How To Choose the Best Running Vests and Packs

Photo: Matt Trappe/Tandemstock

Run farther with the right vest or pack.

If you think running is freedom, wait until you experience the liberation of using a good running pack or vest. When fully loaded—with water, fuel, first-aid essentials, maybe a jacket, beanie, or gloves—you become self-sufficient and ready for anything.

So how do you zero-in on the right setup for you? First, let’s look at the difference between a running pack and running vest.

Running Pack

Unlike conventional backpacks with waistbelts, running packs generally have just a thin, adjustable strap across your sternum. Some running packs also have a strap that attaches lower on your chest. This design minimizes restriction and bounce.

Running packs have pockets on the front of the shoulder straps, and on straps that wrap around the sides, if the pack has them, that allow you to stash and access items like fuel, your phone, and lip balm mid-run. Weightier stuff, like water and additional clothing, is carried in a larger panel that sits on your back. Fluids are generally carried in a hydration bladder, though there are some running packs that have large pockets on the shoulder straps that can hold soft hydration flasks.

Running Vest

Running vests are constructed to fit, well, like vests. They attach to your body via small, thin cords that connect two swaths of material that are wider than traditional running pack straps. That material is made out of thin, breathable, quick-drying mesh which should lay comfortably against your body.

Those front panels also have multiple pockets layered on top of each other, intended for soft flasks to hold your fluids, your fuel, phone, and other needs. Some soft flasks come  with straws, meant to allow easy drinking without taking the flask out of the pocket or having to bend your head down too far.

The larger back panel of a running vest gives you the option to carry a hydration bladder and bulkier items like a jacket.

A man straps in his running pack before a run Photo: Matt Trappe/Tandemstock

How to Decide Between a Pack or Vest

This really comes down to comfort. Try both styles on, and if you can, borrow a vest and pack and go for a run. You may prefer running with soft flasks on your chest (running vest) or having fluids in a bladder on your back (running pack). Some running vests allow you to carry fluids both ways. Choosing between a pack and a vest is really about personal preference.

What to Look for in a Pack or Vest

“Livability” is key. This might sound extreme, but you want to be able to comfortably “live” out of your running pack or vest for however long you plan on being out. That means you want to be able to carry what you need in pockets you can access easily.

Want quick access to a jacket?

Seek out packs that have large enough pockets or a bungee cord system that makes the jacket accessible to you without taking off the pack.

Always carry salt tabs?

You may want a small, dedicated pocket with a secure closure for your pills (these kinds of pockets exist for that specific reason).

Need a way to stash collapsible poles for flat or downhill running sections after you’ve used those poles on a long climb?

Look for packs that have loops and bungee cord systems meant to stash away poles.

Always want your phone at-the-ready for those epic mountain pics and mid-run selfies?

Almost all packs and vests have large enough pockets that can house a smartphone. Just make sure the one you’re eyeing fits your phone.

You want the pack to fit you well and not slosh or bounce around too much. (Most packs/vests come in sizes from small to large, some with XS or XL offerings (see size guides).

Other Features to Consider

  • Safety whistle built into the sternum strap
  • Reflective detailing for road running (especially run-commuting) 
  • External bungee cords for quickly stashing a jacket or other layer (handy in fat-changing mountain weather)
  • Smooth, brushed seams to prevent skin irritation

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.