Working in an austere environment brings with it a unique set of challenges when it comes to packing and maintaining a sustainment backpack that allows one to be independent and successful. The bag I’ll be describing is a culmination of three separate trips to Syria with a relief group that focuses on casualty and humanitarian needs in conflict zones throughout the world. In order to support our team and our mission, I spent a good amount of time working out of my bag, and thus it was a very important addition to my gear selection.
Because we were vehicle-mounted, we had the liberty of bringing more personal items in a larger duffel-sized bag as well. But I needed something that would sustain me throughout varying weather conditions, in the front seat of our vehicles while on the road, and could be used to quickly bed down for the night. Due to the ever-changing circumstances of our relief work, sometimes we stayed in a single location for weeks, other times we were moving on a daily basis as needs and requirements fluctuated day to day. One day we could be sleeping in a comfortable hotel in the Syrian town of Qamishli, the next on ground mats in a rural field with our electronics powered by vehicles, power banks, and solar panels. Through much trial and error (which is never-ending), I settled on a combination and balance of items that allowed me to support our team’s work.
I found an assault pack-sized backpack more useful than a waist-mounted or even a ruck option better for working in Syria for a number of reasons. An assault pack can be kept up front in a driver seat; it can be slung over the headrest out of the way; if you have to walk a long distance or transit via other vehicles, you can sustain yourself well. In the event that you need to fill it with mission-essential equipment (such as medical supplies and communications gear), it can support that aspect of a mission for an entire day or more.
Due to the nature of the threats abroad, a small measure of mitigating being targeted comes with maintaining a low profile. I often see products in the tactical gear world that bill themselves as low-profile/low-visibility but realistically fall short. If a bit of kit is Coyote tan or has some sort of MOLLE panel or Velcro sections, it screams tactical to even the most casual observer and will certainly raise eyebrows from those willing to do harm.
Mountainsmith Approach 25 Daypack
$90 — This pack has been discontinued, but the Clear Creek 25 offers similar features and pricing.
I made sure to always keep certain contents of the pack with it, while others would be constantly switched out depending on the mission tempo and daily rhythm of our team. Depending on the weather conditions and seasons, sometimes it’d include warming layers and appropriate jackets.
A very important note to be made here is the necessity of electronics and their accessories. Some of our most essential tasks depended on the ability to communicate, edit reports, power our phones, and top off our headlamps with rechargeable batteries. Even without a cellular connection, phones can be incredibly useful tools in an austere environment. Taking photographs of casualties, navigating offline with MapsMe, and sending documents and reports to team members in the field via a Bluetooth connection were all critical tasks that our phones permitted. In order to support these, I always carried the following cables: MicroUSB, Apple Lightning, USB-C, and a 12V power port cable. On top of these electronics was a Goal Zero power bank that can support AC outlet charging or be hooked up to a solar panel, in addition to a smaller Goal Zero power bank to recharge my headlamp. Finally, I have my laptop (with hard case) and a Sandisk 2-Terabyte Solid State Drive — possibly one of the smallest on the commercial market that won’t break a typical budget.
Other staple items were my first-aid kit (TQ, gauze, bandages, latex gloves), local scarf (can be used to cover face, hide sensitive items, clean or dry equipment, or function as a ground mat), flip-flops, international power adapter, pens, extra pair of socks, oral hygiene gear, raincoat, boonie hat, and textured gloves. During colder seasons, I made sure to pack a lightweight jacket and a beanie. If the weather got even worse I could put in thinner warming layers as well.
The bag I chose and the items I packed in it were the result of constant trial and error over several mission trips, realizing what was truly important and what wasn’t. But all of this could change overnight if I find a deficiency that needs to be fixed. More important than any of these items is an ability to always be thinking and finding a better way, realizing that there’s usually no single solution to dynamic mission requirements that’ll last. That’s how we can get channeled into poor gear selection and is something we need to be considering when working in an austere environment.