Race vests are a relatively new product on the market. The idea is they allow you to carry kit within easy reach on the move and with the weight evenly distributed around your torso, maintaining your normal centre of gravity and reducing pressure points.
Race vests came about when American Ultra Runner Bryce Thatcher, was looking for a way to insulate his hydration bladder during winter runs, integrating the bladder and hose into a fleece vest not only kept the water from freezing but felt way more comfortable than a traditional pack.
Since then the design has been refined and revised, first gaining fans among the ultra-running community, allowing runners to eat and drink without having to stop and dig into their backpack. Recently, however, as technologies and ranges have improved, more and more runners are using race vests instead of a traditional bumbag or pack for shorter runs and races.
The most important elements of a vest are its fit, its capacity and its features.
You’re looking for a close fit with minimal gaps or spaces between the fabric and you. Most vests use a breathable stretch fabric, so the vest actually acts like a piece of technical clothing, wicking sweat and drying quickly. Any gaps or spaces where the vest doesn’t closely conform to the body will potentially result in rubbing or hotspots. Stretch fabrics will allow full freedom of movement and not hamper your breathing, even on steep ascents.
Many vests will have some form of adjustability, though how much and where does vary. Those that use more stretch fabrics tend to have less adjustability while other vests come in a wide range of sizes so that you can get a close fit without needing to adjust much.
How much the vest can carry is an important consideration since most people will want a pack that can be used over a variety of distances. This is where the close fitting, stretchy nature of these vests comes in handy since when they are partially empty, they don’t flap around on your back like a classic backpack and can stretch to accommodate more stuff than the static fabrics used in bumbags and rucksacks.
So if you want something to carry your butties and a change of pants on the midweek commute and then carry full kit requirements and spare jelly babies in that weekend’s ultra; a race vest is for you.
Vest capacities range from 1-3 litres right up to 15-20, this figure (usually quoted as part of the vest’s name) reflects the total capacity, including any water carrying capacity.
The range of vests available varies from the super-simple; can carry a couple of soft flasks and the odd stretch pocket for windshirt or gels, right up to multi-pocketed, zipped and pouched offerings with masses of adjustability and adaptability.
Its easy to get drawn into the gizmos and gimmicks but try to think about what you actually need out of a vest. If you just want a comfortable way of carrying water and essentials, look for a simple, stretchy vest that won’t be cumbersome once the water’s been drunk and the pockets are empty, there’s no point having masses of pouches and zips if it means you can’t find your gel or map! Similarly, if you are tempted to go as lightweight and simple as possible, it may make longer runs or races with large kit requirements difficult. You might fit it all in but you when it comes to getting what you need out, you’ll find it’s not as accessible as you’d hoped.
Look for a higher degree of adjustability on larger capacity vests as this will mean you are able to cinch it in when it’s emptier, keeping it comfortable on your back. In smaller capacity vests, look for simplicity, with good stretch fabrics since these will naturally conform to your body when less full.
Most packs are designed so that you can reach most, if not all, the pockets and pouches while running, when you try the pack on, make sure this is the case! You should be able to reach behind your back and over your shoulder, under your arms to either side and comfortably remove and replace items without having to slow down or look at what you are doing.
Some packs, particularly larger ones, have the capacity for attaching poles, either folded or full length, usually in the form of elasticated lanyards that you can slide the poles behind, again without having to stop or slow much.
Many vests include space for some form of water carrier i.e. soft flasks, bottles and/or a bladder; this capacity is reflected in the overall quoted capacity of the pack i.e. an 8l pack with 2l bladder has 6l spare capacity. Make sure the pack fits with and without water in it; you don’t want to find that as you drink throughout a run the fit of the pack deteriorates!