Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Quest for the Perfect Hydration System

Here I will review and compare two great hydration vests that have served me well: The Nathan HPL #020 and the Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race Vest. Everyone has different hydration preferences for endurance activities and for a while I've been trying to figure out what the best system is for me. In a race scenario where you have aided support every few miles, sometimes a vest is unnecessary. During long training runs, though, I almost always need more water than what I can carry in my hands. Some people prefer having a bladder with a tube running over their shoulder that they can drink from, but I prefer to at least have one handheld. If the water is not in my hand, I will forget to drink regularly and my thirst will soon catch up to me.  For most of my longs runs I carry a ~20 oz handheld bottle and a vest with anywhere from 1 to 2 liters. After my handheld runs out I transfer some water from my bladder into my bottle. I know that the method I currently use is not the most time efficient but I have yet to find a better solution. I find that sucking water from a tube tends to leave my mouth more dry, which makes me think that I'm thirstier than I really am. So without further rambling, here are my reviews.

Nathan HPL #020
The Lowdown
This vest technology seems to be the current standard. It is well designed, highly adjustable, roomy enough for almost any size/shape bladder and additional nutrition. The fabrics are very lightweight but compared to newer models and alternatives produced by other brands, this vest would be on the "heavier" end. This vest has one main zippered compartment for a bladder with a smaller zippered compartment for nutrition, etc. There are two adjustable side straps that bring the load closer to the body and one adjustable sternum strap that can slide to varying heights. The right front pocket has a drawstring and is big enough for an additional bottle (I sometimes use it for my camera). The left pocket features a small zippered compartment with an open elastic pocket over the top of it.

The Specs
Weight: 10 oz.
Total capacity: 400 cu. in. (6.55L)

The Opinion
This vest is well suited to the needs that I have. Though sweatier men might find this vest too heavy, I do not mind the thicker back compartment. As my hydration bladder starts to give off condensation, none of that moisture tends to leak through to my skin. Additionally, the enclosed and zippered compartment keeps my water cooler for longer. I often run home from work and so the 3 zippered compartment options give me enough room to securely store the odds and ends I need to bring home from work (keys, phone, sunglasses, an extra layer). When I'm hit with an afternoon shower, I know that my stuff will stay relatively dry for a few miles until I make it home. Out on the trail I usually bring a map because I tend to get lost and the front pockets give me enough space to keep a map, my small camera, and my next gel handy. The feature that I would praise the most about this vest is the adjustability. This vest fits my husband perfectly but I can still cinch it down to fit me, though it wouldn't fit someone much smaller than me (a 32 band size), though Nathan offers a women-specific version. Because there are 3 places where the straps can be adjusted, no one strap becomes too long and flappy - a problem I run into with the Fluid vest. Straps take a little bit of time to adjust but once straps are situated there will be no slippage. Overall this vest is extremely handy and dependable, and, though it's roominess can be a little much for races, it's versatility makes it an excellent investment.

Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race Vest
The Lowdown
This lightweight vest is designed for racing (as the name points out) so as expected, the features are minimal and users should not expect to fit the kitchen sink in this vest. The mesh back panel puts a thin layer between a hydration bladder and your back and an even thinner mesh panel overlaid with a quick-draw elastic lacing system that holds everything secure. There are no adjustable side straps and there are two sternum straps that can tighten and also adjust up and down (though this takes a minute). The right front pocket has a thin mesh compartment and the left front pocket has a small zippered pouch with an overlaid mesh compartment.

The Specs
Weight: 6 oz.
Capacity: 1 L

The Opinion
This vest is lightweight and forces you to bring only the necessities. In a racing situation where you have aid relatively close by, all you need is the necessities. Most people don't need more than 1L of water to get to the next aid station in a race scenario, but during a long training run more water is often required. If your water is cooled at the beginning of your run, then the condensation can pass through the mesh fabric to your back... this can be either annoying or refreshing. The quick-draw elastic strap on the back panel allows you to securely attach an extra layer. This vest didn't work well for me on a commuting run home from work because there was no secure pockets to store my valuables. The small zippered pockets work well for keys but when I stored my small phone in the right front pocket it fell out on the sidewalk. I stored a gel in the left front pocket and that fell out once as well. The pockets are a great feature but they aren't very deep. Additionally when I got stuck in a thunderstorm everything in my vest immediately got soaked. In a race situation you probably wouldn't be carrying anything more valuable than a small car key and so this wouldn't be an issue. This vest fits my husband perfectly but is too large for me to get a great fit. Hopefully down the road Mountain Hardwear will offer a model designed for women. The only adjustable straps are the sternum straps and I have to pull those as tight as possible. As a result I have dangly straps flapping in the wind. To fix this, my husband added some thin nylon cord to hold the straps together (see picture below). The fabric is very quick-drying and lightweight but I found that when I wore a sleeveless shirt or just ran in a sports bra, the vest chafed around my neck and arms. The chafing was pretty minor and felt no more scratchy than a fine merino wool fabric. In the end, this vest is excellent for what it was designed for - a minimal racing vest that will get you to your crew within 10 miles down the trail.

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