Running Hydration Vests & Packs: How To Choose A Winner

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Hydration packs, also known as running hydration vests, offer immense freedom and flexibility to trail runners and distance runners who need to fuel up during their long-runs.

These vests allow us to run in the outdoors for sometimes extensive hours while not needing to stop and restock water and supplies. If you are thinking of tackling an ultra-marathon, they should be one of the practical must-have accessories at the top of your list.

So how do we choose the right running vest? 

The first thing to look for is total capacity, including how much water it can hold and other things like food. Next, ensure that the vest is a nice, snug fit and does not bounce around when running. Otherwise you’ll be coming away with some major friction burns. Deciding between bottles or a reservoir is a matter of personal choice, but there are certain situations where each can be helpful.

Running hydration vests have become increasingly popular as they make for convenience and comfortability, whilst freeing up your hands. They act as a space to carry water and food and store other essentials that may be needed, particularly for long runs.

How To Choose The Right Hydration Vest

How to choose a running hydration vest
How to choose a running hydration vest

When it comes to running, if it is short urban runs or races that are typically an hour long or less, you will not need a hydration vest, and it is doubtful that you will need to pack any extras to take with you.

If you want a belt with two or so water bottles, this should suffice. Of course, there are instances where urban running can be extensive, but you can normally manage with a 2 to 5-liter vest. 

Staying hydrated is one of the critical elements to the reason for the vest, but nutrition and safety are other things that also come into the equation.

Trail runners are far more likely to be the ones who will be looking to purchase a hydration vest as they need to be self-sufficient, especially in comparison to their road runner counterparts. Some races will even have a list of mandatory supplies.

Ultra running has seen a massive explosion in popularity over the last few years, and as you’d expect – the runners who commit to these arduous endurance races are meticulous about what they wear. Particularly when it comes to the practical side of staying fuelled.

So just looking at what your average vest will offer, the first thing that typically comes to mind is hydration.

Usually, this will take form in the manner of two easily accessible water bottles in the front holsters of your vest. Alternatively, you may use a hose that feeds from an artificial ‘bladder’ strapped in the back of the vest. 

Given that you will be burning a lot of calories, nutrition will also need to be accommodated for; thankfully, many vests allow you to fit energy bars and gels into the front or side pockets. If on a long trail run, some vests will even have space featured on the rear to allow additional food to be stored. 

There will also be other things you wish to take along for the journey, such as a lightweight rain jacket and even gloves, and these can fit into the numerous compartments, along with other essential gear.

Regardless of your running experience, selecting the right hydration vest for you and your needs is essential in boosting the comfort and safety you experience along the trail.

A few primary things will come into play: the capacity of the vest you require, what manner of hydration you desire, how it fits, and then what other features the vest offers. 

Where possible, it’s best to use a vest instead of a larger running backpack, since these are more likely to mess with your center of gravity.

UltrAspire Momentum 2.0 Hydration Pack
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02/05/2023 10:57 am GMT

Fluid Capacity: From 2 to 12 Liters

Overall many vests will show their total capacity in liters or ounces, and thus you must be clear as to how much of that is fluid capacity; the amount of water, or other sources of hydration you wish to carry. Now this will vary from vest to vest. So be sure to find out how much liquid the vest can hold, including the space for containers such as water bottles.  

Sometimes the vests will come kitted out with the bottles and reservoirs, or you may need to purchase those separately. 

Not all vests are designed to house both bottles and a bladder/reservoir; therefore, you may need to choose how you hope to carry the water. The water bottles are typically housed on the front of the vest, while the reservoir will be placed in a sleeve in the back, with a tube feeding the water to the front.

Although a significant factor is personal preference, the differences are worth noting. Bottles are generally easier to refill if need be, especially if you are doing an extensively long run.

On the other hand, reservoirs are more time-consuming to fill but generally offer greater liquid capacity, which could mean that you do not need to stop to refill. 

Alternatively, some vests offer the best of both worlds, and you will be able to use a combination of bottles and the reservoir. This will allow for more flexibility with the type of liquids you store and make a neat coupling, as you may want to fill your bottles with electrolyte mixes while the reservoir is entirely reserved for water.

When deciding on the size of the vest (fluid capacity), below is a rough guide to help you decide what to consider purchasing.

  • Less than an hour: perhaps a belt instead, or a 2-liter vest
  • 1 to 2 hours: a 2 to 5-liter vest
  • 3 to 4 hours: 6 to 10-liter vest
  • 5 hours or more: 10 to 12-liter vest. 
A popular 12L hydration vest for running from NorthFace
A popular 12L hydration vest for running from TheNorthFace

Overall Pack Capacity

Running hydration vests come in various capacities, from about 2 liters to about 12 liters or more. Therefore you must consider how long your runs will be, on average, which will help determine the amount of gear capacity you need.

Additionally, where you are running and the time of day may dictate additional gear you will need to carry, such as extra layers, headlamps, and sunglasses.

For shorter runs, most runners will use something besides a vest, such as a small waist pack, to take water bottles with, along with energy bars or gels. However, you will likely take more with you when the runs become more extensive.

In this case, select a large enough vest to cover all your needs, but be aware that excess space can cause the vest to move around while running.

You might not think that is a dealbreaker, but trust us: it can be a real distraction.

Choosing A Suitable Fit

The fit of the hydration vest is also of paramount importance, so keep this in mind when purchasing yours.

A vest that does not fit correctly may be abrasive and cause chafing; this may not be a problem for short races or runs, but when you are on the go for hours at a time, it may lead to soreness and discomfort

You want to opt for something that hugs your body and fits rather snugly so that the movement of the vest is restricted while you are running. The last thing you want is for it to bounce up and down while you make your way along a trail or a road. 

Therefore you want to avoid getting a too big vest; simultaneously, you don’t want to buy a tight one that restricts your breathing and is uncomfortably snug.

So when you try it on, take a few deep breaths as you might when climbing a hill and see if you experience any impediment.

And yes – we do recommend you try it on. Unless you know exactly what size you are looking for, it’s best to try on a running vest before buying. A trip to a specialist running store can be worth the expense.

Also, pay attention to the specifications provided by the manufacturers in terms of sizing guidelines, as this will aid you in finding the right fit for you. You will find, especially on their online stores, that there will be a list of body measurements; these include ribcage, sternum, and even bust size circumference.

This last one is important for ladies, and there are also vests specifically for women.

Ultimately, the vest you opt for will come down to personal choice, and it is wise to consider trying on and comparing different vests before settling on one. There is also the case of those which feature universal sizing. What is nice about these is that you can manually adjust the size to the shape of your body.

This investment might be worthwhile if you are training to lose weight.

Additional Features Of Running Hydration Vests

One of the vital elements of any good running vest is that you can easily reach all the items you require for your run without the need to stop and remove the pack from your body.

If you run competitively, you know that every moment on the trail is crucial, and you cannot be impeded by a vest that causes you to struggle to reach your water, snacks, and additional equipment.

Firstly, one thing to look for is the number and placement of the pockets. Next up, we highly recommend seeing how breathable your vest is, as you are going to sweat, but you do not want your vest to cause excess water loss. Some other additional features that specific vests possess are reflective features for night/winter running, emergency whistles, and a place to secure trekking poles.

Our Verdict on Hydration Packs For Runners

When selecting a hydration vest, consider what sort of distances you are usually running while also leaving some room for flexibility so that if you want to do longer runs, you will be well equipped. If necessary, you want a vest that can offer additional hydration capacity and a place to store things. 

Also, think about what you can manage; it is pointless to purchase a vest with a larger volume capacity, but once filled, you are uncomfortable and wholly weighed down.

When in doubt about deciding on the right vest for yourself, think about how much time you will spend running on average, how much water and gear you will need to carry, and the type of fit you desire.

Author Profile

Alex Randall

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Alex is the editor at Revel Sports. It was his idea to take our post-club-run chats and build a website out of them. He is responsible for dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s when any of us have something to post. (Basically: it’s all his fault). A ferocious 5K powerhouse on his day, Alex is known for not understanding the meaning of the term ‘negative split‘.
Alex Randall

Revel SPorts Contributor

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