The Best Running Backpacks And Race Vests

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

7 November 2020


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Reading Time: 6 minutes

When signing up for an Ultra X, or indeed any ultra marathon, you will most likely be presented with a mandatory kit list. This can be somewhat daunting if it is your first race. However, as you will quickly discover, when it comes to running ultras success is as much about having the right kit and good admin as it is physical preparation. You literally cannot be too organised!

There is a minefield of information out there and so it can be tricky when deciding what to pack (and indeed what pack to even start with!). As such, over the next few weeks, we’re looking at some of the important kit required for ultra-running events (with a focus on Ultra X races) in the hope of answering some of the most common questions we receive.

First up is the running backpack, or hydration vest. Whether you are tackling ultras or spending a weekend on the trails, when you start running further you will begin to need extra kit, food, and water – and that means a running pack. For all Ultra X events this comes as part of your mandatory kit as, whilst our events are NOT self-supported (you only need to take what you need for that particular day/stage, as your main bag is transported between campsites by the organisers) you will need capacity for water and nutrition.

Picking your ideal bag is a bit like picking your ideal running shoe – it’s all about fit and comfort. The selection of packs is vast, ranging from smaller capacity vests to 20L packs that are more in line with a rucksack. Here are some key things worth considering:


You will need a bag with shoulder, chest and waist straps in order to run comfortably. The shoulder straps should be padded and wide enough to distribute weight evenly (thin straps often dig in and rub), the chest strap should be able to be moved up and down (especially important for female runners), and all the straps need to be adjustable. It’s important to “try before you buy” – luckily, brands will allow 30 day returns for customers if not satisfied.

How many litres?

Nowadays, running bags come in all sizes, from the minimalist, less than 7 litre vests, to the 25+ explorer style bags, designed for those taking on long challenges with minimal support or multi-stage events like the Marathon des Sables where you must carry all of your own kit.

Choosing the bag for you depends on what you are using it for and your specific goals.

For example, if you are racing a 100km ultra marathon with aid stations and few mandatory kit items, then having a light bag with the capacity to carry water and a few gels may be fine for you.

If you are planning on something slightly longer, or simply want a bag that can give the flexibility of carrying more, then a larger rucksack will be better. For commuting, 8-12L is normally more than enough room for all your belongings and this size is a good starting point.

For Ultra X events, it’s important to calculate specific race goals (setting goals for an Ultra X). Depending on your planned race strategy you may spend more or less time out on your feet and as such may have less requirements to carry food.

Some running packs will only really serve for race and training runs while others might double as good options for commuting to the office. Choose wisely though. While versatility might be good for the wallet, you won’t thank yourself for saving £20 when you’re 15 hours into a trail race and your bag problems are all that you can think about.

Hydration system

A hot topic of debate. Bladder system or bottles? Soft or hard flasks? Here are the things to consider:

Bladder system

  • Easy access (for drinking)
  • Fits easily into a backpack and will reduce in size as you drink (however, does reduce storage space when full)
  • Providing backpack is well-fitted you will hardly feel the bladder on your back
  • You can never be certain of exactly how much water you have remaining or how much you have drank without stopping
  • It is more of a hassle to fill your bladder than bottles at checkpoints
  • You need to ensure that you have securely fastened it after refilling and this can take time and concentration
  • The tube is notoriously difficult to clean or get completely dry which leads to mould and bacteria


  • The key advantage is the ability to clearly see how much water you have left at a glance, allowing you to better manage your water consumption
  • Much easier to re-fill at checkpoints
  • Usually less capacity than bladders

The type of water bottle is personal preference, and most bottles will fit most packs (always check with the brand/shop first though). Soft bottles are increasing in popularity. They can be a bit fiddly to refill at checkpoints and less durable than hard bottles. A punctured bottle is the last thing you need during a self-sufficient multi-stage race! However, if you are willing to make that compromise, they are very comfortable to carry and “slosh” less than hard bottles.

Oh, and you can even go for straws if you want, meaning bottles do not need to be taken out to drink every time. Again, this comes down to personal preference.

Front pack and pockets

Many vests offer the option for a front pack (as well as the storage on your back). You do not necessarily need a front pack but, ideally, you need to be able to easily access running snacks, toilet tissue, hand sanitiser and sun cream without taking your pack off. Good packs have pockets on the waist belt or on the bottle holders to cover this.

Most front packs come off and on though, so should you be interested in something that can offer a bit of flexibility (eg so you can use it for your weekend training runs as well as race day) this might be worth looking into.

We strongly recommend that you try different packs side by side – ideally running with weight loaded in them – to find the best model for you.


As with anything kit related, brands will incentivise you to spend, spend, spend. Having said that, it does not need to be super expensive. Brands such as Kalenji offer vests starting from around £20!

Hopefully, by reading this article and creating a checklist of the things that you will need from your pack you can make an informed decision, rather than just opting for the best-looking new Salomon pack on the market!


If you enjoyed this article, please check out others in our kit series:


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