By Michael Lanza
Some ideas are so obviously better than everything that came before that the new thing just takes off: Many serious runners now recognize that the smartest way to carry water on a run—plus clothing layers and food on longer trail runs—is in a lightweight, streamlined, torso-hugging hydration vest. This review spotlights the best vests for trail running—how they differ in fit, comfort, capacity, and details—and offers expert advice on choosing the right one for your runs and dayhikes.
For this review, I chose hydration vests that feature the comfort and fluid and cargo capacity for ultra-trail runs—such as running the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim in a day, an arduous 42 miles and over 22,000 cumulative vertical feet, on which I tested one of these vests (see this photo gallery)—but that also remain reasonably light and compact enough for relatively short runs.
My picks for the best vests and my buying tips are based on personally testing all of them on numerous long trail runs and my experience as a trail runner and a gear reviewer for over 25 years, including many years running this blog and previously the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine.
As with many runners, most of my trail runs are close to home and under two hours—but I also take runs of 15 to 20 miles or more. Thus, I like vests with the versatility for runs of 90 minutes that also have the comfort and capacity for several hours. Those models also cross over well to long dayhikes when I’m trying to move quickly in the backcountry and want easy access to what I need without having to stop frequently.
I think this review will help you find a running vest that’s perfect for you—plus you’ll find the best prices at links in this review. Purchasing through those affiliate links supports my blog at no cost to you. Thanks for doing that.
To go directly to the vest reviews, scroll past the buying tips.
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Before buying, consider how you will use your hydration vest. How long are your runs and how much water and other stuff will you carry? Do you typically run in reliably warm and dry weather or any weather—and close to civilization or in remote mountains and canyons?
The answers to those questions should dictate the type of running vest you purchase, and vests break down generally into a couple of categories according to fluid and cargo capacity:
• Under 10L cargo and two liters fluid capacity—best for runs of two to three hours or less unless you have options for refilling water.
• 10L or more cargo capacity and over two liters fluid capacity, various pockets, and secure poles attachment—best for multi-hour trail runs and ultras, especially on remote trails with significant elevation gain and loss and possibly variable weather.
Consider these details when choosing a running vest:
- As with any type of pack, fit is critical to comfort, especially the more weight you put inside the vest and the more time you spend running. A poor fit can result in chaffing and the vest shifting uncomfortably.
- Vests usually come in multiple sizes based on chest size and sometimes on gender.
- Running hydration vests achieve their comfort not through having a frame and padding, like many hiking daypacks, but through a close fit that hugs the upper torso and positions most of the vest’s weight—largely water and food—in the middle of your back, close to your spine.
- Vests designed for longer outings generally carry eight to 12 pounds of total weight comfortably. But that can vary among individuals and depends on the fit.
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- For runs of two to three hours or less, you may not need more than two liters of water capacity.
- For multi-hour outings, you may want three liters or more, depending on how often you can refill water and whether it’s a backcountry water source that requires treating.
- Fluid capacity may be split between one or two hard-sided or soft/flexible bottles in front pocket(s) and a bladder of anywhere from 1.5 to three liters.
- Soft bottles can be difficult to stuff back into a pocket while running, but are convenient for an electrolyte drink and easier to clean than a bladder.
- A bladder provides on-the-go drinking convenience, but more than two liters on your back can bounce more while running.
- Splitting the water weight between roughly one-third in front and two-thirds on your back helps balance the load more comfortably.
- For relatively short runs, carrying up to about two liters of fluid, an ultralight shell, and a few energy snacks, a cargo capacity of five to seven liters is plenty.
- Multi-hour outings, especially far from civilization, usually demand 10 liters or more of cargo capacity for layers, food, and other incidentals like a map, emergency blanket, basic first aid, and a method for treating backcountry water.
- Features like a variety of pockets within reach and a secure method for attaching poles are often desirable.
- One great advantage of vests is having multiple pockets within reach to quickly grab bars or gels, a water bottle, smartphone, map, etc. Look closely at how a vest’s pockets are organized and what you want to have within reach while moving.
- The back side of vests—accessed by taking it off—typically has a zippered or roll-top main compartment and often stretch-mesh external pockets for layers.
- Some vests have secure attachments for running-trekking poles—most useful for long outings where the terrain varies from steep to gentle.
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- Highly breathable mesh is generally used where the vest wraps around your torso.
- Exterior pockets are commonly made of stretch-mesh or a water-resistant nylon (for electronics).
- The main compartment on the back is usually made from a lightweight but more-durable, sometimes water-resistant nylon.
The reviews below are arranged in ascending order by weight (completely empty). Please share your own experience with and questions about any of these packs in the comments section below the reviews. I try to respond to all comments.
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The Best Running Hydration Vests
Nathan VaporAir and VaporAiress 2.0 7L
$150, 7L/427 c.i., 14 oz. with the included two-liter bladder; 9.5 oz. without (unisex XS-M)
Sizes: unisex XS-M and L-XXL, women’s XXS-M and L-XXL
Light, comfortable, and stable, the unisex VaporAir and women’s-specific VaporAiress are a good choice for runners usually out for up to three hours and adequate for longer runs, with opportunities to refill water and mostly good weather.
Fit and Comfort
• The VaporAir proved mostly stable running uphill and downhill on trail runs of 10 to 20 miles and up to 4,500 vertical feet in the hills and mountains of Idaho—and a one-day, 42-mile, 22,000-vertical-foot, rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the Grand Canyon and back.
• It bounces some when fully loaded with water and a pair of ultralight, folding trekking poles (Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ) attached to the outside, and stabilizes more once several ounces of water have been consumed.
• Adjustment straps inside the two moisture-resistant, large zippered pockets at the bottom of the shoulder straps let you snug the fit nicely around your ribs.
• The body-mapped breathable material helped keep me cool in temps from 60-80° F and hot sunshine.
Water Access and Capacity
• It comes with a two-liter bladder with a magnetized attachment to a shoulder strap to prevent it bouncing, plus two adjustable bottle pockets that each holds a 0.65L/22-oz. Tru-Flex bottle or smaller flask.
• The water capacity was enough for a 42-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim day in the Grand Canyon because of the ability to refill roughly every seven miles, but it didn’t hold enough water for the 4.5 hours I spent on a 20-mile run-hike with no means of refilling.
Cargo Access and Capacity
• The seven liters of cargo capacity include a zippered, stretchy back pocket with space for two or three light layers and a separate, two-section, external stuff pocket with the same capacity for separating wet layers.
• That capacity shrinks to five liters when the two-liter bladder is completely full—fine for outings where you only need one or two extra layers.
• Easily accessible pockets on the shoulder straps include six stretch front stash pockets (two zippered) that fit several gels or a standard smartphone, plus two more, moisture-resistant, larger zippered pockets at the bottom of the shoulder straps for valuables and electronics or food trash.
• Four trekking pole attachments (yellow loops with cordlocks, two on each side) offer multiple configurations to keep poles from bouncing.
• A horizontal, stretch-mesh lower-back pocket is big enough for a wet layer.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a unisex Nathan VaporAir 2.0 7L at backcountry.com or roadrunnersports.com, or a women’s VaporAiress 2.0 7L at backcountry.com or roadrunnersports.com.
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Salomon ADV Skin 12
$160, 12L/732 c.i., 14 oz. with the included two soft bottles and emergency blanket, 10 oz. without (unisex XS/S)
Sizes: unisex XS-XL
For runs from under two hours to ultras, the ADV Skin 12 is quite comfortable and stable and has excellent capacity and breathability.
Fit and Comfort
• On trail runs of up to 15 miles and 4,000 vertical feet in local foothills—including a couple of laps up and down one peak on a trail that ascends nearly 2,000 vertical feet in just over two miles—the ADV Skin 12 delivered exceptional comfort and stability both uphill and downhill.
• The unique, no-buckles sternum straps can be adjusted between eight positions on each shoulder strap and the vest wraps skin-tight around your chest and upper back, keeping the load well balanced.
• The highly breathable, fast-drying, stretch-mesh fabric kept me relatively comfortable even on a 12-mile, nearly 4,000-vertical-foot run with little shade when the temp reached over 80° F by the end.
• Straps with a cordlock behind each shoulder compress the pack when underfilled, but the vest fits and carries so well that I hardly used them.
Water Access and Capacity
• The vest comes with two soft 0.5-liter/17 oz. flasks that slip securely inside stretch pockets within easy reach on the front of the harness, with a tiny bungee cord fitting over the cap to secure each bottle. The bottles can be a little difficult to slip into those pockets when full, but easier once you’ve consumed some water. However, they’re positioned high enough that you can tilt your head forward to sip without removing them from the pocket.
• The ADV Skin 12 does not come with a bladder. Salomon says it’s compatible with a 1.5-liter bladder but I inserted a full, two-liter Hydrapak bladder inside, which it carried well—giving the vest three liters/100 oz. of liquid capacity.
Cargo Access and Capacity
• The vest’s 12 liters of cargo capacity provides space for long and ultra runs.
• In addition to the two front bottle pockets, eight other pockets (four each front and back) include three spacious, stretch-mesh stuff pockets: one large kangaroo pocket in back that can hold a wet layer (and potentially dry it out) and two in front with space for multiple bars and gels within easy reach.
• The zippered compartment on the back can hold an ultralight shell and two more light layers or small accessories like sleeves and a cap.
• Two zippered pockets in back are each larger than a standard smartphone but getting into them while wearing the vest requires some arm contortions—meaning there’s no zippered pocket for a smartphone within easy reach.
• Two smaller pockets on the upper shoulder straps (one zippered, one with a flap cover) hold items like a car key.
• One complaint: There’s no good way to attach folding trekking poles, beyond stuffing them into either the bladder sleeve—not great when the bladder is filled—or the stretch pocket on the back and securing them in an adjustable loop behind the right shoulder. Neither setup prevents poles from bouncing.
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Ultimate Direction FKT Vest
$130, 18L/1,098 c.i., 14 oz. with the included 600ml bottle, 11.5 oz. without (unisex SM/M)
Sizes: unisex SM/MD and MD/LG
For long runs and all-day hikes in any weather, the FKT Vest has good stability and comfort, a spacious, water-resistant main compartment, and exceptional water capacity.
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Fit and Comfort
• On trail runs of up to 16 miles and 3,000 vertical feet in local foothills, filled with three liters of water plus snacks and a couple of extra layers, the FKT Vest demonstrated impressive stability both uphill and downhill, hardly jouncing.
• The unique T-hook fit system adjusts between 10 positions for the sternum straps and provides a broad fit range for torso circumference at the bottom of each shoulder strap.
Water Access and Capacity
• The included 600ml bottle slides into a dedicated, stretch-mesh pocket on the right shoulder strap. Squeezable but not collapsible, it’s easier to drink from than a collapsible bottle and convenient for an electrolyte drink that you don’t want to put inside your harder-to-clean bladder (where it may cause bacteria buildup).
• The bottle’s bite valve confused me at first—and according to Ultimate Direction, it has confused a number of users (they’ve posted a video explaining it here.) But it’s simple. The push-pull valve pops in with a click to lock and pops out to unlock and drink.
• The FKT does not come with a bladder, but I fit a three-liter Hydrapak bladder in it.
Cargo Access and Capacity
• The 18 liters of capacity—the largest in this review and probably larger than many users need—provides abundant storage for multi-hour runs, although fewer pockets than others.
• The large, zippered, gusseted pocket on the left shoulder strap easily fits and protects a standard smartphone with space to spare. Two smaller, removable, zippered pockets on the shoulder straps hold smaller items like a map, GPS, and car key.
• Two stretch-mesh pockets on the front hold one or two bars each—not a lot—and a capacious one on the back can fit a full-on rain jacket. A zippered pocket on the back holds maps and small items but isn’t big enough for a standard smartphone.
• On a trail run in late March, with the temp in the mid-40s, I was four miles from home when rain began falling. But the main compartment—made of highly breathable, strong MonoRip mesh, 100-denier triple ripstop, water-resistant four-way stretch woven mesh, with an expandable, roll-top closure—kept everything inside, including my phone, dry.
• It also features an elasticized cord for compressing a small load or attaching a wet layer, extra gear, even ice axes (there are two axe loops). Plus, there’s a whistle on the upper sternum strap.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase an Ultimate Direction FKT Vest at moosejaw.com.
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Black Diamond Distance 15
$150, 15L/915 c.i., 14.5 oz. (unisex medium)
Sizes: unisex XS-L
For moving efficiently through mountains on and off-trail, whether running, scrambling, climbing, or some combination of those activities, nothing beats the Distance 15 for versatility and durability combined with good capacity, stability, and comfort.
Fit and Comfort
• Combining a running vest-style suspension with features designed for users who to move with speed and efficiency when running and heading off the trail climbing cliffs and mountains, the Distance 15 is built for a greater variety of mountain adventures than typical running vests.
• On hikes of up to 10 miles and a steep 3,600 vertical feet from my local foothills to Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as well as spring backcountry ski tours, carrying three liters of water plus extra layers and food, the Distance 15 never shifted, even when skiing downhill.
• The perforated-mesh shoulder straps—closing with dual sternum straps—and breathable back panel release sweat very effectively.
• The shoulder straps smartly connect at the pack’s bottom using an adjustable, elastic-cording compression system to dial in a comfortable, torso-hugging fit, which combined with the Z-style side compression on the pack body, creates excellent stability for running, scrambling and climbing.
Water Access and Capacity
• The Distance 15 does not come with bottles or a bladder, but two stretch-mesh shoulder-strap pockets each hold a 500ml bottle like the BD Hydrapak SoftFlasks and the internal stretch sleeve holds a three-liter bladder or allows you to separate layers or other cargo.
Cargo Access and Capacity
• A stretch-mesh pocket on each shoulder strap holds multiple gels and bars, though that volume fluctuates with the water bottles in the stretch-mesh pockets behind these.
• A zippered pocket on each strap fits electronics and other small items.
• A stuff-style “slash” pocket on the pack’s top between the shell fabric and the main compartment’s drawcord closure allows tucking away excess skirt cord when cinching the main compartment closed—but also fits an ultralight shell for quick access (but make sure the strap securing that shell flap is tightened to avoid losing that shell).
• Inside, there’s one zippered pocket for valuables, the bladder sleeve, and plenty of space for food, layers, and gear for a long day in the mountains—with capacity affected by the bladder’s water volume.
• The water-resistant, 210-denier nylon with Dynex Ripstop material is far and away the toughest among these running vests, intended for adventures that are harder on packs than a simple trail run. BD bills it as “10 times stronger than steel per weight, while remaining so light it floats in water.”
• Externally, the minimalist design otherwise provides just the side compression for attaching anything plus very durable sleeves for inserting the sharp points of a single ice axe or a pair of ice tools (while securing them in the side compression)—although the pack’s 15-liter capacity doesn’t really suit it to ice or mixed climbing, except for short, fast, very lean outings or perhaps as a lead climber’s pack while the second carries a larger pack.
• Lacking a frame, the Distance 15 rolls up to dimensions slightly larger than a fat backpacking air mattress, easily fitting inside a larger backpack.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.
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