Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest

A Review of Ultimate Direction’s Signature ‘Scott Jurek’ Ultra Vest

Firstly a caveat: before obtaining this pack I didn’t use one at all in races. My only personal comparison is to the Deuter Race pack I wear on most of my long road runs, as these tend to be on the way to work via various far-flung suburbs. The Deuter is great for commuting but isn’t really pitched as an ultra pack. So this won’t be a comparative review, but my aim is to give you the facts about how the SJ Ultra Vest is performing for me, with some of its pros and cons.

A quick overview

This vest is self-proclaimed as being aimed at those who prefer bottles to bladders, and is all centred around trying to strike a perfect balance between capacity and weight (duh!). It uses advanced materials to keep the weight down while maintaining durability – the main volume section at the back is constructed from the sail fabric used on high end racing yachts – and incorporates a number of stowage zones designed for accessibility while on the move. A bladder is theoretically an option, with some limited design considerations to support it, but the main game is all about the two bottles on the chest straps and the various pockets surrounding them.

I did of course do my own research before selecting this over other Ultimate Direction packs, and over the key competitors such as Saloman and Nathan, so had already accepted some weak points about which there was apparent consensus. So it looks like I’ll be starting with some cons, although the short story is that I love it and want to have, like, a million of its babies. I tried it out only once, on a brief 16kms of trail, before confidently deciding to wear it for my first 100km race, which was a few days later.

The Negative Reports

One of the weaknesses I was already prepared for was glaringly evident when I pulled it out of the box: the two ‘smartphone compatible’ pouches that sit one above each bottle would fail a compatability test on even the most stretched definition of a ‘smartphone’. This was never going to be a problem for me, as a smartphone wouldn’t be my choice for ultras; battery life and lightness of weight are my key criteria, and other phones (including the mid-sized model Blackberry I carried in my last event) do fit just fine. A deliberately small phone, such as the type I intend to buy just for ultras…at a 7-11…for around $30, would easily sit below the velcro fastener, ensuring secure stowage (the Blackberry pushed this boundary slightly, with the velcro stretched over the top of the phone).

The key concern highlighted by users and other reviewers that gave me most worry was the positioning of the bottles and the degree of ‘bounce’ they were subject to. Reviewers were split on this, with some declaring vehemently that the bottles are definitely NOT in your face and don’t bounce, and others swearing the opposite. I was quickly relieved to find that the positioning is not at all ‘in your face’ and I didn’t find bounce to be a concern – perhaps noticeable on tricky or breakneck descents, but with no apparent danger of bottles freeing themselves altogether.

In fact, the balance between ease of access and secure fit has been struck brilliantly with these bottles. I wonder, though, if body type comes into this: I selected a Medium size ultra vest, as running a lot seems to have withered my upper body away to a Monty Burns degree, but I’m nearly 6’2. In other words, it’s possible a much shorter person also in the Medium vest might find the relative position of the bottles much closer to their face, although I’m not sure how those mechanics actually play out.

I should elaborate on bottle usage, as there has been some criticism. The slots for the bottles are surrounded on all sides by pockets for gels and other items. A common complaint seems to be that the meshy fabric of some of these pockets catches on the ‘sharp’ edge of gels, making them less than ideal for convenient access. Added to this complaint is the location of some of these pouches, and from inspecting it you can see the concern – it seems logical that when you pull the bottle out for a sip, items stowed in the pouches next to it may pop out, as the fatter part of the bottle passes through. What I’ve found is that gels go nicely into these pouches when put in upside down – at least the ones I use (GU) – and in that position they also come out easily enough when you want them, but are not affected by the comings and goings of the bottles.

It’s true that the zip-closing pockets on the side of the vest are somewhat awkward to access, but it can definitely be done with practice, and should still be counted as a big benefit of the pack. In each of those pockets you can fit 2-3 standard sized muesli bars, or the equivalent volume of whatever else you’d like to be able to grab without taking the pack off. Add to this the fact that you’ve got 4-6 gels on your chest and a mobile phone, and you’ll agree that a runner could be good for at least two-three hours without having to access further supplies from the main section in the back.

It’s also true that the bigger compartment of the main section at the back of the pack picks up a fair bit of condensation, as there’s only mesh protecting it from your sweaty back, but then there’s a smaller compartment that sits on the outside of that, via a separate zip, where items that need to be kept dry (such as sandwiches and batteris) can be safely stashed.

The Pure Love

To focus more on the positive now, which for me far outweighs the little niggles and workarounds, the absolute key takeaway point here is comfort. After loading up my vest with a representative cargo, and both bottles full, it was immediately obvious that the ergonomic design is exceptional. Then in practice, over a slow 100kms – fourteen hours and forty minutes – I kept the vest on, fully loaded, despite having the option to leverage my crew and run hilly sections without it, because it simply didn’t matter. The weight distribution is so even across my shoulders, chest, back and ribs that I felt comfortable the whole time.

In addition to the various gels and bars outlined above on my front, I had in the back section a waterproof jacket; a couple of sandwiches; three spare AA batteries for my head torch; three spare GoPro batteries; a couple of extra muesli bars; a cap; a wad of TP; and some other items I forget. In the left side pocket I had a massive USB power unit (weighs nearly 400 grams), which much of the time was attached to a lead that ran to the Garmin Fenix charging on my wrist. I could have loaded up significantly more and still not noticed the weight.

It did take me a while to get used to the sloshing. I have never been a slosher – due to previously using only a hand bottle, which has always sufficed on the 50km-60km races I had been doing – and I’ve always noticed ‘sloshers’ on course, which always put me off using a hydration pack, as I figured it would drive me mad after a while. However, I have found the opposite is true: it drives me mad initially and then after an hour I cease to notice it (except when descending).

You’ve probably guessed by now that this pack has two big thumbs up from me. The exciting part for me is that I am yet to use it to anything like it’s potential. Owning this ultra vest has become yet another factor that motivates me to do more long runs, just so I get to use it more often! I know it’s going to do me proud on my first 100 miler, and I can tell from the robustness of it that it’s going to last me for many races beyond that, too.

The Commercials

These are not cheap, and they’re hard to get your hands on if you’re in Australia. I bought mine from altrec.com for $125USD (their service was excellent – they expedited shipping for free when they realised it was slightly later despatching than quoted) but I then had to ship it via a third party onforwarder, as distribution appears to be restricted cross-border, despite the fact that I couldn’t find a local or regional distributer.

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