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Exploring Civilian Body Armor Options For Prepping, Survival, and Beyond

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: September 9, 2020
Exploring Civilian Body Armor Options For Prepping, Survival, and Beyond

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With all the recent violence, there is a lot of interest in civilian body armor. This is not something that you can just stroll down to the store and purchase. In fact, there is often a significant wait time to get armor, especially if something has just become available to the average person. It is important that you totally understand some basic things about body armor before you place that order.

Civilian body armor and military body armor are not necessarily different. You can buy a lot of the same gear.

I want to clear something up about body armor. The armor offered to civilians is often practically the same or close to the same as what military and law enforcement uses. There may be an occasional instance where the agencies get the newer and flashier armor before civilians are offered it of course.

Unlike some weapons and defensive products, there are no rules saying you can or cannot release this technology to the public. Local laws and rules may apply of course.

Consider that when you buy a night vision scope you have to agree that you are not shipping it out of the country. Companies like Optics Planet cannot legally ship some night vision to foreign lands.

At least part of the idea is that the USA doesn’t want to make it any easier on foreign entities to have access to far less expensive yet advanced technology. Not sure how true that is but that is one of the more common theories.

There are different levels of protection out there and it matters a lot that you get the right level for the type of firepower you are most concerned with.

Companies can have some flashy advertising but that doesn’t mean that their armor or bulletproof clothing is up to par when it comes to protecting you from the most likely calibers of bullets.

First off let’s lay down some facts about shootings. Most shootings are committed using handguns despite how much coverage you see of shootings that are committed with high powered rifles. You are more likely to get shot with a 9mm handgun than a rifle in most cases. It takes a lower level of armor to stop a 9mm bullet than it does an AR-15 or AK-47 round.

This chart gives you an idea of what different levels of plates can do for you. Remember that this is only guidelines. As more types of ammo are developed, there may be rounds that come onto the market that will penetrate better than others.

Steel Core Vs. Ceramic Plate Body Armor

Steel plates tend to be a bit heavier and less expensive than ceramic body armor. Ceramic body armor may be lighter but it can also be thicker than steel. Thicker armor can make it more cumbersome to move around. Ceramic plates can break if dropped and are overall more brittle. Some bullets like 5.56×45 (AR-15 rounds) have a greater impact on steel armor than on ceramic. For even more information, here is a link to Spartan Armor’s article on the topic.

When purchasing armor make sure you are clear what type of materials it is made from.

What about “soft” armor?

There is only so much that softer, lighter, and more comfortable armor can do to stop live rounds and projectiles. Soft armor can be purchased that will stop major handgun rounds but not a lot of rifles. Soft armor is typically made of materials like Kevlar and layers of plastic.

There is no such thing as Level 5 body armor.

Sometimes people search or ask about Level 5 body armor. There is no such level. The highest level of protection offered is Level IV and the more common armor found is Level III or IIIA. Level II armor is much rarer and usually found as law enforcement surplus. It has been on the market a long time and is considered a bit outdated since it offers such light protection. At the same time, you may be able to get a good deal on it.

Armor is heavy but there are some advancements that have helped with this issue.

Armor is going to be heavy regardless of what level you choose to buy but unless you want to shell out top dollar, the higher the level of coverage, the more the armor is going to weigh. This poses a problem for those that are smaller or if you are trying to offer your kids protection at school.

AR500 has a new panel that offers Level IV protection and weighs considerably less than other Level IV plates out there but at the moment it is very expensive for civilians to acquire and there is a considerable waitlist for plates. I imagine that over time the lighter weight plates will go down in cost but there is only so much weight you can shave off something that is made to take a major impact.

Body armor should not make you overconfident or impulsive. Consider what you are doing and don’t get overly brave just because you feel a little bulletproof. A head shot is all it takes.

I am not going to say that armor is a bad idea but I think it is important to make sure that it doesn’t make you so confident that you take risks that you normally would not. While there is nothing wrong with some confidence, you don’t want to veer into the territory of recklessness. Armor is extra protection and nothing more. You are still going to be hurting if you take a few rounds wearing armor. The impact is not completely absorbed by your plate no matter how good a brand or level of protection you have.

How armored do you want to be?

A lot of people are just buying plates to go in a backpack or similar. If you go beyond a single plate you are getting into some serious investment as well as weight. This is one reason the bulletproof hoodies are somewhat popular. They come in at 9 lbs and offer a lot of protection although you are still going to take a heck of a hit. Plate holders themselves add some additional weight. For me, it seems like if I was going to wear a lot of armor I would want a helmet. I know you cannot wear a helmet at work but if I was going to go all out for armor for SHTF I would want something that would offer at least some protection from the fatal headshot.

Of course you can always buy a plate at a time as you can afford it as well. I just think it is wise to plan out your armor so you have a realistic picture of what to expect. Sorry, a single plate doesn’t seem like it would be something that would offer a level of protection where I would feel like I was well protected.

Pre Made Bulletproof Backpacks and Clothing

Most of these are Level IIIA which will stop a handgun round but not rifles. I do not advise spending a lot of money for this level. If I was going to carry a bulletproof bag, I would get my own pack and then buy a level IV plate that can take an AR-15 or AK-47 round. Packs are an item that are having a moment in the spotlight because of worried parents and major retailers putting them on the shelf. I always repeat to others that they should look closely at what they are buying because price points can vary a lot too.

Any type of bulletproof clothing is going to be a bit bulky. There is no way to have bulletproof anything without some bulk. While the idea of bulletproof clothing is pretty neat, the reality is that very few people are going to want to wear the same things so often.

I guess the exception maybe if you buy a few very basic items that you can wear often with a variety of other clothing. Some of the nicer coats and business wear can get very expensive. Consider that a child’s hooded sweatshirt alone is $450 or more.

For more specific details on bulletproof backpacks and clothing, please take a look at my article “Best Bulletproof Backpacks, Inserts, and Clothing”. It contains some details and info on very specific products.

Remember you can increase the effectiveness of your armor by putting cover between you and any shooters or stray bullets.

Adding an extra layer of protection can be a big help. If you are wearing Level III armor, for example, having a wall or desk between you and a bullet can make a huge difference. Think of your armor as a protective barrier but remember that the more mass you can put between yourself and a bullet, the better off you will be.

Armor is going to have an effect on the speed of your movements.

For those of you that plan on being on the move, you need to realize just how much civilian body armor is going to slow you down. If you still want to use it, I advise getting out on the trail while wearing it so you can get an idea of what to expect. I am not going to say that you can’t do it but that it may be a good idea to practice and increase your stamina with such a load.

Any type of fighting or combat is going to be different when you have armor on than if you do not. This is another thing that will take some adjustment.

Wearing armor means you get hot and sweaty faster but there are things you can do.

A moisture-wicking shirt such as those made with CoolMax fabric can help keep you drier and cooler when wearing a bulletproof vest or plate carrier.

Brands of Body Armor

As can be expected with any product, there are many brands out there to choose from. This is an important choice because you are choosing to literally put your life in the hands of the companies you choose to do business with. Body armor is not something most people ever personally test.

I have no experience wearing it or comparing other brands beyond what research I can do from home. I do have to say that the return policy is usually pretty good as long as you return within 7 days-1 month after purchase and don’t put any major wear on it. Make sure you are actually comfortable wearing it because if not you are going to have a lot of money invested in something that might be harder to sell second hand. With that in mind here are some plates and companies that stand out. I advise you to read reviews and reports on any that you might consider doing business with.


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This brand offers a big range of body armor including options that are made to fit well under a basic t-shirt. As far as variety goes, Engarde has a lot to offer.

Enguarde offers plates and plate carriers suitable for tactical and office use. Instead of just a plate or a basic carrier, they offer armor options for wearing under suits to the office and items like ballistic blankets and helmets.

I also noticed that Engarde has body armor that is made specifically for women’s body shape. If you think this is something that would be more comfortable for you than men’s they are a company worth looking at. Their Flex Pro and Comfort panels are supposed to fit 80% of women comfortably.

Engarde Helmets

This is one of the first helmets I found that claims to have bulletproof properties. Unfortunately, the level of protection offered is only IIIA which means it will stop handgun rounds but it is not going to stop a major rifle round from penetrating.

At the same time let’s remember that smaller handgun rounds are what the majority of fatal shootings in this country are done with. Of course, walking around with a helmet on is probably only something that is going to look okay if you are riding a bike or SHTF is happening and you are gearing up.


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Hesco impressed me with the various series of protection they offer to people and their easy to use website. They seem to want people to be very aware of what they are getting and what type of performance to expect.

Another standout for me was how they seemed to provide plates that were not quite as heavy as those I am used to finding. A Level III plate in the 2.5-3 lb range is pretty impressive in a world of 10 lb Level IV plates. Remember that Level III will actually stop some rifle rounds, unlike the IIIA.

This company also makes protective barriers that are pretty impressive. If you like cool tactical gear, check out their site when you have a minute.


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I came across AR500 a few years ago when I was searching for affordable plates that offered a better level of protection than the backpacks offered for sale at an increasing number of brick and mortar stores and online retailers.

AR500 Level IV Lightweight Plate

Note: These plates are on the AR500 website but not available for sale at the time of this publication. If you are interested you will need to check back in with them at a later time.

This is the lightest plate that delivers level IV protection that I have found. At a mere 4.4 lbs it is a far cry from the 10 lbs that seems so common. I just want to point it out because I have received a lot of emails from parents asking about the weight of plates for their children.

If you wanted to purchase a plate for a child’s backpack but balked at the thought of adding 8-12 lbs to your child’s bag, this plate would be an option. AR500 is listing the starting price at $700 so a lot of people will probably still buy level III plates.

Spartan Armor Systems

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Spartan Armor sells some very affordable armor. Unlike some manufacturers, they have an extensive selection of steel core armor that is still fairly lightweight. They are a good choice if the other sites you have looked at are back ordered or out of something you want. They have a section for armor packages if you want to just go ahead and get a whole upper body armor system at once.

Spartan currently delivers armor to you within 4 weeks.


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This company makes and sells armor, plate carriers, and backpacks. The website is very easy to navigate and find what you are looking for. I like that when you go to the page for armor the name of the plate includes if it is rated for rifles or handguns. This is very helpful to those that are shopping and are not entirely familiar with the differences in levels of protection.

Reconditioned or retired armor

You can get some bargains on armor that has been retired from law enforcement use. This armor is sound but over the years departments are required to replace armor. They are legally required to only have armor on hand that is within its warranty period and covered by insurance.

These laws mean there is a lot of perfectly usable surplus armor that is made in the USA. offers surplus and new armor. Their stock can vary and they want to make sure you get the right thing so they do a lot of orders over the phone or communicate via email. The website itself has a lot of useful info for those new to the world of body armor.

Ordering body armor can take some time.

Body armor is not always something that can be shipped to you in a matter of days. Due to demand, there are plenty of body armor companies that are only able to guarantee you will have your armor in 2-4 weeks. Some newer styles of plates could take even longer. Getting impatient with companies doesn’t help. If one firm cannot deliver fast enough for you then there are all kinds of other retailers out there.

Shape of Plates and Sizes

Some plates claim to have more of a curve to them so that they hug the body and torso. This may be a desirable feature for you. If this is something you want then you need to look for that in the description of plates you are considering or ask companies what they offer.

All plates have sizes clearly marked. Coverage is going to vary a bit. Different body types are going to require more plates than others. If you are not a typical sized person you may want to ask someone at a body armor company what would work best for you. A good fit, comfort, and the right coverage are all achievable with some planning.

Your body is still going to take a major impact that will hurt.

Bulletproof armor and clothing may stop penetration of rounds but that doesn’t mean your body is not going to absorb some major forces. This is a sad thing that I have had to tell concerned parents. Sure your child may not have a bullet penetrate them but their small body size is still going to take a remarkable amount of force and trauma that will require some recovery time. A piece of ceramic, metal, or Kevlar can only do so much.

What about bulletproof and stabproof options?

Some companies offer vests that offer stab protection but most are not rated for that. Adding stab-proof features to some body armor makes it a lot stiffer and it adds to the weight so unless you think knives are very likely, it is not usually worth the loss of comfort and extra money to get armor that is stab and bulletproof.

At the same time, it is worth considering if you should just have stabproof items to wear if you live in some areas or use crowded transit systems a lot. Knife crime is more common than gun crime in some places and it is easier for people to get away with it in a busy crowd.

Is it worth the cost to you?

The cost of civilian body armor definitely keeps it from being used by a lot of people. You need to ask yourself if you really feel the need to make such an investment. Do you plan on wearing tens of pounds worth of extra gear during a longer emergency? Bulletproof armor is neat stuff but I am not going to be spending that kind of money anytime soon. If I worked in some occupations or lived in a major urban area I may feel differently. Like with so much gear and tools, what you feel you need and your unique situation should be your determining factors.

Remember to think for yourself when it comes to fancier items like bulletproof gear. It is very easy to let fear, panic, and love for your family, lead to spending a lot of money.

Do you wear body armor regularly for work? Did you wear it often in the military? If you are female, did you have any issues wearing armor or plate carriers that were predominately designed for male use? If so, how did you deal with it?

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3 Responses to “Exploring Civilian Body Armor Options For Prepping, Survival, and Beyond”

  1. “Steel plates tend to be a bit heavier and less expensive than ceramic body armor.” My experience is that AR500 steel plates are approximately twice as heavy as military ceramic plates. While I am certainly glad that I have the steel plates, trudging around in a set of steel plates all day long in a hot, humid, high threat environment would certainly be no picnic.

    Should the world around me ever go to hell in a handbasket, I expect to reserve the steel plates for a stationary setting, and the ceramic plates for a more mobile application.

  2. I’m not a female but I’ve worn armor for over 30 yrs of various types. A few tips that apply to all:
    Chaff can be an issue. There are several products out there that help such as Body Glide and my personal go to Gold Bond Friction Defense.
    Heat is your enemy and physical fitness plays a huge role. You as a civilian can do more harm to yourself if your not in shape and trying to wear this than being without so be real and true to yourself. At 54 I’ve had to make some adjustments myself in my daily wear cause I ain’t 20 in the green machine where suck it up and drive on is an option anymore. If I don’t take care of myself I’ll be in the fetal position hugged up on a chair leg worthless to everyone.
    Hydration can be an issue but they make packs to fit on outer armor. The trade off is more weight and thickness. Your thickness, with a hydration carrier on one side, mags on the other and you and the plates in the middle, can play into fitting through doorways and getting behind the wheel in your vehicle. At 215 and being the smaller one on the team we make a loud popping noise when we all try and squeeze through the door at the same time in the battle rattle.
    Backpack armor with one plate is more than reasonable depending on the situation. If your in class and it goes down and you put your back to a wall then the plate in front.. or if its in your pack and shooting starts behind you and you start running away keeping it to the threat then ……The idea is to not test it. It’s only there for when you fail or get caught slipping.
    Ceramic armor is supposed to be Xrayed to check for cracks annually or more so as a civilian unless you’ve got access I’d rethink it.
    I’ve said it before that there is no Level 3+ NIJ certification. It is a manufactures claim and while probably not incorrect just understand that it hasn’t met a true certification.
    I recently bought a $99 set that has small 9″x9″ plates from AR500 that works great for smaller framed people of all genders called the Freeman. It will most likely go to my grown daughter.

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