Ultimate Direction: Signature Series AK Race Vest Review

by nomeatbarefeet

If you are going to bring water with you, hydrating during a run possess a number of issues, the most obvious is: by what means are you going to carry your water? There are a number of great handhelds out there (see my review of the Ultimate Direction Fastdraw and the Amphipod Hydraform) but carrying something in your hand is not for everyone. Neither too is carrying a heavy pack. If there is one thing I have learned from watching and listening to trail and ultra runners is that it is very beneficial to learn how to run with less and less stuff (specifically, training your body to function on less without continually needing to be replenished).

To help hydrate and to address the issue of carrying “less pack” (while still being able to carry the essentials), Ultimate Direction teamed up with some of the best ultra/adventure runners in the world to develop the Signature Series Race Vests. The AK Race Vest is the most minimal of the three available, and it is unique in a couple different respects: first, it is made of some of the lightest, most breathable material; second, the bottles are place at the front of the vest.

basic specs:

  • Weight: 6 oz. (11.5 oz. with bottles not full)
  • Capacity: 4.5 L
  • Height12 in. / 30 cm
  • Width9 in. / 23 cm
  • Comes with two (2) 20 oz. bottles

initial impressions

I got the S/M size, and the vest fits very snug thanks to the two straps up front and the cross-pattern pulls under the arms. both the lower static strap and upper elastic strap can be re-positioned up or down on the vest. so between the pulls and the two straps there is a wide range of fits and adjustments that are possible. the two bottles up front offers a different way to carry water, but it can (at least at first) be a bit cumbersome; once I got into my run I really liked it.

there are two pockets directly above the bottles that can be used for gels or valuables; you can fit a small camera or a phone there (I did the former). two velcro pockets underneath the bottles allow for small storage of electrolyte pills or more gels. there are also two zipper pockets on either bottom back of the vest (I used one for my keys: no jangle sound while running!). the compartment in the back of the vest is made of a stretchy, very breathable material that can be packed with necessities (e.g., a second layer, a windbreaker, hat, gloves, etc.) and the entire thing can be tightened down with a bungie-cord system. you can also carry a hyrdation bladder (probably no larger than a 2L one) that can supplement or replace the bottles.

two runs

my first run was a 45 minute run through Hard’ack, and consisted of climbing and descending through technical single-track. I wore both bottles (filled), and once I got the fit right the vest barely moved. i mean there was virtually no bounce, even when hopping down some steep hills. my second run was a flat 8 mile stretch of the Mississquoi Rail Trail. I wore only one bottle (filled) and had my camera on the other side. I kept a steady pace, then added in some faster sections to see if there was any movement of the vest (there wasn’t much, even at a near sprint). While I am not sure whether someone would want to wear a vest while moving that fast, there is some comfort in knowing that it won’t bounce around all that much.

likes (these are just a few. to sum up the AK Vest, I really like this it :-))

  • there is basically nothing to this vest: it is the most minimal hydration system I have ever worn, yet it is able to carry a ton of stuff. also, the Hex-mesh material, while being extremely  breathable, does not retain moisture; so at the end of my run the pack wasn’t soaked with sweat. I am going to love this in the summer.
  • the snug fit is really, really great: it really hugs your body, and none of the straps loosened during my run. plus, in my mind I felt like TK bounding up and down the trail (of course my local trail is a 500 ft max climb, while his can be upwards of 4000 ft…so…yeah)
  • having the bottles up front: once you find the right fit with the straps the vest is pretty comfortable (see my comments on this below) and accessing the bottles is quick and easy. the bungie pulls on the bottle pouch keep the bottle from falling out (even when not tighten all that much).
  • pockets, pockets, and more pockets: one of the best things about this vest is all the storage space. I haven’t filled them all (which I will do soon and let you know how that goes) but from what pockets I have used I can see them as being indespensible on longs runs. when I carried supplies on my Long Trail runs I only had pockets in the back of my pack and I would have take the whole thing off to access food or a bandaid or my phone. with the AK vest I can have immediate access to everything without needed to take off (and then have to re-adjust) the vest.

worries (please note that most of these “worries” really just concerns and not necessarily problems)

  • there is basically nothing to this vest: it is REALLY minimal; so while the vest’s material is incredibly breathable, it is not waterproof or water-resistant. I haven’t run in the rain with it, but I have read some comments that the objects kept in the back compartment got soaked. Think things through before wearing it in the rain. [see the review at Ultrarunnerpodast.]
  • getting the fit right: it took me a bit of finagling to find the right “settings” of the straps and the pulls. the issue that I discovered is that because my frame is so slight, I have to tighten things so much that sometimes my breathing was a bit restricted. Now, please note that this wasn’t anything impairing, and I was able to find a “sweet spot” with the adjustments. All it takes is some finagling to get things right.
  • the placement of the bottles: depending on whether you first tighten the pulls under the arms or the straps in the front, the placement of the bottles can change from being directly perpendicular in front of you, to angled slightly under your arms. I prefered them angled a bit, as they then tended to be more stationary—but experimenting will help find the right adjustment. [for a female’s perspective on the bottle placement see Maggie’s review at Running for the Fridge.]
  • chaffage: i didn’t experience any, but the real verdict with be after longer runs. [again, check out Eric’s review at Ultrarunnerpodcast. His verdict: no chaffage!]
  • back pockets: these were the only pockets that can be a bit difficult to access. you kind of have to twist your arm around to open them. a bit awkward.
  • price(?): look, I am a poor graduate student/barista (proceed with the cliche remarks) so shelling out $90 for a hydration vest was a bit steep. this vest is great; but there are lots of options out there for less money. that being said, you get a lot for your money, and there aren’t that many vests that offer the sorts of features that the AK Vest does.

more to come

I plan on training with this vest and using it for my longer races. I hope to add to or supplement this review as I use the vest more and more. It took a lot of back and forth in my mind before I decided to spend the money to get it, and I hope that the details of my impressions will benefit those who were in a similar position as I was.

Run Mas