A Review of Hydration Systems for When You Must Carry Water
November 1, 2011 (Boulder, CO) — In the first article of this two-part series, I provided a few strategies for organizing your long run so that you can get the aid you need without having to carry it with you. However, often the easiest solution for staying hydrated/fueled during long runs is to simply carry what you need. Whereas in the past the choices runners had in this regard were limited and ill-conceived, now there are more options than ever.
A host of companies—including CamelBak, Fuel Belt, Ultimate Direction, Nathan, Salomon and GoLite—offer a wide range of hydration packs that are designed specifically to conform to the jostling demands of running. Different types of packs may be better or worse depending upon the type of course and length/speed of the run you are doing. Here is an overview of the main options.
In my experience, waist packs tend to be the least cumbersome while running. Obviously, the smaller the water bottles (and the less you carry), the more you are able to mimic running sans pack.
In that regard, I like the Fuel Belt Endurance—with its four 8-ounce flasks distributed equally around the waist (plus a pocket for a few gels)—for faster paced long runs on tamer terrain. Products of this type let you to carry16 to 32 ounces of water/sport drink (you can leave out two of the water bottles for shorter runs) along with a few gels or an energy bar while still allowing you to open up your stride and run at a fairly decent pace without jostling.
In addition, since there are multiple water bottles balanced on both side of your hips, you can alternate the bottles you drink from to more or less maintain the weight distribution throughout the run. Multiple small bottles also allow you to carry different types of liquid so you can have both water to wash down gels and sport drink to use on its own.
If you wish to carry more in a waist pack, look for ones that provide a holster or two for standard size bike bottles along with a zippered pocket and/or lash cords to stash a jacket. Products like the Salomon Twin Belt, for example, allow you to carry two 20-ounce water bottles, energy gels, plus a jacket or hat. The dual water bottles are ideal for maintaining a more or less equal weight distribution so as not to throw off your stride while running.
For long trail runs, sometimes a lightweight hydration backpack is the best option. These packs typically include a bladder with a tube/straw à la the original CamelBak systems. The bladders can hold one to two liters of water or sport drink.
I especially find this option useful on long trail runs where I know I’ll be out for hours moving at a much slower pace than if I were on tamer terrain. The slower pace and verticality of mountain trails typically makes jostling less of an issue. Running backpacks also provide you with more room to stash energy bars and extra clothes for changing weather conditions.
The Nathan Hydration Vest works well in this regard. It is remarkably stable while running even when you have the two liter bladder filled. One drawback, however, is that the two pockets on the front of the vest sit right in the path of where a runner’s hands swing. I found this annoying if I put more than a gel or two in these front pockets. This made the front pockets more or less useless and required stashing more food in the rear of the pack, which inevitably takes away ever-so-slightly from the stability of the pack when it is full.
For long mountain trail runs, I also like the Go-Lite Rush. This is closer to a lightweight rucksack than a running pack, but it does work well for long trail runs in the mountains. The pack includes a sleeve for a two liter bladder, plus enough volume to stash plenty of food, clothes and even a water filter if you will be out for several hours and need to refill at a stream. It also features a waist belt with pockets. The waist belt helps to keep the pack in place, and the small pockets integrated into the belt are ideal for quick access to bars or gels. Plus, unlike the higher positioned pockets on the Nathan Hydration Vest, these pockets don’t get in the way of your arm swing while running. The drawback of the Go-Lite Rush is that it can jostle a bit if you pick up the pace, especially on fast descents.
Hand held water bottles
For those who don’t like strapping a pack to their waist or back, another option includes hand held water bottles. These systems consist of a fabric cradle attached to a water bottle—your hand slips into the cradle and allows you to hold the water bottle with very little effort. The cradle also provides a small pocket for stashing a few gels or an energy bar.
Although many of these devices are designed to hold standard 20-ounce water bottles, I personally find that too bulky. Moreover, given that it’s a good idea to evenly distribute any extra weight you carry while running so as not throw off your stride, it makes sense to opt for two smaller hand held carriers instead of one big one. In this regard, the Ultimate Direction 10-ounce Fast Draw works well.
However, keep in mind that carrying two hand held water bottles eliminates the use of your hands—both hands! I didn’t realize how much I used my hands during a long run—to wipe sweat from my eyes, to adjust my hat, to open gels, to swat bugs, etc.—until I did a long run with two hand held water bottles.
My own preference for carrying water during long runs lies with the waist packs or backpacks. For faster paced runs on tamer terrain, I prefer a lightweight waist pack. For slower paced runs on mountain trails with lots of verticality, I prefer a lightweight backpack. Weigh the pros and cons of the different options against your own needs to find the best hydration strategy for your long runs.