I finally got my hands on one of the 3 “Signature Series” hydration packs that Ultimate Direction released late in 2012. They have been in high demand, and seemed even harder to find in Canada. Ultimate Direction athletes Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, and Peter Bakwin each put their names to a unique vest that was designed for their running needs. I tested Mr. Jurek’s pack called the SJ Ultra Vest.
Jurek’s needs included having easy access to bottles, so the defining feature of this pack is the two chest mounted bottle holsters. The SJ Ultra Vest can also accommodate a hydration bladder in the rear compartment, with ports on either side to feed a hose out to the front. The pack ships with the two bottles, but if you’re a bladder person you’ll have to buy this separately.
The first thing I noticed about this pack was that it was REALLY light! The fabrics and design were obviously selected to reduce the weight carried over longer ultra distances. This light fabric also made the pack more breathable. Among the unique features found on this pack was the use of something called Cuben fibre. This stuff looked like scrunched up wax paper, but in reality is much more durable. Apparently this is the same fabric used on sails for racing yachts, and I doubt they would use something that rips or wears out easily! Along with this super light fabric the vest had a ton of mesh which provided great air flow and ventilation.
Two Ultimate Direction 20oz Kicker bottles come with the SJ Ultra Vest, and they are one of my favourite water bottle designs for running. I use these bottles regularly – the valve is great once you get the hang of it, and I never have issues with leakage. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t need the full 40oz of fluids, the bottle holsters can be cinched up to carry smaller bottles, or other items like a camera.
The SJ Ultra Vest had lots of great storage options up front, as well as in the rear pack section. The bottle holsters had mesh sleeves on both sides that were great for sliding gels (and empty gel packages) into. The upper chest straps had small mesh pockets with velcro closures that held my ipod, and car key (along with an emergency whistle that came with the pack). Below the bottle holsters were two smaller horizontal pockets with velcro flaps closures. One was mesh, and the other was Cuben Fibre that could carry stuff you want to keep dry(er). Under the arms there was a large zippered pocket on each side. I used this to carry larger items, including a camera and small tripod and didn’t even notice they were in there. This section of the vest also had even larger velcro pockets that could be used to stuff bars, gels, a buff, or a hat for quick access. Of course, the pack section of the vest had the main storage volume. There were two main pockets with vertical zipper closures. A smaller pocket was a good spot to stuff extra clothing and anything you wanted to prevent from getting wet (though I wouldn’t call it waterproof). The larger pocket had a bungee cord lashing system inside and would be used if you carried a hydration bladder. Because this was the part against my back, I found that perspiration definitely made its way in. The outside of the rear pack section has a series of bungee cords and lash points to secure even more stuff including poles, and even an ice axe.
Overall I was really impressed with this new offering from Ultimate Direction. They have obviously invested the time into listening to their athlete’s needs and building super functional packs for running. A smart move when you’ve got the knowledge of guys like Jurek, Krupicka, and Bakwin to draw on. This was the first time I had used a pack with bottles up front, and I was honestly surprised at how well it worked. The bottles bounced, but always with me and it felt totally natural. I expected that I would have had to cinch the vest up really tight to keep everything in place – this was not the case at all. I could close it up so that it was comfortable, and it still stayed in place. In the video I linked below, you can see the bottles moving, but always with my body. This is a great pack to consider if you like using bottles. Based on how much I liked this Signature Series pack, I would definitely recommend checking out the others as well if they are more suited to your needs. Ultimate Direction has done their homework with these packs, and it really shows in how the SJ Ultra Vest performed.