Plate carriers are one of the quintessential pieces of equipment for a tactical loadout. Beyond just holding your armor—which is no trivial task—they contain your ammunition, medical supplies, communications equipment, and more. Everything from navigation and sustainment gear to tools can end up on a plate carrier.
Military and police personnel are very familiar with the importance of plate carriers (often shortened to PC). For a soldier or law enforcement officer, your plate carrier can quite literally be the difference between life and death, and when you spend 8-12 hours a day wearing it, you learn to appreciate the difference between a quality carrier and a budget model.
When shopping for a plate carrier, though, it’s easy to undervalue these differences. With light use, such as during shorter training sessions you often won’t notice issues like hot spots or poor breathability which can become bothersome over longer periods—the kind you might encounter once you’re on patrol.
The last thing you want is to discover your PC’s shortcomings during duty use, whether that’s responding to an emergency or taking a multi-day class. Below, we’ll go over some of the different options available as well as the key features and qualities to look for in a top-tier plate carrier.
Understanding Plate Carriers
At its simplest, a plate carrier is nothing more than a fabric vest with large pockets sewn in to hold your armor plates. In fact, they’re frequently conflated with tactical vests, despite serving a different primary purpose. While both serve to hold and organize your gear, tactical vests are lighter, more breathable units that omit armor protection altogether.
Chest rigs often get lumped into this category as well, as they are visually similar to plate carriers but function more like tactical vests—carrying gear, but offering no protection.
Plate carriers can also get confused with ballistic vests. Ballistic vests are very similar to plate carriers but are designed for soft armor, rather than plates. Typically, you’ll see ballistic vests in use by police rather than military units, as soft armor isn’t generally capable of defeating rifle rounds. However, some vests integrating both soft and plate armor are still in use by the military, including the IOTV.
Plate carriers can usually be broken down into a few key components: the plate bags, the shoulder straps, and the cummerbund. The plate bags are the front and rear panels, which hold the armor plates inside and usually serve as the primary mounting surface for accessories such as magazine pouches or first aid kits.
The shoulder straps are, obviously, the straps that connect the two bags and sit over your shoulders. The cummerbund is the strap or straps that run around your torso to connect the stabilize the plate bags. While nearly all older plate carriers featured large cummerbunds that offered extended real estate for mounting side plates or accessories, many modern carriers have done away with the cummerbund in favor of simple, low-profile straps.
What are the Different Types of Plate Carriers?
Plate carriers are a pretty simple piece of gear overall, but they do come in several different varieties, each tailored to a specific purpose.
The two biggest categories for plate carriers are minimalist and tactical.
Minimalist plate carriers have a very streamlined form factor, designed to minimize visibility and bulk. They often have limited space for mounting accessories, or sometimes none at all.
Minimalist plate carriers are common for use cases that require protection, but no substantial amount of gear. In some cases, they can even be worn covertly underneath clothing. You might see these sorts of plate carriers used by emergency medical personnel in high-risk areas, or by at-risk individuals under the protection of professional bodyguards.
Tactical plate carriers are the more common of the two and are generally what you would think of when discussing armor plates or tactical equipment. These are commonly used by police and military units. You’ll often see multicam plate carriers or other camouflaged patterns in this category.
Tactical plate carriers can be quite large, such as the IOTV, and provide broad coverage to not just the chest and back, but also the sides, shoulders, and groin. But, they can also be rather small; some tactical plate carriers border on minimalist and are designed to carry little more than front and back plates and a few spare mags.
As with all tactical equipment, the mission ultimately dictates the required gear.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Plate Carrier
Regardless of your use case, there are a few attributes that are important to consider before making a purchase.
This is far and away the most important quality of your plate carrier, and probably the one that prospective buyers mess up the most. While a plate carrier is technically an article of clothing, finding the proper fit is much more involved than simply choosing your size. But, that doesn’t mean plate carrier sizing has to be difficult.
To find a plate carrier that fits you properly, you need to start by determining what plates fit you best. Then, choose a plate carrier that is fitted to the plates, rather than your body. Quality plate carriers are highly adjustable and shouldn’t have any trouble conforming to a wide variety of body types, but if your plates don’t fit the plate bag properly, you’re going to have a bad time.
Start by measuring the distance from the suprasternal notch of your collarbone to your belly button, then subtract 1-3″ depending on your body type and how mobile you want to be. Bear in mind, though, that the shorter you make your chest plate, the more of your body you’re leaving exposed and unarmored.
Next, measure the distance across your chest from nipple to nipple. This is the maximum width of your ideal armor plate. In all likelihood, you won’t end up with a number that perfectly matches common plate sizes—very few people have a torso that’s perfectly 10×12″. You can simply choose the closest available size.
With your plate size selected, your next step is to find a plate carrier with a matching plate bag. While plate carriers are often sold using generic sizes like small, medium, and large , you can typically find the dimensions of their plate bags in the description.
You may also see SAPI sizes listed, which refer to a separate sizing system used primarily by the military and stands for Small Arms Protective Insert. Most commercially available plates don’t use the SAPI system, but their sizes are typically close to SAPI standards, such as the common 10”x12″ plate nearly matching the Medium SAPI 9.5”x12.5″ dimensions. Be sure to double check before mixing sizing systems; 10×12 plates will often fit in a Medium SAPI carrier, but not always.
Beyond simply choosing the correct size, it’s important to look at what features are to provide greater comfort as well. Things like padded shoulder straps and high-breathability fabrics on the inside of the plate bags can make a huge difference during an 8-hour patrol .
Additionally, some users may benefit from a wide range of adjustment in the cummerbund area of a plate carrier. This adjustment range may be essential for adding extra layers of clothing underneath the plate carrier to account for temperature changes, or certain types of gear like sideplates that are commonly mounted inside the cummerbund.
Consider the location of things like quick-disconnect clips and buckles as well. Picture how you plan to set up your loadout; are any of the buckles on your vest going to get in the way of you shouldering your rifle, or drawing from a mag pouch? If so, you’ll need to either adjust your configuration or choose a different carrier.
Durability and Quality
After finding the correct fit, you’ll want to consider durability and quality of construction as the next most important attributes.
Your plate carrier is going to be holding, at a minimum, 8-10 pounds of ballistic armor. Start adding ammunition, communications equipment, and even sustainment gear, and you can reach 20 pounds pretty quickly. Because of all that, there’s a lot more stress being placed on a plate carrier with plates than there is on other soft goods.
Your carrier needs to be tough enough to handle that load and keep it stable during vigorous activities like running or climbing. You need to be able to dive into the dirt without worrying about ripping a shoulder strap.
Durability is one of the most important qualities of a plate carrier, but it can be hard to quantify. After all, the only way to really know how tough a plate carrier is would be to run it until it fails. Few of us can afford to shell out for a plate carrier just to torture test it.
The best way to find a durable carrier is to stick to known brands with a strong reputation for durability. Many brands such as Ferro Concepts, Velocity Systems, Blue Force Gear, and HSGI have been making plate carriers and soft goods for decades, and are trusted by professionals.
Beyond that, though, you can look for signs of quality such as reinforced stitching and material composition. Most plate carriers will be made from some variety of nylon, but the exact type will vary. Denier (a measurement of fiber thickness) can also be an indicator of ruggedness, with higher numbers and thicker fibers generally being stronger, but it’s not also a perfect indicator, as some manufacturers are now using cutting-edge materials with thinner fibers to achieve the same strength as older, thicker fabrics.
It’s also worth knowing that while laser-cut webbing is often advertised as a stronger alternative to traditional stitched webbing, that’s not always the case. Both methods of creating attachment points can be extremely strong when done well, but neither has shown to be superior to the other across all brands and for all applications.
Versatility and Customization Options
Lastly, you’ll want to take into consideration features like modularity and the availability of mounting points on your plate carrier.
Some plate carriers offer much greater levels of customization than others. While most plate carriers come with some form of webbing (Usually a MOLLE system) across the front and rear plate bags for mounting plate carrier accessories, others offer additional features like mounting points or cable organizers on the shoulder straps, placard attachment buckles or hooks on the front bag , or the ability to add or change your cummerbund or side plate pouches.
The value of these features will vary depending on your intended use case. If you frequently change the configuration of your gear, which is common for users that run multiple different weapon types with the same plate carrier, then the ability to quickly attach different plate carrier placards could be very valuable.
Similarly, users who carry a large amount of sustainment equipment—or just a ton of extra ammo—are best served by plate carriers that can include or can accept a cummerbund with lots of real estate to mount pouches on.
The Best Plate Carrier
The truth is, there is no best plate carrier. The best minimalist low-profile plate carrier would be terrible for a soldier that needs to carry mags, first aid, and sustainment gear—and the best plate carrier for that soldier could be counterproductive for someone who needed to be able to move quickly or change loadouts rapidly.
You can think of different plate carriers like tools in a tool chest; no matter how good your hammer is, it’s never going to replace a crescent wrench. They do very different jobs, so there’s no point in arguing over which is “best”.
But, if you’re looking for guidance on which plate carrier to get for a specific role, here are some guidelines on what to look for, as well as a few of our favorite models.
Minimalist/Low Profile Plate Carrier
If you want to be able to carry body armor but don’t need the whole “battle rattle,” then a minimalistic plate carrier is perfect. A good minimalist carrier should be slick and snag-free, with very little protruding webbing and few attachment points.
But, despite this, it needs to remain functional. Some minimalist carriers strip away so many features that the end result is sorely lacking in function. The best carriers split the difference; no unnecessary features to get in your way, but enough to be capable.
We’re very fond of the Ferro Concepts Slickster. True to the name, it’s almost entirely devoid of MOLLE webbing, but still features attachment points in the form of hook and loop panels, giving users the option to attach a placard when needed or run it slick when extra gear isn’t required.
It does feature a cummerbund, but it’s a thin, highly elastic one that conforms to the user’s body and only negligibly increases the profile. It also doubles as a mag carrier, further increasing your ability to adapt your loadout.
Modular Plate Carrier
Modular plate carriers are all about customization. If you run a rifle, shotgun, and pistol-caliber subgun all with the same plate carrier, then you’re probably well familiar with the tedium of changing out pouches.
Modular carriers make reconfiguring a breeze, whether you’re just adjusting your loadout for a mission or changing weapons platforms entirely. These flexible plate carriers should feature multiple different types of attachment methods and the ability to hot-swap placards.
Quality construction is particularly important in these types of carriers because all of that changing of parts is going to put a lot of wear on the small attachment points of your plate carrier setup.
In this category as well, we like Ferro Concepts’ iteration. Their FCPC offers a mind-boggling amount of customization, allowing users to attach accessories through MOLLE webbing, hook-and-loop panels, G-hooks, and zippers.
The FCPC’s front panel looks much like the Slickster but hides laser-cut MOLLE webbing within the upper velcro, and concealed G-hook attachment points, allowing any of their ADAPT front panels to be added seamlessly.
The rear plate bag provides ample MOLLE space but also integrates dual zippers allowing rear ADAPT panels to be added or changed out in seconds.
Affordable Plate Carriers
Feature-rich plate carriers are great, but even if you’re not looking to break the bank, there are still plenty of great options out there. Affordable plate carriers can still be highly functional and extremely durable, just without some of the bells and whistles found on the more premium models.
When shopping for an affordable plate carrier, you’ll want to prioritize durability and quality. Stick to reputable, reliable brands and try to avoid any of the fly-by-night operations that pop up from time to time.
Affordable plate carriers tend to offer fewer optional features like placard attachment points, but those features can be superfluous for many applications. Affordable plate carriers can still be a perfect option for users who don’t often change their setup.
Grey Ghost Gear’s Minimalist Plate Carrier is one of our favorites. It’s a rugged, though simple, plate carrier that offers a generous amount of MOLLE webbing for mounting pouches and a discrete pocket for documents or small items.
Plate Carrier with Full Cummerbund
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re looking to carry a heavy load of ammo and equipment, you have plate carriers with full cummerbunds that offer maximum real estate for pouches.
For these types of carriers, comfort is essential—if you’re going to be wearing 30 pounds of gear, you’re going to want to do it as efficiently as possible, and without chaffing or hot spots. Things like padded shoulder straps and a large range of adjustability are important, as they will disperse the pressure across your entire shoulder and allow you to fit the carrier as snuggly to your body as possible.
As with modular plate carriers, you’ll want to prioritize durability very highly. Putting a large amount of weight on the carrier, whether with side plates or extra ammo, tends to accelerate wear, so it’s important to choose a plate carrier that can bear the strain.
One of our favorite plate carriers in this category is the Velocity Systems Scarab LT. It’s a premium carrier with a price to match, but the ULTRAcomp shoulder straps and padded sleeves provide a high level of comfort, even with heavy loads, and feature Velocity Systems’ swivel design for more fluid movement.
The cummerbund features plenty of extra MOLLE webbing, giving users a ton of space to mount pouches and accessories, but is still fairly low-profile and highly breathable. The front plate bag has both MOLLE webbing and buckles for mounting a placard, making it fairly modular as well.
A plate carrier is a crucial piece of gear, both for protecting your body and for carrying your equipment. When disaster strikes and you need a plate carrier, it’s important to have one that’s up to the task.
When shopping for a plate carrier, start by measuring yourself for plates and determining your size, then consider your use case and what type of carrier is best for you. Stick to reliable brands, but don’t be afraid to pick up a more affordable model if you don’t require the features offered by more premium options.
Of course, if you’re buying a plate carrier, you’re going to need some armor plates to go with it, so don’t forget to check out our guide to body armor.