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August 2, 2009

The North Face E-Race Boa Hydration Pack Review

You may recall from my comprehensive hydration pack review that I had hoped to test a pack from The North Face, but the company told me that budget restraints prevented their participation. Honestly, I thought they were politely blowing me off – so I was very pleasantly surprised when they contacted me later on to offer a hydration pack for comparison to the others.

The timing was a bit poor, as I received the pack while tapering for Western States. I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to either 1) do high demand, multi-hour runs, or 2) fool around with trying new gear. Factor in a couple of weeks of recovery (i.e., sitting around on my butt while stuffing my pie hole), and a couple more weeks of ramping up the training again, and you have a much longer than appropriate delay in reviewing this product. So let’s file all these factors under “better late than never”, and just get on with the review …

I should probably preface this review with a disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of The North Face. Nearly all of my favorite running garments (shirts, pants, winter gear) are made by them, and I’ve used their trail running shoes from time to time over the past few years. They make high quality products across the board – from camping to backpacking to trail racing - and they’ve made a strong push into the world of ultrarunning over the past few years, most notably with a nationwide Endurance Challenge series featuring killer courses and cash prizes which draw elite and amateur trail runners alike.

As far as this specific product review goes, I could probably summarize it in one sentence: the North Face E-Race Boa is a racer’s hydration pack. It’s light and lean and employs a minimalist design for high performance trail running. But it’s also durable enough to be used as a day to day training pack – as I did during my recent week in the Sierras.

Being minimalist doesn’t mean this pack is simple – in fact, there are several technological features unique among the category of hydration packs I reviewed. First we’ll look at the features, then do an overall comparison with the packs that were reviewed before.

The Boa wiring system

One distinguishing feature of this pack is right in the name: the Boa Wiring system which crisscrosses the 50-oz hydration bladder, and can be tightened or loosened with a dial on the front vest shoulder. You click the dial clockwise to tighten the wire, which provides two benefits: it compresses the pack to keep the fluid from sloshing around, and it maintains pressure in the fluid reservoir to help push fluid through the tube without having to suck on the valve.

(This is good, because the valve doesn’t want to be sucked – it would much prefer that you bite it. Seriously … it says so right there on the end – see?:

There’s a little bit of North Face attitude for you. Doesn’t make the pack better or worse – just seemed like an interesting touch.)

Another unique design element is how the bite valve (or can we call it the Bite Me valve now?) attaches to the front of the harness: not by clips or straps, but by magnetism. A small magnet at the elbow of the valve latches onto its companion piece on the right vest strap, keeping it securely in place. The magnet sits on the opposite vest strap from the Boa dial, so if you happen to like your valve to sit on the left shoulder, you’re out of luck - but that feels like a minor complaint.

The harness attaches in front by something called an E-VAP system, which is a series of overlying Velcro attachments that all meet directly over the sternum. During my field testing, I found it to be remarkably stable: there was absolutely no movement of the harness, and it remained very comfortable throughout my longest trail runs.

The Boa dial at right, the magnet bite valve attachment at left, and the E-VAP harness system under the logo.

Below the main harness, two abdominal straps attach in front with Velcro; each strap has a small pocket that can slide forward or backward based on your preferred placement. And if you want to go completely bare bones, you can take the pockets off entirely and race with nothing but the fluid on your back.

The pockets are fairly small, and they represent the only real cargo storage of the E-Race Boa. I was able to fit my compact camera in one pocket, with a trail map and key in the other; there was probably room left over for one or two gel packs, but that’s about it.

All of these features bring me back to the summary sentence from earlier: this pack is made for racing. More specifically, it seems best suited for shorter distance (less than 50K) races where you want to carry some fluids, but as little extra weight as possible. The entire pack weighs 9.5 oz, so you won’t sacrifice speed in order to carry the bare necessities while gunning for a PR.

The minimalist aspect of the pack is something of a double-edged sword: if you’re planning to spend several hours on the trail, or if you like to pack a lot of gear with you, this pack might be on the small side. Even the hydration reservoir is scaled down in relation to other packs – which is a good jumping off point for some spec comparisons with the other models:

Hydration reservoir: 50 oz in the E-Race Boa compared to 70 oz for the others. Less fluid is lighter; lighter is faster. The twist-top opening is similar in size to the Nathan HPL 020, and somewhat smaller than the CamelBak, but can be easily opened and refilled without removing the reservoir from the harness.

Weight: 9.5 oz, which puts it on the low end of the grouping, but slightly above the 6-oz Nathan HPL 020. Remember: lighter is faster.

Cargo capacity: 95 cubic in, which is the second to smallest (behind the CamelBak). The E-Race Boa won’t carry much gear to weigh you down. Lighter is … well, you know.

Comfort: very high marks – this pack feels as stable and comfortable as any I reviewed.

Versatility: the E-Race Boa is pretty much a one-trick pony; it probably won’t serve you well for cross-purposes like hiking or cycling. Whether that’s a good thing or bad is up to you.

Price: on the high end in this category; see below.

The E-Race Boa sells for $99 at Amazon.com. The price is higher than other packs, but with The North Face products, you almost always get what you pay for.

If you’re a serious racer, or looking to carry a moderate volume of fluid on your regular training runs without sacrificing speed, the E-Race Boa is probably worth spending a few extra dollars.

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


Rainmaker 8/2/09, 7:59 PM  

Nice writeup, as always. I like that it has the little front/side pockets, that seems pretty useful. I also like the fact that you can refill without removal, as my currentl Camelbak doesn't support such a feature.

trailmomma 8/3/09, 10:34 AM  

Thanks for the review. I am a newbie trail runner and I love my Nathan Intensity Hydration Vest and also anything The North Face related.

I am curious though. Do you have a garage full of all the stuff given to you review? I would think with all the hydration packs you've tried, socks and shoes and other odds and ends that you must be running out of space! :-) My husband already thinks I have too many running shoes!

Anonymous,  8/9/09, 6:29 AM  

Hi there, good review. Can you tell me if there is a cleaning kit offering for this like Camelbak do? just wondering how you found this for keeping it clean.


Donald 8/9/09, 12:37 PM  

No cleaning kit from TNF, but the CamelBak cleaning kit I described in the CamelBak review works quite well for nearly all these hydration packs.

Brett,  9/2/09, 7:22 AM  

Awesome review! Just for the record though I did find a place that has them for 78.95 at the moment w/ free shipping. sunnysports.com.

Craig,  2/26/10, 4:09 PM  

Great hydration pack in every way except the bladder. Water leaks out as the screw opening has no washer as seen in most other bladders. TNF are changing the system to a different opening. I would say get this pack and use a different bladder system.

Anonymous,  3/2/10, 2:28 AM  

Greeat review - have just bought one but does can someone tell me how to loosen the wire?! Thanks!

Mary Aurelia 9/9/11, 6:54 PM  

I bought this item and it seems to fit well but it does not work for me. I bite down on the valve, and no water comes up. I do not see any blockage, and the water will travel about an inch along the piping but it won't get to the mouth. I have had several seasoned hikers try to get it to work, and no joy. Right now, this item is worthless to me. Help!

ywfromga 4/22/12, 12:58 PM  

I would love to know how to take the bladder apart to clean it or let it air out. I can't seem to detach the hose from the bladder without feeling as if I will destroy it. These packs should come with care instructions....this is my first northface hydration system.

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