In preparation for the Brecon to Cardiff Ultra next February I’ve bought myself a hydration vest. I’m now started to do my long runs wearing it. I’ve been a bit hesitant about this as I’m not a fan of extra layers, don’t like the idea of liquids sloshing around as I run, and had no real idea of just how much space I might need – I didn’t want to go overboard and find myself packing the kitchen sink.
So it was with some hesitation that I bought myself the Salomon Advanced Skin 3 5 litre hydration pack from the Ultramarathon Running Store. I’m posting a short review of the vest here based on my initial impressions (i.e. after just the one run).
Salomon Adv Skin3 5 Set
There are a range of colours. Whilst I’d normally opt for a safe black I instead went for lime to help with my visibility. Sizing is always tricky online but I followed the sizing guide and went for M/L. When I first put it on I wondered whether I’d bought a child’s size – it sits high and doesn’t even come down to the bottom of my ribs. I realised that this was as intended – it really doesn’t need to be any bigger, and of course the less material in contact with the body, the less it makes you hot and sweaty. It also makes it easier for the vest to hug the body when you are running and reduce the risk of it bouncing around.
The back is mesh, and the lime green side panels are a very thin and stretchy fabric. The fastenings are very simple, if a little fiddly – I’m not sure how frozen or gloved fingers would deal with them, but hopefully I don’t imagine I’d be taking it off and on very often during a run. The red hooks clip on to threads on the other side of the vest. They don’t sit out very far and need some coaxing to catch. This may change as it’s worn a few more times.
The bands themselves are adjustable on the other side with a simple pinch clip; just squeeze the clip and pull the band through to tighten. I’d recommend leaving this until the vest is fully loaded.
The ‘5’ in the name refers to the storage space – in this case 5 litres. It does also come in a 12 litre version, which sits a lot deeper on the body to allow for the extra load space. What I like about a hydration vest over a straightforward rucksack is that the storage is spread around the torso rather than just piling it all on the back. And the Salomon vest certainly has no end of pockets to store your kit!
Starting with the front there are two front pouches. These are elasticated and can accommodate no end of bits and pieces. For my run today I kept it simple and had a number of gels and bloks in my right pouch, and my buff in my left pouch. It is really handy for those things that you just want to grab as you go – I’d see myself keeping my gloves, hat etc in these pockets in future. On the chest straps there are two small pockets, one zipped and one stretch. Perfect for stashing the car keys on one side, and some wet wipes on the other. On the sides are two larger zipped pockets. I was disappointed to find that my phone didn’t quite fit into these pockets, but they are ideal for something that you don’t want to lose but don’t need to access too regularly, such as a first aid kit.
All of these pockets can be accessed whilst the vest is being worn. So too can the kangaroo pocket on the back of the vest. It’s really well designed so that it can be reached with either hand, and is great for keeping the waterproofs. It’s very roomy and stretches, so depending on how much you want to load yourself down you could keep more stuff in there and reduce the amount you keep in the front dump pockets.
The main section of the vest back is divided into three areas, separated by mesh walls. The innermost area is designed for the (optional) hydration bladder. The vest comes with an insulated pouch which fits in this section. Given I’m not planning on using a bladder I’ve removed this pouch to improve airflow on my back. Next is a small pocket which comes with an emergency blanket (in gold!). Finally there is the main section for storage. This is very stretchy also, and I just used it to hold my mobile phone and emergency £10. For racing proper I plan to use it for a dry bag which will hold the phone, extra clothing and anything else that I don’t need to access too frequently. The opening to this section is accessible whilst the vest is worn, though whatever was kept in there would need to be sat near the top to be reached in that way.
Now I did say that this was the hydration version of the vest. I’ve mentioned the optional bladder, but one feature that made me opt for this vest over another was the chest mounted soft flasks. As I said earlier, I don’t like the idea of liquid sloshing about in my backpack, and I’ve never enjoyed having to carry a bottle in my hand as I run. Too often I’ve gone out for a long run with no fluids because of this, which we all know is a ‘bad thing’.
These are two 500ml flasks that sit in the chest straps. For my run I just used water and hydration tabs. The drinking tube has a really simple airtight valve on it – just bite the valve gently and you can draw up the fluid. Release it and the valve closes, so no air feeds back into the flask. This means that once you’ve filled the flask, you can suck out the air – hey presto, no sloshing!
Getting the flasks into the pockets on the vest is a little fiddly because they are so soft, but I aim to get some practice in before race day. Once they are in, they stay in place. There is a handy loop stitched in the top of the pockets which sits around the neck of the flask to prevent it from sliding down in the pocket as the flask empties – nice design thinking.
The one section of the flask which is a harder plastic is the white rim at the top. This is oval rather than round so it doesn’t sit proud from the vest. One slight negative is that the lid is quite small – my hydration tabs didn’t fit and needed to be broken in two in order to get them in to the flask. If someone was running a hot race and wanted ice in their drinks then this would be tricky to manage. It could also slow down refills at drink stations.
There are other features which I haven’t used as yet. There is a system for attaching walking poles, and there is a whistle – often mandatory on ultra kit lists. The whistle is pretty flimsy however, so I’d consider taking a separate one – it’s not as if I don’t have the storage space!
Test Drive – Cardiff to Pontyclun
So how did it fare? Today I took it out for a test run, a 17K from Llandaff back to Pontyclun. Holding the vest in my hands it felt heavy – not surprising that I had a litre of fluids on board! Once I’d put the vest on however, the weight was nicely distributed across my back and chest, and with the sternum straps hooked and tightened, everything felt comfortable. As soon as I started running through Llandaff, I was very happy that there was no movement either from the vest itself or anything stored in it – and no sloshing! I could feel the extra weight however, and wondered how this would impact on my running as we went along.
Leaving Cardiff and heading out to Radyr the road climbs. Whilst it had felt cold in Llandaff, the clear skies and sunshine were now beginning to warm up the morning. I was expecting to get a sticky back, but the lightweight fabrics and mesh that Salomon have used mean that the airflow around the body doesn’t get too badly affected. Compared to when I’ve had a normal rucksack on my back, it didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. One thing that I did start to notice on hill climbs was the additional weight. Because I was carrying the extra kgs fairly high up on my body, my thighs were definitely feeling the weight as I pushed up the hills. As soon as I got on a flat or descent however, it didn’t really cause any problems.
The pockets were all easy to access as I ran, so I was able to take on some gels without slowing down at all. Using the flasks was a very new experience. They sit close to the chest and the valves are relatively short, so it’s not feasible to lift the flask to your mouth; instead I had to dip down and drink. I found it easiest to do that when I was stationary, though it didn’t take long at any point. With some more practice I may be able to nail this movement on the run.
Would I previously have thought about using a hydration vest for a 17K run? Probably not. But having used it on this occasion, I would definitely think about it in future. It’s certainly not an essential bit of kit when running this distance, but it was very useful to be able to drink little and often, and also to have plenty of storage space. I think it would come in handy as the days get colder – I might start a run in a hat and gloves, then ditch them as I warm up. Similarly it is a really handy idea to be able to take a waterproof out on a day which threatens rain, without having to commit to wearing it from the off.
I’d be interested to hear other Road Runner experiences of backpacks and hydration vests. If anyone wants to post reviews of other bits of kit, please do!