Whether you’re training for an ultra-marathon, embarking on a leisurely trail run, or tackling a ridge scramble in the alpine, a running vest is the perfect tool for hauling your essentials. These designs have a shape and fit that’s comfortable while moving quickly, front storage pockets for easy access to your phone and snacks, and multiple hydration options. Below we break down our favorite running vests and packs of 2020, including budget-oriented models for recreational runners, performance-oriented designs, and adventure packs built for fastpacking and technical mountain missions. For more background information, see our buying advice and comparison table below the picks.
Capacities: 5, 12L (women's: 8)
Included hydration: 500mL soft flasks (2)
What we like: Comfortable, customizable, and great storage options.
What we don’t: Not the most durable and runs warm.
The best running vests are like an extension of your body, offer fit and feature customizations, and have great on-the-go access to hydration, snacks, and layers. The market certainly is stacked in 2020, but we think the Salomon ADV Skin checks these boxes better than most. With a stretchy, garment-like build, it minimizes bounce by keeping your load close, and side compression bungees snug down a partially full pack. Our favorite feature, however, is the ability to tweak the vest to suit your needs, including front and rear hydration, numerous pockets of varying sizes, removable straps, and multiple spots for stashing trekking poles. If you’re looking for one vest to accompany you on short lunch runs, full days on the trail, and everything in between, the ADV Skin is one of the most versatile and well-rounded options available.
All that said, the Salomon’s thin, form-fitting fabric does have its downsides. The ADV Skin is far from the most durable option here, and you’ll want to make sure to treat it with care and wash it on the gentle cycle. We’ve also found that the ADV Skin lags behind the competition in the breathability department—you’ll get more ventilation with a mesh-heavy design like the Nathan VaporAir 7L below, but be prepared to make sacrifices in both fit and features. In terms of sizing, we’ve included the 5-liter version here, which is ample for hydration, snacks, a phone, and an emergency shell, among other things. But the ADV Skin also comes in 12-liter and women’s-specific 8-liter versions, both of which are ideal for longer half- and full-day runs. Every vest in the series is offered in five sizes with easy adjustments at the front and sides, which is a nice bonus for nailing fit.
See the Salomon ADV Skin 5 Set See the Women's Salomon ADV Skin 8 Set
Best Budget Running Vest
Capacities: 1.5, 6, 15L
Included hydration: 1.5L reservoir
What we like: Thoughtful features add comfort and convenience at a low price point.
What we don’t: Heavier than most vests of a similar capacity.
Osprey might not be a household name among runners, but as one of the outdoor industry’s most popular pack manufacturers, their running lineup is worth a serious look. The Duro hydration vest, which comes in 1.5-, 6-, and 15-liter versions, is thoughtfully designed, comfortable, fully featured, and surprisingly one of the most affordable options here. For only $90, the Duro 1.5 (and women’s Dyna 1.5) is built to last and includes a 1.5-liter reservoir, which is ideal for shorter runs or close-to-home adventures. Like many of the vests below, you also get an airy mesh build, a wide array of accessible pockets (many with zip closures), and great fit adjustments at both the sternum and sides.
At nearly 10 ounces, the Osprey Duro is heavier than many of its competitors and not streamlined enough for most racers’ needs (for reference, the 1.5L Osprey weighs more than the 5L Salomon above). That said, casual and comfort-focused runners will likely find the extra weight worth it for the added features. We especially love the magnet that secures the reservoir tube at the chest and the zippered front stash pocket (great for a phone). Added up, Osprey’s running vest is a high-quality choice for recreational runners and our favorite budget pick of 2020. Bumping up to the 6- or 15-liter versions ($110 and $140, respectively) will get you more storage and features, but for most runners the streamlined 1.5-liter size will be the best option.
See the Men's Osprey Duro 1.5 See the Women's Osprey Dyna 1.5
Best Running Vest for Racing
Capacities: 4, 12L
Included hydration: 20 oz. soft flasks (2)
What we like: Very comfortable and comes with bottle straws.
What we don’t: Less adjustable than the ADV Skin and storage needs improvement.
Nathan is one of the biggest and most reputable names in running hydration, and the VaporKrar 4L is their high-end race offering. Like the Salomon ADV Skin above, the VaporKrar uses stretchy fabrics and a garment-like design that prioritize comfort and bounce-free ride. The vest comes with two soft flasks and straws, which bring the bottles closer to your mouth for convenient hydration (great for maintaining speed during a race). It also hits a nice balance of minimalism and a range of storage options, including multiple dump pockets, three zippered pockets on the front, and one on the back. We’ve put the women’s VaporHowe through the wringer on a variety of middle-distance runs close to home, and it’s proven to be an excellent tool for the job.
Stacked up against our top-rated ADV Skin, the Nathan has a softer material that’s less likely to cause chafing—if you can nail the size. And herein lies the biggest issue we have with the VaporKrar: there are no side adjustments, meaning that fit can be difficult to home in with varying layers. Second, we’ve found the front stuff pockets difficult to use with full bottles. And finally, if you plan to carry a hydration reservoir, you won’t have room for much else. But for speed-focused runners who like the idea of extended straws, the VaporKrar is a very comfortable pack that’s well deserving of a second look—and it doesn’t hurt that Nathan is known for their great customer service.
See the Nathan VaporKrar 4L 2.0 See the Women's Nathan VaporHowe 4L 2.0
Best Running Pack for Mountain Objectives
Capacities: 4 (vest), 8, 15L
Included hydration: None
What we like: Functional mountain-ready feature set.
What we don’t: Not our first choice for a dedicated running vest.
Black Diamond’s Distance series entered the mountain running world with a bang, covering everything from ultralight shelters to wind jackets, trekking poles, and more. The Distance 15 is their popular running pack, which brings alpine-ready features to a lightweight vest design. Along with a nice array of front pockets and a close fit that rides high on the torso, you get burly fabrics and technical extras like a rope strap, ice tool attachment, and cavernous rear compartment that can even accommodate a minimalist climbing helmet. True to its intentions, the Distance is a capable companion across a wide variety of terrain: we purchased it last summer for an FKT (fastest known time) attempt of a technical mountain traverse and ended up using it for everything from a 50-mile trail run to a two-day ridge scramble in the Sierra.
That said, we don’t recommend the Black Diamond Distance as a dedicated running vest. In short, many other models here (like the 12L ADV Skin and Nathan VaporKrar above) offer similar capacity in lighter, more form-fitting packages. Further, keep in mind that the Distance 15 does not come with included hydration, and it’s already one of the pricier vests here at $150. And sans shirt, we’ve found that it does chafe a bit more on our middle back than the ADV Skin due to the slight bit of added bounce. But for a durable, versatile mountain pack that can pull double duty as a running vest, the Black Diamond Distance stands head and shoulders above the competition.
See the Black Diamond Distance 15
Best of the Rest
Included hydration: 1.5L reservoir
What we like: Highly breathable and very adjustable fit.
What we don’t: No side pockets or on-the-go access to the rear compartment.
Not everyone is interested in ultra or trail races, and for those sticking to the more casual end of the spectrum, we prefer an option like REI Co-op’s Swiftland Hydro 5L. This vest is affordable at $90, customizable with functional fit adjustments and ample sizing options, and highly breathable with an airy mesh build and light colorways. To be clear, you don’t get the top-notch comfort and feature set of a performance vest—the Swiftland is far from streamlined, offers no on-the-go access to side or rear compartments, and doesn’t have a trekking pole attachment—but you don’t pay for it either.
Like the Nathan TrailMix and CamelBak Octane Dark below, the Swiftland is more like a running pack than a garment-style vest, but you still get four easy-to-access pockets on the shoulder straps, which also hold soft flasks (although we wish these were a bit deeper). Additionally, the unique (for a running vest) top-loading compartment is a breeze to load and unload, and the back dump pocket can accommodate an extra layer or compress a partially full pack. Added up, the Swiftland is a capable and affordable entry-level option that punches well above its weight, and it’s occasionally discounted even further during REI sales.
See the Men's REI Swiftland Hydro See the Women's REI Swiftland Hydro
Included hydration: 500mL soft flasks (2)
What we like: Great fit customization and lightweight, breathable mesh fabric.
What we don’t: Front pockets offer fewer options for organization than most.
Ultimate Direction’s 10.8-liter Ultra Vest (updated to the 5.0 this year) is built to accommodate everything you need for a long day on the trail, including snacks, hydration, layers, and a few essential safety items. See-through mesh makes it one of the lightest and most breathable vests in its class, and full side adjustments mean you can dial in a precise fit better than most (although the extra bulk makes us less likely to wear this vest sans shirt). And we especially like the rear compartment, which includes an impressive amount of storage, secures with a generous zipper, and features crisscrossing bungee straps for hauling a jacket. From Oregon’s 25-mile McKenzie River Trail to the 4,900-foot climb of South Sister, the Ultra Vest has become one of our favorite companions for unsupported, all-day missions.
That said, there are a few downsides in terms of storage. For starters, we wish the zippered pocket for the phone were higher on the chest (where it sits on the ribs can be uncomfortable), and the Ultra Vest’s “pack-like” design means you don’t get side entry into the rear compartment. Further, the only option for stashing trekking poles is on the shoulder strap, which is certainly not our preferred location (the Salmon above allows five different configurations). But these are all minor nitpicks, and the Ultra Vest lands near the top of our list as a capable lightweight option for unsupported runs. Ultimate Direction also offers an 8.5-liter Race Vest, 13.4-liter Mountain Vest, and 17-liter Adventure Vest (below), all of which are made with similar materials and come with flasks (but can accommodate reservoirs).
See the UD Ultra Vest 5.0 See the Women's UD Ultra Vesta 5.0
Included hydration: None
What we like: Contoured fit is comfortable and rides close to the body.
What we don’t: Smells terrible and doesn't come with bottles.
UltrAspire doesn’t have the recognition of many of the brands above, but their Momentum Race Vest is a comfortable option for race day and training runs alike. Its most notable feature is its contoured fit, which traces the curves of the torso better than most of the competition. The result is a streamlined build that rides close to the body and effectively distributes the load. And unlike many of the other designs on this list that can only accommodate two bottles, the Momentum fits four 550-milliliter flasks (sold separately), which is great news for those who prefer bottles over bladders.
Unfortunately for some, the Momentum doesn’t have a spot for a reservoir, although you can finagle about a liter’s worth into the small rear compartment. Unless we have regular access to water along the way, this makes the Momentum Race Vest less attractive for unsupported runs. But our biggest gripe has to do with its smell: out of the box, the Momentum reeked of plastic—so much so that we thought we had a gas leak in our house. The stink does wear off over time though, and we appreciate touches like the soft microfiber edges (great for running without a shirt) and highly useful magnetic pill pocket (we wish every vest had one). Not to mention, this vest is a steal at $80 for runners who already own hydration flasks.
See the UltrAspire Momentum Race Vest
Capacities: 3, 4, 8L
Included hydration: 500mL soft flasks (2)
What we like: Great fit and simple, lightweight design.
What we don’t: Limited capacity for long days.
Patagonia can’t match the extensive running vest collections from brands like CamelBak or Nathan, but their Slope Runner vest holds its own. As the name suggests, the Slope Runner Endurance is built for races or fast, weight-conscious forays into the mountains, with a streamlined feature set and strong focus on comfort. The vest is styled like a garment (similar to the Salomon ADV Skin above) and has ample fit adjustments, including two sternum straps, side straps that tighten down a smaller load, and a drawstring at each shoulder to shift weight distribution if you have heavy gear in your back.
All in all, the Slope Runner’s rear organization is well-executed, with a small zippered pocket for secure storage and a large stuff pouch underneath that can be accessed without removing the pack. That said, the 3-liter capacity still is fairly limiting—it’d be a squeeze to fit a 1.5-liter bladder, jacket, and snacks for the day (even the extra 2 liters that you get with the Salomon ADV Skin 5 above can make a big difference). We’re also not big fans of carrying our poles near our arm, but this is largely a matter of personal preference. In the end, we give the edge to the Salomon for a larger and more customizable feature set (not to mention more capacity), but if you’re loyal to Patagonia, their Slope Runner isn’t likely to disappoint.
See the Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance Vest
Capacities: 7, 12L
Included hydration: 2L reservoir
What we like: A capable all-rounder at a great price point.
What we don’t: Limited sizing options and no side storage.
Nathan has a pack for just about every adventure and runner, from the premium VaporKrar above to the budget-friendly QuickStart below. Their TrailMix lands in a nice middle ground in terms of capacity (7 liters), price (an affordable $100), and features. With soft mesh material, a variety of front pockets, and an included 2-liter reservoir, this vest checks all the boxes for unsupported runs. Add in a durable pack body, reflective blazing, and a daisy chain for attaching gear or lighting externally, and the TrailMix is also a suitable option for mountain biking, commuting by road bike, hiking, and more.
For the most part, the all-around intentions don’t hurt the TrailMix’s performance on the trail, and we especially love its highly breathable build (it’s on par with Nathan’s pricier VaporAir below). That said, you do give up some attributes of a true garment-style vest, including side pocket storage and an easy-access rear stash pocket for layers. The TrailMix also comes in limited sizes, including a one-size-fits-most and “expanded” option for both men and women (the side compression straps do help dial in fit fairly well). Like the Duro above, the TrailMix is better suited for casual outings than speed-focused objectives, but at only $100 with the reservoir included, it’s a well-made and versatile option at a good price.
See the Men's Nathan TrailMix 7L See the Women's Nathan TrailMix 7L
Included hydration: 500mL soft flask (1)
What we like: Comfortably carries significant loads for big adventures.
What we don’t: Can’t accommodate bulkier items like the BD Distance above.
The Adventure Vest 5.0 is Ultimate Direction’s largest-capacity running vest, with a whopping 17 liters of space to fit everything you need for big (and possibly overnight) adventures. True to its intended use, the Adventure Vest is packed with mountain-ready features including an integrated rain cover, a pocket specifically designed for a GPS device, ice tool holders, and a number of zippered pockets to secure the essentials. Our running partner wore this vest while fastpacking the 106-mile UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) near Chamonix and raved about how it handled both near-empty and packed loads with relative ease.
Like the brand's Ultra Vest above, the Adventure Vest uses stretchy but durable materials, a highly adjustable side cinch, and effective load distribution. Of course, with such a large vest, you don’t get the same close fit as you would with models like the Salomon ADV Skin and Nathan VaporKrar above, and the Adventure lacks speed-focused features like a rear stuff pocket for easily retrieving an extra layer. Further, while the UD is over 4 ounces lighter than the Black Diamond Distance 15 above, its spread-out storage is limiting for bulky items like a rope or helmet. But the Adventure Vest is the more running-specific build and a great match for shuttling a light overnight kit on less technical missions.
See the UD Adventure Vest 5.0 See the Women's UD Adventure Vesta 5.0
Included hydration: 1.5L reservoir
What we like: Inexpensive and comes with a hydration reservoir.
What we don’t: Only offered in one size.
Over the years, CamelBak has become practically synonymous with on-the-go hydration. They’ve come a long way since their humble beginnings—our first hydration pack was essentially a neoprene sleeve for the bladder and a strap for each arm—and we’ve since come to count on them for functional products at affordable prices. The recently updated Circuit is their most popular running vest and a good place to start if you’re new to long-distance trail running and don’t want to break the bank. For only $85, you get both the lightweight vest and a reliable 1.5-liter reservoir, which is a true steal compared to many options here.
For the entry-level runner, the Circuit checks most of the boxes. The vest features a zippered cell phone pocket, the aforementioned reservoir with a functional open/close valve, two cavernous flask pockets for additional bottle storage (sold separately), and highly breathable mesh that keeps air flowing when you break a sweat. But the downside for most—and why we ranked it below the comparable Duro—is that the Circuit comes in just one size. CamelBak claims it accommodates chest sizes from 28-50 inches, but this nevertheless has an impact on overall fit. In the end, we don’t recommend the Circuit for experienced runners, but if you’re not pushing your speed or haven’t yet been spoiled by a more precise fit, it’s perfectly serviceable and a superb value.
See the Men's CamelBak Circuit See the Women's CamelBak Circuit
Capacities: 5, 8L
Included hydration: 500mL soft flasks (2)
What we like: Lightweight, race-ready build.
What we don’t: Streamlined design falls short in durability and breathability.
If fast and light is the name of your game, the Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 should be on your radar. A stripped-down version of our #1 pick, the ADV Skin, the S/Lab is purpose-built for racing with minimal materials, a limited feature set, and fit adjustment only at the sternum. The vest’s stretchy material reduces rubbing and tight spots and feels more like an actual garment than most. Further, the pockets are deep and easy to access, and we especially love the zippered storage under the arms for functional organization when you need it and no bulk when you don’t. Finally, we’ve had great luck with Salomon’s soft flasks, which are big enough to fit ice cubes, easy to load and unload, and don’t leak at the nozzle.
The S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 is so streamlined that it doesn’t accommodate a bladder, so the vest is limited to race scenarios where you can refill the flasks regularly at aid stations. And while we love the close fit and underarm storage, these do come at the cost of breathability (a vest like Nathan’s TrailMix above with open straps under the arms vents much better). Further, the Salomon’s thin materials are prone to tearing, and in our experience can really hold a stink. In the end, we don’t recommend the S/Lab Sense Ultra vest as a daily driver, but it’s a well-fitting, streamlined option that will keep you moving quickly on race day.
See the Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set
Included hydration: 2L reservoir
What we like: Highly breathable and generous front zip pocket.
What we don’t: Only comes in two sizes, which is disappointing at this price point.
The original Nathan VaporAiress (the women’s version of the VaporAir) was our go-to running vest for a number of years and accompanied us on everything from the Fat Dog 120 in British Columbia’s Manning Park to long days in the Chilcotins. So when Nathan released the revamped 2.0, we were eager to take it for a spin. In practice, we’ve found most of the winning formula is still there, including comfortable and breathable materials, a generous zip pocket on the chest, and multiple hydration options (the included 2L reservoir attaches with a handy magnet).
That said, not all of the updates were positive, in our opinion. For starters, the 2.0 now features a short (6 inch) zipper on the main compartment, making it extremely difficult to stuff anything bulky inside (the previous version’s zipper was around 10 inches). Second, Nathan dropped the size options from three to two. They did add side adjustments to compensate, you still don’t get the tailored fit available from many of the options above. In the end, the VaporKrar above is a more premium option for most runners, although with the VaporAir you do get trekking pole attachment points, a middle-of-the-road capacity, and better breathability. For a more minimalist design, check out the Nathan VaporSwift (or women’s VaporSwiftra), a similar vest in a 4-liter capacity.
See the Nathan VaporAir 2.0 See the Women's Nathan VaporAiress 2.0
Capacities: 15, 25, 35L (women's: 20 & 30L)
Included hydration: None
What we like: Great functionality for overnight trips and backpanel doubles as sit pad.
What we don’t: Too large and unwieldy for most single-day runs.
For the uninitiated, the term “fastpacking” describes the act of running (or run-walking) a route or trail quickly. And the best way to ensure a good time while fastpacking (let’s be honest, it’s going to be Type Two fun regardless) is by carrying less weight. The Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25 is the perfect tool for the job, built for one- to two-nighters or single-day missions that require technical gear. Like the vests above, the Fastpack prioritizes accessibility and a close fit but tacks on overnight-friendly features like a removable foam backpanel that doubles as a sit pad, ice tool attachments, and a cavernous main compartment with a roll-top closure.
While it’s tempting to stuff the Fastpack to the brim, we don’t recommend it from a comfort perspective. With minimal suspension, the Fastpack 25 is not built to handle loads like a standard daypack, nor does it come with a hipbelt (the 35L version does). In other words, it’s crucial that you continue to think with a minimalist runner’s mindset (on an overnight with the Black Diamond Distance 15 above, we appreciated how its limited capacity forced us to minimize weight and bulk). But if you can keep your load light, the Ultimate Direction is a highly specialized and nicely executed design for short overnights.
See the UD Fastpack 25 See the Women's UD FastpackHer 20
Capacities: 4, 6L
Included hydration: 1.5L reservoir
What we like: Good price for a light and simple design.
What we don’t: Compromises in build quality and comfort.
The final Nathan vest to make our list is their cheapest model: the Quickstart 4L. For a very reasonable $70, you a basic, mesh-heavy design that ventilates well in warm conditions, a 1.5-liter reservoir and easy-to-access drink tube, and a zippered water-resistant pocket along the shoulder strap for securing a phone. Moreover, the streamlined build is among the lightest at this price point at only 5.5 ounces (9.5 oz. with the hydration system). For anything from short jogs in hot conditions to half-day adventures, the Quickstart is a solid budget option.
At less than half the price of Nathan’s VaporKrar above, there are some compromises in opting for the Quickstart 4L. Most significant are build quality and comfort: the simple straps for adjusting the fit have a tendency to loosen during extended runs, and the hydration system is more prone to leaking than higher-end offerings (the CamelBak Octane below wins in this department with a more reliable drink tube). Plus, its one-size-fits-most set-up means it can’t match the snug and bounce-free ride of our top picks. But if you’re willing to trade a little in convenience and comfort, the Quickstart delivers a fair amount of bang for your buck.
See the Nathan Quickstart 4L See the Women's Nathan Quickstart 4L
Included hydration: 500mL soft flasks (2)
What we like: Great storage and durable materials.
What we don’t: Few fit adjustments and overbuilt for a 4-liter design.
Black Diamond’s Distance 15 pack is one of our all-time favorite pieces of gear, perfect for long days in the mountains when you need to carry more in the way of supplies. New for 2020, their Distance 4 brings many of the features of the 15-liter above into a running-vest style geared towards shorter runs and smaller loads. Like many running vests here, you get a garment-like design, two flask pockets (2 HydraPak soft flasks are included), an assortment of zip and stash compartments (including one waterproof device pocket), and trekking pole storage that can be accessed on the go.
We wanted to like the Black Diamond Distance 4, but in the end felt it has left a lot of room for improvement. Like the VaporKrar above, it features side stretch panels that aren’t adjustable, meaning that you either nail the fit—or you don’t. To make matters worse, the Distance 4 is only available in 4 unisex sizes (compared to the VaporKrar’s 6 men’s and 6 women’s options). And while we appreciate the durability of the Distance 15, similar fabric on the 4-liter makes for a heavy and overbuilt pack, and the black colorway only contributes to its swampy feel. Last but not least, the dedicated bladder pocket only accommodates about 1 liter. In the end we don’t recommend the Distance 4, but it’s certainly a vest to keep on the radar as Black Diamond’s vest line evolves.
See the Black Diamond Distance 4
Included hydration: 1.5L reservoir
What we like: Affordable and includes a high-quality hydration reservoir.
What we don’t: Limited capacity and only comes in one size.
The Octane Dart has been a staple in CamelBak’s lineup for years and remains a simple, no-frills option for entry-level runners and minimalists. For only $70 (tied for the most affordable model here), you get an adjustable design with zippered storage, a small shoulder strap pocket, and a quality 1.5-liter reservoir. We love CamelBak’s reservoirs for their large opening that’s simple to clean and easy-to-toggle open/close valve at the nozzle that minimizes leakage. We also appreciate that the Octane Dart is very mesh-heavy and has open sides, making it a nice option for warmer temperatures when ventilation is a top priority.
Given that it’s both unisex and one-size-fits-all (the most limited sizing of any pack here), we do think it’s important to try the Octane Dart on—and preferably fully loaded—before buying. The pack’s limited, 2-liter capacity will also be a deal-breaker for many: there’s only one dump pocket in the front, and the back pocket is not stretchy, which makes it harder to stuff down and fit extra gear or layers. All in all, we like the Octane Dart for those dipping their toes into trail running or even as a road-running pack when you don’t want to go without water, but most will be better served by one of the more feature-rich and customizable options above.
See the CamelBak Octane Dart
|Salomon ADV Skin 5 Set||$145||Performance/recreational||5, 8, 12L||2 soft flasks||8 oz.|
|Osprey Duro 1.5||$90||Recreational||1.5, 6, 15L||1.5L reservoir||9.6 oz.|
|Nathan VaporKrar 4L 2.0||$165||Performance||4, 12L||2 soft flasks||7.3 oz.|
|Black Diamond Distance 15||$150||Fastpacking||4, 8, 15L||None||13.9 oz.|
|REI Co-op Swiftland Hydro 5L||$90||Recreational||5L||1.5L reservoir||8.5 oz.|
|Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 5.0||$140||Performance||10.8L||2 soft flasks||6.3 oz.|
|UltrAspire Momentum Race Vest||$80||Performance||5L||None||7.2 oz.|
|Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance||$149||Performance/recreational||3, 4, 8L||2 soft flasks||6.2 oz.|
|Nathan TrailMix 7L||$100||Recreational||7, 12L||2L reservoir||7 oz.|
|UD Adventure Vest 5.0||$180||Fastpacking||17L||1 soft flask||9.5 oz.|
|CamelBak Circuit||$85||Recreational||3.5L||1.5L reservoir||5 oz.|
|Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set||$160||Performance||5, 8L||2 soft flasks||6.7 oz.|
|Nathan VaporAir 2.0||$150||Performance||7L||2L reservoir||8.3 oz.|
|Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25||$165||Fastpacking||15, 25, 35L||None||19.4 oz.|
|Nathan Quickstart 4L||$70||Recreational||4L||1.5L reservoir||5.5 oz.|
|Black Diamond Distance 4||$150||Performance||4L||2 soft flasks||7.1 oz.|
|CamelBak Octane Dart||$70||Recreational||2L||1.5L reservoir||7 oz.|
- Running Vests vs. Packs
- Running Vest Categories
- Running Vest Capacity
- Pockets and Organization
- Hydration Compatibility
- External Organization
- Sizing and Fit
- Women’s-Specific Running Vests and Packs
- Breathability and Ventilation
- Running Belts and Handhelds
In this article, we’ve chosen to lump running vests and packs under one umbrella and refer to both as “vests” due to the front-of-the-body storage that they have in common. In the end, running packs and vests have very similar intentions: they’re both purpose-built for toting minimal necessities, prioritize a close fit, and offer on-the-go access to food, water, and other supplies. Unlike standard backpacks, they sit high and tight to the torso, moving as an extension of the body rather than bouncing up and down with each step.
That said, packs and vests do have their differences: running vests sit flush against the torso and extend under the arms (like a standard vest), while a running pack has more defined shoulder straps and a dedicated back compartment. As a result, vests (like the Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance, for example) commonly have less capacity than packs, are more comfortable for moving quickly, feature underarm storage and side dump pockets, and are intended solely for running. Packs, on the other hand (like the Black Diamond Distance 15), can accommodate more gear, will likely bounce a bit more with your stride, and can conceivably be used for a range of activities, including biking and hiking.
That said, as gear companies continue to innovate, the line between the two categories has become blurred, resulting in models like the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest (pack, or vest?). In the end, the terminology matters less than the function. For the majority of runners, you can’t go wrong with a true vest, but if you need a higher-capacity hauler for long days or more complex terrain, a pack-like design is likely the better option. But the good news is that most running packs still retain many vest-specific features, including snug fits, on-the-go-storage options, and compression straps for cinching down lighter loads.
Running can take many forms, from mile-long lunch-break outings and jogging on city sidewalks to 50+ mile races in the backcountry. Therefore, it follows that running vests come in a wide variety of styles with various intended uses, from minimalist race models and capable all-day designs to 20-liter haulers built to shuttle a light overnight kit. To help provide clarity among the various options, we've broken them down into three distinct categories: recreational, performance, and fastpacking.
Running vests aren’t just for folks who compete in ultramarathon races or embark on long sojourns into the mountains. For the entry-level or casual runner looking for a way to carry water or gear, a recreational vest is a great place to start. Here, the defining feature is affordability: you probably don’t need to spend up for a high-performance design, precision fit, or ultralight materials. At around $80-$90, recreational vests are often half the price of those in our performance and fastpacking categories. Additionally, look for relatively small capacities (this will help you keep your load to a minimum), breathable mesh builds, reflective blazes, pack-like designs, and unisex or one-size-fits-all sizing (great for those who want to share with a friend). Our favorite in this category is the Osprey Duro 1.5, which also comes in 6- and 15-liter versions.
Vests in our performance category are designed for more serious runners who are willing to spend up for an increase in comfort, quality, and weight-savings. These top-of-the-line models are the most “vest-like” here, with close-to-body fits and a plethora of easy-access pockets at the front and sides. Performance vests range in capacity from 1.5 liters to 12 and span the gamut from minimalist race-oriented models to fully featured designs ideal for unsupported missions. To accommodate both ends of the spectrum, manufacturers will often offer these vests in two different capacities, such as Nathan’s VaporKrar 4L and VaporKrar 12L. In the lower-capacity models, look for soft flasks, thin fabrics, and minimal feature sets, while the higher-capacity designs will often come with hydration reservoirs, trekking-pole attachments, and compression straps or bungees. But whether you’re competing in a supported race or headed for a day in the hills, a performance vest will be your best bet for the rigors of long-distance trail running.
Blending trail running and backpacking into one ultralight and extreme activity is the growing sport of fastpacking. Involving speed-focused overnight or multi-day adventures—examples include running Mt. Rainier’s 93-mile Wonderland Trail or a hut-to-hut circumnavigation of Mont Blanc—they require hauling additional gear like a shelter (or on the other hand, technical equipment like a helmet, rope, or ice tool). As such, the vests and packs in this category are the largest and most featured, including capacities ranging from 15 to 40 liters, durable fabrics, and mountain-specific add-ons like ice axe loops (the Black Diamond Distance 15 is a great example). Like performance vests, hydration options typically include both a reservoir sleeve and front bottle pockets. Mountain runners won’t be moving at race-speed (in large part due to the heavy load), but fastpacking models are still engineered to move with your body, and their pocket layouts allow easy access to water and snacks on the go (a notable difference compared to standard hiking daypacks).
When deciding which running vest is right for you, capacity should be one of the first considerations. Vests generally range from 1.5 to 15 liters, while some fastpacking models for mountain pursuits can accommodate 30 liters or more. A number of factors come into play here, including weather, whether your run is supported or unsupported, and both its length and difficulty. It’s also crucial to consider access to streams, lakes, and other water sources. If you’re headed out for a full day, you might consider carrying an ultralight water filter or purifier so that you don’t have to shuttle more water than necessary—our favorite for running is the Katadyn BeFree 0.6L. Finally, make sure to choose a pack that will have more storage than you need, as wearing an overstuffed pack can be quite uncomfortable, especially over longer distances.
The majority of runners will opt for a vest in the 1.5- to 7-liter range, which is ample for carrying a liter of water, snacks, and an extra layer. Consider a higher-capacity pack (7 to 14 liters) for all-day runs requiring more food and water, and perhaps some of the 10 essentials. We find these packs to be the most versatile—load them up when you need the space or use the external compression bungees to snug down a less-than-full load. And for overnight missions or if you’re carrying gear for technical terrain (such as a rope and harness), you’ll likely want a larger-capacity vest like the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25 or Black Diamond Distance 15.
Every vest here has a listed capacity in liters, and many manufacturers provide more of a range than an exact number (like the 11 to 20L capacity of the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set). Unfortunately, this spec isn’t standardized: some capacities include the space taken up by the reservoir, while others do not. Further, vests with stretchier fabrics are likely to have more storage than their capacity spec suggests—Ultimate Direction’s FastPack 25, for example, can accommodate 29 liters of gear—and the smallest size of a given pack will almost always have less space than the largest size. Finally, it’s important to consider where the storage is located and how spread out it is, especially if you plan to carry bulky items. For instance, the Black Diamond Distance 15 carries a rope much better than the 17-liter UD Adventure Vest.
Running vests are lightweight and often streamlined but pack a big punch when it comes to organization. There are a number of factors to keep in mind when loading your pack, including accessibility of gear (you’ll want to be able to reach all the essential items without removing your pack), security (valuables in zippered pockets vs. dump pockets), and weight distribution—after all, a properly balanced load is always more comfortable. Below we break down organization by the three main storage options: shoulder pockets, side pockets, and the rear compartment.
A running vest’s front pockets are one of its most defining characteristics and ideal for accessing snacks, water, and other supplies while on the go. Here, you’ll find a wide variety of organization, including dump pockets (great for stashing gels and soft hydration flasks), zippered pockets for valuables, sweat-proof pill pockets, and even waterproof zippered pockets for cell phones. Be sure to take a good inventory of what you’ll need to access with your pack on and make sure there’s ample space. Security is also important to consider: during more scramble-y runs, we appreciate having zippered or cinch closures on the front of our vest to help keep our belongings secure when we’re bending over.
If you opt for a vest that wraps around your body (rather than a backpack-style design), chances are it will come with pockets under the arms on each side. In general, we love the functional and easy-to-access storage these offer. Most side pockets are stretchy dump pockets, although vests like the Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set feature zip pockets under the arms for secure storage. In the end, whether or not a vest has side pockets will not make or break our decision, but the added organization and weight distribution certainly come in handy.
In terms of rear storage, not all vests have this option, including some streamlined race designs. Moreover, many runners prefer to have their gear and food items along the front and sides for weight distribution, comfort, and accessibility (although this is partially a matter of personal preference). That said, for those who want to carry more than a liter of water and a few snacks, the ability to store gear along your back is essential.
Rear compartments can include a stretchy dump pocket like we see on the Salomon ADV Skin series) or a cavernous compartment with top cinch, like that on the Black Diamond Distance 15. Additionally, some designs, like the Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance and Nathan VaporKrar, allow you to access their rear compartment from the sides, making it easier to stuff a jacket or trekking poles away without removing your vest (we love this feature so much it’s almost a deal-breaker for us). Finally, the majority of backpack compartments have a built-in reservoir sleeve, and some are even insulated to keep your water cold and separated from your back.
Quick and easy access to water is one of the biggest incentives for wearing a vest, so it goes without saying that hydration compatibility should be a key consideration. In general, vests accommodate water in two main ways: bottles and/or hydration reservoirs. However, keep in mind that not every vest comes with an included bladder or bottles (including UltrAspire's Mountain Race Vest above). Especially when buying online, be sure to do your research beforehand so you know what comes stock and what you’ll have to purchase separately. To help, we’ve listed the included hydration (if any) in our product specs and comparison table above.
Bottles range in size from about 250 to 600 milliliters and are a popular form of hydration for supported races, short runs, and routes near lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water where you can replenish your supply throughout the day. The advantages over hydration reservoirs are clear: bottles are much easier to refill and don’t require that you take off your vest to do so, and they allow you to monitor how much remaining liquid you have far better than a reservoir. Finally, most runners carry two bottles (one on each shoulder strap), which allows them to drink two different liquids—often water and an electrolyte fluid—and balance the weight.
Bottles are typically stored on the shoulder straps and stay in place via stretchy dump pockets, which often include built-in bungees that wrap around the nozzle to keep it within reach. Most bottles are compatible with straws as well (the Nathan VaporKrar 4L even includes these), which bring the water close to your mouth like a reservoir hose. Finally, some vests, like the UltrAspire Momentum Race, have bottle pockets along the lumbar too. The majority of water bottles are soft flasks, which are lightweight, shrink in size as you drink, and allow you to drink without removing the bottle from the vest. Soft flasks, however, are much more difficult to stow away than hard flasks, and they’re less durable as well (the good news is that the most common soft flask manufacturer, HydraPak, offers a lifetime guarantee).
Hydration Reservoir (Bladder)
Most runners use a hydration reservoir (also referred to as a bladder) for longer runs with less potential for resupplying, as they can accommodate more liquid than bottles. In our own experience, we prefer a reservoir over bottles in most situations (the key exception being races), as the easier accessibility means we hydrate more often. However, reservoirs make it difficult to monitor how much water you have left, are time-consuming to refill, and can be challenging to stuff into a full pack. They also focus weight along your back rather than your front, which can be a downside for some. And a note on using reservoirs in sub-freezing temperatures: to combat ice clogs in your hose, you can purchase an insulating neoprene sleeve, or—our method of choice—just blow the remaining water back into the bladder after each sip.
While some of the more streamlined performance vests are not compatible with hydration reservoirs, most models are built with a dedicated sleeve and hose attachment points. Reservoirs range in size from around 1.5 to 3 liters, which is the maximum we recommend for running. Those with a slider across the top are easier to fill without removing from the pack, and we find that they also provide the most secure closure. We also prefer nozzles that feature an open/close function—we’ve accidentally sat on our hose and drained our bladder more times than we’d like to admit. Additionally, for securing the hose to the front, a hands-free magnetic attachment—used in the Osprey Duro 1.5 and Nathan VaporAir—is by far our favorite design (just keep it clear of dirt and dust). Finally, when it comes time to clean, bladders with wide openings provide the easiest access.
Not every runner will want to store gear on the outside of their vest, and particularly those traveling fast and light. But for longer days that require extra supplies, it’s a good option to have. Most race-specific vests do not feature much in the way of external storage, but we see more carrying features on larger-capacity models in the performance and fastpacking categories. These include trekking pole attachments, ice tool holders, and compression straps and bungees.
Trekking Pole Attachments
For those who run with lightweight trekking poles, it’s nice to have a way to attach them to your vest so you can go hands-free when needed. There are a range of solutions for trekking pole storage, including along the shoulder straps, diagonally in front or across the back, or on either side of the vest. Some vests even have built-in sleeves along the lumbar or vertically on each side (as we see in the Black Diamond Distance 15). Often, vests allow you to customize the straps to configure trekking poles to suit your preference. But no matter how you choose to stow your trekking poles, the goal is that they’re comfortable, out of the way, and you can access or stow them without removing your vest.
Ice Tool Attachments
Ice tool attachments are seldom found in recreational or performance vests (for good reason), but most models in our fastpacking category have one or two. In the end, very few runners need this feature, but it will prove absolutely essential for those that do. If you do plan to use them, make sure that the attachment is compatible with your tools before making a purchase. Some designs feature loops that can accommodate any ice axe with a standard pick head, while others—like that on the BD Distance—feature metal dogbones that only work with tools that have a hole in the head.
Compression Straps and Bungees
Some larger-capacity vests feature bungees or compression straps for cinching down a partially full load. The Ultimate Direction FastPack 25, for example, has a crisscrossing compression strap on each side, while the Salomon ADV Skin 12 uses bungees in a similar configuration. In addition to being used for compression, some bungees function to secure a jacket or other light wind layer at the rear of the vest. This does make us a bit nervous—gear is much more secure inside a stuff pocket or compartment—but bungee systems are typically quite reliable. And while we’re on the topic of external storage: some running vests include daisy chains, which allow you to attach items via straps or carabiners. While these can be useful on multi-sport packs (like the Nathan TrailMix 7L), we recommend runners keep their load as streamlined as possible to minimize bouncing and unwanted movement.
Running is a very physically demanding activity, so it’s important to nail the sizing of your vest in order to carry your load as efficiently as possible. A vest that fits well will distribute weight evenly, allow you to move freely, and be able to adapt to a changing load as you drink water, eat food, and don layers. Ill-fitting vests, on the other hand, can feel heavy, bouncy, and cause a sore back or shoulders. Over extended periods, they can even result in chafing, blistering, and nerve damage.
Sizes and Shapes
Most vests are available in a range of sizes and allow you to tailor fit significantly. To determine your size, start by taking your chest measurement and finding the corresponding size on the manufacturer’s chart. If you’re trying the vest on in store (which we recommend), you’ll want to ensure that all the components are in their proper place. Our petite female tester, for instance, has to make sure that a vest’s water bottle holders don’t end up in her armpits when cinched tight. Further, look for the size that offers a sweet spot in the adjustment straps, making sure not to max them out in either direction. And keep in mind that the more loaded-down your running vest is, the snugger the fit will be—if you plan to pack a full load and are between two sizes, it’s a good idea to size up. Finally, some vests and packs are one-size-fits-all (like the CamelBak Octane Dart), in which case we highly advise trying it on before making a purchase to ensure you can make the necessary adjustments.
Vest shape is also worth mentioning here, as it varies widely between models and can play a significant role in overall comfort on the trail. Some race-oriented vests in the performance category, like the UltrAspire Momentum Race, contour around the shoulder blades to allow greater freedom of movement and shave weight, while others cover the majority of the back. We haven’t felt restricted by any of these more full-coverage vests, but many runners who prioritize a quick stride will appreciate those with ergonomic shapes and less material.
Adjusting the Fit
Once you’ve found the right size and shape, you’ll want to dial in the adjustments—not just the first time around, but every time you wear the vest. There are two primary adjustment points: across the front of the body and at each side. Starting at the front, most vests have two straps (or a zigzagging strap or two), and we generally prefer one strap above the chest and one below. These should be snug enough to keep the vest in place but not overly tight—a good rule of thumb is about 3 to 6 inches between the shoulder straps. Next, move to the side adjustments, which bring the load closer to your body. Give these each a good, equal tug, aiming to get the vest as close as possible without compromising comfort. Some vests, like the REI Co-op Swiftland Hydro, also have load lifters on each shoulder. All in all, the goal is to get the pack evenly snug to minimize movement as you run.
While we’re on the topic of fit, it’s important to note that many vests also come in women’s-specific models. In general, male and female torsos are significantly different in both shape and size. Speaking from experience, I’ve found that my shoulders are too narrow for most unisex vests, meaning that when I cinch the vest tight, the shoulder straps end up too close to my neck. Women’s-specific designs, on the other hand, are shaped for narrower shoulders and bustier chests, and often feature modified organization. The Salmon ADV Skin 8 Set, for instance, is designed so that the water bottles ride below—rather than on top of—the chest. In the end, some women may still prefer a men’s or unisex option, but it doesn’t hurt to try on all of the available options to see what feels best for you.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to note that even the lightest, softest, and best-fitting vests will still be a slight burden on your stride. In fact, one of our gear testers resisted wearing a vest for so long that she ran her first ultra (a 41-mile race) with handheld bottles and gels stuffed down her shirt. But she’s since changed her ways (and so have we), and the good news is that today’s vests are more comfortable than ever.
In our opinion, the most comfortable vests are those that look more like a piece of clothing than a backpack. Rather than the adjustable straps typical in a pack, these use stretchy materials that sit close to your body and hug your torso. Running without a shirt is still a gamble, but to maximize comfort potential, you’ll want to be sure to opt for a design that has a soft next-to-skin feel (the Nathan VaporKrar is one of our favorites). It’s also important to keep in mind that the way a pack feels against your skin when you first try it on will be different than how it feels with a full load and once you’ve built up a sweat. Finally, as we mentioned above, fit and sizing are crucial to consider here, as an ill-fitting vest can lead to uncomfortable rubbing and unwanted movement on the trail.
Running is inherently a high-intensity sport, and therefore it’s important that your vest is effective at wicking moisture as you sweat. Keep in mind that no running vest is going to do away with it completely, but some will make your outing more comfortable than others. If breathability is a top priority—say you’re prone to sweating, like to run with your shirt off, or venture out in warm temperatures—there are a few features to look for that will increase your chances of staying cool and comfortable on the trail.
The vast majority of running vests are built with air-permeable materials (like mesh or other thin, well-ventilated fabrics) along the backpanel, shoulder straps, and underarm panels. We’ve also found that models that incorporate padded mesh with channels for airflow breathe better than thinner fabrics, as illustrated in the difference between the Nathan VaporAir (more breathable) and the VaporKrar (less breathable). Additionally, true running vests often fall short in ventilation compared to pack-like vests, as they sit very close to the skin and allow less airflow between your body and the bag. And it almost goes without saying that a vest that covers more of your torso will offer less breathability than a smaller-capacity, more minimalist design. Finally, it does help to consider color: black materials will run hotter than light colorways.
Running packs are designed to provide maximum function at minimal weight, but some models achieve this balance better than others. The packs above range from 5 ounces to 19.4, with most hovering in the 7- to 10-ounce range. If weight is a top priority, look for mesh materials, thin straps and buckles, limited feature sets, smaller capacities, and removable features including straps and reservoir sleeves. As is the case with all outdoor gear, however, the lighter you go, the more sacrifices you’ll make in durability and comfort. Thinner fabrics are more likely to rip, stretch out of shape, or form holes with use, and they don’t carry a load as well as more robust materials. And take note: whenever possible, we’ve listed the weight for the vest only, excluding hydration accessories. Depending on your hydration style and capacity, empty bottles or a reservoir will add roughly 2 to 6 ounces to your load.
The running vests above range in price from $70 for the entry-level CamelBak Octane Dart to $180 for the high-capacity Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 5.0. It’s fairly typical to see bigger price tags on higher-capacity vests, but there are other factors at play here too. In general, high-performance options use more expensive materials and often pack in impressive feature sets at a low weight. That said, not everyone needs a premium design. If you think you’ll only wear your vest a few times a year or are just dipping your toes into running, we recommend starting out with one of the more affordable options before making a bigger investment.
It’s also important to consider what extras, if any, are included with each vest. For example, the Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance Vest ($149) comes with two 500-milliliter HydraPak flasks, while the UltrAspire Momentum Race Vest is only $80 but comes without any accompanying reservoir or flasks. Considering that HydraPak’s 500 soft flasks cost $20 a piece (reservoirs run around $30-$40), you’ll probably end up saving a lot less than initially expected. That said, for those who already have a set of flasks or a reservoir, the savings of the UltrAspire or similar vest are undoubtedly enticing and make a lot of sense.
We love running vests for longer missions and carrying a liter of water or more, but for shorter pursuits or well-supported races, you may be able to get away with a running belt or handheld water bottle instead. In terms of running belts, there are a variety of great options, some of which are spin-off designs of vests above (including the Nathan TrailMix Belt and the Salomon Agile 250 Set Belt). Like vests, running belts come in an array of styles, including streamlined models that can carry a bar and a few valuables and more featured designs with holsters for water bottles and a few generous pockets. In our opinion, sleek and minimalist belts are super functional for carrying small items, but larger loads on the waist can get unwieldy and awkward.
Handhelds, on the other hand, are water bottles designed for easy portability and often feature ergonomic designs and sleeves to secure them to your hand (Osprey's Duro Handheld is a great example). This sleeve usually has a compartment for a few small essentials (a bar and your keys, for example) and wraps around your hand so that you can hold it without needing to grip. In general, handhelds are ideal for quick runs when you don’t want to go without water, but their overall utility is limited. In the end, we prefer to have our hands free if the terrain gets even slightly technical and find that the added weight in our hands can be rather fatiguing over even moderate distances.
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