Soldier Combat Loads in the 21st century

Tore Haugli

Soldier Combat Loads in the 21st century

During the last several decades we have seen huge improvements of the gear the soldier carries; quality has improved, weight has been reduced and advanced technology is more prominent. However, one factor has not changed: the soldier still has to carry the gear on his back.

Soldiers moving around the battlefield carrying their own gear is an integrated part of military operations. There is one danger; overloading our troops with too much equipment. This leads to more rapid exhaustion as well as inhibiting the individual soldier’s ability to fight properly.

I modern times there are several examples showing that the problem with overloading soldiers during operations has resulted in reduced combat performance, has caused casualties and resulted in lost battles; British soldiers during the Falkland’s War (1982), and Soldiers from the US Army both during the invasion of Grenada (1983) and during operations in Afghanistan (2001-present).

Are we able to adjust our loads according to mission requirements, in order to ensure sustained combat effectiveness over time?

A quick look back in time

I won’t spend much time focusing on numbers, but I will take the time to outline some historical findings regarding this issue, leading up to where we are today. Up until the 18th century it was rare for soldiers to carry more than approximately 15kg of gear on their body. Remaining equipment was carried by assistants, on horseback or loaded on to carts. After the 18th century the use of transport support was less prominent, and soldiers had to carry more gear themselves.

After the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century a study on this subject was conducted in Britain, and the recommendation was that the soldier’s load should not exceed 21kg. A new study undertaken in Germany at the end of the 19th century recommended a load around 22kg. This load enabled soldiers of that time to march 24 kilometers in cool weather without issue. In warmer weather it only led to minor discomfort.

After WW1 the British military conducted yet another study, with the recommended maximum weight being somewhere between 18-20kg during marches. Between 1948 and 1950 the US Army did a study based on experiences accumulated during WW2, and identified that no concern had been given to the particular tasks related to occupational specialties during previous research on the subject. After the new study was complete, having taken into consideration energy use, individual tasks and stress exposure, the recommended weight for the soldiers load was 18kg for less than ideal circumstances, with 25kg defined as the absolute maximum. Around 1960 the Army did yet another study, recommending the same numbers; 18kg for a soldier in combat (approx. 30% of body weight) and 25kg for a soldier during road marches (approximately 45% of body weight).

In 1987 the US Army implemented a new term; Combat Load, defined as essential equipment necessary to fight, survive and conduct combat missions. The Combat Load was further divided into two different tiers; Fighting Load and Approach March Load. The Fighting Load is used when contact with the enemy is likely or when stealth and concealment is the most important factor, and consists of uniform, load carrying equipment, helmet, personal weapon, food, bayonet and ammunition. The Approach March Load was to be used on operations expected to last a bit longer, and consisted of the Fighting Load plus a pack, sleeping bag, sleeping mat extra clothes, extra food and extra ammunition. US Army doctrine today is approximately 22kg (30% of body weight) for the Fighting Load and approximately 33kg (45% of body weight) for the Approach March Load.

Norwegian standards for soldier loads

It has been quite difficult to find good data regarding this topic for the modern Norwegian soldier. We have an SOP for maneuver units of Brigade North covering PCCs/PCIs, but no weight estimate is provided for the load covered in the SOP.

I did find an old field manual for the infantry platoon, FR 6-4-8, from the 1970’s, and Appendix 1 of that manual lists the gear carried and weight of each member of the platoon. The interesting find is that the numbers listed for each member correlates with the results of the studies since the mid-19th century. A few examples:

Platoon Commander: Flashlight w/ red and green filter, lensatic compass, map case, binoculars, G3 w/100 rounds, weight of load carried 18,9kg summer/21,3kg winter

Platoon Sergeant: Flashlight w/ red and green filter, lensatic compass, map case, binoculars, IR indicator kit, G3 w/100 rounds, weight of load carried 19,4kg summer/21,8kg winter

Squad Leader: Flashlight, lensatic compass, G3 w/100 rounds, weight of load carried 17,7kg summer/20,2kg winter

Rifleman nr 1: G3 w/ 100 rounds, 2 M72 LAW’s, weight of load carried 20,0kg summer/22,4kg winter

Rifleman nr 2: First aid kit, G3 w/100 rounds, weight of load carried 17,3kg summer/19,7kg winter

The loads for machine gun crews and recoilless rifle crews are a bit heavier, naturally.

A soldier in balance

As shown earlier, the ideal weight for a soldier’s load has been defined; both for fighting and for marching. The purpose of not overloading the soldier is balancing the different requirements/needs.

For road marches/patrolling the balance needs are related to energy intake and energy use, and how quick fatigue sets in. It is obvious that the more you carry, the more energy you use and you are fatigued faster.

In combat the goal is to balance mobility, protection and firepower. You can have extra ammunition; increased firepower, or many layers of PPE; increased protection. This will negatively affect mobility, a factor that actually provides a degree of protection of its own. In addition, an increase in ammunition and protection will increase weight, resulting in increased or more rapid fatigue. Finally, it is not a given that an increase in ammunition will result in increased firepower. The effect of one’s fires is determined by accuracy, not volume.

The soldier also needs a certain ability to endure the elements while out on operations, for a given time period, depending on the mission.

How can we implement these principles in the best possible way? One tool is the packing requirement list.

Packing requirement list

The packing requirement list is a very good tool in my view, if used correctly. A packing requirement list is intended to list the equipment a soldier will need in order to sustain himself for a given time period, to include ammunition and mission essential gear, as well as where these items should be located; uniform, load bearing gear, assault pack.

When developing a packing requirement list one needs to be critical when adding items, in order to avoid the “nice-to-have” syndrome. If this syndrome is present, weight will quickly add up from bringing equipment that provides little to no added effect. Are two complete sets of thermals necessary for a 72 hour base line packing list?

The most important aspect of the packing requirement list is that it must be adaptable to the mission. If the list is just a static tool, to be adhered to with no changes, you will end up in situations where your ability to complete missions is reduced; either from carrying too much gear, or because you are not carrying the right gear for the mission at hand. It is, however, important that these changes are not made at the individual soldier level, but that they are made based on proper mission analysis. Leaders on every level have a responsibility to ensure that packing requirements are followed, and that changes are carried out according to orders, during PCCs/PCIs.

It is also important that each individual soldier configures his load bearing gear for optimal agility; running, negotiate obstacles, pass through windows and doorways, as well as ensuring easy and rapid access to combat critical items: ammunition, comms, medical gear, IFF, navigation gear and water. These items are crucial for soldier survivability.

Tore Haugli

Mission dicates gear

When you receive your mission orders, you conduct a mission analysis as part of your TLPs. A part of this analysis consists of assessing different factors, such as weather, light conditions, own strengths and weaknesses, enemy strengths and weaknesses, terrain and so forth. These assessments should identify how these factors will affect our ability to complete the mission, and how they affect our choice of actions. The next step is to take the necessary measures deduced from the assessments, on how to exploit advantages and limit weaknesses, in order to ensure the best possible chance of success.

This assessment should also result in specific guidance on equipment requirements for the mission, in order to bring only the equipment necessary for mission success. Unfortunately, the mindset is leaning towards an approach where we are supposed to be able to carry out all missions at all times, with no task organization. This might be a result of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993, where a seemingly quick mission turned into an 18 hour long firefight, a situation the force involved was not equipped for. The incident is a good example of how quickly things can go wrong, but the correct measure isn’t necessarily to aim for the opposite end of the scale, by trying to plan and pack for every thinkable scenario. You cannot plan for every situation, therefore you cannot pack for every situation.

There must be room to make decisions regarding what equipment is needed in order to complete the mission at hand, which integral capacities to bring and which to leave behind for logistics support to bring forward.

One recent example of an operation where I think there was a great unbalance between enemy capacities, strengths and the terrain he dominated, and how the soldiers who conducted the operation were equipped, is Operation Anaconda in March of 2002. They met a well prepared enemy, which was lightly equipped with simple clothes, personal weapons and a few magazines, in mountainous terrain during winter. The US Army soldiers, of Task Force Rakkasan, were so heavily overloaded that exhaustion was a major problem just a few hours in to the operation. According to personal accounts by soldiers who took part in the operation, fighting load weights were up to 36kg, and packs weighed near 54kg. This weight was carried for 48 hours, but actual progress was minimal.

A possible issue in the future can present itself if Norwegian forces deploy to an area dominated by jungle, with high humidity and high temperatures. Is personal body armor and helmets the correct approach in those conditions?

Medical issues

Most medical issues related to carrying heavy loads are relatively harmless, but can negatively affect the individual soldiers’ mobility, and as a result of that reduce the operational capacity of an entire unit. Foot blisters, metatarsalgia and back problems are among the most common injuries related to road marches.

Foot blisters can cause great discomfort, and result in soldiers not able to complete marches, ending up needing several days of rest before he is able to perform at full capacity. If foot blisters do not receive proper care, especially under field conditions, it can lead to serious complications such as cellulitis and sepsis. The frequency and tendency for foot blisters is directly related to carrying heavy loads, caused by increased pressure between the foot and boot. In addition, moist feet is also a contributing factor towards developing foot blisters.

Metatarsalgia is a term for non-specific painful overuse injury of the foot. Normally the person affected will experience discomfort or pain in the ball of the foot, due to nerves being exposed to pressure or being squeezed. Carrying heavy loads during a march can result in a person being predisposed for this kind of injury. Treatment is done according to the RICE principle, and can be supplemented with anti-inflammatory medication.

Back problems, especially in the lower back, can seriously affect a soldier’s capability to carry heavy loads. Carrying heavy loads is a very prominent contributory factor when it comes to lower back problems. The problems are caused by an angle change of the upper body, causing the muscles in the lower back to be strained. A preventative measure is focusing on correct load placement and weight distribution of loads carried in back packs.

Other medical issues that can arise are knee problems, stress fractures and rucksack palsy. A common factor connecting all of these issues is that they can cause short or long term complications for individual soldiers, which in term will affect the overall operational capability of the unit.


Technological advances over the last few years has brought along lighter and smaller equipment. There are continuous processes running, where the focus is to acquire and field gear that is lighter and smaller than current issue. However, 50-60kg of high tech, light weight gear is still 50-60kg. We need to be critical in terms of what we require our soldiers to carry into combat, in order to make sure that they are as well prepared and equipped as required to conduct missions successfully. Mission dictates gear. This can mean that soldiers need to carry a heavier load, but that should be the result of proper mission analysis, not poor leadership or insufficient planning.

Physical training is important in order to increase the physical capacity of the soldier, but if we reduce the combat load during operations, this physical capacity will last longer; increased mental capacity to make correct decisions under stress, and more capable of handling physical and mental strain he is put under. Ruck marches with heavy loads is a good training method to increase the physical capacity of a soldier. I personally feel that this type of training should not be the focus of field training exercises, unless physical and mental testing is the goal. The focus should be on mission completion.

By focusing on proper training, proper techniques for preventing injuries, adapting packing lists according to mission requirements as well as proper load configuration, the result will be soldiers who can conduct missions with greatly improved field endurance, with less risk of injury and greater capacity for performing tasks other than carrying their loads on their backs.

It strikes me as odd that there are max limits on total loads for vehicles, both military and civilian, to ensure safe operation and to prevent excess wear, whilst the soldier on the ground is not shown the same consideration.



The Modern Warrior’s Combat Load:

Load Carriage in Military Operations; A REVIEW OF HISTORICAL, PHYSIOLOGICAL,

Rifle Platoon Basic Load OEF XII:

Battle Rattle: The Stuff A Soldier Carries – Hans Halberstadt
ISBN 10: 0760326223 / ISBN 13: 978-0760326220
I have a very hard time seeing any American infantry officer being allowed to tell his guys "Drop the body armor" regardless of weather or altitude. It has saved enough lives that our very casualty-conscious risk-averse leadership culture cannot make that call below the GO level, and doubt it will happen there.

When our current CG at Fort Campbell authorized shooting without kit on the zeroing ranges, I thought that was earth-shattering. Too many people are loaded down for fighting in hallways like Ninja Turtles and can't hold a steady prone stable position to kill 23 of 40 popup targets, let alone 36 of 40.