Gear Review – Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest

This week we welcome another guest reviewer, Mark Lee who has very kindly put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard to tell us all about the new Ultimate Direction AK running vest. As Mark mentions below, Salomon is killing it right now in the backpack stakes here in Australia, so we need to present the other options out there too, and for shorter races this one looks like a winner… over to you Mark…

The TNF100 gear survey once again showed that the Salomon S-LAB continues to be the preferred choice for many Aussie ultra-runners. However gaining popularity is a newcomer to the Australian market – Ultimate Direction. Their Signature Series was released last year and in a similar manner to the S-LAB, initial production didn’t meet demand and they were hard to get a hold of. Seems some of the brands are following the Apple strategy of limiting supply to push demand 🙂

Mark in action recently with the AK running vest
Mark in action recently with the AK running vest

Each of the three Signature Series vests is designed with input from the UD team and come with varying storage capacity: Anton Krupicka (4.5L), Scott Jurek (9.2L) and Peter Bakwin (12.0L). They don’t have bladders as standard, instead they have bottles up front.

No bladder in the back means bottles up front - great for races with aid stations 10kms and under
No bladder in the back means bottles up front – great for races with aid stations 10kms and under

This review looks at the smallest vest of the series, the AK Race Vest.  As you’d expect from Anton, like a knife to his outsole, this is as minimal as it comes. Quick specs to get started are as follows:

  • Weight = 170g (yep, seriously light!), 280g including empty bottles
  • Storage Capacity = 4.5L
  • Hydration = 2 x 600ml bottles (+ option of putting in a bladder)

The Fit

This is where the vest excels, when first trying on empty you don’t notice it at all. No big surprise as the thing is feather light. There’s two horizontal straps on the front that sit on rails letting you choose the most comfortable position for your body or gear load on the day. The top strap has a bit of give with an elasticised part. For those that like wearing a heart rate strap, I found the stiff Garmin strap a bit uncomfortable but the Suunto soft strap OK.  The vest has cinch straps on each side that pull the vest in to eliminate movement or bounce. The straps don’t loosen during the run and since there’s no shrinking/expanding bladder there isn’t really any need for mid-run adjustments.

The vest comes in S/M and M/L; with the S/M catering for chest 61-86cm and the M/L 81-102cm. I’m 93cm so went with the M/L and it fits well, there’s feedback around that those near the bottom end of the M/L range find the chest straps don’t go tight enough when the pack isn’t full. As always, best to get a hold of one to try on if you can.

The vest sits quite high, with the bottles at mid-chest height. Takes a bit of getting used to but this position works well. For the ladies, initial reports seem to be bottle placement is still comfortable.

The Feel

There’s been attention to detail in the feel department. The material against your back is a lightweight hex mesh. It’s marketed as being strong, lightweight, breathable and won’t absorb water. The edges of the vest are covered in a soft felt-like material. So does it feel good? Yes, much more comfortable than the cheaper hydration packs I’ve worn in the past. I’ve noticed I get a small rub point on one side near the top of the left hand rail. More obvious when I’m wearing a singlet, but it’s pretty much the only thing that reminds me I’m actually wearing the thing. The materials and design of the AK vest go a fair way at keeping you sweat free and I don’t get the problem of the tail of my shirt riding up my back like I have with some packs.

Seems small and compact, but as Mark says, surprising how much will actually go inside this pack
Seems small and compact, but as Mark says, surprising how much will actually go inside this pack

The big difference people will notice is having the water weight up front and higher up than the traditional bladder pack. When I purchased the AK vest I was worried about two things; firstly bottle bounce. I don’t want to feel like I’ve just strapped on a joggling pair of man boobs! Secondly water slosh; drives me nuts running next to someone who hasn’t taken the air out of their hydration bladder.

Nothing to worry about on the first point, the four straps let you get the fit just right. I don’t get any bounce at all. Bottle slosh? Yes and no.  Not as noisy as a bladder with air/water mix but the fact is you can’t stop the water moving around. It only becomes noticeable once the bottles start getting empty, I thought it would annoy me but it doesn’t – you get used to it.

Splitting the weight between front (water) and back (gear) makes sense and keeps the vest nicely balanced. On the whole, extremely comfortable and it’s great to be rid of the waist strap that is usually the most uncomfortable part of many packs.

Load Carrying

Given the size of this pack, you’d be forgiven for thinking you can’t fit so much in it. I was surprised at its load carrying capacity – accessibility is another question though. I’m planning to use the vest for the Hume & Hovell 50, so where can you stash your stuff.

  1. Main back compartment closed with a single velcro tab (rain jacket, thermal top, thermal pants, safety vest, partly filled hydration bladder)
  2. Lower back zip pockets – one each side (first aid, emergency blanket, compass, whistle, 2xtorches, phone)
  3. Velcro sealed pouches just above the bottles on the front. They are listed as smart phone compatible, but unless Apple has released an iPhone Mini it ain’t going to fit. Candy-bar / flip phones will (gels)
  4. Velcro sealed pockets below the bottles on each side (shot bloks)
  5. Bungy cord over the back compartment for anything that won’t fit elsewhere

Hydration

This is likely to either be the sticking or selling point for you depending on which side of the fence you sit. I’ve tried waist packs, bladders, handhelds and now bottles up front. They all have their benefits, I like the small handhelds if you only need a bit of water for a shorter distance (e.g. Coastal Classic) but for anything more it doesn’t work for me.

Enough for a couple of 500ml bottles for sure
Enough for a couple of 500ml bottles for sure

What I like with the bottles is you always know how much is left. I’m hopeless at judging the remaining amount in a bladder and often finish runs with almost a litre left when I thought I was close to empty. Using bottles in a race you can ration what you have with much more confidence between checkpoints and even lighten the load on the fly to save carrying additional weight.

Two bottles mean you can have water on one side and sports drink on the other. The bottles themselves come with a handy plastic loop to help slide them in out of the holsters and also have the divisive ‘kicker valve’. Who’d have thought a water bottle would need an instruction manual. In fact it doesn’t have one and it was 2 days and an internet search before I worked out how to use them!! The best way to describe the valve at the top is like sucking on a cow’s teat. If you do it right you get a nice high flow, I found it a bit hit and miss at the start. Definitely doesn’t leak which is a plus. You can always replace these with your bottle of choice as many people seem to do; I’m undecided and will see if I can improve my suckling technique.

The Verdict

This isn’t the pack for events that have a mandatory gear list that require a chat with your bank manager. The AK vest is great for anything from short training runs where you only want to take a bit of gear up to 100km races where aid stations are frequent enough to get by with reduced water/nutrition on-board.

It’s not the perfect pack, there isn’t one out there, so there are some compromises. Firstly, things will get wet if it rains. The materials are very lightweight and breathable which means water will go straight into all compartments. The rear zip pockets are pretty much inaccessible while on the move. Fine for medical kit or phone but if you put food or gloves in there, you’ll need to take the pack off to get them out.

I think the vest achieves everything it’s trying to do very well, and if you load it up right you won’t even know you’ve got it on. Has it been able to convert me to front bottles – absolutely.

*Feature image credit to Ultimate Direction. We are in no way responsible for the shades worn in this picture 🙂

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

20 thoughts on “Gear Review – Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest

  1. Fantastic product review. I agree totally. I have actually bought the Scott Jurek pack which has a larger capacity but is essentially the same. We ( my running cohort) love it. I love that it sits up high on your chest and leaves your lower back free. It is very comfortable and stable with the two straps across the front and is like wearing a short vest rather than a pack, and doesn’t bounce. I was also worried about the bottles sloshing but I don’t even notice it now. I love that with all the small pockets I can access pain killers, gels, energy bars, gum, band aids really easily without having to rummage through a pack. I also like having both water and endura to drink. Can’t say I had two much trouble with the teats…. Certainly didn’t take me two days… ( know some who did though!) I wear a HR monitor and don’t notice any rubbing. I love it and wouldn’t go back to a regular pack….even if people do have a good laugh at the big breasts and red nipples bouncing toward them!!

    1. Hi Emma noticed the pack you had on at take a breather and thought then that looked like a good idea :-)) where do you get them from??? Could be handy for extra drinks on the MTB too :-)) michael

  2. Great review. I did TNF100 this year with the Peter Bakwin (12L) pack. I’d recommend it for North Face as it fitted everything easily and the 2 compartments of the pack allowed me to store pieces I wouldn’t likely use (thermal pants, jacket etc) directly on my back and everything I would likely need to access (head torch etc) in the outer compartment. However there was one fault I found, and I don’t know if I was unlucky (or extremely unlucky as it happened on both sides!), but the elastic strap that you tighten to hold the bottles in place on the front of the pack snapped on both sides which made the bottles bounce considerably especially when the bottles were full. As I bought the pack mainly due to bottle access at the front making refilling quick and easy, I consider these elastic straps a vital piece of the puzzle and for them to break, especially on both sides, I consider this a fairly big design flaw. I definitely didn’t over tighten the straps either! One strap snapped on my first training run with it 8 weeks out, and the other snapped at the worst of times, at CP3 in North face. Anyway, just my two cents… Apart from that it’s a great pack!

    1. Hi Jono,

      You weren’t the only one that experienced an issue with the bottle holster cord coming loose. Ultimate Direction recognized the cause after the first production run;

      “……the bungee cord is prone to pulling out of the bottle holster – sorry about that. The factory has acknowledged the error (they tied a knot instead of stitching as instructed) – it’s been corrected for the 2nd production run.” (Buzz Burrell – Brand Director)

      I think I have a 2nd run vest and given the high demand I imagine that the vests coming to Australia have this issue sorted. Looks like some people with the first version that had this problem were able to do a home fix – http://tinyurl.com/AK-strap-fix

      1. Jono, UD would likely sort that out if you contact them. They’re guaranteed for their intended usage. I’ve got all 3 because I like the way they work and I’m a gearpig 🙂 and would expect that they’d sort you out if you got in touch with them about the product fault. It might just mean shelling out a bit on postage.

  3. Jono, on the Bakwin Pack can you access the side zip pockets on the run? I have the SJ Pack and love it but find the side pockets just a little too high to get to when on the move.

  4. I have both the AK and SJ versions and love them for times when I don’t need a lot of stuff. I do not love water bottles, though (too bulky). So I have been using the UD vests with the Salomon softflasks – works just fine!
    Nice review.

  5. I bought this pack and have used it for a number of very long training runs, as well as at Western States. I also own the Salomon S-LAB in both 5 L and 12 L capacity. The Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest clearly fits more than the Salomon 5 L due to the stretch in its design, as well as the bungee cord that allows items such as jackets to be attached to the outside (also allowing quicker access). With the huge reduction in price (less than half the price of the Salomon) and weight I consider it a clear winner.

    I had problems with the hard Ultimate Direction bottles digging into my chest and leaving bruises so I now use Salomon soft flasks in their place, which come in 240 ml and 500 ml sizes. As well as being soft on the body, they also have the advantage of removing the sloshing sound. I have also used it with the 1.5 L bladder from the Salomon packs for long (8+ hour) unassisted runs. While it features loops that would allow the hose to run under the arm and up the pack (rather than over the shoulder) similar to the Salomon packs it does not have a hole to allow the hose out.

  6. Great review! I’m so happy I came across your site. I’m doing the TNF50 this year, and I’m wondering if this would suit for that race, or if I should go for the larger SJ pack? Thanks so much!

  7. Has anyone used the SJ pack with a bladder? Am wanting to carry a little more water than just the bottles, am thinking an extra 1-1.5ltrs in a bladder in the back

    1. Hey Stuart, I haven’t but I used the AK yesterday and can get a 1.5l bladder in the back of it. Of course that then leaves little room for anything else.

  8. I’ve been running in the AK for a bit over a year now (earlier version with out to two back zip pockets).
    The biggest change I made is I use two soft UD bottles instead of the ones that come with it. I do also add a blade for longer unsupported runs or runs where there is no access to refill along the way. The bladder is very stable, it cinches down well is the very straps and the bungee chord. There is also a small velcro loop to the top the back compartment to hold the bladder in place. Very well thought out design and bladder works as just well as with other packs that come with bladders. (I use a 2L camelback bladder btw, so don’t feel you have to go with the UD bladder for it to work.)

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