When running ultra marathon distances, running packs or hydration vests are almost essential. Packs and vests allow runners to plan out nutrition strategies and stay safe in unpredictable mountain environments. They also store useful gear, such as a rain jacket, hat, and gloves, and nutrition in the form of energy bars or gels, and hydration.
Finding the right vest is not always easy as there are many different styles and sizes to choose from. Companies such as Nike, Salomon, Ultimate Direction, RaidLight, Orange Mud, Osprey, Nathan, and CamelBak all have signature hydration vests. Some vests have water bladders, others come with soft flasks, or hard bottles. Listed below are my top three tips to consider when choosing vests and some helpful advice on how to properly put on your vest and what to pack inside.
Choosing a hydration vest
My top three factors for choosing a vest are proper fit, accessibility and race or training requirements.
Firstly, vests should fit snugly, but not too tight, in order to keep the vest and its contents from jostling around while running. Vests worn too loose can cause unwanted chafing and bounce uncomfortably especially during downhills. Look for vests with flexible materials around the waist and shoulders and make sure the material is comfortable on your skin. Most packs come in small, medium, large and extra large, and women-specific running vests are now available from most every brand in the industry.
The items you put in your vest should be easily accessible while running. Pouches on both the front and back should be easy to reach when you put the vest on. On the front, I prefer having a small zipped pouch with a key ring for my keys, another small zipped pouch to secure fragile items such as electrolyte tablets, and two larger open pouches for energy blocks, GUs and energy bars.
Zach Miller (video above) shows how to execute the perfect vest swap at the 2018 Trail World Championships.
Knowing your race requirements is essential for choosing a hydration vest. Longer races, such as hundred milers, and many European ultra distance trail races, have mandatory gear requirements such as taped-seam rain jacket, survival blanket, whistle, headlamp, minimum amount of water, running cap, cellphone, map, or waterproof gloves. The 171 km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) for example is known for having very extensive mandatory gear requirements. If you’re going to compete is one of these races, be sure to get a vest with enough capacity to carry all the required luggage!
Larger capacity vests are preferred for races with long lists of mandatory gear. Smaller capacity vests can be used for shorter trail races or American ultras with more frequent aid stations and where mandatory gear requirements are minimal.
Wearing your vest
I fill my vest the night before racing, then put it on to adjust its tightness. The vest fits differently when it’s full of your items so it’s good to know how the vest feels before the morning of your race. If foods feel bulky I can usually find comfortable spots for them in larger pouches. If an item’s packaging makes it difficult to stuff into a vest pocket, I’ll remove the packaging and put the item in small ziplocks instead.
I prefer vests with multiple buckle straps in the front. These vests are better for customizing tightness to fit different body types. I’ll clip the buckles and If the vest becomes too tight, I simply un-click one buckle at a time until I find the right fit.
Tips for packing your vest
I pack my hydration items first, which are even more essential than foods during long runs. Being too low on food might make you bonk and feel dizzy, but these symptoms are quickly remedied by eating just about any foods offered at aid stations. On the other hand, getting seriously dehydrated is much harder to fix during the course of a run and can lead to very serious health consequences such as heat stroke, low blood volume, or a seizure.
For my hydration, I pack electrolyte tablets, Electrobytes, multivitamin drink powders and electrolyte drink powders. I like tablets and powders that dissolve in water, so I never have to worry if aid stations don’t provide electrolytes.
For my food items, I usually pack at least two bars (depending on the distance) and several gels. In races up to 6 hours, I find which foods I bring are not too important. I can handle eating just about anything at aid stations, and I’ve tested my limits without food during long training runs. I’ve discovered I probably don’t have to worry about bonking in a race under 6 hours. I suggest getting to know how your own body responds to certain foods while running and notice when you begin bonking, so you can prepare accordingly. That being said, it’s always smart to have a few bars and gels on hand just in case.
Lastly, I make sure to pack a small ziplock bag for my wrappers during the race. If I eat bars or gels between aid stations I never have to worry about where I put my trash because I can keep it in my ziplock and dispose of it properly after the race. I keep the ziplock in the most accessible pouch on the front of my vest.
Post-race vest cleaning
Following a race, or training run, it is best to rinse your hydration bladder with mouthwash, or some type of cleaning solution so that the bacteria are removed. Similarly, if you have water bottles, or flasks, wash these. Periodically, wash your vest, but hang to dry.