Chest rigs and belt kits, an age-old question that many fine folks have struggled to settle. Let me be up front and say that I don’t think this article is going to definitively answer that question for you because the simple truth is that they are both valid, and could very well complement each other depending on the circumstances. So the answer is basically, “Yes!” But perhaps you’re just starting out and want to figure out where to begin.
I began my whole series on load carriage by talking about a fictional “Scenario X.” Unfortunately, 2020 has shown us that the hypothetical neighborhood defenders scenario is far from hypothetical, and that means there is a real need to figure these things out before the emergency hits.
Load Carriage Options
To start out, let’s get some basics out of the way. It doesn’t matter which way you choose to go if your gear is too heavy. Regardless of the carriage method, strive to keep your fighting kit’s weight to 30% or less of your lean body mass. If you want a nice round number, take that to mean 40-50 lbs for the average person. That number shows up repeatedly from the advice of old-timers to actual scientific research done by the US Army.
That means total kit, by the way, including your clothing, gear, and weapon. You’d be surprised how quickly that adds up. Strive to keep it lighter than the goal so that it leaves you buffer room.
Now, 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 your torso? Both methods have their pros and cons, which I’ll get to. But it’s a little funny to think humans haven’t advanced all that much since time immemorial. I suppose there’s really only so many ways to do things with the human body.
Belt Kits & Battle Belts: Carrying on the Waist
Up until the mid-1990s, wearing gear around your waist was the most popular option within the US Military as well as others. This trend peaked with the ubiquitous ALICE gear. The shift away from this style of equipment coincided with a switch to vehicle-borne fighting and modern plate carriers.
When it comes down to it, your hips and legs represent the most powerful groups of muscles in the body and 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. The load-bearing harnesses of years past took advantage of human anatomy and placed the weight of equipment around the hips. Today, I believe the British still do the best job of this.
By about 2010, there was a “cult of the battle belt” around the internet. Guys like me were buying wide MOLLE belts and loading them down with lots of stuff, often with suspenders. I wrote about my own battle belt’s iterations in another article, but suffice to say that it works well- though I think battle belts should be a bit lighter and more minimalist. I’ll get there, though.
I’ve also built up several other styles of harnesses, including my most recent: the “Jungle Kit.”
Benefits of the Belt Kit
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 expenditure reduced to 4% when the weight was on the thighs.
The findings changed for flat ground, where situating the load slightly higher towards the body’s center of mass proved a more most efficient method.
Aside from fatigue, 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, you maximize your body’s ability to cool off.
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 in that kind of heat and humidity.
Lastly, I find that well-organized belt kits and battle belts allow you to get lower to the ground in the prone. That’s great from both stability as well as a safety standpoint.
Belt Kits are Not Without Fault
While their primary benefits are comfort and heat management, belt kits and battle belts 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 snag on things in the environment when you have stuff sticking out several inches to each side of your hips.
You’ll run into the same problem if you ever try navigating around the interior of a house while wearing a full LBE. Stuff sticking out to the sides is kind of a pain to deal with. However, I do find it easier if the bulk is in front of or behind me.
Unless I want to ride in a vehicle, that is.
Belt kits, by necessity, usually have robust pouches on your backside. These are great for long-duration patrols where you stuff food, socks, spare ammo, and “snivel” gear without needing a pack. But if you ever need to sit in a vehicle, it’s going to suck. There just isn’t any way to sit and lean back casually in a car or truck while wearing this style of gear.
On the topic of “stuff” sitting at your back, you also have to be aware of pouch placement. I avoid placing any tall pouches or hard objects up against my lower spine. In the event of a backward fall, that can lead to some pretty nasty back injuries.
You also want to avoid putting any tall or hard objects, particularly magazine pouches, directly in front of the legs. They absolutely get in the way of moving up and down terrain, kneeling, or squatting.
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.
Chest Rig Positives
Carrying the fighting load high on the chest has a few advantages. First, as the previously-mentioned study pointed out, it’s more efficient to over flat terrain. I also find that chest rigs interfere less with hip movements, such as squatting or kneeling. Raising the gear off the hips also 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, but I’ve never found that to be true. 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.
What to Keep an Eye Out For
Where I usually see chest rigs or plate carriers go wrong is load and balance issues.
For a while, the trend was overloading the chest. I saw folks stuffing their chest rigs and carriers with 10+ magazines on top of the rest of their gear. This poses two serious problems.
Mounting too much junk around your chest interferes with good marksmanship. If you can’t get a steady mount to the shoulder or cheek weld, then you simply can’t shoot well.
I’ve personally had issues with freedom of movement in general. Pouches hanging out under my armpits tend to snag my arms and sling during reloads and manipulation.
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 balancing that front-loaded weight with a small backpack, like an assault pack.
Chest Rigs vs Battle Belts: Why Not Both?
So what’s right for you? Well, that’s really personal preference. I’ve noticed a trend swinging away from loaded plate carriers and chest rigs, but not totally back to full-on belt kits, either. Instead, folks distribute the load between the beltline 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.
So when you start searching around for battle belts vs chest rigs, realize that it really isn’t an either/or proposition. Both bring something to the table for different circumstances, and you always have the option to use them in conjunction with one another.
Let’s assume that you’re just starting out, though. Where would you begin? Well, that obviously depends on your 80% scenario. If you can’t specialize, then what works 80% of the time? I bet that overlap is pretty strong, though.
Thinking of it another way, I can think of circumstances where I would rather have the capability to load up a full belt kit complete with cargo pouches at the rear and padded straps to keep the harness comfortable. I can’t really say I’d ever want to carry a chest rig/plate carrier loaded with 8+ mags and other gear.
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.