Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest

The Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest (SJUV) is the medium-sized hydration vest in the Ultimate Direction Signature Series. On a more minimal side of the scale is the Anton Krupicka Race Vest (AKRV) while on the other end of the scale, the 12 liter Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest (PBAV). The SJUV is not my first experience with a hydration vest, my first being the Nathan HPL020 (reviewed here) purchased back in 2008. Even though not used as much as I’d like to, the Nathan is still in great condition, but I’ve been entertaining a ridiculous thought recently that calls for greater specs than what the Nathan can support me. More importantly I purchased the SJUV with clear requirements on what I need in a pack given the kind of event. Popular brands like Salomon cost nearly twice more, and would be overkill for me.

What I need:

  1. Lightweight low profile fit
  2. No-bounce
  3. Plenty of storage
  4. Versatile
  5. Ease of maintenance
  6. Durability

Stupe sporting the AK race vest and me, in the SJ ultra vest. Photo courtesy of Stupe – visit his website at http://www.tristupe.com

Per the UD website, the SJUV weighs in at 7.5 oz (13 oz with bottles) and has a 9.2 liter storage space. The marketing blurb maintains that “the SJ has the best weight-to-capacity ratio of any hydration pack on the market.” And if you’re interested in what kinds of storage the vest has, see the specs below as provided by UD. To know which pocket is designed for what purpose, watch the short video where Scott Jurek himself explains the use of the product.

The vest, after removal from the delivery package.

First impression I had of the vest was how light and compact it was. Ultimate Direction claims the UDSJ has the best weight to capacity ratio out there and holding it in my hands for the first time certainly gave me that impression. Weight may not be an issue on a short weekend trail outing but multiply that over hours and miles upon miles of climbing and running, every ounce saved is hopefully going to make the journey a little bit more bearable. At least you won’t feel like carrying a donkey on your shoulders, although I’ve a suspicion that after 12 hours on your feet, nothing much matters anymore!

The first outing I had with it was an 8K trail run which was part of the TNF workshop – my load-up was pretty minimal, consisting only of my iPhone, a lightweight low-bulk Nike jacket and the 2 bundled 20 oz (591 ml) UD bottles with kicker valves. I tested the included whistle (loud enough) and tucked it into the velcro’d shoulder pocket. The 2 bottles were 3/4 filled as it wasn’t going to be a long run. Here’s how the unique kicker valve works. Pull it up and bite to suck in the fluids, flick it to retract the teat. I found taking in fluids via the valve is a hit or miss, depending if you get the bite right. I withheld my verdict on the bottles after the run.

Whether you’re carrying a bladder or 2 bottles, I suppose there’s no escaping the sound of fluid sloshing sound.The good thing, however, was the absence of insecurity and bounce. My vest were lashed down and compacted by the extensive network of bungee cord and hooks. As a result the vest were like part of my t-shirt. I’ve never felt such a good fit before. There was no sideways sliding, nor up and down bouncing. I came away very happy. We were out on the trails for about 1.5 hours and the fluids on board were sufficient. For longer races, one will need to review the distances, weather conditions and terrain between the refueling stations. There may be a need to supplement the 2 bottles with a bladder. Or just rely on the 2-liter bladder, freeing the front pockets for supplies and a camera.

When the 2nd trail outing was planned, I got the trekking poles out to check how I could carry them along with more stuff. Some of the photos show Snickers and even a tube of Vitamin C solubles being stashed into the pockets merely to show what the pockets could or couldn’t handle. The best way is to take plenty of photos to show you, so that’s what I’m going to here.

Extensive network of bungee cords and hooks to lash down and compress the vest.

One of the two main compartments will accommodate a bladder and more. More bungee ensures the bladder is lashed down and will not slide around.
The other main compartment is smaller and has a cuten fiber backing which prevents your sweat and moisture from entering it. Use this compartment for things you’d like to keep dry.
There are ports to run the hydration hose through on both sides on the vest. Depending on your preference.
The left shoulder pocket has a included whistle and space for a bar or GPS or thrash.
2 bars are OK too, with the stretchable mesh.
The right pocket is supposed to accommodate a smartphone but the iPhone 4 could hardly fit in if the 20oz bottle is also in the holder. Not recommended to carry the phone or camera there.
Both sides of each bottle carrier can hold up to 3 gels, a total of 6 for both sides. From the photo you can see a Clif bar (can carry 2) peeping out of the velcro section of the lateral storage space. The stretchable zipped section can hold your beanie and gloves.
The 2 gels in one of the pockets.

If there’s one disappointment, both the pockets under the lat pockets are too small to hold a tube of electrolyte tablets – see 2 immediate photos below. No issues if you’re using S-Caps because you’ll be stashing the pills into a zip lock.

The cuten fiber pocket is too small
Also too small! This one is mesh.

My trekking poles, while extensible and retractable like most others, aren’t the very compact nor foldable type. The plus side is that being fully carbon, they’re light. When fully retracted and secured using the Powerlock System, the Komperdell C3s are still pretty long and stick out like crazy. It took me awhile before finding a viable way of securing them. This setup will need some testing before embarking on a longer run of, say, 50 miler. Always test and train in the gear that you race in, the wise ones would say.

The experimental setup. Removing the baskets would allow the poles to sit lower down the vest.

The next thing to do was to take the vest and poles out on the trail. Purposely started at 6am to get an hour of darkness and headlamp time – creepy at first but comforting to have the company of a fellow runner. Covering the terrain in the dark trail certainly takes some getting used to, and we spent more time walking and trekking than running. No face time in the dirt from tripping on roots thankfully.

The vest performed superbly and I’ve absolutely no complaints on the fitting. One of the very lightest and best fitting I’ve tried on. Just by comparing the SJUV’s weight against the Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 and you’ll appreciate the fact that you’ll be lugging less weight 60K into your race. The issues I had were more on the access to the side pockets and stowage of the poles. As you can see from the photo below, I screwed up the whole thing and ended up like a Ninja Turtle. Even so, because everything was compressed close to the body, the awkward positioning didn’t impede my running. We ended up with close to 2:30 of time on our feet in the trails, an awesome way to spend Sunday morning. No such issues if trekking poles aren’t part of your carry-on. Otherwise, do experiment.

Ninja Turtle. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Teo

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a noob and am learning as I go along 🙂  but here’s my take after 2 runs in the SJUV:

The good:

  1. Amazing fit for size S. No issues yet as mentioned in the Blue Ridge Runner’s review, but I’ll be looking out for issues.
  2. Truly lightweight even with 2 full bottles
  3. No-bounce
  4. Expandable compartments
  5. Cuten fibers feel strong, lends some confidence in rough handling the vest

Could be better:

  1. The nozzle on the bottle’s kicker valve takes some getting used to. No big deal really.
  2. The finger loop on the bottle is unnecessary in my opinion.
  3. Shoulder pocket can’t really fit an iPhone much less a ruggedized point and shoot camera.
  4. Not too ideal if you’re packing poles.
  5. Not easy to stow and remove things from the small lateral pockets as they’re located more to the back than to the side. Needs practice.

Further experimentation is necessary of course. I’ll probably do a follow up post on how much the vest can carry. If you’re on the look out for hydration vests, there are many options out there in the market, with many really good ones from Salomon, Nathan (the 6.5L Vaporwrap looks darn good) and of course if you need a larger vest, check out the PBAV from Ultimate Direction.

Photo credits: Runwitme and TriStupe

I purchased the Scott Jurek Ultra Vest from The Ultramarathon Running Store (UMRS). I highly recommend them for their excellent service, very reasonable pricing and prompt delivery. They’re also expanding their range of products. If you want to check out the Signature Series, head on to the Ultimate Direction website.

Originally published: May 22nd, 2013