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April 2, 2012

CamelBak Marathoner Hydration Vest Review

Before today's post, a reminder: if you aren't one of the 250+ people who have already entered the New Balance Minimus Zero Road giveaway, there's still plenty of time to do so. Sure, the odds are against you - but they're better than if you don't enter, right? Winners will be announced this Saturday.


The first thing I thought when seeing CamelBak's Marathoner was Oh, wow ... CamelBak’s trying to make a vest like Nathan.

I’m referring, of course, to Nathan’s awesome HPL 020 hydration vest, which has become my tried and true favorite for long training days over the years. It doesn’t take a detective to note the resemblance in the design of that classic pack to CamelBak’s new one*, which like the 020 is designed specifically for runners.

CamelBak Marathoner hydration vest

(*It also bears a passing resemblance to Ultimate Direction’s Wasp, but since I’m a heavy-duty 020 user, this review will limit any dual comparison to just the 020.)

After testing the Marathoner for several 20-to-30 mile training runs, I can’t say that I prefer it to the 020 … but I also realize that there’s more to the Marathoner vest than just being derivative of another brand’s cash cow. CamelBak’s version is distinctive in a few key areas that might appeal to the right kind of user – and depending on what you’re looking for in a pack, may even be an improvement over Nathan’s hydration vest.

The primary advantage the Marathoner offers is fluid-carrying capacity; in addition to a 70-oz reservoir in the main compartment, there are two bottle holsters on the front of the vest that can each accommodate a standard 20- to 24-oz bottle. For the math-challenged, that adds up to nearly 120 oz of fluids you can haul in the Marathoner pack, which should be enough for pretty much any epic adventure.

(On that point, here’s a quirky criticism I have of the Marathoner vest: I hate the name. When I was a dedicated marathoner, I never carried more than a single bottle in training. CamelBak’s Marathoner is clearly better suited for ultrarunners than marathon runners, and the company already introduced the Ultra LR pack this spring with the exact same color scheme, so I’m not sure why they didn’t just call this pack the plain-old Ultra. They had a similar naming convention for the Octane and Octane LR a while back, so I’m not sure what happened this time around. Obviously I wasn’t consulted.)

Of course, the usefulness of these water bottle pockets depends on whether or not you actually use them to carry water bottles. I’m already on record in my Ultra LR review saying that having water bottles in the front pockets is too bouncy and cumbersome for my liking. And if you don’t use them for bottles, the pockets can actually be too big in some ways – for example, when I put a camera in the pocket, it tends to bounce around more (because it has more space to do so) than it does in the smaller pockets of my HPL 020.

Another major distinction between the Marathoner and the 020 is that the Marathoner has a much greater cargo capacity on the front vest straps. In addition to the bottle pockets (which can be used for other gear if not for fluids), there are two inner-layered pockets behind the bottle pockets on each side, which make for a nice place to stash used empty GU wrappers or larger items like a smart phone. The front cargo capacity is actually greater on the Marathoner than it is on the 020, which is good, because …

… on the back side of the pack, all you have is this large mesh pocket to stow your gear. I know it looks like there’s an entire upper storage compartment above the mesh, but …

… that compartment is completely occupied by the fluid reservoir, which is a significant design change from previous CamelBak running packs. On the Marathoner, the compartment that houses the reservoir is quite thin, and is cinched closed with a large Velcro strap that goes across the top of the opening. The advantage of this design is that the fluid compartment is extremely secure, with very little bouncing regardless of how full it is. The tradeoff is that you lose the ability to stuff other gear in there, effectively decreasing your overall cargo capacity.

Between the locked-down fluid reservoir and the adjustability of the harnesses, the Marathoner has a very stable ride. If you’re somebody who likes a vest setup but doesn’t like the movement of the 020 or UD Wasp, the Marathoner offers a significant advantage over those other packs. I found it easy to adjust the tension of the side straps and dual sternum straps in mid-run, allowing me to keep the pack snug against my body regardless of how full the reservoir was.

Material construction of the Marathoner also contributes to high-mileage comfort, with an air channel back panel to circulate air between your body and the pack, and vest panels which ride very softly against your torso. One final comfort-related quirk about the Marathoner is its overall weight of 12.7 oz (360g) when empty; this number is not only higher than the 10-oz 020, but also higher than CamelBak’s own Octane XCT which weighs in at 10.7 oz.

However, the weight issue shouldn’t be a deal breaker, because the Marathoner is best suited for either 1) the runner who is looking to haul 40 to 48 oz of fluid in excess of the standard 70-oz reservoir, or 2) the runner who wants to stash a lot of large gear within easy reach on the front pockets. In either of these cases, the 2-oz difference in material construction is almost negligible.

The CamelBak Marathoner vest retails for $100 at REI.com as well as other online vendors.

*Product provided by CamelBak. Affiliate sales 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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Johann 4/3/12, 4:44 AM  

I enjoyed this review, thanks! I'm currently in the market for a new hydration pack but I'll have to see what's on offer here in South Africa.

Serena 4/3/12, 4:49 AM  

Could you fit a rain shell in the mesh pocket in the back?

Tristan 4/3/12, 5:30 AM  

During a group training run for a local ultra this past weekend, one of the guys was wearing this pack. I noticed he took it off a couple different times when his group stopped after long trail sections, and I meant to ask him why. I'm further puzzled by this since you are saying there's not much room for storage in the back. Maybe he was just making adjustments or airing his back out? I really like the fact that they're putting more storage in the front, as I'm considering having my wife modify my XCT with another strap pocket in the front.

PRE LIVES ON 4/3/12, 9:08 AM  

This looks like something I would want to have for a ultraendurance run thru the woods or desert but I feel like it would rub my nipples into a bloody pulp. How is it without a shirt?

Donald 4/3/12, 6:58 PM  

@Serena: yes, plenty of room for a rain shell.

@Tristan: yeah, it would be pretty tough to cram anything in that zippered pocket - not sure what to say there.

@PRE: honestly, I haven't tried it - but the material is similar to Nathan or UD in terms of comfort against the skin. It's not a problem over a thin tech shirt.

Jen 4/12/12, 7:25 PM  

I think the biggest drawback over the Nathan vest is the clean ability of the bladder. I love how you can completely turn the Nathan one inside out to dry. But I'm lazy like that!

Anonymous,  6/5/12, 1:53 PM  

@Jen I belive the bladder has a quick release at the bottom and legs so it stands up to dry - check out the video on the camelbak website on the antidote bladder.

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