Hydration Belt Shootout!

Sometimes a race vest is necessary, but sometimes we just need to carry the basic essentials…A little bit of food, maybe a phone, keys, and some fluid.  Waist packs have come a LONG ways since the days of basic fanny packs and I’m seeing a resurgence in people wearing them on runs.  Hopefully this review will help navigate the many options out there.

In this shootout, I tested “small bottle” packs from the major brands.  I’ve listed the criteria in order of importance, with what I consider to be the most important aspects listed first.  Obviously, some are subjective (did it rub me?) and some are objective (dry weight), so do with that what you will.

In full disclosure, all the packs were provided to URP as samples and some of them were returned to the manufacturers post-review. The reviews and thoughts are all our own and there were no expectations of positive comments.

A note about me: I wear my packs on my “hips” at just about waist band level, not at the narrowest part of my torso.  I also wear belts over shorts, not touching my skin.

So let’s get this shootout going.


The Contestants:



This was the most important criteria for me. Does the thing annoy me? Does it rub on me and make it uncomfortable? Does it twist around and ride weird?

  • The Camelbak Arc2 surprised me. There was no bounce whatsoever, no chafing, and the elastic band felt secure. The belt was smooth and stitched well.
  • The Nathan TrailMix pack has a tightly-strechable feel to it that wraps snugly around my waist with a hard plastic clip closure. There was no twisting or bouncing whatsoever. After the first few runs, I don’t see how any pack could fit better.
  • The Salomon XR Energy Belt is a lushly padded Velcro belt (with a cinch-able strap) that started out feeling a bit bouncy, but a few miles in (on each subsequent run), it “settled” somewhat. No chafing or twisting at all.
  • The North Face Fuel Tool Belt fit similarly to the Nathan pack, though it uses Velcro exclusively. No slipping and no chaffing.
  • The Ultimate Direction Endure has the thinnest nylon belt and least amount of technology to it, but it did not bounce at all.  I didn’t notice it after the first step. No chafing, no bounce.
  • The Ultraspire MBS kit has the least elasticity to it (well, along with the Ultimate Direction I suppose), but there was no bounce, twisting, or chaffing. It was tough to determine where the “front” of it was, and I wore it with the bottle riding on the front of my right hop, similar to where a gun holster might be.


This section was close between Nathan and Camelbak. Both fit me perfectly with no bounce, no twisting, and no chafing.

Bottle Security

I’ve done too many sweeps and worked too many aid stations to feel secure that my bottles are where they’re supposed to be.

Which pack gave me confidence and comfort that my bottles weren’t falling out?

  • The Nathan bottles fit snuggly into semi-rigid plastic holsters. They were easy to feel and easy to use and I didn’t question whether the bottles were secure.
  • The Ultimate Direction uses a semi-rigid material that encapsulates the bottles well. My only complaint was that they collapsed when I was fumbling behind my back. They take some getting used to but ultimately hold the bottle secure.  There is a bungee “lasso” that keeps the bottles tied down.
  • The Salomon pack uses a semi-collapsible material that holds the bottles well.  It, too, takes some getting used to, because when fumbling behind my back, it would take a few “takes” to find the holster. The bottles can be secured by an elastic lasso attached to the belt.
  • The Camelbak is one of only two packs that offer a “click” when the bottle is secure.  This and the Ultraspire give the wearer a confirmation that the bottle is where it’s supposed to be. It’s extremely easy to pull a bottle off of and replace, but I question whether the bottles would stay secure if/when I pass through branches, swipe my hips with my arms on a rapid downhill, or wipe out on a technical section.
  • The North Face bottles fit most similarly to the Salomon pack. The holsters are nylon with a semi-rigid lip that prevents the pocket from collapsing.  The bottles fit snuggly, and the pack provides lassos to keep them in place, just for sure.
  • The Ultraspire is certainly the most interesting of the group. The bottle has a small magnet on the bottom that connects to a magnet in the “bottom” of the hard plastic holster.  At home (or in the store), the attraction feels strong, but when filled with water, I could barely tell there were magnets keeping them secure.  On a definite positive note, I could feel and hear a click when the bottle was secure and the hard plastic made it easy to feel behind me.


This section has to go to Ultraspire, as I really like the security of the hard plastic and the added protection of the magnet.

Gear Capacity

My requirements for gear for a pack like this are simple. I need to store my iPhone 4/5, a car key, and maybe a few gels.  Let’s see how the packs held up.

  • The Nathan belt has one zippered and one hook and loop pocket. It held a phone, keys, a nutrition bar, and a few gels.
  • The Ultraspire MBS is somewhat lacking in gear capacity. Two small pockets (for pills? a key?) and a stuff sack up front are all that’s available. This was the only pack that didn’t accommodate my phone.
  • The NorthFace belt has one lightly-padded pocket located between the bottles. It fits my iPhone 4, but not an iPhone5 with a case. With the phone, there’s not much room for anything else.
  • The Salomon pack has by far the most generous load capacity. It’s got a large and stretchy zippered pocket in the back that holds a phone easily, with room to spare for gels, bars, and keys.  Riding on top of that pocket is a vented small Velcro pocket that would be great for trash.
  • The Camelbak Arc2 has room for a phone a perhaps 2 gels. Not much else.
  • The Ultimate Direction belt has the pocket up front for a phone then ample room in the back (between the bottles) for a few gels, bars, or gloves.

Here’s how each belt fit my iPhone4 (with case.) In order of size, the Salomon had the largest pouch, followed by the Nathan, Ultimate Direction, Camelbak, North Face, and Ultraspire.


The section goes squarely to Salomon. Room for phone, keys, gloves, and food.


Camelbak Nathan Salomon The North Face Ultimate Direction Ultraspire
$45 $45 $55 $50 $39.95 $25+$45*

*Ultraspire’s MBS system is comprised of two pieces. The base piece is the MBS Connector ($25), and the Ion attachment runs an additional $45.  There are many other attachments for the system.

This section goes to Ultimate Direction.  It’s the least expensive, without compromising quality of features.

Total Dry Weight

Camelbak Nathan Salomon The North Face Ultimate Direction Ultraspire
7.75 oz 9.2 oz 8.25 oz 5.75 oz 6.1 oz 7.5 oz

The lightest wins. This section goes to The North Face. Ultimate Direction is a close second because, though 1/4 oz heavier, has far more storage.


Build Quality

  •  There’s an obvious focus on keeping the UD Endure light and minimalist, and I find myself being careful when stuffing the pocket full of gloves, gels, etc.  The stitching, buckle, and zipper are all adequate for what it’s used for.
  • The Nathan belt feels great. Build quality is solid and it’s got a nice big buckle that doesn’t feel like it’ll break if I step on it.
  • The Salomon XR Energy Belt is quite lush.  Salomon has been rumored to have quality issues recently, but none of that is apparent in this product.  A+ all the way.
  • The North Face is built well.  Nothing remarkable about it.
  • The Ultraspire belt feels solid and includes a metal (aluminum) bracket used to attach the two pieces.


This section goes to Salomon, with Nathan a close second.


Bottle Amount and Capacity

This was tough to judge, as everyone’s got their own idea of what they need on the trails, but here are the hard numbers.  I found the Salomon and TNF bottles to be a bit small

Camelbak Nathan Salomon The North Face Ultimate Direction Ultraspire
2 x 10oz 2 x 9oz 2 x 6.7oz 2 x 7oz 2 x 10oz 1x 8oz

This is purely subjective, but I preferred the 9oz bottles from Nathan. They are just the right size for most of my weekly runs.


Bottle Opening

This all comes down to one question: Can I fit ice cubes in the bottle?

Camelbak Nathan Salomon The North Face Ultimate Direction Ultraspire
Opening 1 3/8” 1 ¼” 1 1/16” 1 1/16” 7/8” 1 3/8”
Fits ice? Yes Yes No No No Yes

Camelbak and Nathan take this section for having the widest mouth openings, thus fitting the most ice.

Size and Adjustability

  • The Camelbak is sized and is adjustable with the Velcro strap.
  • The Nathan pack is a one size fits all, but is adjustable with the nylon belt.
  • The Salomon belt is a one size fits all, but is adjustable with the Velcro strap (that can be trimmed down once the wearer is comfortable with the length of the belt.)  The “cinchable” strap makes one handed tightening a breeze.
  • The North Face is sized and is adjustable with the Velcro strap.
  • The Ultimate Direction Endure is one size fits all, but is adjustable with the nylon belt. The belt has a small (4″) section of elasticized nylon that ensures the pack stays snug.
  • The Ultraspire MBS base is sized and has a cinchable strap as well. Subsequent attachments for the pack are not sized.

I couldn’t come up with a reason why I liked or disliked any of the belts based on size.

External Storage?

Does the pack have the capability to carry any gear on the outside?

  • The Ultraspire has no external storage.
  • The Ultimate Direction has a bungee cord system on the back that can be used to stash a small jacket, sleeves, or a hat.
  • The North Face pack has a ~2″ loop on either side of the hip in which gloves, a beanie, or sleeves could be stuffed.
  • The Salomon pack has a very handy way of tucking jackets, gloves, hats, or a shirt, into the area between the outer webbing of the pack and the belt itself.
  • The Camelbak has two small nylon loops that are only good for gels.
  • The Nathan TrailMix has two bungee-cord systems (one on each side), and each with a grommet that makes them cinchable.  Jackets, gloves, and sleeves all fit well.

This section is a tie between Ultimate Direction and Nathan.  The bungee cords are easy, effective, and don’t provide any discernible additional weight.


Front Storage?

  • The Camelbak has two small loops for holding gels.
  • The Ultraspire pack has a “stuff sack” that won’t hold a phone, but can hold other materials. It should be noted this “pocket” doesn’t close fully. There is also a small, sweat proof pocket that closes with a strong magnet.
  • The North Face Fuel Tool Belt has a small pocket built in to the belt that would be good for a few keys or maybe a gel.  Very small.
  • The Salomon pack has no pockets up front.
  • The Nathan TrailMix has no pockets up front.
  • The Ultimate Direction Endure has a generous pocket on the right that can fit an iPhone.

This section goes to the the Ultimate Direction Endure.  Yeah, it’s nice to disconnect from the world, but sometimes having a readily accessible phone (with room for a few more gels) is what we really need.


Overall Winner

This was a tough and bloody shootout.  Each pack had qualities that I really appreciated, and if given to me as a gift, I wouldn’t return any of them.  None of the six packs (mmmm, six pack) failed to do what they’re supposed to do: Fit well, and carry a little bit of gear and water.

If I were to go back and buy one on my own, I’d go with the Nathan TrailMix. The combination of fit, bottle size, gear capacity, external storage, and build quality really impressed me.

Nice job, Team Nathan!



Now stay tuned for Scotty’s review of bladdered hydration vests.

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