Endurance Marches

The hallmark of the Special Forces is the ability, if necessary, to move long distances every day for the duration of their mission. Frequently, they will be carrying the entire equipment for their mission – often as much as 68 kg (150 lb) of gear. It is not unusual for a military exercise to begin with a 65-km (40-mile) infiltration, which will be completed in as little as nine hours. To select the men with the right calibre, a selection course was devised which took the candidates to the limits of their endurance. Under great physical and mental hardship, it was reasoned, the men’s true nature would be revealed. Those with the ‘right stuff kept themselves going, while accurately navigating from rendezvous to rendezvous (RV). But there was more. Throughout this ordeal, they had to keep functioning as prospective soldiers, remembering their RV drills and watching and memorising the changing landscape. Many people have asked me the secret of passing selection. There is no secret and there are no short-cuts. It is hard work and you simply have to want it enough. There is only one way to carry a pack long distances and that is to simply get up and do it.

Rucksack

Once you have shouldered your pack, it must be forgotten. However, you can only do this if the pack is comfortable.

Select a pack that suits you. There is an excellent range of good military and mountaineering/hill-walking packs available from shops specialising in outdoor activity equipment. Yes, of course, some of them will be very expensive but the time and effort spent producing the top commercial packs more than justifies the price tag. A good rucksack should last a lifetime.

When choosing a pack, look carefully at its suspension system. Ensure that the pack has well-padded straps that are fully adjustable. A padded hip belt takes a lot of the strain off the shoulders. Heavy packs can cause bruising and chafing of the shoulders. The rucksack should have a good frame and ample capacity for your needs. A small day pack will have a capacity of around 20 litres (4.4 gallons), whereas large expedition packs should have a capacity of around 100 litres (22 gallons). It is better to choose a pack that is too big for your needs than too small. You cannot crush 30 litres (6.6 gallons) of kit into a 20-litre (4.4-gallon) pack. On the other hand, if the pack is larger than you need, you do not have to fill it up!

External pockets are very important, since you do not want to be constantly opening the pack and rifling through the contents, particularly when the weather is bad.

The pack should be composed of a strong, long-lasting material such as canvas, and should be supported by a strong frame. This should be recessed or padded so that it does not chafe your back. If you find that areas of the pack are chafing you during walks, these can usually be ‘softened’ with foam rubber kept in place with electrical tape. Some military men make a rubber pad for their bergen which is secured over the frame. This can be made from little more than a thin, foam-rubber chair cushion covered in strong polythene.

Check the centre of gravity of your prospective pack. Modern packs have a high centre of gravity, riding high on the shoulders but still contouring the back. The pack should not be too high or it will force you to lean forward and, if caught by the wind, it will transform you into a sailing ship! This becomes extremely important in the mountains, where paths cross steep gradients and winds can reach 97 kmph (60 mph).

Many people buy military-style packs. Certainly, these are often well-designed and have many of the advantages of the more expensive mountaineering packs. However, we should say a few words here on what to avoid. The old ‘commando packs’, such as the bergen, were originally designed for ski troops and therefore have a low centre of gravity. Most of the weight is carried around the lower back which can lead to spinal problems and terrible ‘bergen scars’ where the pack has chafed or cut the skin. These packs are now mostly found in army surplus shops – avoid them! Quite apart from the unfortunate design, they tend to have a much smaller capacity than other packs of their size.

The famous SAS bergen is, perhaps, another piece of kit to avoid. Because it serves as a personal parachute container, it comes with a reinforced frame which adds a lot of weight. Unless you are planning to parachute into the gym, it may be better to select a lighter pack! The Cyclops series, used by many Royal Marine Commandos, offers the same advantages but with much lighter frames.

Packing your Rucksack

Do not make the mistake of using sand or bricks to bring your pack up to the required weight. Bricks can damage the pack and sand is a dead weight which will fall to the bottom of the pack, placing undue stress on the spine. Fill your rucksack with useful equipment. You may be grateful to have bad- weather kit or the necessities for making a cup of tea at some point. And if you do sustain an injury out on the hills, you will have all the necessary gear to make yourself comfortable until help arrives. How to pack your Bergen correctly is the first lecture the prospective soldier is given. Weight should be distributed evenly throughout the pack. Start by putting in the kit those items which you will rarely use, or perhaps only once a day, then pack your sleeping bag wrapped in a waterproof bag. A wet sleeping bag is very uncomfortable; it is not efficient at trapping body heat and it can precipitate quite serious illnesses such as pneumonia and hypothermia.

Next, put in a change of clothing, including boots or trainers. These, too, are wrapped in their own waterproof bag. Remember, packs are water resistant but rarely waterproof! Next comes your tent, a first-aid kit and any other equipment you might need. Try and remember where everything has been placed. You do not really want to keep emptying the pack every time you need a piece of kit.

Under the top flap, carry a set of waterproofs. These should only be worn when resting or doing light work. You can become drenched in sweat very quickly inside waterproofs, and life-threatening hyperthermia is a real possibility if you start to overheat. What is more, the straps of your rucksack will rub the shoulders and the garment will start to leak.

The external pockets are for the equipment that you will use regularly, such as cooking kit, food, water, sweets – in fact everything that you want close to hand.

Clothing

It is important to wear the correct clothing when training. Carrying a pack is hard work so do not over-dress. Wear a cotton T-shirt under a pullover. If the weather is wet or cold, you can wear a windproof smock over the top. The secret to keeping warm is dressing in layers. As the body starts to warm up, peel off the outermost layers and stow them in your pack. Windproof trousers are another good idea, particularly in bad weather. These are worn over your walking trousers or shorts. Finally, you will need well-fitting boots and cotton socks to minimise blisters.

The exertion will make you sweat heavily. Once warm, try not to let your body cool down. Keep your rest-stops to a minimum (five or ten minutes every hour) and put on warm clothing when you stop. Remove the extra layers prior to resuming the march.

Starting Out

Now that we have our kit and clothing sorted out we can start training. Adjust the weight of your pack to around 18 kg (40 lb) – it is difficult to get under this weight if you are carrying the right equipment – and use a park or other open space to get used to the feel of it. Do not start on roads, since pounding on a hard surface may cause foot and leg injuries. Staying close to home, walk around for an hour. Check that your rucksack is properly centred and the straps well-adjusted.

Your first real walks should last about four hours, during which you should aim to cover as much ground as possible. Try to stay off the roads as much as possible. Use the map to select a circuit across open country that will finally take you back home or to your car. Hills, mountains or moorland are ideal, but if you do not have easy access to these, check your Ordnance Survey map for footpaths; once outside the city or town, the countryside is criss-crossed with paths.

When climbing hills, take a shorter step and try to keep going until you reach the summit. When you arrive at the top, lengthen your stride and cover the level ground as quickly as possible. When going downhill, get a firm grip of the pack and move into an easy jog. However, the type of ground and the weight of the pack will determine the maximum safe speed when descending.

The SAS man will cover ground at a steady pace of about 6.5 kmph (4 mph) and 9.5-11 kmph (6-7 mph) when under time pressure. Allow yourself five or ten-minute breaks every hour. It is possible to cover up to 20 km (12 miles) across rough, mountainous country in four hours. Make this your first target, although it may take many navigation walks before you reach this standard! Once you are familiar with the route, the march will become easier and your best personal time will decrease.

More Advanced Walks

Once you have mastered the 20-km (12-mile) endurance march, start to increase the weight of your pack. Do this in 2 or 2.5-kg (5 or 10-lb) increments but keep within the four hour time limit. When your rucksack has reached 25 kg (55 lb), aim to cover 40 km (25 miles). With practice, you should be able to cover this in six to eight hours.

At around 32 km (20 miles), you may well find that you ‘hit the wall’. This is an expression used by marathon and ultra-marathon runners to denote a weather kit or the necessities for making a cup of tea at some point. And if you do sustain an injury out on the hills, you will have all the necessary gear to make yourself comfortable until help arrives. How to pack your Bergen correctly is the first lecture the prospective soldier is given. Weight should be distributed evenly throughout the pack. Start by putting in the kit those items which you will rarely use, or perhaps only once a day, then pack your sleeping bag wrapped in a waterproof bag. A wet sleeping bag is very uncomfortable; it is not efficient at trapping body heat and it can precipitate quite serious illnesses such as pneumonia and hypothermia.

Next, put in a change of clothing, including boots or trainers. These, too, are wrapped in their own waterproof bag. Remember, packs are water resistant but rarely waterproof! Next comes your tent, a first-aid kit and any other equipment you might need. Try and remember where everything has been placed. You do not really want to keep emptying the pack every time you need a piece of kit.

Under the top flap, carry a set of waterproofs. These should only be worn when resting or doing light work. You can become drenched in sweat very quickly inside waterproofs, and life-threatening hyperthermia is a real possibility if you start to overheat. What is more, the straps of your rucksack will rub the shoulders and the garment will start to leak.

The external pockets are for the equipment that you will use regularly, such as cooking kit, food, water, sweets – in fact everything that you want close to hand.

Clothing

It is important to wear the correct clothing when training. Carrying a pack is hard work so do not over-dress. Wear a cotton T-shirt under a pullover. If the weather is wet or cold, you can wear a windproof smock over the top. The secret to keeping warm is dressing in layers. As the body starts to warm up, peel off the outermost layers and stow them in your pack. Windproof trousers are another good idea, particularly in bad weather. These are worn over your walking trousers or shorts. Finally, you will need well-fitting boots and cotton socks to minimise blisters.

The exertion will make you sweat heavily. Once warm, try not to let your body cool down. Keep your rest-stops to a minimum (five or ten minutes every hour) and put on warm clothing when you stop. Remove the extra layers prior to resuming the march. •

Boots

Choose your boots carefully and be prepared to dip into your pocket. They must be well-fitting and comfortable, waterproof and strong. Look for a boot which gives good ankle support but is not so high as to put strain on the Achilles tendon. Avoid the speed-lacing system since this can snag on undergrowth and cause falls. The laces can also work loose and trip you up.

Avoid army surplus boots, especially the new high combat boots (’Boots Combat High’). These have crippled more soldiers than all the recent campaigns put together. Modern boots break in easily but it still requires some effort on your part. The easiest way to break in boots is to sit in a comfortable chair, with your booted feet in a bowl of water. Leave them immersed for about 30 minutes and then go for a walk. Let them dry naturally. Never place wet boots in front of the fire or a radiator, since this will dry and crack the leather. Remember to wear your walking socks when you do this!

Hats

Hats are useful for minimising heat loss. As much as 40 per cent of the heat radiating from the human body is lost from the head and neck. If it is hot, you can always take your hat off and slip it in your pocket. In really cold weather, a woollen ski balaclava is a good piece of kit.

Personal Kit

Personal kit should meet your own particular requirements but should usually include a detailed map of the area and a compass, as well as a small survival kit carried in the breast pocket. A survival knife and change for the telephone (or a phone card) are also important.

Belt Kit

Belt kit is useful, particularly if you are injured or if, for some reason, you have to ditch your rucksack. It should consist of a water bottle and at least one pouch containing some snacks. This way, you will be able to eat and drink on the move.

Starting Out

Now that we have our kit and clothing sorted out we can start training. Adjust the weight of your pack to around 18 kg (40 lb) – it is difficult to get under this weight if you are carrying the right equipment – and use a park or other open space to get used to the feel of it. Do not start on roads, since pounding on a hard surface may cause foot and leg injuries. Staying close to home, walk around for an hour. Check that your rucksack is properly centred and the straps well-adjusted.

Your first real walks should last about four hours, during which you should aim to cover as much ground as possible. Try to stay off the roads as much as possible. Use the map to select a circuit across open country that will finally take you back home or to your car. Hills, mountains or moorland are ideal, but if you do not have easy access to these, check your Ordnance Survey map for footpaths; once outside the city or town, the countryside is criss-crossed with paths.

When climbing hills, take a shorter step and try to keep going until you reach the summit. When you arrive at the top, lengthen your stride and cover the level ground as quickly as possible. When going downhill, get a firm grip of the pack and move into an easy jog. However, the type of ground and the weight of the pack will determine the maximum safe speed when descending.

The Marines will cover ground at a steady pace of about 6.5 kmph (4 mph) and 9.5-11 kmph (6-7 mph) when under time pressure. Allow yourself five or ten-minute breaks every hour. It is possible to cover up to 20 km (12 miles) across rough, mountainous country in four hours. Make this your first target, although it may take many navigation walks before you reach this standard! Once you are familiar with the route, the march will become easier and your best personal time will decrease.

More Advanced Walks

Once you have mastered the 20-km (123-mile) endurance march, start to increase the weight of your pack. Do this in 2 or 2.5-kg (5 or 10-lb) increments but keep within the four hour time limit. When your rucksack has reached 25 kg (55 lb), aim to cover 40 km (25 miles). With practice, you should be able to cover this in six to eight hours.

At around 32 km (20 miles), you may well find that you ‘hit the wall’. This is an expression used by marathon and ultra-marathon runners to denote a state where you start to slow down, your concentration begins to lapse (you may think only of food) and you feel awful. The reason is simple: you have run out of fuel. Put quite simply, it takes around 700 g (25 oz) of sugar to cover 40 km (25 miles), and this calculation has been arrived at by studying fuel-efficient, well-conditioned athletic bodies. Even if you have stuffed yourself full of Mars bars or potatoes before the walk, 700 g (25 oz) of sugar is much more than all the sugar in the blood and the muscles combined. When your body runs out of sugar, it begins to burn fat; this is burnt much more slowly than sugar and so your performance starts to fall off. Of course, the answer is obvious. Carry some sugar-rich foods, such as Mars bars and glucose sweets, and start to consume them steadily once you have passed the half-way point. This will give the sugar time to get into your blood before you start to run out of energy.

You may find that you also have another problem. As you sweat you will lose salts, resulting in painful muscle cramps. Sweat contains sodium, potassium and chloride ions. These perform much the same function in the body as the electrolytes in a car battery. In days gone by, the British Army issued salt (sodium chloride) tablets to its soldiers, but here is the rub. The normal diet contains more than sufficient sodium unless you are doing an ultra-marathon or the final SAS navigation walks in summer. What is in short supply, and not easily replaced, is potassium. The answer is simple. Carry some juicy, ripe fruit with you. Fruit juice and fruits (particularly bananas) are rich in this mineral.

Once you have completed an eight-hour march with 25 kg (55 lb), you can start to be more ambitious. As with weight training, what we should do now is decrease the distance and increase the weight. A soldier often carries as much as 68 kg (150 lb) on his back.

Try carrying a 36 kg (80 lb) pack for an hour, then with each new session add an hour until you can carry 36 kg (80 lb) for four hours. The pace will be a lot slower but the principle remains the same. Continue with the same hourly rest breaks but try to take them after a particularly demanding section of the route. Increase the weight until you can carry 45 kg (100 lb) for four hours. After carrying a heavy pack, go back to a weight of 25 kg (55 lb) and you will find the difference remarkable. You will feel as though you are flying across the ground.

The SAS Endurance March

On selection for the 22nd SAS Regiment, the final navigation march requires you to complete a 60-km (37-mile) route over the Welsh mountains (or similar country), while carrying a 25-kg (55-lb) pack, rifle and belt kit. The time allowed is 20 hours. On this sort of march, you certainly have to pay attention to all the minor details. Good balance is particularly important if you want to conserve your energy. Of course, balance is also essential for safety, particularly on the high mountain paths. The American Indians used to practice walking with their toes pointed slightly inward. If you let the toes point outward, it becomes difficult to walk in a straight line. Equally, try to avoid walking on your heels since this also unbalances the body. It is better to lean forward into your line of march than backwards. A slight roll of the shoulders also helps with momentum. Walk in such a way that your entire foot makes contact with the ground. This way, the body’s weight is evenly distributed which is very important when carrying heavy loads. Do not try to walk on your toes since this irritates the Achilles tendon and the connecting calf muscles. When climbing straight up steep slopes, you should use only your toes. An alternative is to climb very steep gradients on a diagonal route or zig-zag up the hill, resting where necessary. Just a brief halt for 30 or 40 seconds is all that is required to let the leg muscles recover. A diagonal climb also allows you to put as much of your foot on the ground as possible. Although it will require more energy to climb the hill this way, the overall effort is less demanding. Watch the ground and avoid treading on rocks or loose scree. On the mountains, which get more rain than the lowlands, the rocks can be slippery or may be easily dislodged. Plan your route up the hillside but be prepared to modify it constantly. In particular, keep clear of thick vegetation, rocky outcrops and scree slopes.

Keep out of rivers and streams; they can be difficult to cross and the water may be very fast and very cold. If faced with crossing a fast stream, move further uphill along its banks until the stream narrows sufficiently to effect a safe crossing.

Watch where you place your feet and make sure that every foot-hold is secure before transferring your weight. This becomes particularly important when climbing steep ground. The knee is a very vulnerable joint and an unexpected slip can twist it, causing extensive damage. Once you have gained the summit of the hill, try to work the adjoining ridges and hills into your route and stay on the high ground for as long as possible.

Before leaving the high ground, make very sure that you know your location and that you have chosen the correct route. On very difficult ground (the mountainous jungles of south-east Asia spring to mind) the only way to travel is to climb spurs, walk along the ridge lines and down another spur that corresponds with your line of march. There are few vantage points and all the terrain looks the same. A simple mistake in leaving the high ground on the wrong spur can be disastrous, costing the patrol many hours, sometimes days, of extra walking.

When going downhill, use a short, springy step to control your momentum and jog down the slope. On steep gradients, dig your heels in and use your arms to maintain balance. Never walk with your hands in your pockets. Take care to keep your speed under control. If you find yourself overbalancing or losing control of your speed, lean back and sit down. Back on the flat, use a long, comfortable stride. Try to cover as much ground as possible with each stride. Watch the landscape and note those areas of natural shelter, in case the weather takes a change for the worse. In mountainous terrain, a light, misty rainfall in the valleys can quickly give way to snow on the tops.

Try to take the shortest route possible, although it will sometimes be difficult to march on a straight line and you will have to detour around obstacles. If you go left around one obstacle, go right around the next; with very little effort, this will keep you close to your intended track.

Read the ground and compare the low and high ground to the map contours. When in doubt, use your compass to check the direction of your march. Always trust your compass. In snow-storms, heavy rain, fog or at night, it is impossible to navigate map-to-ground.

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