The running backpack is back in focus, now that us runners are frequently taking on longer challenges.
Whether you're tackling ultras, run commuting with a change of clothes or spending a weekend on the trails, when you run further you start to need extra kit, food and water ‚Äď and that means a running pack.
And picking your ideal bag is a bit like picking your ideal running shoe ‚Äď it's about fit and comfort. The selection of packs is vast, ranging from smaller capacity vests to 20l packs that are more in line with a rucksack style. The bag you choose will depend entirely on how you plan to run. If you‚Äôre racing a marathon, for example, you‚Äôll want to look for something light and minimal but with a good hydration solution like a bladder.
What size should you buy?
For ultras up to 24 hours, capacity and flexibility is crucial. Soft flasks often trump heavier space-hungry bladders here, leaving you more space for food, waterproof clothes, dry socks and poles. It‚Äôs also vital to have pockets where you can stash easily accessible food because tiredness makes you lazy. And you want a pack that‚Äôs breathable and won‚Äôt rub or wriggle.
Some running packs will only really serve for race and training runs while others might double as good options for commuting to the office. Choose wisely though. While versatility might good for the wallet, you won‚Äôt thank yourself for saving $20 when you‚Äôre 15 hours into a trail race and your bag problems are all that you can think about.
We‚Äôre constantly testing the latest running packs and vests to help find the products you should seriously consider. Every one of the packs on this list has been selected for its combination of comfort, convenience, durability and adaptability. We‚Äôd highly recommend trying these on for size before you commit though ‚Äď because, you know, humans come in different shapes and sizes and a pack that plays nice on the shoulders of one runner might jiggle another to distraction.
Inov-8 Race Ultra Pro 2-in-1 Vest
Buy now: inov-8.com | $185
Vest-style packs that hug your body, leaving your arms free to swing without annoying chafing, have become hugely popular and this clever 345g Inov-8 pack offers maximum versatility. Good for short training runs, ultra marathons and multi-day adventure races, its 2-in-1 design features a detachable 10-litre pocket, so you can beef up the storage capacity and use it as a pocketed race vest, or strip it down to a minimal vest.
It comes with two 500ml soft flasks ‚Äď with an optional drink tube ‚Äď which can be worn higher up the body or stashed lower to the side. You also get a removable 2-litre bladder for runs where carrying water is more important than kit. Plus there‚Äôs a speed cup for the increasing number of races where you need to bring your own.
Adjustable straps make it easy to find a good fit and cut out unwanted bounce, while a breathable mesh back panel helps keep things cool-ish. There are side stretch-mesh pockets for stashing items you need within easy reach and moveable pole mounts make it easy to stash your sticks on the front or the back for easy access. It comes in two sizes, S/M and M/L.
Salomon S-LAB Sense Ultra Vest
Buy now: Amazon | $170
Salomon pioneered the running vest pack and its S-LAB Ultra Vest range is about as minimal and lightweight as it gets. Weighing in at just under 200g, coming in five sizes (XS up to XL) and three volumes (2 litre, 5 litre and 8 litre), the vest sits close to the body so it feels like you‚Äôre wearing another outer layer rather than a backpack.
It‚Äôs lightweight, breathable and has a surprising ability to fit a lot of kit thanks to eight stretch mesh pockets ‚Äď two of which are zippable ‚Äď that expand to accommodate enough food, gels and other essentials for day-long runs. The fabric wraps to lock it all in place with no jiggle or jumping around, and the main compartment can happily take a set of hiking poles.
You also get two 500ml soft flasks with bite valve tops and wide openings that make refilling and pouring in electrolytes and race fuel powders easy-ish. To top it all off, there‚Äôs an integrated whistle and some reflective touches for added night safety.
The 2-litre option is a great for shorter faster runs where you want to stay light and compact, like a marathon, while the 8-litre works best for those races where you know you‚Äôre in it for the long haul and might need to take additional waterproofs and other paraphernalia.
Ultimate Performance Aire 2l
Buy now: Amazon | $54.90
Better suited to longer training runs and ultra-distance trail races than fast marathons, the Ultimate Performance Aire sits somewhere between the minimal race vest and the multi-stage backpacks.
It‚Äôs made of 6000 Ripstop lightweight nylon fabric for great durability and comes with a 2-litre removable hydration pouch, hydration tube and bite valve. The latter has a cap to prevent leaky dribbles ‚Äď something that‚Äôs particularly irritating if you‚Äôve mixed your water with a carb powder of electrolytes.
There‚Äôs plenty of padding, with strips down the back to protect the shoulder blades from any awkward-shaped gear in the bag as well on the shoulder straps, so it sits well without rubbing. Adjustable chest and clippable shoulder straps help create a comfortable fit and reduce bounce, though if you fill the pack‚Äôs three internal compartments, this jiggles more than something like the Salomon vest.
On the front you get two zippered front pockets and two open pouches. These are big enough to fit a 500ml bottle or slot soft flasks, however these aren‚Äôt included with the vest.
Other neat touches include very handy large-loop zipper pulls that make it really easy to access secure pockets in gloves, with cold fingers or on the move. There‚Äôs also a headphone opening, so if you still wear wired running headphones you can keep your smartphone safe and dry but keep listening to tunes. There‚Äôs no whistle but there are reflective details for added nighttime visibility.
The North Face Flight MT
Buy now: Amazon | ¬£84
A versatile vest-pack hybrid, the Flight MT is lightweight (297g), compact and runs like a minimal pack even though it boasts a surprising 12-litre capacity. In part this is because, aside from two 500ml soft flasks with bite valves at the end of mini hydration tubes, there‚Äôs nothing else on the front of the pack.
While that‚Äôs nicely freeing, there is a trade off because it‚Äôs quite hard to reach any race essentials on the move. The three tiny stretch mesh side pouches sit quite far back on the body making them trickier to access, plus they don‚Äôt hold as much as other bags. The two stretch mesh bottle pockets could be used to stash gels, food and other essentials if you didn‚Äôt need the full litre of fluid, though you need to stuff them quite full to ensure nothing falls out.
In the main zippered pack you get three internal compartments, one of which is a small mesh zipper pocket. This makes it easy to organise your gear, and the bag comfortably holds a set of waterproof trousers and a jacket.
There are two adjustable front straps at the chest and slightly lower down for a snug fit, though you can‚Äôt adjust the shoulders. The breathable mesh pack and shoulder panels also make for a comfortable run, helping to reduce the effect of the sweaty heat. There‚Äôs also an integrated whistle for safety.
OMM Trailfire Vest
Buy now: Amazon | $51
The most minimal, ‚Äď and possibly the most well thought through ‚Äď pack on the list, this 125g vest strips things back to the basics. It‚Äôs perfect for when you need little gear and want to run super light but is cleverly customisable for when you want to beef up capacity or cater for specific race needs such as hydration.
A great option for shorter trail races or for anyone who might want the security of carrying essentials during a city marathon, it features five stretch mesh pockets, with four smaller ones on the front and one large dump pouch on the back. The front pockets comfortably accommodates three or four gels, while the back will take a hydration bladder.
The capacity can be cleverly expanded thanks to a series of attachment points that let you add accessories such as a 5-litre ‚Äėcompressor pod‚Äô pack ($30.00). When it comes to hydration, the front mesh pockets are designed to take two 500ml soft flasks while the back pouch happily handles a 3 litre pouch, with a slot to thread your hydration tube and bite valve through to the front.
There are adjustable cables on the chest and to the side of the vest that mean you can cinch the vest in to create a snug fit with very little movement.
WAA MDS Backpack
Buy now: ultramarathonrunningstore.com | $197.98
At 20l, this bag is bigger than most of the race packs on this list but it‚Äôs ideal for multi-stage races where you need to be self sufficient or carry a lot of kit. Designed for the Marathon Des Sables, a 270-degree zip opening makes it easy to access all your kit without unpacking and repacking and a selection of accessories let you customise the weight and capacity depending on your needs.
There‚Äôs a detachable and independent 4 litre front pack, two half-litre front waste pockets, a tiny back-sized foam sleeping mat ‚Äď though this is more use as back padding during the run than it is for comfort in camp ‚Äď and a waterproof rain cover. It‚Äôs incredibly reflective for night run safety and there‚Äôs a built in whistle. At its most paired back it weighs 450g, increasing up to 1,400g with all the accessories attached.
Decent sized padded shoulder straps make it comfortable to run with, even when you‚Äôve got 8-10kg on your back, and these also hold two removable bottle 750ml plastic bottles.
The bag is big enough to fit a 17-inch Macbook Pro and a change of clothes ‚Äď including shoes ‚Äď so it also doubles brilliantly as a day-to-day commuter running bag. And it's durable enough to withstand seven days in the Sahara and a year‚Äôs daily commuter use.
On the downside, there‚Äôs a lot straps, chords and fiddly bits and it takes a bit of time to learn how to make the most of all the add-ons, but once you‚Äôve customised this bag to your preferences it‚Äôs a very reliable pack.