I’ve had a tonne of hydration packs over the years, so I had this piece of essential kit checked off my list; until I went for my first “real” trail run.
That’s because I was using a traditional hydration pack, not specifically designed for running; a 3L Camelbak Mule. I use it for off-road motorcycle racing (2-3 hour events).
My kit for that type of racing weighs over 30kg, and isn’t particularly comfortable, so I never really gave any thought to how comfortable the Camelbak Mule would be for running.
Not particularly comfortable, as it turns out.
So, before you dive into a tonne of online reviews for waist belts, backpacks and vests, it’s worth taking a minute to understand which type of hydration pack is going to be most suitable for you.
We’re going to have a quick rundown of which type of hydration unit is best for running, and then I’ll cover a few of the best products from leading manufacturers, and we’ve got the 2 winners at the end of the article…
Hydration Packs vs Hydration Vests: Which Are Best For Running?
We recommend hydration vests for your run. Here’s why.
Traditional Hydration Packs
I started searching for something to replace my Camelbak Mule.
Instantly, I knew the traditional hydration packs (used for cycling, hiking and motorcycling) were out of the window. Motorcycle racing was certainly the roughest activity I do, but the pack is kept in place by a chest strap, my chest protector and jersey – that’s not the case when running.
On a run, there’s nothing besides a flimsy chest strap to keep the pack in place.
Within a few steps it got annoying.
A few minutes later I started to feel chaffing.
And, within 10 minutes it was almost unbearable.
Eventually, I emptied the pack and shortened my run, and I’ve never used the Camelbak Mule for a run since.
Hydration Waist Packs
I spent an hour trying on a few different hydration waist packs designed for running at a local store, and I didn’t like the feel of any of them.
It’s just a surreal feeling when the rest of my running gear weighs next to nothing, then I’ve got this big lump jumping around my waist.
I just don’t see how anyone could find them comfortable.
And, I’m pretty sure the chaffing and blisters would become unbearable on long runs, or races like a 5K.
Which leaves us with…
The Hands-Down Winner: Hydration Vests
Hydration vests aren’t as skimpy as they sound.
All hydration pack manufacturers have done, is spread out the material from a normal hydration pack, across a bigger surface area. Many have a total capacity of 6-8L (1.5L for fluid, and the rest is storage) – this is more than enough.
And, after trying a few on at a local running store, I knew this was the perfect solution to hydration for my runs.
Make your own decision, but if your choosing a traditional hydration backpack or waist belt, I’d highly recommend dropping into your local running store first, and trying all three hydration units on.
The Best Running Hydration Packs This Year
1. Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 12Set Race Vest
Our Pick For: Best High-End Hydration Vest
Let’s start with the higher end of the spectrum. Salomon are not known for selling cheap sports gear.
But, anyone that’s owned any of their products, will know there’s good reason for that; excellent performance and immense durability.
The S-Lab is the perfect example of that.
To start with, it’s ridiculously lightweight, weighing in at just 220g. More importantly, Salomon have worked hard to ensure that this vest is highly breathable, minimising sweat. And, even if you do start to sweat, the moisture wicking capabilities of the S-Lab means it will be dry in no time.
I mentioned that my Camelbak Mule had a very rigid (almost cheap) chest strap. This is the area the Salomon hydration pack excels. The straps stretch as you run which helps with comfort considerably. It makes the pack feel like it’s connected to your body, and moves with it, rather than just being “attached”.
Storage is ample here, with pockets just about everywhere.
The package includes 2 x 17oz flasks, but a 1.5L hydration bladder needs to be purchased separately.
If budget is no option, then the Advanced Skin 12Set running hydration vest is going to be a good place to invest your money.
2. SLS3 Running Hydration Vest
Our Pick For: Best Cheap Running Hydration Vest
Not everyone has $100-200 to blow on a hydration pack, and that’s where the SLS3 running hydration vest comes in.
They’ve gone with the one size fits all approach. So, a 135lb runner is going to be wearing the same size pack as a 195lb runner. Realistically, this doesn’t give a perfect fit, but it’s more than comfortable enough thanks to the extensive adjustable strapped.
For such a cheap running hydration pack, it’s surprisingly lightweight, comes with 2 x 19oz bottles, but the fun stops there. There’s no bladder, so it’s about as basic a pack as you’re going to get.
3. Nathan Intensity Race Vest
Our Pick For: Best Running Hydration Vest For Women
Let’s start with the design; the Nathan Intensity Race Vest just looks cool. And, after all, you want something that looks the part if you’re shelling out around $100.
It’s incredibly practical. There’s enough pockets to store phones, purses and a few snacks. But, there’s a bonus drawstring pocket that’s expandable enough to cram in essentials such as a base layer or lightweight jacket.
Nathan has done an excellent job of weight distribution. Whether you plan on entering a 5K or a 3-hour trail run, you’re not going to get any chafing.
And, again thanks to excellent weight distribution, there’s no back or shoulder ache.
4. Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0
Our Pick For: Best Mid-Range Hydration Vest
(For those on a tighter budget, the Ultimate Direction 2.0 is available for less)
Ultimate Direction is a US company that’s been making good headway in the running market of late.
The SJ Ultra 3.0 is the new and updated version of the SJ Ultra 2.0.
This is the ultimate adventurers pack with a total interior capacity of 8.5L. That’s a lot of fluids, plenty of snacks, your phone, keys and a few extra layers; all fitting in the vest with ease.
The mesh that Ultimate Direction has used certainly helps with breathability, and minimises sweat.
On a side note, there’s a noticeable difference between this and the Salomon pack. But, then again, the Salomon weighs in at double the price, so that’s to be expected.
The main noticeable difference is the comfort coming from the chest strap.
The SJ Ultra 3.0 is more than comfortable enough, but it offers nothing like the comfort the Salomon offers. At the same time, the Salomon’s comfort may have compromised quality, as it feels less durable than the SJ Ultra 3.0, and even the 2.0.
5. CamelBak Circuit Hydration Vest
Best Lightweight Running Hydration Vest
Let’s face it. We can’t write about hydration packs without mentioning the most iconic brand in the space; Camelbak.
We’ve picked out the Camelbak Circuit hydration vest from their wide range (all worth checking out).
An important feature here is the external fill. Although it’s not exactly designed to be a race pack (leaning more towards the recreational runner), who wants to be removing and replacing the bladder every time a top up is needed?
The thing with Camelbak, is they really do think of everything. For instance, there’s a phone pocket included, and they’ve made sure that’s sweat proof.
If you’re a 30″-46″ chest, you’re good to go with the Circuit hydration vest. And, the vest will fit more than just your fine figure in it…
Expect to be able to fit in an extra water bottle, keys, phone, wallet, food and a few snacks for when you’re on break.
There’s a tidy air mesh back panel to ensure breathability, a 1.5L reservoir included and at 270g, it’s one of the lightest packs on the market.
6. Nathan Fireball Race Vest
Our Pick For: Best Hydration Vest For Marathons
Not the cheapest, nor the most expensive; but it’s designed to race.
The Nathan Fireball Race Vest has been gathering a steady stream of positive reviews from the online running community. Fact is, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck, with packs similar in quality sitting in the $125-150 range.
For a pack that offers a combined 7L storage capacity, and feels durable, it’s surprisingly lightweight; perfect for your next 10K.
Essentially, you can ram enough clothing, food and drink in it to keep you going for a day.
As a bonus, it comes with 2 x 17oz flasks which alone are worth a combined $20+.
Excellent value for money.
Review Verdict: SLS3 Running Hydration Vest Or Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0
If you’re a recreational runner with a small budget, and you’re not too bothered about having a bladder, the SLS3 is going to offer the best value for money.
However, the more serious of runners are going to want something that’s more lightweight, durable, has better weight distribution – not to mention a bladder.
That’s where the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra 3.0 comes in.
It’s not going to completely break the bank. And, if it does, there’s always the old SJ Ultra 2.0 vest that’s much cheaper.
Thanks for reading our reviews of the best running hydration vests.
If you’ve not already looked, we’ve created the beginners guide to running here.