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August 15, 2011

CamelBak Octane LR Hydration Pack Review

“That night, he wore a shirt and trousers in Desert Digital Camouflage, and carried a silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistol, along with extra ammunition; a CamelBak, for hydration; and gel shots, for endurance.”
- From Getting Bin Laden by Nicholas Schmidle, from The New Yorker

Before you get the wrong idea about things: the intro quote above doesn’t really have anything to do with the product review. I just thought the fact that the Navy SEALs used CamelBaks as part of their standard assault wardrobe was an interesting detail to note from the night Osama Bin Laden was killed.

Fortunately, my own testing regimen didn’t involve any sort of midnight raids or top secret assassination missions - it was more of the garden variety trail running and mountain biking that is well within my comfort zone. However, the New Yorker tidbit also highlighted another noteworthy fact about CamelBak: they are far and away the industry leader in hydration packs. They’re the first choice of the US armed services, they have a monopoly in every gear shop you’ll ever enter, and they’re easily the most common pack I encounter on the trails from Monterey County to Yosemite National Park.

CamelBak Octane LR

That doesn’t mean they rest on their laurels, though; from year to year, the company continues to innovate and advance its product line. This spring, they completely revamped the traditional 70-oz hydration pack with the introduction of the CamelBak Octane LR.

Fluid reservoir at bottom of pack

The most obvious difference between this pack and virtually every other hydration pack on the market – including CamelBak’s own Octane XCT, whose design was the starting point of the LR – is that the fluid is carried horizontally around the waist instead of vertically down the back. Realignment of the reservoir necessitates other functional changes as well – most of which are either improvements or equivalents, but a few of which are drawbacks. Whether this pack is an overall upgrade compared to the XCT will ultimately come down to your individual preferences for use. (And if you want a recap of the other pack, check out my CamelBak XCT review here.)

CamelBak Antidote lumbar reservoir

It all starts with this: a wing-shaped lumbar reservoir (or LR for short) that distributes fluid across your lower back instead of between your shoulder blades. The benefits of this placement for running are biomechanically obvious: the fluid weight is closer to your center of gravity, making for more efficient transport. It also decreases the strain on your back muscles during multi-hour outings, especially if you have a tendency to lean forward from the waist while running.

The reservoir also has a new feature for CamelBak: a Quick Link system that detaches the tube from the main compartment. It allows you to swap out the tubes if necessary and also makes cleaning a bit easier, although the overall cleaning of this reservoir is still somewhat difficult due to the wings; the best you can do is to stuff some paper towels into each side, because it’s almost impossible to get air flow into them. Otherwise, all the great features of CamelBak’s Antidote reservoir system are here: a wide mouth opening that easily locks shut with a half-turn, a Pure Flow tube, Big Bite valve, and HydroGuard coating to decrease bacterial growth.

Drink tube exiting pack at torso, and clipped to front strap

With the lumbar reservoir design, the drink tube exits the pack on the side of your torso instead of over your shoulder like on most packs. This is another of those personal preference things that some folks feel strongly about; it feels a bit strange to me when I'm running, but very natural on the bike. The bite valve clips securely in place on the front harness, so there's no issue with the tube flopping around during activity.

Diagonal zippers create flap to access reservoir

Two diagonal zippers create a lift-flap for accessing the reservoir. It’s very easy to use in your kitchen, but refilling fluids in the field could be problematic for a couple of reasons. Since the access point is on the bottom half of the pack instead of the top, you have to hold the entire pack sideways or upside down if you want to keep the reservoir inside the pack while refilling. Also, if you take the reservoir out to refill it, placing it back inside the pack might be difficult if you’re carrying a lot of cargo, especially in the side pouches. For training runs you might have time to work around these issues, but if you’re looking for a pack to move through aid stations quickly during a race, this is a major drawback.

Low fluid levels = hard to drink

Another issue I found with the lateral fluid distribution is that the fluid doesn’t completely drain into the drink tube opening when levels get low. Fluids sometimes get stuck in one of the side wing compartments without flowing to the center compartment (the one with the tube), and even if the pack is perfectly level, a small portion becomes inaccessible below the bottom of the tube entry point. By my estimation, the final 5-10oz of fluid in the reservoir is quite difficult to get through the tube without some significant manipulation of the pack – which is also something you don’t want to deal with if you’re in a hurry.

Large side zip pockets with key clasp on R

Other features of the pack will be quite familiar to CamelBak users. There are two spacious zip pockets on either side, one of which has a key clip inside. The air channel mesh on the back and underneath the straps maintains air movement between the pack and your body, and improves overall comfort. All the straps are adjustable to customize your own perfect fit. Overall pack weight of the LR is 12.6 oz, which is slightly heavier than the 11.2 oz XCT.

Since the entire bottom of the pack is occupied by the reservoir, CamelBak had to tweak the arrangement of the cargo storage areas for the Octane LR. In general, what they’ve done is a significant upgrade: total cargo capacity is 549 cubic inches, which is more than 2.5 times greater than the capacity of the Octane XCT. (However, I consider that XCT number a loose estimate, as it doesn’t account for stuffing clothes and small gear into the main reservoir compartment.)

Two vertical pockets with diagonal zippers

The vertical pockets aren’t as tall on the LR as they are on the XCT, but they overlap each other diagonally, with one slightly longer than the other; I can fit my 10” air pump in the deeper pocket, but not the superficial one. Both side zip pockets are roughly the same dimensions, perhaps a bit larger, than they are on the XCT. There’s also a nice little pouch pocket on the front harness that’s big enough for a couple of gels or energy blocks.

Huge central mesh pocket for large cargo

Most of the increased cargo capacity comes from the large mesh pocket that sits above the fluid reservoir compartment. You can easily stuff a jacket or a whole assortment of small items in this pocket, which latches closed with a hook and elastic cord. The extra cargo capacity is especially useful when using the LR as an MTB pack – and like most CamelBak products, the LR has great crossover appeal for both activities.

So if you’re choosing between the LR and the XCT, here’s a recap of the primary differences:

*  LR has more comfortable and ergonomic fluid placement for running
*  LR is less efficient to refill and doesn’t empty as completely
*  LR requires side torso tube placement instead of over the shoulder
*  LR has significantly more cargo capacity

It’s also worth noting that the XCT I reviewed last year had a 70-oz fluid reservoir, and the 2011 version has a 100-oz reservoir, so based on current models the LR has a lower fluid capacity, but 70 ounces is pretty much industry standard for most hydration packs.

As I mentioned, it’s hard to make a clear call as to what version is best – ultimately the decision comes down to your own individual preferences and your intended use. I actually prefer the LR as an MTB pack, because I don’t typically have to stop and refill during a multi-hour bike ride, but during a run of similar length I typically replenish my fluids every few hours. Regardless of what style you prefer, you can be assured that either of these packs are able to handle whatever adventures you have in mind.

The CamelBak Octane LR hydration pack retails for $80 from Amazon.com, where you can also find the 2011 Camelbak Octane XCT 100oz-pack for $72.

*Product provided by CamelBak.  Affiliate sales help support Running and Rambling.
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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Her Name Is Rio 8/15/11, 8:52 PM  

That's an different reservoir design- will check it out. Also, who would've thought : CamelBak and Navy SEALs?

The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy 8/16/11, 6:58 AM  

Hey Donald, what do you think about this pack versus the horizontal bladder pack from Inov-8(The Race Pro series)?

Donald 8/16/11, 3:12 PM  

MGBG: The CamelBak carries a lot more cargo, and a lot more comfortably. I've reviewed the inov-8 Race Pro 4 - the review is on my right sidebar - and found that having all your cargo and fluid around the waist leads to more bouncing than I like. However, it's a more minimal design, so if you want to go light and fast while still carrying a ton of fluid on your waist, it's a decent option.

Timm 4/3/12, 8:36 AM  

Good review! I love my Octane LR. Have you tried the hydration tube over the shoulder? I've always run it up and over the shoulder strap and never had any problems with it.

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