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Triathletes work out a lot, and for a (very) long time. Unless you’re blessed with a family of dedicated training aid-station sherpas, there’s a good chance your athletic reach will far exceed your nutritional grasp. Enter the hydration vest. What began years ago as a hands-free way for mountain bikers to stay hydrated on the trail with tiny, stiff, slappy backpacks has evolved into something that triathletes of all levels should really be using. You don’t expect to do your whole race without the help of an aid station—nor should you be doing long workouts without hydration and nutrition at hand. Lately we’ve even seen plenty of long-course triathletes use hydration vests on the bike, but we’ll save that principled debate of religious (and fashion-minded) importance for another day.
Courtesy of the editors over at TrailRunner, below are our seven favorite vests and packs for any long run, race, or ride. But first, a quick buyer’s guide primer:
What You Should Look For In The Best Hydration Vest Or Running Pack For You
Different vests adjust size in different ways: Some have stretchy webbing designed to automatically tailor to a variety of body sizes, while others have adjustable straps, hooks, or even Velcro.
Depending on the length of your run, ride, or race, you might be able to get away with a pack that doesn’t have a reservoir to hold a hydration bladder. Virtually all vests have a variety of pockets to hold smaller flasks and your keys and gels, but for a longer event, you’ll want something with a larger reservoir in the back to hold both extra water and clothing. But remember: It’s natural to sweat through fabric, and no matter how breathable a pack is, it’ll probably get damp on hot days. It’s often a good idea to put things like extra layers or your phone into a plastic bag before packing it to protect against sweat – or rainstorms.
Zippers or Cinches
It might not be the end of the world if a gel falls out of your pocket, but you really don’t want to lose your credit card or house keys while out in the woods. For extra security, we like pockets that either cinch tight or zip to keep the essentials exactly where they’re supposed to be.
The Best Running Vests – And When We Use Them
Ultimate Direction Race Vest/Vesta 6.0 ($125)
Weighing in at less than 5 ounces when empty, this new iteration of a UD standby is sleek and speedy, the lightest we tested. It can hold up to a 2-liter reservoir in the back, but our testers liked it best for securely holding a pair of flasks in the front pockets, which testers noted were impressively secure and kept keys and fuel from bouncing around too much. One drawback was the sizing: Even our smaller testers found the size small to be a little too snug, requiring the straps to be let out almost all the way. If you’re uncertain about what your size might be, it may help to size up. (A note: The Vesta is the specially designed women’s version; the Vest is the men’s version)
- Size Range: S-L
- Weight (empty): 4.97 ounces
- Storage Volume: 8.5L
- Best for: Moderate-to-long training runs
- Favorite feature: The breathable back panel meant that even on warmer days, testers didn’t overheat.
Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest/Vesta 6.0 ($140)
The big sibling to the Race Vesta, the Ultra Vesta has the same great fit and breathability, but with maximal capacity to carry everything you might need. Testers were impressed with the lack of bounce when they filled the back pocket (which is waterproof!) with extra layers and fuel, and both the Ultra and Race Vestas have customizable loops and cinches for attaching trekking poles—should you want to take it hiking. Ultimate Direction has updated the overall shape of both vests for a snugger, more streamlined fit, and it shows – both options have an intuitive, body-friendly shape that minimizes movement and chafing.
- Size range: S-L
- Weight (empty): 4.97 ounces
- Storage Volume: 10.3L
- Best for: Poor weather conditions where waterproof gear is a plus; second duty as a light hiking daypack
- Favorite feature: The capacity of this vest was the best of both worlds: lightweight with enough space for all the essentials, including – depending on your location – bear spray, which gets cumbersome to carry in your hand.
Osprey Duro/Dyna LT ($80, coming this July)
This brand new and budget-friendly offering from Osprey is the definition of minimalist. It doesn’t have a reservoir pocket, which makes the back panel slimmer than most vests, meaning more mobility through the shoulders and cooler running on warm days. This means you need to rely on the two included 380mL chest-mounted bottles for fluids. The vest itself is breathable and fits sleekly over or under different layers (one of our testers noted an unexpected squall that popped up, and loved the fact that the vest didn’t get in the way of throwing on and zipping up a jacket). Testers also liked the easily adjustable straps, which snap on and off quickly but stay secure while you’re moving.
- Size range: S-L
- Weight (empty): 8.6 ounces
- Storage Volume: <1L
- Best for: Moving fast and light, shorter events or runs with opportunities to refill flasks and restock fuel
- Favorite feature: The complete lack of bounce; testers could bomb down hills, jump over rocks, and navigate technical terrain with confidence knowing the pack was super secure.
Editor’s Choice: UltrAspire Momentum Race Vest ($80)
This vest gets the seal of approval from our gear editor. She bought it for her first ultra and has been committed to it ever since, no matter how many sticky gel spills she’s had to wash out of it. The day after she bought it, she put it through the ringer on an 18-mile run in just a sports bra to test for chafing, and her back and shoulders came out unscathed. It’s super mobile and flexible, made with an open rubber frame overlaid by super-breathable sheer mesh that keeps you dry on hot days. The back zipper pocket is roomy enough for an extra layer, and the lower back pockets are easily reachable even when you’re moving. Front bungee straps make adjusting unnecessary, as they automatically cinch the vest down to fit just right. Bear in mind, it does not include hydration reservoirs of any kind, so you’ll need to purchase those seperately. (You can find the newest version, the Momentum 2.0, here!)
- Size Range: S-L
- Weight (empty): 7.2 ounces
- Storage Volume: 5L
- Best for: Long runs
- Favorite feature: This vest works in any weather. We particularly liked the pocket placement: There are eight pockets you can reach easily without taking the pack off, keeping snacks and hydration always at your fingertips.
Patagonia: Slope Runner Endurance Vest ($150)
TrailRunner‘s editor-in-chief has used this vest for 100 mile races, FKTs, and many long runs and adventures in between. The garment-like construction eliminates bounce and chafing (our tester recommends sizing down if you’re in between sizes and really want that next-to-skin fit), and the stretchy material makes it easy to cram hours and hours of snacks into the expandable pockets. The back features a secure zip pocket for valuables like keys and a wallet, as well as an easy to reach while running single back pocket, and horizontal sleeve style pocket easy for stashing a jacket or extra flask on the run. Front drawstrings allow you to quickly stow gear and make micro-adjustments to the fit of the pack to ensure epic comfort. The minimalist style makes this vest durable and easy to repair, and it has stood the test of time for TR‘s rough-and-tumble editor.
- Size Range: XS-L
- Weight (empty): 6.17 ounces
- Storage Volume: 3L
- Best for: Long runs (with ample opportunity to stop and refill flasks)
- Favorite feature: Designed to fit like a shirt, this vest eliminates chafing and bounce and uses recycled materials to reduce environmental impact.
Nathan: VaporAir Lite 4 Liter Hydration Vest ($125)
Our tester found this pack to be extremely comfortable, a pack made for several hours of movement with no chance of chafing. One of the major gripes of so many hydration packs for us is the placement and materials of sternum straps and pocket cinches, and we found the VaporAir to have all the right tightening, in all the right places. Though there are seven available pockets, we wished there were a few more zippered pouch options in the front, as there is one large horizontal zipper pouch at the lower back, able to store several gels and bars, but you’re forced to take off the pack to really access the pocket. However, the bladder system made up for it, with a 2L capacity, plus flask potential in the front. This makes it possible to customize your hydration system according to your preferences . . . or the heat of the day.
- Size Range: XS-M, L-XXL
- Weight (empty): 11.5 ounces
- Storage Volume: 4L
- Best for: Mid-distance trail runs
- Favorite feature: The various sizing of chest pockets were great for storing various sized items.
Bonus: Arc’Teryx Konseal 15L Backpack ($70)
Full disclosure: This pack was technically designed for climbing. But it’s become our go-to on our longest day trips in the woods or fastpacking excursions. It’s featherlight and has comfortably padded shoulder straps and secures at the waist to keep everything where it’s supposed to be. The top opening ensures all your goodies don’t spill out when you open it, and we’ve stuffed days worth of clothing and snacks into it with ease.
- Size Range: One size
- Weight (empty): 11 ounces
- Storage Volume: 15L
- Best for: The longest adventures – fastpack trips, unsupported adventures, and long hike-run combos
- Favorite feature: The custom Hadron pack fabric is highly water resistant and virtually impossible to tear or abrade. It’s the perfect marriage of capacity, minimal weight, and durability.