OK, this might be a long review, but hang in there if you are looking for a new race vest for 2014 and beyond.
If you ran an ultramarathon last year, anywhere in the world, you will no doubt have seen a sea of grey and red packs bobbing away around you. These were the much hyped and well received first versions of the Ultimate Direction Signatures Series race vests, designed in collaboration with Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka and Peter Bakwin.
All three of these runners have different styles and philosophies towards running and adventures, and this was represented within the vests. From the stripped down minimalism of the AK vest, through to the lightweight but precise SJ vest and finally, the adventure vest by Peter Bakwin, which is the largest capacity vest, all three athletes brought their own signature to the series, hence the name.
I have struggled since getting involved in this sport, to find a pack that does everything I want. I first started out with a very simple camelbak bag which had no pockets and just enough room for a 2 litre bladder (reservoir). It meant I had no room for gels or other food or equipment. It was suitable for my first race but for races where you need space for mandatory kit, it was useless. I also hated using a bladder as it tasted funny, was hard to access and re-fill during a race and you had no idea how much water was left, unlike a bottle where you can see.
I then bought a The North Face (TNF) Enduro 13 pack in winter 2012 which I used firstly for the Endurancelife Dorset Coastal Ultra and then for the North Downs Way 50 miler last year. This is a great bit of kit, but the main flaw is that the bottles are secured to the rear and whilst they were easy to access on the run, all the weight was on the back of the pack which pulled the straps tight across my chest and created an uneven load which led to some back pain later in the day.
TNF Enduro 13 Pack (May 2013 North Downs Way 50)
It was at this race I started to notice the Signature Series vests all around me. I particularly noticed when I reviewed the race photos after the event, that the majority of the guys in the top 20 were wearing one of the new vests. Equipment alone of course doesn’t make you fast, but if the top runners were using this kit it firstly meant it was good and secondly meant it was efficient. And it was efficiency I was after.
Soon after this race, my parents bought me one of these vests as a birthday present and I opted for the middle version of the pack, the Scott Jurek Ultra Vest. I have used this on every long run since. The pack has a 7 litre rear pocket capacity, pockets everywhere for gels and bars and two pockets for water bottles on the chest, meaning an even distribution of weight between the front and rear of the pack.
Scott Jurek Signature Series Ultra Vest (Nov 13- Brecon Beacons Ultra)
I love this vest but had a few issues with it. I ordered the large version and it turned out I was between sizes of medium and large. The solution was to take it to a tailor and have them reduce the side and chest straps in order for it to fit my body and this did the job.
The other issue I found was the bottles sat quite high. Whilst this meant freedom of movement for my arms, the bounce from the bottles did sometimes get a little annoying. Again, my solution was to only keep one bottle on the pack and use the other as a handheld which I quickly got used to and liked.
Around Christmas, as the 2.0 versions were being announced, I was contacted by Ultimate Direction to see if I would review the new Peter Bakwin adventure vest for the UK market. This was an honour and I was told the European launch was in March and I would be sent the vest then.
Initially, when I saw the promotional videos for the new vests, I was a little skeptical that they didn’t seem to have changed a huge amount but I wanted to check for myself. I suppose as a positive, if something is already good it doesn’t need overhauling completely.
You can see the three videos for the new packs here: http://www.ultimatedirection.com/c-signature-series.aspx
To clarify, I am not comparing like for like here. My old vest is the SJ and the new one is the PB, so some of my comments relate to what I feel is better, or worse, on the new vest I have been sent not updates between SJ 1.0 and SJ 2.0.
The first thing I noticed out of the box was how soft and comfortable the materials felt. Whilst strong, the SJ vest became a little ‘scratchy’ in places. I noticed sometimes chafing on my neck on a hot day when I was wearing a singlet and the straps rubbed against the sensitive skin between shoulder and neck. On the PB 2.0 the material is an open air mesh which is very soft and springy. It feels foam like and because it is a mesh, is highly breathable. It also grips well too, meaning there is little rubbing or bouncing.
On that note, the whole vest has numerous bungee cords so that micro sizing adjustments can be made. You have the two central chest straps and what has been added, to stop the problem I had before of being between sizes, are two lateral straps that are hidden in the side bellows pockets that can be tightened or loosened in order to get an exact fit for a variety of body shapes.
I have adjusted mine a few times now and have found the perfect fit. Key here is that on different days I will be carrying different loads, so I can adjust the straps so that whether the vest is full or half empty, I can stop it bouncing and fitting perfectly to my body. It is a very clever design.
Pockets wise, these haven’t changed a huge amount from the 1.0 version but the chest pockets have been enlarged. They say that it is the simple things that work best, and that is true of this vest. The best thing about it is the chest pockets for gels and food meaning they are very easy to access on the run- particularly on a race between aid stations. There are also four pockets either side of the two bottle pockets, which are the same as on the 1.0 SJ, but have been toughened and can take up to 3 gels each.
During training, you also have the side pockets but as with the SJ vest, these are the weak spot. There is nothing wrong with the side pockets themselves or the capacity, but you need to be a yoga God or have the ability to dislocate your own shoulder in order to open then and access their contents without taking the pack off. I had hoped UD would have learnt from this on the 2.0 version of the PB and SJ vest and move these further to the front, but hopefully this will happen with any 3.0 version. On the AK vest I have noticed they have addressed this problem by removing the side pockets altogether.
The PB vest has two small electrolyte pill pockets, one if which is fully waterproof and also features a built in whistle, an item that is quickly being added to most mandatory kit lists. Finally, there are loops on the rear to secure trekking poles, secured by the criss-crossing bungee cord as well as a loop for an ice axe.
As an aside, one of the reasons a lot of people do not use poles is not because of their difficulty to use, but because they are often only storable on the rear of a race vest and so when required, they are frustrating and painful to access- typically involving removing the vest completely. The PB vest has a number of small loops and straps sewn across the front and sides and having experimented, it is possible to secure collapsed poles using these, although their primary purpose isn’t that clear.
These loops are minimal and not ideal on the 2.0 so perhaps these may be adapted further on any subsequent versions. Securing poles so they can be accessed easily, I feel, would be a massive selling point- particularly in Europe where pole use is a lot more common than in the States. Ultimate Direction tell me they have experimented with poles accessed to the front but overall the bounce is too big so they haven’t yet found the perfect solution. One stable way poles can be accessed without taking the vest off is via the bellows pocket to the side and whilst initially fiddly, with practice I can see how this would work.
Typical Mandatory Kit- Easily Swallowed by the PB 2.0 (not shown- bottles, food or poles)
The rear storage space is very large at 11 litres (compared with 7l on the SJ). This is more than enough for mandatory kit but can be squashed down when you have loaded your contents so it doesn’t feel half full. This vest in the Signature Series is less for the elite runners at the front of the field, but as the name suggests, more for adventures where you can carry a lot of supplies but still in a neat, small pack compared with most rucksacks. For me as a mid pack to top 1/3 runner, it doesn’t matter that it is bigger than the AK or SJ, I want a vest to be comfortable with a large capacity, but also function when it has a light load.
Water capacity wise, this is where this vest really comes into its own compared with the competition. It really is designed for adventures. You have the two 600ml (20 oz) bottles that come with the vest and are designed to sit in the front chest pockets. You also have room for up to a 3 litre (105 oz) reservoir in the rear and the bellows pockets have bungee cord in there specifically to hold two more bottles on each side of 600ml each (20 oz). That is a huge combined load of 5,400ml or 5.4 litres (190 oz).
Buzz Burrell, the Brand Manager at Ultimate Direction tells me he uses this at trade shows to demonstrate the capacity of the vest. That the vest is then so hard to lift, but in his own words once on, “voila! The weight goes away” as it is so evenly distributed.
Having so many options means you can play around with storage that suits you. For example, Buzz also told me that Peter Bakwin tends to use the front pockets for a camera etc and secures his water in the side bellows via two pockets. It is the versatility that really sells this vest.
I had no problems with the strength of the materials on the SJ 1.0- even when stuffed to capacity- but I understand some others have experienced tears in the seams. This has been addressed with all three new versions with the introduction of Silnylon 66. Which is described in the booklet; “Impregnating nylon with Silicone and Polyurethane creates this permanently waterproof fabric, and also substantially increases its seam and tear strength”. In addition, the stretch mesh that forms the bulk of the rear of the vest is visibly and physically stronger. Perhaps it adds a fraction more in terms of weight, but in the grand scheme of things it means a much stronger and more durable pack that will last for years, subject to be cared for in the usual ways.
Again, comparing to the SJ 1.0 I found the original 1.0 did let water in quite easily on wet days and I had to use waterproof zip-lock bags to keep things like my headtorches and spare clothing dry. I haven’t run with the PB 2.0 vest in the rain yet, but I hope it is as waterproof as the marketing literature says it is, although zips etc can never be 100% waterproof.
For me, I won’t be getting rid of my 1.0 SJ vest. I will still use this for races where I need less in the way of kit and supplies and want a lightweight vest to carry all I need. Not least because it was a gift from my parents, but also because it is still perfect for some races.
However, the PB 2.0 vest is an incredible piece of kit and I wouldn’t be surprised if even some of the die-hard Salomon fans start to drift from the S-Lab Hydro 5 and 12 sets towards this. The residing factor for me is its comfort. The materials are so soft and springy that it honestly doesn’t feel like you are wearing a heavy duty vest. It is so well fitting and with the PB bottles sitting lower than the SJ and AK versions, it doesn’t bounce as noticeably and helps me keep my arms lower which lessens exertion and therefore saves energy being wasted on high arm movement.
If you are looking to win a race, set a personal best or simply carry the bare minimum, you would do much better with the AK 2.0, but if you want a pack that has the variety from a 50k to a multi day race, I would opt for the PB 2.0. Likewise for 50 mile to 100 mile races, the SJ is the other option to consider.
Ultimate Direction, conscious of the growth of women within the sport, have also just come out with the ‘Jenny Collection’ specifically with women’s bodies in mind and designed in partnership with Jenny Jurek. You can see this collection here: http://www.ultimatedirection.com/c-jenny-collection.aspx
The Jenny Womens Ultra Vest
The 2.0 packs will shortly be available in the UK from The Ultramarathon Running Store and links to see the three new mens packs as well as the womens pack are below:
Ultimate Direction’s UK Distributor is Beta Climbing so for exact dates of release and a full list of their partner retailers please do look them up. Please note they do not sell direct to the general public.