Tactical Tailor

Terry Baldwin – Random Gear Thoughts

Based on comments made recently about photos of some earnest but not necessarily squared away individuals I thought it might be an appropriate time to share some “Random Gear Thoughts”. Much of this was originally something I wrote to a friend about to take command of a conventional Combat Support Unit a few years ago. So it will likely sound very familiar to many of you who have served in the military. But I believe the core concepts are just as valid for police officers or even civilians. Especially those who may not have had the opportunity or time to acquire the same level of training or experience with their gear as an AC Soldier or Marine.

Gear or “Kit” is important. It can be your best friend in combat or in the field if used properly. Or it can literally be a pain or an impediment to your mission – if used improperly. The MOLLE Use and Care Manual has a good description of how to set up your issue gear. The following comments are not in any order of priority. But my intent is to provide some suggestions based on sound principles on why it is important to set up your personal and organizational gear a certain strictly functional way. Good soldiers and good units organize ALL of their gear. This means personally worn kit, individual packed gear (rucksack, kit bag, duffel) and gear normally carried on unit vehicles like water and fuel cans. Each “layer” of your kit should be organized to support the accomplishment of your personal and unit mission. So, it is the “right tool for the right job” and the right tool in the RIGHT PLACE for the job.

The gear you routinely wear should always include the minimum equipment necessary for the individual to: shoot, move, communicate, survive, and contribute to his or her team’s mission. The soldier’s load should be ruthlessly managed by the chain of command to ensure that the individual soldier carries ALL of the required equipment AND NOTHING ELSE. Think minimalistic – ammunition, water, Improved First Aid Kit (IFAK), body armor and not much else. Do not force soldiers to carry “nice to have” or “just in case” unit gear and do not allow them to fill their kit with personal comfort items. Again, think in terms of echelons or layering of equipment based on the units’ mission and assets available. Note: a unit can and should choose to add additional weight to training events / PT in order to build endurance, but in combat only carry the essentials. Remember, to always compensate for the weight of real ammunition (full rifle/pistol magazines, hand grenades, flares, smoke, demolition, claymores, etc) during training.

Shoot: Individual weapon (primary and secondary – rifle / carbine and pistol – if issued) plus optics (day / night) plus basic load of ammunition for all weapons. Adjust ammunition load to the mission and threat. Don’t allow – or force – soldiers to carry multiple basic loads “just in case” or because the ammunition is available. Ammunition is one of the ‘big three” when it comes to carried weight (water and armor being the other two). You have to have water to survive, and the weight of body armor is what it is. Carry additional ammunition on vehicles or with follow on gear if necessary, rather than on the soldiers back. This is not to pamper the soldier, but rather not to over burden the soldier and conserve his or her strength for the fight. The weapon(s) should be test fired and zeroed (to include optics) by the individual prior to operations. Magazines should be arranged on the load carrying system in a way that is secure but allows for smooth access for reloading. Note: practicing shooting and reloading (even if only “dry fire” without ammunition) is one of the simplest ways to determine if you have arranged your gear properly. If soldiers can’t get a good sight picture, effectively engage targets, or rapidly reload their weapons, then they need to practice and / or rearrange their gear until they can – under all weather and light conditions!

Move: the kit when fully loaded should still allow you to move over roads or cross country, fire your weapons accurately, and maneuver effectively and efficiently as a member of a team. In other words, your harness / vest should neither be loose and floppy, nor so tight that it restricts breathing or a relatively normal and unhindered range of motion during strenuous activities. Avoid having any extraneous straps or gear dangling from your kit. Those items that are improperly mounted or secured, become a snagging hazard, are likely to become lost, and endanger the soldier – even in a peacetime environment. Obviously, getting hung up by your gear as you exit a vehicle is a hazard that is best avoided. This also applies to any pack that is worn or carried on a vehicle.

Communicate: this includes having clear fields of view to allow the soldier to see and respond to hand and arm signals. That means helmets, eyewear (glasses, goggles, Night Vision Devices), cold weather gear (hoods and hats) are integrated into the soldiers ensemble in a way that doesn’t unduly block their vision or impair their hearing. Dismounted radio systems, if available, should be carried by the individual to facilitate team communications. A note book with pen / pencil is also useful if you have to resort to messengers. Of course with more modern C2 systems text messaging and other options may also be available. Leaders should carry maps (in a waterproof case of some type). Note: maps (paper or virtual) are a key communication tool for leaders to display graphics and communicate their intent.

Assault pack: Minimum environmental survival gear should be organized in this small to mid-sized pack to facilitate short duration missions away from supporting vehicles. Depending on conditions, this could include a jacket (fleece or windbreaker type), or wet weather gear (if appropriate), and minimum sleep gear (usually a poncho / tarp and poncho liner). In more extreme conditions a sleeping bag and bivy may be required. A change of socks (I recommend 2 pair) and a moisture wicking t-shirt (allows soldier to change to a dry shirt after movement to prevent hypothermia). Light (aviator type) gloves should ALWAYS be worn to protect hands, but heavier winter gloves and a fleece or wool cap are useful to conserve body heat – even in relatively mild conditions. Additional ammunition (only if mission dictates), spare batteries for mission items, the individual weapons cleaning kit along with some low volume / high energy food and perhaps additional water would also go in this layer.

Full sized Rucksack: Think longer term survival. Additional sleeping gear, hygiene gear, more clothing (socks, t-shirt, one change of uniform) and supplemental cold weather gear. Other mission enhancing items as dictated by the unit SOP and task at hand. The assault pack can be attached to the top of the main rucksack and carried there until needed as a separate item. Most everything else; comfort items and “housekeeping” items should be in a follow on kit bag or duffel. I recommend that the personal gear in the rucksack always be kept in a waterproof bag or dry sack. That will keep gear dry of course, but will also facilitate dropping or caching the contents. Then the empty rucksack can be used to recover resupply items or additional unit sustainment necessities. Items like bulk MREs, water, shelters and ammunition can then be readily transported from a vehicle drop off point if required. Note: the full sized rucksack is a valuable load carriage tool in combat. But leaders should make every effort to keep them off their soldiers’ backs and transported on vehicles as much as possible to conserve that all important fighting strength.

I’ll also mention here some very useful – but not always issued – “survival items” that are worth considering. This includes: snaplinks (aluminum), 550 cord, 100 MPH (Duct) Tape, cigarette lighter (start fires and to melt / repair frayed nylon straps and material on your gear). Mini Bic lighters work great and easy to carry. Pocket knife (clip type) and multi-tools (Leatherman@ or “Swiss Army” type) are highly recommended. Subdued bandana, i.e. “drive on rag” or shermagh type scarf takes up little space and has multiple uses. To cover mouth and nose in high dust areas and help retain body heat in colder situations for example. Blue or green Micro light (night vision friendly). Relatively cheap but durable wrist watch. I strongly prefer older style with hands and luminous markings over digital displays. A soldier can use an old style watch to tell direction and, if you use self winding versions, battery life is not an issue. Digital displays are often very bright and violate light discipline. Thereby putting the soldier and unit at risk by identifying your position. Watches need to have buzzers and alarms deactivated before tactical operations. A small “wrist compass” is also useful and can often be worn on the same watch band with watch. Caution – don’t put compass right next to watch because of possible magnetic interference.

You may be thinking…I’m a senior leader. I don’t kick in doors or routinely engage in close combat. Most of this doesn’t really apply to me. While that may usually be true, combat is extremely unpredictable and you may be called upon to defend yourself just as any other soldier. Beyond your personal survival, and perhaps much more importantly, as a senior leader the example you set determines the standards your soldiers and your unit meet. The things that are important to you (having your gear “squared away” and mission ready) must become important to your unit. Setting the proper standards, and leading by example is critical. Likewise, people need to understand the intent behind your gear policies and SOPs, i.e. to make the unit more combat effective (not to make everyone “uniform” and parade ground pretty).

Finally, some advice for those out there who aren’t issued any gear and are on limited budgets. Surplus USGI gear isn’t necessarily sexy but it is well constructed and will give good service. Moreover, real issue kit items can usually be acquired at very low cost for the quality. Cheaply constructed knock off copies of high end gear made with subpar materials will fail sooner rather than later. And I guarantee you it will come apart at the worst time. That being said, I suggest that you continue to practice and learn with whatever you have right now. In other words do the best you can with what you have. Just plan to improve / upgrade your personal kit as soon as possible with an eye to functionality first and foremost. That would be a good starting point for anyone who is serious about their gear. If you are wearing tactical gear to pick up girls, look “cool” or as a costume then feel free to disregard all above.

LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (RET) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments.


26 Responses to “Terry Baldwin – Random Gear Thoughts”

  1. Jed says:

    Coming from the civi side of this I have never wanted to look ninja with my gear. I started out with cheap gear and blew through all sorts of set ups until I rested on and HSGI carrier, 4 rifle and 2 pistol tacos and my plates. 90% of the time I will range with my belt. 2 pistol, 2 rifle, IFAK/Turni, leatherman, knife and holster. I am generally not going to bash anybody for what gear they wear or how cheap/expensive it is but I do notice alot of times (as mentioned above) most guys want that cool factor. I have seen it on Military, LE, and civi all the time. And honestly alot of it is cool but is it functional? Probably not. Minimalist for me please.

  2. Pro Patria says:

    Terry would love to talk in depth some time about “Assault Packs” and butt packs.

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Pro Patria,

      I did do an article on buttpacks some time back. Perhaps you read that? Despite having been a fan myself back in the day I don’t believe that buttpacks have nearly as much utility in todays operations that are almost always vehicle centric.

      So I’ve been more of an assault pack fan since 9/11. However, if you want to chat about it more I’m sure SSD can pass you my email if you ask.


      • jkifer says:

        Mr Baldwin, I couldn’t agree more. Any kind of op’s/AO work involving vehicles and the whole “drop leg, big belt pouches” become a hinderance.. an assault pack is the perfect way to go nowadays

        • ChrisPL says:

          So it looks like Nam-era – some stuff on belt and harness, and the rest in backpack..?

  3. Chuck says:


    It’s incredible to have you here writing articles like this. Too many times have service members been burdened or endangered due to improper load plans and gear management (i.e. Rollovers). What are your opinions on tacsop dictated personal load management?

    Chain of command not managing enough is one thing, but I’ve also seen commanders “micro managing” gear to the level of ordering soldiers to stack magazine pouches on the left instead of allowing personal preference for handedness.

    Thanks again for the article. Best wishes.

    • Terry Baldwin says:


      A lot of leaders confuse micro management (negative leadership technique) with attention to detail (positive leadership technique). Admittedly it can be challenging to recognize the difference.

      Establishing SOPs, inspecting soldiers and unit vehicles and aggressively managing the load is leader business. More experienced senior NCOs and Officers have to take charge, set the example, and provide guidance and supervision.

      And certainly not let the burden fall on individual soldiers and our most junior leaders to figure out for themselves what right looks like. Still, TACSOPs and doctrinal “school solutions” are just guidelines and not straitjackets.

      Realistic Mission Analysis can and should be applied to validate or invalidate assumptions contained in SOPs. But I certainly think SOPs have value as a baseline or starting point from which to make adjustments.

      So for example, I would agree with you that demanding that magazines be only on a soldiers left side sounds like the intention is uniformity and not functionality. But conversely, I do think there is validity to having a pre-established and standardized location for IFAKs.


      • Chuck says:


        Thank you for the follow up. It sounds like you’re a believer in the adage of “trust but verify”. Reading your reply was just as insightful as the article.


        • Terry Baldwin says:


          Actually I was thinking of a much older saying: a unit only does well what the commander inspects.

          Said another way: If you want soldiers and the unit to focus on what is important you can’t just tell them.

          You have to show them by your example and actions. That’s really just old school leadership 101.


  4. Weaver says:

    Excellent, as usual.

    The need to minimize the load Soldiers carry – and the amount of crap they’re asked to pack – is a lesson learned over and over and over again, but rarely, for some reason, actually retained in the Army. Every few years this comes up as some sort of relevation – and within years or even months we find “leaders” telling their troops to overload “just in case”, or to pack extraneous crap that will never be used.

    This isn’t a new issue – I remember deployment packing lists in the 80s and 90s always included a full mess kit – one which I never, ever used. I remember having a ruck packing list which included two sets of BDUs – then having to hump it for days on end without changing uniforms, because once unpacked in the field there was no way in hell I’d get it packed down tight enough to close the ruck. And I remember one particular BN CDR who insisted that we could only wear a Camelbak underneath our BDU top (and thus under our damn body armor!), and couldn’t wear flight gloves but only bulky Thinsulate winter gloves – but also said we had to carry 7 full mags all the time – in Kosovo in 2002, when nobody in TF Falcon had fired a round in years.

    • majrod says:

      I was in agreement until you closed with complaining about carrying the basic load.

      • Weaver says:

        When on mounted patrols, it is pointless – it adds bulk, making vehicle egress more difficult, yet doesn’t contribute to effectiveness. We didn’t carry 7 mags in Iraq, when people were shooting much more, and we didn’t need them at all in Kosovo.

        It’s not the weight – it’s the pointlessness of it. “Basic Load” isn’t a universal standard of “always 7 full magazines” – it should be modified for the tactical situation. We didn’t carry any frags in Kosovo either – but two frags are basic load, right?

        • majrod says:

          Are there situations where seven mags aren’t appropriate? Yes, recon missions come to mind where stealth is key and one isn’t supposed to get engaged or commit to decisive combat in those situations.

          I differ when it comes to the Infantryman conducting his (and now her) spectrum of operations. Seven mags for an Infantryman is up there with the nine/12 man squad when it comes to negotiation. The basic load of 210 rounds allows for sustained combat and to enable fire and maneuver. If one hasn’t had either happen to him it might be attractive to throw out age old good practices but that can be a very rude awakening. One can’t assume one’s experiences make up the sum total of all combat conditions out there. This is why the study of history and best practices can help us avoid fatal errors.

          Placing a portion of one’s basic load on a vehicle assumes one will never have to fight away from the vehicles, one will be able to get to the vehicle and the vehicle will be there to retrieve one’s basic load in a SUSTAINED firefight. That’s a lot of assumptions.

          Can one carry extra ammo on the vehicle? Yes, EXTRA ammo. Just because one can do things doesn’t mean one should. Reminds me of a certain Ranger that didn’t bring his NODS in Mogadishu.

          Relying on the enemy not to engage in a sustained firefight or to start hostilities in a peacekeeping mission just doesn’t seem wise to me.

          Climbing out of vehicles wearing kit has always been a real pain. I really understand and commiserate. It was cramped for my 5’11″/190lb frame in the turret of a Bradley (my gunner was the same size). I donned my harness climbing out of the vehicle before the days of the Fighting Load Carrier. There are a lot of hard things one must discipline oneself to do. If one wants to keep living. Wearing body armor is a real pain also especially in plus 100 degrees.

          Frags are not in the same individual basic load category as rifle ammo for the Infantryman. They require authorization for issue at a higher level, typically at the company or battalion command levels and are considered special equipment. Troops often don’t realize this as that decision is often transparent to them. Unit basic loads can include all types of grenades and even 60mm rounds that are spread to the individual but are not the individual’s “basic load”.

          • Riceball says:

            A little off topic here, but when you mentioned you were 5’11″/190 I immediately thought of a tanker that I know of on YouTube that goes by The Chieftain. He does videos for the gaming company Wargaming and visits various tank museums around the world and explores tanks both inside and out. Anyhow, this guys is around 6′ (a wee taller than you) and it can get pretty amusing watching him getting into certain tanks, the Russian ones in particular. Being an armor guy yourself, or at least a Bradley driver you might enjoy his videos, look up The Chieftain’s Hatch on YouTube.

  5. majrod says:

    Just another outstanding job LTC. I’m in the process of putting together a course on get home, bug out bags etc. Your essay is a great starting point. You did a great job of condensing the basic principles.

    (As you know) About the Soldier’s Load, as a product of the “Light Fighter” days of the 80’s we paid a tremendous amount of attention to the packing list and enforcing it. There was a time where carrying Vienna sausages was a real luxury and most forego it just because of the additional weight.

    The most striking development I’ve observed from my final years in the Army and interacting with active duty soldiers is that much of the authority to determine the soldiers load at battalion and below level has disappeared. It seems important and relatively unimportant decisions on what the soldier wears and carries are made at the flag rank level. Specifically things like what amount of body armor is worn or even where the tourniquet should be worn are decided by levels of command far removed from the local commander that routinely operates in a region.

    I fear that dynamic will make it VERY hard for the Army to make real change.

    • Terry Baldwin says:


      I do agree that many of these decisions have gravitated too high up the chain. But I also remember inexperienced rifle squad leaders at Pope AFB running their troopers through the ammo line to get a 3d basic load “just in case” prior to Grenada.

      Senior leaders should have stopped that nonsense. So this is not a new phenomena. As Harry mentions below we have the hard data. And the even harder lessons learned have been taught for decades in our leadership schools.

      Over the years some senior leaders have indeed tried valiantly to lighten the load. All have failed. I can’t explain why.


      • majrod says:

        My pet explanation is the perfect storm of conditions…

        Fieldcraft/field planning type issues have taken a back seat over the last plus decade. Seems the mental energy that goes into making the bread and butter hard things happen so combat ops look easy has been replaced with concerns over other things (e.g. a myriad of classes, suicide prevention, risk management emphasis).

        It’s the same kind of phenomena where Conop Briefs replaced five paragraph Opords.

        The nation hasn’t really asked us to “win the war” as much as just kill bad guys. (and Generals aren’t asking)

        If we were really tasked/allowed to hunt down and kill these guys there would be a lot more mental energy placed on why we can’t go where they go and pin them down.

        We’ve also been very lucky to face an enemy that rarely sits and fights or has the capability to conduct sustained offensive ops.

        • Riceball says:

          There’s that and then there’s also the amount of risk aversion that afflicts our military these days, esp. at the upper echelons where a lot of these decisions are being made. Nobody wants to be in charge when somebody gets severely wounded or killed and it’s determined that it might have been avoidable if they had been carrying X, so the brass makes sure that the troops are carrying as much as possible in order to cover all of their bases. At the same time, I also think that a lot of these decisions to carry an insane amount of gear, armor, and ammo comes from people who have long forgotten what it was like to be a lowly Lt or a mere Capt and having to hump all of that crap. It’s like my thoughts on engineers, they should be required to operate and repair what they design before it goes into final production, that way they know if what they’ve designed is easy to operate and/or work on. Same thing should go with the brass and their decisions on what the troops are supposed to carry, they should be required to either hump all the gear themselves or get somebody they trust to do it and offer feedback before making the final decision.

  6. Harry says:

    Great Article!! Your articles always make me miss the Army. A soldier’s load has been debated, argued and cursed probably for the last 241 years at least. I mean troops died on D Day because they carrying so much stuff they couldn’t swim or maneuver with it. Many units in the 82d ABN Division deployed to the tropical island of Grenada with winter packing lists. Jumping Jack Lindsey, a Commanding General of the 82d in the 1980’s kept large Alice Packs off of the CIF menu because, he didn’t want us to fill them up. The bottom line is that every ounce counts when you’re humping it. The classic book the soldiers load and the mobility of a nation is still relevant even in today’s world of modular everything. I can remember JRTC rotations when troopers would be weighed to see how much weight they were carrying versus what weight the leadership thought they were carrying. The troopers were always carrying much more weight then planned. As an old crusty guy, the only thing I thought should be standardized across the fighting load was the placement of an individual first aid kit but, that’s just me. Unfortunately, appearance is often more important than functionality.

    • Chris says:

      Going thru CIF at Bragg before deploying to Kuwait/Iraq, I got a spear suit AND and bear suit!

  7. Mayflower R&C says:

    Great article as always Terry!

  8. Anibal says:

    Army leadership will never learn, too many of them have never had to hump 100 lbs of gear for a mile let alone the 12 they expect Pvt 100 lbs soaking wet to carry, because he said so, why

    Most of us have shot backs and knees, most not related to jumping out of airplanes, at least when I was in we could run in proper shoes, but at such a slow pace, for “uniformity” of course, as to do real damage to ankles and knees

    Really pissed off some “leaders” when I couldn’t run during PT, but could pack chutes all day and jump at night when scheduled because I managed to find an Army Doc that actually had a clue and wasn’t just following whatever SOP they generally were forced to follow and not actually help us out, especially irksome to the FAT E5 that could not pass a tape test and got booted out for being a fatass 🙂

  9. Vince says:

    In my experience as career Marine and current LEO, I have seen institutional inertia and protocol drive commands to continue longtime trends that were detrimental to the warfighter and street cop. Fortunately, the last fifteen years of high tempo conflict have been a test bed and proving ground for TTP’s. I would like to think that basic doctrine relevant to this topic have changed with the times and senior leaders have learned from their mistakes. The individual is an asset and must be protected as such. Lessons learned have provided valuable insight into modern combat requirements and have driven advancement in gear development that should be taken into account. these advancements in materials and construction in conjunction with design to meet new equipment carriage needs should continually be evaluated for integration. Each commander has a responsibility to his/her subordinates that trump political and bureaucratic appearances. Each Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airmen should be equipped with the best, most effective gear to ensure a overwhelming advantage on the battlefield here or abroad. Of course, there is the old adage “pack light, freeze at night.”

    Happy hunting brothers.

  10. ak says:

    LTC Bladwin

    Sir , I am a civilian with some LE background and would like your advise on rucks and assault packs

    My objectives are bugouts and travel especially in the tropical region I am living in

    May I ask you some questions?

    • Terry Baldwin says:


      My first bit of advice is not to buy gear that looks like military gear. Good quality nondescript civilian bags will help you keep a lower (safer) profile and still carry the load.

      I can try to answer any other specific questions you have. As I mentioned above, SSD can give you my email if you ask him nicely.


  11. Jon Meyer says:

    I wish 99% of my leaders when I was in knew this instead of humping heavy sh*t because it is heavy for the ego.