There’s been an explosion of running vests and hydration packs in the past few years. Not only does that mean there are more options, but they’re also more comfortable and functional than ever before. Improved designs have led to less bounce and chafing, and more comfort mile after mile.
Carrying capacity has also grown, with running vest capacity reaching 10-15 L and running packs reaching into the 20 L range. This means you can go further and carry more, all with the convenience of a running vest.
From mountainous Colorado trails to the wilds of New Zealand, we’ve put a lot of miles on hydration vests. We tested for overall comfort, capacity, fit, and ease of use. And while there isn’t a single hydration pack that will work for every person, we’ve included a variety of options to fit your style of running.
Editor’s Note: We refreshed this guide on September 1, 2023, adding a couple of products to the lineup and including additional information on the importance of visibility while running with hydration packs.
The Best Running Hydration Packs & Vests of 2023
- Best Overall Hydration Pack: Salomon Sense Pro 10
- Best Budget Hydration Pack: Nathan Quickstart 2.0 4L
- Best Hydration Pack for Ultramarathons: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 6.0
- Best Hydration Pack for Multiday Trips: Ultimate Direction FastPack 20
- Most Breathable Hydration Pack: Nathan Sports VaporAir
- Gear capacity 10 L
- Weight 8.8 oz. (with accessories)
- Materials Nylon, elastane, polyester
- Best for Performance or comfort any day of the week
- Lightweight and breathable
- Extremely comfortable
- Speed soft flask bases can be uncomfortable while running
- Gear capacity 4 L
- Weight 9.5 oz. with bladder
- Materials Nylon, polyester
- Best for Short to medium trail and road runs
- Not the best storage capabilities
- On the heavy side for how small it is
- Gear capacity 10.3 L
- Weight 7.9 oz.
- Materials Flex Mono Mesh, MicroMono Mesh, 20-denier sil-nylon, nylon, elastane with ripstop
- Best for Ultras or all-day mountain runs
- Great storage capabilities
- Solid anti-chafe air mesh panel
- Waterproof stash pocket on shoulder
- Can feel bulky and bouncy when loaded down
- Back panel not as breathable as other models
- Gear capacity 23.4 L
- Weight 1 lb., 4.8 oz.
- Materials MonoRip mesh, nylon
- Best for Fastpacking, dayhiking, ultra running
- Lots of capacity
- Thoughtful pocket placement
- Feels secure on back
- No way to attach reservoir hose to shoulder strap
- Too heavy for shorter runs
- Gear capacity 7 L
- Weight 13 oz.
- Materials Nylon, polyester
- Best for Going light and fast in hot temps
- Extremely breathable
- Chafe-resistant materials
- Solid storage options
- Great adjustable sizing system
- Slightly heavier than previous iterations
- A bit pricey
- Gear capacity 3 L
- Weight 6.2 oz.
- Materials 200-denier nylon monomesh
- Best for Ultralight outings and everyday runs
- Fits a surprising amount of gear in a small package
- Comfortable fit
- Nozzles can be a bit difficult to reach while running
- Gear capacity 4 L
- Weight 7 oz.
- Materials 4-way stretch mesh
- Best for Those looking for a comfortable and lightweight vest, with solid durability, for everyday trail runs.
- Stretchy side panels improve fit
- Lightweight but durable
- Gear capacity 12 L
- Weight 9.77 oz.
- Materials Polyamide, elastane, polyethylene, polyester
- Best for When you need to maximize comfort while carrying gear and water
- Extremely comfortable, snug fit
- Zero bounce while running
- Solid closure system
- Gear capacity 1.5 L (M/L)
- Weight 10 oz.
- Materials Recycled nylon stretch mesh
- Best for A unisex fit, hot pavement runs, everyday training
- Thoughtful pocket layout
- Comfortable, no-bounce fit
- On the heavy side
- Gear capacity 11 L
- Weight 7.4 oz.
- Materials 40-denier ripstop nylon, engineered knit mesh
- Best for Training runs, ultramarathons
- Easily adjustable sternum straps
- Comfortable fit
- Lightweight and breathable
- Whistle bounces around and gets in the way
- Gear capacity 3 L
- Weight 12.4 oz.
- Materials Polyester
- Best for Staying visible while running at night on busy roads or trails
- 6-lumen light thread affords stellar visibility in the dark
- Easy on/off switch with three different modes
- Lightweight for having lights involved in the design
- Comfortable, breathable mesh back panel
- IPX4 water resistance
- Low gear capacity
- Not the easiest to adjust on the go
- Not many different storage options
- Gear capacity 8 L
- Weight 4.2 oz. (size small)
- Materials Woven Cordura ripstop nylon, elastane
- Best for Racing or long runs with support
- Pockets don't inspire tons of confidence
Hydration Packs Comparison Chart
|Hydration packs||Price||capacity||Weight||Best for|
|Salomon Sense Pro 10||$180||10 L||8.8 oz.||Performance or comfort any day of the week|
|Nathan Quickstart 2.0 4L||$80||4 L||9.5 oz. with bladder||Short to medium trail and road runs|
|Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 6.0||$150||10.3 L||7.9 oz.||Ultras or all-day mountain runs|
|Ultimate Direction FastPack 20||$150||23.4 L||1 lb., 4.8 oz.||Fastpacking, day hiking, ultra running|
|Nathan VaporAir 3.0 7L||$160||7 L||13 oz.||Going light and fast in hot temps|
|Patagonia Slope Runner Endurance Trail Running Vest||$160||3 L||6.2 oz.||Ultralight outings and everyday runs|
|Black Diamond Distance 4 Hydration Vest||$150||4 L||7 oz.||Comfortable and lightweight vest, with solid durability, for everyday trail runs|
|Salomon Advanced Skin 12 Set||$160||12 L||9.7 oz||When you need to maximize comfort while carrying gear and water|
|Osprey Duro 1.5 Hydration Vest||$120||1.5 L||10 oz.||A unisex fit, hot pavement runs, everyday training|
|Camelbak Zephyr Pro Vest||$160||11 L||7.4 oz.||Training runs, ultramarathons|
|Nathan Laser Light Pack||$120||3L||12.4 oz.||Staying visible while running at night on busy roads or trails|
|The North Face Flight Race Day 8||$150||8 L||4.2 oz.||Racing or long runs with support|
Why You Should Trust Us
We started by researching the best hydration packs and vests before picking 10+ to test. We tested these vests and packs while running ~100+ miles throughout the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Our testers have bushwhacked through Gambel oak, scrambled up peaks, and ran smooth single track to test out the capabilities of these vests and packs.
We’ve tested every feature and put these packs and vests through their paces. Fabric has been stretched and stained, every pocket has been tried out, and organizational systems explored. We’ve learned things about these packs and vests that the manufacturers don’t even advertise, and we’re doing our best to convey everything we’ve learned to you, whether this is your first running vest, or you’ve worn your last one to pieces.
Buyers Guide: How to Choose a Hydration Pack for Running
Running packs and vests come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to consider what kinds of runs or adventures you plan to use your pack on when choosing the right one for you.
If you typically run a few miles a week, a recreational vest will be plenty. But if you have race ambitions, you may want to choose something more technical and geared toward performance. If you want to keep your gear closet slimmed down and like multipurpose gear, a hydration pack might be better for use while hiking, running, and even overnight trips.
Read on to learn more about what to consider while choosing a running vest or pack.
Types of Running Vests
Recreational running vests are more affordable than more technical options. That makes them a great first pick for someone who has never used a running vest before and wants to try one out.
Recreational running vests typically hold 1-2 L of water, enough for a 1-2 hour run or a race with lots of aid stations. They might have one main compartment and a few additional places to stash snacks, phones, and other necessities. But they’re not going to have all the bells and whistles of a more performance-oriented pack.
Performance running vests can look like a lot of different things. But they are generally oriented towards all-day runs, long trail races, ultra marathons, and technical trails.
Performance running vests typically use higher-quality materials which can make them more comfortable over longer periods of time. They also have many more features and ways to organize your gear, such as more pockets, pole and/or ice axe attachments, and unique ways to adjust the fit.
These vests can run a bit more on the expensive side, but are important elements of an ultramarathon kit, and are built to boost comfort and keep you hydrated in rough, remote environments. They are designed to reduce chafing over the long run, and be worn all day (and all night on occasion), without wearing the athlete down. The Salomon Sense Pro 10 and Camelbak Zephyr Pro are good examples of solid performance-oriented hydration vests.
Fastpacking is distance trail running and backpacking at the same time. You’re running or hiking quickly, and while going light is a necessity, you still need enough gear to be safe and comfortable (enough).
For fastpacking, you need a pack that can move with you for long periods of time, but also carry enough gear for multiple days. That’s hard to come by, as many backpacks designed for day hiking are heavy and don’t have the features to carry the gear you need, but backpacking backpacks are far too bulky.
So fastpacking running vests and packs have emerged that walk the line between running vest and daypack. They have enough capacity to fit overnight gear but still fit close enough to the body that it’s not distracting while running.
Bottles vs. Reservoirs
Different types of hydration packs and running vests have different ways to carry water. The amount of water you want to carry will depend on how far you are going. For a 1-2 hour run, you will probably only need ~1 L of water. Whereas if you’re out all day, you might want up to 3-4 L of water throughout the day. Most running vests can hold up to 3 L of water — a 2L reservoir and two 500mL flasks.
Most running vests and hydration packs have space for a hydration reservoir in the back. This looks like a sleeve to slip a reservoir into. The best options have a way to hold up the reservoir so that while you’re drinking from it, it doesn’t slip down in the sleeve.
Some of the options on this list come with reservoirs, while others do not. That’s something to consider before purchasing. Also, consider the size of the reservoir. Most running vests and packs can fit a 1-2 L reservoir.
Some running vests also have pockets for flasks in the front. Many of them also come with flasks, which is something to consider when choosing a running vest. When flasks are positioned properly, you can drink while on the move, which is key for any sort of running hydration.
Flasks can also have a lighter weight than reservoirs. However, some tend to fall down or are hard to reach without a lot of work while on the move. Look for elastics to hold flasks in position even when they’re partially empty.
Many runners prefer one hydration method or the other, while others use both. However you choose to hydrate, you just need to make sure to bring enough water for your run.
Capacity: Water & Gear
How much capacity you need will depend on what your runs typically look like. Someone whose average run is a 5-mile road run will have different needs than someone whose average run is a 20-mile mountain run.
Running vests and hydration packs come with anywhere between 2 L and 20 L of storage space. That typically describes the size of the main compartment, however many have lots of other pockets and features to stash gear. Think about what you might want to bring on most runs, and find a pack or vest that fits that amount of stuff.
For example, our tester knows that if she’s wearing a running vest, she’s probably going on a trail run. She likes to bring at least one layer, snacks, and up to 3 L of water on most trail runs. On mountain runs where the weather is variable, she may bring two layers, or other emergency gear. To fit all that, she needs at least a 5 L pack, and 10 L is very comfortable.
When thinking about how much water you need, consider if you will have any opportunities to refill. If you’re running a race, how many aid stations are there? How long is the furthest distance between them? It’s not worth bringing too much more water than you need, since that will just weigh you down. However, it’s a fine line to run since water is a necessity while on the move.
If you’re in the mountains, are there any opportunities to fill up water from natural sources? Just make sure to bring a water filter or some way to treat water if so.
Getting the right fit is key for any piece of gear, but especially for a running vest. When possible, head to your local running store and ask for a fitting. For online shopping, take the time to measure yourself and refer to sizing charts.
Running vests should fit snuggly, without any bounce. You want it to feel more like a piece of clothing than a backpack. Ideally, you shouldn’t feel it move when you’re running.
For women, you need to not only make sure the length and torso circumference is correct, but also be sure to take bust size into account. The women’s-specific VaporAiress offers two adjustment points for an easy fit, and our female testers were pleased with the overall fit.
Extra features can make the difference between an OK vest and an awesome one. There are so many additional organizational features on different running vests. Here are a few we see a lot:
Trekking pole attachments: If you like running with poles, it’s great to have a way to stash them if you get tired of using them, or get to a section of trail you don’t need them.
Zippered pockets: Front zippered pockets are useful for phones so they don’t fall out of stretch pockets (it’s happened to one of our testers!).
Stretchy pockets: Stretch pockets of any size are great for not taking up space unless you need them to. Stretch pockets allow you to fit larger items than the space allows, and ensure that the item doesn’t fall out if there isn’t a closure. Some of our favorite running vests use stretchy material on the pockets and compartments.
Ice axe attachment: Some running vests and packs have ways to attach ice axes which can be useful if you like to go fast and light while mountaineering. Or if you like to run during seasons when there is still snow/ice in the mountains, lightweight ice axes can be good for safety (just know how to use them).
Compression straps: Compression straps can help you fit even more gear on your pack or vest. It’s an especially good way to carry extra layers that don’t fit in your pack or can be used to carry trekking poles if there isn’t another option. Compression straps are versatile and useful in a variety of ways while running.
Whatever pack you end up choosing, remember the goal is to get out and run. Use a vest to maximize comfort and hydration, and enjoy your time on the trail.
When you’re out on runs it’s important to wear clothes and use gear that breathes well. Staying dry, or drying quickly, can be the difference between comfort and hyperthermia, especially in cold months or cold climates. And in the warm months, it can make the difference between a sluggish run and a feel-good run.
Many running vests are made out of material that allows them to wick sweat or dry quickly. Mesh materials can vent heat and keep you cooler. Or some vests and packs use ventilation to keep you cool while on the move.
It’s important to consider how well a running vest or pack breathes, especially if you know you sweat a lot.
The ideal running vest is not distracting while on a run. If you’re trying on running vests, add some weight to them (water, layers, etc) and run or bounce up and down to mimic running. See if you notice the running vest. If you do, it will probably distract you, or even worse, chafe while on a long run.
Like all clothing and gear, the perfect running vest depends on your body shape, and your needs. There is no one “most comfortable” vest, since what fits our testers well might not fit your body as well. But look for something that fits tightly, with no bouncing or rubbing.
Try and go for softer materials, padding, and adjustability. These are all things that will help you be more comfortable, and thus run better, while out on the trail.
It’s important to stand out when running on the trail or road — primarily in low-vis scenarios or after dark. During late-night dashes and early-morning jaunts along busy roads or mountain biking trails, lights and/or reflective strips are a must. If your routine frequently puts you in low-light situations, make sure you grab a running vest with ample visibility. Clip-on lights and light belts can help too.
Don’t want to worry about the hassle of dealing with dangling lights and extra accesories? Snag a vest like Nathan’s unique Laser Light Pack, which has a 6-lumen light strip that winds its way throughout the vest, affording on-demand visibility when the sun goes to bed.
Running vests sit closer to the body like a piece of clothing, so they ideally don’t move while you run. They often sit high on the back, instead of reaching the low back like a backpack. They also include side panels or straps that connect the front to the back to keep it tight on your body.
Running vests often provide pockets on the shoulder straps for easy access to your phone, snacks, and water. They often include or provide space for soft flasks for water. They also often include space for a hydration reservoir.
Hydration packs fit more like a backpack, with shoulder straps and potentially a hip belt instead of the vest design. They provide space for a hydration reservoir, and sometimes also include pockets for soft flasks. They are designed to easily access water but are not as tightly fitting as running vests. Hydration packs are useful for some runs, but they can also be used for biking, hiking, and more.
If you find yourself feeling dehydrated on your runs but don’t currently have a good solution to the problem, you may want to consider running with a hydration pack or vest.
If you are regularly running for 2 hours or longer, it is recommended to drink about 1-2 L of water during your run. A hydration pack can offer this with easy on-the-go access.
For short runs that are less than 30 minutes in length, a hydration pack likely is not necessary. However, heat and climate are always factors to consider, too.
A well-fitted hydration pack should not drastically change your running form, but wearing one will certainly take some getting used to.
Hydration packs that are made from elastic, and stretchy materials hug the body and prevent the entire pack from bouncing during your run. If your hydration pack is bouncing, it may negatively affect your running form and should be adjusted.
Hydration packs are available with various reservoir capacities. Most options can carry 1-3 L of water. Choosing a hydration pack comes down to how long you plan to run while using it.
If you will be running for very long periods without stopping at water stations or sources, you will want a larger capacity hydration pack to keep you going throughout your entire run. For example, ultra-runners will likely need greater capacity packs, while shorter-duration runners may be able to get by with a smaller capacity.
Remember that the more water you put in your pack, the heavier it will be. For most runners, 2 L of water in the pack can offer a good balance between weight to carry and available water.
Most hydration packs are made to fit everybody. However, it’s a good idea to check the pack’s specs to ensure that it will work for someone with your body type and size.
A hydration pack helps prevent dehydration while running or exercising. Sustained physical activities don’t often allow easy access to water bottles. So, the use of a hydration pack offers quick access to water without having to pause your workout.
It’s a good idea to wear a hydration pack any time you’ll be running for long periods of time. A standard rule of thumb is that humans should drink 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes while running.
If you are running for 30 minutes or longer, especially in hot or dry conditions, a hydration pack can be an essential way to stay safe and hydrated.
Neither is strictly better, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
A hydration backpack tends to be versatile enough to be used for other activities aside from running. Backpacks are often bigger and offer more capacity than hydration vests.
Hydration backpacks are good for runners who will be actively running unassisted for long distances and durations, such as ultramarathoners.
A hydration vest is probably the best pick if you are in search of maximum running comfort. A well-fitted vest sits high on the back and remains close to the body while running.
Another benefit of a hydration vest is that it offers easier access to your things while you are running. You don’t need to take the vest off or reach behind you to access its storage.
A properly fitted hydration pack should not change the way you run. If you plan to participate in a race or major planned run, it’s a good idea to run several times beforehand with your pack on so you can get used to it. Then, you can make any necessary adjustments to its fit.
Make sure to organize all your gear so the weight is evenly balanced and there isn’t too much in the front or the back. Also make sure you can access the gear you need quickly, ideally without having to take your hydration pack or vest off.