Thursday, 9 January 2014

2014 - the year of the ultrapack?

Could this be the year the Ultrapack comes of age, and makes its way into more of the mainstream of offroad and trail running?

Yes, I know they have been around for a while, and have been used a lot by affectionados for a good couple of years, but they haven't really got into the collective psyche of runners.
Vest packs always seemed to be a bit pretentious. A bit too much. Maybe it was because of the expense, maybe it was a bit because they were a bit too much like a bit of clothing that wasn't really clothing. I don't know.

I was always fascinated by the Salomon Vests from a good few years ago. As far as I know, they were the first company to really make inroads into proper Ultra vests. A pack which you could carry stuff on your back, but have a load of pockets within easy reach for all the stuff you need to eat/drink/map read while on the go. Never actually having to stop to take anything out of the bag unless the weather changed, or you needed to change your clothing, or something.

The other option was for those doing seriously long multiday ultras. The much more rucksack shaped vest by Aarn. I've only really seen these awesome rucksacks being used on things like the Marathon de Sables, and that kind of thing, but what I'm looking at here are more of the VEST-packs, rather than the vest-PACKs if that makes sense.

A couple of Seasons ago, as Salomon ramped up their ultravest range, with the help of Kilian Journet, the poster boy of ultra distance running, and a load of really nice (and really expensive) bags were released onto the scene. At the time of writing, the SLAB range has 6 different offerings ranging in size from 3 to 14 litres, and ranging in price from £100 to £150. There are a fair few of them out and about that I've seen, and Salomon seem to be the only company that are producing the vests in different sizes - I'm guessing I'd be a size small, but I know a good few people that would struggle to fit into anything that I can wear. Offering different sizes makes sense, as rucksacks come in different back lengths, and clothing comes in different sizes, and these are a combination of the 2. Salomon, at least, have the clout and budget available to provide the choice.

At about the same time, Raidlight also jumped into the water with a couple of really nice offerings, and at that time, that was pretty much it, in terms of options for useful and well made bits of kit, Nathan also has a few offerings which I've been seeing some clubmates wearing, which seem light, robust and well thought out - though I would place them a little more on the "hydration pack" scale of things - more like your traditional camelbak than an ultravest.

Last year saw the arrival of hyperlightweight Ultimate Direction bags, which I had a look at in the summer - if you click that link you'll see what I thought of them. Created with the assistance of various massive names in the ultrarunning world- like Anton Krupicka and Scott Jurek, They are fantastic, and do everything you would expect them to do, but still on the expensive side, northwards of a ton to get the larger ones. Seemingly made more with the intention of running in hot summer, they are insanely lightweight, though very robustly made.

The new offering from Inov8
This season sees the entrance of two British manufacturers into the race. Montane and inov8. To be fair it was only a matter of time before inov8 got in on the act.
Originally a footwear only manufacturer, inov8 have been aggressively expanding into different areas over the past couple of years, and a move into what is traditionally an "ultrarunning specific" pack was pretty natural, to go along with their ultra specific shoes, and the clothing range.
I saw a prototype of this being used on the Old County Tops last year (only very briefly though, as Mr Abdelnoor shot off into the distance). It looks lightweight, stable, and built to let water shed through it should it rain, rather than attempt to keep it out. As with all vests, it has places for water bottles, somewhere for a bladder if you're that way inclined, and enough stabilising straps to be as solid as a rock around your torso. I expect to be seeing a fair few of these out on the hills in the next year, especially with an rrp of about £80.

Montane, traditionally in the mountaineering range of things have been getting more serious about the lightweight thing now, especially with the sponsoring of Morgan Donelly- 2011 English Fell Champ. Trail running certainly seems to have made a big impact on outdoor companies, none more so than Montane, who, only last year started making rucksacks, are now offering no less than 3 different ultra vests. The Dragon 20, Jaws 10, and the Fang 5 - which will be released and in the shops (and indeed on their website) in February
From what I can see, they seem to be well thought out, with the belts across the front of the pack being velcro on the lower one and a "normal" clip on the top, and the whole bag is based around a dynamic stability harness- which- theoretically should stabilise the whole thing on you, while giving room to breathe and not constricting airflow.
The bottle attachment seems to be very specific to Montanes own design, relying on a clip on the top of the neck to attach it to the bag, and then a bit of elastic to secure the bottom of it, so if you drop/lose/break/forget one of those bottles, you can't just use any old bottle to replace.
They are made of a weatherproof fabric- Raptor Hydroseal, so should be pretty solid against the worst that the British weather can throw at them - in contrast with the Ultimate Direction packs, which seem a bit more focussed on hot weather running.
Equally, despite them being marketed as Ultra packs, they seem to be more like lightweight packs with waterbottle access on the front straps, without having a load of different, easy access pockets, as I would tend to immediately think of something of the ultrapack genre of bag.
Having said that, the Dragon won a best in show prize from Gear Junkie last year, which obviously shows a lot of promise!
Still, we're looking at an rrp of between £75 and £95 for one of these, so well within the realms of the Ultimate direction packs - in fact, in direct competition with them, and a good few notes less expensive as well. I'll reserve judgement on them for the moment, having only seen a couple of concepts and pictures, and not actually in the flesh.

So in only about 3 years, having virtually no choice at all, where you basically bought Salomon, or carried merrily on your way with a bumbag or a rucksack with a couple of pockets on the hip belts, we are now seeing a veritable explosion of choice. (I suppose 3 years is about the amount of time for a company to see something someone else is doing, and get their own version from drawing board to market). Whether you are looking for a hydration vest with more pockets, or a rucksack which is more like a vest with other bits and pieces, the choice is now there to be made.

I'm sure we will be seeing more of them on the hills, simply as a result of the "newness" factor, but I wonder if we will be seeing more of them in the longer fell races on the backs of the faster guys. Better ergonomics and better access to food than the traditional bumbag? It might not seem like much of an advantage, but where stopping, or slowing down for a moment to get out some food might be the difference between winning and losing, it could be all the advantage in the world.

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