Looking for a hydration pack for running long distances? We've done the "legwork" for you! After researching the market, we tested the seven best men's and women's options side-by-side for months. After running on trails, up mountains, in ultra races, and more, we have some excellent recommendations for you. We gauged their comfort after miles underfoot and compared their features and pockets. After tallying the scores, we have award winners for the best men's and women's models, something for those looking for a budget-friendly option, as well as a Top Pick for runners who prefer a bladder and hose over squeeze bottles. Keep reading below to see which one will outfit you best, whether it's for backyard trail runs or this year's Western States.
The Best Running Hydration Packs of 2018
Ahh, fall is in the air! And with that, we've been more and more excited to hit the trails in our favorite products. We've just added in an update of the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0, and we're happy to find that it remains our women's Best Buy Award winner. There were many significant structural changes to this product, however, and users of the old Ultra Vesta will want to read our review before seamlessly switching over. Rounding out our award winners, the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set and Nathan VaporHowe remain our Editors' Choice Award winners for men and women, respectively. No matter what type of adventuring you're doing, we've got the details on the best pack for you.
Best Overall Hydration Pack for Running
Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set
The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set was the top performer in our review and the clear winner of our Editors' Choice award. It topped almost every metric that we rated it in, and was a close second in the others. This vest is snug-fitting and uses four-way stretch mesh to make it the most comfortable of all the contenders we tested. The innovative pocket design further sealed the deal. We loved the kangaroo pouches, a unique feature on this model. Testers 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.
It is expensive though, and at this price ($180), it would have been nice to have the bladder included. The soft flasks that do come with it are easy to drink from, but amount to a total of 1 liter only, so you'll likely want to make that extra bladder part of your purchase. Frankly, we think this running-vest is worth every penny, and it's great for long, intense ultras, or more casual long runs.
Read review: Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set
Best Overall Running Pack for Women
Nathan VaporHowe 12L
The Nathan VaporHowe impressed us right out of the box, and we only grew more and more in love with it the more we used it. With an incredibly light, breathable, and comfortable material, this pack conforms to the body, letting you move freely without even realizing you have it on. It has a large storage capacity, and we were challenged to test its limits; it always fit everything we wanted to bring along, whether we were racing or going for a big mission in the backcountry. The VaporHowe's pocket collection is the best of any women's vest we tested, and we admired its simple, efficient hydration system.
We loved almost every feature and design choice in the VaporHowe but balked a little at its price. It costs a whopping $180, but we think it is ultimately worth every penny for the dedicated distance runner and adventurer.
Read review: Nathan VaporHowe
Best Buy for Men
Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0
The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 is a popular hydration pack for running, for good reason. The price point is just low enough compared to the other standout models that it's an easier purchase to make if you only plan on using it occasionally. It's light and has a large storage capacity, and there are some useful extra features.
We liked having dual chest bottles, as we could carry water in one and an electrolyte mix in the other. They were also easy to refill on the go. However, the did dig into us a bit. The side pockets were also a little challenging to access. While not the best performing option, this vest does offer a great value and is a good entry model for those first getting into long-distance running.
Read review: Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0
Best Buy for Women
Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0
The Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta is a solid hydration vest, and at $135, a more reasonable purchase than our women's favorite, the Nathan VaporHowe. We thought it was comfortable and practical, capable of joining you on almost any adventure you could throw at it. This pack may not have all the bells and whistles of the VaporHowe, but it does have a good selection of pockets and a great soft flask hydration system, ideal for runners who prefer front water storage over a rear bladder and hose. Recently updated, the new version has stretch mesh on the sides and 3 liters more storage than before.
The trecking pole attachment is a little finicky, and it was more challenging to get them in and out than on the VaporHowe. While we like the bungee cord on the back for storing a layer or two, we also worried that our clothes might fall out of it without us noticing. We thought the hydration pockets sat a little high on our shoulders and wished we could carry slightly more water in them. This is still a great product though, and an excellent choice for those who want a good option at a reasonable price.
Read review: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0
Top Pick for Bladder Hydration
Most prefer one style of hydration system over another, and when it comes to chest-mounted bottles, you either love or hate them. Our Editors' Choice winner has chest-mounted soft flasks, so doling out a separate award for a pack that has a bladder and hose style hydration system seemed appropriate. Luckily, the decision was easy. The Nathan Vapor Air 2L has an easy-to-access bladder in a designated pouch that opens from the top. A magnetic hose clip keeps the hose out of your way while allowing for quick access. Testers loved the many large, accessible pockets, as well as the large storage capacity and bungees, which make it easy to attach any clothing to the outside.
We thought it could use an extra clip for the hose on the front, and it tended to flop around on us a bit when only clipped into the one spot. It's also on the expensive side, similar to our other favorite packs, however, you are getting a great product for the price. Nathan is one of the original running vest manufacturers, and the Vapor Air represents the evolution of many years of quality manufacturing.
Read review: Nathan Vapor Air 2L
Analysis and Test Results
Also known as a running vest, a hydration pack for running carries water, food, and emergency essentials that you can't leave behind on a long run. They are designed specifically for long trail runs, adventure runs, or races where a simple handheld water bottle and a gel or two will not suffice. Unlike many other small hydration systems, these models have a form-fitting design that helps keep the pack in place during the up and down bouncing of running. Running vests typically have dual chest straps to secure them in place and do not have waist belts. They are also designed to be very sleek and lightweight because if you're running in the mountains for 20 miles, the last thing you want is to be slowed down by a heavy pack. Lastly, they all have pockets on the chest straps or sides to store food and accessories within easy reach without needing to take the whole thing off. Taking the pack off takes time, and while you're running, the last thing you want to do is stop.
To test a hydration pack for running we, you guessed it, spent a lot of time running! In addition to our daily trail runs we took them on some ultras, including the Jemez Mountain 50 (NM), the Bighorn 100 (WY), and the IMTUF 100 (ID). After extensively using each one we rated them on the attributes that we deemed to be most important, including their comfort and weight, hydration system, features, pockets, and storage capacity. Below we'll go through all of our test metrics, explaining which models stood out in each one and why. We'll also take a look at some considerations when purchasing with value in mind.
If you've already bought four pairs of running shoes this year, you may be hesitant to spend a lot of money on a hydration pack for running. You may also be wondering if the options that cost less than $100 can compete with the ones approaching $200. We noticed that a lot of the less expensive models tended to have fewer features and pockets (those add to the construction costs after all) and were less comfortable overall. However, somewhere between the least and most expensive vests are the "sweet" spot models that deliver a great value without maxing out our credit card bill. In this case, it's the Ultra Vest and Ultra Vesta models from Ultimate Direction. Our men's and women's Best Buy winner gave a solid performance and retail for about $50 less than our Editors' Choice award winners.
What's in a Women's Fit?
We added several women's models into our review in the last year. We gave our female tester three top women's options, as well as one men's contender, to spend some time investigating what makes for a female-specific fit. What we eventually found was that every product fits differently, be it a men's or women's design, and we firmly recommend trying on a pack before buying. The sizing varied significantly across brands, and while our female tester has a petite frame, she saw no reason not to use the men's Nathan VaporAir.
It does seem that most men's small sizes are much bigger than a woman's small, so the most likely reason a woman might need to wear a women's specific vest would be for sizing. We found that the cut and dimensions were nearly identical between the gender-specific packs and that any good vest is adjustable enough to suit a variety of body types.
After trying to get to the bottom of the gender-specific running pack debate, our general feeling is that it doesn't matter. Men's models often have a larger capacity which might make them great choices for the female adventurer looking to carry as much as she can. We dug a little deeper and talked to a representative at Ultimate Direction about their packs, and they told us they primarily focused on the fit of the shoulders and chest straps when making a women's specific model.
Because we had a hard time noticing the difference ourselves, we encourage you to try on a variety of models, male or female, to find the fit that's right for you. We can't stress enough how important a good fit is after dozens of miles on the trails, and we think that keeping an open mind will ensure you find the perfect vest for you. Below, check out a side-by-side of all three women's specific models compared to the men's model. From left to right: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, Osprey Dyna, Nathan VaporHowe, Nathan VaporAir (men's).
Types of Hydration Packs for Running
The models that we chose to review incorporate two different methods for holding liquids. One is the standard bladder and hose, with the bladder residing against the small of the back, and the hose looping around and attaching to the front, within easy reach for drinking. The second is either two bottles or soft flasks that live in dual chest pockets on the front. There are advantages and disadvantages of each system, discussed below under Hydration System. However, most of these are adaptable to either system. They may come with an included bladder but have front holsters for bottles. Or more likely they come with front bottles, but can also accommodate a bladder and hose if you buy one separately.
The most important criteria when ranking a hydration pack for running is the comfort. For that reason, we weighted it as 30% of a product's final score. Any chafing, rubbing, or pressure points are greatly magnified when running because of the natural bouncing action of the body. Add in long distances and time, and you can see why comfort is so critical.
The most comfortable contenders were the ones that used an elastic and stretchy material to hug the body, rather than adjustable straps. While adjustable straps, especially on the sides, allow for greater adjustability, they also rub and chafe more. Packs that included shoulder adjustment straps tended to be more comfortable than those without because of the fine-tuned fit. On the other end of the spectrum, the most comfortable models we tested were our Editors' Choice winners, the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set and Nathan VaporHowe.
Features & Design
Each product has its unique features and design that set it apart from the others. These are what makes the pack comfortable and function well (or not). Our favorite features include the top-loading backpack-style main compartment of the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest 10L and the stretchy pocket of the Nathan VaporHowe. We also loved the additional external bungees that allowed us to attach extra articles of clothing to the outside of the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0, Nathan Vapor Air 2L and Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta.
We explain what features each model includes and how useful they are in the individual reviews. We weighted features as 15% of each product's final score.
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 were a bladder and hose set-up mounted on the back, or chest-mounted bottles or soft flasks. The pros and cons of these systems are described in greater detail below. The Nathan Vapor Air 2L, Patagonia Fore Runner Vest, Nathan VaporHowe, and Osprey Dyna used the bladder and hose configuration. Meanwhile, the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set as well as Ultimate Direction's SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 and Ultra Vesta used two chest-mounted soft flasks.
It is worth noting that most of these models are adaptable to use either chest-mounted bottles/flasks or a back-mounted bladder and hose set-up. However, we chose to describe and rank the effectiveness of only the hydration system that was included with the purchase of each vest, rather than every conceivable method of rigging the pack.
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 is mounted to your shoulder straps, can be annoying as it flaps around as you run. You also don't know how close you are to drinking all of your liquid, and the liquid that is in the hose at any given point can either get uncomfortably hot from the sun or freeze if it is frigid out. Despite the drawbacks, this is the most popularly used hydration system in a hydration pack.
Mounting the hydration system on the chest is becoming increasingly common and popular for running. Ultimate Direction popularized this system, although it was certainly 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 of time. 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.Chest-Mounted Soft Flasks
The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set (our Editors' Choice winner) uses chest-mounted soft-flasks as its primary hydration system. 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 to chest-mounted bottles as it eliminates discomfort from pressure points, and also reduces sloshing of liquid in the bottles. For 2017, Ultimate Direction updated their packs to use a similar soft flask as opposed to the hard bottles of yesteryear. Both the Ultra Vesta and SJ Ultra Vest now come with flasks instead of bottles. Seen below is the soft flask of the Salomon vest, left, and the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, right.
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 carry what you need. This category goes hand-in-hand with the one below, Pockets, but this one specifically focuses on whether the design is capable of holding everything you will need comfortably and without modification.
The top scorers in this category, the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest and Nathan VaporHowe can carry everything we felt was needed in their large top-loading storage compartments. We chose to rate Storage Capacity as 15% of a product's final score.
The very 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, a cell phone or camera, or electrolyte pills, while on the run and without needing to stop or remove the pack. The contenders with the best pocket configurations were the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set and Nathan VaporHowe which had tons of different options, all within reach, and all made out of expandable fabrics to hold different sized items.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Patagonia Fore Runner Vest and Osprey Dyna, which unfortunately only had four total pockets within reach, and all of them were relatively small and not so versatile. The arrangement of pockets is described in greater detail in the individual reviews. Pockets accounted for 15% of a product's final score.
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. To find the weight we weighed each model straight out of the box, with all the accessories and hydration system that it came with, minus the water. The lightest product, weighing 12.6 oz, was the Nathan VaporHowe, while the heaviest was the Patagonia Fore Runner at 15.8 oz. Weight accounted for 10% of a product's final score.
A hydration pack in this category is not for everyone, but if you are an avid runner in need of something more sufficient than a water bottle, these models may revolutionize your experience. Designed to be more streamlined than regular backpacks, the hydration packs for running in this review are specific to running with a form that helps to keep the model in place during the natural motion of running. Choosing the right contender can be difficult as each model has its features and design fit for specific preferences. The choice between a bladder and hose system or chest-mounted soft flasks or bottles is a good place to start when selecting the right pack for you.
— Andy Wellman & Lauren DeLaunay