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Channel Your Inner Camel

Backpack vs. waist pack: The practical Zen of hydration systems

Nathan Sports

As much as I’d like trail running to be a purely minimalist sport, the fact remains that long runs—the kind where you leave the indignities of modern life behind to become one with the natural world—require some gear. Dehydration strikes, hunger creeps in, and by the time you realize you’ve been communing with butterflies and deer for who knows how long, that initial sense of carefree abandon starts to feel like bonking in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve tried everything to approximate the experience of weightless running with water on board, but some kind of hydration system is a necessary, if un-Zenlike, evil. There are benefits and drawbacks to all available options, but here’s what my research has uncovered.

Handheld bottle
This is your best bet if you’re only carrying a small amount of water and don’t mind switching back and forth between hands so as not to develop one lone bicep. I trained with a Nathan Quickdraw Plus for years, and it certainly pumped up my noodle-like, T-Rex arms but also distracted me from the unfettered freedom of running. It’s also akin to swinging a heavy frozen mallet when the weather drops into the 30s, so wear thick gloves or leave it at home.

Need more water? Try a waist pack.
Let’s just get it out there: Your average waist pack will make even the coolest, most self-assured runner feel like a giant nerd. First, it looks like a Batman utility belt from an alternate universe where Batman is exceedingly thirsty, carries a medical ID and wears a lot of neon wicking gear. Second, it immediately rides up once you start moving—particularly if you’re female and have a high waist. That said, I run with a Nathan Speed 4R because I don’t mind the adjustments, I like having easy access to various gels and inhalers, and I don’t carry enough water to necessitate a backpack. The fact that I look like a cool ‘80s throwback in a neon fanny pack is just a bonus.

Pro tip: If you’re looking at different types of waist packs, make sure to select one with plenty of elastic in the band and weight distributed evenly between multiple bottles.

Need even more water? Try a hydration backpack.
For really long trail runs, water vests and backpacks are tops. Running backpacks are getting lighter and lighter while still offering lots of space to stow phones and snacks. I’ve tried the Camelbak Octane and the UltrAspire Surge, and the Surge (11.4-oz, carries two liters) does a better job of keeping the water weight tight against your back and off your shoulders. The only downside is that the water can slosh around, which takes some getting used to. I also couldn’t get over the feeling that I was carrying the water equivalent of a Baby Bjorn, which speaks to how heavy two liters can feel when you’re running. When you don’t have access to refilling your water supply, though, the UltrAspire Surge (or similar Nathan HPL 020) will get you farther than a waist-supported hydration belt.

And then there’s the Wingnut.
The Wingnut Hyper 3.0 is relatively new, and it aims to combine the best of both worlds. You get the hip-support action of a waist pack with the tethering function of shoulder straps. And there are all kinds of mesh cubbies and hidey-holes for your stuff. That said, the Wingnut might be best left to adventure racing and mountain biking. I’ve heard great things from cyclists, but I haven’t used one personally, and there isn’t a lot of data available for runners. Weigh in on these packs if you’ve tried them—they just might be the missing link between a Batman water utility belt and the Water Bjorn.

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