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How to Choose the Best Hydration Pack for Running

The Sense Ultra was snug and secure even when running hard.
By Brian Martin ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday December 19, 2018

If you've arrived at the buying advice for running hydration vests you probably want to expand your water, gear, and food carrying capacity to get out running further and for a longer amount of time. With about ten thousand options on the market, what is the best choice for a running hydration vest? Well, the answer is a moderately complicated one that we are going to make much easier for you by breaking down the process. Once we've hit you with some knowledge, head on over to our Best-in-Class Running Hydration Pack Review to help you narrow down your options and make your decision.

Intended Use


"Why are there so many freaking running vests to choose from?" you may ask. Well… there are many types of runners out there and each one has a specific set of needs for their activity. The spectrum is vast. We have runners going for FKTs (Fastest Known Times) on massive trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest. These forays into suffering require equipment that can hold a day or two of food as well as necessary equipment like jackets, blister kit, chapstick, and whatever else one would need on top of food and water. As you might imagine a running vest suited for this task would have the capacity to hold several liters of water and have a well thought out storage system. A great example of this is the Jurek FKT vest by Ultimate Direction.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the majority of runners.

The main compartment is equipped with a zipper running the full length of the right side. This means you can lay the vest open and find what you're looking for without having to rummage blindly.
The main compartment is equipped with a zipper running the full length of the right side. This means you can lay the vest open and find what you're looking for without having to rummage blindly.

We enjoy the outdoors, running, and not being restricted to shorter outings or having to carry a bulky, ill-fitting backpack. This is where really figuring out where you will spend the majority of your time running is key to finding the right running vest. If you spend 90 percent of your time running short, five miles or less, trail runs or supported events with frequent resupply options, something light and efficient such as the Salomon Sense Ultra 5 might do the job without adding a lot of superfluous features. If you spend more than 20 percent of your time out in the mountains running without support, figure out what equipment is critical for your comfort and success and get a running vest equipped to haul that gear comfortably. While you might be able to cram a bunch of equipment into a smaller vest, it probably won't be very comfortable.

If you float around in the grey area between long mountain runs and supported events, there are several vests that are compact, efficient, and offer features such as external bungee straps that allow you to expand the capacity of the vest. The Nathan Vapor Air, Ultimate Direction Vesta 4.0 both have generous storage, water capacity, and the ability to greatly expand storage if you're willing to strap clothing to the outside with the bungee straps. These features create a sort of interloper in the diverse worlds of running with the ability to be compact and efficient or expand and support you on bigger days out.

Comfort


Running for extended periods can be undoubtedly uncomfortable. A bouncy, poor fitting, and improperly packed running vest could be the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to pushing out a few more miles or calling it quits. The reason we suggest looking at comfort before the details of what type of hydration system (Bladder, Chest Mounted Hard Bottle, Soft Flask) is an indicator of how important comfort really is. If it isn't comfortable, you're not going to wear it, and thus the type of hydration system won't matter. There are several factors to consider when assessing the needed comfort of a running pack.

Ease of Fit Adjustment


Throughout your run, you will consume your food and water and use supplies contained within your running vest. As these vests are snug and designed to minimize bounce as you run, having the ability to quickly and easily adjust the vest as things come out or go in is critical. You don't want to spend ten minutes adjusting things when you're out on a run. The Salomon Advanced Skin 12 has a superior fit adjustment system compared to most.

The V straps can be girth hitched nearly anywhere along the front of the vest. Our testers appreciated how easy it is to adjust the fit.
The V straps can be girth hitched nearly anywhere along the front of the vest. Our testers appreciated how easy it is to adjust the fit.

The Salomon mentioned above is simple to adjust, and importantly the adjustment doesn't allow material to creep back through loosening the vest. This is a common issue with many vests, easily fixed with a quick adjustment, but frustrating nonetheless. Other vests such as the Salomon SLab Sense Ultra 5 have an unnecessarily difficult-to-adjust fit system. Once we had it adjusted, it worked just fine, but getting to that point was a struggle. If you had to alter the fit while out on a trail run or during a race when time mattered, it would be a significant frustration. This being said, literally every vest we tested was able to be dialed into our fit quite well, some just took significantly more fiddling to get into the happy place.

One Size Fits All


There's no substitute for actually trying on a vest. This will let you determine if it will adjust and contour properly to your body. If you are ordering a vest, make sure the provided fit chart lines up with your proportions, as an ill-fitting running vest can be a bigger hindrance than help. Many of the one size fits all running vests sit high on the chest and have fewer fit adjustments. While these were some of the most comfortable vests for our testers, they have the potential to be ill-fitting for some people.

Bounce


As you run there will be some bounce with any vest. Salomon and Nathan seem to have figured out their own formula for how to reduce this bounce. Salomon has gone with a snug fit and a mesh material that seems to grip clothing. Nathan has a cleaver-crossed adjustable strap system that really does a fantastic job of keeping the pack from bouncing much at all. One of the least bouncy vests we tested was the old reliable Nathan HPL 020. The opposing pull cross load straps on the back put tension on the pack both as it has inertia pulling it up and down resulting in a pack that stays put.

The dual adjustable side straps give you a lot of options when dialing in the fit of this vest.
The dual adjustable side straps give you a lot of options when dialing in the fit of this vest.

Breathability


Another critical aspect of comfort is how breathable your running vest is. Early running vest designs had much less breathable material than is available today. The Ultimate Direction FKT for example has see-through mesh material for the shoulder straps and back panel. While this doesn't eliminate the sweat problem, it sure does help. The Salomon Adv Skin 12 is also comprised almost entirely of mesh material making it one of the most breathable running vests we tested. The downside of all this breathability is even a light rain shower will permeate the pack.

A closeup of the micromonofillament. It's completely see-through mesh material. It proved to be durable  comfortable  and highly breathable.
A closeup of the micromonofillament. It's completely see-through mesh material. It proved to be durable, comfortable, and highly breathable.

Hydration System


It's a new dawn, and you got options, baby! Back in the day you had but two choices. Run with the same CamelBak or fanny pack water bottle combo everyone else had, or rely solely on the disposable, environment ending, aid station cups. Now there is a huge selection of hydration systems. For the most part these fit into three categories. A hydration bladder on your back, soft flasks in chest pockets, or hard bottles also in chest pockets. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages we will hash out below.

We highly appreciate the visible on/off indicator on the mouthpiece. Many bite valves don't give such obvious visual cues  making it easy to leave the water wide open.
We highly appreciate the visible on/off indicator on the mouthpiece. Many bite valves don't give such obvious visual cues, making it easy to leave the water wide open.

Hydration Bladder


This is the big daddy. If you're heading out for a beatdown in the mountains (or flat trails too!) and don't have many watering holes available, this is probably the option you want. Advantages include having up to two liters of water available at the start, conforms to your back, takes up very little space when empty, and ease of use (though all types of hydration systems we used were pretty easy). The capacity is really the highlight of a hydration bladder as they do come with some disadvantages. For the most part, having a big bag of water on your back puts a huge imbalance of weight in the back of the vest/pack and can add to bounce or discomfort if the vest isn't designed for the offset load.

The Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT did a dang good job at hauling weight either in the back, front (with hard bottles) or both simultaneously. It must have been designed by one of the greatest long distance runners of all time or something?? The other glaring downside of the hydration bladder is managing the hose. Often this has to be fed through a small channel over the shoulder and clipped onto the chest straps of the pack or vest. While there are some clever solutions out there, especially on the Nathan vests, you will inevitably fiddle with the hose and be frustrated with it at some point. This is a small price to pay for a massive reservoir of hydration at your fingertips.

Even with light pressure the bite valve will open. This is a plus while you're running and a negative when you throw the pack in the back of your car and it leaks all over.
Even with light pressure the bite valve will open. This is a plus while you're running and a negative when you throw the pack in the back of your car and it leaks all over.

Soft Flasks


Over the past few years, this has become "ultra" popular. Get it? Because ultra-marathons. It makes sense, you have squeezie bottles holstered in chest pockets right next to your mouth. They are easy enough to fill and the least annoying to drink out of as you don't have to remove them from the pockets. This allows you to have different beverages in each pouch such as plain water in one side and maybe a Tailwind nutrition in the other.

While this isn't the most adjustable vest  the existing adjustments are easy to use and the soft flasks make it extremely comfortable with relatively little bounce while running.
While this isn't the most adjustable vest, the existing adjustments are easy to use and the soft flasks make it extremely comfortable with relatively little bounce while running.

The frustration with soft flasks comes when you try to stuff refilled bottles back into the chest pockets. While some vests are a bit easier than others, none of them are great. Again, it's a small price to pay for the ease and convenience of having those soft flasks perfectly positioned to deliver high quality H2O. We tested both Salomon and Ultimate Direction soft flasks and really enjoyed them both. There were no issues with leakage, while we sometimes wished both had a bit more capacity. If you're in an event or scenario that provides good resupply options, soft flasks are probably the way to go. They're simple, offer you the ability to have different liquids in each, ride well, and because they are small and conform to your body, they really don't bounce much.

Hard Bottles


This seems to be something of a holdover from a past littered with hard plastic bottles. While we didn't mind using them too much, they are significantly less comfortable than both soft flasks and hydration bladders. One huge bonus is how much easier it is to fill something that can stand up on its own. There are times when it feels like filling a hydration bladder requires three hands. The dual hard bottle design also lets you have different options with your hydration choices like the soft flasks.

If you didn't get the fit adjustments just right  the full hard bottles could clang around a bit.
If you didn't get the fit adjustments just right, the full hard bottles could clang around a bit.

There is one standout situation where these bottles would be a good choice over the soft flasks, and that's when durability counts. If you're running self-supported through terrain likely to rip and poke at you with briars and branches, the soft flasks could be ripped. The Ultimate Direction Flex Form Bottles don't have that same risk. Other than this durability issue, it's hard to think of a time when you would want to run only hard bottles and forego the new soft flask technology.

Adaptability


While there are many specialist running vests or packs, there are also quite a few out there that offer some variability in what you can haul along as far as hydration, equipment, and food. The vests that boast an "expandable" water capacity often come with soft or hard flasks in chest pockets and have a sleeve in the back capable of holding a 1.5-2 liter hydration bladder. Vests with this capacity tended to be our favorite for several reasons.

Once you really get to know this vest  you will be amazed at how detailed the design is. Everything has a purpose.
Once you really get to know this vest, you will be amazed at how detailed the design is. Everything has a purpose.

These vests had a better capability to haul both light and heavier loads and ultimately, at max capacity, we could put on three liters of water at the beginning of our day. Yes, this is heavy starting out, buuuut, you can go a long freakin' way on that amount of water. Just think of the extra weight as training. If you choose to only use the bladder or soft flasks in front, the extra space is always nice to hold a running jacket or food.

Accessories, Pockets, and Weight


There are lots of extras that are going to be specific for each runner. Do you need a pocket capable of holding an iPhone six plus? Do you run with running poles but need to be able to store them on the pack at certain times? Questions like this will allow you to narrow down the accessories that are necessary to aid you on your quest to glory.

The Ultra Vesta packed up and ready to race
The Ultra Vesta packed up and ready to race

A word of caution, if you go all out and get a vest with literally every accessory available but don't need them, it will be cumbersome, heavy, and just unnecessary. Be honest with yourself on what you will be using this vest for. There are so many options out there, you will be able to find the one that fits your running style and will compliment your needs well.

Weight


We listed weight at the end mostly because all of the running vests that have crossed our path have been quite lightweight. There are the outliers on either end of the spectrum, but this factor just isn't as important as finding a vest that fits your needs and style of running. If finding the lightest vest available is a priority for you, check out the lineup from Salomon as they have some insanely lightweight vests.

By far the lightest vest we tested. If looking for something on the minimalist side  this is a pretty good choice. We would recommend trying it on and feeling out the chest strap adjustments before you throw down the cash.
By far the lightest vest we tested. If looking for something on the minimalist side, this is a pretty good choice. We would recommend trying it on and feeling out the chest strap adjustments before you throw down the cash.

The Salomon SLab Sense 5 is a standout as a versatile, lightweight vest. While the fit adjustment is frustrating, once you have it dialed in you will barely notice you have it on. The material of the vest is almost entirely made of stretchable fabric and allows you to cram quite a lot of equipment in for only having 5 liters of storage.

Our recommendation is to ignore the weight factor until you have narrowed your vest quest down to just a few options. Maybe, just maybe, when you are having trouble picking between a couple of different options, you can factor in the weight and save yourself a few grams.

The Circuit finds a zen like balance between comfort  storage capacity  and price.
The Circuit finds a zen like balance between comfort, storage capacity, and price.

Conclusion


First and foremost, examine the type of running adventure you partake in most often. If you head out on big mountain adventures, find a running vest with expandable hydration capacity as well as the ability to store sufficient equipment and food. If you are sticking to more urban environments or supported events, get an appropriately trimmed down running vest that will get you from station to station without weighing you down. Look at the outlying adventures as well and try to find a running vest that will compliment your main activity as well as being able to stretch its capacity to your bigger more adventurous days. If you have specific needs or oddly shaped gadgets, make sure the vest will be able to accommodate those as well. With about a million options on the market, there is a running vest that will seem as if it was made just for you.


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