Beginner’s Gear Guide: Best beginner hydration vest for trail running

You may be thinking to yourself, “but Laura, you can’t even run a 10k. Why would you need a hydration vest?”

I already covered this. The short version is: because running is really hard and I like snacks.

For reference, when I bought my first vest, I was run-hiking longer than a 5k in the summertime before I felt like I needed to be able to bring water with me. However, no matter what distance you’re running, being able to bring keys and a phone is handy (or rather, hands-free!). But how do you begin sorting through all the options?

Soft flask bottles or reservoir?

The first thing to decide is how you want to carry your hydration. I prefer a reservoir because I can bring more water (I get really really thirsty when I run). I also don’t like having to take bottles in and out of pockets every time I want a drink. You could argue that the newer flasks with long straws out of the top solve this problem, but I don’t like the giant straws flopping around.

Some people don’t like using a reservoir because of the sloshing sound it can make. This has never bothered me, and you can always empty out the extra air in the reservoir before you start running to decrease this. Other complaints typically include the tube flopping around and annoying people when they run.

Bottles do have the advantage of allowing you to bring two different types of drinks on your run. For example, one bottle of electrolytes and one bottle of regular water. You can always have a bottle AND a reservoir, but that’s obviously more weight to carry. I don’t prioritize speed/lightweight gear so I didn’t care much about that when I was shopping around. Bottles are also much lighter than a full reservoir.

Regardless of your preference, most packs come with a reservoir or bottles, so if you don’t already have any, don’t worry about having to buy something in addition to your (already expensive) vest.

What did I look for in a vest?

When I was just starting out, I prioritized the ability to store a 1.5-liter reservoir of water instead of smaller bottles. The only things I wanted to be able to carry were my phone, car keys, and maybe a sleeve of gummies. Later on, I looked for a vest that could store hiking/trekking poles and had more storage for extra layers. Obviously, the most important thing for both was that they fit extremely well and were comfortable.

My very first vest was a Camelbak Circuit, which is an excellent beginner’s hydration vest. My second vest for longer runs (for me, more than an hour) is the Osprey Dyna 6.

The Camelbak Circuit vest

The Camelbak Circuit was a keeper because it was made to use with a reservoir, had plenty of storage for a very small pack, and most importantly, fit me the best and was under $100.

I love that I can adjust the sternum straps (the ones that buckle over your chest) AND the side ribcage straps to get the fit *just* right. You can also adjust the placement of the sternum straps themselves – they unclip and clip back in at multiple points along the pack. This has come in incredibly handy for me while breastfeeding. My original strap placement didn’t fit once I had breastfeeding-sized boobs, and fortunately I was able to customize the fit around my new body.

The entire pack is mesh with large holes in it, which doesn’t trap heat and keeps my comfortable year-round, whether I’m running in 90 degrees or 20 (lol that’s rare, I totally wait for it to be warmer).

The older model (I bought mine in 2016) did have an issue with the side straps – they didn’t stay in place when I ran. I “fixed” this by tying knots in them so they wouldn’t loosen up while I ran. Fortunately, the new model appears to have fixed this or at least worked on it; no recent reviews mention that issue and the keeper seems sturdier.

A drawback of the Camelbak vest is that the reservoir is kind of awful. Which is weird, because isn’t hydration, like, their thing? I wrote an entire blog comparing reservoirs, but the short version is that Camelbak’s doesn’t actually fit 1.5 liters and the tube is awkwardly thick and stiff. Instead, I use the Platypus reservoir I already had, which fits perfectly fine into the vest. I also use the Osprey reservoir that came with my Dyna 6 (more on that vest momentarily) and haven’t had the leaking issues I experienced with the Osprey hiking reservoirs.

For being such a small pack, you can stuff a lot in it. Even with a full reservoir, I can still fit a thin shirt or extra snacks in the back part of the pack (it’s just all one big pocket). I love that the phone pocket is right up front, and that there are plenty of small compartments and deep pockets for snacks, chapstick, etc up front too.

I’ve had the Camelbak Circuit vest for several years and use it at least once a week for runs ranging from 20 minutes to 2 hours. It hasn’t shown any signs of wear and tear, and when it did start to stink it was easy to throw into the washing machine on delicate and then air dry.

If you want to store your hiking/trekking poles on your pack, to my knowledge, you can’t do this on the Camelbak Circuit (leave me a comment if I’m wrong!). If you prefer to use soft flasks instead of a reservoir, that is possible with this vest but you will have to purchase them separately.

What other vests did I try?

Before settling on the Camelbak Circuit, I did try on other very popular vests like the Nathan VaporAiress and Ultimate Direction’s Vesta collection (and the earlier Jenny collection), but ultimately they weren’t for me. When I wanted a vest with more storage, I ultimately kept an Osprey Dyna vest after trying Ultimate Direction again.

I didn’t try on Salomon because it was too expensive and I didn’t want to risk falling in love with something I didn’t want to shell out that much money for. (Although, right now, one model is 25% off as of spring 2020). I also have not tried REI’s brand because it didn’t exist when I was shopping.

Nathan VaporAiress

I immediately had to rule out the Nathan VaporAiress because it wasn’t adjustable and the smallest size is too big for me. The fabric is super stretchy and soft, and I wanted to like it SO badly because it feels so comfortable. But I needed something with more adjustability (I don’t think that’s actually a word but I’m going with it).

The latest model does seem to have fixed this issue for 2020, so I would consider this vest another great option. The storage looks like it’s laid out very similarly to the Camelbak, which is another plus in my book.

Ultimate Direction Vesta Collection

Ultimate Direction’s Vesta (fka Jenny) collection initially didn’t work for me because I didn’t like storing the little water bottles on top of my boobs. I also didn’t like that I couldn’t adjust the size without taking it off. Since 2016, when I was initially shopping, Ultimate Direction has redesigned both of these features to be much better.

I tried the Signature Series Ultra Vesta in 2018 when I was in the market for a larger pack that could carry hiking/trekking poles. Ultimate Direction added a bungee in the small of your back that you pull to adjust the fit without taking it off. This was a feature that gave a lot of people chafing/blister problems (not me personally, but I read a LOT of reviews with that issue and also saw it come up frequently in the women’s trail running Facebook group I’m in). The entire vest also felt very rigid and structured compared to all the others.

Ultimate Direction has re-worked the bungee for the 5.0 that was released in 2020, but I haven’t tried that one out and can’t confirm if the fit has changed. (I would go to REI and try it on but coronavirus)

Even though I was skeptical, I loved the way the pack looked, and I’m not gonna lie, since a lot of ultra runners use it I wanted to look cool and have an Ultimate Direction pack too. And, it had the best pole storage system. So I bought it anyways and took it home to start using for my long runs when I was training for my first half marathon.

Having water bottles on my chest took some getting used to, but the Ultra Vesta felt much less claustrophobic than the earlier Jenny models I tried on back in 2016. I do have small boobs and am generally not curvy, so this may not be the same for everyone.

I loved how much the pack fit overall BUT I hated how it was laid out, and that’s ultimately what did it in for me. Ultimate Direction vest’s storage system was totally different than Camelbak in a way that didn’t work for me.

There isn’t a phone pocket on the front, and I didn’t like having to jam my phone into a pocket on the side of my rib cage. I kept thinking I would just get used to the new system and the learning curve would be worth it to have a vest that I could store hiking/trekking poles in.

Quick aside: Ultimate Direction is definitely the easiest on/off system for poles, but it only adds to the stuff piled on your chest and I found it extremely difficult to access other things on the front of the vest when I had poles attached.

A month went by and I still wasn’t used to how I had to organize my snacks and stuff. I was hesitant to sacrifice the extra room and the best pole storage I’d seen on any vest, but ultimately I just didn’t like how Ultimate Direction was laid out. I ended up exchaging the Ultimate Direction vest for an Osprey Dyna 6.

(For what it’s worth, my husband absolutely loves his Ultimate Direction vest, so try them on since your preferences may be different than mine!)

This vest is not designed for a reservoir; it’s designed for soft flask water bottles. You can make a reservoir work in it, but it doesn’t work that well. Plus, you have to already have a reservoir or be willing to purchase one since this vest only comes with bottles.

Osprey Dyna 6

The Osprey Dyna 6 was less expensive than Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, was designed to be used for a reservoir, and had a lot of the same features I already loved in the Camelbak (similar material, layout, and adjustability). I didn’t try on a bigger Camelbak because I wanted to try vests on in person and REI didn’t carry Camelbak vests at the time.

I kept the Dyna as my long run pack first and foremost for the fit and comfort. Like Camelbak, it has big, open mesh that’s soft and keeps you cool. I actually forgot to test out if the mesh was still comfortable with a tank top before my race (I had been running in long sleeves leading up to it), and then packed only a tank top for the race. But nearly three hours later I didn’t have any chafing!

The sternum straps and the rib cage straps are both adjustable and you can move the sternum straps up and down like on the Camelbak. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to the clip used for the sternum straps and for adjusting the rib cage straps on the go, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me because the vest was otherwise so comfortable.

I can fit an incredible amount of stuff in the Dyna, too. I was training during the winter and loved all the room I had to pack an extra layer or stuff all the extra layers I had to rip off because I overdressed. (Learning how to dress for multiple-hour runs is hard!). The pockets on the back of the pack are really thoughtfully organized with lots of little compartments to store small items like chapstick, a first aid kit, hand sanitizer, etc. There’s also multiple extra super-stretchy mesh pockets to quickly stuff things into.

However, since the pack is designed to be used with a reservoir, the pockets up front are a little small for regular 500 mL soft flasks. I actually lost several on the trail because they fell out of the pockets (I couldn’t really get them all the way in in the first place). I ended up buying one 250 mL soft flask from Osprey so I could bring some electrolytes in addition to regular water on my runs. This had the added drawback of no longer making the pack much less expensive than Ultimate Direction.

The bonus of the vest being designed to be used with a reservoir is that one of the sternum straps has a magnet on it where you can clip the valve you drink out of. I did find that the tube of the reservoir is a little longer than I’d like, but it’s easy to tuck away.

The pole storage isn’t quite as slick as Ultimate Direction – you will have to take off your pack to get your poles on and off. But I had no illusions about needing to shave seconds off my race time, so I didn’t mind that I’d need a few extra minutes to take them out or put them back. Having them on your back also lets you access everything in the front of your vest just as easily (this was an issue for me with the Ultimate Direction vest I tried).

I got pregnant while training for the half marathon I mentioned, so in the last year I haven’t given this pack much of a workout to test its durability on long runs. But it held up great throughout the four months of training I used it for and I’ve continued to bring it hiking and still love it. It was also easy to throw in the washing machine and air dry when it did start to stink after a few long runs.

Beginner disclaimer: As always, you DO NOT need expensive gear to get outdoors. I can’t say that enough. If you decide you do want to upgrade with some fancy gear or nicer clothes, I hope Outdoor Beginner will help you decide what might work for you with reviews from a beginner’s point of view. Now get out there and have fun!

3 thoughts on “Beginner’s Gear Guide: Best beginner hydration vest for trail running

  1. Great review! I also just got this pack and found the fit excellent. I’m a pretty sturdy build, short and curvy and it fits exceptionally well over my 14DD boobs. Just like a little waistcoat 😀 so well done Camelbak on the fit and construction.


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