The aim of this paper is to review the literature in respect of the main determinants of a person's load carrying ability. Possible determinants of load carriage ability include age, anthropometry, aerobic and anaerobic power, muscle strength, body composition and gender; other relevant factors are the subjective effects perceived during load carriage, the dimensions and placement of the load, biomechanical factors, nature of the terrain and the gradient, the effect of climate and protective clothing. It is important to distinguish between the maximum load carrying capacity and load carriage ability which enables the individual to retain the capability to perform other tasks - eg, observation and navigation, or industrial tasks. The soldier has been used as the worst case example of extremely heavy loads having to be carried for long durations; civilian examples are usually less demanding except in the case of mountaineers, explorers and some occupations. The energy cost of walking with loads has been found to depend primarily upon the walking speed, body weight and load weight, together with terrain factors such as gradient and surface type; equations exist which allow the prediction of energy expenditures from these variables, and they can provide a valuable guide in assessing the physical severity of proposed tasks involving load carriage. Other factors such as the degree of environmental heat stress and protective clothing worn would have to be taken into account, but the level of energy expenditure (or heat production) assumes central importance as it is related to physical exhaustion, heat exhaustion and also less directly to the efficiency of performance of occupational task involving load carriage. This review confirms that there is no obvious definition of a maximal load, because of the widely varying circumstances which might apply, but for healthy young males there appears to be some consensus for the traditional rule of thumb of one-third body weight, or 24 kg on an assumed mean body weight of 72 kg, or in terms of relative work load equivalent to one-third of the VO(2) max for a working day. Renbourn (1954c) considered that the load carried by the soldier will probably always be a compromise between what is physiologically sound and what is operationally essential. Load carriage in industrial and other civilian areas will also involve a similar compromise and may in some circumstances lead to important implications for health and safety.