Tuesday, June 4, 2013

FlintLand Review : Camelbak Ultra LR Hydration Vest

  • Type : Hydration
  • Use : Long-distance running
  • Price : $130

Camelbak and I go way back. When I started to run-commute, I opted for a SnoBlast bag to carry my stuff around and hydrate at the same time. Since it’s a downhill skiing / snowboarding bag, it seemed like an odd choice and many runners commented on it. When I wore it for my first ultra, people started telling me I needed a vest. I thought my SnoBlast did an awesome job, and although I still wear this bag every day for other purposes, I have to admit my world changed when I tried a hydration vest.

My model of reference for hydration vests is the Nathan Endurance, which I have worn so much it’s half-torn apart. I have tried a couple other alternatives, but never found anything I liked. When Camelbak sent me a Marathoner and an Ultra LR, my eyes got set on the latter in an instant.

Trail test
I took the Ultra LR out for a first unforgiving test on a cold winter afternoon. Frankly, I didn’t think it would last more than 10 minutes in the sub-zero weather. I was very pleased to discover it didn’t freeze, as long as I blew back some air in the drinking tube. The vest itself felt comfortable and barely-there. The weight distribution at the very bottom of the vest makes it feel very light.

Road test
I took the Ultra LR on several long winter runs, but was curious to see how it would perform when warm weather would settle in and I’d ditch the extra layers of clothing. So when spring came, I made sure to bring it to all my longer races. I ran two half-marathons, a couple long runs on my own, a full marathon and a 50K ultra wearing it.

Quick Link Tube Assembly System
Definitely, the best part about Camelbak vests is the tube assembly. It starts with a coupling at the bladder that you only need to push the tube in to connect. When the tube is disassembled, the bladder will not spill or leak. This means you don’t have to undo the whole vest to get the bladder out and rince / dry it after your runs. It also means you can carry more than one bladder (say, in a drop bag) and swap them with a simple click of the drinking tube. Pretty awesome. But it doesn’t stop there. The bite valve is also very well-conceived, with a simple slit that opens up when you bite it. If you’re worried it might drip or get squeezed-open when transporting the vest, there is also a cut-off valve to ensure liquid flows only when you want it.

The Ultra LR is the roomiest vest I’ve ran in, with multiple front pockets and accessible mesh stashes over the straps where you can easily slip half a dozen gels, a Clif bar or two, your keys, a pair of arm warmers and a couple other small items. The belt portion also features two large waist pockets for even more storage that’s accessible while you run. The back of the vest offers a large mesh stash that will easily contain a light windbreaker or other pieces of gear you might need. It has a built-in whistle, which is an obvious safety feature, but moreover will allow you to tick a mandatory item off the equipment list of many mountain ultras.

Bite valve with cut-off mechnism
The shoulder harness and waist straps are fully adjustable and will fit runners of almost any size. Although there are neat “compression straps” for the bladder, I’ve never used them and question their purpose. The belt goes all the way from your right to buckle on your left side, which felt a bit awkward. Why not use double adjustments like everyone else?

Space also comes at the price of weight. The Ultra LR is also the bulkiest vest I’ve ran in, and that difference is way more noticeable when running in warm weather, where it almost feels like a backpack with a lot of fabric touching your skin. It weighs in at over a pound, too.

The Ultra LR brings a lot of innovation to hydration vests with the unique lumbar bladder, the awesome valve and tubing system and the creative use of space for storage. I think it offers very interesting features, but would benefit to undergo a drastic weight and bulk reduction effort, which would bring lighter and more breathable fabrics, and reduce the contact points with the runner’s body. Overall, this is definitely a piece of gear I will use in my running.

High points
  • Possibly the industry’s best valve and tubing system
  • Clever lumbar bladder puts the weight on your waist, not your shoulders
  • Extra roomy
  • Fully adjustable

Low points
  • Feels bulky, more so in warm weather
  • Heavy at 1.15 lbs

The equipment for this FlintLand review was supplied by Camelbak free of charge, without any conditions.

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