Fitness Tips for the Apocalypse: Chapter 6—Suit Up with Seriously Practical Armor

After an Angry Space Rock slams into the Atlantic, aliens enslave us or zombies rise up, it would be a big mistake to walk around in (a) sweat pants and a T-shirt, (b) a three-piece suit or (c) shorts and flip-flops.

A smart choice would be some kind of armor.

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But what’s practical?

Let’s go through every possible option and try to poke fatal holes in them.

Option No. 1: If it’s good enough for the Marines, it’s good enough for me

Soldiers today wear advanced helmets and armor meant to protect them in war zones. So you’d think this choice would be good for any sort of apocalypse.

Here’s the trouble with that thinking: real military armor is quite heavy, hard to find and tough to replace. And you need to replace the ceramic plates and Kevlar vests every time they get hit with bullets, because each hit damages the armor.

Replacing military-grade armor for you and your friends would be incredibly hard. Everyone will snatch this stuff up, get into firefights and ditch their ruined armor. Maybe if you were really good with a heavy-duty sewing needle, you could keep on repairing your armor with the remains you scrounge at old battlefields. It’s just not likely.

Even if bullets bounced off military armor without leaving a scratch, the heavy weight makes this a non-option. You’ll be hiking, hunting and sometimes sprinting through rough terrain. It would slow you down too much. Even slow zombies would go nom-nom-nom.

The other problem is despite the good protection against bullets, military armor isn’t meant to protect against melee weapons like spears, swords, axes and sledgehammers. A real apocalypse would last for decades and with each passing year, the danger from firearms would go down exponentially as bullets ran out and guns broke down while survivors became more and more skilled with making and using things to stab you or bash your skull in.

Verdict: Ixnay on the military armor.

Option 2: Get medieval in the ultimate way with plate mail

It’s completely true that once an apocalypse hits, factories will stop making bullets and sending them to Big 5, Wal-Mart and Cabela’s.

It’s also correct to predict that everyone with guns and bullets will use them up pretty quickly, shooting at each other, and without hospitals and doctors, boring old non-fatal shots to the arm or leg will turn into deadly infections like gangrene.

So we can safely modify the old saying, “The loser of a knife fight dies in the street; the winner dies in the hospital” and make it into, “The loser of a gunfight dies in the wasteland right away, while the winner dies about two weeks later.”

That seems to point us toward medieval armor, designed to stand up against blades, bludgeons and arrows. And the ultimate in medieval protection is a suit of plate armor.

Fire up YouTube to watch modern-day knights wearing shiny plate whack each other at Renaissance Fairs (unsharpened swords) and LARP’s like Darkon (foam swords and drama). You’d think this would be a great option, with everybody else wearing half a shoulder pad on top of their tattered leather coat while you’re strolling around like a human tank, untouchable.

Here’s the problem: not only is this stuff hard to find, it’s mostly theater-grade junk, for cosplay fun, and even the good stuff has to be tailored to your exact dimensions.

Want to know why knights clumsily clank in the movies? Because they don’t spend the money to property fit the armor to every extra. The star, sure. Everybody else, forget about it.

Properly made and fitted plate armor would, actually, be pretty cool in a fight. It’s just you and your friends won’t stumble upon it. This stuff is expensive. The only way this might work is if you all spent a ton of money, tomorrow, to commission suits of armor for every person you expect to be alive and with you if everything goes south.

It’s also crazy heavy and hot. You wouldn’t want to wear this stuff all day. So you’d be carrying it in your backpack, except no suit of armor would fit in your backpack. The fact that it would take you ten minutes to unpack and put on your armor is a fatal flaw. There isn’t a single zombie, alien or scavenger who will wait for you to strap it all on.

Verdict: No, you will not be a shiny paladin in a suit of plate mail.

Option 3: Chain mail

This is lighter than plate, and doesn’t need to be tailored and fitted so carefully.

Three flaws make this a bad choice.

First, functional chain mail is hard to find. Most of what’s out there is for show and wouldn’t stand up to a blow in a real fight. Watch the video for the difference between “butted mail” and “riveted mail” if you want to get all technical.

Second, while it’s lighter than plate mail, it’s still heavy enough to be a problem and also NOISY, which is a bigger deal. Because there’s no point in advertising your exact position to every zombie, alien or scavenger within earshot. You might as well tie a cowbell around neck, Captain Clinkypants.

Third, chain mail is still hard to repair. Those small links take skill to make even today. When your chain mail gets damaged during any sort of apocalypse, there won’t be a blacksmith around to fix those tiny links. Chain mail will inevitably get damaged by battles—or rust—until it falls apart.

Verdict: Chain this to the Not Gonna Happen pile.

Option 4: Hard leather armor

Hard leather is a great option, offering lightweight protection against cuts, scratches and melee weapons.

You can boil leather to make it harder, or get your samurai on with lacquered plates of leather, which make it easier to move than a single solid breastplate of steel, leather or whatever substance you fancy.

With some practice, you can tan leather and make repairs, or craft your own leather armor, bit by bit.

Verdict: A definite option that you can repair and replace, and you’ll either be trapping rabbits and hunting deer or starving, so you may as well learn to tan leather and stitch together rabbit fur for insulation and padding.

Option 5: Pillage the sports section

Football helmets are a solid option, and shoulder pads are great protection against bludgeons and blades. Soccer shin guards make great sense, since they’re light and effective.

Stocking up on this stuff now would be 1,000-times cheaper than trying to buy military-grade stuff or commissioning a blacksmith to make you a suit of plate armor.

Sports equipment is also common and should be easy to scrounge for, if you need to replace damaged items or equip a new friend.

These items are also all modular, so you can mix-and-match what fits and works with other types of armor, like hard leather.

Verdict: A great option that’s cheap, plentiful and plays well with others.

Option 6: Motorcycle and mountain bike armor

This is a beautiful option, cheap and rugged. You can find full upper-body motorcycle or mountain bike armor online starting at $35.

It’s perfect for what we’re looking for, with protection against abrasion and blunt impacts.

I could not love this more.

There are even full, functional sets of motorcycle armor made to look like a Batsuit, or other things. These sorts of suits aren’t costumes. They’re meant to be used on bikes and offer full-body protection. They’re just (a) a bazillion times more expensive than your average set of bike armor and (b) kinda insane, as in some people may see you and cower in fear while others will think you’re a giant dork for pretending to be Batman, a Predator or whatever else they have out there.

The one thing I’d toss as an option? Motorcycle helmets. The weight alone is bad. Worse is the effect on your vision and hearing.

Verdict: Motorcycle armor is our best bet so far. Plus, you may be riding around on motorcycles (temporarily) and mountain bikes (permanently). Go for it, just don’t spend a ton of extra money to look like the Dark Knight, and ditch the helmet.

Option 7: Steve Rogers was onto something, right?

Shields seem like a smart idea. When things go wrong, which they will, I’d want some sort of shield.

The trick is, the only shields you can easily make are from wood. Heavy and awkward.

Even in medieval times, everybody figured out wooden shields didn’t last long. They braced those wooden shields with metal. And sure, you could find enough scrap metal to bolster a wooden shield you made. It would just be seriously clunky.

A better thought would be an all-metal shield, like Captain America’s, which should be thinner and lighter than a bunch of wood with metal supplements.

Though your shield won’t fly back like a boomerang, it could easily protect you.

Verdict: I’d give this thought as an option, though this is the sort of thing you’d want to buy or build now, instead of trying to craft a shield when you don’t have access to stores and power tools. The only real caveats are (a) get enough for your friends, (b) keep the shields light but strong and (c) plan ahead how you’ll complement serious shields. Because if you invest in this option in terms of money today and weight tomorrow, take full advantage of it by, for example, matching up your shields with spears. 

Option 8: These boots are gonna walk all over you

Honestly, you want to prioritize boots that are built for hiking through rough terrain while taking a beating.

If you pick some sort of menacing, overbuilt War Boots, any benefit you get in combat would be lost by the added weight.

Hiking boots are a basic, everyday choice and easy to find or scrounge. They’re tough and light.

Work boots are built tougher and heavier. A trade-off there.

Combat boots are the best, since they’re made for long marches and built to stand up to war zones. They also usually have steel toes, which is the big selling point for work boots. You want steel toes. NO MATTER WHAT.

Verdict: Hiking boots, combat boots or work boots, especially if you can get steel toes.

Option 9: Gauntlets

During a visit to Germany, we bought a knight’s gauntlet, just for fun. It’s functional, and you wouldn’t want to get punched by somebody wearing it. But seriously, the thing weighs a ton. You would not wear one of these for five minutes, much less a pair of them all day. This is the sort of thing you stick on a shelf and let guests try on.

A better option: tactical gloves or steel-plated motorcycle gloves.

Tactical or hard-knuckle gloves are light, tough and built for what we want. They’re also like having built-in brass knuckles.

Even tougher: steel-plated motorcycle or dirt bike gloves. Love it.

Final notes

(1) You’ll probably have to add straps to make sure the different parts stay together and none of your armor and gear clatters and clangs as you walk. The best way to win fights is to be sneaky, quiet and fast, so you don’t get in fights at all.

(2) Once you’ve assembled all the various bits of armor, go all Christian Bale in BATMAN BEGINS and spraypaint your motley collection the same color (can’t go wrong with black) so people don’t see you and think “beater car painted seven different colors.” Instead, they’ll see a team of stealthy, deadly wraiths they should avoid.

(3) Modify the armor of everyone in your party with some sort of symbol that shows you’re all on the same team, and use that symbol to mark territory and claim any sort of mayhem, even if you didn’t cause it, so people learn to avoid it.

These are NOT the symbols your looking for, though I would be a little confused and afraid of a group that kept pie charts everywhere.

Next week: Chapter 7—Fire and Water

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