If you’re a trail runner, you’re likely familiar with the brand Nathan. Nathan Sports has been in the game for years and their products were many ultrarunners’ first introduction to hydration products, mine included. The Firecatcher ($75 MSRP) is new for 2014 and falls under Nathan’s Race Vest category. [ed note: We also reviewed the Nathan VaporShadow pack here.]
This review comes after 50 miles of trail and road running use in the Los Angeles area. I wore the pack in its “for purchase” configuration and also in its “optional” configuration i.e. with a hydration bladder (not included).
Out of the package the Firecatcher weighs 11 ounces. Its mix of several fabrics allows the vest to be lightweight, airy and flexible. The Blue-Navy-Yellow color scheme is nice and there are reflective details on the front and back of the vest.
The Firecatcher comes with two “Easy-squeeze 10 oz Nathan Super-Flex flasks” which equal the volume of one handheld bottle. The flasks slide easily into the front pockets, are comfortable in your hand, and have good liquid flow for drinking. The flasks are BPA-free and dishwasher safe.
The vest’s front features a 6-inch zippered expandable pocket, a 2-inch velcro stash pocket and a 3-inch open-top pocket in front of one flask pocket. The vest’s rear has a large 12-inch pocket to carry gear or fit a 1.5 L hydration bladder (not included). Chest straps use buckle closures and the flask pockets use elastic cords.
Lightweight gear is always a plus and the Firecatcher hits that mark while also being full of function. The vest hugs the contours of my torso well, ventilates well, and was durable against abrasion and machine washing.
Dialing in the fit took a few minutes and once complete there wasn’t much I did other then on-the-fly micro adjustments while running. The nylon straps run through the flask pockets and elastic bands around the straps eliminates any strap flapping.
The front zipper chest pocket lays flat but was designed in such a way that it will expand nearly 3x times its size, allowing room for four gels. I have a Nexus 5 phone and it wouldn’t fit in the front zipper pocket. A Samsung S3 is a tight fit and maxed out the width of the pocket but I was able to make it work. The small front of flask pocket holds an ipod nano with room to spare.
The construction of the Firecatcher was superb. Every edge of the vest is wrapped in a soft, fleece-like fabric. This prevents any rough edges from rubbing against the skin around your neck and shoulders. A simple yet important design decision.
While the Firecatcher comes with two flasks the pockets allow for different bottles to be used, a la Ultimate Direction vests. Hydrapak soft bottles and standard water bottles both fit snug in the pockets giving the Firecatcher an expanded range of uses for training or racing.
Some nice details include tails on the flask elastic cords, a bladder loop inside the internal rear pocket and lightweight buckles.
I don’t enjoy running with handheld bottles. I like my hands to be free for the inevitable whatever. In this regard, the Firecatcher supported me to the fullest. The Firecatcher was comfortable and ventilated well. It hit the mark for 1 1/2 to two hour runs.
When using the Firecatcher in its “for purchase” state I was able to carry the water I needed along with nutrition and personal item – keys, ID, etc – without issue. The flasks are easy to access and didn’t bounce around even when the elastic wasn’t synched down. Not messing with your gear makes running a pleasure.
When using the Firecatcher is its “optional” state, that is with a bladder in the rear pocket, it performed well but not exceptional. I used a 1.5 L Hydrapak bladder with the Firecatcher and found the weight of the bladder rotated the vest down my back. After some strap adjustments
I got things sitting right but found myself pulling the front of the vest down to reposition it. Also, inserting a half-full bladder and hose into the rear pocket was a chore and removing the bladder and hose was a struggle. The option of using a bladder is a plus but may not come into play for daily use.
Areas for improvement
For the Firecatcher to be a viable alternative to traditional hydration packs Nathan needs to modify the rear pocket closure for use with a bladder. Getting a bladder and hose inside the rear pocket was a hassle at home and would be a time suck at an aid station.
My solution would be to widen the rear pocket slightly, slice the sides of the rear pocket flap open and replace the center velcro closure with pads of velrco along the flap, creating an opening similar to a manilla envelope. A wide zipper opening along the top seam would also be a solution.
The Firecatcher should also come with an optional tube clip or magnetic clip (my favorite!) for the bladder hose. When using a bladder the hose has nowhere to go other than inside a flask pocket. If you’re using the flask pockets it has nowhere to go at all. A dangling hose would drive me nuts.
The Firecatcher is a killer piece of gear if you’re like me and have an aversion to using handheld bottles. For you…the Firecatcher is the solution. The vest offers a range of bottle storage options, fits great and looks dope.
I position the Firecatcher for use when one handheld isn’t enough but using a big bladder hydration pack is too much.