I have worn only one ‘real’ running pack since I started running ultras in 2009, the formerly ubiquitous Nathan HPL 2.0, in the original women’s light blue color. I have loved that pack and worn it to the point that the shoulder straps are starting to disintegrate and weird stuff is surely growing in the front pockets because I refuse to wash it.
So when I got the opportunity to test and review the SJ Ultra Vest, I jumped at it. Along with a few other testers from trailandultrarunning.com, we put the SJ Ultra Vest through its paces.
The SJ Ultra Vest brings the best of both worlds, allowing you to carry drink receptacles for those cupless aid stations as well as keep your hands free; with a bonus of accommodating a bladder in addition to, or instead of, the bottles. Here is how the SJ vest broke down with out testers (*note that all rating scales are from 1 to 5 with five being the best possible score).
Fit & Sizing: 4.2
The SJ Ultra Vest comes in three sizes. Here are the manufacturer’s guidelines for sizing from the tag on the pack, unisex in inches at chest: Small: 25-33”; Medium: 31-37”; Large: 36-44”. The UD website lists sizing differently: SM: 25 – 31 in; MD: 31 – 38 in; LG: 38 – 43 in. This would put me in a Medium, which would DEFINITELY be too big. My friend Ryan with a 40″ chest tried out a friend’s Large and says that size seemed too big for him. “I had the top chest strap cinched all the way down and it was still a bit loose.” Note for bigger chested runners: you can also get sternum strap extenders.
My chest measured at 32” so I’m wearing the small. Even so, without the bladder, I can tighten the top strap down all the way, with plenty of extra room in the bottom strap. For women smaller than myself, I am not convinced it would ride snugly without bouncing a little bit. Other testers commented on how their sizing experience went:
Nicholas: “If you go to the UD website or find the video on sizing, it will help you tremendously (http://youtu.be/T_6-1nvGiWg). I think they are spot on with this. The extra time doing the measuring helps.”
I wore the vest for the duration of a 50 mile race (bottles only, no bladder) recently and experienced a bit of sloshing/movement from the front on fast downhills even when I had the chest straps tightened down as much as I could get them. Bouncing bottles was not an issue for me when going uphill. Ever. Obviously, I cannot predict how the bottles would ride on someone with more curves. What I can tell you is that on me, this pack fits LIKE A GLOVE – a body glove that I never want to take off. It is so comfy.
Overall Fit & Comfort: 4.6
I thought at first my arms might hit the bottles when swinging, but that is not the case. I tested the pack using bottles only, bladder only, and full bladder AND bottles for 110 ounces (2-20 ounce bottles and a 70 ounce bladder). The ride is solid and mostly un-bouncy in every scenario, except for the sloshing of the water itself, which can be annoying if you are not used to it, but you will get used to it. Carrying 110 ounces of water, the pack is definitely heavy, not something you would want to do every day, but at least it’s an option, and the vest-style design takes weight from the shoulders directly and distributes it nicely. Other testers had this to say:
Craig: “The vest is incredibly comfortable. It was very much like wearing another shirt vs having a secondary vest on.”
Missy: “I was surprised at how comfortable the vest was, considering there are not a lot of straps to adjust.”
Hydration & Packable Space: 4.4
My favorite distribution of water is actually 20-40 ounces in the bladder and 40 ounces up front in the bottles. The water in the back seems to keep things from feeling front heavy. But that’s just me and probably comes from a place of not being used to ANY weight up front. Ha.
It should be mentioned that a bladder is NOT included with the pack (the two UD bottles ARE). Employing a bellows-type construction, the large main compartment is plenty roomy for both a bladder and other items as well; it features a Velcro tab to hang the bladder from, as well as a hole in the side of the pack from which the water tube can exit.
One slightly puzzling thing to me is the seemingly lack of official way to secure a water tube on the front of the pack. I am thinking the two little elastic loops across the front of the pack might be intended for this purpose, but I didn’t want to have to take the tube in and out of a loop every time I wanted to drink, so I figured out that looping the hose around the back of the pack and then through one elastic loop allowed me enough leeway to drink but is snug enough that the tube doesn’t bounce around. That method also means I don’t have to detach the water tube to take the pack off, which is efficient. Others felt the same way.
If it were socially acceptable, I would run topless with this pack on. It’s that comfortable on the skin. That being said, I did a run on a very hot afternoon with the pack over a sports bra, and I had zero issues with chafing, scratchy seams, or anything feeling uncomfortable. Even dripping with sweat, I didn’t feel claustrophobic or stuck-to by the encompassing of the pack. I also wore it over a sports bra for about 9 hours of a recent race with extreme comfort (pictured).
RA says: “No shirt, no irritation, no chafing, no body glide. Granted, it was only 10 miles but overall super comfortable. I actually felt like it hugged my body better with no shirt. The sweat gave it just enough to stay put without moving back and forth on a wicking tech fabric.”
Scott said: “The only area for improvement would be a little more breathable on the back, but otherwise this vest is very comfortable.”
The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest comprises three high tech fabrics: Cuben Fiber, a ‘non-woven fabric that is 15 times stronger than steel …and extremely resistant to moisture, UV, and chemicals’ (they’re right – unless you have a knife open in your pack, you’re probably not going to tear it); Hex Mesh, a breathable mesh used in the structure of the vest that is sort of like extremely fine, non-abrasive window screen; and Power Mesh, a super stretchy mesh that allows you to stuff any number of things in the pockets. It’s sort of like having a bunch of mini Glad ForceFlex bags along for the ride. I half-heartedly tried to tear the Power Mesh pocket on the side of the bottle holster with a sharp Gel corner and was unsuccessful.
Storage & Accessibility: 3.6
Pros: Pockets everywhere! Two Power Mesh pockets sit astride each bottle holster, useful for bars, gels, etc. The bottle holsters themselves cinch all the way shut in case you want to use them for pockets instead of putting bottles in them. Power mesh pockets on the shoulder straps above the bottles will hold your phone and camera securely. Small Velcro enclosure pockets sit below each bottle holster to hold small valuables or electrolyte capsules in the waterproof Cuben Fiber side. Two zippered main compartments make up the ‘pack’ part in the back, overlaid with a criss-cross of elastic to attach even more clothing.
Cons: Zippered Power Mesh lateral pockets are good for extra food or wipes or whatever, but unless you are really flexible, these pockets are difficult to unzip and extract things from with the pack on. I can do it, but probably would not have patience for it, say, late in a 100 mile race, and I think people with less flexible shoulders would not be able to unzip the pockets at all with the pack on. On the Large size, the extra mesh to make the pack bigger is inserted between the side zip pockets and the bottle holsters, rendering the side pockets all but inaccessible without removing the pack unless you have double jointed shoulders or something.
Craig said: “You can’t access the under arm side pockets while running, at all. To even get to them you’d have to remove the vest. I tried everything in my power to get to them while on the move and it just wasn’t possible”
Nicholas said: “The pocket pouches at the top could’ve have been a tad lower, but they weren’t that big of an issue.”
Trekking Poles Attachment:
Literally the only thing I’m not thrilled about is the set of little elastic loops on the back promoted to stash trekking poles. First of all, just getting both poles through the loops was a time consuming and annoying experience, and then they don’t fit snugly in the elastic once you do. I have telescoping Leki poles. Most people with trekking poles these days have shorter tri-folding ones that would fit more snugly through the loops; it’s very possible that the pack construction is designed for that kind. Secondly, even at the shortest setting, my poles are way too long to make the six-inch-apart loops make any sense; the poles swing wildly way out to the sides and then fall down to one side or the other.
At $124.95 retail, the price of the SJ Ultra Vest may feel a little steep, but it’s comparable to other vest pricing, and this pack will last you a lot longer than your shoes, which cost the same or more. You are paying for what you get, and this pack is worth the price.
Overall our testers at trailandultrarunning.com gave this vest a 4.23 out of 5. Pretty incredible. To purchase the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest visit their site HERE.