‘Max on how to Ruck like the SAS’
I wrote a post titled ‘More Detail on Rucking Fitness’ which ended up devolving into a series of personal experiences on UKSF selection. Given the interest in that post and the general interest in the topic of ‘rucking’ and fitness it was suggested that a more objective look at these standards and techniques would be useful: ‘Max on how to ruck like the SAS’.
This is intended to be an interest piece, providing perspective and perhaps useful tips, rather than as a standard that you should be setting for yourself. In fact, I launched into my stories on selection having first intended to demonstrate that the actual required pace is a lot slower that you may think, in opposition to many of the super-soldier claims out there to, for example, have been rucking at super-fast paces carrying huge amounts of weight. The point was to interject some realism into the discussion.
‘SAS Selection’ is now UKSF selection that is a joint course for access to the UKSF community. To put it in perspective the ‘Delta Force’ selection course was modeled on SAS selection. The gateway is the initial selection course otherwise known as ‘the hills’ or ‘aptitude’ that lasts for around five weeks. After that units diverge on their own continuation training per their specific role.
The point of UKSF selection is to stress you to beyond what you would normally physically be able to handle, to test your mental determination. Unless you are a natural super-athlete, you will by default be exhausted and most likely injured to varying degrees by the end of the course. For the SAS, this is the beginning of a process of continuation training: the hills phase is followed by a period of training at Hereford, to include officers week for officer candidates. Then comes jungle training (small unit tactics) and the rest of the required courses such as escape and evasion and parachute training.
Once a SAS soldier is ‘badged’ on completion of the whole process they will go to a Squadron. Each squadron is divided into four ‘troops’ that have a specialty related to insertion methods: Air troop (skydiving, HALO, HAHO etc.), Mountain troop, Boat troop, Mobility troop (vehicles and heavier weapons). The counter terrorism role that the SAS became so famous for in the 1982 Iranian Embassy siege is rotated across the squadrons with separate specialist training for that role.
The SBS, closest equivalent to the Navy SEALS, also go through UKSF selection, as does the SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment). The reserve components of the SAS, 21 and 23 SAS Regiments, also go through as well as L Detachment and no doubt other odds and sods.
This is a roughly 5 week course. The weight for all ruck marches is 55 lbs dry plus weapon, water and food. The rifle is a decommissioned SLR (FN) that you have to free hand, you cannot sling it. You have to carry it correctly in both hands at all times, except when halted to do a navigation check or drink water etc. Unless things have changed, you were not allowed to use Camelbaks, I believe primarily due to to potential for sickness with candidates putting all sorts of energy stuff into them and getting sick if they were not cleaned. But mainly, I think it was because Camelbaks are too convenient! They also don’t translate well to the jungle, where canteens are better, particularly when you have to pop puri-tabs in them to decontaminate water to drink.
Navigation is purely with map and compass. The type of compass used is the orienteering type ‘Silva’ ones with the protractor combined with the compass. Pretty much every soldier in the Brit army has one of these as a personal purchase. The utility of these types of compass is without doubt. No one in their right mind would willingly use a prismatic (i.e. lensatic) compass and protractor for navigation – such equipment is reserved for things like artillery forward observation and such. The fascination in the US Army with the lensatic compass and protractor, as well as walking on azimuths and ignoring terrain association, still amazes me. I had little compass pouches sewn on the front of my windproof smock and jungle shirts, next to the zipper and the chest pockets, so that I could easily get the silva compass in and out on the go.
The course starts off on the Sunday with a ‘Combat Fitness Test’ (CFT) which is nominally the army standard of 8 miles in 2 hours. Except this is done on hills, so it is hard. If you pass that you go into a week of limited ruck marching, more based around runs with works stations where you have to do man-carries up hills etc. This is a hard week because it concludes on the Friday with the ‘Fan Dance’. This is another test, and in fact that first week is really just a gateway test for the rest of the course. The Fan Dance is up and over Pen-y-Fan (‘The Fan’) with a turn around point at 2 hours and back over. Its a timed test as a squad, dissolving into individuals fighting to make the pace. As with many of the squadded events, the initial pace is harsh but if you hang in there it slows down. I lost the DS (Directing Staff) for my squad as he went up the Fan like a jack rabbit. I caught him up on the way down and managed to stay with him for the way back over and down to the finish. The ‘run-aways’ are done on both the runs and also on the rucking events and are designed to get you to give up and quit. Similar techniques are used on Pre-Parachute selection (Pegasus Company) for airborne forces.
After that first week, you concentrate pretty much exclusively on ruck marches. You start off in larger groups and with some DS led marches. On the DS led marches work stations are thrown in as part of the route where you will be running around forestry blocks and scaling very steep hillsides under the eyes of the DS, both with and without your ruck. The idea is not only to both train and exhaust you, getting you up to the right physical standard, but also to brush up on navigation and pacing. The point here is that although there is a test week at the end of the course, the course itself is hard with tests along the way, and if you don’t make it you are off before test week.
One of the things about selection is that most people will not be ‘failed’, unless they don’t make the times on the marches. They will voluntary withdraw (VW). It’s a strange thing that this course does to you. Candidates who seem fit and indestructible will often just fade away. They VW, and mostly they will have an ironclad excuse for why it happened, such as injury, but really you know that they just had enough and gave up. That’s why I have little time for the big loud-mouthed over-confident types that you see all the time around the place, particularly in law enforcement and the military. America seems to breed this over- confidence and arrogance in these types. I much prefer the quiet professional approach and I look at these ‘tough guys’ and think to myself, “Really? I’d like to see you really get tested. What gives you the feeling that you should have a right to be so over-confident?”
The pace on selection is 4 kilometers per hour. Not miles per hour, kilometers, which makes it slower than a 4 miles per hour pace. This pace is worked out as a straight line between checkpoints. It does not take account of elevation and route selection. Often, you have no choice but to ‘cross grain’ the terrain, dropping into valleys and then ascending steep slopes. The key to this is your personal navigation skills with map and compass, and your route selection. In daylight you can mainly use terrain association You cannot afford to get lost, because you probably won’t make up the time. When the mist comes in, you cannot afford to mess about with azimuth/pacing, you have to use orienteering techniques to aim-off for features, march or run on a bearing (azimuth). Lay a course on your compass, run on it, hit the feature and keep going. You can still use terrain association in bad visibility – you still see when you hit features such as streams and you can tick them off as you cross them. You know whether you are heading uphill or down and the general shape of the terrain. Combined with a compass course this will allow you to maintain a decent pace. You have to be able to visualize the shape of the terrain on the map.
In all honesty, on selection I don’t think I ever pace counted. The ground is too harsh underfoot and I just used terrain association. I have always been a good navigator however and I mentally knew when I should be in the vicinity of where I needed to be, tied in with clues from around me. Even in heavily forested areas if there is terrain you can still use terrain association. It is only in areas that are flat and featureless that you really need to pace, such as flat jungle or woods. If you are a good navigator you can get away with not being so fast, because you don’t get it wrong. If you can’t navigate, you can only get away with it if you are super fit and can make up for your mistakes with speed. If you are navigating, and you become unsure, don’t compound the error by keeping going. Stop, assess your situation, and if necessary go back to the last known point of reference.
When rucking for long periods of time, it is important to remain hydrated and also to take in energy. You need something high energy and convenient. There is a balance between high sugar instant energy foods and longer lasting carbohydrate such as bananas. A fruit and nut trail mix is really convenient and packed full of energy. If you are pushing yourself to the limit, you risk low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and you have to keep putting energy in to allow yourself to keep going at max performance. Otherwise you become exhausted and start to shut down, often literally with your eyesight closing in to tunnel vision.
If you have injuries then the best thing to take is an anti-inflammatory such as Motrin (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxin). Naproxin is good and as per the instructions you take one tablet in the morning and one in the evening – it is long lasting. You can safely double this dose to two morning two evening and that is the prescription dose (check with a doctor before doing this etc etc).
You have to look after your feet. If you actually get a blister then it will be more painful until it is burst. For an unburst blister I would carry a sewing needle and lighter and I would burn the needle to clean it then stick it through the blister, making two holes, and let the blister drain. For raw skin you can get new skin type blister band-aids that will help protect it. However, the best thing is prevention: I would use heavy zinc-oxide tape to tape up the danger areas on my feet, such as the balls of my feet and the heels. You can get sports tape that does pretty much the same thing. Tape your feet before the march. When you are done, air your feet as much as possible or if you are still in the field dry and powder your feet before putting on clean socks.
Selection is done over rough ground – often the ‘babies heads’ type grass described in the previous post. Turning an ankle is a serious risk and that can put you out of the game. In addition to taping my feet I also purchased some effective but low profile ankle supports that would go on under my socks. Together with a well laced high leg boot this does a lot to reduce ankle injury even if you start to turn the ankle. Once you have turned your ankle a few times you get pretty good at recognizing the start of it and saving yourself. However, ankle turns always happen when you least expect it because you are paying attention to something else. When running downhill I would always make sure I was paying attention and ready to take the weight on the other foot if my ankle started to turn. You have to be fast but you have to pay attention to foot placement. Its all about self preservation and avoiding injury as much as possible If you don’t have ankle supports you can always tape your ankle to support it.
If you are covering long distances with weight you really need to consider a shock absorbing insole for your boot. ‘Sorbothane’ insoles used to be available which absorbed much of the shock and were really good. I am sure there are equivalents out there. There is some horrific fact that I can’t recall about the amount of force applied through your knees when running downhill with a ruck. Once thing you really need to consider is getting insoles measured for your feet, to counter issues such as pro- and ante-nation. Everyone suffers from this to some extent and this will be magnified on endurance type events. If you foot pronates then it will be slightly out of line and this is transferred up through your legs, knees, hips and your body. If you pronate, your lower leg bones are slightly pulled out of line which effects your knee, for example, which can lead to knee injuries. If you go to The Running Store or a similar place they will measure your pronation and make insoles for you to balance your feet. You can put these in your running shoes or your boots , and this will help you avoid injury when training over longer distances.
Once you are beyond that first week of selection you end up on longer and longer marches and you go rapidly down from a group to pairs to individual marches. Many fall away and VW even before test week, particularly around the time of ‘Black Thursday’. Test week itself consists of a couple of marches in the Elan Valley then back to the Brecon Beacon for two long marches, a shorter march and then later that same night you start on Endurance, which is a very long march of around 40 miles and you have 20 hours to complete it. The marches towards the end of selection will take you anywhere from 5 to 8 hours to complete. This time is spent constantly on the go, navigating from checkpoint to checkpoint in the wilderness. You are constantly fighting and striving to make the pace, trying to select the best route and make up speed by running downhill. You don’t stop to eat, you just grab energy food from your pouch as you are on the go.
When you are on selection you hardly spend any time at all living or sleeping in the field. It is not a tactical course at that point. You live in an old army barracks in Sennybridge. There is maybe one night in the field on Black Thursday. This is important because it allows you to dry out your feet and rest between days. The reason the SUT phase in in the Brunei jungle is because that is the hardest environment to soldier in (The Jungle) and that is where the requirement for living in the field and administration of yourself comes to the forefront. When on selection you receive an extra ration allowance and there is huge amounts of food available at breakfast and dinner in the cookhouse. You are burning so much energy you really need to eat as much as you can.
Selection is a physical athletic/mental event. It takes place within unrealistic parameters that would likely not be sustainable at a tactical level in the field – even for example the amount of food you would need to consume to keep this level of activity up. For example, on Ranger School they are fed one MRE a day and deprived of sleep, which makes them exhausted and limits the physical activity they can really achieve. That is a different way of stressing people.
Important points when packing your ruck for ruck marches: Firstly, put the weight up high. Pack soft light items at the bottom of your ruck, such as sleeping bags, and heavier items higher up. Secondly, spread the weight out. Don’t put a dumbbell in there. It may be the same absolute weight but it will crucify you. It’s best if you actually pack real equipment in your ruck – for example on selection there was a packing list of real safety equipment so if injured on the hill you could get into a sleeping/bivvy bag and wait for rescue. If you notice the rucks in the photos on this post, they weight 55 lbs plus food and water (water is in the belt anyway, 2 x canteens). These are not 100 lb rucks, but they are packed big with real equipment and with the weight spread out.
I have posted before on the way to set up your ruck for tactical operations. HERE and HERE Guess what, this comes from experience of how UKSF/SOF actually carry gear in the field. If you are operating in the field in a light infantry role then you are really doing the same thing as an unconventional warfare resistance fighter. In fact, unconventional warfare is just light infantry small unit tactics, just perhaps unshaven and wearing a pair of jeans! (BTW, in the Jungle or otherwise on ‘dirty patrol’ you don’t shave anyway. In such environments things like shaving cuts can get infected and ruin your operation).
For real light infantry work (call it SF/SOF if you will) then you are moving and living out of your ruck. Your ruck has to be set up to allow this. I advocate the carriage of a smaller crush-able patrol pack for the times when you can leave your ruck in a cache or a patrol base. The patrol pack, if strapped at the top or under the lid of your ruck, also serves as a crash bag for times when you have to drop your ruck and get out of there.
So if you are conducting unconventional operations out there in the woods, get used to moving about and setting up patrol bases while carrying your ruck. In the end, this will all come down to logistics. You can only carry so much food and ammunition with you so you need to have supply drops or caches that you can move to. You will need to consider alternative ways of moving supplies up to these distribution points, for which you should get ideas from my tactical mobility post. If you want to live out there for long periods of time you will need logistical support and you must get resupply somehow. The XXX Militia or Resistance Group operating in the forests of XXX will need supply and support from their auxiliary team based in the local area.
I don’t see operating in the forests of Virginia or West Virginia as any different from a jungle operation, with minor differences in style and environment. In the jungle, you move, patrol and operate from your ruck, unless you have been able to cache it in a patrol base. You live out of it for as long as you can sustain yourself on the rations you are carrying. You need to get resupply by whatever means to sustain yourself. In the jungle, you may get a helicopter resupply. If you are a Resistance fighter then think about my points on tactical mobility and think how it could be done. You could have supplies brought out into the backwoods where you are operating, meeting up with the ATVs at a certain location to pick them up. Alternatively, you could covertly go down ‘into the valley’ to collect: Using civilian vans or cars driven by auxiliary members to do a covert drop at a cache? Pre-positioned caches that are regularly resupplied?
To paint a picture of this sort of activity, I write about such matters in my novel: ‘Patriot Dawn: The Resistance Rises’.
Live Hard, Die Free.