We've purchased over 20 running hydration packs in the past 6 years, searching for the best. In this 2020 review, we took the top 12 vests out there, for both men and women, and subjected them to months of meticulous, head-to-head testing. Comfort, hydration capacity, and storage features are key elements as to what we think makes the ultimate running pack. From hot weather jaunts to ultramarathon racing, we've compiled all of our data and experience to help you craft an informed choice. The hydration vest market is growing quickly, and everyone has their own array of style and function preferences, but we've got your back with what we think are the true winners.Related: Best Hydration Pack of 2020
Best Running Hydration Pack of 2020
Best Overall Hydration Pack for Running
Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set
The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set is the best running pack we tested. Not only did it perform excellently in all of the tests we threw at it, but it also has an amazing capacity to hold a ton of equipment and then feel stable and form-fitting when nearly empty. As you can imagine, comfort is of the utmost importance when running, and having a vest that can ride just as comfortably full as empty is a huge bonus. The innovative pocket design further seals the deal — we love the kangaroo pouches, a unique feature on this model. Testers also thought the soft flask hydration system was the most versatile and comfortable system reviewed, and a heat protective sleeve (if you purchase a bladder separately) rounds out the feature set allowing you to add Salomon's proprietary 1.5-liter bladder, or you can remove the bladder sleeve and put in basically any 2-liter bladder you have. The medium size is also under 12 ounces, making it one of the lightest models.
In previous years the price of this vest dwarfed the competition even though it performed so well throughout the tests. This year, this pack costs significantly less than the previous version but doesn't miss out on performance one bit. You do need to purchase a bladder separately, though, if you want one and don't already have one. Vests are gaining technology and refinement, and runners are pushing further and thus require better equipment. While the ADV Skin 12 is still far from inexpensive, it's not too extravagant compared to several other models we tested, and it performs the best.
Read review: Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set
Best Overall Female-Specific Running Pack
Nathan VaporHowe 2.0 12L
Though revamped, the Nathan VaporHowe 2.0 12L is still hands-down our favorite women's pack. Its material is incredibly comfortable and breathable, with ample adjustability to help you find the perfect fit. We love its huge storage capacity for both gear and water, and we find its pockets to perfectly fit all our necessities. If you're looking for a vest for the long haul, this is hands-down our favorite women's-specific model.
The VaporHowe is definitely a pricey investment. And without a dedicated trekking pole attachment, we suggest you make sure this pack has all the features you need for your upcoming adventures. At the end of the day, though, comfort is king, and this pack takes home the prize.
Read review: Nathan VaporHowe 2.0 12L
Best Bang for the Buck for Women
Nathan TrailMix 7L - Women's
In the market for a budget pick, we heard about the Nathan TrailMix 7L and were eager to try it out. We quickly realized that we had found gold. The TrailMix is comfortable, breathable, and the most adjustable of any women's pack we tested. It has tons of included water storage, and though it doesn't have the most pockets, the ones it does have are very well designed for all your basic needs.
With that in mind, this pack definitely can't fit a ton of bulky items, so it isn't the best choice for self-supported mega-missions. The bladder hose also tends to slip through the hook on the front, but it's just a minor annoyance, not a dealbreaker. For the price, this is our clear favorite for ladies looking for a great pack while saving some dough.
Read review: Nathan TrailMix 7L - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck for Men
The Camelbak Circuit is a great running vest by any standard. The fact that it is reasonably priced is just icing on the cake. Throughout our testing, the Circuit did well in almost every category. It lacks the extra features you find in more expensive vests, and it's unlikely to hold everything you need for an all-day unsupported adventure. Still, it is a great running companion that gives you a water capacity expandable up to 2.5 liters, the ability to zip up your smartphone, and jam out the miles. For most runners wanting to bring a pack on longer runs, it suffices.
For anyone considering trying out a running vest to see how it can enhance their running but who doesn't want to drop too much dinero, the Circuit is a great option. If you're used to high-end models and their techy features, like collapsible pole storage, seemingly infinite snack storage, or stretchy, form-fitting fabric, you might notice the differences in what the Circuit provides. But, if you're not used to such luxuries, this pack has a very small chance of letting you down. It has critical features like highly breathable material, a snug no-bounce fit, and expandable water storage, all at a great price.
Read review: Camelbak Circuit
Best for All-Day Unsupported Running
Ultimate Direction FKT
The Ultimate Direction FKT is another in a long line of ultimate trail weapons designed to get you out further, faster, and better prepared. This pack has everything you need to crush big days in the mountains unencumbered by what you can bring along. The FKT has 18 liters of storage capacity and so many pockets that it's hard to count. While the collapsible storage space on the back holds the largest volume, the rest is distributed all over the shoulder straps and sides, giving a surprisingly balanced feel even when loaded down. The fit options are also appropriately variable, and the shoulder straps are wide enough to handle the ample space this thing provides.
There are a few downsides, as the FKT only comes with one bottle, though that does give you some options when deciding how to use the rest of the storage space. For an all-day pack, we highly recommend using this vest with a bladder to increase its water-holding capacity to over three liters. But keep in mind, you'll have to buy that separately. With the addition of a bladder, though, this pack is our absolute favorite for our longest runs.
Read review: Ultimate Direction FKT
Why You Should Trust Us
We have a bomber team of endurance athletes testing hydration packs. With bulging muscular calves and thighs, Andy Wellman, Lauren DeLaunay, Brian Martin, and Jeff Colt make up our team of ultra-trail runners. Among them all, they have put in some serious time, chugging away on races that range from 10 to 100 miles. Andy is a seasoned ultra-runner exploring the mountains of Colorado and coastal regions of Oregon by trail. Lauren likes to play all around the USA, spending time on the trails in Colorado and California while logging lots of miles for the Yosemite Search and Rescue team. Brian just so happens to also be a Search and Rescue technician that enjoys spending long days on the trail all over the USA. And Jeff competes internationally in trail races from 50km to 100miles and trains locally in Colorado's Elk Mountains. They make a cohesive team that covers all the review bases.
To test a hydration pack for running, we — you guessed it — spent a lot of time running! In addition to our daily trail runs through the Wasatch Mountains, Sierra Nevada, or Elk Mountains, we took these packs on some ultras, including the Jemez Mountain 50 (NM), the Bighorn 100 (WY), and the IMTUF 100 (ID) mile race. Bottom line, you couldn't find a better team to have put these hydration packs through the paces, pushing their limits so you can find the best match for your specific needs.
Analysis and Test Results
We wanted to give each hydration pack a fair trial, so we spent months upon months doing a lot of running. We took these packs everywhere we went, from the high alpine to the beach and on a lot of our local trails. We wanted to know how their storage capabilities compared in terms of both size and design. We paid attention to how user-friendly the hydration systems are, all the while comparing their overall comfort, fit, and weight. We have allotted a weighted ranking to each metric, but we urge you to review the scores and decide for yourself which categories are most important to you.
The products in this review vary significantly in cost. We found a wide range of materials and designs while testing, both in men's and women's packs, which help explains a bit about the cost discrepancies. The more affordable vests generally have fewer bells and whistles: these are light, simple packs to help you drink water on the go. The more expensive packs have more specialized materials, more storage space, and more details that really target running comfort and convenience. "Value," as far as we're concerned, is a function of price as it relates to performance. A pack may be cheap and crappy, or it may be a great deal that functions nearly as well as the most expensive pack. Similarly, an expensive pack does not necessarily indicate a great one. That said, we generally found that more expensive packs in this review do have more to offer.
For example, the CamelBak Circuit is a great value for the price, offering a snug, comfortable fit and ample storage for a half-day out in the mountains. You could certainly spend more money on a vest that performs at the same level without much benefit. The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set, is also a great value, with stellar comfort and the ability to seemingly never run out of storage space for food, equipment, or water. While the Circuit isn't on the same level as the ADV Skin, they both represent great value for the right user.
On the women's side of things, we have the top-scoring Nathan VaporHowe squaring off with the budget Nathan TrailMix. While the TrailMix is half the price of the VaporHowe, it's much better than half as great, making it an excellent value.
The number-one most important metric to consider when picking a hydration pack for running is comfort. We weighted this category more heavily than any other single attribute, and we think you'll understand why. Essentially, running is already uncomfortable, so why make it harder? If your pack is causing chafing, rubbing, or discomfort, you're less likely to use it, and maybe even less likely to hit the trails for the long missions you've been scheming. Thus, we put in the miles ahead of time: things that feel annoying at mile two can easily be a dealbreaker by mile twenty.
The most comfortable contenders are the ones that use an elastic and stretchy material to hug the body, rather than just adjustable straps. While straps, especially on the sides, allow for greater adjustability, they also rub and chafe more. Additionally, packs that include shoulder adjustment straps tend to be more comfortable than those without because of the fine-tuned fit. The most comfortable models we tested are the ADV Skin 12 Set and the VaporHowe. The Ultimate Direction Halo also proved to be an extremely comfortable minimalist hydration pack for running.
As the most comfortable unisex vest we have tested, the ADV Skin 12 exemplifies the necessary comfort level hydration packs should strive for. The entire vest feels as if it hugs the body so evenly that it's difficult to identify a place with more pressure or contact. Other packs tend to place more pressure through the shoulders or have difficulty distributing weight with heavier loads like hydration bladders. Even when we purposefully loaded the ADV Skin unevenly, it still distributed the weight remarkably well. Additionally, the included hydration system, two 500 ml soft flasks, conform to the body and minimize the bounciness you feel with hard bottles or hydration bladders.
Finally, the material of the ADV Skin is ultra-breathable. While items inside might get wet with a light rain shower, the breathability far outweighs the slight downsides. We never felt suffocated or drenched underneath this pack, a definite asset of this vest. Having all of these features together in one pack results in an ultra-comfortable design capable of taking you long distances in relative comfort.
The VaporHowe also has an incredibly soft next-to-skin feel. It adjusts in the front and on the sides, and its lateral adjustment straps are covered in the same soft material as the back of the pack, eliminating the fear of chafing. The TrailMix is also supremely adjustable and fit a wide variety of body types among our female testers — an important aspect for comfort when it comes to a women's specific product.
Other packs tended to highlight one or two tools and put the others on the back burner. For some things, this may not be a big deal, but when it comes to comfort you shouldn't be willing to compromise — especially if you have some long, hard objectives on your list of goals.
The most interesting part of testing hydration packs for running is the vast difference in the features and design of each one. Like an island of misfit toys, these packs all have unique quirks that set them apart from one another. For example, the Ultimate Direction FKT, is the first vest we have tested that has a completely asymmetrical front design with a water bottle on one shoulder strap and zippered storage on the other. While this might seem like quite a deviation from the rest of the field, it proved to be useful in packing the necessary equipment for extremely long missions.
We weighted features 25% of each product's final score. It's critical that a hydration pack strike a balance between being loaded with useful features and also not having these features detract from the pack's usefulness.
In addition to examining the features of each product, we took an in-depth look at how these features help or hurt the overall functionality of the pack. Taking the FKT as an example, the number of features provided could be far over what is needed for some trail running applications. The fact that it has storage, pockets and water capacity for an overnight mission, not to mention its ability to haul an ice axe, is probably something many of us won't utilize very often. For some, it may be the only hydration pack that will suit their goals for the upcoming season. In this way, the features of this hydration pack really set it apart from all the others.
On the other hand, the Nathan TrailMix is one of our favorite women's hydration packs despite its few features. We thought it had just enough bells and whistles to get you through nearly any adventure while not adding too much weight or complication to the pack. The "right" amount of features will be different for each runner, depending on their needs and goals.
We also love the feature layout of the Salomon ADV Skin 12 and women's ADV Skin 8. Both prioritize having snacks and supplies close at hand and can accommodate trekking poles, a must-have for many adventure runners.
Since these are hydration packs for running, they, of course, include some hydration system. The two main methods for holding and delivering hydration to your mouth are a bladder and hose set-up mounted on the back, or chest-mounted bottles or soft flasks. As with anything, there are pros and cons to both systems.
Most of these models are adaptable to use either chest-mounted bottles/flasks or a back-mounted bladder and hose set-up. However, we describe and rank the effectiveness of only the hydration system included with the purchase of each vest, rather than every conceivable method of rigging the pack. Take into account the ability to expand your water carrying capacity before making your final decision.
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 mounts to your shoulder straps, can be annoying when it flaps around as you run. You also don't know how close you are to drinking all of your liquid, and the water that is in the hose at any given point can either get uncomfortably hot from the sun or freeze if it is frigid out. Another downside is mouth soreness if you are sucking on a hydration pack for hours on end. We've experienced real discomfort after two long days of running while using hydration bladders. Despite the drawbacks, this is the most popular hydration system in a hydration pack.
The Nathan VaporHowe and VaporAir 2.0 have one of our favorite hydration bladder systems, proving this setup is great when done right. It's lightweight, can be filled with one hand, and never leaked on us. It also has a magnetic button to keep the hose from flapping around, and the quick-release on the tube allows you to remove the bladder from the pack for refills without having to pull out the hose from its position.
Mounting the hydration system on the chest is becoming increasingly common for running. Ultimate Direction popularized this system, although it was already in limited use beforehand. 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 an extended period. 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. The FKT comes with a single semi-rigid bottle.
Chest-Mounted Soft Flasks
The ADV Skin 12 Set uses chest-mounted soft-flasks as its primary hydration system, and Salomon really nails it. A modification on the chest-mounted water bottle system, soft flasks are mostly mini bladders with water bottle style nozzles rather than a hose. They are soft and can change shape. This is an excellent system compared to chest-mounted bottles as it eliminates discomfort from pressure points, and also reduces sloshing of liquid in the bottles. One downside of utilizing soft flasks is the inevitable frustration of stuffing the bottles back into their pouches when full. We have yet to encounter a design where the bottles slip back in drama-free. We have to give a shout-out to the bottles of the women's Salomon ADV Skin 8, which features long, rigid straws for easy drinking without needing to remove the bottle from its pocket.
Volume to Weight Ratio
We wanted to assess a variety of packs in this review, from minimalist race vests to larger fastpacking bags. In order to compare 1.5L vests side by side with 18L packs, we developed our volume to weight ratio criterion. The best packs have a higher value over 1.0, while smaller and heavier packs will have a value below 1.0. The evolution of virtually all outdoor gear is to be lighter without sacrificing durability or functionality; weight is an important characteristic, which is why we believe that lighter is better, so long as the pack can still perform and carry the necessary equipment for the mission.
We weighed each model straight out of the box, with all the accessories and hydration system that it came with, minus the water. We then took the measured weight and divided it by the volume of the vest's storage. While we did notice that, generally, the larger volume packs scored better, (as having a larger denominator will greatly impact the score), these larger vests we tested are notably lightweight, while some of the smaller vests tested were included as price-point options and are built with heavier fabrics.
Looking at the two factors in our volume to weight ratio, each offers valuable insight. While storage capacity should help you narrow down what you are looking for depending on your primary use, weight is a critical attribute to consider within each segment of volume. As this category assesses a range of pack sizes, this score reflects packs that are able to carry gear while remaining very light. Often you will be wearing your pack for hours on end in an environment where speed and efficiency are necessary. If we look at the heaviest and lightest packs in this review, it becomes apparent which packs are built with weight-conscious materials and which are generally bulky. For example, the Osprey Duro 1.5 and women's Osprey Dyna 1.5 didn't offer any performance boost, extra storage, or comfort over the lightweight Ultimate Direction Halo (9.2 oz), but they weigh about 7 ounces more. If we opt for the Halo and save those 7 ounces, we could bring along 7 ounces of cliff bars, which equates to about 680 calories, our typical intake for around 4 hours of trail running.
Besides carrying water, the other purpose of a hydration pack for running is to carry the clothing, food, and equipment you need for a successful long run or adventure, without having it disrupt your running stride. Without enough storage capacity, it is impossible to bring along what you need. This carrying capacity, paired with the weight of the vest, gives valuable insight to the quality of the construction, feel, and function of each pack. While this category still goes hand-in-hand with the one below, Pockets, it allows for a more objective assessment of a packs carrying capabilities given its size and weight, taking more of the packs intended design, be it short race or long fastpack, into play. We weighted Volume to Weight Ratio as 15% of a product's final score.
The other top scorer in this category, the FKT, can carry everything we felt was needed for long adventures while still being lightweight and made of durable materials. The FKT is uniquely able to carry a massive amount of equipment in its large top-loading storage compartments, more than any hydration pack we have tested to date. The highest scorer of the female-specific models is the VaporHowe, with its lightweight stretchy material and 12 liters of gear room. Our testers even managed to pack minimal climbing equipment in the rear storage area of the VaporHowe, along with snacks, layers, and first aid materials.
Our hope is that this criterion allows vests that are designed to be smaller race-oriented packs to level with larger packs that are designed with more liters of storage space. For example, on the two ends of the high-performance spectrum are the aforementioned FKT and the Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 — these two models represent different usage of products within this gear category. The FKT is the heavy-hitting, all day or multi-day juggernaut, while the Sense Ultra 5 is the light-on-its-feet woodland fairy of the group. They are both extremely efficient and lightweight for what they can pack along but have very different purposes. This criterion distinguishes the FKT as remarkable, scoring the highest because of the lightweight materials used in its construction. This is important to keep in mind while reading each review and hopefully clarifies that a lower storage capacity doesn't make a pack worse. Consider what you need to bring with you on your runs and objectives before deciding bigger (or smaller) is better.
The 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, cell phone or camera, or salt tabs, while on the run and without needing to stop or remove the pack. The contenders with the best pocket configurations are the ADV Skin 12 Set and VaporHowe, which both have tons of different options, all within reach, and all made out of expandable fabrics to hold different sized items.
It's also critical to know that the sheer number of pockets sewn onto each vest didn't necessarily correlate to the score it received. When looking at the value contenders, the Circuit and Duro had some big differences in pocket design. While the Duro has several more pockets, it doesn't have the ability to haul more equipment and food, and it doesn't feel any more organized. In fact, it feels a bit more frustrating as several pockets overlap and become unusable when the other pockets sharing that space were filled. The Circuit, on the other hand, offers deep pockets that don't share space with other pouches, giving the ability to fill them without having to consider how they would affect the space of separate compartments.
All things considered, we felt that having ample storage to accomplish the intended use for the vest, at-least one zippered pocket for small easily lost items, and a design that put several pockets within reach while moving was essential. The ADV Skin 12 and women's ADV Skin 8 nailed all of these points excellently with a wide variety of pocket sizes, shape, and volume, keeping everything within easy reach.
Hydration packs for running are one of the more "niche" categories that we review here at GearLab. There are a whole host of great packs on the market if you're looking for something to accompany you on long hikes and bike rides. This category is just for runners, and each pack keeps the specific needs of runners in mind throughout their design. They fit tight to the body, have less storage than an average daypack, and are generally more expensive, featuring a bunch of details that non-runners may not find important. All that being said: if long-distance running is calling your name, you're in the right place, and we have the gear to get you where you want to go.
— Brian Martin, Jeff Colt, & Lauren DeLaunay