Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest Review

Because of a few last-minute issues, I bought this vest Fri evening, about 12 hours before the start of The North Face 50 in San Francisco/Marin.  Yep, I broke the cardinal rule of running…don’t try anything new on race day. It was a new vest AND I’d never even worn any vest before, so I was really pushing it.  Here’s what I needed:

  • Something light.
  • No hydration capabilities needed. I could handle bottles, but I don’t like drinking out of a tube.  This whittled it down to Nathan, the Ultraspire Spry, and Ultimate Direction Signature Series.
  • Ability to carry vest, gloves and other assorted gear, as this race was gonna be a slop-fest.
  • Pill pockets.
  • I wouldn’t have a crew, pacer, or definite drop bag, so this would be it.
  • Access to some pockets without removing the vest.
  • Cost is always an issue (this was not a comped sample), but I figured if it worked well, I’d also use it for Zion100 in April.  I honestly didn’t see myself using a vest for any other event until then.

P1040533I picked it up at the Sports Basement for $82 (the Spry was $60 and the Nathan was about $30 or so) because it fit all my criteria.  I opted for a med/lg size AK Race Vest from Ultimate Direction as my torso is abnormally long and the “girth” is adjustable by way of 2 simple straps on the sides.  Took it to my car, popped on some running shorts, and did a test lap around Crissy Field with the unpacked vest on. I was ready to go!

About the vest:  This is the lightest and “most minimal” (love that term) vest in UD’s Signature Series line. The SJ model (Scott Jurek) is a bit larger, and the PB (Peter Bawkin) version is more made for mountaineering, so far as I can tell.  Anton Krupicka helped design this version and it shows…there’s not much to it, it’s lightweight, and so far, is holding up just fine.  You can watch this video of Anton describing all the specifics and marketing gobbledygook.

What I liked:

  • Super easy to adjust. I put it on, pulled the straps on the side, and voila, it fit. I monkeyed with the bottom chest strap and the flexible sternum strap a tiny bit to get the fit right and P1040528never had any rubbing whatsoever, despite wearing it in the pouring rain for 9 hours.  I wore it over a vest, then eventually, over a LS wool shirt.
  • Access to fluids is immediate, but didn’t weigh me down at all.  No reaching back, no sucking on a tube, just pull the bottle and drink. Note: Next time I’ll have 2 different tops to differentiate between water and sports drink.  I kept having to pull the bottles out to figure out what was what.  I’ve already made adjustments in the pictures.
  • The chest straps were designed well. The lower strap is not stretchy, so it stays tight, while the top sternum strap is partially elastic, keeping the shoulders from bouncing around.
  • Ultimate Direction utilized every part of this vest. In addition to the large pocket in the back and the 2 for the bottles, there are 6 easily accessible pockets. The two (one each) below the bottles are perfect for a little bag of pills. I even crammed a pack of gummy bears in one of them.
  • P1040530The two pockets above the bottles are great for gels, as they easily fit 3 each.
  • The one large pocket in the center rear easily held my vest, some food, sleeves, new socks, etc.  Since I’m new to wearing a vest, I felt some responsibility to fill the whole damn thing with gear before the race. Not doing so would somehow be “wasting” space, but I got that out of my head and only carried the essentials.
  • Most importantly (and most asked about) is that there was no bounce whatsoever. None. At all.  My biggest fear was that during the descents, one of the bottles would pop out and I’d go sliding after it, but everything stayed nice and perfectly tight as there are small elastic bands keeping them close.  Very impressed with this.
What I didn’t like:
  • The pockets on the rear portion of the vest, though almost under my arms, were difficult to get to. If you’re the type of person who can apply deodorant to the armpit with which you’re holding the stick, you’ll be fine, but I found them tough to access without removing the vest.
  • As quite a few females pointed out when checking it out, the bottle positions would make it quite difficult for a woman to wear the pack. The ladies joked that perhaps a completely flat-chested gal could do it, but if you’ve got boobs, it’d be tough. Their words and thoughts, not mine and I haven’t had anyone try it out.
  • I wish the large pocket in the back was water resistant. My stuff got soaked.
  • Of course I got value out of it, but $80 is still a lot of money to spend on a piece of gear I’ll use a few times a year.
I loved it and highly recommend it. Again, I’ve never worn a vest before and there were zero issues with chafing or bounce.  The few things I’d like to change about the product are elementary when it comes to the value I got out of using it for that mudfest. It’s nice to find a product that does exactly what you need it to do! Sure, I only wore it once, but it was in extreme conditions and I’d do it just the same again.


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