Ultimate Direction Race Vest 5.0
Test Duration: ~50 miles
- Shoulder strap shaping promotes weight distribution and a comfortable fit
- Upgraded lightweight hook and loop sternum straps
- Large rear compartment can accommodate up to a 2.0L reservoir
- Comfort Cinch™ 2.0 compression system is more minimal, lightweight, and adjustable
- Lightweight 4-way stretch with ripstop pattern for added durability
- Front stretch mesh pockets are phone compatible
- Corded elastic for external gear stash and overall compression
- Includes two 500 ml soft flasks
Stated Storage Volume: 8.5 L / 519 in3
Reviewer: 6’1”, 145 lbs / 185 cm, 67 kg
Size Tested: Men’s Small
Stated Weight (Pack and Bottles): 211 g / 7.4 oz
Blister’s Measured Weight (Men’s size small):
- Pack: 147 g / 5.19 oz
- Bottles: 87 g / 3.1 oz
- Total: 234 g / 8.25 oz
My very first running vest was one of Ultimate Direction’s original “Signature Series” vests, and I thought it was awesome. Of course, I didn’t have much to compare it to at the time, and now that I’ve run in lots of other packs, I realize that it had its fair share of issues. Still, my history with Ultimate Direction packs made me especially excited to try out the latest iteration of their smaller-volume, race-oriented pack.
The Race Vest 5.0 is the smallest and lightest of Ultimate Direction’s Signature Series vests, which were designed in conjunction with top Ultimate Direction athletes like Anton Krupicka and Timothy Olson. Much like the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 4L or Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set, the Race Vest 5.0 is designed for shorter runs and races where you don’t need to carry large amounts of water, gear, or food. For any vest (and particularly one designed for racing), my main concerns are comfort, ease of access to storage without taking off the pack, and how stable and secure the vest feels on the trail.
So how does the Race Vest 5.0 stack up against the competition, and what (if anything) makes it stand out from similar vests from other brands? While I haven’t had the chance to use the Race Vest 5.0 in an actual race yet (thanks, 2020), I have used it on a variety of other runs. And aside from a few minor complaints, I think the Race Vest 5.0 pretty much checks all the boxes.
As always, we recommend trying on the Race Vest 5.0 in person, if possible. With that in mind, I can provide some general context on how it fits based on my experience with the pack. For reference, I’m 6’1” / 185 cm, about 145 lbs / 67 kg, and have a fairly narrow chest. I usually wear a size Small for most running vests.
One of my issues with the original Ultimate Direction Signature Series packs was that they were fairly rigid — the sternum straps didn’t have any stretch to them, and the sides of the pack only stretched a little. So when I cranked down the sternum straps to get a secure fit, my old Ultimate Direction pack started to feel pretty constricting. Thankfully, Ultimate Direction has made lots of progress as far as fit goes in the last five or so years (no surprise there).
Like most running vests, the Race Vest 5.0 has wide shoulder straps with two adjustable chest / sternum straps. But it also has an adjustable elastic cinch cord where the bottom of each shoulder strap attaches to the back of the pack, which allows for much more adjustability than other race-oriented packs that I’ve used. Because it uses elastic cords, this “ComfortCinch 2.0” system also allows the Race Vest 5.0 to stretch quite a bit even when I have it tightly cinched down.
As a result, the pack stays put without feeling constricting when I’m breathing hard. I think this extra adjustability makes the Race Vest 5.0 a pretty compelling option compared to race vests like the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 4L — the VaporKrar 2.0 4L doesn’t have any side compression, which made it hard for me to get it to fit securely. The Race Vest 5.0’s side compression also makes it easy to adjust the pack’s fit on the run to accommodate larger or smaller loads without bouncing.
I usually wear a men’s size Small in running vests from Salomon and Nathan, and in a size Small, I’d say the Ultimate Direction Race Vest 5.0 fits true to size. The pack felt a little big the first time I put it on, but once I cinched down the side compression system a bit, I was able to get a comfortable, secure fit. With that said, I still have to cinch down the top sternum strap almost all the way to keep the pack from bouncing. So if you have an especially narrow chest, it could be tough to get a secure fit — especially since Ultimate Direction doesn’t offer an XS size option for the Race Vest 5.0.
Features and Construction
Aside from the side compression system, the Race Vest 5.0 has a fairly similar design to the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set and Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 4L. Each of the Race Vest 5.0’s shoulder straps has a large, open-topped, stretchy pocket designed to hold a 500 mL soft flask. On the right side, the soft-flask pocket also has two smaller, open-topped pockets sewn on top of it that can hold smaller items like gels or bars.
Both straps also have a large stretchy pocket below the soft-flask pocket that wraps around the sides of the pack. The right-hand one has a zipper, while the left-hand pocket is open-topped. Both are big enough to fit my iPhone 8 in a Lifeproof case (though it’s a tight fit). The pack’s chest straps also have elastic loops that allow you to attach collapsible trekking poles to the front of the pack along the outside of the straps.
The hook and loop sternum straps can be moved up and down along the inside of the chest straps to dial in fit — but you do have to fully detach and reattach the straps to adjust their position, so it’s not as easy to move them around mid-run. The upper strap is fully rigid, but the lower strap has a little bit of elastic on one end to allow the bottom of the pack to stretch a bit more when you’re breathing hard.
The back of the Race Vest 5.0 is fairly simple. It has one large, stretchy, open-topped pocket that goes all the way down the back of the pack and is large enough to fit a 2 L bladder (sold separately). There’s a loop at the top of the back pocket that you can clip to the top of said bladder, but otherwise, the bladder just sits in the large main pocket. The back of the pack also has a smaller pocket across the bottom that’s accessed by a vertical zipper on the right-hand side of the pack. The idea is that you can easily reach around and access this pocket without taking off the pack, but I’ve found that to be a little tricky in practice (more on that later).
The one feature that’s missing from the Race Vest 5.0 is a large, stretchy, horizontal kangaroo-style pocket like the ones found on the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 vests and Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set. The Race Vest 5.0’s ComfortCinch 2.0 side compression system actually attaches to the back of the pack under the bottom of the large vertical back pocket, so it effectively takes up the space that’s often used for the kangaroo pocket on other packs. I’m a fan of that style of pocket on other packs, and go into more detail on it below.
Ultimate Direction markets the Race Vest 5.0 as “feather light,” and I can see why. It isn’t the absolute lightest running vest on the market, but it’s not far off — and as far as storage to weight ratio goes, it’s pretty hard to beat. For reference, here’s how the stated weight and storage volume of the Race Vest 5.0 compare to similar packs from other brands. All stated weights include the (empty) bottles or bladder that come standard with each vest.
160 g / 5 oz — CamelBak Ultra Pro Vest (6 L / 366 in3)
200 g / 7.0 oz — Ultraspire Alpha 4.0 (6 L / 366 in3)
200 g / 7.0 oz — Patagonia Slope Runner (8 L / 488 in3)
211 g / 7.4 oz — Ultimate Direction Race Vest 5.0 (8.5 L / 519 in3)
259 g / 9.1 oz — Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set (5 L / 305 in3)
306 g / 10.8 oz — Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 (4 L / 244 in3)
308 g / 10.9 oz — Salomon ADV Skin 5 Set (5 L / 305 in3)
347 g / 12.2 oz — Nathan VaporAir 2.0 (7 L / 427 in3)
So while there are several packs that weigh less than the Race Vest 5.0, none of them have quite as much storage capacity (at least on paper). The Race Vest 5.0 certainly feels extremely light in practice and has plenty of storage space — although it doesn’t seem quite as roomy as I’d expected, based on its stated storage capacity (more on that later). I appreciate light gear (especially if it’s designed for racing), so the Race Vest 5.0’s lightweight design is still a definite plus in my book. I was a little concerned that such a light pack wouldn’t have enough structure to keep it from bouncing around when fully loaded, but so far, the Race Vest 5.0 has handled loads of all sizes just fine.
On paper, the Race Vest 5.0 has more storage than my usual go-to pack, the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set (8.5 L vs. 5 L). But in practice, the Race Vest 5.0 doesn’t really feel any bigger — I can still fit everything I’d usually carry for a 2-3 hour run in the Race Vest 5.0 without any problems, but it doesn’t seem nearly as roomy as I’d expected. For most runs, I like to carry a windbreaker, about 1 L / 34 oz of water, my phone, a small first aid kit, and a variety of chews / gels / other snacks.
I can definitely fit all of those things in the Race Vest 5.0 without too much trouble, but there’s not much room to spare when I do. I pretty much always use the two included 500 ml soft flasks for water storage, though the large back pocket can hold a 2 L / 64 oz bladder if you so desire. The two horizontal pockets below the soft flask pockets work well for phone and food storage — both the open-topped and zipper pockets are (barely) big enough to fit my iPhone 8 in a Lifeproof case, though they probably wouldn’t work for “plus” sized smartphones.
The two smaller pockets on top of the right-hand soft-flask pocket are also great for stashing gels, bars, and other small / light items. Finally, the pole storage system on the chest straps works extremely well for my Black Diamond Distance Z Poles. It’s way easier to use than the convoluted pole storage system on the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set and holds the poles securely in place without extra bouncing.
My Adidas Agravic Windweave windbreaker pretty much fills the entire large back pocket of the Race Vest 5.0, although I could probably jam another light layer into it if I really needed to. That leaves the small zipper pocket on the bottom of the back of the pack for my first aid kit, keys, and other random smaller items. I’ve used a pretty similar packing scheme in all the vests I’ve run in, from the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set to the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 4L. And while the Race Vest 5.0 has significantly more storage than either of these packs on paper, it doesn’t really seem like it has much (if any) more space in practice.
I think this might be partially due to the type of material used for the Race Vest 5.0’s pockets. The Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set uses a ridiculously stretchy mesh material, which allows every pocket to expand and hold way more than I would’ve expected from a 5 L pack. While the pockets on the Race Vest 5.0 definitely still have a good amount of stretch to them, they’re not quite as expandable as the pockets on the Adv Skin 5 Set. The good news is that the tighter pockets make the Race Vest 5.0 extremely secure and bounce-free, whether it’s fully loaded or almost empty. Unlike the Nathan VaporKrar packs, I haven’t experienced any issues with soft flasks or other heavier items bouncing around inside their pockets with the Race Vest 5.0. For a race-oriented vest, I think a tighter / more secure fit is more important than lots of extra storage, but just be aware that the Race Vest 5.0 might not seem quite as spacious as its stated storage volume suggests.
On the Trail
I’ve mostly used the Race Vest 5.0 for 2- to 3-hour mountain runs this summer, and it’s handled pretty much everything I’ve thrown at it very well so far. The combination of the ComfortCinch 2.0 compression system and the tight-fitting pockets make the Race Vest 5.0 feel extremely secure with loads of all sizes. I’ve used the pack with nothing but two soft flasks, and it still stayed put and didn’t feel overly front-heavy. On the other side of the spectrum, the Race Vest 5.0 still feels well-balanced and secure when it’s fully loaded with water, layers, food, and other gear.
Overall, I think that the Race Vest 5.0 carries very similarly to the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set, which is definitely a good thing in my book. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in a racing-oriented vest in that I can load it, put it on, and then pretty much forget I’m wearing it for the rest of the run. It doesn’t seem to suffer from any of the bouncing issues I’ve had with packs like the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 12 L, which gives the Race Vest 5.0 a definite edge for both races and long training runs in my opinion.
The Race Vest 5.0 also seems slightly more breathable than the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set and Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 packs. The extremely light, virtually see-through mesh used for the Race Vest 5.0’s back panel allows for lots of airflow, especially if you don’t have too much stuff in the back pocket. My back still gets a little sweatier than it would without a pack when I’m running in the Race Vest 5.0, but it does feel noticeably cooler and more breathable than other packs I’ve used.
The only thing I’d like to see changed on the Race Vest 5.0 is pocket sizing and placement. As with so many running vests I’ve used, the Race Vest 5.0’s pocket layout has a few minor quirks that make it just slightly less user-friendly on the trail than I think it could be.
First off, the soft-flask pockets seem like they’re a little bit too shallow for the 500 ml soft flasks that come with the pack. You can still get them to stay put by shoving the soft flasks into the pockets and cinching down the elastic around the top of each pocket, but they have a tendency to work their way up out of the pockets as you run. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is a little annoying — especially since it could be easily fixed by adding a few extra centimeters of pocket depth.
Next up, the phone-sized side pockets below the soft flasks wrap around the sides of the pack enough that, when you put a phone in them and tighten up the pack, the phone gets pressed against the side of your ribs. I can’t say I’ve had any trouble with chafing or rubbing because of this issue, but I do notice it every time I put on the pack. Finally, I really miss having the horizontal kangaroo-style pocket across the back of the pack. That type of pocket makes it easy to stow jackets or other larger items on the back of the pack without taking it off. But since the Race Vest 5.0’s side compression system takes up the space that would usually be occupied by a kangaroo pocket, you have to take the pack off in order to access the large back pocket. The smaller zipper pocket is relatively easy to access with the pack on (as long as you’ve got a little arm flexibility), but it’s too small to fit a jacket.
That might sound like a lot of complaints, but keep in mind that they’re all very minor. I’m extremely picky when it comes to pocket placement, and the Race Vest 5.0’s storage options work great 90% of the time. Much like fit, storage preferences are extremely subjective — many runners probably won’t notice (or care about) any of the issues I raised above. But still, I do think there’s some room for improvement as far as the Race Vest 5.0’s overall layout is concerned.
With only 50 or so miles in the Race Vest 5.0 so far, I can’t really say how it will hold up in the long run. Most race vests last me several hundred miles, so I’ll need to use the Race Vest 5.0 quite a bit more before I can get a more accurate sense of how durable it is. So far I haven’t seen any signs of wear, and the pack seems well constructed.
I will be curious to see how it holds up because of its lighter construction — the body of the pack definitely feels lighter and more minimal than packs like the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set, which might mean that it won’t last quite as long. But that’s all just speculation at this point — I’ll update this section down the road once I’ve had a chance to put more miles on the Race Vest 5.0.
Who’s It For?
I think the Race Vest 5.0 is among the best race-oriented running packs I’ve tested — and depending on your personal preferences, it might be the best outright.
I definitely thought that the Race Vest 5.0 felt more comfortable, breathable, and secure than the Nathan VaporKrar 2.0 4L — plus the Race Vest 5.0 can carry slightly more gear. Personally, I still slightly prefer the pocket layout of the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set to that of the Race Vest 5.0. But the Race Vest 5.0 also has a few other features that I think are better than the Adv Skin 5 Set. The Race Vest 5.0’s pole storage system is much more intuitive, and the ComfortCinch 2.0 side compression makes it easier to get a customized, secure fit.
At the end of the day, I think the Race Vest 5.0 is a very compelling option for both races and longer training runs requiring moderate amounts of gear. It’s light, breathable, comfortable, and fairly user-friendly on the trail. If easy pocket access is your top priority, I still give a slight edge to the Salomon Adv Skin 5 Set. But if you’re more concerned about maximizing breathability and getting the perfect bounce-free fit, the Race Vest 5.0 is pretty hard to beat.
As I’ve said before, the vast majority of running vests on the market at this point work very well. Most of them are also pretty similar, which can make choosing the right vest a little tricky.
With that in mind, I think the Ultimate Direction Race Vest 5.0 does manage to stand out from most of the competition because of its extremely secure fit, excellent breathability, and low weight. The pocket placement might be a minor annoyance for some runners, but I think the Race Vest 5.0’s other perks outweigh these minor inconveniences. If you’re looking for a lightweight, race-oriented running vest, I definitely think the Race Vest 5.0 should be on your radar.