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?”

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. The newer flasks with long straws out of the top technically 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. People also don’t like the tube/hose from the reservoir flopping around when they run.

Bottles 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.

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 do I look for in a vest?

The most important thing is fit and overall comfort wearing the vest.

I also prioritized the ability to store a 1.5-liter reservoir of water. For my first vest, I wasn’t looking for much additional storage since I only wanted to bring my phone, car keys, and maybe a pack of gummies. When I started training for a half marathon in the winter, I looked for a vest that could store hiking/trekking poles and had more storage for extra layers.

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.

Since buying both vests, I’ve realized the Osprey vest feels much more comfortable to me, so I would encourage you to check out their smaller Dyna 1.5 vest as another option that’s similarly priced. I still recommend the Camelbak Circuit since a lot of the fit issues on my older model (2016) have been fixed on newer editions.

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.

Camelbak Circuit Overall Fit

I love that I can adjust the tightness of the sternum straps (the ones that buckle over your chest) AND the side rib cage 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 was incredibly handy for me when I was breastfeeding. The 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.

Camelbak Circuit Water Storage

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 a Platypus reservoir I already have from hiking, which fits fine into the vest. I’ve also tested the Osprey reservoir that came with my Dyna 6 (more on that vest momentarily) and it fits as well. This inconvenience was worth it to me because of the comfortable fit and low price tag (relative to other vests).

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.

Camelbak Circuit Pack Storage

For being such a small pack, you can put a lot in it. 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.

Camelbak Circuit Wear and Tear

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 in the washing machine on delicate and air dry.

Camelbak Circuit Pole Storage

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!).

What other running vests did you try?

I did try on other very popular vests like the Nathan VaporAiress and Ultimate Direction’s Vesta collection (and the earlier Jenny collection) but they didn’t fit me very well.

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 fall 2021, and REI members get an extra 20% off outlet items for the Labor Day Weekend sale).

I haven’t tried REI’s brand because it didn’t exist yet when I was shopping, but they do offer extended sizing! I also like that Ultimate Direction has ambassadors that are a range of body sizes.

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).

Nathan does seem to have fixed this issue as of the 2020 model, but it comes with a $150 price tag. I don’t remember them being that expensive in 2016, or I wouldn’t have tried it on in the first place. Nathan has a more basic model for under $100 called the QuickStart you could consider. I haven’t personally tried it, so I’m not sure of the pros and cons. REI is also having a 20% sale on Nathan products for Labor Day Weekend this year!

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 first shopping, Ultimate Direction has redesigned both of these features to be much better.

Ultra Vesta Overall Fit

I tried the Signature Series Ultra Vesta in 2018 when I was in the market for a larger pack. 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.

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. So I gave it a try.

Ultra Vesta Water Storage

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 a small person, so this may not be the same for everyone.

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.

Ultra Vest Pack Storage

I loved how much the pack fit overall BUT I hated how it was laid out. That’s eventually what did it in. 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.

Ultra Vest Pole Storage

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 stuff. I ended up exchanging 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!)

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. As I mentioned before, there is also a smaller Dyna 1.5 size that could also be great for lower mileage trail runners.

Osprey Dyna Overall Fit

I love the Dyna 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 comfortable with a tank top before my race (I had been running in long sleeves leading up to it). 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.

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, Osprey has incredibly limited sizing. I am lucky/privileged because I have a smaller body that outdoor gear is typically designed for. Osprey vests only fit up to size Medium which is up to a 41-inch chest. This is really frustrating and a major oversight.

Osprey Dyna Water Storage

This vest is designed to be used with a reservoir. It comes with an Osprey Hydraulics 1.5L reservoir, which has (deservedly) received mixed reviews. When you are filling it for the first time, the factory seal is so tight at the top of the reservoir that you think you’re going to break it when you are trying to pull it apart. This fortunately only lasts one or two uses and then breaks in.

Other reviews have complained about leaks, and I have previously experienced leaks with older Osprey reservoirs. However, the one that came with my pack has never leaked and my partner’s decade-old Osprey reservoir has also never leaked. Buy through REI so you can always return it if this happens to you!

The most reservoir-friendly feature of the pack is the magnet on one of the sternum straps where you can clip the bite valve (the part you suck on to drink out of). The tube/hose of the reservoir itself is a little longer than I’d like, but it’s easy enough to just tuck it into the lower sternum strap so it doesn’t flop.

The drawback of the pack’s reservoir-friendly design is that 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 unfortunately no longer made the pack less expensive than Ultimate Direction.

Osprey Dyna Pack Storage

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 on the front of the vest to quickly stuff things into.

My only complaint is that the pockets up front can be a bit narrow. They are the perfect size for gels and gummies, but like I said earlier, you can’t fit standard size soft flasks in them. It’s also a very tight squeeze for waffles if you use those for nutrition. Honeystinger waffles are exactly the right width; apparently Gu waffles are a millimeter wider because I couldn’t get them into the pack without smashing the waffle.

Ospry Dyna Pole Storage

The pole storage isn’t quite as slick as Ultimate Direction. You have to take off your pack to get your poles on and off. But I have no illusions about needing to shave seconds off my race time, so I don’t mind that I’d need a few extra minutes to take them out or put them back. Having the poles 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).

On the left, there’s me with the Dyna pack with poles on the back. On the right is my partner in an Ultimate Direction vest with poles up front.

Osprey Dyna Wear and Tear

This pack held up great throughout the four months of half marathon training over the winter. I’ve brought it hiking dozens of times and also wear it for two- to three-hour runs once a week. It’s shown no signs of wear and tear and is easy to throw in the washing machine and air dry when it starts to stink.

The Bottom Line

The most important thing when picking out a running vest is that it fits you well. Going to a store in person right now is certainly trickly, but if you’re able to go to REI in person, try on all the vests in your price range and go with the one that’s most comfortable.

Most vests come in smaller models for lower mileage runners, which have the added benefit of being less expensive than a lot of classic brands you see ultra runners wearing. Look for 1.5L – 2L models if you don’t need to pack a ton of stuff with you.

One last thing. 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!

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

  1. THANK YOU for writing this! I know this is an older blog but it is refreshing to see a review considering the lower milage people. Really don’t want to invest in something too expensive if for some reason I decided that longer distances don’t suit me (just ran my first 8 mile and I loved it!). Thanks so much mama!

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    1. Sarah, thank you so much for saying that!! I’m really glad the blog helped you out, and you totally nailed the reason I wrote it. There’s just not a lot for low mileage runners out there. If there’s any other content that you think would be helpful, let me know so I can keep working on changing that 🙂

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  2. 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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