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2018 Hydration Comparative Review

As Summer starts to settle in it’s time to re-evaluate our hydration needs. Not only does Summer bring higher temps, but also opportunities to travel farther into the back country, which means we need tools that can get us there and back safely.

TAUR partnered with several brands over the last few months to test and review several new hydration vests that are now on the market. We’ve taken them into the desert and onto the tops of mountains. They’ve been used on hour long runs and 24 hour races alike. Each vest was worn for an average of nearly 100 miles and we feel like we gave them all a proper test. Here are our thoughts.

OVERVIEW

Arc’teyrx Norvan 14 ($199) – (from their site) The Norvan 14 Hydration Vest was developed to deliver the capacity to travel long distances with an exceptional level of fit and comfort. Built to carry the calories, hydration and equipment needed for daylong trail runs, the Norvan carries essential food, water and gear with a precise, bounce-free fit that feels more like clothing than a pack. The main compartment includes a 2L bladder and 12L of weather-resistant storage, front pockets provide instant access to flasks, gels and digital tools.

Camelbak Nano ($100) – Designed as a racing vest, the Nano offers just enough of what you need to get you from aid station to aid station. The Nano has two from soft flasks and side pockets to carry gels. It also has a phone pocket over the left water bottle and mesh pocket for gels or pills over the right. What sets the Nano apart from the Ultra Pro vest (which we reviewed last year) is that it doesn’t have a large protected pocket in the rear. What it does have is a large rear mesh pocket for a jacket or poles that is very breathable. It also has a mid torso stash pocket that can be accessed while wearing the vest. In all, it’s a great training and racing vest, but may not be what you’re looking for if you want to do long adventure runs. But at  $100 it’s hard to pass up.

Nathan VaporZach & VaporMeg ($125) – The VaporZach and VaporMeg were developed with the precise specifications of hard-charging champion runner, Zach Miller. The lightweight, form-fitting, and race-ready hydration vest provides a unique and stable solution to wearing water and carrying other running essentials for people who want to push their limits in training and racing (taken from Nathan’s site). Both vests have two front soft flasks, side angled storage pockets, a large rear pocket for a jacket or other necessities, and a rear zip torso pocket for a phone or keys.

Raidlight Responsive 10L ($170) – (from their site) The flagship model of the Responsiv trail running pack line, the Responsiv 10L is the ultimate trail and ultra running vest. Equipped with two front soft flasks and two large storage pockets for gels or food, there is plenty of space to carry what you need up front. The vest is compatible with trekking poles, both up front and in the rear. A large rear stow pocket rounds out the 10L of space, which is plenty for anyone running or racing up to 8 hours solo. The mist impressive feature of this vest might be the proprietary fitting system, their side micro adjustment ratchet system, allows wearers to really dial in the fit while they are running.

Salomon Agile 6 Set ($100) – (from their site) For days when you want to go for a longer run, ride or hike, reach for the AGILE 6 SET. Specifically designed for mid-distance endurance activities, it carries water and essentials, plus an extra mid layer or light rain jacket. A bag that lets you stretch out and stay hydrated and energized. While it only offers pockets for soft flasks up front (no food storage pockets), there is plenty of space in the rear. The 6L compartment space fully unzips, allowing wearers to have access to everything they need without having to blindly dig through from the top down.

Ultimate Direction Mountain & Adventure Vest(a) ($155) – (from their site) If you’re ready to take your running to new, adventurous places, the Signature Series Mountain Vest and Adventure Vesta is equipped to carry the gear that will enable successful summit bids. Whether it’s trekking pole holders that snap out of the way when not in use or lat pockets that will store requisite emergency items, every detail has been thoughtfully covered in one of the lightest vests for the volume available. UD’s new Comfort Cinch technology provides a custom fit with easy on-the-go adjustment. It’s a breakthrough in tech that must be worn to be believed. Side pockets allow for increased storage and the rear zip compartment holds a whopping 12L or more of whatever you need to get deep into the back country.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest(a) ($135) – (from their site) For serious runners that put training and racing in the same order of importance, the Signature Series Ultra Vest is your ally. Turn your wildest and most ambitious race goal into reality with this 10.3 liter do-it-all vest. MicroMono mesh fabric with 4-way stretch nylon eliminates irritation from sensitive spots like shoulders, neck, and ribs. Two bottles up front provides a liter’s worth of water or sports drink with enough additional capacity for a phone, camera and

trekking poles.

Fit & Feel

Every vest fits differently. And every body type will fit a vest differently. Ultimately, the Fit & Feel of a vest is subjective, which is why here at TAUR we try and put multiple vests on multiple people, because we feel that we get the best overall results to pass along to the reader.

Across the board our testers liked all of the vests. Truly, anything with a score of 4 and above you can assume that the vest will perform to the level that you would like, regardless of circumstances. This is great news for all of the brands as it means that the industry is calibrated (for the most part) on what works and what doesn’t, resulting in happier customers everywhere. For out testers the ultimate comfort came with the Ultimate Direction models, with the Mountain/Adventure Vest(a) taking top scores.

Matt – “This vest fits really, really well. The cinch system in the back looks a little funky at first, and I wondered about rubbing or discomfort, but I didn’t notice it in a negative way at all. It did however, make for an extremely comfortable fit, with the ability to adjust to find the perfect fit, even while on the move. “

Chelsea – “The Adjustable straps make for a really good, tight fit. Easy to adjust. “

Like we said before, everyone did very well in this category. Check out some of the feedback from our testers.

The Arc’teyrx Norvan 14 is extremely comfortable for a large volume vest. Intended for long trips into the back country, good fit is vital. Logan had this to say about it, “The vest fits snug and contours to the body like no vest I’ve ever worn. No bouncing. It was as if the vest wasn’t there.”

As a minimalist racing vest, the Nathan VaporZach and VaporMeg are meant for comfort, not to carry the biggest load. “Despite being a purest, I never minded wearing this vest, even f only carrying a phone. Snug, but with room for gear. No chaffing points, solid no shirt option”, says Pete.

Both Emir and Craig felt that the Raidlight Responsiv 10L fit quite well around the torso, but was a little tight up around the neckline. “The vest fits very well and comfortable. It sits a bit higher on the body than other comparable vest which takes a little bit to get used to. It comes with 2 600ml waterbottles with straws that stick a bit high. At first these straws get in the way, but once you get a hang if, it becomes a second nature. The inner material of the vest feels a bit rough at first, but it does get better with use. The vest rides well with no bounce. One negative is that it is really difficult to put full flasks back into their pockets. It seems that it should be easier” – Emir.

Responses from all of out testers regarding the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest and Vesta were extremely positive. Jenna said, “The overall fit of the vest was very stable with very little bounce. The mesh was comfortable against bare shoulders. The only discomfort came from the lower back panels when the pull string was cinched tighter. The corners of those lower panels curl inward and poke into the ribs if cinched more than just a little bit.”

The Salomon Agile 6 is the entry vest for any new trail runner. It is designed to provide excellent comfort and fit. While the snaps were a little difficult to manage, the rest of the vest rode well and distributed weight well, leaving the vest comfortable over longer distances.

The Camelbak Nano is one of the best fitting vests out there. Extremely comfortable and easy to adjust, it fits snug against the torso. There is little bounce, even when carrying a heavier load. “The fit is great. Aggresive and light weight. However, the 3D vent mesh is not ideal for hot shirtless days.” -Pete

Water Source

Brands generally work with proprietary versions for their water sources. Modern vests use either a traditional reservoir of two front soft flask bottles, roughly 16oz in capacity. How the water is carried while running and the functional ability to get water out are deal breakers for most runners, so it’s vital that they get it just right. Whether you’re a soft flask or reservoir person, there is definitely a vest out there for you.

Taking top marks in this category was the Arc’teryx Norvan 14, not so much for the functionality of the reservoir itself, but the way it was carried with the vest and how it rode. Testers felt that because the storage compartment was completely separate from the rest of the storage area there was no interference with gear and it rode better because the hydration pocket compressed the reservoir, meaning, reduced water bounce.

Logan – “This pack has a reservoir that slides in the back area, not in the storage area like many other vests. It provides more storage and easy access.”

Ultimately, new vest buyers will want to purchase the vest that offers the best of all aspects of the water source it provides. Sure, wearers can swap out their favorite soft flasks for the ones that come with the vest, but often times the vest was built around the type of bottle it uses, so there could be a conflict. But that’s for you to decide. Here is how our testers felt about the rest of the brands we tried.

Scott put it best when he said, “The vest includes two water bottles that UD calls the “Body Bottle 500″. These bottles are 16.9 ounces and include a locking bite valve. The locking bite was one of my favorite features on the entire vest. The bite valve pushes down and locks in place to avoid leakage and it worked very well, especially when transporting the vest. I never had a leak. The right side up front pocket is a little smaller than the left side and it was more difficult to get a full bottle in and stable. I also found that when the bottles were full the vest was a little more bouncy up front than I would have liked.”

Emir said of the Raidlight Responiv 10L, “Flasks look very similar to flasks made by Hydrapak. However, they are thicker and hold more volume. They are easy to fill. One downfall of the flasks is that they do not compress down as much as other comparable flasks, probably due to the straws, which causes some sloshing off the water.” Craig felt that the nipples were innovative in that they swiveled making them easier to use. They also had pull valves that allowed for better water flow.

The Nathan VaporMeg and VaporZach use proprietary Nathan 12oz soft flasks with a four inch hose that sticks out the top. What makes these unique is that they have a mental band that keeps the soft flask erect, even in the pocket. Craig said, “The great thing about these bottle is how wide the mouth is. You can actually fit ice cubes in them.”

The Camelbak Nano uses it’s own bottles with their entire line. These thicker soft flasks stand up better than some of their competitors, are easy to use, and the water doesn’t taste like plastic. There is little sloshing and overall our testers were very pleased. Matt said, “The twist top closure ensures they won’t leak during travel. The flow is good and the bottles hold up well. Pro tip – snip off the bottom tab, it’s pointless, and be careful not to bite the rubber nipple off or all the water will leak out.”

The Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta/Mountain Vest work very similar to the Ultra Vest. Same size, same pocket structure. However, different from the Ultra vest, the Adventure and Mountain vests only allow for one water bottle upfront. The vest is really designed best for a reservoir. Matt said, “One thing of note on this vest is that it only carries one soft flask up front. The left side has a zippered pocket in place of where a flask pocket would be. Zippered pocket is great for a camera/phone, and fits a plus sized phone. Preferring bottles, I would stash an extra in one of the back pockets for longer adventures, but there is also a bladder pocket if your water needs exceed bottles.”

The Salomon Agile 6 comes with two soft flasks upfront, but also allows for a reservoir in the rear, without conflicting with the storage space. “6 liter capability, plus the water bottles. I really appreciated the zippered compartment for ease of use. Loved the hook for the hydration bag”, says Robin.

Capacity

What will make the difference in any purchase will be how much capacity you need it for and how easy it is to access the storage available. Whether a minimalist race vest or a large adventure vest, knowing how much you need to carry is vital. Having easy access to that space is even more important. Results varied across the brands, but the Ultimate Direction Adventure and Mountain Vests came out on top.

Capable of carrying up to 12.7 oz, this vest can really do it all. A front left zip pocket will hold a phone the size of an iPhone 8+. It also has two side pockets that are actually accessible. The rear main storage will carry a full change of clothes, along with another full days worth of food and water. If you don’t need that much, the compression cords will keep it snug to your back and reduce bounce.

Matt – “This pack holds a ton, with lots of varying pockets depending on the type of access you need. Smaller pocket on the back fits my BCPreps pack and some wipes perfectly, a pocket for a bladder, large zippered pocket and an open pocket with bungee lash keeps what you need protected while giving options close at hand. Pockets everywhere around the sides. Buttoned pole loops up front really keep your poles close. I put mine here when I thought I might want easy access, but was also able to stow them on the back when I knew I wouldn’t be needing them.”

You’ll see in our responses below how opinions varied about capacity. It’s interesting to see what is important to testers and different runners.

The Salomon Agile 6 offers a lot of space to store the essentials. Unfortunately, all of it is stored in the rear, unless you want to go without water. Robin had this to say, “My only real suggestion-the front pockets are very deep and everything else gets zippered in the back. I want easy access to things like mace and chapstick-it’s one of the reasons I’ve bought the ADV Skin pack. I did like the pack opens from either side. I’m certain I could stuff a bunch of stuff if I wanted to.”

The Camelbak Nano, designed as a race vest, will definitely hold less than an ultra vest. However, the front is built after the Ultra vest, so it still offers a large zip pocket and two side storage pockets. The back, while mesh, still holds a jacket and other gear, and the torso stash pocket will carry a headlamp and other essentials. Ultimately, enough for whomever is wearing it.

Like the Camelbak Nano, the Nathan VaporZach/VaporMeg was built for racing. Even though it is considered a “minimalist” vest, it actually offers a lot of storage space. “I was surprised I could carry that much nutrition upfront and still fit a jacket and phone in the back. The only drawback are the angled side pockets, they just aren’t as secure at holding nutrition as I’d like. Stuff falls out”

Similar to its big brother, the Ultra Vest(a) offers plenty of storage for a full day on the trails. It was surprising to Craig how much there was. “I ran all 48 miles of the Zion Traverse, unsupported, with this vest. At first I didn’t think there would be enough room, but as I kept adding things there just kept being more room. And it was so easy to get to. I was really amazed.”

The name alone implies that the Raidlight Responsiv will hold a lot. 10L means a full length storage area in the rear, along with an additional stretch torso pocket. Two large pockets sit upfront and will hold a lot more than you think. The one drawback is that the elastic at the tops of the pockets is pretty loose and you can run the risk of losing stuff. “The vest contains plenty of capacity. Two big pockets on the front are great, and hold tons of stuff. Where it lacks is the omission of any small pockets on the front. It would be nice to have a small zippered pocket for valuables. It is also difficult or close to impossible to reach any pockets in the back of the vest without taking it off completely.” -Emir.

The Arc’teryx Norvan 14 has so much space it is nearly a fastpack. It has a roll-top design for storage in the back. So while it offers a lot of space, you kind of have to dig through stuff to get to it. Logan put it best when he said, “The size of the storage area is plentiful. The access is another story. There are 4 small pockets on the front of the vest that provide an area for small items. This requires some gear to be stored in the less accessible main storage on the back.”

Accessories

This is a difficult category to qualify as people’s needs differ based on their intended use of the vest. While scores may appear to have been low on many of the models, it is possible that the vest didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles for a reason. Nor does it mean that a low scores means it is a poorly made vest. In truth, the score in this category is probably more indicative of simply the number of diversity of accessories on the vest and not the quality of it. If you’re looking for a sleek vest to race in, one with a lower score might actually be more beneficial to you vs one with the highest rating. See below for a better understanding.

The Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta/Mountain Vest got the highest score in this category. As a true ultra/adventure vest it is going to have all of the bells and whistles (literally, a whistle). It has trekking pole loops/straps, a rear compartment for a reservoir, stash pockets, axe loop, and compression cords. It provides everything one might need to disappear into the back country for 24 hours, unsupported. Yet, with all of that, it’s still comfortable to wear. Incredible!

Matt – “This thing is LOADED. They have thought of just about everything with this vest and the quality will be hard for anyone to beat. Killer cinching system for the perfect fit, front pole loops, storage galore, and bottle/bladder combo options.”

While the UD vest may offer everything you could possibly need, maybe that isn’t what you’re looking for. See below for our tester’s comments regarding the different models. You may find exactly what you’re looking for.

The Raidlight Responsiv 10L sits right in the middle, providing enough to sustain you on a long run. Craig wore this vest on a 7.5 hour run into the back country of Canyonlands NP. “This a pretty straight forward vest. For a long day in the mountains or the desert it was actually more suited for it than I expected. Overall I was very pleased.”

What the Arc’teryx lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in storage and the ability to take you far into the middle of nowhere. Logan used this vest in Zion NP and all over the Wasatch Mountains. He had few reservations about it’s uses. “The vest comes equipped with a trekking pole holder on the back which is great. There are some elastic ties above the front pockets that make getting things in and out of those pockets difficult.”

photo courtesy of salomon.com
The Salomon Agile 6 is meant for the newer trail runner who needs to be able to carry enough stuff to make them feel prepared, but doesn’t need the fanfare. That said, there were a few clear misses with this vest. There are no storage pockets anywhere on the front of the vest. Not for chapstick, keys, anything, which makes getting to your most basic needs difficult. These are basic necessities, not even accessories. A miss on Salomon’s part, if you ask us.

In our opinion, the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest/Vesta is the perfect compromise. Still UTMB compliant, it has what you need, but not in a way that makes it feel overwhelming. “The locking bite valve is a very innovative feature that I really loved about the bottles provided with the vest. It seems like a feature that should be standard with all water bottles moving forward. I also liked the new and improved pole attachment points on the shoulder straps. replacing the old bungee system the new system uses a snap button that makes retrieving and replacing poles much quicker and more efficient.” -Scott. “The Comfort Cinch technology in the back of the vest is a very cool feature. It makes the vest really easy to adjust as it stretches out during a run or as food and water dwindles and takes up less space. The only disadvantage is the way the corners of the cinch panel curl under and can cause chafing. The sliding rail adjustment in the front is also very convenient for making sure the ideal fit can always be found and making adjustments to it on long runs.” -Jenna

As a minimalist racing vest, the Nathan VaporMeg/VaporZach doesn’t really get overwhelmed with accessories. Don’t pay attention to the score. It’s actually a phenomenal vest, giving you just enough of what you need to get you to the finish line. “This is my go-to training and racing vest, up to 50 miles. I don’t need all the extra stuff – just water bottles and storage pockets. Game on!” -Craig

Like previous category, the Camelbak Nano has the same upfront design as it’s big brother, the Ultra vest, which means you have plenty of pockets and places to stash nutrition, electrolytes, chapstick, etc. The rear of the vest is simple, but functional. A very well designed race vest. Matt said it best, “this is a fantastic training vest. The extras can go on other vests, this gives me just what I need.”

Durability

Look at the scores. Incredible across the board. What this tells us is that the industry, as a whole, is getting it right. 5-7 years ago these scores would have varied considerably. Today, vest makers are nailing it on the construction of their vests and it shows in the long term durability.

There are too many top scores to identify an outright leader in this category, so we will try and highlight everyone equally, starting with the three that got 5s. Great job to all of the brands, they really nailed it.

The Arc’teryx Norvan 14 showed the continued excellence expected from a company who has been around as long as Arc’teryx and been at the top of their game that long. Logan took it everywhere and beat it up pretty good. End of the day, he had no issues.

photo courtesy of salomon.com The Salomon Agile 6 held up well over time. Robin had no problems and saw distinct markings that would indicate there would be any issues. “No problems or weird fraying from use. I’m not confident in the snap straps.”

Matt took the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest all over Utah, from the tops of mountains in the Wasatch to the desert of Canyonlands. At 6ft 2in he runs hard and knows how to wear-test gear. If he stands behind the quality and durability of a product, you can be certain it will hold up. “Mine still looks brand new. I’d expect this to last many seasons of use.” -Matt

The Raidlight Responsiv 10L is built of pretty tough materials. It was no surprise that it held up to the sandstone of southern Utah and the mountains of Colorado. A company from Europe, they understand the need for durability. “I felt like the vest was bulletproof. It can pretty much go anywhere.” -Craig

The Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest(a) is pretty tough. Pete had one or two minor issues with the vest, but otherwise it performed admirably. We had this vest on multiple testers and nearly all of them came back with positive results regarding the vest’s durability. “We took these vest on some rugged terrain and we loved these vests. Sadly, the vest did not fair well. The soft and light weight materials took a beating and wear was obvious.” -Pete. Dana wore her vest during a 100 mile race and on several training runs without issue. “No sign of wear and tear.” -Dana

A simple vest with no issues. The Nathan VaporMeg/VaporZach continues to show the excellence Nathan has displayed for well over a decade. “As my new go-to vest, the VaporMeg stood up to everything I put it through. It’s all I wear and it still looks good as new.” -Emily

Camelbak has been making packs for years. They understand quality and durability. The Nano, even as the sleekest in the line, displays the same high level of quality expected from a company with their legacy.

Final Thoughts

This was one of our most favorite test cycles we’ve gone through. Our testers really put these vests through their paces over the last 90 days, with incredible results. You can be certain that whatever vest you choose, if you’ve reviewed our thoughts and results, you won’t be disappointed.

Thank you to all of the brands who participated. We commend you for you contribution to this great sport. Your products are amazing.

Please leave your comments and thoughts regarding your experience with some of these vests. Keep us honest.

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