- Buyer's Guide
Best Running Vests of 2020
When I first started seriously running in high school, I was a complete minimalist. I’d head out into the Malibu hills with just my running shorts and keys. Sure, sometimes I’d have to beg a hiker for a quick sip from their hydration pack, but I was one of those “all natural” runners. As I picked up my running game in college and started racing, I started realizing the necessity of having some food and water with me so I didn’t cramp or bonk, and a few surprise downpours led me to appreciate having a poncho stashed in my pocket for emergencies. I started trying out hip belts, but could never find one that fit. One day, my girlfriend, who was both a way better runner and a way smarter person, gifted me her ex-boyfriend’s ratty CamelBak vest and it quickly changed my trail running life. Although I don’t always run with a vest, having the option to bring extra food, water, dog supplies, or even sometimes a GoPro makes the search for the perfect running vest something worth doing.
Whether the pandemic has forced you to look for an exercise outlet extending past the doors of your gym or you’re a seasoned dirtbag who heads into the mountains for a quick 50k, a running vest can extend your distance, improve your safety, and revolutionize your comfort for running both on trail and road. We tested some of the best and most advanced trail-oriented vests to help you run further (maybe), faster (hopefully) and flashier (definitely) than ever before.
What to look for in a running vest
This might sound obvious to some, but having a vest that fits you outweighs literally every other thing. Period. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, an ill-fitting vest is going to ruin your run. Personally, I find that the feeling of my cellphone bouncing in a side pocket is more annoying than a rock in my shoe after a few miles. Remember how you felt like the armpits were a bit tight in the store, but figured it would probably be fine? Well now you’ve worn a tank-top and chafed so much you want to cry after your fifth downhill. Take the time to try on as many different brands as possible and really figure out what size works for you. As a 6’2 skinny dude, what I find comfortable might not work for you. This is where I plug supporting your local running stores (in a COVID-appropriate fashion). Their knowledge (and possibly return policies) will pay off big dividends in the long run.
Your carry needs will change depending on your ROTD (run of the day), but generally you can guess what you’ll need to plan for. If you want to run self-supported 50k ultras in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, you’ll probably need at least 10+ liters of cargo space with plenty of water to boot. If you’re looking at doing speedy 10ks in the Mojave Desert with planned water stops, you probably want to maximize your ventilation and a 1-2L pack is probably enough. I tend to stray towards the 4-6L range, which I find is enough to pack my essentials, including emergency equipment, but won’t feel overly bulky if I just want to do a quick run with my keys and not much else. Refer to rule #1 and pay attention to how the load is distributed and how it can be cinched down if not in use. If it’s not comfortable and easy, it might not bug you in the store, but it might be the only thing you can think about at mile 14.
Only you know how much water you drink, but as a medical professional I can confidently say that number should be at least some. Try out hydration bladders vs. collapsible bottles and figure out how much you need to carry. Remember when I talked about the importance of comfort? One thing I can’t stand is having water sloshing around when I’m at race pace and have drank half of my bottles. If that’s something you think might bother you, see how well the vest can cinch around your water supply to keep it in place.
Most of my runs these days are in the high desert where afternoon sun is intense in the summer, but it can get quite chilly in the winter. I tend to prioritize something with breathability, because I can always carry another layer if I get cold, but there’s nothing worse than the feeling of a stifling piece of gear on your back when it’s 100°F and you’re deep in the pain cave.
Hopefully this goes without saying, but don’t spend your hard-earned cash on crap. It’s bad for the environment and you’ll end up spending 3x as much when you have to buy the same bad product again and again. Look at the stitching, pay attention to the reputation of the brand, and make sure you get something that will give you tons of miles.
How I tested
It’s hard to really test a piece of gear without really kicking its butt. You won’t know that a strap breaks until you have it under full load and you won’t realize how great some random feature is until you accidentally use it and it changes your life. I tried to standardize the testing process as much as possible while still pushing this gear to the limit.
Each vest went through a series of different runs meant to simulate what I assumed might be our average reader. I did two miles on road followed by two miles on trail carrying essentials only. This was followed by a 10k with food and water at race pace, and finished with a 10+ mile run, fully loaded with extra layers, emergency supplies, etc. The items packed in the vest were kept constant between trials. After a bag had been put through this test, I wrote first impressions and once all bags had been used I utilized a random number generator to pick the vest I would use each day. Through this method of extended testing I was able to further refine the best and “least-best” parts of each piece with as little bias as possible.
While most of my testing was done in March-August, I was actually able to get in some cold runs and even a freak snow storm to test how these vests performed under variable conditions. The majority of my runs were in the mountains and high desert and often featured relatively high ratios of elevation gain to total distance.
As a full-time medical resident, I’m definitely not getting as many miles as I used to, but I believe that my testing schema allowed me to give you an in-depth look at the ins and outs of the best running vests around.
I’m usually a firm believer in hyperspecialization. In gear, we too often find that something is a “Jack of all trades, master of none”, and thus, I’m a big proponent of having the right piece of kit for each specific use case, much to the detriment of my wallet. However, this well-thought-out little number from a company probably better known for their footwear (or maybe not known at all if this is your first foray into trail running) manages to check all the boxes of flexibility AND quality without being obscenely expensive. The Ultra Pro 2In1 design is based off of the Race Ultra Pro 5, which is a stripped-down race vest but with an extra surprise–several hidden snaps add the ability to attach an additional 10 liters of storage capacity to allow you to fine-tune your race or training loadout without having to own multiple vests.
The 2In1 comes with two 500ml Ultraflasks which allows you to stash them in the side pockets and drink hands-free. If you prefer using a bladder, there’s room for 2L as well, although this is not included.
At first I found the inov-8 a bit tricky to properly fit, and was having issues with chafing at the armpits, but after my first run and really taking the time to adjust every zip, pull, and clasp (there are a lot of ‘em), I found the fit to be excellent, even with a full kit. While I expected the attachable storage to flop around like a cheap toupee, the integrated compression and clever attachment system kept it secure and snug…like a really expensive toupee! Seriously though, I was blown away by this thing’s ability to swallow everything I threw at it and stay solid on my back.
My one complaint is that the vest runs a bit hot and I found that on humid days it tended to get warmer than some of the other vests I tested, despite being much lighter.
Overall, the inov-8 Race Ultra Pro 2In1 is fantastic value for everything you get and is a great option for someone who has variable tastes in running distance and requirements. At the time of writing, $185 will get you the vest, two long-straw Ultraflasks, and a race cup. Consider picking one up!
Most adaptable for differing loadouts
Incredibly light for the number of features included
Fantastic integrated compression
Ultraflask straws add unique flexibility to water storage
Most expensive of vests reviewed
Takes time to adjust fit
Before I say too much about the Duro, I should disclose that I definitely have a conflict of interest. An Osprey Raptor served as my first real introduction to “technical packs”. My current backpacking setup revolves around an Atmos, and pretty much every single one of my hydration bladders sports their logo. I’m a huge fan of the company and they are definitely responsible for launching me into a world of “bags other than JanSport”. That being said, I feel like Osprey often gets passed over as a solid brand, but not quite as sexy as a big technical brand like Arc’teryx, or as bread and butter as Patagonia and The North Face. Let me be clear: the Duro 6 is not sexy. It looks like a vest you run in. It looks like an engineer said “Hey, let’s make a vest that somebody will run in, but forget about,” and you know what? That’s exactly why it’s so great. Out of all the vests I tested, this was the one that I forgot I was wearing. In fact, I took it on a few extra loops over the course of the review process because I’d think back to my run and have a hard time even commenting on how it felt. This is EXACTLY what I want in a running vest.
Osprey sells several sizes of the Duro, but the 6-liter pack provides the perfect compromise in storage and lightness for me. There are several front pockets for stashing gels and a phone. Two of which are definitely big enough for soft bottles if that’s how you roll. The rear compartment has three zippers, the first is for the 1.5L bladder, the second acts as a stash with a bit of built-in organization for things like car keys, first aid, or anything you don’t need to access quickly, and the last is a surprisingly cavernous black hole that’s easily big enough to swallow jackets, extra clothes, and probably even a light sleeping setup. Another huge pro of this vest is the additional stretch pocket on the back that allows you to quickly stash a layer on the go, or even expand your loadout if you need to carry extra water or pick up some additional trail treasure. In the usual Osprey fashion, everything is incredibly well thought out and well engineered.
As per usual, all these features are useless if your vest fits you like an op shop suit, but the Duro feels like an expertly tailored tux right out of the package. The two front buckles are kind of a weird snap-like closure that takes a minute to get the hang of, but I assume cuts down on weight and definitely keeps the vest close to your body. While the multiple layers of fabric on the back of the vest seem like they would heat up easily, Osprey sandwiches some incredibly light, large weave mesh in the middle of some tiger-weave fabric to encourage heat and moisture transfer. I felt that this was probably my favorite vest to reach for on hotter days, but because of the excellent way it distributed water between bladder and flasks, and because of this heat-transfer capability.
It’s honestly hard to pick faults with this piece of kit, mostly because they kept everything so simple and did it so well, but sometimes the simplicity is a bit of a downfall. I found many times that I wished there were more front pockets to stash things like gels or poop bags for my running companions (dog, not weird trail running guy). In the same train of thought, when the vest got loaded with bulky but light items like a rain jacket, I wish there were slightly more options for compression towards the top of the bag. Definitely not deal-breakers, but maybe some improvements for the next version.
Overall I would recommend the Duro 6 as a solid everyday vest that checks all the boxes for an incredibly reasonable $110 including 1.5L bladder. This has become my most-used vest and I foresee many seasons of use in its future.
Bladder allows for more water with less bouncing
Excellent adaptability for race or training
Most comfortable vest reviewed
Not as many quick stash pockets as other models
Could use more compression options in back
In the words of the great Ricky Bobby, “sometimes, you gotta go fast”. In running, lots of times fast means light, and if you wanna go light, the Ultimate Direction Race Vesta is a great choice for a minimal vest geared towards carrying less and enjoying the run (or maybe just suffering) more.
The first thing that struck me about the Vesta is how much storage it actually has. Every nook and cranny is crammed with zipper pockets, elastic pockets, straps, and clips that let you make the most of its relatively tiny footprint. Usually you think that all of these little additions make for an increase in weight, but it tips the scales at only 141g (without bottles), which is so light you basically don’t know it’s there. Ultimate Direction claims a capacity of 8.1L total, but the majority of this is due to a large back pocket that I found to be a bit clumsy when overloaded, even when cinched down. That being said, it easily takes a jacket, extra food, and water and keeps it close to your body and out of the way without issue. This is just one of those packs where you can’t get greedy with how much you cram in there.
The Vesta also makes use of bottles (included) that are tapered at the ends. While I found that other brands of bottles fit well in the front pockets, these very effectively minimized sloshing when hitting heavy, technical descents.
If you haven’t already figured it out by the name, UD makes it clear that this is a race-oriented vest, and as such has optimized things like grabbing water and gels with a well-dialed kit over easy strap readjustment or having room for your GoPro, tripod, and drone. There are so many different elastic straps to adjust I found it took some time to dial in the fit, but once it was good, it was great, and I didn’t have any problems with slippage or having to readjust.
A note on fit, and an admission that I messed up. When we reached out to Ultimate Direction, I requested the Race Vesta. I had heard good things about it and just assumed they were being fancy or Italian with the naming. When it arrived, I realized that there is also a MEN’S version called the Race Vest. This is not super well marked on either page (other than having male and female models) and since many vests are ‘unisex’ it would be a good thing to note. That being said, I applaud UD for making women-specific gear. We need more of that in the industry.
In any case, according to UD’s website, I was slated for a size XS/S, which I was skeptical about, but decided to trust what a normal consumer would have access to. For reference, I’m 6’2, about 175 soaking wet, and have a relatively skinny torso. Most running vests have me at a small or medium, so this wasn’t out of the ballpark for me, but when it arrived, it felt like the straps were just a bit too wide for me to take full advantage of all the front storage as easily. To give the vest a fair chance, I loaned it to my running partner (wife, not dog in this case), who is about 5’6 and 110lbs with an equally long torso. It fit her perfectly, and she said it was even more comfortable than her regular running vest, which happens to be a previous generation, Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta in XS/S. I might have a hard time getting this one back from her.
Overall, the Race Vesta 5.0 is a perfect choice for race day, or people who prefer a minimalist approach, while still having a bit of extra food and water onboard. At $125, it might not be what you reach for as a beginner just getting into the sport (I am a huge fan of the Adventure or Mountain Vest for more flexibility in Ultimate Direction’s product line), but if you’re looking to up your race-day game, this might just be the ticket you need.
Super light, great for race days
Included bottles make for jiggle-free hydration
Tons of storage for small size
Not as breathable as expected
Back pocket has trouble with bulky loads
I was very excited when UltrAspire agreed to send us their Alpha 4.0 vest to put through some good old New Mexico mountain running. Although you don’t see them as much as some of the other big companies, UltrAspire has some serious design chops and boasts outdoor athletes like Jared Campbell, the only person to ever finish 3 Barkley Marathons (if you don’t know what that is, stop reading and go look it up right now). They’re almost what I’d consider a hipster brand, if the definition of hipster was serious runners who don’t give a crap about the logo on their gear and just need something super functional to carry some stuff. That being said, I think that the Alpha is actually the best-looking of all the vests I reviewed. Not only are the colors great, but it just looks like a technical race vest that will make you go fast. In my case, I’m still slow, but I FEEL fast, and that’s what matters.
The Alpha is this weird mix of something that seems basic without bells and whistles, but at the same time feels like it has all these technical innovations that make it this incredibly functional vest. Where others use buckles and straps for the front attachment, the Alpha uses a hook and length of elastic. Where other companies might opt for a zipper or elastic closure, UltrAspire uses magnets. Personally, I need more magnets in my life. If someone made a pack that was just one big magnet, I’d finally be able to rest in peace.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the Alpha is both techy and understated at the same time, making it an incredibly functional vest that looks like a million bucks. It’s well contoured to your body without being overly tight, and runs cool on hot days. While it doesn’t come with bottles or a hydration pack, it supports both if you’re okay to bring your own to the party, and includes a color-matched reflective/insulating/removable back insert to help keep your water out of the sun on longer runs. The amount and location of pockets is perfect and the side zipper pocket perfectly fits your phone while keeping it out of the way, but allowing for quick access for those trail-selfies that I really hope to God you don’t take, because just please don’t.
My biggest critique is the back main pocket, which is much narrower at the entrance than at the waist, meaning it’s hard to adequately stuff bulky items and you look a bit like a turtle. Expanding the opening would definitely fix this issue.
Overall, this UltrAspire is probably lesser known than some of the other vests I was able to test, but deserves to be on anyone’s list, whether this is your first running vest or you’re looking to upgrade one of many. The $120 price tag is reasonable enough to make the lack of included hydration a negligible issue and it comes with the benefit of increased flexibility.
Super comfortable in high temps
Most intuitive design of all tested vests
No included hydration
Can be difficult to fit bulky items
Nathan VaporSwift and VaporAir
A few months after our original review was published, notorious outdoor and endurance company Nathan reached out to us to say that they thought we were missing a major contender in the running vest market. Spoiler alert: it was them.
They sent over their 4L VaporSwift and 7L VaporAir which are two different flavors of their ultra-light race-geared vests. One of their main selling points is the Adaptive-Fit system, which reportedly allows a more custom fit for every body type and relies on an interesting system of webbing and elastic hidden behind two zippers in the front of the vest. Setting up the fit is super easy as long as you take five seconds to read the directions, and I recommend re-sizing the vest each time you run to get the best fit possible. I have to say that both of the Nathan vests were without a doubt the most secure in terms of fit and bounce elimination. However, despite that, it was the pack that I was least able to “forget” that I was wearing. It wasn’t uncomfortable by any means…it was just…there.
The VaporSwift and VaporAir sell for $125 and $150 respectively and each comes with an excellent Hyraflask hydration bladder with room to add more water if you need it. If you’re looking to carry anything more than a bladder and your phone, I would recommend the 7L option, since the Vapor line seems to be a bit less able to accommodate over-stuffing than some of the other products we looked at, and can get a bit tight when trying to pack multiple layers, even with their bigger loadout options. Also, while the VaporAir does have trekking pole attachments, they’re just elastic bands without any anchoring points to the main body of the pack, which means your poles will bounce a bit. While the VaporSwift is great for a quick run with the dogs, I do love all of the little front pockets of the VaporAir for sticking gels, extra water, gloves, my mask, etc.
All this being said, the Nathan line of vests seems to be a solid contender as an all-rounder. I’ve been training for a long run in April and without a doubt I’ll be carrying the VaporAir for the big event, which says a lot with all the possible vest options I’ve been able to consider.
Best fit, hands down
Lots of front storage options
Minimal bounce with almost any loadout
Doesn’t like being overstuffed
Not the best option if you run with trekking poles
My dad always says that opinions are like…well…you know. Everyone has one. With trailrunning becoming less of a niche sport, the running vest market is booming and there are probably tens if not hundreds of vests to choose from in addition to the ones I was able to test and review. If you take anything at all away from my coffee-fueled ramblings, remember that fit should always be your number one consideration. Support your local stores whenever possible, and please stop posting your running selfies to Instagram (or worse, Strava).
In all seriousness, enjoy your run, leave no trace, and get outside today.
This article was written by Jeff Wayland, trail runner, backpacker, cyclocross racer, fledgling paragliding pilot, and wannabe DIY pack maker.