The Race to Find the Best Hydration Pack for Running
Runners sport a plethora of different hydration packs, and to find the best, we researched the market, picking five top performers to test. Also known as running vests, these hydration packs carry water, food, and emergency essentials that you can't leave behind on a long run. Our expert testers wore them for months in the mountains and on local trails, during ultras and on casual outings. We analyzed everything from their comfort to their storage capacity to their feature sets, noting annoying quirks and welcomed advantages. We know how difficult choosing a running vest is, and that's where our review comes in; we'll pinpoint the best pack for your back.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated April 2017
The trails are drying out for summer, and our review, updated in April of 2017, has the specs you'll need to choose a hydration pack and hit the ground running. Our Editors Choice winner still has the chops to come out on top, and we've added information on minor design changes.
Best Overall Hydration Pack for Running
Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET
Read full review: Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET
Top Pick for Bladder Hydration
Nathan Vapor Air 2L
Read full review: Nathan Vapor Air 2L
Analysis and Test Results
Hydration packs for running are designed specifically for long trail runs, adventure runs, or races where a simple handheld water bottle and a gel or two will not suffice. Unlike many other small packs, these packs prioritize a form fit that helps keep the pack in place during the up and down bouncing of running. To accomplish this, the products in this review feature dual chest straps to secure them in place, and do not have waist belts. They are also designed to be very sleek and lightweight. While running in the mountains for 20 miles, the last thing you want is to be carrying a pack that is too bulky or heavy to slow you down or wear you out. Lastly, they all feature a plethora of pockets on the chest straps or sides to store food and accessories within easy reach without needing to take the pack off. Taking the pack off takes time, and while you're running, the last thing you want to do is stop. Of course, there are many other features and a variety of different hydration systems that make them ideal for running. Read on to learn more! Our hydration pack buying advice article also has more information on purchasing packs, but does not speak specifically to runners.
A Note for Women
Our head tester for this review was male, and most of these hydration packs for running are designed for the male body, or are non-gender specific. However, any female will quickly notice that a primary feature of these hydration packs is that they carry water bottles or else large amounts of food and accessories on the front of the chest. Due to anatomical differences between the genders, these designs could be very problematic for some women. We did not have women try these packs as we ordered men's size large for our head tester. However, many manufacturers DO make women's specific versions of running vests, designed to fit a woman's anatomy. We have included links to these products in the individual product reviews.
Types of Hydration Packs for Running
The packs that we chose to review incorporate two different methods for holding liquids. One is the standard bladder and hose, with the bladder residing against the small of the back, and the hose looping around and attaching to the front, within easy reach for drinking. The second is either two bottles or soft flasks that live in dual chest pockets on the front. There are advantages and disadvantages of each system, discussed below under Hydration System. However, most of these hydration packs for running are adaptable to either system. They may come with an included bladder, but have front holsters for bottles. Or more likely they come with front bottles, but can also accommodate a bladder and hose if you buy one separately.
While we will make mention of each individual pack's adaptability, for the sake of this review, we evaluated the pack based on the hydration system that is included with your purchase.
Criteria For Evaluation
The most important criteria when ranking these hydration packs for running is comfort. For that reason we weighted it as 30% of a product's final score. Any chafing, rubbing, or pressure points are greatly magnified when running because of the natural bouncing action of the body. Add in long distances and time, and you can see why comfort is so critical. The most comfortable packs were the ones that used elastic and stretchy material to hug the body, rather than adjustable straps. While adjustable straps, especially on the sides, allow for greater adjustability, they also rub and chafe more. Packs that included shoulder adjustment straps tended to be more comfortable than those without because of the fine-tuned fit. We had issues with the comfort of the chest-mounted water bottles on the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0. On the other end of the spectrum, the most comfortable pack was our Editors' Choice winner, the Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET.
Features & Design
Each pack has its own unique features and design that set it apart from the others. These are what makes the pack comfortable and function well (or not). Our favorite features include the top-loading backpack-style main compartment of the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest 10L and the additional external bungees that allowed us to attach extra articles of clothing to the outside of the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 and the Nathan Vapor Air 2L. Well-positioned bladder hose clips on the front of the CamelBak Ultra 4 and straps for attaching poles to the back of numerous packs were also features we greatly appreciated. We have explained what features each pack includes and how useful they were in the individual reviews. We weighted features as 15% of each product's final score.
Since these are hydration packs for running, they of course include some sort of hydration system. The two main methods for holding and delivering hydration to your mouth were a bladder and hose set-up mounted on the back, or chest-mounted bottles or soft flasks. The pros and cons of these systems are described in greater detail below. The Nathan Vapor Air 2L, CamelBak Ultra 4, and Patagonia Fore Runner Vest used the bladder and hose configuration, while the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 used two chest-mounted water bottles. In the end, we felt that the Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET had the most effective and versatile Hydration System available: dual chest-mounted soft flasks. It is worth noting that most of these packs are adaptable to use either chest-mounted bottles or flasks, or a back-mounted bladder and hose set-up. However, we chose to describe and rank the effectiveness of only the hydration system that was included with purchase of each vest, rather than every conceivable method of rigging the pack.
Bladder & Hose
The bladder and hose hydration system is one that we are all familiar with and is almost synonymous with the brand CamelBak. This method uses a rubbery plastic bladder, typically two liters in size, and mounts it against the small of your back inside the pack. A hose stretches from the bottom of the bladder, over your shoulder or under your armpit, and has a nozzle on the end for you to drink from. The advantages of this system are the large carrying capacity, and the ease of drinking from a tube. The disadvantages are that you can only have one liquid, and bladders usually don't work well with anything besides water. Furthermore, they can be annoying and time consuming to fill since they are on the inside of your backpack, and the tube, depending on how it is mounted to your shoulder straps, can be annoying as it flaps around as you run. You also don't know how close you are to drinking all of your liquid, and the liquid that is in the hose at any given point can either get uncomfortably hot from the sun, or freeze if it is very cold out. Despite the drawbacks, this is the most popularly used hydration system in a hydration pack.
All of the packs we reviewed will accommodate a bladder, even if they don't come with one included. If you're going to purchase a bladder separately, be sure to check our individual reviews. These list the manufacturer-specific bladder that is designed to be compatible with that pack.
Mounting the hydration system on the chest is becoming increasingly common and popular for running. Ultimate Direction popularized this system, although it was certainly in limited use beforehand. Basically, your water is stored in two bottles that are held by extra large pockets on the chest attached to the shoulder straps. Advantages of this system are that with two bottles, you can have two different liquids with you at any time. It is also easy to see how close you are to empty, and thus easier to ration, and with easier access to bottles as compared to a bladder, it is much quicker and simpler to refill. Some people also feel like chest-mounted bottles balance out the body better (the weight of gear on the back balanced by the weight of water on the front) which can lead to less fatigue of the back muscles when running with a pack for a long period of time. The disadvantages are that you have sloshing water bottles on your chest. This can be annoying, and depending on the shape and hardness of the bottles, also uncomfortable. It can also be anatomically difficult for women.
Chest-Mounted Soft Flasks
The Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET (our Editors' Choice winner) uses chest-mounted soft-flasks as its primary hydration system. A modification on the chest-mounted water bottle system, soft flasks are essentially mini bladders with water bottle style nozzles rather than a hose. They are soft and can change shape. This is a preferable system to chest-mounted bottles as it eliminates discomfort from pressure points, and also eliminates sloshing of liquid in the bottles.
If you want to add the high-performing Salomon Soft Flask to another pack, you can purchase them separately.
Besides carrying water, the other purpose of a hydration pack for running is to carry the clothing, food, and equipment you need for an effective long run or adventure, without having it disrupt your running stride. Without enough storage capacity, it is impossible to carry what you need. This category goes hand-in-hand with the one below, Pockets, but this one specifically focuses on whether the design is capable of holding everything you will need comfortably and without modification. The top scorer in this category, the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest, can carry everything we felt was needed in its large top-loading storage compartment or large external pocket, and was also well-balanced. On the other hand, the lowest scorer, the CamelBak Ultra 4, did have three compartments on the back, but they were all relatively small, meaning it was hard to fit a jacket or other larger pieces of clothing, and there were no extra bungees for help attaching things to the outside. We chose to rate Storage Capacity as 15% of a products final score.
The very liberal use of pockets may be the most notably different characteristic of a hydration pack for running as compared to a regular old hydration pack. Running vests are designed with many different pockets on the front of the pack, attached to the shoulder straps and sitting on the chest or sides, where they are within easy reach of the runner at all times. The idea is that a runner should be able to grab whatever they need, whether it is water, food, a cell phone or camera, or electrolyte pills, while on the run and without needing to stop or remove the pack. The pack with the best pocket configuration was the Salomon S-LAB ADV SKIN 12SET, which had tons of different options, all within reach, and all made out of expandable elastic to hold different sized items. On the other end of the spectrum was the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest, which unfortunately only had four total pockets within reach, and all of them were relatively small and not so versatile. The arrangement of pockets is described in greater detail in the individual reviews. Pockets accounted for 15% of a product's final score.
The evolution of virtually all outdoor gear is to be lighter without sacrificing durability or functionality. So of course weight is an important characteristic, and we believe that lighter is better. To find the weight we weighed the hydration pack straight out of the box, with all the accessories and hydration system that it came with, minus the water. The lightest product was the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0, while by far the heaviest was the CamelBak Ultra 4. Weight accounted for 10% of a product's final score.
A hydration pack in this category is not for everyone, but if you are an avid runner in need of something more sufficient than a water bottle, these packs may revolutionize your experience. Designed to be more streamlined than regular backpacks, the hydration packs in this review are specific to running with a form that helps to keep the pack in place during the natural motion of running. Choosing the right pack can be difficult as each pack has its own features and design fit for specific preferences. The choice between a bladder and hose system or chest-mounted soft flasks or bottles is a good place to start when selecting the right pack for you. Make sure to read our Buying Advice article for more information on making your decision of the best pack to purchase.
— Andy Wellman
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