Gear Review – Camelbak ‘Marathoner’ Backpack

I don’t know about you, but I still remember the very first backpack I had – it was a Camelbak. I don’t recall the specific model of it, all I recall is that it was black and pretty much held a 3 litre bladder and a few other items that would be made up of my mandatory gear for race day. It was a pretty simple affair, but I thought it was pretty cool at the time when I entered the world of ultra running.

This was pretty much the standard fare for the next two to three years, but then in 2011, along came Salomon with their S-Lab range and blew everything out of the water as far as how we thought about carrying water and items efficiently and effectively while on the move. I must admit, a few years down the line, I kind of wondered where Camelbak went to. I knew they still produced the bladders, and to be honest I thought they had cut their losses and decided to make way for the new generation of highly customised, practical and minimal backpacks that we see today from the likes of Ultimate Direction.

Then a few months ago, a message popped up on the Ultra168 website from the local Camelbak rep asking if we’d like to test their range for running and multi-sport backpacks. Why not we thought! So over the last few months or so, we’ve put them to the test to see what they’re made of and here’s the first review – the Camelbak ‘marathoner‘.

Slightly bulkier than most lightweight running packs, but lots of water carrying potential with this pack
Slightly bulkier than most lightweight running packs, but lots of water carrying potential with this pack

I must admit, when taking the Marathoner out of its pack to be slightly sceptical. For a so-called light-packing backpack, it appeared to be a little on the large size when you compare it to some of the very minimal packs you see out there today such as the 5 litre S-lab and the Anton Krupicka Ultimate Direction vest. But, not to be put off, I set about putting the pack through its paces.

Fit & Feel

I have to say, the marathoner really excelled in these areas. When you put it on and start running, one of the first things I noticed was that it sat slightly wider on the shoulders than some of the other packs on the market like Salomon and UD. Indeed, so used to am I having the straps tightly wrapped around the front of my chest that it initially felt quite weird having the shoulder straps actually sit fairly centrally on my shoulders, rather than up near the neck as happens with some of the other packs I own.

The pack mesh and shoulder straps are very confortable
The pack mesh and shoulder straps are very comfortable

The feel of the pack is extremely comfortable too with very soft mesh on both the shoulder straps and the fabric on the back of the pack that comes into contact with your own back. It also sits very solidly on you too. As per most ultra running backpacks these days, you have the standard straps across the front of the chest and one thing I do love about this pack is the elastic strap on the lower strap, similar to the Salmon S-Lab in that regard. This allows for a solid fit, but the ability to flex as the water in the hydration system lessens, meaning you don’t need to constantly readjust as you do with some backs that don’t feature this.

Load Carrying & Hydration

Massive pockets!
Massive pockets!

I have to admit to somewhat struggling to work out where exactly this pack fits in terms of its racing potential, as this is dependent upon what kind of loading capacity you require. In some respects, it’s too much/big for a race such as Glasshouse, where you have checkpoints at least every 10-12kms and very little in the way of mandatory gear to carry. But, take a race like The North Face 100, and to be honest there’s too little storage room one would have thought to get all your mandatory gear on board comfortably. So where does it fit?

Well a lot of this will come down to your hydration strategy. You see, the thing is, the Marathoner has these huge great big pockets at the front of the pack, which allow for a better distribution of water carrying potential so that you’re not carrying everything on your back. But the thing is, these pouches are massive. So big in fact that you could quite easily get some gear in there such as lightweight waterproof trousers and a rain jacket. I’ve also had 500ml bottles along with a number of gels in there too, that’s how big these pockets are. They’re certainly not the tight squeeze you get with the Anton UD vest.

So in that regard, you need to make a decision as to how you intend to carry your water, and this is one of the limitations of buying Camelbak – your hydration system is chosen for you in this respect. The bladder is made into the pack. To not use it is essentially a waste of actually buying the thing in the first place. Sure, you can choose not to and use the front pouches to carry bottles, but then you have an entire system on your back not being utilised for the purpose it was intended.

More easy to use pockets on the straps
More easy to use pockets on the straps
Some handy little pockets on the shoulder straps for carrying gels
Some handy little pockets on the shoulder straps for carrying gels

So where does it fit? Well, it has good water carrying potential with a 1.5 litre bladder and the option of two large pockets at the front, but this leaves very little in the way of room to carrying much else in terms of gear. There is a pocket on the back of the back that tightens with an elastic chord, however you’d be lucky to get much more in there other than a snake bandage and a lightweight waterproof jacket. There is then also a pocket on the inside of the flap that lifts when you fill the bladder, but again only room for some gels and a mobile phone perhaps.

The pocket on the rear of he back - you can get a jacket and snake bandage n here no problem
The pocket on the rear of the back – you can get a jacket and snake bandage in there quite easily
The hydration flap at the back lifts to reveal another pocket, suitable for a mobile phone and one or two gels
The hydration flap at the back lifts to reveal another pocket, suitable for a mobile phone

The answer for where this back fits is in the races of the hot summer months. If you’re going to need to carry lots of mandatory gear, forget it. If you need water carrying potential and only minimal gear, this is a good pack in that regard.

The verdict

Although I was initially a little sceptical with this pack, I’ve actually become quite fond of it because it’s very comfortable, fairly lightweight and well padded too. It has its main uses I think in the hot summer races where the ability to carry water, evenly over the body works well with the bladder at the back and the very large front pockets on the chest.

As mentioned, it’s not going to be for you if you need to carry lots of gear, but then, this isn’t really its intended use – Camelbak is known for its hydration and its done the sensible thing here and stuck to what it knows best, rather than trying to be something it’s not. It would have been easy to try to copy what the likes of Salomon and UD have done and attempt to ‘go all minimal’. That isn’t Camelbak and I respect and applaud them for that – they’re clearly opting for a certain segment of the market with this pack and focused on what they know they do well.



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2 thoughts on “Gear Review – Camelbak ‘Marathoner’ Backpack

  1. I have been running with these babies for nearly 2 years now and really enjoy every moment in them. I got some races in 35°C, than go for the 2L bladder, but usually the aid stations or the high mountain rivers are less than 2 hours away from each other, so I pair up with those flat INOV8 bottles, and they give me a comfortable ride surely.

    The huge front pockets are super comfortable and can give place for like 15 gels each, than you got some small pockets over them for 3-4 more gels in each of something else.

    The quick fastening system is superb, so as you decrease your water bladders size, you can slowly keep getting your bag tighter and tighter.

    The only very small down side is the front clips. They get loose at about each hour you run, so have to retighten them, but no big deal.

  2. I tried one out at Skycamp and they (I think) have added a stretchy mesh pocket at the back. This would be enough to get you by on a basic mandatory gear list like Buffalo. Still not enough for TNF, although there was another pack at camp that would cover that list of gear. I agree with all written though, pretty good pack.

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