This post continues what I started in my introduction to load carriage. In that article, I talked about the ongoing battle between weight and capability. It turns out that up until very recently, the average weight carried by soldiers remained shockingly stable. When it comes time to fight, the recommendation is to stay less than 30% of your lean body mass or about 50 lbs for the average person.
I also indulged in a hypothetical grid-down scenario, where a lack of police presence after a natural disaster have you and your neighbors in the unenviable position of being your community protectors. As the weeks dragged on after the disaster, you know that danger is approaching.
If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and give it a quick look before continuing here.
Load Carriage Options
When it comes down to it, you are faced with the same options humans always have. Do you want to carry it around your waist, or on
Both of these have their pros and cons, which I’ll get to. But it’s a little funny to think we haven’t advanced all that much as far as where to carry our stuff. I suppose there’s really only so many ways to do things with the human body.
Carrying on the Waist
Up until the 1990s, with the prevalence of wearing armor and riding around in trucks more than we walked, wearing your gear around your waist was the most popular option. This trend peaked with the ubiquitous ALICE gear.
When it comes down to it, your hips and lower half are the most powerful group of muscles in the body. They are purpose-built for shock absorption and mobility. If you’ve ever gone on a long backpacking trip, you’ve most definitely used a properly-fitting pack that effectively transferred weight to your hips.
Military load carriage is no different.
By about 2010, there was a “cult of the battle belt” around the internet. Guys were buying wide MOLLE belts and loading them down with lots of stuff, often with suspenders. I’ll talk more about battle belts in another post, including my own adventures in finding what works for me.
First off, carrying your fighting load around your hips is the least fatiguing method when traversing uneven ground. In 2004, the Army published this fact in a paper titled, Soldier load carriage: historical, physiological, biomechanical, and medical aspects. Also, interestingly, this same study pointed out that adding weight to the feet increased energy expenditure by 7 to 10% for each kilogram. That came down to 4% on the thighs.
The findings did change for flat ground, where situating the load slightly higher towards the body’s center of mass proved most efficient.
Another big bonus of placing weight on the hips is heat management. Under exertion, your torso radiates a lot of heat. Anything you place on your chest or back that blocks that radiation increases your risk of heat-related injuries. With belt kits, your torso is wide open.
I followed a discussion over on Lightfighter between dudes rotating back through jungle school. These rotations are increasing with our shifting attention to the Pacific Theater. To a man, they all said belt kits were superior to chest kits, and nobody wanted to wear plates.
While their primary benefits are comfort and heat management, belt kits do have some hazards to be aware of.
First, by placing everything around your waist, you’re increasing horizontal bulk. It’s very easy to get snagged on things in your environment when you have stuff sticking out several inches to each side of your hips. I don’t usually have an issue with bulk on the front or back, though.
Unless I want to ride in a vehicle.
Belt kits, by necessity, usually have robust pouches on your backside. These are great for long-duration patrols where you can stuff food, socks, and “snivel” gear without needing a pack. But if you ever need to sit in a car, it’s going to suck.
Something else to be aware of is pouch placement. I try to avoid placing any tall pouches, particularly magazine pouches, directly in front of my legs. They absolutely get in the way of moving up and down terrain, kneeling, or squatting. Likewise, try to avoid placing any extremely hard objects in the middle of your back. Falling backward on these objects might result in some nasty spinal damage.
Chest Rigs/Plate Carriers
Carrying fighting gear on the chest isn’t new. Adversaries in Southeast Asia were quite effective with Chinese cotton rigs. The same configuration was very popular during the Rhodesian Bush War.
Those conflicts had an effect on American military thinking by the 1980s, and we saw developments like the Load Bearing Vest (LBV), Fighting Load Carrier (FLC), and later the RACK system. By the late 1990s, interceptor body armor became common and soldiers started attaching their fighting gear directly to the armor.
Carrying the fighting load higher on the chest has a few advantages. First, as the previously-mentioned study pointed out, it is more efficient to over flat terrain. It interferes less with hip movement, such as with squatting or kneeling, and raising the gear off the hips leaves room to use an actual hip belt with a large ruck.
Some people think that placing magazine pouches on the chest makes it difficult to reload from the prone. It really does not. It’s no more difficult than slightly rolling off a hip to access a belt-mounted ammunition pouch. I don’t think it’s really any slower or faster than waist-mounted pouches, it’s just different.
Mounting things on the chest also makes riding around in vehicles much more comfortable, since your gear is in front of you and not all over your waist or back.
Where I usually see chest rigs or plate carriers go wrong is load and balance issues.
For a while, it seemed like the trend was to way overloading the chest. I saw dudes rocking 10+ magazines across the front and sides of their plate carriers, on top of everything else. This poses two serious problems.
First, mounting too much junk around your chest interferes with your ability to employ good marksmanship. If you can’t get a steady mount to the shoulder or cheek weld, then you can’t shoot well. I’ve also had issues with freedom of movement in general. If there’s too much junk around my chest and sides, it interferes with moving my arms around for reloads and general manipulation of things.
The other problem is weight and balance. As you load up a chest rig or plate carrier, you raise the center of mass for your gear. The heavier and higher that is, the more strain it puts on your back and core to stabilize it.
If all of the weight is on the front of the rig, it gets even worse. A common practice is to balance that front-loaded weight with a backpack.
So what’s right for you? Well that’s really personal preference. I’ve seen a trend swinging away from loaded down plate carriers and chest rigs, but not totally back to full-on belt kits, either. Instead, folks distribute the load between the belt line and the chest.
This solution, much like combining different types of optics on the same rifle, helps provide the benefits of both types while also minimizing the shortfalls.
In the next few posts, I’ll detail some of my load bearing configurations so you can make good decisions for yourself when it comes to something like “Scenario X.”
Carrying a load is a personal thing, and everyone will do it differently. The next article in this series details my battle belt evolution and some fundamentals to follow for your own. Definitely check it out.
Over to You
What is your preferred method of carrying gear? Are there any lessons you’ve learned over time?
Let me know in the comments.