The CamelBak Circuit wins our Best Buy Award as it ranks high in nearly every category and rings up at a reasonable $90 retail. While this running vest performs well in most applications, situations requiring food, water, and equipment for long, all-day mountain adventures were a struggle. That being said, we were impressed with the high level of comfort and adjustability that comes with the Circuit as well as the simple functionality of the hydration system.
The Circuit finds a zen like balance between comfort, storage capacity, and price.
To quantify this subjective category, we looked at several components that aid or hinder a running vest's relative comfort. These included how well its material breathes, if it bounces while running, and how well it maintains comfort when it was loaded to max capacity. The Circuit did an excellent job in each sub-category. The 3D ventilated mesh offers a high level of comfort, being extremely breathable as well as having sufficient padding.
While this vest has some bounce, which is ultimately unavoidable with all vests, there is enough adjustability in the two sternum straps and side straps to dial it. On the negative side, the chest straps would slightly loosen as we ran. With most of the vests tested, there was a certain amount of adjustment that had to take place mid-run as food and water were consumed; this vest just required a bit more fit attention.
Two adjustable side straps let you dial in the fit and are easily reachable as you consume water and food and the vest needs to be tightened.
We found the "bounce" of this vest to be better than average for this year's lineup, keeping the load secure and not sloshing around as we ran. Within the comfort category, the bounce is highly important as it keeps the vest from rubbing uncomfortably and helps make the pack more unnoticeable as you run.
The 3D ventilated mesh is indeed comfortable and breathable. Anywhere the vest contacts your body, the mesh acts as a padded, breathable buffer.
This metric is meant to house all of the extra goodies that don't fall under the specific items such as storage, pockets, and hydration system. Part of what makes the Circuit lightweight and affordable seems to be the relative lack of extra features. Foregoing a clip or magnetic holder for the hydration hose, the Circuit went for two separate loops the hose is fed through. It is quite secure but unfortunately frustrating to use while running, especially when wearing gloves. There is adequate storage and pockets but we will discuss those metrics below.
The included hydration system is a 1.5-liter reservoir. For the cargo capacity of the vest, this seemed to be an adequate amount of water most days. Hot days and longer runs left us needing a bit more. Fortunately, the Circuit allows soft flasks to be added to the front drawstring pockets, expanding the available water to about 2.5 liters. We went on several runs with the vest at full capacity, plus two added soft flasks, and were pleasantly surprised with how well the extra weight rode.
The included water reservoir worked as it should and didn't show any signs of leaking over the months of use. The chunky on/off sip valve was especially nice as it was easy to operate and, most importantly, see visually if it was indeed on or off. Many of the vests we tested included mouthpieces that didn't offer any visual cues when they were left open, leaving the possibility of losing some water into the back of your car on the way to the trailhead!
We highly appreciate the visible on/off indicator on the mouthpiece. Many bite valves don't give such obvious visual cues, making it easy to leave the water wide open.
While the Circuit sits on the low end of the spectrum for storage capacity (at 3.5 liters), it is very capable. Some of the highlights included the ability to store our phone in a zippered pouch and the large elastic closure pouches on the front. These elastic pouchs could be used either as expansion for water storage or to store a bunch of calories if you pack them full.
If you're looking for running vests primarily for all-day mountain running, you might find the Circuit lacking the ability to haul everything you need. We struggled to find a place to pack in a running jacket and headlamp on top of the food and water we needed for an entire day.
The ability to run two extra soft flasks in the Circuit was a nice feature. We did find, however, that having two bottles meant we couldn't fit enough snacks for more than a few hours of movement.
Let's be honest, if you're on OutdoorGearLab reading this review, you probably value details and organization! Not counting the large back pocket, which contains the hydration reservoir, the Circuit has 5 pockets all contained on the front shoulder straps. These vary from two massive reservoirs that can either hold half liter soft flasks or the kitchen sink of food. We got into the habit of putting a soft flask in one side and food in the other as the pockets could each hold a ton of food and very securely.
In addition, there is a zippered pocket just big enough to hold an iPhone 6 with case. Anything bigger such as a Plus sized phone will not fit. There is enough space in to cram electrolyte tablets and ibuprofen in the iPhone pocket as well, leaving the remaining two small pockets for keys and other small items.
The one zippered pocket is just slightly too small to fit an iPhone 6 with a Lifeproof case. If the phone is out of the case or you have a slimmer case design it fits just fine.
Before our hydration vests get in the ring to do battle, they have to hop on the scale. It's not all just about weight though; it's how the vest uses that weight! There is no doubt the Circuit is fighting in the lightweight class. This thing weighs 350 grams, or 12.4 ounces, and that's including the 1.5-liter reservoir. It isn't the lightest vest available but the amount of storage and water you can pack along in relative comfort is impressive. Most impressively is how light the pack is without the reservoir, a mere 168 grams, not even a fourth of a pound.
Also, the weight-to-comfort ratio is quite high, meaning not only is it lightweight but even loaded down it remains comfortable and snug against your body.
The Circuit, while a great running vest, isn't suited for all circumstances. We found that it excelled at shorter runs and half-day outings. It simply doesn't have the expandable capacity and storage necessary to take on all-day adventures. On days when fair weather negated the need for extra layers, this vest is a great choice and indeed one of our favorite warm-weather vests as well.
Overall, this running vest is comfortable, lightweight, and unlike some of the competition, won't break the bank.
As our award winner for value, we think the Circuit is a great buy. If you're just getting into trail running or want to be able to comfortably bring along water and sustenance on your longer urban or trail outings, you can't go wrong with the Circuit. While it doesn't have the advanced features and massive storage capabilities of the big boys, it gets the job done and at a fraction of the price.
As long as you aren't looking for a solution to your all-day mountain adventure hydration needs, the CamelBak Circuit is going to get the job done. The comfortable, lightweight design allows you to carry ample food and water while not breaking the bank.