Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 8 Set Review
Our Analysis and Test Results
The spectrum of hydration packs for running starts with backpacks that feature hydration bladders and ranges all the way to form-fitting vests with integrated pockets, each with its own designed purpose. The Sense Ultra 8 pushes the far end of the vest spectrum with incredible comfort and a tight-to-the-torso design. We know the vest we'll be racing in from now on. Read on to learn why.
Stretch in a vest style hydration pack works wonders as the material accommodates added gear and keeps snug through the ribcage. That is certainly the case with the Sense Ultra 8 — this may be the only pack we tested that got more comfortable the more we put in it. While the material does most of the work, the vest only includes two points of adjustment across the sternum, so ensuring you have the correct size will make a big difference.
This vest will be a 10/10 for comfort for some folks, but the initial fit and adjusting the fit may be a nonstarter for many others. While we applaud simplicity throughout this design, it appears there was no interest in making the sternum straps adjustable on the go. We tinkered around for close to 10 minutes before we got the clasp free of the cord loop system to move it up. There is no reason this should be so arduous, considering most packs have a way to customize fit while running.
Is it likely that a competitive ultrarunner will want to adjust their sternum straps mid-race? Maybe not, and we respect that Salomon has an intended audience for this pack.
We were all smiles out on the trail testing the Sense Ultra 8 with our race kit and snacks. One caveat is, we wouldn't advise putting any heavy, dense items, such as a point-and-shoot camera or Nalgene in this vest. It offers enough stretch that those items will surely bounce and jostle around, diminishing the fit and comfort of the vest. Lastly, we have concerns about whether or not the fit will loosen over time as the Elastane material stretches out. For this reason, we advise that if you are in-between sizes, consider downsizing.
Again, it pays to know your audience, and rather than attaching features that some runners won't use, the Sense Ultra 8 keeps it light and simple but includes attachments for a quiver to store trekking poles. Overall, we found the included features to all have a real function, and for this, we are thrilled.
A whistle comes attached just above the left hydration flask sleeve, but it is clove-hitched on to be removable, and the whistle is actually easy to move as the cord is thin. Whistles are required for many races and are a good tool to have in the backcountry, but many runners cut them out of packs. Now those runners can just simply remove it to cut grams. Reflective accents are also omnipresent on the Sense Ultra which we appreciate.
Three zippered pockets keep valuables stowed safely and while there is no waterproof part of the vest, accessing our rain layer took no time. One of the most innovative features of this design is the pole storage system, but the quiver for collapsable poles that attaches to the vest is not included with the vest.
The final feature we want to emphasize is the material that is used and how it is used. Three different weight meshes are used in the interior of the vest, with the lightest mesh incorporated across the flank to offer more stretch. The pockets and body of the pack feature different amounts of stretch as well so that expansion occurs where it is most needed to maintain balance in the pack.
Salomon does soft flasks well. This vest owes the success of its hydration system to the two included 500mL Speed soft flasks. A reinforced bullet bottom makes sliding it into the flask sleeves much easier than other designs. The updated lids on this model of soft flask are the easiest we used, though by redesigning the threads, older Salomon lids are not compatible. You might be wondering, if these soft flasks are better, why not just use them with other vests? To be blunt, we do. But only Salomon designs the hydration sleeves of their vests as perfect matches for these bottles.
The hydration system on the Sense Ultra works in harmony with the other pockets and features of the vest, such as the large kangaroo pockets on the chest. The narrower, elongated bottles don't interfere as much with accessing food and gear from the larger pouch opening for the kangaroo pockets. Other vests that feature a two-pouch pocket design on the chest run into issues accessing the snack pocket when the soft flasks are full and in place — there isn't enough independent space for each pocket to function appropriately.
The Salomon Speed flasks are included with this vest; evident is the stiffer plastic on the bottom of the flask for easier insertion into the storage sleeve and padding in the vest to prevent pressure points. Lastly, a small elastic loop built into the vest slips over the lid of each flask, holding it in place and preventing it from bouncing out or sliding down. By supporting the flasks at the top, the bite valve is always in the correct position, plus the bottle doesn't migrate down to the bottom of the pouch, where it would interfere with the kangaroo pocket. This vest is compatible with a hydration bladder, but we wouldn't recommend it considering how stretchy the back material is.
Volume to Weight Ratio
Weighing in at 7.9 ounces with both soft flasks, the Sense Ultra 8 sits among the lightest vests we've ever tested. (Queue the smoke machine.) But wait, there's more. (Explosions.) Everything fits into this pack, gear on gear on gear. Since we don't have a perfect way of measuring the volume of a pack, we use the supplied volume numbers to calculate our volume to weight ratio score. With this in mind, we were able to comfortably fit more gear into the Sense Ultra than any pack that outscored it.
For a pack that looks like a skimpy little crop top, the Sense Ultra 8 carries gear like Santa's sack — you can just keep stuffing more into it. Still, while we love the number of layers we can bring on mountain missions, there are limitations to what the stretch fabric can hold. Some of the packs we tested that are more geared toward fastpacking could actually carry bricks and manage to haul heavy loads. This would not be the case for this vest. It manages light, bulky, stuff-able items, but heavier dense items would lead to a stretch scenario we want no part in.
On the flip side, if you want to run fast and light, just bringing along the necessary water and a couple of snacks, this vest is the perfect fit. Well balanced and super light.
With ten pockets, two hydration sleeves, and a small mesh sorting pocket, how did they keep this vest so lightweight?
On the shoulder straps, there are two pockets positioned up high. The right pocket has a zipper and works well for carrying keys, a headlamp, or electrolyte tabs. The left pocket is a simple stuff pouch that we used to store gloves. Below these pockets are the main sleeves for the soft flasks. As the design of the Sense Ultra uses all of the space along the ribcage for storage, the kangaroo pockets that are on the shoulder straps wrap around and take up some of the flank real-estate. These pockets place more gear and food in easy reach and are the most useful pockets on any pack we tested.
Along each side are two more pockets, one with a zipper that holds larger items like a phone or additional food securely and then a highly stretchy pocket outside of this one that can accommodate a variety of stuff-able items — a buff, hat, rain layer, bag of potato chips, or perhaps a ham sandwich. The two pockets on the back of the vest can both hold larger layers and have no-slip rubber stripping to help keep contents from migrating out while on the move.
If you are in the market for a new race vest, this is the choice option. Take note that this vest likely won't be as durable as some of the others we reviewed, as the materials are susceptible to stretching out and, with little adjustability, if that happens it will be too big. We see the same value in this vest as a light pair of racing-oriented shoes: you'll get really high-quality miles, but not as many as a durable pair of trainers. However, for serious ultrarunners who want the simplest, fastest option for racing, the Sense Ultra 8 will be a delight.
We fell in love with this vest at first wear, and days on the trail reaffirmed our feelings that this is the best race vest we've encountered. From a simple and secure hydration system to the incredible balance of all of the pockets when loaded, the Sense Ultra 8 performs as a tool that makes longer distances easier and faster. While we can't understand why Salomon made the sternum strap such a bear to adjust, we found our point of comfort and had no complaints from there. Reflective banding and a highly packable material make this vest great for speedy urban runs, while the 8+ liters of storage capacity makes it fit for the largest ultra races. We advise trying on two sizes and if you can size down slightly, do so. Comfort and capability make this one of our all-time favorites.
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