Sunday, March 15, 2015

Review - Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest
As I prepare for the ultimate adventure and one of my top ten bucket list items, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in France in August 2015, I will be testing out and evaluating different gear options that are either going to be part of the mandatory gear or are optional but that I consider essential for my ability to reach the finish line.


While, not specifically listed as a required piece of equipment, runners will be unable to carry all of the mandatory gear without some type of pack. Rummaging through the running gear that I've accumulated over the past few years I figured that the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek (SJ) Ultra Vest might fit the bill. Full disclosure, the follow up model, the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 has been available since last year, but since I already owned the first model, I am reviewing it here. While the 2.0 version has some improvements, specifically in regards to materials used (e.g. stretch, durability, breathability, etc.) and side adjustment straps, this review should still help you understand its usability in general terms, since the two packs do not vary that much in terms of utility.

The Georgia Death Race, a 68 miles footrace with approx. 20,000ft of climb through the North Georgia mountains, would be the perfect proving ground for my pack. The race required some basic mandatory gear: weather proof jacket, thermal top, warm hat, emergency whistle, headlamp or torch with spare batteries, capacity to carry minimum of 22oz of water, emergency blanket. In addition, I needed to be able to carry personal nutrition and trekking poles as well as any additional items of clothing should the weather turn for the worse. While the Ultimate Direction AK Vest could possibly have been enough to carry this gear, I would have struggled to add any "extra" items without straining the pack. The SJ vest would give me just a little extra room, if needed. Below are the manufacturer specs with some personal comments added.

Manufacturer Features and Specs
Front of the pack
2x Smart phone compatible pouches (iphone 5 barely fits, iphone 6 would likely not fit)
2x Bottle holsters tighten to carry camera, etc. (will hold most currently available smart phones)
4x Gel or bar pouches (can possibly hold 2 gels each)
2x Electrolyte or valuables pockets (one waterproof pocket is very useful for small ipod & headphones or salt tablets, the other pocket stretches nicely and could also function as a "pack out" pocket, read: trash pocket)
2x Fully adjustable sternum straps (they slide up and down and adjust to almost any body shape as long as you choose the proper vest size)
1x Emergency whistle (nice to have, especially when it's a mandatory piece of gear)

Back of the pack
2x Secure lat pockets, with stretch panel behind (not accessible without sliding pack off your shoulders, but perfect for items you do not plan to access regularly during your adventure, e.g. epipen, body glide, chap stick, etc.)
2x Zippered compartments (allows for compartmentalization of your gear, one larger and one smaller compartment)
2x Trekking pole loops (they work perfectly in concert with the 4x plastic hooks and the adjustable bungee cord on the pack of the pack to secure your poles and your gear)
1x Ice axe loop (hopefully, I get to use this loop some day)
Accommodates a 70 oz. reservoir (sold separately, but almost any brand of reservoir should work)

Overall Volume Capacity: 427 in3 / 7l
Fluid Capacity: 2 x 20 oz bottles / 2 x 591 ml plus optional 2l reservoir (I opted to replace the bottles that come with the pack with 2x soft UD body bottles)
Weight: 11 oz. without bottles / 310 g without bottles (weight with bottles varies on the type and number of bottles you plan to use)
Height: 12 in. / 30 cm
Width: 9 in. / 23 cm
Depth: 2.5 in. / 6 cm

Sizing At Chest (Unisex)
SM: 25 - 31 in. / 63.5 - 78.7 cm
MD: 31 - 38 in. / 78.7 - 96.5 cm
LG: 38 - 43 in. / 96.5 - 109.2 cm

Make sure you measure wearing the clothes you intend to wear, as a vest full of gear will definitely fit smaller. On the other hand, purchase a vest that is too large and it will possibly bounce and worse chafe during your run.


After checking in at the race and having my mandatory gear checked by the race officials, I headed to my hotel room and laid out all of the gear I planned to pack for the race ahead. Listing it here will hopefully provide some insight into the capacity and utility of this vest. My mandatory gear included the following items: 1x weather proof but not waterproof jacket, 1x thermal long sleeve half-zip top, 1x buff, 1x emergency whistle, 1x headlamp with 4x AA batteries and spare batteries, 2x 14oz UD soft body bottles, 1x emergency blanket. I added the following items that I considered essential: 1x 17oz soft bottle as a backup, 1x pair of socks, 1x pair of gloves, 1x pair of waterproof gloves, 1x pair of trekking poles, 1x ipod and headphones, 30x SCaps, 10x gels, 1x epiPen, 1x chap stick, 1x Body Glide stick, 1x iphone, 3x packs of electrolyte chewables. After I was done packing, there was still plenty of room in all but the smallest of pouches and pockets on this vest.

After a previous run, I had decided to replace the standard 20oz bottles that come with the vest with the newer 14oz soft body bottles that Ultimate Direction and some other manufacturers now offer. It was a decision purely based on my own comfort. The original bottles would bang against my rib cage on the downhills, being a nuisance at best and leaving my ribs a bit painful after at worst. I consider the invention of the soft bottles as one of the most significant trail running inventions in a very long time. Well, I'm still looking for a super bright, light headlamp that will last all night, but other than that, the soft bottles are pretty much it in importance to me. What's even better, Ultimate Direction just released 18oz body bottles, which will allow me to carry more water while still fitting into the front pockets of all of the UD vests perfectly.

I filled up the water bottles, placed them in the vest and pulled the straps to secure them tight to avoid any bounce. Then I lifted the vest and to my surprise, it did not feel that heavy. What's more important, it didn't feel that heavy once I put it on my back and secured all of the straps to cinch it down (to secure the gear on the back and to secure the pack in the front via the 2x adjustable chest straps). I've owned this pack for a while, but I didn't realize until now that these chest straps also adjusted up and down, thereby allowing for an even better custom fit. I was duly impressed.

I guess that last comment kinda give it away already. I am a firm believer in this product and this vest in particular. I used this pack for the entire 18 hours it took me to reach the finish line, in constant rain and this pack help up perfectly. No bounce, no chafing, no back pain, heck, most of the time I completely forgot I was wearing the pack at all. If there is one point to mention, it is that you should probably zip lock any gear that you want to stay dry. This vest is designed to be breathable and you cant have both. However, one of the small pouches in the front of the vest is waterproof and it has kept my ipod dry for all of my adventures so far.

Further impressions of this pack, it really did a great job holding and securing my trekking poles, but it did make access to the back pockets challenging. However, that would be the case for any pack that utilizes a bungee cord of some sort to cinch down gear on the outside of the pack. It wasn't an issue for me and I was able to get to all of my gear as quickly as necessary. On a side note, I would love to see a product that comes up with an even better way to allow for trekking poles to be quickly released and quick secured in the future. For now, this vest did the job perfectly for me.

Final thoughts, this pack does everything I need it to do. It provides plenty of room for a 24 hour ultra marathon in remote areas. There was absolutely no sloshing around with the body bottles and the pack never shifted once, even when I fell. It never affected my natural balance and there were no hotspots anywhere. It does manage to hold all of my mandatory gear for UTMB, but I will discuss that in another upcoming post. It is my go to pack for longish adventures, but I might upgrade to the SJ 2.0 or the PB 2.0 for my birthday:-)

Please see a video review of the pack from the manufacturer Ultimate Direction here and feel free to add comments below.

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