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February 21, 2012

CamelBak Ultra LR Vest Review

Last summer CamelBak introduced the LR series of packs, featuring an all-new lumbar reservoir (thus the initials) that allows a more ergonomically efficient means of carrying fluid weight for extended outings.

I reviewed the Octane LR last summer, and it honestly didn’t blow me away compared to CamelBak’s standard running pack, the Octane XCT. The lumbar reservoir definitely feels comfortable against my back, but there were a couple of primary quirks I didn’t like: 1) the interface of the drink tube and reservoir wasn’t low enough to completely drain the container, and 2) the diagonal storage pockets made it somewhat difficult to access those compartments on the go.

CamelBak Ultra LR

This spring, CamelBak addressed one of those issues in the pack I’m reviewing, but not the other one. Consequently, my executive summary of the Ultra LR reads something like this: They significantly improved the cargo accessibility, but didn’t change the reservoir in the way I was hoping. If you didn’t like the LR system, this pack won’t do anything to change your mind – but if you’re a LR fan, this pack is a very nice improvement over the Octane LR.

To be sure, there are a lot of fans of lumbar packs out there. The design is a huge selling point for runners who get sore between the shoulder blades when using packs that carry the fluid weight up higher. From a biomechanical standpoint, having the fluid weight distributed horizontally across your back results in lower energy cost than having the same weight higher up the spine.

Photo from my Octane LR review, but the Ultra LR has the same issue - note the fluid level below the drink tube

From my experience, the theoretical benefits of carrying fluid lower were offset by difficulty in practical application. In addition to the quirks I mentioned above, I found the LR tricky to refill with gear in the side pockets, and difficult to clean and dry after use.

70-oz Antidote lumbar reservoir 

However, there’s no complaining about the quality of the 70-oz Antidote reservoir; if there’s one thing CamelBak does exceedingly well, it’s reservoir construction. This updated version has a new Quick Link system to detach the tube at the base for easier storage and cleaning. All the other features are standard-issue CamelBak innovations: a Big Bite valve for high-volume flow, a very easy and secure lock/unlock latch, a wide-mouth opening that seals easily with a quarter-turn, and an insulated drink tube with anti-microbial coating.

As for the storage, the Ultra LR presents something of a paradox: at 200 cubic inches, the overall capacity is less than on the Octane LR (335 cu. in.), but since it’s easily accessible, it seems like you actually have more functional space at your disposal. CamelBak went with a big structural change here, and completely took away the diagonal / vertical storage areas of the Octane LR. Instead, they expanded the diagonal side pockets and stretched a mesh pocket across the entire backside.

Patagonia Nine Trails jacket and Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp in one pocket, with plenty of room to spare

The triangular belt pockets are similar to the ones CamelBak uses on its other running-specific packs – but on the Ultra LR, they’re enormous. There’s plenty of space to accommodate all the gels or energy bars you need, or give you a place to stuff your headlamp, gloves, arm warmers and hat when the sun comes up. You can easily scrunch a lightweight jacket into one of the side pockets; for most runs, you can have pretty much everything that you need within easy reach. Bulkier items such as midweight jackets are super easy to stuff in the mesh netting on the backside.

Dual water bottle holsters or cargo pockets; tube clips; safety whistle

Another big innovation with the Ultra LR pack is storage space on the front chest straps, similar to Nathan’s HPL 020 or the Ultimate Direction Wasp. The pockets are designed to accommodate a standard 20-oz bottle, but my preference is to use them for gear like a camera, cell phone, or map, because carrying bottles felt excessively bulky and bouncy. The pockets can be secured with a bungee drawstring to keep your cargo secure regardless of the size.

Air Channel construction in lumbar area

In addition to their exceptional reservoir construction, CamelBak also excels in creating packs that ride extremely comfortably, though fabric construction, design elements and plenty of adjustment points. The lightweight mesh of the Ultra LR feels soft and light against the back, and air channel construction (thicker on either side, thinner in the middle) allows air to circulate between the pack and your body. All of the straps are adjustable to provide a customized fit regardless of your body proportions.

As with any pack, there’s a tradeoff between cargo capacity and weight: the more room you have to carry stuff, the heavier the pack tends to be. In relation to other ultrarunning packs, the 1.15-lb Ultra LR is heavier than Nathan’s 10-oz HPL 020 but has twice the carrying capacity; in comparison to Ultimate Direction’s Wasp, it’s equal in weight with slightly less cargo space.

At an MSRP of $130, the price point of the Ultra LR is higher than similar packs, but if you like the lumbar setup and need a lot of storage space for long hours on the trail, this pack offers a unique combination of features to make the cost worthwhile. They’re also available at a slightly discounted price of $115 from Amazon.com.

*Product provided by CamelBak
**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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Bryan,  2/22/12, 10:00 AM  

I spy minimus zeros...

Donald 2/22/12, 6:53 PM  

@Bryan: Correct! Stay tuned in the next few weeks for a review.

Luan 3/31/12, 12:03 PM  

Got one of these recently, in my opinion the front bottle holders work great, but they need to be adjusted properly and tightly.

I'm using two Camelbak Podium 21oz Chill bottles with 500ml fluid in each.

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