GB ultramarathon runner, Damian Hall, reviews the latest hydration packs on the market at the moment and picks his top choice out of them
If natural water sources can’t be trusted and you’re not partial to consuming your own urine, a hydration pack or vest is a great asset for long runs and races.
When selecting; the first choice is whether you prefer bottles/soft flasks or a hydration bladder – though most of these packs offer both options. For the majority of trail marathons or ultramarathons, a pack or vest of between five and 10 litres will work as mandatory kit, even for races such as UTMB® (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc). Vest-style packs share the weight around the body, for greater comfort and make your Jaffa cakes more accessible on the go.
We all have different body sizes, so adjustability can really improve comfort, and equally so can soft, stretchy, meshy materials, that are ideally breathable and quick-drying, to help avoid chafing. Look at pockets too. Are there enough and the right-sized options for a phone, snacks and other essentials? And are they within reach and accessible when the pack is on?
All the packs here were tested on run commutes as well as long hilly trail runs in the Cotswolds, on a recent run along the 630-mile South West Coast Path (see OF issue 57), and other races. Thankfully none of them chafed.
Inov-8 Race Ultra 10 BOA – £140
The Inov-8 Race Ultra BOA was on my back for most of the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path recently and performed with aplomb. It doesn’t fit bottles, but comes with a two-litre bladder and a really effective anti-sloshing mechanism. Refilling the bladder does mean items are likely to tumble out of the open main compartment – and it could do with more small pockets. But the hose sleeve keeps water cool and a valve cap keeps things hygienic, for when the pack is dumped on the floor – something surprisingly few hydration-pack designers consider. The Race Ultra 10 is comfy, chafe-free – partly because it sits pleasingly high on the back – and makes many items accessible without removal. It also includes a 150ml soft cup and emergency blanket, both mandatory kit for ultra races such as UTMB. Pole access is really efficient too, the best here.
Verdict: A great choice for those who prefer a hydration bladder for races.
Salomon S-Lab Adv Skin 12Set – £120
I’ve relied on this Salomon vest at UTMB, the Dragon’s Back Race and The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica and it has been excellent each time. The only criticisms are that the main compartment’s zip is a little small, and fold-up poles don’t attach to it well. Otherwise, it’s best in class. You can access a huge amount without taking it off, the mesh material is light (220g), breathable, chafe-free, fast-wicking and super-stretchy – it moves with your body and never restrains it. This does mean, however, that the fabric is more likely to tear than some rival options. Stretchy chest straps make it around 10 percent more comfortable than any other packs here. The Skin 12Set has endless pockets, designed for every conceivable purpose, from spare torch batteries to gels. It comes with a safety blanket and soft flasks, and can also fit a bladder.
Verdict: There’s a reason this is so popular. Highly recommended.
Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 – £75
US company Ultimate Direction works with elite ultra runners Scott Jurek and Anton Krupicka. The 8.5-litre capacity SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 was made with Jurek’s input after his Appalachian Trail FKT (fastest known time) and I ran with it on parts of the South West Coast Path recently. It’s made from a stretchy, breathable mesh with adjustable harnesses and is really comfortable even when worn all day. It’s not as stretchy as the Salomon pack, but it feels more durable, despite being so light. Pocket choice is superb, with gels, phones and similar all catered for, while the soft flask holsters can be tightened to store valuables. The soft flasks’ wider openings make them less messy to refill too. Pole attachment is good, though some might find them intrusive on the front. The vest comes with soft flasks and can fit a bladder – though it does slosh around like an angry washing machine.
Verdict: Robust, light and comfortable. An excellent option for long days out.
Nathan Sports Fireball 7L – £75
Half pack, half vest, the Nathan Sports Fireball 7L is more of an entry-level hydration rucksack than a podium-bidding pack. Its construction sees both a pack and bottle holsters sit on a vest-style breathable mesh. It is bladder (not included) compatible and comes with bottles that are heavier and more intrusive than soft flasks, but the pay-off is that they’re insulated and manage to keep liquids cool. The adjustability of the straps and comfort of the pack are excellent – though again some will find the bottles an inconvenience. Pocket choices are good, though more limited than the Ultimate Direction or Salomon options. Unlike some options here, you can’t reach and take something out of the back without first taking off the pack, which is a nuisance when race conditions hot up.
Verdict: A simple, light and comfortable, good entry-level option.
OMM Ultra 8 – £35
The mountain marathon equipment and event company OMM is known for its practical, no-frills kit and the new Ultra 8 (220g) is much like the company’s Ultra 12 version, but with some very useful vest-style tweaks. It doesn’t come with bottles or a hydration bladder – though it will accommodate both – and is more limited than the other options here, but it works well and is great value for money. It has no waist strap, instead an adjustable chest strap positions the pack high on the back, giving greater stability, more like a race vest. Similarly, large mesh side pockets safely carry water bottles or a jacket – and can be cunningly separated into two pockets. Like many of their packs, it comes with an ultra lightweight back cushioning/picnic mat. It’s the perfect run commute pack and a good choice for cyclists, too.
Verdict: Practical, versatile, excellent-value option.