When Ultimate Direction announced the Signature Series line of hydration vests last Fall it created a lot of buzz among trail and ultra runners. Not only did Ultimate Direction already have an almost cult following for their hydration systems but having Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek and Peter Bakwin, three of the most successful, most well-known ultra runners in the world each design a different vest it made this one of the most anticipated product launches in the brief history of trail running.
Another Hydration Vest?
The SJ Ultra Vest is the result of collaboration with Scott Jurek, the world’s most dominant ultra runner. Weighing in at 7.5 ounces (13 with bottles) and offering 9.2 L of storage space, the SJ has the best weight-to-capacity ratio of any hydration pack on the market.
But you can find that information and more on their website. My goal is to not regurgitate Ultimate Direction propaganda but to help you read between the lines and give you the information I found important, the information you can’t read in the Ultimate Direction marketing material.
Thoughts From a “Real” User (me)
During the last week of December (eight weeks ago) my local “What Can Brown Do For You?” guy delivered the SJ Ultra Vest to my door, it was like an extra day of Christmas gifts for me! Since the day it arrived I’ve run with the SJ Ultra Vest more than 40 times on distances ranging from 6 to 20 miles. Based on those runs here are my thoughts and comments:
• The first thing I had to deal with was getting used to the bottles hanging on the front of the vest. I’ve written in the past how important it is for me to hydrate from a bottle so I can measure my intake, but I’ve always used handhelds to carry those bottles. To be honest with you the first time I ran with the bottles on the front of the SJ Ultra Vest I almost turned around and took it back to the house. How do women do this? These jugs hanging off my chest are not only irritating as hell they made me self-conscious. Every guy I met on the trail stared at my chest as they went by, “hello! my eyes are up here a**hole”. But I stuck with it and after a few runs I not only got used to it but now I don’t want to carry my bottles any other way.
• Running hands free is a whole new feeling for me, a feeling I like…except when I fall. In the past my handhelds acted as “hand bumpers” to help protect them when I tripped on the trail. Now my hands go from looking like hamburger to healing on the outside but still feeling like I have permanent deep bruises on the inside. Is this the fault of my hydration vest? Not likely. But it is something I hadn’t considered when I made the commitment to thoroughly test the SJ Ultra Vest.
• As shown in the video below the SJ Ultra Vest has more than enough pockets and storage space to carry whatever I need for any distance. I say that because my typical unsupported runs are almost always under 35 miles. Anything longer than that would be supported and gels, electrolyte capsules, more hydration etc. can be replenished and carried up front or on the side where they’re accessible on the run. The “secure lat” pocket on the side isn’t easy to access but I’ve found it’s a great place to carry a sandwich bag containing Tums, S!Caps, caffeine tablets, Ginger Chews, etc. While running I can then pull out the entire bag and sort it in front of me instead of putting items in that area that need to be sorted in the pocket so as not to pull out the wrong item. It would also be a good pocket to carry items you never pull out like your car keys or a Milli Vanilli cassette tape for your Walkman.
• Cutting weight counts! I’ve read comments on forums from runners saying weight doesn’t matter when it comes to hydration vests. Really? How many of these same runners would wear a trail shoe that weighs 13 ounces versus 9 or 10 ounces? How many of these same runners try to cut 5 pounds of body weight for their next race? When I can wear the SJ Ultra Vest AND strap an ultra light wind/rain jacket to the Bungee Compression strap and still have it weigh less than the leading competitors packs it’s a big deal to me. Of course weight matters!
• The SJ Ultra Vest does not come with a bladder, but both bladders from my old packs by Camelbak and Nathan fit in the back storage compartment and of course you can spend the extra money to purchase a 70 oz Reservoir (I might be wrong but I don’t believe a 100 oz Reservoir will fit) directly from Ultimate Direction. Ultimate Direction has included a Velcro hook at the top of the largest storage compartment to hold a bladder upright during your run and there are hose outlets (fancy word for holes) at the top and sides of the compartment.
• I carry my Samsung Galaxy smartphone in the mesh pocket on the front of the SJ Ultra Vest. The Samsung Galaxy is on the large size so I’d feel comfortable saying just about any smartphone will fit in the front mesh pockets except the Samsung Note 2 phablet. For the Samsung Galaxy it’s a snug fit which is nice so I don’t have to worry about it falling out on even the roughest trail. Of course the mesh pocket has a Velcro fastener but I never trust Velcro to do what it’s designed to do.
*Useful tip when it comes to carrying your phone. I always put my smartphone in a plastic sandwich bag when I carry it on a run, not only does it protect it from sweat (yes, I’m a heavy sweater, thanks for asking) but it protects your phone during those unexpected rain showers when you’re still 10 miles from your home or car.
• I think the picture on the Ultimate Direction website of the SJ Ultra Vest is deceiving. This picture makes the vest look really big, too big for my needs. In reality the SJ Ultra Vest is a perfect ratio of weight versus storage capacity. For most of my training runs I don’t put anything in the storage compartments (toilet paper for the trail doesn’t take up any space or weigh anything so that doesn’t count). The Bungee Compression strap holds the storage compartment flat and snug, at 7.5 oz. it’s still one of lightest hydration vests on the market next to it’s little brother, the AK Race Vest.
• The SJ Ultra Vest comes in three sizes. The SJ Ultra Vest I’m wearing is a size large, I’m 6’ tall, 168 lbs. and chest measuring 40 1/2”, I think a medium might be a better option for me. I have the SJ Ultra Vest adjustable chest strap as tight as it will go and I would prefer it to be even tighter. One caution though would be how a medium fits under my arms in the lat muscle area. I wouldn’t want the bottom of the arm hole to ride any higher than it currently does. I would highly recommend that you try the SJ Ultra Vest on for size before purchasing at your local running specialty store.
The SJ Ultra Vest from Different Angles
If you haven’t run with water bottles on your chest before it will take a few runs to get used to the feeling, but once I got past the initial few runs the SJ Ultra Vest became my hydration system of choice. I’m planning on using it in my upcoming R2R2R Grand Canyon crossing in May with an extra bladder in the storage compartment to get me through the canyon floor where temperatures could easily push 100° on the return to the South Rim.
Stay tuned for my next review on the SJ Ultra Vest, I’m asked frequently by other runners how it compares to other vests so I’ll do a side by side comparison and post it in the very near future. In the mean time here’s the video by Scott Jurek explaining the features of the SJ Ultra Vest.