Review: Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest

Hydration and food are tricky things to get right as the distances get longer. I have my Amphipod that works great for ~10-mile runs or a little longer, as long as there are water fountains along the way (like running through a county park). I also have the Nathan 22oz handhelds which I use when running races where the aid stations are roughly 5 miles apart, though not a huge fan of the imbalance it creates when climbing hills. But the Big Basin 50K ultra marathon that I’m running next month has a 14-mile stretch at the end with no aid stations in between. I hate bladders (so hard to clean them and painful to refill at aid stations), so bought the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest at the Zombie Runner store in Palo Alto.

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest

I must’ve tried all the vests at the store, though I was pleasantly surprised by how light this one was. At 7.5 oz (13 oz with bottles), it’s definitely one of the lighter vests out there. There are only two sternum straps, so it’s imperative that you find the right size that fits your chest. The two 20oz bottles are in the front on your chest and this definitely takes a little getting used to while running. When I looked in the mirror, I swear I thought I had sprouted breasts with bright red nipples! Looks aside, the vest has an impressive amount of storage area from little pouches in the front for gels and smart phones and larger mesh in the back with two sized compartments.

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest Front

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest Back

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest Bottles

Ultimate Direction SJ Ulta Vest Bottles

I filled up both bottles, stashed a bunch of Clif Shots and Succeed Caps and took the vest for an 18-mile run up to Black Mountain and back. The bottles on the chest definitely takes a little getting used to in a lot of ways. First there’s the weight of the bottles, though the sternum straps are snug and prevent the vest from moving sideways. Second, the sloshing sound of the water which masks the footfalls. I’m very mindful of the sound my feet make when I’m running since that clearly tells me incorrect posture, fatigue, etc. And third, I felt that the bottles definitely affected my posture and gait.

I usually lean forward on my ankles for falling forward on the run. I found myself leaning back a little to counter the weight of the bottles which also meant more work on the core. This is a good thing, though takes time to adapt. The pouches in the front were super handy to reach for the gels and caps while on the run. The trickiest part were the valves on the bottles. I just couldn’t figure it out right away. Also known as the Kicker Cap, the trick, apparently, is to bite, pull and suck (according to their tech support). You really have to pull the valve quite a bit until you hear a pop (see picture above) and then the flow is so much better. When you are done, bump the valve down until it snaps back in position.

Marble Mountain Wilderness

Marble Mountain Wilderness

Just a few days later, I got to spend an entire week in the Marble Mountain Wilderness across from Mt. Shasta and took my vest on two 15-mile runs, with river crossings and spectacular views. From a 40°F morning to 70°F in just a couple of hours, I truly started appreciating the storage space in the vest as I started removing layers and shoving my gloves, long sleeves, tabi socks, beanie, etc. into the compartments. While on the first run, the back compartments were essentially empty, I felt that on these two runs, I was much more balanced. The vest stayed on snug and accessing the water and the food felt natural.

Maybe I had gotten used to the weight of the bottles after the third run, but I didn’t feel the vest at all during those runs. More importantly, I felt safe and secure going on a 15-mile jaunt into the wilderness knowing that I had enough food and water with me. In spite of the hefty price tag, I would highly recommend the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest for runners that are out and about on long trail runs and have to be self sufficient.

Do you use the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest? What do you think?


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  • Wendy

    Do you mind telling me the size of the pack you’ve got on in the pics, as well as your chest size? I’m trying to determine the size to get since I’m in between sizes, and I cant go to the store to try

    • http://freeradical.me/ kowsik

      Wendy, I bought size M and my chest size is 39 inches. To keep the vest snug during running, I have to tighten the top buckle to the maximum possible. Given that there are only two possible adjustments, I would highly recommend that you figure out a way to try it on first before you buy.