Hydration vests let you go light and far!

Summer is fast approaching, and that means big summer adventures are right around the corner! Whether you’re looking to do a run around town or a day in the mountains, a hydration vest is an integral piece of gear for trail runners and hikers. If you’ve ever looked into buying one, you probably already know that there are tons of options and endless variations on what at first glance is a simple piece of gear. We want to help demystify the world of hydration vests for you. Running vests are an investment, and getting one that is the perfect match will make a world of difference!

What size/volume vest do I need?

Running vest volumes are generally measured in liters (the size of a Nalgene water bottle). Vests come in a variety of sizes, from 1-2 liters up to 15 liters or more. For most people, a vest in the 5-12 liter range is ideal. To gauge the size of the vest you need, think about the gear, food, and water that you’ll want to carry with you. About how many water bottles would all of that fit in? That’s how many liters you want to shoot for!

  Jeff’s philosophy: “I like to move light and fast and carry only the necessities, so I tend to opt for vests that are as small and light as possible. I’m partial to vests 8 liters and smaller, though I have some vests over 12 liters for really really big days or when I need a lot of clothes or water.” Jeff is a big fan of the Salomon Advanced Skin 5.

Vicky’s philosophy: “I always want to have enough room for my things and be able to pack an extra layer. I find a 12-liter vest works great. Plus, I can always run with it empty and it feels the same as a smaller vest. It’s a great ‘one pack to do it all’ size. You can make a vest smaller, but it’s tough to make on bigger!” Vicky recommends the Nathan Pinnacle 12 or The North Face Flight Training Pack 12.

How should a vest fit?

Snug around the shoulders with no space between you and the vest.

Vicky wearing the Salomon Advanced Skin 8 for a  comfortable fit in the front.

Vests come in both unisex and women’s specific fits. The sizing is generally similar to t-shirt sizing. The best thing you can do is try a bunch of vests on! All vests are cut different (even from the same brands), and you never know how one will fit your body. Unlike a backpack that just needs to fit your shoulders comfortably, you want the vest to hug and wrap your whole upper body snuggly.

You don’t want space between the shoulder straps and your shoulders. You also don’t want space between the sides of your pack and ribs/chest. A comfortable, snug fit will reduce bouncing and chafing. It’s especially important for women to try packs, as they fit different chest sizes very differently. A ladies’ favorite is the Salomon Advanced Skin 8, which has bottles designed to sit lower on ribcage rather than up by the sternum (Ashley says: “keeps the bottle off the girls!”).  It can take some experimenting with different vests and adjustments to get the fit dialed in just right! Other ladies specific vests include the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vesta 5 and the Nathan Women’s Pinnacle 4 and Pinnacle 12.

 Bladder or bottles?

 The age-old question sure to rile up any trail runner. There is no right answer, but there may be a right answer for you! Most all packs are compatible with both hydration bladders and up-front bottles. Pros of up-front bottle are that you can see exactly how much you’ve drank and can have two different types of drinks. They are also easier and quicker to refill at aid stations or streams. Bladders carry water weight more efficiently on your back and can more easily carry large amounts of water. However, it is hard to tell how much you’ve drank and they are a bit more cumbersome to refill. Most vests come with bottles, but the Nathan Pinnacle 12 comes with a bladder ready to go!

Ashley carrying two bottles, Bridgett with one bottle and a bladder, while Chuck has just a bladder

How to try on a vest

Put a vest on and grab some snack and goodies! Can you reach the pockets you need to reach while running? Are you able to adjust the vest for a good fit while it’s filled with snacks? How easy is it to get on and off? If you’re carrying bear spray in a water bottle pocket, can you get it out easy? Think about how you’ll be using the vest while running and try to simulate that in the store. Chances are if something bothers you in the store, it will bother you on the trails! This is a great time to test things out before making an investment in a running vest. And maybe most importantly, make sure your giant smartphone will fit in one of the pockets!

What features am I looking for?

The North Face Flight 12L pack has a giant pouch in the back great for big days on the trails!

There are all sorts of bells and whistles on hydration vests. Focus on the ones important to what you’ll be doing and how you’ll be traveling. If you plan on carrying trekking poles, check to make sure the vest you get has trekking pole attachments. We all carry our phone, so be sure to test it out in a few pockets to make sure you can fit it in an easy to access spot. If you might need to carry extra clothes or gear, check for bungee straps on the back. Take a peak at the adjustments to make sure the vest can adjust to fit you in both a summer t-shirt and winter layers.

Other considerations

In Montana, we’re often running or hiking in grizzly country. Hydration vests are perfect for carrying bear spray in an accessible place! 

Need to carry bear spray? One of your bottle pockets is the perfect spot!

Out for a long mountain run? Try out a BeFree water filter to turn any water you find into clean, potable water! 

Jeff’s take on BeFree filters: “I carry substantially less water now that I have a BeFree filter. I check to see how much water is on a route, then just refill my bottle at stream crossings and don’t worry about carrying liters and liters of water for a big route. It’s been a total game changer!!”

Never run out of clean water with a BeFree filter!