Monday, 15 July 2013

Ultimate Direction signature Ultra packs

For a good few years I have been lusting after a Salomon S-Lab running vest, but have never had the money to burn or the pressing need to actually seek one out and try it on. (Especially as the only places I could ever see to buy one were online...)
This weekend I had the pleasure of being on the general support for the Ultra Tour de Peak District in the guise of a massage therapist, I got to see a load of guys using one.
It rides pretty damn high. 
However, more interestingly, a good number of the competitors were using a seemingly lighter weight version of the same idea of pack, made by Ultimate Direction, and I managed get hold of 2 different versions to try on and generally play around with.

No I haven't actually worn one for running, sorry to say, but I don't quite have that clout...

Ultimate Direction are a company from the USA which has been in the ultra running market for quite some time, as such they have a fair amount of design experience. With this, the signature series of packs, they have roped in the design assistance of some pretty hefty names in the ultra world, including Scott Jurek and Anton Krupika.

First impressions of the packs is that they sit very high on the back, coming down to mid-back only, so it encompasses pretty much only the thoracic region, not extending down the the lumbar area, meaning that the motion of the hips when running should have no effect on the stability of the bag whatsoever.

The next thing to note is the ridiculous lightweightness of the materials used. The main material is a Hex-Mesh, which is pretty much see through, but has a reassuring non-rippiness to it, the pockets are very very stretchy, and seem to be made of some kind of power-stretch fabric, used in a lot of other lightweight kit, and the expandable parts of the main pocket is made of a thin white scrunchly material, somewhat akin to sail fabric called Cuban-fibre. It is light and tough. In fact, it seems tear resistant and nigh on indestructable. Apparently the fabric is the same grade of stuff used to make sails for the Americas yachts - it's non-woven, is not affected by UV rays, moisture or chemicals, and is 15 times stronger than steel. So they say.

There are 3 different signature models to choose from, The Jurek Ultra vest is 9.2 litres, and boasts attachments for ski poles or an ice axe, the mid-range model the Adventure Vest- designed by Pete Bakwin is 8.5 litres, and apparently has a specific pocket for a locator beacon (this is the one that I didn't have a chance to try on), and the smallest version, the minimalist Race Vest has an expandable back, which goes to about 4 litres or so.

Each of these vests share some generic detailing, with the twin bottle holders on the front, the gel pockets in the top front of the vest. zipped pockets on the "wings" and the elastic compression across the back.

The Ultra Vest
Ultra Vest - Back
Very briefly - this has more pockets than you can shake a stick at. It would take a good memory, or a whole lot of practice at packing, racing and re-packing this bag in exactly the same way to ensure that you don't forget what you have stowed in each pocket, else you'll spend half the race trying to remember where you put that special caffiene gel.
It is relatively easy to get to most of the pockets, on the outside of the bottle holders, underneath the bottle holders etc. but because the vest sits so high, the underarm zipped pockets do need a bit of flexibility to be used on the go.
Pockets under the Water bottles- a feature on the Ultra vest and the Race vest
The expandable back piece looks like it could comfortably hold everything I'd need for a fell race, up to and including the Trigger, and maybe even with a small waterbladder in there as well. I'd be happy on solo runs for a very long distance. Which is kind of the idea.
Gel pockets on the Water Bottle pockets- a great idea
Cuban Fabric. You can also see the compression hooks, and the tops of the 2 zipped pockets. 
Hex mesh. See through, hyper-lightweight. Somewhere to store a waterbladder if you need to. There are various routing options for the tube as well. 
Everything looks to be to hand, except the stuff that you'd want to take the vest off for anyway- waterproofs etc.

The Race vest
A very pared down version of the Ultra Vest. Less pockets, less weight. The basic design is the same with the double bottles on the front, and a small back pouch, but this time with no zips. The pockets on the sides of the drink holders have gone, but the ones under the bottle remain, which is a nice touch. The wing pockets under the armpits are even smaller on this model, making arm/shoulder flexibility an absolute must if you are going to access these while on the move. This is the only one of the 3 which has an adjustable strap under the arm as well as over the shoulder, so it is a bit more tighten-up-able.
The rear pockets are small, and pretty far back, but the vest is crazily low profile. You can also see the strap to tighten in around the side of the body. 
No zips. Just a lightweight closure to keep stuff in and compressed down. 
Again, rides high on the back, has gel pockets above and below the bottles. 
This, the lightest and most minimal of the lot, I can see being of use on long Trail Races in the Summer, or on the continent. Though to be honest, if I needed to, I'd only really use the one bottle on a race, and use the other bottle holder to carry a map, or something along those lines- but then I don't tend to drink crazy amounts of water when running anyway.
You may have noticed the bottles.... they have a camelbak type opening thing, this is the bottle in the closed position

And this is open. They seem pretty robust, but only time will tell what repeated pulling on them with your teeth will do. 
Both of these designs are a quantum shift away from the classic bumbag, with the constriction around the waist. Yes, they provide constriction around the upper thorax, but also distribute the weight across more area of the body. Would breathing be compromised on a huge or fast uphill? I'm not so sure, as the material is pretty stretchy. Yes, there may be some compromise, but maybe less than with a bumbag.

Overall then, yes, lightweight. Yes, very handy bits of kit. Yes, I can imagine running with one and feeling better about it than with a bumbag.
However, these things come at a cost. £75 for the race vest, £95 or thereabouts for the Ultra Vest and £125 for the Adventure vest.
For dedicated Ultrarunners, comparing these to the S-Lab vests, this is almost a no-brainer, so too is the weight, 212g for the Jurek Model, in comparison with the S-Lab 5 litre Hydration system at 313g, and £120 (but it does come with a water bladder) or the S-Lab 12 at £150 and 400g or so.

So it would seem there is a new voice on the Ultralight Ultra running market. I'm not sure that it will penetrate into the tightfisted world of the fellrunner, though I suspect we will be seeing more and more of these excellent packs around and about the place in the coming months.

Should I get a version to try on and run around the Peaks and the Lakes, I'll stick up a review to show how it goes.
One of the Vests about to be used on the 30 mile Intro Ultra at the UTPD this weekend just gone. 

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