The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 4.0 is no doubt a versatile, well designed, and capable running vest. It's also extremely well represented at running events and clearly get the job done. That said, in our tests we found other vests either performed better or were a better value. This is a solid vest, but the competition is fierce.
Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 4.0 Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Light, lots of storage capacity, versatile
Cons: Some pockets hard to reach, bouncy
Manufacturer: Ultimate Direction
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The SJ Ultra Vest 4.0 is the great grandchild of the original Scott Jurek line of running vests. Our biggest question was, has Scott passed on his dominant ultra genes to his great grandchild? Spoiler alert, this vest did indeed inherit some amazing traits from the past three versions and mutated some easily accessible, stretchy pockets and water storage as expandable as a two humped camel.
The biggest alteration to the new 4.0 Ultra Vest is how adjustable the side and back straps are. There is a massive amount of adjustability within each of the size categories (sm, m, l). While this design does a fantastic job at fine tuning the fit, it is a bit on the bouncy side when the vest is loaded down. As you work through your food and water and the vest lightens up, it is quite stable and comfortable. The dual cinch system that allows the side straps to be adjusted also has several (6) hard plastic pieces that became a bit irritating if we were wearing the vest without a shirt.
Features and Design
This pack has a lot of features. Perhaps the coolest (no pun intended) is the Micromonofillament material that comprises nearly the entire structure which is super lightweight, strong, and totally non-absorbent. We also made use of the hiking pole storage bungees, expandable pockets, whistle, and back bungee allowing us to quickly store and deploy our running jacket. All in all, this vest is packed with unique features.
The monofilament material did an excellent job keeping air moving through the vest and helping us stay relatively dry. It wasn't the most comfortable material on bare skin, so bear that in mind.
To start with the good first, the 4.0 version moved away from hard bottles to the more popular soft flask design. This was a positive switch for comfort, eliminating uncomfortable pressure points on the front of the vest. On the downside, the soft flasks just aren't as lightweight and friendly as the Salomon design. UD's soft flasks have unnecessarily large and heavy caps.
Another upside with a few caveats is the expandable water carrying capacity. The 4.0 allows up to a 2-liter water bladder to be added, just keep in mind there isn't a built-in system to secure the bladder hose. Consider checking the Platypus hose clamp, an extremely cheap solution to this issue and a good bit of kit to have on hand even if your vest is equipped with some type of hose management.
Just shy of the big boys, the SJ Ultra 4.0 can swallow up pretty much anything you need to bring along. While the vest can only contain about 10 liters of stuff inside, keep in mind the stretchable pockets and back bungee allow you to expand storage quite a bit.
If you aren't utilizing the expandable water storage capacity, you will no doubt have enough space to bring along way too much equipment, clothing, and food. If you're on a run with ample water sources, bring along a Sawyer Mini filter, and you will have the capacity to bring an entire day's worth of food and equipment.
While there are a few pockets that aren't accessible while your wearing the SJ Ultra, it does have a plethora of storage within reach. The front of the vest has four tiny pockets for organization, and two large stretch pockets, one with a zipper and the other open as well as two sleeves that seem designed to fit tubes of electrolyte tabs or gels. If you are using the soft flasks, there isn't a location big enough to fit a regular smartphone. If this is important to you, check out a few of the other large capacity running vests in our review.
The back of the vest has two large compartments. One runs the entire length of the vest and is capable of holding an extreme amount of food or extra layers. The stretchy compartment is also big enough to house a running jacket, gloves, or even more food. The stretch pocket is also equipped with a keychain clip to keep your keys from escaping. Finally, to supplement these pockets, the bungee on the back allows you to over pack, and as you use supplies from inside the vest, you can migrate the external load into the pack.
We tested the large size SJ Ultra Vest 4.0. Completely dry and without bottles, the vest weighs in at 216 grams (7.6oz). With bottles included it bumps up 320 grams (11.3oz). While the vest is quite light, the bottles detract a bit from the ultralight design. When comparing the Salomon bottles to the UD bottles, we found a single Salomon weighed in at 30grams vs. the UD bottle at 50grams. That isn't an insignificant amount of weight. All in all, 320 grams for a vest that can haul so much equipment is pretty dang good, and admittedly the bottle weight is nitpicky, but we must be thorough!
This vest is super versatile. The ability to run with just soft flasks, water bladder, or both gives huge variation in how far you can go without resupply as well as how much equipment and food you can haul. This ultralight vest is as appropriate for unsupported days out in the mountains as it is for a trail marathon with multiple resupplies. If you're looking for a capable all-around running vest this is a pretty good choice.
If we look way back to the 2.0 version of this vest, the price has only risen a few bucks. At 129.99 retail, the SJ Ultra isn't even close to the top of the price range for running vests, yet its packed with features and versatility.
While this popular model gets the job done, we found other vests that performed better or were a better buy. Yet, this pack is a good one. The competition is fierce, making a good pack like the SJ Ultra fall out of our top 5.
— Brian Martin