After wading through the market options, we purchased 12 of the best hydration packs for running and tested them head to head to figure out which are truly top notch. Running on our favorite mountain trails, scrambling along ridges, and even fastpacking gave us a lot of time to get acquainted with each pack. After all these miles, our male and female testers gauged their comfort, compared their features, weighed them, loaded them fully, and tallied up the scores. Based on the test results, we designated award winners for overall best running hydration pack as well as our favorite budget-friendly options for 2019. No matter what you're planning to use your hydration vest for, we have a recommendation for you.
The Best Running Hydration Packs
|Price||$143.99 at Amazon|
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|$149.95 at Amazon|
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|$97.46 at Backcountry|
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|$101.21 at Amazon|
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|Pros||Comfortable, great fit, tons of easily reachable pockets, very versatile||Comfortable, lots of storage, great pockets||Tons of storage, comfortable, expandable||Breathable, decent comfort, less expensive||Light, lots of storage capacity, versatile|
|Cons||Expensive, must buy hydration bladder separately||Expensive||Bulky||Lacking in storage||Some pockets hard to reach, bouncy|
|Bottom Line||The best running pack on the market, with excellent pockets and a comfortable fit.||Comfortable and packed with great features, the VaporHowe is the perfect companion for any adventure.||The highest expandable capacity for gear and water among the running packs we tested.||The Ultra Vesta is a solid choice for runners looking for a less expensive yet still reliable running pack.||One of the most popular packs out there, the Ultra Vest is a solid choice with lots of storage.|
|Rating Categories||Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set||Nathan VaporHowe 12L||Ultimate Direction FKT||Ultra Vesta 4.0||Ultra Vest 4.0|
|Hydration System (15%)|
|Storage Capacity (15%)|
|Specs||Salomon ADV Skin...||Nathan VaporHowe 12L||Ultimate Direction...||Ultra Vesta 4.0||Ultra Vest 4.0|
|Weight (oz.)||11.9 oz||12.6 oz||14.5 oz||11.3 oz||13.3 oz|
|Carrying Capacity (liters)||12 L||12 L||18 L||10 L||10.3 L|
|Included Liquid Capacity (liters)||1 L||1.8 L||0.6 L||1 L||1 L|
|Type of water storage||Two 0.5L soft flasks (included), plus bladder sleeve (bladder not included)||Sleeve with 1.8L bladder||One 0.6L bottle included||Two 0.5L soft bottles (included), can accomodate up to a 1.5L bladder (not included)||Two 0.5L soft bottles|
|External Storage?||Yes, "Kangaroo" pockets||Yes, multiple stash pockets||Yes, bungees, many external zip pockets||Yes, front storage for phone, keys, etc||Yes, bungees|
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 sealed the deal. We love 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 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. It's also under 12 ounces in size Medium, 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 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 a lightweight, 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 like its simple, efficient hydration system.
We loved almost every feature and design choice in the VaporHowe but balked a little at its price. Also, if you typically carry trekking poles with you when going the distance, know that our testers found them to ride a bit uncomfortably when strapped onto the pack. The VaporHowe costs a lot, but we think it is ultimately worth every penny for the dedicated distance runner and adventurer.
Read review: Nathan VaporHowe 12L
Best Bang for the Buck for Women
Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0
The Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta is a solid hydration vest at a more reasonable purchase than our women's overall favorite. It's 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. It also has stretchy mesh on the sides and 10 liters of storage, which our testers found sufficient for most endeavors.
The drawbacks on this pack are relatively small. While we like the bungee cord on the back for storing a layer or two, we 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 more reasonable price.
Read review: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0
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 in 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 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 the critical features like highly breathable material, snug no bounce fit, and expandable water storage, all at a great price.
Read review: Camelbak Circuit
Top Pick for All-Day Unsupported Running
Ultimate Direction FKT
The new 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. This thing has 18 liters of storage capacity in so many pockets that it's hard to count. While the collapsible storage space on your 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 were also appropriately variable and shoulder straps 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 pack with a bladder to increase its water-holding capacity to over three liters. But, 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 DeLauney, and Brian Martin make up our team of ultra-trail runners. Among them all, they have put in the miles, chugging away on races that range from 10 to 100 miles in length! 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 Brian is a Search and Rescue technician that enjoys spending long days on the trail all over the USA.
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 or Sierra Nevada, we took them on some ultras, including the Jemez Mountain 50 (NM), the Bighorn 100 (WY), and the IMTUF 100 (ID) mile race.
Analysis and Test Results
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. These performance metrics are weighted by importance for general application; however, we encourage you to consider the metrics that are essential to your specific intended use most heavily.
There is a widespread in the cost distribution in the market of hydration packs for running. It seems that this is partly due to the amount of material incorporated into the vest, how refined the design is, and how functional the vest is. As you might imagine, vests that have been paired down to only hold the essentials are a bit cheaper, and those that have been beefed up are more expensive. The overall value is a function of price as it relates to how well the vest functions.
For example, the CamelBak Circuit is great value for the price and offers 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 great value as it is on another level of comfort and 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.
Comfort is the most critical attribute to consider when selecting a hydration pack for running. We weighted this category higher than all the rest for a few reasons. If the pack isn't comfortable, you're more likely to leave it at home than you are to load it up before every trail run. On the same note, if the pack isn't comfortable for a short run, after twenty miles it will most likely be unbearable. We assessed chafing, rubbing, pressure points, as well as how much the pack bounced versus hugged our body. Over time, each of these attributes is exacerbated and can become unnecessarily uncomfortable.
The most comfortable contenders are 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. 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 your 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 your 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 even with a light rain shower, the breathability far outweighed the slight downsides. We never felt suffocated or drenched underneath the pack. To pack all of these tools into one pack resulted in an ultra-comfortable design capable of taking you long distances in relative comfort.
Other packs tended to highlight one or two tools and put the others on the back burner. The Nathan VaporAir 2.0 put such an emphasis on water carrying capacity (with a hydration system we do love!), the comfort of the pack is significantly compromised, throwing the balance of the pack way off during our testing period. Yes, the VaporAir can supply you with water and equipment for the day but the level of comfort isn't in the same ballpark as the ADV Skin.
Features & Design
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 Top Pick for All-Day Unsupported Running, 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 along with the necessary equipment for extremely long missions.
We weighted features 15% 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. As we saw with the Osprey Duro many of the pockets weren't very useful because other compartments shared the same space.
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 UD 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 the hydration pack really set it apart from all the others.
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. See the detailed pros and cons of these systems below.
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 water carrying capacity.
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 as 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. Despite the drawbacks, this is the most popular hydration system in a hydration pack. 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.
The Nathan VaporAir 2.0 has one of our favorite hydration bladder systems, proving this system is great when done right. It's lightweight, can be filled with one hand, and never leader 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 Ultimate Direction FKT comes with a single semi-rigid bottle.
Chest-Mounted Soft Flasks
The Salomon 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 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.
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. We weighted Storage Capacity as 15% of a product's final score.
The top scorers in this category, the Ultimate Direction FKT can carry everything we felt was needed in its large top-loading storage compartments. The FKT is uniquely able to carry a massive amount of equipment, more than any hydration pack we have tested to date. The most spacious of the female-specific models is the Nathan VaporHowe, with its stretchy material. Our testers managed to pack minimal climbing equipment in the rear storage area of the VaporHowe, along with snacks, layers, and first aid materials.
On the two ends of the high performance storage capacity spectrum are the Ultimate Direction FKT and the Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5, and represent different usage of products within this gear category. The FKT is the heavy hitting, all 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 is important to keep in mind while reading each review, as having an overall lower storage capacity doesn't mean the pack is 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, a 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 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.
It's also critical to know that the shear number of pockets sewn onto the vest didn't necessarily correlate to the score it received. When looking at the contenders for our Best Buy Award, the Circuit and Duro had some big differences in pocket design. While the Duro had several more pockets, it didn't have the ability to haul more equipment and food, and it didn't feel any more organized. In fact, it felt a bit more frustrating as several pockets overlapped and became unusable when the other pockets sharing that space were filled. The Circuit, on the other hand, offers deep pockets that didn't share space with other pouches giving us 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 Salomon ADV Skin 12 nailed all of these points excellently with a wide variety of pocket size, shape, and volume and kept everything within easy reach.
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 in our line-up of contenders is the super minimal Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5. Not surprisingly, it has one of the lowest pack volumes. The heaviest vest tested is the Osprey Duro 1.5 at 15.77 ounces. Surprisingly, it has the same pack volume as the Sense Ultra 5.
Weight is a critical attribute to consider when hunting for a running pack for several reasons. Often you will be wearing this 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 why weight should factor into your purchase. The Duro didn't offer any performance boost, extra storage, or comfort over the lightweight Ultimate Direction Halo (9.2 oz), but weighed about 7 ounces more. If we opted for the Halo saving 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.
It isn't just the ultra expensive racing vests like the Halo that have a monopoly on weight savings. When comparing the Duro and the CamelBak Circuit, you can see the vest weight can balloon quickly with relatively no boost in performance. These vests hold about the same amount of water, have similar pocket volume, and cost about the same amount. The Duro weighs 15 ounces vs. the Circuit's 11.9 oz.
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 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, but we hope our testing process and in-depth analyses of each pack prove helpful in your search.
— Brian Martin, Lauren DeLaunay, and Andy Wellman