Backpack armor is a pretty popular topic these days. Despite historic lows in violent crime, there’s a heightened concern about random mass violence, and rather than hoping it goes away there’s an increasingly large number of products devoted to providing ballistic protection to individuals.
One of those products is the AR500 Armor Level IIIA Backpack Armor 11″ x 15″ Rimelig Soft Body Armor (yes, that’s its full name) that I purchased last year and have been carrying just about everywhere recently.
First and foremost we should talk about what we’re trying to protect, and whether this is “enough.”
As a risk management professional, random mass violence falls into a category we call “low probability high consequence.” The likelihood that any specific person would be the target of this kind of violence (or any violence, really) is astronomically low. Statistically speaking you would need to live to be 20,000 years old before you’re guaranteed to be the victim of any kind of violent crime.
That said, these kinds of events do happen. People are attacked, and some are killed. Death is pretty much the ultimate possible negative consequence, which is something we definitely want to avoid if at all possible.
So there’s a chance we’re going to die randomly somewhere at some unknown time. It’s very small, but for some people that small risk is enough to warrant shelling out some bucks to have just a little bit of protection in their back pocket. In this case the back pocket is both literal and metaphorical.
Generally I’m not concerned enough to carry body armor on me at all times. But there are some situations where I feel there’s a heightened risk that rises to the level where some extra bit of protection would be appreciated.
For me, the clearest illustration of that need was my recent trip to Lima, Peru. My wife had found some cheap flights and wanted to check it out, and while I was mostly on board, I also wanted the ability to have some extra insurance. This made for a perfect scenario to add some soft body armor to my backpack.
The idea here is that a ballistic resistant bag could be held in front of me and/or my wife and give us just enough protection to run away from a shooter or other other threat. We’re not trying to kit up and confront the bad guys head-on, we’re just trying to get enough protection to get away alive.
While there are some backpacks on the market that claim to be bulletproof by design, generally they all are just standard backpacks with ballistic resistant panels inserted into a compartment. I’ve been using this Eagle Creek carry-on for some time and thankfully it already had a compartment in the back where I could slip the body armor. It seems intended for storing the shoulder straps, but intent and use can be different things. So rather than buying a new backpack I went searching for the perfect insert.
This is where most people run into problems. The assumption is that higher rated body armor is always better, but that’s not necessarily the case. All we’re looking for is enough extra protection to increase the chances of survival without adding so much bulk to the bag as to make it unusable.
In this case there are two things going in our favor: the fact that handguns are used in the vast majority of violent crimes involving firearms, and the fact that our backpack has things in it. Even if the ballistic resistant panel doesn’t stop the bullet on its own, the other contents of your bag might contribute to slowing down the projectile enough to keep it from completely wrecking your day.
I found that a Level IIIA panel was the right balancing point of weight and protection. It stops most handgun rounds, it’s light enough to not kill my back, and potentially inconspicuous enough that it won’t get too much extra scrutiny at the airport security checkpoint. Ceramic plates and metal plates don’t have that same stealthy quality.
AR500 Armor offers two versions of this product, this Rimelig variant and a hybrid variant. They carry the same ballistic rating, but the hybrid is slightly lighter and typically performs better. It’s also more expensive, so I opted for the cheaper material.
Overall the construction is pretty good. The panel comes in a nylon protective cover with the ballistic material inside. There are some handy markings for the front and back, just to make sure you have it oriented properly.
What I really like is the way the panel is cut. I reviewed a square version of this product before and the biggest complaint I had was that it doesn’t exactly fit nicely into a backpack or anything else that’s not square. In this case the 45 degree angle cuts on the edges allow it to fit comfortably into any appropriately sized backpack.
We’ve previously reviewed and tested AR500 Armor’s gear so I’m going to skip the function testing. We’ve established that it works and performs to the standards stated on the box. No sense in wasting more product.
The last question I had was how it performs in terms of everyday carry or travel use. I spent a couple months with the plate in my bag, and with the exception of a little bit of extra weight, I didn’t notice any ill effects. In fact, it did a good job adding some much needed stiffness and support to the back of the bag.
With these soft carry-on bags there’s not much there to help keep its shape, so I usually resort to putting my work laptop along the back of the bag to keep it flat against my back. In this case the plate did a better job, not only keeping the bag well aligned but also not digging into my back at every move and even providing some padding.
It also did a great job at the second requirement, namely being stealthy. I’m guessing that it just looks like another component of the bag on an X-Ray scanner because no matter what airport or security checkpoint I went through the plate didn’t raise an eyebrow. Numerous airline flights later and I’m actually being hassled less often than usual.
Naturally you should check your local laws for where you’ll be traveling to make sure you’re in the clear, but at least as far as the US is concerned since 2009 you no longer need a license to travel internationally (“exporting” the otherwise regulated item) with body armor for your personal protection.
Obviously I haven’t been able to test this in the intended situation (and hope not to), but I do feel a little more comfortable with it while traveling. I feel like I’ve got a better chance if something were to kick off where I’m not allowed to have my carry gun with me.
Bottom line here: do you need this? That’s really up to you and your personal risk tolerance.
If you feel it’s worth the cost and the weight to carry this in your bag, I think this is a great option. It works, it sails through airport security, and for me it actually provides some structure to an otherwise limp bag. I’m a fan, and in my opinion it’s worthwhile for that little extra peace of mind while traveling or in higher risk environments.
Weight: 1.6 lbs
Dimensions: 11″ x 15″
Rating (out of five stars):
Overall: * * * *
At 1.6 libs. it’s a little heavy, though hardly a backbreaker. If you’re the kind of person who finds a bit of extra protection valuable, this is really what you want.