For road runners it’s anathema, but lugging running backpacks is SOP (standard operating procedure) for trail runners – especially for any run that will last longer than from one meal break to the next (including breakfast to morning tea).
Running in the wild requires kit and more of it than you’d think – especially if you’re doing a decent distance (say, more than a half marathon), or indeed if you’re planning on some multiday trail madness in the mountains. Think lots of liquids, nutrition and snacks, first-aid kit, foul-weather clothing, mobile phones, and even camping kit for overnight forays… it all adds up to a requirement for decent cargo capacity.
So what’s the best pack for runners? It all depends on how, where and for how long you intend to run. Here are a few things to think about when pack shopping:
Your mission: what is it? Short run, long run, multiday? Close to civilization or are you heading in the wild green yonder where there’s more danger (did you see that video of the trail runner encountering a mountain lion?!). What will the weather be like? Will you need to carry more layers for thermal comfort? Are you carrying for yourself or also for others (if you are guiding others on a run)?
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Run vest versus traditional pack
Most running brands now offer a ‘vest’ style pack, which in general is the preferred choice of runners for its form-fitting attributes and ability to better spread the load evenly and keep it close to your body (and therefore better balanced). Basically, vests are more comfortable and are less likely to rub you up the wrong way and cause chafing, while traditional backpacks (where the cargo hold is not as integrated with the straps and waist belt) tend to have more movement, and therefore more risk of hot spots. Backpacks are, however, better when the load creeps up into the 20L+ range for multiday self-sufficient runs and fastpacking adventures. There are some quality cross-pollinated packs that meld elements of vest design (more integration with the strapping system) with that of traditional packs (more cargo space).
Distance/time to volume ratio
Obviously the longer the run, the more gear you need, and the bigger bag you need. It’s a delicate balance, however, because you have to carry it all on your back, so try not to overdo the capacity limit or you'll be tempted to fill it all and quickly inflict more gravity woes on your knees, ankles and back. Run packs and vests come in volume capacities of up to approximately 20L, before merging into 25-40L ‘fastpacks’, used for overnighting where the running pace decreases (sometimes to a fast trek).
Yes, men and women tend to have different shapes (although there’s plenty of shapeshifting between every individual, too). So if a brand offers it, sometimes it pays for women to at least try out a female-specific model. They often position sternum straps differently to accommodate the female chest, and can offer a different form to the back and hip belts. Just avoid the lazy brands that simply take a pack, then pink it and shrink it before labeling it a women’s item.
Hydration bladder, bottle or soft flask capacity
Maintaining your fluid intake is obviously crucial, and the design of your vest or pack needs to make drinking regularly as easy as possible. Consider these questions: has your vest or pack got a dedicated pocket for a hydration bladder and the requisite clips for securing the straw where you want it? Can your pack hold one or two bottles, and where are the holders located? Usually, they are on the vertical shoulder straps but watch how high up they sit. Do they have straps to secure the top of your soft flask or bottle? Are they ‘skinny’ or fat for different types of soft flasks or bottles (many can only hold soft flasks)? Can they accommodate a lid with a straw? Do they have a zip, to be able to double as a secure pocket as well? Do they have layered compartments added to hold other things like gels?
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Other external pockets and reach-ability
The ability to easily and quickly reach and re-stow bits of kit – especially food supplies like gels and snacks – is very important. The harder it is to access snacks, the less likely you are to be bothered reaching for them to consume, and the more likely you will go into calorie deficiency and ‘bonk’. Having zipped or elasticized pockets that can be used while still running, and don’t require you to dislocate your shoulder to reach them, means you will be inclined to refuel more regularly and ultimately have a much better, energy-sustained run. Pockets and reachability are important – so try your backpack on and see how you go accessing and opening each pocket without taking it off.
Zips or stretch pockets
Sometimes zippers can be tricky, but they also secure your gear much better, while elasticized stretch pockets are often more flexible in terms of capacity. The best bags have a mix of both where the use of each pocket is carefully considered and matched to the benefits of zip or stretch opening. Note that zippers often get clogged and jammed with sweat and moisture that has dried in between uses, so be sure to wash zips with clean water after each use. Nothing worse than a jammed zip with your munchies imprisoned on the other side mid-run! Zips are also harder to open in cold weather (with frozen fingers or gloves on).
Vests tend not to have or need, waistbelts, but larger multiday packs do. Be mindful of how they are constructed and fit around your waist. They can be prone to creating rub zones if not right for your body. Thicker bands are better than thinner ones, but they also can add weight to your bag. Waistbelts that have pockets can be handy for the aforementioned easy access stowage.
As with most components on a run bag, a balance between form, fit, function and weight is always a sum of pay-offs. Tensioning straps that help adjust and secure the bag to your body, and to best hold down the weight you are carrying, are important. But you also don’t want flappy straps flying everywhere, nor components that can fail or break. Simple is best. Importantly, the better bags allow you to adjust and compress them as your cargo reduces. When your hydration bladder shrinks with water consumption or you take foul weather gear out, you need to be able to re-tension your bag so it doesn’t start jiggling around on your back and become annoying, uncomfortable and chafe-inducing with more movement against the body. Ensure you try your pack on loaded up to varying degrees to ensure you can adjust for comfort at all capacities, big or small.
This is, again, a matter of keeping things simple – attachments that clip in and release easily and can be used when you have frozen, fumbling hands or gloves on, are key. It’s also important that the plastics used are high quality so that they don’t fatigue and break given the number of times you’ll wrench them open.
The most important rule is to try a running vest or pack on before you buy (if you intend buying online, try to find someone else who owns the model you like and give it a test run). Also, when testing, do so with it packed as if you were on your intended mission. A weighted pack rides very differently from an empty one.