Thursday 30 January 2014

Trail Running Hydration Pack Review: what is the best way to carry water and gear?

Getting out the door and on the trail is a fantastic way to escape and be free in a busy and hectic world which never ceases to make constant demands on us all. The trail brings a peaceful solitude or a place to catch up with friends. It helps to get us away from the stress and worries and just 'be' in the moment. 

So it doesn't come as much of a surprise when our runs get longer in time and further in distance, hoping to make that free space in your day just that little bit longer. But with the increases in distance and time out on the trail comes extra demands on the body. Initially it may be just the need to start carrying water to remain hydrated on hotter days, or snacks to keep you fuelled as the miles increase. Eventually you will need a way to transport additional equipment such as clothing or maps to get you safely to our destination. So what, exactly, is the best way to carry all this gear we suddenly find ourselves investing in? 

In this review I will take you through all the main ways of staying self-sufficient, hydrated and safe on the trail while making you aware of the pro's and con's of each method, to help you choose the method best suited to your demands. For each style of hydration system I have picked an example product which I feel to be one of the best contenders in its category. So, lets get started.....

Method 1: hand-held water bottles
Hand-held water bottles is the most basic and commonly seen method of carrying a small amount of water on a run, either to remain hydrated on shorter runs in hot weather, or to slightly extend the time and distance a person can run for. Some bottles allow you to stash a key or an energy gel in the bottles casing, but apart from that, all they really do is allow a form of hydration to be at hand throughout your [relatively short] run.

When you would use this method:
- running in hot weather
- slightly extending the time and distance you can be out running and remain hydrated
- races without aid stations or where you want your water with you

- only a small amount of water can be carried; approx. 500ml per hand maximum
- can be uncomfortable or irritating for some people having to carry it in your hands
- no other equipment or food can be carried using this method
- sloshing water in a hard bottle is very annoying while running

Featured product: Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab Set

I have used the Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab gloves for short and hot summer runs through to a 27 mile ultramarathon. They perform really well and are a fantastic innovation within trail running apparel and equipment. The main selling points of these hydration gloves for me was the simplicity of the design and ease of usage, the lightweight design and the ability to carry water without the usual slosh-slosh-slosh aggravation with every step you take that you normally get with the use of conventional sports bottles.
For more info and a full review see:

Method 2: waist mounted hydration belts
This is the next stage up, if you like, from hand-held bottles, and not only allows you to carry the water hands-free, but also enables you to carry slightly more water with ease. I find that a full 500ml bottle is too much to carry in the hands, especially if you have one in each hand - not good! Typically, a waist belt takes one or two 500ml bottles depending on the brand and model. Larger waist hydration systems also have a small pocket section for carrying additional items that you might find yourself wanting or needing, such as some basic equipment and snacks to keep you safe and fuelled for longer runs.

When you would use this method:
- if you cannot get on with hand-held bottles
- when you need more water than can be carried by hand
- when you also need some small snacks to keep you fuelled
- when you need basic equipment with you (phone, keys, windproof, map, hat, GPS)
- hotter weather; back mounted packs can make you sweat more

- limited space; there are other methods that can carry more water
- small pocket size; there are other methods that can carry a lot more equipment
- can be uncomfortable; some people just don't like the feel of waist belts
- can bounce whilst running; becomes irritating
- water sloshes about in hard bottles

Featured product: Osprey Talon 4
This very innovative and well constructed, tough hydration waist belt allows the runner to carry up to 1 litre of water in two 500ml bottles, positioned at an angle for ease of access whilst running and firmly held in place with elasticated cords. It also features a back pocket for gear you may need during or after your run and two hip pockets for further storage of gels, phone or energy bars. It fits well in the lower part of your back and is reasonably comfortable to use.

Method 3: back-mounted hydration systems
These offer the runner hands-free hydration whilst on the trail. By putting the water in a bladder and situating it on your back, with a tube and mouthpiece coming over your shoulder and transporting the water from the bladder and into your mouth, it enables you to carry far more water than hand-held and bottle options. Usually ranging from 1 litre - 3 litre bladder options, back-mounted systems come in a very minimal rucksack construction with better options having a hip belt and chest strap. They also usually contain a very small storage pocket for essentials such as a map, keys and phone and often have webbing or elasticated cord on the back for stashing a wind or waterproof jacket.

When you would use this method:
- longer runs where plenty of water is needed to remain hydrated
- long runs where you may need some snacks and very basic equipment
- for people who do not like hand-held or waist mounted hydration methods

- very limited space for equipment, clothing and food
- makes your back very sweaty, especially in hotter weather
- bladder can burst if old or on impact if you fall, leaving you with no water
- a lot of systems still 'bounce' around a little whilst running
- bladders can be hard to clean and pipes can get mould in them

Featured product: Osprey Viper 4
Featuring a rucksack construction with hip belt and chest strap, the Viper 4 has a small pocket for storing essentials, front elasticated strap pockets for gels, energy or cereal bars, and elasticated cording for additional carrying of wind and waterproofs. If you require basic hydration and fuelling on longer runs, this is an excellent choice.

Method 4: running backpacks
Running backpacks allow the runner to enter a whole new world of trail running, where carrying a variety of equipment and clothing, as well as sufficient water and food is essential to the needs and requirements of the runner. This is paramount for runs where you will need to be totally self-sufficient, for example on long distance training runs as well as to carry the mandatory kit list often dictated by organisers of trail marathons and ultramarathons. Backpacks usually have a space and attachments for a bladder as well as bottle pockets for situations where bottles are needed as well as or instead of a bladder. A quality running backpack will have a large storage section, waist belt, chest strap and options to adjust the angle and weight distribution of the pack similar as can be found on larger hiking rucksacks. It should be light, comfortable to wear for long periods of time and have a decent ventilation system to prevent your back getting too hot or wet.

When you would use this method:
- very long training runs where water, clothing and equipment is essential for safety
- races that require you to carry a mandatory kit list
- when you are running alone in isolated places and need safety equipment
- multi-day events and runs where overnight equipment is needed
- long runs where changes in weather are likely, requiring extra clothing

- can be quite cumbersome, especially if not well designed
- getting a sweaty back is imminent
- you can still get a little 'bounce' occurring when running
- not as comfortable or innovative as race packs

Featured product: Salomon Agile 12
With a 12 litre storage capacity and coming fully equipped with a 1.5 litre bladder, the Salomon Agile 12 is a great example of a well designed running backpack. As well as the main storage section, other useful features include the hip belt, chest strap and angle adjusters on the top of the shoulders to minimise movement of the pack whilst running and adjust the weight distribution. More finite details such as hip storage pouches, hiking pole holders and stretch panels to stuff clothing such as a waterproof or bottle in all improve the design and help make it more user-friendly.

Method 5: race packs and vests
Although far more expensive than a running backpack, if money is not an issue and you don't mind spending a little more of your hard-earned cash, race packs are by far the lightest, most comfortable, innovative and convenient way to carry all your gear and stay hydrated whilst on the trail. Being shaped more like a vest or a waistcoat, and with the lack of a waist belt, they have an all-in-one feel to them and are therefore far more form-fitting than a running backpack. This minimises movement between the body and the pack and evenly distributes the load to a more comfortable position. Fluid is usually carried on the front of the pack in bottles for ease of access, as well as having the added option of a bladder should you want or need it. A good race pack will be comprised of a high stretch fabric, allowing the pack to expand the more that is added to it and always ensuring the contents do not bounce around or move. Access to essentials such as snacks, head torch, map and hat or gloves is usually possible whilst on the run via well positioned pockets and compartments along the front and sides, and most packs are hiking pole compatible. 

When you would use this method:
- as a more comfortable, user-friendly and lightweight alternative to a backpack
- very long training runs where water, clothing and equipment is essential for safety
- races that require you to carry a mandatory kit list
- when you are running alone in isolated places and need safety equipment
- long runs where changes in weather are likely, requiring extra clothing

- not as much room as larger backpacks for overnight uses needing more gear
- your back can get sweaty in hotter weather, although not as much as a backpack
- the price is usually a lot more than a backpack

Featured product: Salomon Adv Skin S-Lab Hydro 12 Set
This is by far the most comfortable, lightweight and user friendly product I have ever used to carry my water and essentials on a long run. The SensiFit and MotionFit systems ensure it is extremely form-fitting, balanced and very versatile for a whole host of uses from racing to long distance training runs. The two 500ml soft flasks that come as standard are situated on the front of the pack and shrink as you drink, therefore eliminating the sloshing effect that hard bottles create. It also contains a safety blanket, thermal protective bladder case and a whistle (the bladder has to be purchased separately). The main compartment is easiest to access with the pack off, but the stretch panels and side compartments, as well as the front pockets and bottles are all accessible whilst running. Excellent innovation and a quality product all round.

There isn't a 'one method fits all' approach to staying hydrated and carrying all your essential kit and clothing. Depending on the demands that your run will place on you, and even your own individual requirements and ability, the method you choose will come down to personal preference. It could even be that you need a variety of methods available at your disposal to suit a wide range of running circumstances, terrains and distances. 

Always go for a comfortable and lightweight product that is user-friendly. An uncomfortable and awkward method of transporting all you need will end up getting left in the wardrobe and you will only end up repurchasing a better, more expensive product at a later date, leaving you further out of pocket. Get the best option that you can afford and you will enjoy its innovation for miles and miles to come.

Happy running everyone,

There are a whole host of excellent products available on the market today that have not been mentioned in this review, but the products featured have all been tried and tested by myself over the last few months and therefore I can recommend them with confidence. 

1 comment:

  1. Back mounted hydration system is the best way to carry a water and gear while running. it is used while you need a quantity of water for hydrated.