You know the old adage, ‘never judge a book by its cover’? Well, I judged hard core, and could not have been more wrong about the CamelBak Ultra LR Vest. When I first pulled the Ultra LR Vest out of the box I must admit I was extremely intimidated. It just looked like so much pack for such a little person. Being the type of runner that typically heads out without much water, I knew testing this pack was going to be quite the learning experience.
The pack itself weighs in at 1.15lbs and holds 2 liters of water in a BPA-free lumbar reservoir. This reservoir is unique in that the water weight is distributed evenly around the hips instead of vertically. This makes for much less water sloshing around since most of the horizontal movement is in the torso/shoulders while the hips stay relatively squared with the water secured to them.
There are four main materials that make up the vest. The frame is a lightweight, reflective nylon type material with a water repellant coating. A diamond mesh makes up the pockets on the hips and back storage space. The vest shoulders, front panel, and back panel are made of a tighter mesh with raised stitching to help with ventilation and moisture control. Finally, the hip belt is made of up a softer, lightly padded mesh for both comfort and moisture management.
Being winter, the first few times I used the vest were on cross-country ski trips, so the full functionality was really put to the test. The days were long and typical unpredictable Colorado weather, so packing enough food, water, and layers was essential. I began to discover the eight pocket spaces on the vest. My windbreaker jacket, mid-layer, gloves and hat fit snugly into the back mesh pocket. There are two hooks that can be undone to release the back mesh for easy packing. Next, the essentials such as lip balm, sunscreen, and car keys found their place in one of the two breast pockets. The other became the home of my emergency kit: Advil, Band-Aids, contact drops, and a few packets of Neosporin. On the breast panels there are also two water bottle pockets. They are deep and have a cinch to hold the contents in place. Since the bladder holds 2 liters, I decided to skip the bottles but use the carrier for other things like my handkerchief in one and part of a sandwich in the other.
**(I did also use the vest for running and put water bottles in both breast bottle pockets. I was concerned the water weight would cause my upper body to pitch forward, however, since the weight was at my hips and secured firmly with the tightened waist straps, I hardly noticed they were there.)
The easy zip hip pockets are probably one of my favorite features of the vest. They are the easiest access to food! Measuring 8″ long and an average of 5″ deep, these pockets are almost endless storage. Since the pockets are so long the bulkiness of its contents is reduced and I was able to organize my food front to back in order of necessity. I managed to fit in four different types of bars, three packets of peanut butter, a trail mix bag, two servings of sweet bread, and mints on just ONE side.
Finally, there is a little extra storage in the back compartment that houses the reservoir. It’s not a place you can get to without taking the back off so don’t plan on putting main supplies there. With that said, the back compartment makes filling the reservoir extremely easy. The back flap unzips to reveal the bladder cap. All it takes is a quarter turn to open or close. While filling, I found it important to hold the back horizontal to be able to completely fill the bladder. Filling it for the first time I had to gently open up the left and right wings of the bladder in order for water to flow in easily. A great feature about this reservoir pack design is that because the fill port is so easily accessible there is never a need to take the bladder out of the vest accept to clean it.
When putting the vest on I was pleasantly surprised by the plethora of adjustments I could make to this one-size fits all pack. Since the torso length is 16.5in it was necessary for me to make the shoulder straps a little shorter so the front of the vest didn’t fall past my waist. In addition, I needed to cinch up the chest, hip, and waist straps for a more snug fit that would move with me, not against me. An important note to remember is to wait to fit the vest until it is fully packed and you are in what you will be wearing for your activity to ensure the most comfortable fit.
An adjustment that needed to be made was the placement of the PureFlow tube and Big Bite Valve. My vest came with the tube extending up through the back of the shoulder panel coming out at the chest but pointing down. Thus, every time I wanted a drink I had to use my hand lift the bite valve up toward my mouth. The flow was fine, but I just found this a bit annoying to do while moving. After a little more vest discovery I realized that I could also run the hose out of the back compartment to loop to the front hugging my waist and up the front breast panel. There are two tube clips to keep it in place and another loose catch close to my chin for the bite valve to rest but not be stuck. This was by far the more preferable setup since all I had to do to drink was tuck my chin and bite the valve.
During my ski trip and subsequent long runs I learned a lot about the vest. First of all, it doesn’t seem to matter how much stuff I cram into it, the comfort level never changes. I feel so comfortable with the pack on I never feel the jostling of the water or provisions shifting. CamelBak did a really good job making the pockets slim enough to hold the weight to the body, but big enough for easy access to the pockets while moving. Also, since the center of gravity for the vest is right on the hips, I’ve never felt pressure in my lower back. Honestly, I often forget I have the pack on. It’s like my little turtle shell, just part of me. So far, nothing on the pack seems to give me any hot spots, which is amazing considering at a minimum I carry the full 2 liters of water. I really like the strap width at the top of the shoulders. It’s not so wide it bunches, but not so thin it digs in. Never have I felt as though the pack was making me overheat. The venting on the back and hips keeps the air moving. Finally, this vest is by far the most versatile pack in my closet. I can use it for running, skiing, hiking, and when I’m driving home from my adventures, the vest fits over the back of my drivers seat so I can keep hydrating while driving!
The only downfall I found during my testing was that the waist and chest straps have a tendency to loosen throughout activity. It’s not a huge deal since all tightening straps are easily accessible, but annoying enough I took to making a small knot to hold each strap from slipping. Problem solved.
This vest has everything I need and far more than I could ever have asked for. From the multitude of storage, to the high water volume, to the little details like the safety whistle, the CamelBak Ultra LR Vest is well worth the retail price of $130. I look forward to spring training and having such a phenomenal pack for my 46 mile Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run in May!