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Gear Review: CamelBak ShredBak

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CamelBak’s to-be-released ShredBak vest is a category-defying piece of apparel made with a polyester outer shell and a mesh “suspension vest” inside, which holds a 72-ounce water reservoir. A hydration hose snakes from the reservoir, which nests on your back, coming out through a chest pocket and allowing for intermittent sips to stay hydrated while skiing, snowboarding, and participating in other cold-weather sports.

It comes to market in autumn of 2009 in a men’s and women’s model and will cost $200.

This winter, I got an early version to test, zipping the vest on for some road biking around town and a few days on the ski slopes.

CamelBak ShredBak Vest

I first saw the ShredBak at Snowbasin Ski Resort in Utah two months ago. It was at a demo event where companies bring out to-be-released gear for journalists and retail buyers to try. A friend of mine, testing the ShredBak for the day, unzipped his jacket and gave me a peek at the mesh support vest underneath. “Check out my bra,” he said.

Indeed, the ShredBak’s tight-fitting inner vest — which is made to be worn next to your skin or on top of a thin base-layer shirt — feels strange at first. Add a water reservoir humped out on your back and the ShredBak setup takes some serious getting used to.

In principle, the ShredBak is a neat idea. It is made to offer easy hydration in a sports category where it’s generally hard to get a quick drink. The hose is always there and ready for a sip on the chairlift or when you stop on the slopes. Backcountry skiers might employ the setup for staying hydrated while skinning or kicking steps.

The ShredBak’s tight-fitting mesh vest

Beyond convenience, the ShredBak fights winter’s effort to freeze your water supply. Wear a backpack with a hydration reservoir outdoors in the cold and it can freeze enough to render it useless. (This has happened to me several times.) But with the ShredBak, the hydration reservoir is held close to the body and often underneath an exterior shell jacket, keeping the liquid warmer. The hose is insulated to further impede internal icing up.

All that said, my initial test of the ShredBak was not a positive experience. On a recent ski day, I wore the ShredBak over a thin wool base layer (and under an eVent shell jacket). It was about 20 degrees and overcast. The hydration reservoir, sitting in the mesh vest against my upper back, quickly made me cold via conductive cooling. The container of cool water on my back was draining my core heat. I used the company’s provided thermal pad between the water reservoir and my body, but to no avail.

On the third chairlift ride, shivering, I began draining all of the water from the hose, spraying a stream from the bite valve into the air until it was gone.

A CamelBak spokesperson confirmed that cold water in the reservoir for winter use is not a good idea. The company actually recommends semi-heated water for winter use, which has the advantage of not freezing up and doing double duty to keep you warm.

CamelBak ShredBak Vest, in white

I tried the system with warm water, and it was indeed cozy. However, after a couple hours the container of water got cold again, and then I was back to where I’d began with squirting water from the chairlift. I was also drinking warm water to stay hydrated, which is not as palatable as cool water when you’re active.

On another test, riding my bike with the ShredBak on a 40-degree day, moisture accumulated under the reservoir, soaking my shirt and back. The rest of my shirt was not wet, telling me that condensation formed under the reservoir.

CamelBak confirmed that this could be a problem. In an email, a company spokesperson wrote that water in the reservoir that’s colder than your body heat will cause the reservoir to sweat. This condensation issue is one reason why the company’s packs have the reservoir housed in a water-resistant separate compartment.

Finally, the design — as I said — takes some getting used to. With the reservoir filled to its 72-fluid-ounce capacity, the ShredBak caused a large bulge to grow off my upper back. It was visible through my shell jacket while skiing, and I could feel it when leaning back on the chairlift. (A friend took to calling me “the hunchback of the ski hill.”)

But on the move, skiing and cycling, the hump was not noticeable and the ShredBak did its job of offering easily-accessible hydration in a package that won’t freeze. Now, if I can just get used to drinking warm water while active in the winter — and being called a hunchback on the ski lift — the ShredBak might just work for me.

—Stephen Regenold writes a daily blog on outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.

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