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June 22, 2010

Nathan HPL 020 Hydration Vest Review Update

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.”
- Jim Collins, Good to Great

It’s unclear to me whether the folks at Nathan purposely had the tenets of Jim Collins in the backs of their minds this spring, or whether they just happened to prove his point accidentally. Good to Great (subtitled Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don't) describes how truly outstanding companies don’t settle for performance that’s “good enough”; they are constantly looking for ways – either through personnel, operational efficiency, innovation, technology, creativity, and various other means – to make their situations better.

And this might sound like an unusual way to begin a product review, until you consider that the product in question is Nathan’s HPL 020.

Nathan HPL 020

When I first reviewed the pack last spring, I showered it with praise in everything from its feather-light overall weight to its comfortable vest-style design to the highly convenient front pockets and generous rear storage space. (And rather than re-hashing all of that here, I’ll just refer you to last year’s post if you’d like to review the whole thing.) It was one of my two favorite packs last year, and it pretty much came down to a coin flip between the 020 and Ultimate Direction’s Wasp in deciding which one to wear at the Western States 100 last summer.

HPL 020; front view with multiple pockets

Clearly, it was a very good pack, but there were a couple of small issues that prevented it from being a truly great one. The main difficulty I had was dealing with the fluid reservoir, which had a somewhat small twist-top opening, and an occasionally tricky bite valve mechanism. So when I heard that the pack was being updated this year with an improved reservoir, I knew that was a game-changing factor that could potentially eliminate any doubt about which hydration pack would be my top choice for ultrarunners.

Nathan turned to its partner Hydrapak, a company that’s made very impressive strides of its own in the last few years, to update the fluid reservoir of the HPL 020. Hydrapak responded with a top of the line 70-oz reservoir that’s not only super durable, but incredibly easy to use. Basically, it’s a fluid container that’s as tough as the rest of the vest.

Old HPL 020 reservoir on L, new reservoir on R

How’s this for durability? The new reservoir is made from thermoplastic polyurethane, the same stuff they use to make whitewater rafts. It’s puncture and abrasion resistant, and can expand to eight times its original length without bursting. The entire delivery mechanism – reservoir to tube to bite valve – has a lifetime guarantee against leakage.

From a convenience standpoint, Hydrapak’s reservoir features a fold and slide closure, with a molded clip clamping the top of the bladder shut to prevent leaks. It’s a very simple two-step process to open and close, and the opening is much wider and easier to access than the old screw-top mechanism of the previous model.

The best thing about Hydrapak’s reservoir is that its rectangular shape and full-width opening make it completely reversible. No more stuffing towels into a narrow opening or hanging your pack beside the sink for two days; with the new bladder, you just wash it, flip it inside out, and wipe the whole thing dry. This feature alone is enough to tip the scales for me in favor of the 020 over any other challengers.

Reservoir turned completely inside out, with tube detached

In my field testing over the past couple of months, Hydrapak seems to have improved the bite valve mechanism a bit as well. It’s easier to pull out and push in than I recall from last year’s pack, and I haven’t experienced the annoyance of the rubber cap sliding off the valve entirely, as I did occasionally last year. Maybe I’m just more alert for that possibility this time around – but if I had to guess, I’d say there was a spot of re-engineering here as well.

[*Update: Hydrapak's reversible reservoir now comes equipped with a surge valve, which is angled differently and provides a higher flow volume than the previous design. Some commenters below indicated quirks with the old valve (which I haven't experienced myself); the Surge valve was designed to fix those problems, and is now included with all new HPL 020 vests.]

Aside from the fluid reservoir, the HPL 020 is exactly the same for 2010 as it was last year – which is to say, it’s still pretty flippin’ awesome. If you’re a dedicated ultrarunner looking for the perfect pack to power you through those long training runs and races, you really can’t do better than this. With this upgrade, Nathan’s HPL 020 has successfully made the leap from good to great.

The updated Nathan HPL 020 is available at an incredibly sweet discount price of $56 from Amazon.com.

*Product provided by Nathan Sports
*See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at

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