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June 3, 2009

Ultimate Direction Wasp Hydration Pack Review

In an earlier review, I mentioned that the hydration pack count at ultras seems to be a two-horse race, with a slight edge to Nathan.

Well … remember this year’s Kentucky Derby, when Mine That Bird stormed back from about 30 lengths behind to cruise to victory in the homestretch? That’s the analogy I’d use to describe the Ultimate Direction Wasp right now – making enormous strides on the field, poised to charge ahead at any moment. Whether or not the lead has officially changed hands is still up for debate, but regardless - this product has caused quite a stir in the world of ultrarunners.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Ultimate Direction is a leader in this market; they’ve been in the hydration game as long as anybody. (On that note, a possible retraction: I previously claimed that CamelBak, which began in 1993, invented the hydration pack - but on UD’s history page, it says “Ultimate Direction designs the first water reservoir and begins incorporating them into back packs, 1992”. Were they actually the first to go to market, or just an early designer? Can anyone clarify this? There must be someone besides me who’d be interested to know.)

Ultimate Direction is also a leading innovator in hydration equipment, responsible for creations like the screw-top flask, gel flask, quad buckle (for hip packs), race belts, and the kicker valve (which is almost too erotically shaped and textured for me to use in good conscience … but that’s a separate story).

In that regard, the Wasp pack might be considered a combination of every feature that works well in other packs, with a few added tricks to distinguish it from others in this category. The end result is a very solid entry that’s tough to find any fault with (but of course, I’ll try).

One distinguishing characteristic of the Wasp is evident as soon as you put it on: namely, the hydration reservoir sits higher than any of the other models. The Sport Vest harness system keeps the fluid pack between the shoulder blades regardless of how much weight it carries, and prevents it from sliding down to the mid-back area. I found the positioning of the pack to be ideal, but this might be a personal preference issue for other folks.

The harnesses of the Sport Vest system are ergonomically contoured for improved comfort, and there are two strap adjustments on the front of the pack to help with variable positioning, with lateral straps that can be adjusted if necessary (I didn’t need to). The overall result is that the pack feels comfortably snug, like you’re wearing another layer of clothing.

In field testing the Wasp, I was quite impressed with how stable the fluid pack sits during long runs, no matter how full. The Sport Vest managed to virtually eliminate any bouncing or lateral movement on all kinds of terrain, even when running downhill. This is clearly one of the product’s strengths.

Better still, pack stability doesn’t come at the expense of comfort. The back panel features 3D AirMesh pods which create an air channel for ventilation and moisture transfer. Basically, despite the snug feel of the pack, it sits slightly raised off your back to dissipate heat and improve comfort. This is the pack I wore at the Quicksilver 50M last month; over the course of 9 hours, I had absolutely no complaints or discomfort from the pack on what grew to be a fairly warm day. The overall weight of the pack is 1 lb, 5oz, which is middle of the road for this review, but light enough to not be a problem over long distances.

Cool and comfortable at Quicksilver

The hydration reservoir uses Ultimate Direction’s patented rolltop open/close system. The opening is very effective for creating a tight seal, but it might take an extra second or two to close effectively compared to screw top reservoirs. In particular, on one occasion when I was trying to fly through an aid station quickly, I wasn’t paying close attention and rolled the top crookedly; a few minutes later, I felt my drink leaking from the top, and I had to stop and re-roll it. (This story probably speaks more to my ineffectiveness at aid station transitions than the pack itself, but I thought it was worth noting.)

Fluid volume of the reservoir is listed at 64 oz, which places it slightly below the 70-oz standard for this category – but honestly, I couldn’t tell a difference. On a few occasions, I filled the pack a little bit past the 64-oz line without any major repercussions (you know … as long as I closed the rolltop properly).


Lots of reservoir features – click here for a larger view

Two other features of the reservoir are worth noting: first is a grab loop that keeps the top of the reservoir positioned at the top of the pack, no matter how much fluid is drained. In other words, the pack doesn’t compress downward as it gets empty. Better still, you don’t have to disconnect the loop in order to refill the reservoir.

Another unique feature of the Ultimate Direction reservoir is the neoprene insulation that runs the length of the drink tube. It’s a unique feature among this group of packs, and works remarkably well. During the Quicksilver race, whenever I dumped ice into the reservoir, the fluid that came out of the tube was immediately cold – I didn’t have to sip through a few ounces of warm drink that had been exposed to the sun before reaching the contents of the main pack. This is one of those “why doesn’t everybody do this?” features that is simple but highly effective.

The front of the Wasp has four mesh storage compartments: two smaller elastic holsters, one zipper pocket, and one drawstring pocket. The larger pockets are angled slightly laterally, and at first glance, I was worried that my arms would brush against them when they were full. My worry proved to be unfounded – I’ve used the drawstring compartment for my camera, and had the zipper compartment filled with gels and snacks, and never had any issue with my normal arm swing. And since they’re all in the front of the pack, convenience couldn’t be any better.

The Wasp provides 390 cubic inches of total storage space in a variety of locations. Two large compartments on the back of the pack – one in a full-length compartment that sits above the fluid reservoir, another in a separate lateral compartment that also contains a key-holder pouch – are big enough to stash extra layers of clothes. The outside of the pack has a large mesh elastic compartment, and a bungee cord to secure bigger gear. There are also Velcro straps for trekking or ski poles – but not being much of a pole user, I can’t say I got excited about those.

It’s really hard to find a drawback to the Wasp pack; thus far it has met every demand I’ve asked of it. Some summary bullets:

Strengths:
  • Higher positioning of fluid reservoir
  • Virtually no movement of fluid reservoir or pack in general
  • Comfortable, ergonomic fit of vest and harness system
  • Front storage areas provide quick access
  • Ample rear and lateral storage areas
  • Insulated drink tube
  • Gender specific models (see below)
Drawbacks:
  • Rolltop opening may require a couple extra seconds of attention if you’re in a huge hurry to get through aid stations – but unless you’re trying to keep up with Scott Jurek or Nikki Kimball, you probably shouldn’t be worried about this, anyway.
  • It only comes in one color scheme: gray and red. And I’m more of a blue/black person.
OK, so that last one is nitpicking – but like I said, it’s difficult to find any complaint with the Wasp. This is an outstanding product on all counts, and it’s easy to see why it’s gaining in popularity among the ultra crowd.

Ultimate Direction makes a women’s version, called the Wink, with a slightly different harness and strap system. Both models typically retail for $80, and I haven’t found haven’t found any huge discounts lately. The Wasp is available for $80 at Amazon.com.


*If you’ve used this product, please weigh in with a comment to agree, disagree, or share your experience.

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

11 comments:

Dave 6/4/09, 6:24 AM  

This is my pack of choice. I love it. I love it. I love it. It is so comfortable that on runs over 10 miles I feel naked without it. It is seriously a security blanket. I like the pockets up front. I like the little extra capacity in the back and I just like how it feels when I have it on. With all that said, I have had trouble with the bladder and it began to leak after only about 3 to 4 months of use. I really like the camelbak 70 oz bladder and this fits nicely in the pack. Did I say I love this pack. I am with you on the colors, but hey...

Billy Burger 6/4/09, 9:24 AM  

My 2 main complaints with the Wasp are:

1) the roll bladder (switched it out with my screw top North Face one, problem solved)

2) the positioning of the straps. After several miles, it causes uncomfortable chafing at the base of my neck and shoulders. I felt they could be further apart. Tried using Vaseline to address this issue, but only works for short periods of time.

Otherwise, dig the product very much - especially the 'vest' portion of it.

Gretchen 6/4/09, 12:32 PM  

You know, before I had seen you at WS camp, I saw a guy from a distance that I thought might be you. Then I said to myself "Naw, that guy's wearing red shorts. Donald wouldn't wear red shorts." Then I laughed at myself for thinking that. Guess I was more smart than silly. Heh.

I'd love some feedback from women on how the women's specific packs fit as opposed to the men's. I'm hesitant to buy women's versions because usually it just means "smaller" and in that case, men's usually fit me better. However, in things that have straps across the chest...well, I could see the advantage of a women's design. If it's any good.

industrial equipment 6/5/09, 12:44 AM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mweston 6/18/09, 3:24 PM  

This is my pack and I like it a lot. I did have one bladder develop a leak, luckily during a training run and not a race, but I've been a bit on guard about that happening again since then. But I'm not inclined to lose the insulated tube, so I haven't used other brands of bladders in it.

Important note for long distance self-supported runs: you can get a 96 ounce bladder into it, though it's a bit of a tight fit.

Stuart 6/25/09, 2:46 PM  

I like this pack but the bladder is really hard to keep clean and fill on the fly!

Although for now I am back on hand bottles!

Notleh,  10/2/09, 4:01 PM  

I was really leaning towards the Nathan O2O, but I bought this pack. So far I used it for part of a 100 miler and on some training runs and have liked it.

The roll bladder was a bit odd at first, but now I think it beats the pants off of the screw-open bladders. Super easy to clean and fill.

I still want to try out the O2O so I can compare but it is going to be a tight battle I think.

Mike C-NJ 12/10/09, 6:48 AM  

I just ordered the Wasp from Peak62 for 69.56 on sale. Thanks for the review.

Nergock 5/26/10, 7:51 PM  

Donald, thanks for the great review and thanks for the 10% discount. I just placed my order with Wilderness Running.

Anonymous,  10/21/11, 7:57 AM  

Thanks for the review! I have had my Wasp almost two years now and still like it. Granted, it is the only hydration pack I've ever had, so I can't offer any useful comparisons to other products.

I can say that after the fluid in the bladder is down to 50 or 40 ozs, it feels more like I'm wearing a vest than a pack. And the pockets up front give me plenty of room for gels, bars, cell phone, electrolyte tabs, etc.

Like Billy commented, mine does start to rub now and then, but it has never caused any chafing.

I did have one problem with the bladder. The original bladder developed a small leak where the hose and the bag meet. I printed the product return form from UltimateDirection's site, mailed it with the bladder to UD, and they mailed me a new bladder, no muss, no fuss.

Josh 1/30/12, 3:50 PM  

This is a good pack. I've got about 20 hours in it so far and believe it is an excellent product. I'm 6'2" and 185 pds and I love how it rides between my shoulders and how there are no waist straps. A few comments: 1) the bladder isn't great, you are better off replacing it with one from camelbak, 2) a 96oz camelbak bladder will not fit, 3) if you need a 3 liter capacity use a 70 oz and then supplement with collapseable 1 liter platypus bag

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