As I assemble my trail running gear and reach for a hydration pack, the SJ Ultra Vest presents a conundrum. On one hand, this is simply the most comfortable, lightest and least noticeable pack I’ve owned. But on the other hand, it sputters where it should shine: delivering hydration.
The Perfect Bag?
I bought the SJ Ultra Vest to replace my collection of Camelbaks which all take 2 or 3L bladders and were purchased primarily for mountain-biking. When it came to trail running they were “OK”, but the big Camelbaks were too big (and heavy), and the small Camelbak could carry a cell phone and that’s all. I wanted a bag designed for running – one that could carry 1-2L of water, but also accommodate my minimum trail gear (PLB, phone, first aid kit, survival blanket, pocket knife and jacket), plus have room for a bit more gear if I wanted to run longer and/or colder. The SJ Ultra Vest looked to be the perfect bag.
Light and Pocket-y
This bag is light and very packable. When my order arrived, I opened the box to see what appeared to be two bottles and a pair of socks – it packs down that small! The SJ Ultra Vest is a feat of design excellence. It has breathable hex-mesh back/shoulder panels, cuben fiber sides, and a stretchy power-mesh back compartment.
The second thing I noticed is pockets. Millions and millions of pockets. Probably too many pockets to be honest! There’s four pockets for gels, two for bottles, two chest pockets, two side pockets, a waterproof key pocket, another small pocket, a back pocket. The first few times out on the trail, it’d sometimes take me a few pockets to find what I was looking for. And when I got home from a run, it would take ages to go through all the pockets and unload everything. But hey, better too many pockets than too few, and after a while I got into a routine and knew exactly where things were, and which pockets to unload.
Jiggle, Jiggle, Splosh!
So, Day 1, I loaded it up, and out I went. I love the feel of this backpack! It sits nice and high on your shoulders, leaving your back ventilated and keeping you cool. It carries loads effortlessly and I barely notice it’s there. But, as soon as I started running, those full water bottles, sitting right over my breasts, started to wobble and bounce. It’s an unusual sensation (for a slim-ish guy) to have any weight in that location, and I wondered if this is what it feels like to run with an ample bossum? Things felt a little… out of control! I really wanted to be able to cinch them down somehow.
A few months later and I’m still not convinced that it’s the right place to carry bottles. The jiggling settles down as the bottles get emptier, but then you’re faced with the other issue this bottle placement raises: the splashing noise. It’s noticeably louder having the bottles sloshing around just in front and under your ears. While you do get used to it, it can detract from the peace and stillness of an early morning trail run.
The SJ Ultra Vest comes with two 600ml “kicker valve” bottles. I’m not a fan of the kicker valve. The first time I went to take a drink, it took me a few minutes to work out that you need to pull the rubber valve out, and then bite the valve a little (but not too much) to get the water flowing. I’m constantly frustrated by the small volume of water that comes out (sometimes you just want a great big mouthful of water!) but I do like the big loop handles on top of the bottles, and I love how easily I can reach the bottles. I experimented with slicing the valve wider, but while that gave great flow, it also led to a leaky valve that showered me with water as I ran! So I’ve swapped off the lids for some Camelbak Podium bottle lids, which have been pretty good.
I soon found that 1.2L of water is not quite enough. As I was slowly imploding on a hot 3 hour trail run, I realised that I need to be able to carry more water. To date I’ve resolved this by carrying an additional 750ml soft bottle in the back pocket. The bag promises to accommodate a 2L bladder, but I’ve yet to find one short enough to fit inside (it’s quite a short bag and certainly can’t take a standard length Camelbak bladder), and the Ultimate Direction bladder is difficult to source. Also, there is no separate internal pocket for the bladder, so it would have to sit in with your gear, making it difficult to refill.
Is that a House on Your Back?
I’m astounded how much stuff I can fit in this bag. Last month I decided to run the Tongariro Crossing in NZ. Although it was summer, this is an alpine crossing – the temperatures were sub-zero, and the weather forecast was not great. But I was there, and I had a window, so I was going to give it a crack. As I laid my gear out on the bed, I despaired that I’d be able to carry it all:
- polypro top
- warm hat
- warm gloves
- wind-proof gloves
- down jacket
- waterproof jacket
- waterproof overtrouw
- map and compass
- zip-ties (a throwback to my MTB days where a zip-tie could solve any problem!)
- lots of bars and gels
- and the rest of my standard running stuff (PLB etc)
Admittedly, I’ve got some very packable versions of these items, but that is still a LOT of gear to fit in a lightweight running pack. Yet the SJ Ultra swallowed the lot – easily – and (most importantly) comfortably! If anything, the bag felt even more comfortable with a full load of gear! Even if there wasn’t going to be rain, I knew there’d be plenty of sweat, so the things I wanted to stay dry (like the down jacket) I packed inside a plastic grocery bag. The rain jacket was attached to the outside via the bungee cords.
I still shake my head in amazement. It was a wonderful feeling to be on top of a mountain in adverse conditions, wearing warm gear, and knowing that, if I had to stop, I had plenty more layers of toasty, windproof gear I could put on. Ahhh, what a bag!
(action photos courtesy of a car window reflection in the carpark!)
I’m not sure whether I’d recommend the Scott Jurek Ultra Vest or not. The load-carrying performance is phenomenal, and both comfort and quality are outstanding. Unfortunately, the water carrying capabilities don’t quite work for me. I found I like using water bottles, where I can easily see how much is left – but the breast-mount location and feeble kicker valves put me off.
I like this bag enough that I’m going to continue to experiment with it. I’ll try to track down a bladder (I see version 2 of this pack now has a separate bladder pocket), and I’ll also try to find some soft bottles for the front pockets to see if they sit better (and quieter). It’s frustratingly close to being the perfect bag, but its flaws cannot be overlooked!