I still remember it like it was yesterday: sitting in front of my computer screen with multiple browser tabs open, feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed at the dozens of options in front of my face. What was I doing, you might be wondering? Teaching myself quantum physics? Trying to decipher the meaning of life?
Nope. Just trying to purchase my first hydration vest for running.
At the time, I was an experienced road runner with six years and dozens of races under my belt. I had been completely content running loops around my cookie cutter neighborhood with nothing more than a handheld water bottle. I could easily circle back to my house and refill when needed.
But then I discovered trail running. And I started summiting mountains. I realized that a 5 mile run might now take me upwards of multiple hours, especially when you add in a few thousand feet of vertical gain and some gnarly, technical New England trails. I needed to be self sufficient, with plenty of water, nutrition, and other gear to help me get through a few hours alone in the woods.
I needed to buy a hydration vest.
The seemingly endless options available for purchase felt overwhelming. I had no idea what I was looking at, and didn’t even know if I’d like running with a vest. In the end, it took me about 6 months and 3 misses before finding a hydration vest that worked for me. Point being, if you’ve arrived to this blog post feeling equally as overwhelmed at the prospect of buying a hydration vest, let me assure you: you aren’t alone.
Running Hydration Vests: How to Choose the Right One for You.
Hopefully, the tips provided in this post will help you understand all of the ins and outs of running hydration vests, and ultimately, help you choose the right hydration vest for you. Here’s what you need to look for:
Running Specific Vests
Not all hydration vests are created for the same sports. I’ve seen hydration packs and vest designed specifically for mountain biking, dirt biking, hiking, kayaking, and even snowboarding. While some of these vests or packs may work for running, you’re likely going to have better luck with a vest designed specifically for runners.
Hydration vests designed for running will typically be made with lighter weight materials, to wick sweat and keep body temperature down. Running specific vests will be less bulky and smaller, to help keep the weight down. Lastly, they will have straps designed to specifically help minimize bouncing and movement of the pack when you are running.
Bladder, Bottles, or Both?
First, decide if you want a hydration vest that carries a bladder, bottles (often called soft flasks), or both. There are pros and cons to each liquid carrying option:
A hydration bladder is typically a soft plastic reservoir of water that fits into your hydration vest/pack, and is attached to a long hose with a mouth piece, that allows you to sip from the bladder (like a straw).
Bladder Pro: You can carry a significantly larger quantity of water with a hydration bladder. Most bladders are between 1.5-2 liters. This will ensure you can cover more distance before having to stop and refill.
For some, bladders are significantly more user friendly, with a convenient straw that does not take a lot of effort to sip from.
Bladder Con: With a bladder, it’s often much harder to determine your drinking rate. For example, if you are using a sports nutrition drink, such as Tailwind, you’ll typically have a specific number of ounces are aiming to drink per hour. With a bottle, you can visually see how much you are drinking. With a bladder, this becomes much more difficult.
When it does come time to refill your bladder mid race or training run, it takes a lot more effort (physically and logistically)than refilling a bottle.
Lastly, bladders are relatively more difficult to clean than bottles.
Bottles or Soft Flasks
Some packs, like the HydraQuiver from Orange Mud, are designed to hold traditional sports water bottles. Other packs have softer flasks, similar to the pliable inner liner of baby bottles, that are designed to fit in front pockets of hydration vests.
Bottle Pros: Lighter, easier to use for some. As mentioned above, if you are using a liquid calorie supplement, it’s easier to track your consumption rate. Bottles are easier to refill at aid stations, and give you the option to carry multiple different types of drinks.
Bottle Cons: Bottles are going to carry a lot less water/fluid than a bladder. Further, some people may find it difficult to constantly remove and replace the bottle from your hydration pack every time you want to take a drink.
As you can see, there are significant pros and cons to both options. The good news? You don’t necessarily have to choose one over the other. While some hydration vests are sold with ONLY a bladder or ONLY bottles/flasks, many are compatible with both, leaving you the option to buy aftermarket bladders or bottles. Personally, I run with a hydration vest that carries a bladder, and will ALSO run with soft flasks in the front pouches if I need them.
A common misconception is that the volume of your hydration vest refers to how much water it can hold. Instead, the volume refers to the total volume the entire pack as a whole can hold -wet and dry. In other words: how much stuff (jackets, food, extra socks, a phone, etc. AND the hydration bladder.) can you stuff into your pack?
When deciding on what volume you need in a pack, think about how you will be using your pack for the majority of your long runs and races. There is no sense in having a bulkier pack that is designed for multi day adventures if you never plan on running more than a 50K. Alternatively, if you foresee yourself doing more unsupported or longer distance events, or events that have a long list of required gear, then you’ll be glad you opted for a pack with a greater volume.
Features, Bells, and Whistles
What features do you need in your hydration vest? Do you carry a larger cell phone, and need a pocket that can accommodate it? Do you regularly run with trekking poles, and need a vest that has trekking pole attachments? Is having the ability to reach most of your vests pockets without taking the vest off important to you?
Some hydration vests tout a ton of bells and whistles (literally, many of them come armed with a safety whistle), pockets and zippers, while others are very basic and streamlined. Find the features and accessories that work for you.
It’s no secret that men and women have different shaped bodies. For a long time, many hydration vests were designed to be unisex -which if we are being 100% honest, meant they were designed to fit a male body. This led to a lot of frustration in women who were finding the vests to either be too broad in the shoulders, or too narrow in the chest, among other fit issues.
Fortunately, over the last few years more and more hydration vest manufacturers have started making gender specific hydration vests. Further, more and more vests are now available with a wide variety of sizing options within those gender specific models.
Now, all of that said: do not feel you HAVE to go with gender specific sizing. I know plenty of women who find the men’s fit more comfortable. I know plenty of men who have found success with the smaller profile of a women’s vest. It all boils down to finding what fits.
Sizing & Fit
Now that you’ve narrowed it down to a specific style or even model of hydration vest, you’ve got to find the correct fit. This is where shopping for a hydration vest online can get a little tricky. In a perfect world, we would all have a local outdoor or run specialty shop that carried a wide variety of hydration vests for us to try on in person. In reality, many of us do not have those stores nearby. Or if we do, the selection may be limited. So often, we have to resort to shopping online.
If you’re able to try a vest on, what you are looking for is a fit that is not too snug when the pack is chock full of gear and/or a full bladder, but also not too loose when the vest is nearly empty. You’ll want to make sure there is no gaping between the straps and your shoulders, as that will encourage bouncing. Ladies, you want to make sure that any torso/chest traps are adjustable so you can customize the fit above or below your chest.
When I worked in a running store, I would actually stuff a hydration vest full of random nearby items, to mimic a full pack, and then ask the customer to run around the shop to see if there was any bouncing or discomfort from the pack. So if you can, find a store that will let you do that.
If you need to purchase your hydration vest online, definitely do a bit of research. Once you’ve narrowed your choice down to brand/style of hydration pack, search for first person reviews that describe fit, and determine if the online sizing is true to size, or perhaps runs big or small.
Ultimately, I believe hydration vests are very similar to running shoes, in the sense that what works for one person might not work for another. Definitely reach out to other runners to ask for recommedations, but at the end of the day, you need to find what works for you. Do not be afraid to try on multiple hydration vests before making a purchase.