Mychal McCormick - trail running - Indian Creek, Utah
The Best Running Hydration Packs
Running hydration packs are lightweight and compact backpacks or vests designed for long distance running, adventure racing, and other long-lasting, high-impact aerobic activities. Typically under 10 liters in total carrying capacity, they focus on having quick access to water, nutrition, a phone, and a protective layer. Most are optimized for a hydration bladder, but some – usually vests – are tailored to soft flasks. All are engineered to bounce and shift as little as possible when strapped on. This is key for comfort when running on trails and moving over rough ground.
Our latest test looked at hydration packs that were new in 2017. Half a dozen testers used these packs for six months in obstacle races, mountain biking, hiking, speed climbing, and for training runs of all distances over all kinds of terrain (paved roads to off-trail route finding). Every pack was tested in a variety of situations and by different shaped runners.
The packs in this set span the spectrum from traditional backpacks to almost clothing-like. As a general trend, running hydration packs in the sub-10 liters range are looking less and less like a backpack and more and more like a vest with pockets. This is part of a quest to make them more stationary while running. However, within the range of packs in this review are ones that will appeal to just about any interest and need.
Besides a few minor beefs with the hydration bladder we have trouble coming up with any negatives when it comes to the Gregory Tempo 5 hydration pack. The design is simple and streamlined, but feature rich and carries on par with the best in this test. It's a solid running pack that can do far more than just go for a jog.
On rugged runs the Osprey Duro 6 disappeared on the back, fading into the background so we never noticed it. Many pockets were placed and sized well and it has the best included hydration setup. Our only complaint is the small retention straps on the back, which need constant attention. Get them out of the way of the main pocket and we wouldn’t have a complaint. This is a great pack for just about any running hydration purpose.
The Montane Jaws 10 is a versatile hydration running pack that rode smooth and comfortable in rough terrain and moonlighted on the mountain bike or hiking trail without issue. An organizer’s dream, the eight pockets make it easy to find a place for everything.
The Klymit Dash 10 boasts an inflatable back frame technology to create a comfortable pack that can handle a heavy load. This is a multisport champ with enough capacity for commuting and light hikes. It’s not a good option for protecting against precipitation.
Ultra runner Scott Jurek helped redesign this pack during his 43-day run on the Appalachian Trail. The new design is built with softer, stretchier fabrics that breathe better, and feel like silk. Straps allow stowing trekking poles while still on the move. With their third iteration of this pack UD has found a brilliant middle ground between comfort and function. A stiff competitor to the Salomon S/LAB Sense Ultra 5, this is a fantastic hydration pack that just keeps getting better.
If all you want to do is run, then the Salomon S/LAB Sense Ultra 5 Set is a good choice. This is more a piece of clothing than backpack. It fits and wears like a vest, but is full of pockets for storing everything you’d need in an ultra or epic event. It comes with two soft flasks that sit at just the right height and it is ready for a bladder. When it comes to stability while running, only the similar Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 could keep up. For a pure running hydration pack it’s hard to beat.
Nathan ditched a ton of weight—Nathan says 50 percent—over the Vapor Air's brother the VaporCloud, without hacking away on features or durability. It is the most expensive pack in the review. The pack boasts an impressive amount of storage, well thought out features, and it carries really comfortably thanks to being exceptionally light.
Don't let the tubby look of Osprey’s Rev 6 fool you. This hydration pack is a slick, minimalist running pack with a lot going for it. Osprey's proprietary bladder is one of the best in the industry. The fit is top of the line and sloshing was non-existent, even when leaping down a boulder field. The only thing holding it back are a couple of irritations on the front of the pack, namely poor pocket design. Look past these small problems and it's a solid performer for a variety of uses.
The one thing that stood out from this year’s testing of sub-10 liter hydration packs is how diverse the offering is. As brands hunt for the best way to carry water comfortably while trotting and galloping through mountains and forest, they continue to experiment with pack design and water positioning. The results range from the Klymit Dash 10, a pretty traditional looking pack with innovative support structure, to the Salomon S/LAB Sense Ultra Set 5, basically a lightweight vest that can carry water and snacks.
This was our first chance to really try flasks as an alternative to bladders and we were pleasantly surprised by how easy they are to use and how calmly they sat tucked into a pocket on our chest. There’s no sloshing, they suck up to nothing as they empty and are much easier and faster to refill compared to a bladder. If you haven’t tried a soft flask yet, go get one and give it a go.
I think that may be the most important lesson from this year’s test: don’t jump to conclusions. I was skeptical of the flasks and avoided using them for my tried and trusted bladder. But after giving them a go once, I started choosing the flask over the bladder. Similarly, on first sight I wasn’t stoked about the Klymit Dash 10. It looked a bit rudimentary, unfinished. But once I had it on my back I found it worked great and had a lot of solid attributes.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and stick with what we know, versus trying something new. After testing this year’s round of hydration packs I’m reminded that change is good. Brands go in new directions for a reason, and it’s often worth trying.
If you’re running far enough to need a hydration pack almost any little flaw – a badly placed stitch or ill fitting feature – will quite literally leave a mark. Comfort is king for every millimeter where a hydration pack comes in contact with your body. So for this category no rating is more important. The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 and Salomon S/LAB Sense Ultra 5 Set tied for tops in this area. These packs are essentially pieces of clothing with lots of pockets. They both put a huge emphasis on comfort and our testers didn’t mind wearing them up against bare skin. The least refined is the Klymit Dash 10. It was still comfortable to wear, but in this class of high performers it fell towards the rear.
Stability in Motion
The most comfortable pack in the world could be the worst to actually use if the water and pack contents bounce around constantly. All packs in this category are engineered to hold their contents snugly – either with elastic and static straps or by using stretchy panels of fabric. Again the two vest packs – from Ultimate Direction and Salomon – scored tops by using stretchy fabric to create a constant hug for everything in the pack and a snug fit to hold it all against the body. The Osprey Duro 6’s proprietary bladder was the best for preventing water sloshing. Two dividers kept the water movement to a minimum. The Klymit scored the lowest in stability. With a wide-open, top-load style pack, there was no way of cinching the contents closer to the back and so they tended to bounce around.
The purpose of these packs is to keep water close at hand. This category considers how the water is stored and how easy it is to access. The Klymit and Osprey packs come with hydration bladders, while the other three packs came with two soft flasks. All were expandable – the ones with flasks had room for a bladder and the ones with bladders had room for flasks. Osprey’s proprietary bladder was the best system to use. A joint valve in the hose made it easy to fill the bladder without taking the whole system out of the pack. Stiff plastic at the mouth makes filling up a breeze. The lid locks securely in place and the magnetized bite valve snaps onto the sternum strap so it is always handy.
Mostly these packs are for carrying the bare essentials: water, nutrition, extra clothing and maybe a first aid kit, and some form of communication. Each of the packs take a different attitude and tactic for storing what you need to bring. That made scoring in this category tricky, so we went for an overall feel for how easy it was to haul gear, how much gear we could cram in, and how easy everything was to access on the trail. The Klymit Dash 10 is the largest pack, with a huge main pocket and a couple smaller ones, but also required taking the pack off to get to most of the pockets. The smallest packs are the Salomon and Ultimate Direction. It’s hard to see how they figure there is 5- and 3 liters of space in these bags respectively. Still the Salomon does the best job of keeping storage organized, with all 10 pockets accessible without removing the pack.
We are active in lots of sports, and we like it when our gear can be, too. In this rating category we consider how friendly the packs are to uses outside of running. The Klymit’s larger capacity and more traditional pack design allowed us to use it in just about any activity. The Osprey and Montane packs crossed over effortlessly into mountain biking and adventure racing. The Salomon and Ultimate Direction are real specialists and are best used exclusively for running.
These packs were distributed among a small team of testers to use on their regular runs, adventure races, ultras and any other times they could use a small hydration pack. Not all of them use GPS watches, so we don’t have an accurate mileage count, but after three months of testing, these five packs certainly traveled more than 600 miles. Because we believe great gear should be usable in more than one specific application we also tested them while mountain biking, speed hiking, and in obstacle races.
In all cases we tried the packs stuffed full and loaded up with water and half empty and with almost nothing in them. We ran in the rain and in the sweltering heat, with slippery jackets on and bare chested. And while we were out there we played around with all the features to see what worked and what didn’t.
To standardize the testing we also took each pack on the exact same run in similar weather conditions. The loop featured a mix of road, smooth path, twisty singletrack, small rock jumps, uphills, and downhills.
Throughout all the testing we kept notes on feedback from reviewers with a particular focus on the five test criteria subjects.
What is a Running Hydration Pack?
Runners have cyclists to thank for hydration packs. The origin story goes something like this: when Michael Eldson couldn’t find an easy way to keep liquid accessible during the 1989 Hotter’n Hell 100 bike race, the EMT jury-rigged an IV bag to his back with a tube sock and pinned the hose to his jersey. Within a few months he started CamelBak and was selling the pimped out IV bag as the ThermalBak.
Most of the early ranks of hydration packs were aimed at cyclists, soldiers, and eventually hikers. It wasn’t until marathons and ultra running boomed in the last decade that manufacturers really started designing packs specifically for the needs of runners.
These bags included structure and straps to hold the packs still during the bumps, jumps, and arm swings that come along with bipedal motion. They used soft and wicking fibers next to skin to reduce chafing and paid close attention to details like stitch and seam placement to minimize rubbing.
Through the quest to tame pack movement, manufacturers have gradually moved further and further from where hydration packs came from, small but traditional looking backpacks, towards vests that fit more like pieces of clothing. As they evolve, their versatility beyond running shrinks.
It’s good news for runners, but not as good news for multi-sport athletes. The packs are more comfortable and work better for running, but don’t work as well for other sports. And because this category is relatively young there are no rules. Companies continue to experiment with different layouts and ideas. Along with different fabrics for next to skin, they’re playing with different storage configurations, attachment and suspension systems, and even methods for carrying water. We’re seeing more flask style bottles and less emphasis on bladders. Compared to more established categories, running hydration is exciting. There’s always something new to geek over.
All that experimentation also means that the each bag in this test is different from the others. That means if you’re in the market for a new hydration pack, there is likely one to fit your own needs and wants, but you may have to try a few to find the one that works best for you. Use our detailed reviews to get started.