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 🙂
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Main back compartment closed with a single velcro tab (rain jacket, thermal top, thermal pants, safety vest, partly filled hydration bladder)
- Lower back zip pockets – one each side (first aid, emergency blanket, compass, whistle, 2xtorches, phone)
- 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)
- Velcro sealed pockets below the bottles on each side (shot bloks)
- Bungy cord over the back compartment for anything that won’t fit elsewhere
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.
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.
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 🙂