I analyze things. No, I don’t think you understand. I REALLY analyze things. I’m the guy that spends all day reading reviews before deciding on the type of peanut butter to put on my sandwich. It can be a problem, but it does have its perks. One such perk is the fact that I’ve put a great deal of thought into every running decision I’ve made and every piece of running gear I’ve purchased. I approach a lot of these choices from a “what if” perspective. That is to say, I try to think about every conceivable scenario in which I’d be using this item and make sure it is the best choice for most of those scenarios. I wish I could say my level of scrutiny increases as the prices of items increase, but I probably spend as much time on a $10 water bottle as a $150 race vest. This brings me to my most recent quest, which I alluded to in my last post.
I’ve been on the hunt for the best possible ultra race vest. I wanted something that I could load up with enough nutrition and other various supplies to last me through a 50 or 100 mile trail run. Obviously I can’t bring enough water on my back for that distance, so water transport became a major focus of my research. After my negative, albeit skewed Camelbak experience, I had convinced myself that bladders weren’t for me. I wanted to be able to store handheld bottles that I could carry if I wanted, refill when I wanted, and change out when I wanted. This factor limited my search somewhat, and after reading copious online reviews, watching YouTube product reviews, and constantly reassuring myself, I had narrowed my search to the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest and the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 set. What follows is a mostly unbiased review based on my experiences with both packs.
I should begin my disclosing that I have the most amazing and supportive partner ever. As I was midway through my research, the beautiful epicurean disclosed that she intended to buy me a pack as an anniversary gift. I needed only to let her know which pack to buy. After I had narrowed down my search, she suggested ordering both packs, giving them a whirl, and deciding after some hands-on experience. My hesitation up to that point was due to not being able to actually try either pack on. There are no dealers for either pack in the entire state, and although I was committed, I wasn’t going to cross state lines to try on a hydration pack. So, we ordered both packs and they arrived incredibly quickly, which worked out perfectly, because it gave me enough time to test them and decide on a pack before my RAGBRAI run!
I’ll begin with the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest. I can admit upfront that I really wanted this to be the pack for me. I just finished reading Eat & Run, so Scott Jurek is fresh in my brain. On top of that, the pack is just really sexy. He helped design the pack to suit his ultrarunning needs. The pack uses incredibly innovative materials to make it super lightweight (7.5 oz.) and durable. The main compartment is very flexible, utilizing Cuben Fiber to make it easily expandable and collapsible. In total, it holds 9.2 L. It is hydration bladder ready, but does not come with a bladder. This pack really shines in the front, however. On the outside of two adjustable sternum straps are slots for two water bottles. The pockets rest parallel with the body, and sit high on the chest. There are mesh pockets on the sides of the bottle holders, as well as the above and below the bottle holders. It even comes with two Ultimate Direction 20 oz. kicker valve water bottles, which is a nice touch. They suggest measuring your chest for proper sizing, and my 36″ chest meant purchasing a size Medium (31- 38 inches).
The UD vest arrived first and I eagerly pulled it out to try it on. I slipped it on, adjusted the sternum straps, and sat with it for a bit. It is INCREDIBLY lightweight, and even with the water bottles, I could barely feel it on my back. I loaded up the pack to simulate running conditions, and took it for a spin around the block. I was careful not to get sweaty so I could still return it if need be. Overall, the material felt great to have on, and the water bottles sat comfortably on my chest. The sternum straps tightened well and prevented any movement, so I don’t think I would be concerned with chafing. The side panels are hex mesh, so there is no ability to adjust the fit other than the sternum straps. It sat nicely on the upper part of my back, and the contents I loaded up didn’t move around at all. However, I noticed, even after adjusting the fit, that there were pretty sizable gaps between my shoulders and the straps. I adjusted the sternum straps in every conceivable position, but the gaps remained. this gap didn’t seem to bother me while running around the block, but 100 miles might be a different story. I began thinking about the various aspects to look for in fit for a hiking pack, and many of the same principles would apply here. Overall, though, I loved the back, and might have found myself in love with the idea of the pack even a bit more than the pack itself.
Pros– lightweight, lots of storage, nice water bottle placement (reviews for placement with women seem to be mixed)
Cons– fit customization, sizing, need to use after market bladder
The Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 set is the veteran in this race. This race vest was originally released several years ago, and have evolved to meet the needs of ultra runners around the world. In all the reviews I read, I honestly could not find any significant negative comments about this vest. People were basically drooling over the versatility and comfort of this vest, so it was an obvious option for me. This vest does come with a hydration bladder specifically designed for the pack, as well as water bottle holsters up front. The bladder is very well designed, with a quick release hose at the bottle, and an insulated sleeve to keep your water cold longer. The hose actually gets tucks along the pack under your armpit and up to your mouth, as opposed to most hydration systems that track the hose over your should. The water bottle holsters are angled at around 45 degrees out, as opposed to the parallel orientation of the SJ vest. I comfortably fit 20 oz. bottles in each pocket, but they could be used for a camera, or other nutrition items as well. There are several mesh pockets on the side of the vest, and two large compartments in the back. The pack weighs a bit more than the SJ vest (12 oz.) but this is partially due to the bladder, which is removable. Storage capacity is almost identical, although the Salmon website lists it at a bit less since they assume you’d have the bladder in as well. The vest offers to adjustable straps across the sternum that are movable in a triangular format to allow for more adjustment. There are bungee straps on top of the shoulders as well so you can cinch the pack closer to your back. A mesh pass-through space at the bottom on the back offers a perfect location for a second layer as well. Small, detachable (velcro) pockets up front offer even more storage.
Luckily, the Salomon vest arrived the day after the SJ vest, so I had quick access. As soon as I put the vest on, I knew exactly what all the reviewers were talking about. In about 30 seconds, I had made all the adjustments I needed, and the vest literally felt like a second skin on me. I loaded the pack up with the same items as before, and took it for a spin around the block. I was initially worried that my arms would rub on the water bottles while in the holsters because of the angle, but this wasn’t the case. If anything, the pack kept my posture more upright and my shoulders relaxed and arms down. It sat nicely on the upper part of my back, and there was no movement whatsoever once I cinched everything down. This pack was literally a part of me when I was running. There is more than enough space in the back for all your nutrition and other supplies as well.
Pros– fit, fit, fit, hydration bladder option, fit, lightweight
Cons– a bit less storage space in the back with a bladder, price
Ultimately (pun-intended), I overcame my infatuation and decided on the Salomon vest. I just couldn’t argue with the fit! It had everything I needed, and in the back of my mind, I wondered if I should give hydration bladders another go as well. This pack has everything I need and more. On Saturday morning, I bit the bullet, cut the tags, and loaded it up with two water bottles in front for a morning 22-miler. After the first mile, I knew I had made the right choice. The fit was amazing, and my pace and stride weren’t impacted in the least. With the two water bottles, I had everything I needed for a long run. By the end of the run, I was starting to feel some pressure on my ribs from the water bottles. At that point, I stopped and adjusted the straps to better fit my chest. Good grief! I wish I would have done that earlier 🙂
Yesterday, out of utter curiosity, I filled the bladder, and headed out for a quick run to give it a try. Maybe I was wrong…it happens occasionally, right? As I started running, I could hear some sloshing, which was to be expected. However, i didn’t feel the bladder moving around in the least bit. After the first mile, I may have enjoyed the vest even more with the bladder full and more space up front for nutrition. I never would have guessed I’d come back around, but I couldn’t be more happy that I did. Hopefully, in the midst of this lengthy review, I can save you some time of your own. Both vests are excellent options, and widely used (looking at pictures of the elite runners at the Hardrock 100 tells you all you need to know about the popularity of both vests). The Salomon vest is a bit more pricy, but in my opinion, worth every penny. I’ll be getting many miles of use out of this amazing race pack!