Ultimate Direction is a Colorado based company that specializes in hydration systems for runners. Self-supported distance running has always come with the challenge of carrying gear in a stable fashion. Most standard strap-and-wasitbelt style packs struggle to hold a load without shifting, bouncing, sloshing and chafing while running. Hydration “vests” attempt to answer these issues with a more practical, body hugging style. Their solution presents a very breathable, lightweight and function design. The Scott Jurek Signature line has the SJ Ultra Vest ver 2.0, which I received as a gift and was bought (full price) from Mountain Equipment Co-Op in Vancouver.
Design and Feature Overview
Compared to a regular backpack, these are very small, space is at a premium. Advertised with a 7L capacity, a long day trip will cause you to use all of that (and more). It comes with two if their kicker valve bottles, which is nice, but no reservoir. For the test, I used an MSR Dromedary 3L bladder filled only to 2L to fit properly. There is a separate set of internal stretch cords to retain and tension the bladder in place which is nice to keep it from shifting. Always remember to remove the air from the bladder before you run to avoid that annoying slosh, slosh with every step.
There is an array of thin, high performance fabrics, bit two stand out for me. The strap and back panel mesh and the smooth trim edging.
The Straps and back panel are lined with what UD calls their HEX Mesh. It is a fairly resilient soft synthetic mesh that hold no moisture and provides maximum breathability. So much so that if you have another layer that you do not want to get wet with sweat, then place that in the outer most compartment as the back panel mesh vents directly in to the main compartment that houses the bladder against your back. In an intense run, you sweat so much that your are usually wetted out all over, but at least these help in evaporation and cooling throughout the day.
There are a total of 12 small to tiny accessory pockets throughout the vest. Each bottle pocket has two on each side, one below and one above. There are two side or flank pockets that are two-tier with a “Power Mesh” Zippered Outer pocket and a internal, velcro pocket that also accesses the side adjustment. The main compartment is divided into two sections with the largest inner holding the bladder and the smaller outer for other gear/jackets etc…
Most people want to run with their smart phone and it is important to note where that fits. The information states that the two upper most pockets on the straps are for phones, but only small phones will fit here without hanging way out and interfering with the water bottle carry system. Phones fit in the flank zippered pockets but are impossible to access without taking the vest off first. The inner velcro pocket works the best and fits even the largest phones completely inside and you can access with one arm. Bars and gels can be stored all over the place with so many options you will forget where you put everything. I used the small pocket under the right hand bottle to hold a small safety kit of tape, lighter, knife and water purification tablets.
The Vest is offered in a size range to suit most runners physiques. The Medium size fits me perfectly with a base layer on. The adjustment straps were comfortable at mid range so a thin jacket under this would not be an issue for size. For running you need to have it fairly snug to resist moving, but not so tight as to constrict breathing, adjusted and sized properly, it hardly feels like you are wearing anything at all. Over multiple hours on the trail the only issue I had was slight pressure points on my collar bones where the packs wrapped around. Not enough to cause and chafing or bruising, but I did notice it after a while. My initial test was a backcountry route of 31 km with 2000 m of climbing over talus fields and sub alpine terrain up and down to sea level.
Real world Test and Feedback
Over multiple hours on the trail the only issue I had was slight pressure points on my collar bones where the straps wrapped around. Not enough to cause and chafing or bruising, but I did notice it after a while. My initial test was a backcountry route of 31 km with 2000 m of climbing over talus fields and sub alpine terrain up and down to sea level, so a pretty solid evaluation. I really liked the fit overall and stability of being able to carry over 3L of water in a single haul. My only gripe is that the pockets could be a bit larger to hold a phone properly/more accessible on the straps and a bit of profiling on the straps to alleviate pressure on the collar bones.
To keep the pack light, materials are very svelte and thin. Sil Nylon on the main body and generous use of mesh. Don’t expect a lifetime of hard use, because nothing is “hard wearing” but these are the trade-offs with this type of high performance gear.
For long distance trail runs in hot weather, I highly recommend this comfortable and functional pack. If you have needs to carry more gear, then you may want to look at Ultimate Direction’s larger designs.