There’s a point on every trail where a runner has to make a decision: Turn back to the safety of civilization, or push your boundaries and keep going? The answer to that question differs from one runner to the next, of course, but it also hinges on how well equipped you are to go the distance—in other words, whether you’re wearing a hydration vest.
At its simplest level, a hydration vest is a hands-free way to run with water. Water is heavy and unstable, but a vest keeps it close to your body in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt your stride. It also provides a lightweight, convenient way to carry all the gear you might need to stay out on the trail and adjust to changing weather.
For this review, five testers and I tried out 34 hydration vests from 14 brands, weeding through the pile to find the ones with the most thoughtful, purpose-built designs. Here are our favorites.
How We Picked the Best Hydration Vests
I’ve been trail-running with hydration packs and vests for the past five years, everywhere from the Catskills, Adirondacks, Greens, Whites, Berkshires, Rockies, and Uintas, and internationally in the Alps and the Andes. To test for this review, I also enlisted a team of five veteran ultra trail runners (three men and two women). We stuffed the vests with everything a trail runner might carry—flasks, bladders, gels, chews, bars, keys, cash, layers, sunglasses, jackets, trekking poles, and, in a few cases, baby food—and used them on nearly every kind of terrain, through most conditions imaginable. At the end of it all, we’d collectively run, hiked, and scrambled 1,000-plus miles.
Nathan VaporAir 2.0 7L ($150)
Weight: 8.3 ounces
Capacity: 7 liters
Hydration Capacity: 2-liter bladder (included) and two 22-ounce soft flasks (not included)
For our testers, comfortably carrying large quantities of water is the most important role of a hydration vest. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the VaporAir 2.0 7L is our overall favorite. It’s one of the few vests we tried that comes standard with a two-liter bladder (from HydraPak), a leakproof, lightweight TPU number that has a wide opening and a quick-release hose detachment for easy one-handed refilling. A powerful little magnet attaches the hose to the top chest strap. Two roomier-than-average front pockets also accept flasks up to 22 fluid ounces. Adjustment straps located within the front zipped pockets allow you to tighten or loosen the vest easily as you go. This all means that the vest can carry 112 ounces of water without sloshing and sliding.
Beyond its superior hydration system, the VaporAir and its women-specific counterpart, the VaporAiress 2.0 7L, are lightweight and carry just enough gear to suit a huge variety of off-road runs. The vest got us through hot multi-hour unsupported adventures in Texas Hill Country and around Washington, D.C., without overheating, thanks to generous amounts of breathable mesh in the shoulder straps and across the back. (Women may find the fit of the Salomon ADV Skin 8 Set W, reviewed below, preferable to that of the VaporAiress, which sat somewhat wide on our reviewers’ chests.)
Up front, four zippered pockets and four stretch pockets provide ample room for calories, electronics, and other essentials. In the back, a small easy-to-reach compartment, full-length stretch pouch, large main zippered pocket, and stretchy slide-through pocket help carry extra layers, nutrition, and accessories.
Our runner-up, the Arc’teryx Norvan 7 ($169), also comes equipped with a two-liter bladder and has a great hose-management system—it comes up from the bottom of the pack, secured with a series of elastic loops, but squeezing bottles into the chest pockets is a real challenge. The VaporAir is lighter, more affordable, softer against skin, and has roomier pockets with a more intuitive layout. Where the Norvan wins: its more stable pole-carrying system uses a combination of bungees and stretch pockets, a stripped-down design, and a very breathable four-way-stretch mesh that feels less bulky despite its weight.
Best for Women
Salomon ADV Skin 8 Set W ($145)
Weight: 8.5 ounces
Capacity: 8 liters
Hydration Capacity: 1.5-liter bladder (not included) and two 500-milliliter soft flasks (included)
A clear favorite among our testers, the ADV Skin 8 Set W is a sleek all-arounder that comes closer to perfecting a women-specific design than any other model we tested. The vest’s shoulder straps are longer than most others, and they house special soft flasks that are shorter and wider than traditional ones so that liquid cargo rides below the breasts. This eliminates chafing and painful pressure points when the vest is cinched down.
In more ways than fit, the Salomon delivers game-changing comfort and rides like a much lighter vest, ideal for any all-day trail mission. “Once you wear something as comfortable as [the Salomon vest], you realize how much you’ve been putting up with,” summarized one ecstatic tester. Thanks in part to soft, body-hugging stretch fabric, the vest stayed put without bouncing when stuffed with water and calories for Western States 100 pacing, and it also felt barely noticeable when packed lightly for the steep, technical singletrack of a trail half marathon. Our testers raved about the sheer variety of pockets—an open mesh pouch and two stretch pockets on either chest strap (one for a flask, a second that’s big enough carry a phone), two zippered pockets along the rib cage, and three pockets in back—many of which are extremely accessible on the run. Our only quibble: the vest has lots of excess stretchy loops and ties for adjusting fit, carrying poles, and securing flasks that take a while to figure out.
Storage options and breathability are what won the Salomon top honors over the CamelBak Women’s Ultra Pro ($120), our runner-up. Both vests kept loads stable and well distributed, but the Ultra Pro’s pockets were more difficult to access on the go (stretchy side pouches threatened to jettison nutrition and wrappers along the trail). The CamelBak’s strong suit is a smaller, lighter-weight, and more minimal design optimal for short distances or races with frequent aid.
Best for Racing
Patagonia Slope Runner 4L ($139)
Weight: 5.6 ounces
Capacity: 4 liters
Hydration Capacity: 2-liter bladder (not included) and two 500-milliliter soft flasks (included)
The stripped-down Slope Runner 4L has everything you need and nothing you don’t. Four stretch pouches in front keep essentials close at hand, while a front zippered pocket keeps electronics and other valuables safe. A surprisingly large rear compartment made of airy, high-flex nylon mesh accommodates a hydration reservoir for long unsupported runs. Below that is a stretchy mesh pouch that holds sunglasses or a rain shell and is easy to access while moving.
Even on Oahu’s technical jungle trails and along flowy North Carolina singletrack, the Slope Runner’s pockets held our cargo securely, despite a lack of zippers or any other ounce-adding security systems. More impressive, perhaps, the molded mesh back panel wicked well enough to stay dry no matter how sweaty we got, yet it still provided the padding that other lightweight mesh vests seem to lack. Our testers also found the simple shock-cord chest straps comfortable and a cinch to adjust. “I would reach for this pack over and over again, because it’s lightweight, breathable, super functional, and looks great on,” said one tester, who declared it the best racing pack he’d ever used. Wear it for ultras and other trail races, especially ones where there may be two-to-three-hour gaps between aid stations and where you may need to carry extra gear like a headlamp or layers.
For flying-fast efforts with more frequent aid, we suggest the RaidLight Revolutiv 3L Race Vest ($150), which is lighter than the Slope Runner, at 2.3 ounces. The Revolutiv is every bit as breathable as our winner—probably even more so, given its minimal footprint and transparent mesh—but isn’t as stretchy, and its two zippered pockets aren’t quite as accessible on the go. But we love its featherweight design, which carries just the essentials in a comfortable, bounce-free configuration.
Best for Long Hauls
Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 4.0 ($155)
Weight: 9.24 ounces
Capacity: 13 liters
Hydration Capacity: 2-liter bladder (not included) and two 500-milliliter flasks (included)
For years mountain runners have prized the Mountain Vest’s high capacity-to-weight ratio and ability to keep big loads stable all day. The newest version is two ounces lighter but boasts nearly two more liters for stowing the extra gear that comes in handy on big efforts in the hills—trekking poles, warm layers, lighting, a hat, gloves, an emergency kit, even ice axes. We tested the Mountain Vest 4.0 on the alpine steeps surrounding Chamonix, France, the technical trails of New York’s Catskills, and the rolling countryside of Tuscany, Italy, and found, as one tester said, that “it easily holds enough hydration, calories, and additional gear to spend eight-plus hours without refueling.” What’s more, its soft, breathable mesh material feels like comfortable clothing.
Given its huge capacity and variety of carry options—more than a dozen zippered or elasticized pockets securely hold whatever you need—we were blown away by how lightweight and breathable it felt. Sliding-rail sternum straps and a new waist adjustment made it easier than ever to dial in a comfortable fit as we added and removed layers and ate and drank our way through our loads. Elastic cords and compression hooks across the back also keep your cargo snug.
Of the high-capacity vests we tested, the breathable Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set ($155) wore the most like a second skin, comfortably hauling big loads over technical terrain without bouncing. In the end, it was a close runner-up to the Mountain Vest, which is lighter, carries more, and has more pockets. But those who prefer stretchy chest straps over more static ones should check out the ADV Skin 12 Set.
Best for Multisport Adventures
Black Diamond Distance 8 Backpack ($140)
Weight: 12.6 ounces
Capacity: 8 liters
Hydration Capacity: 1.5-liter bladder (not included) and two 500-milliliter flasks (not included)
The Distance 8 Backpack combines the body-hugging, pocket-covered shoulder straps of a hydration vest with the abrasion- and weather-resistant body of an alpine summit pack. The result is a near perfect mashup that sheds water, wears comfortably, keeps nutrition and necessities close at hand, and seems to swallow up extra layers and gear.
The pack shone in a variety of situations: scrambling in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, running on technical mountain trails in the Northeast, hiking to remote Costa Rican waterfalls, cycling around town, even paddleboarding on the Pacific Ocean. Elastic sternum straps and side compression easily conform to any body shape for a dialed fit.
But what really made this pack stand out was its ability to carry nearly anything with extreme comfort. Trekking-pole sleeves on either side offer the most stable, secure carry of any vest we tested without adding extraneous hardware. Meanwhile, metal ice-tool keepers with a reinforced pick sleeve keep axes secure—these are not your average flimsy loops dangling off the back. Six big stretchy mesh pockets on the straps, including two zippered ones, hold water bottles, gels, a phone, gloves, and more. The bottles carry a little lower than we’d prefer (we had to lift them slightly to drink), but our female testers generally liked vests that position flasks low on the chest. And after some initial fiddling, we came to appreciate the wide-open access that the roll-top closure affords.
The Distance 8 is slightly heavier compared to the Osprey Duro/Dyna 6 ($110), our runner-up multisport packs, but it also stores more gear and boasts more numerous, roomier, better-secured pockets. If the Distance 8 is purpose-built, with a stripped-down rear compartment featuring only functional details that work almost perfectly, the Duro and Dyna 6 are multipurpose-built, with extras that will please many users—myriad pockets, zippers, clips, and mesh organizers—but irk a few who just want to be fast and light. For trail runners whose high-mountain adventures frequently devolve into four-limbed scrambles on vertical terrain, the Distance 8 is the best option available. It’s equipped to let you get yourself into and then out of high-consequence situations. If you’re looking for a vestlike fit and a lot of storage options, the budget-friendly Duro and Dyna 6 could be your best bet.
How To Choose a Hydration Vest
Choosing a hydration vest can be a daunting proposition. An informal survey of the market turns up well over 100 options from nearly two dozen manufacturers. But it’s relatively simple to narrow down the candidates once you know what you’re looking for. Here are the primary factors to consider.
Vests come in a range of volumes, from two liters to 15 liters or more. How much space you need depends on how much gear you’ll be carrying. This primarily depends on how long you intend to run without resupply, as well as how variable the conditions will be.
For runs that last less than 90 minutes, most runners won’t use a vest, instead carrying a handheld water bottle and an energy gel. Once your runs start pushing to two hours and beyond, you’ll want to wear a vest. Use these numbers as a rough guide, keeping in mind that personal preference and factors like weather and terrain will also influence your needs:
• One to two hours = Two liters of hydration
• Two to three hours = Two to six liters
• Three to six hours = Four to twelve liters
• Six-plus hours = Six-plus liters
Even if your runs vary wildly in length, you can potentially do it all with one pack. Those in the six-to-seven-liter range are our favorite, though many will opt for ten to eleven liters. Be aware that comfort and ride quality will change if you over- or under-stuff a vest.
Ideally, a vest will be snug without digging in. Any hot spots you feel while standing still or simply walking will only be amplified over the course of a multi-hour run. A bladder, if you opt to use one, should sit high on your back. When trying on a vest, swing your arms around, and make sure they can move freely. Then snug the empty vest on your torso. The straps shouldn’t be maxed out—you should have plenty of play left to tighten or loosen them once you add gear.
Your vest will get emptier and lighter as you consume food and water, and it might get bigger and heavier as you strip layers. This changes how the vest rides. Familiarize yourself with each vest’s adjustment mechanisms—chest buckles or elastic cords, side or back straps that cinch the load snug around your rib cage—and make sure you can easily operate them on the fly.
If your vest is bouncing around with every step, it can cause painful blisters or chafing and even throw off your balance. You should look for a vest that can hug your load to your body, especially if you’ll be using a bladder, as water sloshes. One of the lightest, most effective methods is cinch–able elastic shock cords woven across the back panel.
Examine the back panel and straps for mesh materials that boost breathability. Also consider the overall amount of material layered over any one area, especially across hot spots like your back. If it feels thick or heavy, it’ll probably trap body heat.
Most vests will have a variety of pockets up front that hold things like water flasks, food, sunscreen, and a phone. Make sure they’re easy to access and secure. Snaps and zippers keep important items from falling out but add weight and are more fiddly than simple stretch pockets. I like to have at least one secure pocket on the front to keep a phone accessible for photos. In back you’ll want at least one large pocket that’s accessible without stopping, for just-in-case items like a hat or gloves. Our favorite is a stretchy kangaroo pocket that spans the bottom of the back side. Bigger items like a rainjacket or long-sleeved garment are OK to store in a sealed main compartment, since you’ll have to remove the vest to add or subtract those layers anyway. Finally, we love a small internal zippered pocket for storing end-of-run valuables like cash, keys, and an ID.
Most hydration vests come equipped with soft flasks, but almost every one is also designed to accept a hydration reservoir, with a hanger to hold it up, a divider in the main compartment to keep water separate from clothing, and loops or pass-throughs that feed the drinking tube to chest straps. While flasks hold less than a bladder, they’re generally easier to refill, allow you to have different beverages going at the same time, and are easier to clean between runs. Do what works best for you. How much water you need will depend on distance, altitude, temperature, and how often you’re able to refill. For really big days, you may even opt for both.
Unisex Versus Women-Specific Vests
Women-specific models have gained a lot of traction in recent years. But with a few exceptions, like the Salomon ADV Skin 8 Set W, we’ve found that the differences in fit are minor. A quality vest with a broad range of adjustability often performs just as well. Unisex models are generally designed for straighter bodies, have higher carrying capacities, and aren’t available in extra small. Women-specific vests, on the other hand, are made for fuller, more curved chests, often have lower capacities, and come in smaller sizes.
Having said that, the only way to find the just-right fit for you is to measure yourself, narrow the decision down to several vests that seem promising, and then try each of them on. When you find one that fits your body and meets your needs, don’t get hung up on the label. Just enjoy the run.
Lead Photo: Louis Arevalo/Tandem