The New SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 vs. the Previous 2.0
It's rare to see a product update along with a price reduction, but Ultimate Direction has delivered. The 3.0 is retailing for the slightly reduced $125, compared to the 2.0's $130 price tag. Available in two colorways, Graphite (grey and blue) and Canyon (red and gold), Ultimate Direction does give a warning on their website that the 3.0 has a significantly different fit than the 2.0, so you may want to measure your chest and compare it to their new sizing chart before automatically ordering your go-to size. This vest has a very different look than the previous version, but the manufacturer did keep some of our favorite features, including the external bungee cord. Check out the new look here, left, compared to the 2.0 that we originally, reviewed, right. Then, keep reading for an extensive list of updates!
- Water bottles — Our dreams have come true! UD updated their hydration system to include two soft flasks instead of the rigid bottles of yesteryear. While we haven't tested the 3.0 yet, we think this is a major improvement.
- Weight — When we tested the 2.0 at 13 ounces, it was the lightest pack in our review. And while we like to use our own scale to confirm weight, UD is advertising a major weight reduction: 7.1 ounces without bottles and 9.6 ounces with bottles. Assuming our scale reads the same, this is a major plus for the new Ultra Vest.
- Storage — When we asked Ultimate Direction what we should look for in the 3.0, they listed "more accessible storage" alongside weight as the big updates. This vest has updated pockets up front, including an iPhone 7-compatible pocket that addresses one of our big gripes about the previous version. Additionally, the 3.0 can hold trekking poles up front, which we think will be a great feature for trails with a variety of terrain. There is now just one big rear compartment with a small, zippered pocket- a great addition for valuables like keys and money.
- Sternum strap — The new T-hook design is advertised as being very adjustable and more lightweight than the previous version. We haven't tested this new system yet, though, so we can't speak to its user-friendliness or comfort.
- Material — Wanting to find a more stretchy material for a more comfortable fit, the 3.0 uses a new knit mesh. Again, because we haven't had the chance to wear this pack ourselves just yet, we can't comment on its effectiveness.
This pack has seen significant updates, most of which we're very excited about. However, we haven't been able to test this pack ourselves, so until we do, the rest of this review continues to reflect the Ultra Vest 2.0.
Hands-On Review of the SJ Ultra Vest 2.0
The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is designed to carry liquid in two water bottles mounted on the chest straps up front, although it can also be used with a bladder (not included). Its two large storage pouches, as well as extra bungee cords and plethora of pockets, hold plenty of gear and clothing for almost any sort of long running adventure.
Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0
For this review, we also purchased and tested the Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0. However, as a minimal, race-specific product we felt that it did not fit in very well with this review. But, we would like to share some of the differences. The AK Race Vest holds two bottles up front, but only has two other front mounted pockets. It has one single pouch on the back that can be used for gear or is adaptable for a bladder and also has bungee cords to attach additional clothing. That's basically it! While it could come in handy for carrying a jacket and some water during ultra races, we found it to be inadequate for the purposes of your "average" distance runner, and therefore recommend the SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 instead.
We used these packs on long runs and in ultra races to test their effectiveness. Here testing the SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 at the Jemez Mountain 50 mile in New Mexico.
Like the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest 10L, the SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 uses adjustable side straps to help fine tune the fit. We liked this set-up better than on the Patagonia model because the straps are recessed inside Velcro pockets. However, there are no shoulder adjustment straps. Our biggest complaint was the pressure points on our chest created by the hard plastic bottles mounted there, and that the vest has a tendency to get bouncy when running hard. Overall, it's pretty comfortable, but not nearly as comfy as the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set - our Editors' Choice winner.
We liked the side adjustment options on this pack, and the comfort issue is addressed by recessing these straps inside a mesh pocket. Nicely done.
Features & Design
This pack has a lot of features that we liked. Perhaps the coolest is the Silnylon Hex Mesh material that is super lightweight, strong, and totally non-absorbent. We also liked the bungee cords for additional clothing, pole holder straps, ice axe loop, whistle, and reflective tape.
The back of this hydration pack features multiple zip pouches for separating the things you are carrying, two pole holding straps and an ice axe loop, and added bungee cords for strapping additional clothing onto the outside. Very versatile.
The UD SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 incorporates two hard plastic water bottles that are mounted in pouches on the chest. We like this system because you can have two different liquids and because the bottles are easy to refill and balance out the weight on the body really well. We also love the Ultimate Direction bottles and especially their "kicker valve." However, for this method of hydration, we believe that soft flasks offer many advantages to hard bottles, and hope that UD changes this feature in the future. This pack is adaptable to use a bladder, although it would be hard to refill since this pack only has side accessible pockets.
The front bottle configuration of the Ultimate Direction SJ. While we think front bottles is handy for a number of reasons, these large hard plastic bottles caused uncomfortable pressure points when we ran, and were prone to bouncing and sloshing.
This vest can hold lots of stuff. It has one zippered pocket that can be accessed through one of two different zippers. It is also split in half by an internal bungee cord set-up to secure layers better, or separate clothes from the bladder if you are carrying one (we found the internal bungees a bit superfluous). There is also another zippered pocket on the back for accessories. The pack can also hold a lot of other clothing under its more than adequate bungee cords.
This pack has a ton of pockets, but in our opinion, not all of them are very functional, and in that regard, it is far inferior to the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set. In particular, we found that our iPhone 5 would not fit in the dual "smart-phone pockets" on the chest straps. We also found that the zippered pockets on the sides rode so high under our armpits that we were unable to bend our arms in a way that these pockets were accessible to us, a very frustrating fact. Overall it has two front bottle pockets, 4 gel pockets on the sides of the bottles, 4 Velcro accessory pockets of different sizes, two larger Velcro pockets on the sides and two zippered side pockets, quite the collection!
One of our primary complaints with this pack was that these side pockets are located so high up under the armpit that we couldn't contort our arms enough to access them. This makes it necessary to take the pack off to use these pockets, which is a drawback.
With the included bottles but no liquids, our scale weighed this vest at 13.3 ounces, making it the lightest one we tested!
The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 has the feature set and storage capacity to take on almost any ultra length single push race, and will also work great for long runs or adventures in the wild.
The MSRP is $125. This is significantly less than the higher performing products but still feels a little expensive. As a durable and very versatile product, we believe you will get your money's worth here. That said, if you're willing to shell out the extra for the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set or the Nathan Vapor Air 2L, our Top Pick for Bladder Hydration, we highly recommend both of these competing products.
The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is a solid pack with innovative features, yet could still use some improvements, especially in fit and comfort. While we think most people will be happy with this product, we didn't think that it was the highest performing hydration pack for running that we tested.