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June 5, 2009

Gear Review: Hydration Packs - Summary

Thanks to everyone who has indulged me this extended product review on hydration packs, and especially to those who sent comments or e-mails sharing their own experience with various models. If you still haven’t made up your mind based on the individual reviews (linked at the end of this post, and on right sidebar), hopefully some comparisons and summary thoughts here will help you decide.

Before we get to the recap, however, one clarification: attentive readers will note that I originally promised reviews of six hydration packs, and only ended up publishing five. That’s because The North Face initially committed to provide a pack for me to review, then backtracked due to budget concerns. Perhaps we’ll revisit the North Face product review at some point in the future – or maybe that was just their polite way of blowing me off. Time will tell, I guess.

Regardless, the level of quality and innovation in this group of hydration packs was very impressive overall. Let’s start comparing:

The lineup: CamelBak Octane XC, Inov-8 Race Pro 4, GoLite Rush, Nathan HPL 020, Ultimate Direction Wasp.

We’ll begin with the easy part: numbers. They don’t lie. At least, that’s what I’m told. (Unless you consider them statistics, in which case, they’re even worse than damn lies … confused yet? Let's just keep moving.)

*
Weight

Nathan: 6oz
Inov-8: 7oz
GoLite: 1lb, 4oz
CamelBak: 1lb, 5oz
Ultimate Direction: 1lb, 5oz

There’s a pretty big gap in this category between the ultra-lightweights - Nathan HPL 020 and Inov-8 Race Pro 4 – and the others. It’s worth noting that the two lightest styles are non-traditional designs: a vest (from Nathan) or waist pack (Inov-8) instead of the backpack design of the others.

*
Cargo capacity

GoLite: 900 cubic in.
Ultimate Direction: 390 cubic in.
Inov-8: 244 cubic in.
Nathan: 100 cubic in.
CamelBak: 90 cubic in.

This one is no contest – GoLite wins by a mile. If you need to carry a whole pile of gear, the Rush can’t be beat. What’s even more impressive is that the Rush is the same weight as the other backpack styles.

Another noteworthy point is that the CamelBak is one of the heaviest packs reviewed, but has the lowest amount of cargo space. However, CamelBak redeems itself in the next category.

*
Best Bladder (Sorry … that sounds like an award given out at nursing homes, doesn’t it? Let’s change this one to … )

Best Reservoir

This is clearly the area where CamelBak excels – the Omega reservoir seems to be the gold standard for fluid carriers. Its simple shape, wide opening, durable construction (with a lifetime warranty), antimicrobial features, and efficient bite valve make it a top choice, even among runners who use different packs.

This came as a bit of a revelation to me, but apparently there’s a lot of reservoir swapping going on out there. Several people reported something along the lines of, “I really love X pack but use it with a CamelBak bladder.” I used this reservoir with my GoLite Rush pack (which doesn’t have its own), and it was perfect.

CamelBak is also the only company in this grouping with a specialized reservoir cleaning and drying kit. It includes a very thin little scrub brush to clean your drink tube – which may be one of the best inventions ever made for high-volume hydration pack users.

*
Comfort

Now we’re getting into some subjective assessments, so I can’t argue too strenuously if someone’s opinion differs from mine. Overall comfort of a pack is a perfect example.

I love how the Inov-8 Race Pro 4 carries 70oz of fluid without feeling any more cumbersome than my 20oz bottle waist pack, and keeps your entire upper body free. If you don’t want anything to do with shoulder straps and harnesses, you could definitely fall in love with this pack.

Among the shoulder/vest models, I wouldn’t say there was a significant difference one way or the other – with the possible exception of the Nathan HPL 020, due to its very low weight, being more comfortable in extreme heat. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of these packs gave me any problems with rubbing, chafing, or other unpleasantries.

*
Versatility

This is another category where the GoLite Rush shines; it’s a true hybrid for ultrarunning, day hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, or any ourdoor endurance activity. From a hydration standpoint alone, there are several different setups to suit your individual needs.

Of course, the opposite side of this coin is …

*
Efficiency

If simplicity and minimalism are your thing, the Nathan HPL 020 keeps you light and streamlined, while still providing the basics to get you through a 100-miler. The Inov-8 RacePro 4 is nearly as light as the Nathan vest, and has double the storage space as the Nathan. Between these two, it’s pretty much a coin flip as to which will allow you to run like a maniac with minimal encumbrance.


*
Convenience

I’m basing this one on ease of access to your stuff during a multi-hour run: grabbing gels or salt tabs on the run, going in and out of the same pocket for a camera 10 times per hour, stashing gloves and headlamps after the sun comes up. Obviously, having pockets on the front of the pack makes a huge difference here – and that’s why the Ultimate Direction Wasp and the Nathan HPL 020 get high marks.

*
Price (two divisions here: 1. retail and 2. best online price)

Nathan: $80 retail, $56 best price at Amazon.com
Inov-8: $70 retail, $70 best price
GoLite: $70 retail, $63 with my coupon code (see sidebar) at Wilderness Running Company
CamelBak: $60 retail, $55 best price at Amazon.com
Ultimate Direction: $80 retail, $75 best price at Zombie Runner

CamelBak has the lowest retail price in this category – and since it is comparable to the other packs (more on that in a second), that would appear to make it the best value.

A couple of notes to pay attention to while shopping online: the purchase price of a GoLite Rush doesn’t include a fluid reservoir, so you’ll incur the extra cost of a reservoir (probably from CamelBak) with that one. The Inov-8 Race Pro 4 is often listed at $45, but that price doesn’t include the reservoir which is charged separately.

And now, our final category …

Western Statesability

OK … I made that term up (but really, it’s no worse than drinkability) – but one of my ulterior motives in doing this review was to find the ideal pack to use at this month’s Western States 100. I figured that I’d try several models and discover the one that would make my journey to Auburn as manageable as possible.

So which one will I be using? The answer is, I honestly don’t know. I have a favorite I’m leaning towards, but I’m not going to say which one, because I think that would be unfair to the rest of this group of packs. Truthfully, I feel like I could use any one of them at Western States, and it would serve me perfectly well. So if you want me to declare an overall winner in this review, I’ve got bad news for you.

The good news is that in making your own decision, there’s not a question of quality to worry about. It all comes down to what your own preferences are, which features you value over others, and how you see yourself getting the most value out of your pack. I’d be happy to answer direct questions about any one of these packs by e-mail if you’d like; otherwise, use the individual reviews to help make your own selection.

Here they are again:

CamelBak Octane XC

Inov-8 Race Pro 4

GoLite Rush

Nathan HPL 020

Ultimate Direction Wasp

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

6 comments:

Anonymous,  6/6/09, 9:07 AM  

Nice review and in my experience for a long race I have come to the conclusion that the Inov 8 Race pro4 is my choice because it distributes the weight around the lumbar area which does not incur top to bottom spinal pressure (which is not good when running downhill)and most importantly you can rotate the pack without taking it off which is huge when being on the go. Back packs are disadvantaged by the shoulder straps and even if you take those off while being on the go it is still a mess to deal with if you try to rotate the pack. Even the side pockets can be hard to get to on back packs like the Camel back. Inov8 has great storage area and if there is one draw back it would be that when fully loaded (70oz) it will have a slight bounce activity but I take that because the rotation factor in combination with storage is its greatest asset!
good luck with your choice.
Carl
carlasker@sbcglobal.net

Anonymous,  6/6/09, 5:10 PM  

Dr. Bladder,
What about the Platypus?
CV Once a Runner

Jo Lynn 6/6/09, 7:44 PM  

Thank you so much for taking the time to review all of those. Even though I don't have first hand experience with them, I may use your experience as an example when/if someone asks about any of then at work (REI). Would that be okay with you?

Sunshine Girl 6/7/09, 8:23 PM  

Hydration is over-rated.
GIVE ME THE SPELLING BEE!

hydraulic valve 6/8/09, 3:20 AM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rainmaker 6/15/09, 6:56 PM  

Thanks for all the reviews. I ended up reading them and re-reading them all multiple times today in an attempt to pick out a hydration pack for my long run this evening. The review points were extremely helpful.

Thanks again!

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