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May 13, 2009

CamelBak Octane XC Review

It seems only natural for any hydration pack review to start with CamelBak. After all, this is the company that created the mold.

CamelBak introduced the hydration pack concept almost 20 years ago, revolutionizing the training practices of millions of endurance athletes seemingly overnight. I had one of those first CamelBaks in the early 1990s, and while they served a particular need - allowing for longer duration workouts without refilling – they weren’t entirely comfortable (in fact, I used to get big chafe marks on my back after multi-hour runs) or user friendly. They were messy to fill and hard to clean and often made your liquid taste like plastic.

Over two decades, CamelBak has evolved and adapted and continues to dominate the market, remaining the most prolific manufacturer of hydration packs today. They have diversified to a remarkable degree, with models designed for military and law enforcement personnel in addition to runners and cyclists. There’s also a series of packs categorized as government/industrial, featuring a fluid reservoir that is resistant to chemical or biological agents. You could say the company has gone high-tech.

Anecdotally, they also seem to have the hiking market cornered; during my visit to Yosemite last month, probably 99% of the hydration packs I saw on people (yes, I was paying attention to this – I knew this gear review was coming) were CamelBaks, and both general stores in the Yosemite Valley stock a large inventory of exclusively CamelBak products.

On the company website, the Octane XC is billed as a “lightweight pack for trail runners and adventure racers.” The specs list the pack at 1.3 lbs when empty, and 5.56 lbs when the 70-oz fluid reservoir is filled. Its cargo capacity aside from the fluid is 90 cubic inches.

(** This is probably a good time for me to point out that in my summary post after all the reviews are written, I’ll put numbers like weights and capacities of all the products side by side, so you have an easy point of comparison. In other words, don’t worry about taking notes – I’ve got you covered.)

This was one of the first packs I received to review, and it quickly became a key component of my mileage buildup over the past several weeks. I’ve probably put about 200 miles on it thus far, including several runs of 20+ miles. I also conducted an “off label” use on my mountain bike while riding around the Sea Otter Classic with my son last month, and it suited my needs quite well in that setting.

Remember what I said about my back chafing with early CamelBak models? That’s definitely a thing of the past. The Octane XC has something called an AirDirector back panel (basically a contoured, aerated mesh design), and a soft mesh harness to keep the pack in place securely but comfortably. The only time I noticed any bouncing from the pack was when the fluid reservoir was filled to capacity; once I took a few drinks, the pack seemed to mold quite well along my back. There is a lot of potential adjustability with the straps and harnesses of the Octane XC, but I found it fairly comfortable right out of the box with very little modification.


view from the front

The Octane XC has three storage pockets: one on either side at approximately the level of your elbows, and one on the top flap that closes the fluid reservoir. These are all zip pockets and they are fairly water-resistant; the back zip pocket also has a key clip and a cell phone holder. I found the storage perfect for carrying a few gels and a camera, and also to stash a hat, gloves, and headlamp after the sun came up on my early morning runs. There’s also an external bungee cord for securing larger items like a windbreaker or poncho if weather conditions are uncertain.


bungee cord and side storage pockets

While I liked the volume of storage (not too much, not too little), I found the side pockets a little bit difficult to access while running. Part of this may have to do with my arm flexibility; I’m one of those guys who has trouble scratching the small of his back. Sometimes I had to unbuckle the lower torso strap to give myself a few extra inches of space to reach all the way into these pockets. During a training run, this isn’t such a bad thing – but if you’re looking for quick access to your goodies during a trail race, or need to repetitively go back and forth to the pockets (for instance, if you’re taking a lot of photos), then the placement of these pockets may get frustrating.

The fluid reservoir is made of burst-resistant polyurethane, and is as rugged and durable as anything you’ll find from other brands – in fact, CamelBak supports it with a lifetime warranty. The screw-top opening (named Omega) is quite large, ostensibly making it easy to fill. One thing I noticed when filling the reservoir is that it’s really helpful to pull upward on the hard plastic tab below the opening to create some air space inside, otherwise the fluid has trouble reaching the bottom of the reservoir. While this isn’t a big deal in training, I imagine it might be somewhat problematic if you’re trying to fly through an aid station during a 50K race.

Other features of the reservoir are a PureFlow delivery tube which prevents any plastic taste from infiltrating your drink, and a Hydroguard anti-microbial coating to eliminate bacteria – very convenient for those times when you run 20 miles and then stash the pack in your car for an 8-hour workday. The Big Bite Valve provides a high volume of fluid with each sip, so you don’t have to suck on the valve like a milkshake straw.

When it comes to cleaning the reservoir, CamelBak has the system dialed in. They are the only brand I’m testing that has its own cleaning kit for the fluid reservoir – complete with a cleaning solution, reservoir brush, drying hook, a narrow brush to clean the delivery tube (a very sweet little tool), and a plastic piece to keep the reservoir open to air while drying. Even without the cleaning kit, the shape of the reservoir (basically rectangular) and size of the Omega opening make cleaning fairly simple: I just rinsed it with warm soapy water, then stuffed a bunch of crumpled paper towels inside to maintain air access while drying.

Overall, I was so impressed with the utility and durability of the CamelBak reservoir that I also used it in another pack that I’ll be reviewing in a future post.

So that’s the pack at a glance. Some points to summarize:

Strengths:
• Overall comfort, easy adjustments of chest and abdomen straps
• Adequate storage for several hours of activity
• Reservoir is durable and very easy to clean, with anti-microbial and taste-preserving technology features
• Specialized cleaning/drying kit (at extra cost) for added convenience
• Comfortable for mountain biking as well as running

Drawbacks
• Slight bouncing when fluid reservoir completely filled
• Reservoir capacity is listed as 70oz; true functional capacity seems closer to 60-65 oz.
• Reservoir may be difficult to refill quickly during races
• Stash pockets on sides difficult to access at full speed

This pack proved to be a true workhorse for me this spring, getting me through multiple long training days while meeting my hydration and storage needs, without any comfort or durability problems. For racing, I’d probably consider using something that allows for quicker refueling and easier pocket access – but for the countless trail miles between races, this pack is an excellent companion for long-distance adventures.

The Octane XC retails for around $60 (give or take a few dollars from different vendors – it’s only $55 at Amazon.com) and comes in various colors.

If you have used the Octane XC, feel free to weigh in to agree or disagree with this review, or share your own findings.

**See other product reviews on right sidebar. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

7 comments:

Jo Lynn 5/13/09, 9:30 PM  

Interesting. Thanks so much for taking the time to review it so thoroughly for us. ;)

Dave 5/14/09, 4:12 AM  

Donald, you give great reviews. I nearly wish I had you around about a year ago before I invested in a pack. You are right about the bladder. Camelbak got it right...

RBR 5/14/09, 6:22 PM  

Thank you for your great review!

I run in a Camelbak Dream (women's specific and I LOVE it) but I have to use my run belt with it for easy access to food and my camera :o) )

Can you post a picture of yourself in the pack so I can see where the pockets sit? I have not found one at a store to try on and I have been considering this one? Also, if I can be a super pushy PITA, do you think your wife would be willing to try it on? And weigh in on her opinion of its comfort? I ask because the Octane XC does not have a women's specific model and there does seem to be a difference with the straps in other models.

David Ray 5/15/09, 8:11 AM  

Good review and looking forward to the others. For cleaning the bladders, we usually just run some bleach water through after use. A teaspoon of bleach to a bladder full of water does the trick. Slosh it around inside the bladder and run a good bit through the mouthpiece. Rinse with water and hang to dry.

Anonymous,  1/4/10, 4:03 PM  

I have used this since September and is better than any one I have used. More comfortable than the flashpro. Only problem was during recent 50K when tubing froze up and was unable to use it.

Rikki 4/5/10, 6:52 AM  

Do you find the tube bounces around while running or is there a decent place to clip it?

Donald 4/5/10, 2:32 PM  

Rikki - I don't find that it bounces a lot, but you can always tuck it under the chest strap if it's bothersome.

BTW, you should definitely check out the review of the updated XCT that I just published. It's a pretty sweet upgrade.

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