Hydration Pack Shootout!

I only sling on a hydration pack when I know that water and nutrition will be required and sparse. For me, its not a hydration vest, its a life vest. Not only am I carrying water/sports drink and food, but other items such as jacket, beanie, gloves and cell phone (I always carry a cell phone when I run —- for Bigfoot sightings – duh!).

Next to race entries and running shoes, hydration packs are one of the biggest expenses one can have for our endurance sport. The pack you pick needs to have everything you need and nothing you don’t. It also needs be a good fit for your body and the things that matter to YOU most.

* Unfortunately, Salomon sent us a size XS/S. Too small for this guy to wear and give a fair review. Should Salomon send us the proper size I will re-calibrate the review. I omitted Salomon from some of the review segments below.

The Contestants





  • The Camelbak Ultra LR was the biggest surprise for me. It had the least amount of bounce of the bunch. Because the bladder is centered at the lower back it has straps that cross over the belly. This caused some discomfort for me, as the straps and and buckle caused chaffing. Other than the strap, it was a comfortable fit.
  • Nathan Sports Vapor Wrap was really comfortable on my body. No chaffing, minimal bladder bounce and no rubbing to report.
  • The North Face Enduro Plus was the most disappointing for me. The pack felt too high on my back, straps chaffed and storage compartments at the waist twisted around my midsection. This pack features the Boa lacing system which offers dial to tighten the bladder against the pack. This really reduced bouncing.
  • Salomon Advanced Skin 5 – too small to review. Dang it!!
  • UltrAspire Titan felt like it wasn’t there, the least complicated of the bunch. Minimal bounce and no chaffing or rubbing issues.

Nathan and Ultraspire both walk away from this on top, both had a comfortable fit, minimal bounce and no chaffing or rubbing to report. Happy to have either on my body for 20+ miles.

Gear Capacity
I wanted to be able to carry two Gu’s, Honey Stinger gels, headlamp, beanie, gloves, iPhone 5 (in Otter Box case) and handheld water bottle full of electro-lite – things that I would want during a run that starts before the sun rises or after the run sets. Let’s see how they stack up…



FRONT: Camelbak has two large mesh pockets to carry water bottles and two small velcro tabbed pockets for gel packets and salt capsules.
BACK: Camelbak has one external compartment, main bladder compartment with a internal zippered pocket for those important items, like I.D. and key.

FRONT:  Nathan has two mesh pocket water bottle holders, long mesh zippered compartment for gels, small pocket with magnetic tab for salt capsules and a removable zippered compartment with internal elastic pouch. There are also two large expandable pockets at the waist.
BACK: Main bladder compartment has a thin nylon divider giving me a generous amount of room for clothing. In addition to the main compartment there are two zippered external compartments – an additional main compartment and small compartment at the top. There is an elastic cord to strap on your favorite jacket.

FRONT: North Face offers two waist compartments, one mesh and one nylon. Easy access for items. No compartments on the should straps.
BACK: Main bladder compartment is zippered with a nylon divider, large storage capacity. External zippered compartment with a nylon divider and key clip. Lower external mesh pocket with elastic opening, big enough to store a bottle or layer.

FRONT: For Salomon, on the right shoulder strap – water bottle holder, gel pouch and zippered compartment big enough for two gels. On the left should strap – water bottle holder and mesh pocket for one gel. Two side mesh zippered compartments.
BACK: Main bladder compartment is less roomy than they other packs, but you can still fit what you need. Internal magnetic tabbed compartment half the size of the main compartment. External zippered mesh compartment utilizing the entire area. It also came with a loose zippered pouch with velcro backing. I could not find where it was supposed to attach.

FRONT: Ultraspire has two mesh pouches for water bottles and two mesh pouches with elastic rip cords for securing goodies.
BACK: Bladder compartment is separate from the main compartment. Main compartment is top-loading, offering generous extra storage and closes with nylon cord and fastener. Internal zippered pouch offers room for smartphone, key and other small valuables. Large external compartment with compression straps for added security and less bounce.

Nathan and Ultraspire again come out on top. Nathan wins for making so many compartments available while running. The side pockets won me over. Ultraspire nails it for its storage capacity to light weight ratio.

Bladders and Valves

I have a love hate relationship with valves, tubes and bladders. Drinking H20 shouldn’t be a fight, tubes should stay secure while running and bladders should be easy to open, fill and close. Let see how it went….



  • Camelbak bite vale has a twist shut off.
  • Nathan bite vale has a twist shut off.
  • The North Face bite valve has a twist shut off.
  • Salomon bite vale has a twist shut off
  • Ultraspire bite valve pulls open and has no twist shut off.


  • Camelbak tube is secured with two plastic clips on the front shoulder strap. Most secure.
  • Nathan tube has a large magnet that attaches at the sternum.
  • The North Face tube has a magnet that attaches at the sternum.
  • Salomon tube is secured by running through a series of loops. Very secure.
  • Ultraspire tube was secured by running it between my body and sternum straps. Least secure.



Camelbak Nathan The North Face Salomon Ultraspire
2 liters 2 liters 2 liters 1.5 liters 2 liters
  • Camelbak’s bladder was the easiest to open and close, but because of its location at the lumbar it is also the most awkward to access. The sip tube is quick release from the bladder, easy for disassemble for cleaning.
  • Nathan bladder is straight forward with clip for sealing. Sip tube was difficult to detach from bladder. Comes a with an insulation sleeve for your bladder to keep your liquids colder longer.
  • The North Face bladder is also straight forward, clip for sealing and tube is difficult to detach.
  • Salomon bladder seals with clip. Sip tube has quick release from bladder and is covered by neoprene for keeping liquid cold. Bladder also slides into an insulation sleeve.
  • Ultraspire bladder closes with a clip and detaches from bladder with quick release.

Salomon wins this one for having the twist shut off, security, keeping liquid cold and the sip tube quick release. Great job!


Ultra LR
The North Face
Enduro Plus
Advanced Skin
$130 $175 $160 $220 $154

Camelbak wins this one for being the lowest cost, but for an additional $24 go with Ultraspire. You’ll get a lighter weight vest, more storage and carry more liquid.

Dry Weight

Camelbak Nathan The North Face Salomon Ultraspire
24 oz 23 oz. 13 oz 20.8 16.8

Northface wins this one, destroying the competition.

Spiffy Points!

I like that all of these packs offer a little something extra or were innovative; putting a lot of thought into your experience on the trail.

Here are some of the things I liked:

  • Camelbak’s bladder placement at the lumbar was a comfortable location and put less stress on my back.
  • Nathan printed instructions on the bladder sleeve to properly fit the vest to your body, using color coded straps.
  • The North Face Boa lacing system was innovative, reducing bladder bounce is as easy as clicking a dial.
  • Salomon’s insulation sleeve and neoprene tube cover to keep liquids colder longer can make a huge difference on a hot day.
  • Ultraspire is incredibly light weight!!

Overall Winner

Picking an overall winner is not easy. It comes down to the Nathan Vapor Wrap and Ultraspire Titan. I would pick each one for different reasons.

If I need a pack for a multi-stage race, UTMB or self supported run, I would definitely go with the Nathan Vapor Wrap. It is well crafted, durable, intelligently designed and you can carry everything.

The Vapor Wrap might be overkill for a long training run, in which case I would prefer to have the Ultraspire Titan for being minimal, light weight, comfortable and having the storage I need.

For the things that matter to me most and what I am most likely to run, the win goes to Ultraspire. 

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