Gear review: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta hydration vest

Recently I had an opportunity to review an extra small version of the Ultimate Direction Jenny Collection Ultra Vesta. Hydration vests for small female runners are as rare as snowfalls in summer, so I was delighted to test this one. Although I wouldn't choose the Ultra Vesta for a long backcountry trail run, I would consider using it for a supported ultramarathon in moderate weather.

First impressions: front to back

Ultra Vesta--front
Ultra Vesta front panels [top of pack is on right] loaded with a water bottle and salt
capsules on one side and a small camera and gel flask on the other.
The front of the Ultra Vesta offers four pockets and a detachable whistle. Two custom 10-ounce water bottles--each flattened on the side that fits against the runner--fit into drawstring-equipped front pockets that can, alternatively, be used to carry other items such as a small camera, hat and gloves, pretzels, etc. Below the water bottle pockets, which sit at the shoulders, a small zippered pocket on one side and a velcro pouch on the other allow ample room for snacks and salt capsules or, if you so desire, small electronic devices such as a small-to-medium-sized (but not large) cell phone. Elastic loops provide places to thread a wayward hydration hose. 

On the back, the pack features two center compartments accessible by separate side zippers: one that can be used for a hydration bladder (not included with the pack) and one for food or small clothing items such as hat and gloves or a very light jacket. The back pocket stretches a little, but does not have expandable bellows, so anything packed in either center compartment will poach space from the other center compartment or, if you're overloaded, intrude into the space between your shoulder blades. A small zippered pouch at the top of the pack allows the option of separating out snack bars, keys, and other items you might want to keep track of, although that pouch shares space with the center compartments as well. An elastic cord attached to the outside of the vest allows packing room for a light jacket and/or tights.  Loops on the back allow attachment of trekking poles or an ice axe if desired.

Comfort and fit

With the exception of the chest and waist straps, any part of the Ultra Vesta that comes into contact with the bearer is either made of breathable mesh (back panel and front panels) or lined with soft gray flannel (seams and edges). Kudos to Ultimate Direction for the chest straps, which tighten or loosen easily and can be adjusted vertically by sliding the straps easily up or down along continuous nylon-covered plastic rails on either side of the pack. Straps at the waist are also easy to tighten or loosen while running. Chassis-wise, the Ultra Vesta provides a far more comfortable fit than a men's Ultimate Direction SJ hydration vest I bought last year. 

The two flattened 10 ounce water bottles sit far more comfortably in front than standard water bottles (which can be squeezed into the front pockets, but don't ride well). If I were a fan of handheld water bottles, I'd probably pick the ones that come with this vest. 

Packing the Ultra Vesta requires careful planning. If overpacked, the pack bulges both to the front and to the back, forming potential friction points against the wearer's spine.  If you choose to carry 20 ounces of water in the bottles in front and pack the back with lighter items, the pack slides down slightly in front, pulling the harness against the back of the neck and resulting in light slapping against the chest. When the hydration compartment in back is fully loaded with water but the front is loaded with lighter items, the back of the pack has a tendency to slide down slightly, bringing the front water bottle pockets up. The pack's straps can be tightened enough that the pack doesn't slide or bounce vertically, but at the risk of making the waist straps dig slightly into the ribs. However--to put it flatly--my problems with pack slippage might stem from the fact that I don't have much padding to hold chest straps in place. 

Unlike some longer packs on the market, the Ultra Vesta rests comfortably between the shoulder blades and well above the lumbar spine. That means no kidney punches. As a short runner who resents being slapped on the back or in the rump by anything I'm wearing, I felt like cheering when I took the pack for its first test run.

Packability and usability

My only major complaint about this pack involves the side-loading hydration bladder compartment. Although the hydration compartment loads sideways, elastic cords provided inside the hydration compartment load from the top, so slipping a hydration bladder sideways into the pocket and sliding it from the top down under the cords at the same time feels like trying to wrestle a water balloon sideways through a small hole into a wet plastic bag. The space is small enough that it's easier to bypass the internal elastic cords altogether. Removing the hydration bladder is faster, but once the bladder's out, you'll inevitably face putting it back in again, which consumes even more time the second time around if you've added anything large to the other center compartment in the meanwhile. (Bulges from the other compartment make it harder to slide the bladder in flat and to distribute the load symmetrically.) A top-loading hydration compartment--with or without elastic cords--would save time and aggravation. Bellows in back or on the sides for expansion room would help accommodate the load.
The hydration compartment: Reloading a full water bladder
will be faster and easier if nothing is in the other compartment.
Slots to the right and left in the hydration compartment allow a choice of where to thread the hydration tube, although a large mouthpiece on a hydration bladder tube will hamper threading efforts. 

The pack's straps are easy to adjust on the fly (or on the run), but the elastic drawstrings that tighten the water bottle pockets on the front aren't. A rough coating on the drawstrings makes the cords resistant to loosening or tightening and catches on dry hands. Elastic cords on the back of the pack are coated with the same scratchy material.
Elastic cords have a rough surface that can catch on skin.

The upshot

I would probably not pick the Ultra Vesta for my customary long trail runs, which require more food and equipment than the vest can carry comfortably.  However, the Ultra Vesta offers plenty of space and comfort for a supported ultramarathon in decent weather. 

Human bodies vary widely in shape and size, so, as with any pack or hydration vest, I recommend filling up your favorite hydration bladder and trying a fully loaded Ultra Vesta in your size before making a commitment.

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