Featured picture courtesy James Pieters. Other race pictures courtesy Jo Pringle Photography.
Ask any experienced trail runner what their most important piece of gear (apart from the shoes on their feet) is and the chances are good the answer will include the word “hydration”. I will also be the first to admit that this particular category of gear gets me extremely excited and as such was more than willing to oblige when asked to write a review of Inov8’s Race Ultra Vest.
First things first – the Race Ultra Vest is, as the name suggests, more “vest” than “pack”. As with most of the Salomon packs (still one of the most popular hydration options for weekend warriors and elite athletes alike) on the market, the Race Vest functions like an additional item of clothing rather than a backpack. The pack is constructed with the “less is more” mantra in mind as with most of Inov8’s running gear and weighs a mere 273g (excluding bottles and bladder). This extreme light weight is mainly due to the 100% stretch mesh construction combined with the fact that really only the minimum amount of material is used. The vest sits tight against the body, with two adjustable straps along each side and two (used for fastening/unfastening the pack) in front. The two front straps have three points where they can be attached to the pack (two for the straps and one for the included whistle) meaning they can be moved up or down as need be. As the fit of the pack is therefore fully adjustable I am fairly confident that runners of any body shape would be able to get it to sit comfortably with a bit of dialling in of the different straps and attachment points. The pack is marketed as being unisex and most ladies should also find the fit comfortable across the chest area – something that I think manufacturers are not paying enough attention to with female-specific packs only really becoming available in the last year or so.
The pack itself comes with two specially designed flat 500ml bottles that fit in stretch mesh pockets under your ribcage and a 2l bladder (with insulated sleeve and hose) that goes into the back. The front sections of the pack have four separate pockets – two small ones (one with a loop for your keys) and two slightly larger ones for storing gels/energy bars/phones etc. although I must admit that anything larger than an iPhone will be a bit of a mission to fit into even the larger pockets.
When I tried on the pack for the first time, the thing that stood out immediately was how comfortably it fit. Initially I was a bit skeptical about the positioning of the bottles, but they are not in the way at all and sit nice and snug against the body. The mesh pockets have elastic loops at the top that fit around the bottle heads, therefore keeping them secure while at the same time still being easy enough to unhook so that one-handed drinking is easy as pie. The bladder itself sits snugly against your back and the hose is threaded through a set of loops (on either the front left or the right side) to ensure that it doesn’t bounce around while running.
Packing space at the back is fairly limited as it consists of a single compartment (with bungee cord allowing you to compress/ tighten it if necessary). The stretch mesh construction means that you can fit in more than you might think at first glance, although packing for races with more extensive kit requirements might become a problem, especially with a fully filled bladder inserted. I can just about manage to fit a waterproof jacket, a windproof shell and basic first aid kit in the back, but for races where additional kit like fleeces, waterproof pants, gloves etc. are needed, I honestly think it will be a bit of a squeeze. That being said though, one of the greatest things about the pack is that it is light enough that you can pop one bottle and a couple of energy bars in the front (with nothing in the back) and easily take it for a short run without feeling you are carrying unnecessary weight.
I have used the Vest for numerous races and runs, ranging from 8km to 30km in distance and it is hands down one of my favourite pieces of gear and is really adaptable (where I for instance prefer to fill up the two bottles and leave the bladder at home for shorter runs, one of my running buddies prefers it exactly the other way around.) It sometimes takes a bit of adjusting to get the straps dialled in just right, but once fitted correctly you will not even notice you are carrying a pack, while still having your hydration handy and nearby when needed.
Overall, if you are looking for a small to medium sized pack, you can’t go wrong with the Race Vest. The fact that you can pack both bottles and a bladder means that you can carry water in the back while using the bottles for electrolytes (or even just to squirt over yourself to cool down a bit), something which many other packs in this size range lacks.
As mentioned, the only “con” for me is that space is limited, and for races with an extensive mandatory kit list, the Vest does come up a little short. I have also found that the bladder does seem to bounce around a little but this doesn’t seem to bother everyone, and can easily be remedied by either leaving it at home or just simply not filling it all the way (as the bounce becomes markedly less once the bladder starts getting empty).
At a price of about R 2,100 locally, it isn’t the cheapest hydration pack around, but is still better value for money than many of its competitors. In short – a fantastic piece of gear and one that I will hopefully be using for a long time to come!