buy some in a small package at the 7-Eleven. Or you can off course use some shampoo or shower gel.
The Dutch / Belgian military rubber bowl will stand right up by the pressure of the water what is inside. The bowl isn’t that big (approx 4 litre) but it is large enough for a T-shirt, a pair of socks, some underwear and a short. Just let your laundry soak in the water with soap for a few hours and then wash the soap out of the laundry under running water from the tap.
Bowls like this are sometimes sold as fishing equipment or as drinking bowls for dogs. The fishing gear manufacturer Trakker makes a almost similar army green rubber bowl. In high end camping and outdoor shops these are also sold. In these shops you have to pay a serious amount of money for it. The cheapest is to buy them in a military surplus shop. Prices there may vary between 2,50 Euro and 10 Euro.
The Polish WZ89 army backpack (aka Frog or Puma camouflage) is a cheap and simple backpack. Just a big sack with two straps on it. It was in use in the Polish army from 1989 and until 1993. The typical camouflage pattern is called the Zába Pattern, which in polish for Frog. On military surplus store websites it is also called the Polish Puma camouflage pattern.
The bottom is protected with a rubber (PVC) coating. So when you place your bag in a small puddle of water or in some wet grass not all your stuff is totally soaked. For a better protection it is wise to use a big plastic bag inside the backpack itself since the fabric is very thin and not very water resistant. In military surplus stores you can also buy special water resistant laundry bags.
The top side of the pack has two drawstrings, one on the very top and one a bit lower down the body. The lower drawstring allows for loading to regular capacity, similar to a normal rucksack. The top drawstring allows you to expand (overload) the pack to the size of a big backpack. Keep in mind that there is no padding on the shoulder straps. So if you you load up on weight it’s going to cut into your shoulders and may hurt. The big top flap can be closed in two different heights; two triglides on the bottom or two triglides half way the pack.
The rucksack is constructed of very flexible material and doesn’t have a rigid frame. This simple construction gives very little wearing comfort. However this also makes it ideal for packing and compressing your luggage down to a small package and in the same time it also allows you to expand the bag to carry a much larger load. It is also possible to fold the bag down and take it with you as an extra bag in your main luggage. Since the weight of the pack is only 0,75 Kg it is not that much extra.
Other comparable designs.
There is also an improved version of this backpack with a different camouflage pattern (WZ93 Pantera) and stronger materials. The M93 Pantera camouflage backpack. The fabric of the M93 backpack is waterproof and the name tag is stronger and equipped with a better plastic window.
The much bigger and heavier French F1 65 liter military backpack might have been the inspiration for this design. That bag is also more like a duffel bag, comes also with a rubberised bottom, and is also closable at two different heights. But that bag is made of much heavier canvas and the rubber is thicker and comes higher from the ground. This makes the weight of this pack going up to 2,15 Kg. The backside of the pack has a padded back support in a triangle form, the shoulder straps are padded and the pack has a simple belt to let the weight rest at your hips. These features makes this backpack / duffel bag quite comfortable to wear. More info in this special blog about the French army F1 backpack.
Many people regard a soft backpack without any back support or padded shoulder straps as a ridiculous idea and the worst design ever. However the famous (military) backpack company Berghaus made a similar backpack The Berghaus MMPS Grab Bag. This bag has also one main compartment without side pouches. Only the cover lid is a little more sophisticated with a pouch behind a zipper and some webbing for attaching extra gear. This bag is also meant as an extra light weight bag that you can take with you in your main luggage.