If you go back a few decades and look at anyone running for more than an hour or two on a hot summer’s day, or visit the mid-pack of an unsupported ultra race, you’ll see under-laden Bergens bouncing the skin off of shoulders, repurposed syrup bottles acting as prototype handhelds, and relentless chafing from snacks safety-pinned to the insides and outsides of shorts....This was before smartphones were invented, and long before someone decided they needed to be beefed up to the size of small tablets.
The options for carrying gear and essentials on the run have come a long, long way. In this article I’ll break down each solution’s virtues and limitations, as well as extra things to consider, to help you choose the one which will best serve your running - be that a hydration vest, a running belt, or a backpack.
Hydration vests – sometimes referred to as race packs – typically give you between four and eight litres of storage space. They allow you to carry a couple of 500ml soft flasks on the front next to some easily accessible pockets for gels, snacks, your phone and some cash, with enough room in the back to store safety kit like spare layers, waterproof cover, and a foil blanket. In many trail races variations of these items will be mandatory.
- Weigh less than 300 grams (without bottles)
- Have upfront storage for easy access to snacks and devices
- Have side access to pockets on the small of the back that are ideal to hold waterproof jackets (out of the way, but accessible without removing the vest in a pinch)
- Host a larger main compartment on the back to stash extra supplies and safety kit
- Feature built-in solutions to carry trekking poles
These packs will be more than up to the challenge of any ultra marathon save for the few with the most rigorous kit lists - be it because they’re over especially isolated and treacherous terrain, don’t have many drop-bag options, or because they’re multi-day events.
- Not necessarily enough for run-commuting as they won’t be strong enough to carry shoes or strong enough to carry a laptop
- Can be a bit much for runs when all you need is water (though unless it’s especially hot, this probably won’t be an issue for most people as they’re so breathable and lightweight, and their compartments typically stay compact and secure against your body when not in use)
Things to consider
- A pack will feel smaller the closer to its capacity you fill it, so it’s always best to see what it feels like with kit inside before you commit to the purchase
- While the amount of bounce is seriously minimised on modern, form-fitting packs, the more full they are, the more noticeable the bounce will be
Waist packs and running belts
If you’re looking to carry water, a phone and keys, and maybe a few gels, potentially for those slightly shorter but still significant runs where a full pack seems like overkill, a waist pack or a running belt could be just the thing.
They’re also a lightweight and streamlined solution to the anxiety-inducing conundrum many runners have at every city marathon: can I rely on the nutrition and fluids available on the route to get me through? A good waist pack gives you the freedom to train and race with whatever drink mix or gels work best for you.
Salomon has two excellent entries in the waist pack category. The entry-level Pulse Belt and the more premium Sense Pro Belt both feature tubular designs of stretchy material (sometimes referred to as being in a “tutu”-style), capable of holding one 500ml soft flask, a phone, keys and snacks flush against the body to minimise bounce.
Due to their minimalist design, these can be great modules to compliment a hydration vest on really long, unsupported outings, and both have the functionality to also carry trekking poles.
A slightly larger option in this category comes from Inov-8. The Race Elite 3L waist pack has (as the name suggests) a large three-litre main pocket, as well as a soft flask pocket (not included) and an additional stash pocket for quick access. This is a great option for hill races short of the marathon distance, as they can comfortably hold all the mandatory kit you would require as well as some fluid.
FlipBelt’s Classic Belt is a great option for your shorter everyday runs - essentially adding a continuous pocket around your waist that will hold your things flush against the body to minimise bounce. Multiple pocket openings all the way around give easy access, and flipping the belt around closes these, keeping everything secure.
Fitletic make many variations of adjustable running belts that will comfortably hold your phone, keys and snacks, with options to carry small bottles, and even to hold race numbers to save safety-pinning them to your kit.
- Even the biggest waist packs are only generally set up to carry one 500ml soft flask
- Can be difficult to get things securely in and out of while running with gloves on
- The more tubular-styled waist packs and belts, due to their flush fit, can be difficult to wear with shorter split short options
Things to consider
- Stretchy, tubular-style waist packs tend to come sized, so be sure to consult size guides and try your purchase inside before removing the labels and training with it
- There is no correct way round to wear the tubular-style waist pack, some people will prefer having the water bottle behind them, some people find having the water in front more secure and less bouncy
The running backpack is the best option for anyone looking to fit run commuting into their routine. Run commuting is one of the most time efficient ways to keep your training mileage up without eating into family time and your social life.
If you’re needing to haul shoes, clothing, and potentially a laptop or some paperwork on your commuter runs, you’ll be looking for something with at least 15-litres of capacity, plenty of adjustability in the straps, as well as a strap across the sternum and potentially even the waist for a secure fit. Their aim is purely focused on capacity, and minimising bounce.
At Run4It we stock a couple of strong commuter options in this category from Ronhill and Nike.
- These types of packs typically lack upfront hydration and upfront storage as their job is to carry a lot of items from point A to point B, as opposed to a hydration vest which is designed to carry a few necessities which may need to be accessed in a hurry
- While these could be used for activities like long trail runs and ultra races, they will feel slower as they have a large capacity and don’t cinch down the way a hydration vest would
- Typically stronger materials which allow them to carry more weight tends to make them less comfortable than hydration packs