What Is MOLLE And How Does It Work?

Sep 22, 2020

Category: Gear

Functionality is the name of the game when it comes to most gear. Sure, style is important too, but a backpack is only as useful as the things you can carry inside and on it — thus, utility supersedes appearance across the board. And while most gear-hauling apparatuses (i.e. backpacks, duffel bags, rucksacks, etc.) are pretty good at carrying a fixed amount, there are others that have been equipped with ways — namely, modular systems — to better organize and expand upon their baseline capacity.

There are actually a wide variety of modular systems on the market, some proprietary and others that are a bit more widely available. One of the most widely available ones you may have heard of, especially if you’ve dipped your toes into the world of tactical gear, is MOLLE. Derived from military use, this system is popular for numerous reasons including (but not limited to) its overall versatility, the wide variety of compatible gear, and more. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about what, exactly, MOLLE is and how it works, you’ve come to the right place, as we’ve gone into the nitty-gritty of its history, functionality, and even modern applications in the following guide.

A Brief History of Standard Issue Military Gear

More Than A Uniform

It’s no secret that military personnel, when on official duty, wear a distinct uniform that’s standardized (at least to some degree) for every service member. And there are numerous reasons for this. For starters, it makes it easier to identify “friendlies” (allied troops) and to distinguish hostiles. It also serves to unite people that are members of a given military group in the same manner as, say, the jerseys of a sports team. However, there is a third, more utilitarian purpose to these uniforms: standardization makes it easier to equip large numbers of soldiers with interchangeable gear and, thus, makes the uniform as a whole a more versatile tool in the military’s arsenal.

The idea of standard-issue gear can actually be traced back to the beginnings of civilization, though the specific terminology didn’t arise until more recent history. Take, for instance, the ancient Greeks. Depending on the city-state from which Greek soldiers came — be they Athenian, Spartan, Corinthian, or otherwise — their gear was designed to be uniform in style and color. Back in ancient times, this was for easier battlefield identification, to express loyalty to their homeland, and (in some instances) to serve as an intimidation tactic (i.e. seeing an ocean of red and gold Spartan armor would send chills down any sane man’s spine). Throughout history, most militaries have adopted similarly-purposed uniforms. However, the interchangeability and standardization of gear didn’t become quite as purposeful until the late 1800s-1900s.

The first instance of the term “standard issue” came about around the late 1880s and didn’t actually refer to equipment at all — instead referencing the rations given to soldiers on the battlefield. However, in the early 1900s, the United States government began to use the term en masse as a means of describing all generalized equipment — ranging from apparel to heavy machinery — all manufactured exactly alike for wide-ranging usage. As far as standard issue equipment for foot soldiers is concerned, this created a need for a system that would allow for a great amount of versatility and the interchangeability of numerous pieces, packets, pouches, etc. Thus, the modular system we now know as MOLLE was eventually born.

MOLLE & PALS Defined

Acronyms Unraveled

For those who are unaware, MOLLE (pronounced like the name “Molly”) is a standardized system largely used by numerous NATO-associated armed forces that hinges on the use of an acronymed feature called PALS. For reference, MOLLE (and its subsequent features) was not the first modular system standardized for use by American and NATO forces. Rather, MOLLE replaced an earlier system called ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment), which itself replaced both the M-1956 Individual Load-Carrying Equipment (ILCE) and M-1967 Modernized Load-Carrying Equipment (MLCE) systems. While MOLLE has become the new de-facto standard, ICLE and MLCE are still sometimes used by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, National Guard, and some police forces.

MOLLE: short for “Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment,” MOLLE is not specific to a single type of gear or apparel, but rather refers to the load-bearing modular system that allows for the attachment (and subsequent customization) of varying pieces of gear, small pouches and packs, and so much more. While it originated for use by NATO armed forces — especially the U.S. and British Armies — MOLLE can now be found worldwide in use on a huge variety of gear and equipment, even on civilian-facing offerings (meaning not just at surplus stores).

PALS: whenever someone talks about a “MOLLE grid,” they’re actually referencing PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System), which is the most defining and important feature of anything claiming to have MOLLE compatibility. This ladder webbing system is integral to all MOLLE-ready gear, though it was first created for rucksacks and — subsequently — vests, body armor, helmets, and even vehicular organizational systems (like those you might find hanging from the back of a vehicle’s driver and passenger seat). The interwoven webbing creates numerous attachment points — marked by stitched “loops” — upon which any MOLLE-ready pouches, packs, tools, and varying other types of gear can be attached.

The Benefits Of MOLLE

Systematic Expansion

There was a time when MOLLE was exclusive to military equipment, but even then it was still tremendously useful and clever. Now that it has made its way into the civilian industries, however, it has become completely unrivaled in its versatility and the potential for customization. If you own a MOLLE backpack, for instance, you could attach to it MOLLE-compatible knives (folding or fixed with a MOLLE-ready sheath), multi-tools (Leatherman, Gerber, and other brands offer many), first-aid emergency triage kits, ammo pouches, food containers, and the list just keeps going on and on. Truly, the system is only limited by two factors: available MOLLE-ready modular attachments and the amount of weight you can carry. Apart from that, there’s a nigh-infinite number of ways to make MOLLE work for you regardless of your carry needs and preferences. We’ve outlined some of the most popular and impactful below.

EDC: the primary benefit of MOLLE in the EDC realm can be found in the customization of your everyday backpack or bag. The simple addition of a MOLLE grid allows users to carry more than a bags internal capacity might allow and/or can be customized for convenience, style, and even personal safety and self-defense (having an easily-accessed self-defense weapon can be hugely beneficial in a pinch). When properly utilized, the inclusion of a MOLLE system into your everyday carry can make it one of, if not the most useful tool in your arsenal.

Hunting: This is perhaps the second most obvious usage for MOLLE, as hunting is fairly closely aligned with tactical and military usage. However, it still needs to be said that a MOLLE modular system can be hugely beneficial out on a hunt. For starters, additional ammunition can be carried in pouches, as can game-dressing tools — like a fixed blade knife that you might not want to stick inside your bag once it’s covered in viscera. But it can also be used to keep necessary gear quickly-accessible for far greater convenience.

Tactical: MOLLE is the bread and butter of the tactical world, as this is the usage for which it was always originally intended. That also means that the majority of MOLLE-ready pouches, equipment, and tools fall in line with tactical intended usage. The modular system was designed for speediness, organization, customization, and more. And that makes tactical usage the best suited for the whole proverbial enchilada that is MOLLE.

Outdoors: You don’t necessarily have to have soldier duties in mind to make great use of MOLLE. There are quite a few pieces of outdoor-focused gear — including hiking backpacks, off-roading storage systems, and more that employ some measure of MOLLE modularity in their construction. And the limits are only governed by your imagination. There are even modular MOLLE pouches designed specifically to hold water bottles — that way you can free up some much-needed space inside your pack for other gear, snacks, or whatever else.

Etc: As mentioned numerous times at this point, MOLLE’s usefulness is really only as limited as your imagination. If you can think of a good purpose for the system, there’s a pretty good chance that someone else has also considered it and made a pack, pouch, pocket, or piece of gear to suit that purpose that fits into MOLLE functionality. And if you can’t find that which you’re looking for, that just leaves open the opportunity for you to craft it yourself (or commission someone to craft it for you).

Common MOLLE Applications

Try It Yourself

You really don’t have to go that far out of your way in order to find useful, common pieces of gear that are already equipped for MOLLE integration. In fact, if you’re an outdoor adventure enthusiast of any walk of life, there’s a fairly good chance you already own a few things that are MOLLE compatible. If not, it’s a very easy prospect to get your hands on some exceptional MOLLE gear. To aid you in your search, we’ve compiled a small collection of the most commonly available items below.

Backpacks

Whether for hunting, hiking, urban, or (most obviously) tactical usage, there is a wide variety of backpacks that employ the MOLLE system in some way — be that via a single strip of webbing or a full panel on the exterior. It’s usually pretty difficult to miss, so long as you know what you’re looking for. Furthermore, even a single strip of PALS webbing can greatly increase the usefulness of a given backpack.

Pictured Here: Triple Aught Design’s FAST Pack Litespeed isn’t just a great MOLLE-ready backpack — it’s one of the greatest backpacks of all time. Granted, the large external MOLLE grid on the back, the detachable sheet on top, the dual smaller grids on the sides, and the ability to mount more MOLLE sheets inside the bag certainly help. But those are just a few of the tremendous, numerous features to be found on this exceptional, expandable, durable bag.

Purchase: $216+

Pouches

If you really want to see just how much a MOLLE system can shine, it’s the pouches that are the star of the show. So long as they’re MOLLE-compatible, pouches big and small (ranging from multi-tool sheaths up to beefy tech-ready kits) are what make this modular system seemingly infinitely customizable and versatile. From ammo to MREs, there’s a pouch for everything. You just have to know where to find it — or be brave enough to repurpose a pouch for whatever purpose you see fit.

Pictured Here: Cargo Works’ EDC Pouch is actually somewhat of an outlier in regards to MOLLE-ready gear, as it was developed for civilian usage and can function as either a standalone bag with the possibility of MOLLE expansion or it can be incorporated into a larger MOLLE-ready kit (attached to a bigger backpack, for instance). It’s usefulness definitely isn’t hurt by its construction, either — this bag is built from super-sturdy 1050D nylon.

Purchase: $50

Tools

There are two ways in which tools — including knives, folding multi-tools, and even small hatchets or tomahawks — can be attached and integrated into a MOLLE system. Either they come with a MOLLE-ready sheath — which can be easily clipped to a pack or vest — or they can be slipped into and/or clipped directly onto the PALS webbing. The former is obviously safer and more secure, but either one makes for a handy at-the-ready setup.

Pictured Here: The Leatherman MUT was actually made specifically with tactical military applications in mind. It also happens to be one of the toughest, most capable offerings the brand has ever put out. Truly, it might be harder to figure out what it can’t do, as its tools range from cutting blades to gun cleaning devices and everything in-between. And while it comes with its own MOLLE-compatible sheath, it can also be clipped directly to PALS webbing via its integrated carabiner clip, making it even more useful altogether.

Purchase: $170

Apparel

Calling anything with a MOLLE grid on it “apparel” is maybe bending the rules a bit. Perhaps the term “wearable equipment” is more accurate. Regardless, there are a number of clothing-adjacent items that come equipped with PALS webbing that makes them more versatile and modular than your average apparel. The most common, however, is probably the tactical vest, like the one pictured above.

Pictured Here: Unsurprisingly, it’s 5.11 Tactical that has brought us the fully-loaded MOLLE-ready VTAC LBE Tactical Vest you see here. And it functions just as it looks like it might — allowing users to attach any number of modular pouches and/or tools to their chest. While more pouches mean more weight, it’s a handy system that ensures you can keep some useful gear well within arms reach and ready to use at just about any moment.

Purchase: $100

Field Kits

We might be loading the deck a little here, as some might say that “field kits” are just pouches filled with medical gear, but we’re calling them a separate category for one specific reason: pouches come empty, whereas field medical kits are usually purchased fully-loaded with everything you might need to treat basic wounds out on the battlefield, in the outdoors, or wherever else you might wander. Best of all, while they can be attached to a pack when you’re out on your feet, they can also stash nicely as an emergency kit in your car between outings.

Pictured Here: MyMedic makes some of the best field-ready triage kits around, which is on full display in their MyFAK you see here. Intended to be adaptive, functional, and indestructible, this fully-loaded first-aid kid boasts bandages, alcohol wipes, burn gel, gloves, scissors, and so much more. Honestly, you might never need half of what this kit contains. That being said, if you do get yourself into an emergency situation that necessitates any of it, you’ll be very glad to have it at your disposal.

Purchase: $120

The Ultimate Guide To Mil-Spec Outdoor Gear

Modular systems, like MOLLE, are widely used outside of the tactical realm nowadays. But what, exactly, does that mean and how do the systems translate from military usage to that of civilian leisure? Learn all you need to know and more on our ultimate guide to mil-spec outdoor gear.

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