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Ultimate Direction SJ and PB Vest – Trail Running Gear Review

Ultimate Direction SJ Vest Review – Olga King

olgak_articlesMy first pack was the Ultimate Direction Wasp. Well, technically, my first pack I got as a gift from a friend who also signed me up for my first 50 km was a CamelBak. But I quickly figured out I don’t like sucking on a tube coming from a bladder and I like having a bunch of pockets in front of me for various stuff I carry – so, the first pack I searched for, was recommended and purchased, was an Ultimate Direction Wasp. That said, I have a special feeling towards it – and its “nipple” bottles, which I used ever since they came on the market.

UD Wasp

Ultimate Direction Wasp

Things moved ahead, and from that first Wasp, as a part of the Montrail Ultrarunning Team, I was able to be fully equipped with every Nathan hydration vest you can dream of – but always running with those same UD bottles and using packs to store extra water bottles, extra clothes, and certainly gels and other fueling in those very much appreciated front pockets. Eventually, I moved on to UltrAspire packs, and was in love ever since. (p.s. – waist packs never made it into my gear list as my tummy gets extremely aggravated from all that bouncing, and chafing is something I couldn’t deal with)

Because I run with water bottles, often carrying two and occupying both hands, sometimes I wonder how is it to run “free”? I mean, I’ve gotten used to it over the last decade, and while I tried a bladder a few more times, I could never be its user as I can’t control how much I am drinking, sucking takes effort and interrupts the breathing pattern, and the tubing can malfunction (per various race reports, including elite runners).

Suddenly, a buzz in a community – Ultimate Direction made new packs, and they have a design that provides hands-free running via storing water bottles in front pockets! Yeah! Before you knew it, everybody and their mother was wearing Anton Krupicka (AK), Scott Jurek (SJ) and Peter Bakwin (PB) Ultimate Direction Signature Series vests! Not to mention, the names were SCREAMING good deal! Just check out a photo-stream at the latest Western States 100 – seems like all front runners and half of the rest of the field is in it!

I was a lucky one to be able to get my hands on a SJ for some testing and a review. So, here it goes…

It’s hard to begin to write on a product which is so highly regarded when you (I) have a negative start with it. Our relationship wasn’t getting off to a good start. When I placed an order, I asked for a size Medium – I am not a small girl to begin with, and have a cup B+ to boot (TMI, but important). I even measured whatever was suggested on this video (and you should watch it before thinking about measuring!). :

Why am I stressing this? Because my pack happened to be HUGE for me! Like, tight straps all the way – and hanging loose!

But first, let’s take a look at the pack itself.

Specifications (Per Ultimate Direction Website): World-renowned ultra-runner Scott Jurek designed the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest to be the ultimate pack for any occasion.  Featuring the best volume to weight ratio of any pack ever made, the 7.5 ounce SJ Ultra Vest can carry a half-day of gels or bars in the easily accessible front pockets, along with a unique expandable or compressible main compartment utilizing Cuben-Fiber, for a total capacity of an amazing 9.2 liters.  Options to carry trekking poles and an ice axe complete the package.

Sizing At Chest (Unisex):

  • SM: 25 – 31 in / 63.5 – 78.7 cm
  • MD: 31 – 38 in / 78.7 – 96.5 cm
  • LG: 38 – 43 in / 96.5 – 109.2 cm
  • Measure wearing the clothes you intend to wear
  • A vest full of gear will fit smaller


  • Volume Capacity: 47 in3 / 9.2L
  • Fluid Capacity: 2 x 20 oz bottles / 2 x 591 mL & a 70 oz reservoir
  • Weight: 7.5 oz (13 oz with bottles) / 212 g (368 g with bottles)
  • Height: 12 in / 30 cm
  • Width: 9 in / 23 cm
  • Depth: 2.5 in / 6 cm


  • Cuben Fiber: Used for the sails of America’s Cup racing yachts, this non-woven fabric is 15 times stronger than steel and 40% stronger than Aramid fibers, and is extremely resistant to moisture, UV, and chemicals
  • Hex Mesh: The structure of the vest is totally breathable, while also being extremely strong, lightweight, and will not absorb moisture.
  • Power Mesh: All pockets are super stretchy, so small loads won’t bounce and the vest expands as you need it to.

First impression: The Cuben-Fiber material felt funky and made noises. I was concerned that when on the run, the “shish” sound would annoy me. The first person to actually test the pack in the family was my step-son Harrison, who took it “for a ride” when he hiked down (and back up) to the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon (yes, 12 years old, 16 miles in half a day). He said the pack was OK, but the “nipples” in the bottles not so much, so he ended up replacing the bottles with “normal” ones. Other than that, free hands provided him with freedom to take a lot of pictures!


My turn came around a couple of weeks later, as Larry (who was testing the PB pack – review below) and I took sails to the Wasatch Mountains-Wind River Canyon-Grand Teton adventures.


And this is where the ill problems begun! Because, you know, we wanted to run on those beautiful trails – and in theory, because the pack is made for RUNNING, run we did – and I kept getting ticked off how much movement was happening! Upside-down, from side to side, back and forward, it was driving me nuts.


Note how much movement it is from side to side on this photo (left), and how much space between my body and the pack on the next (right) – even though I had the front straps all the way in. And maybe because I had the front straps all the way tightened, the bottles were sitting right on the breast area and the top of them too close to my face.

Getting ahead of the “real time” of usage, and after talking to many, many other runners who had encountered the same problem (from elite to every-day plodder, from tiny to rather busted gals), I did a modification by tying a string pulling two sides together (see photo below – some used bungee cord or S-hook). Yet even with that, while the side-to-side shaking was eliminated, the front-to-back stayed (putting strain on my shoulders and rubbing my neck raw). And only – only – when (with the ties) I packed the back pockets to the brims, did the pack finally feel right!


It shouldn’t be THAT difficult, and the lack of some kind of adjusting on the sides was a sad discovery – but rest assured, from a source, the Female Pack is coming out soon, and the sizing will be provided in “normal” definitions!

Anyway, the fact that in my experience I had to squeeze the front straps all the way in, the bottles set somewhat uncomfortable right on top of my breast, and the Velcro from the shoulder straps was rubbing my neck. Note in the video above that in reality the bottles shall go to the side from the center or your chest/sternum, and almost like in a Salomon pack (pictured below), but not quite.


Back to the material – the squishy sound never happened! That was a (good) surprise. It was lightweight, breathable, and washable. The back pocket (which there were 2 – two – of) fit a lot! You could put two extra 20 oz bottles, a water proof jacket, gloves, hat, arm warmers, emergency blanket, first aid kit, headlamp and flashlight. I’m sure I could fit even more; the mesh had some stretch left. That was good – for, say, a full day adventure that includes high altitude mountains where the weather changes and you potentially may get stuck longer than intended. Why would I need it at a race (besides Hardrock 100 or UTMB) – I don’t know. Although those pockets could also be used to put lots of ice into and keep your body temps down on a hot day.

More specs from the website:

Features (Front):

  • Smart phone compatible pouches (2)
  • Bottle holsters tighten to carry camera, ect.
  • Gel or bar pouches (4)
  • Electrolyte or valuables pocket (2)
  • Fully adjustable Sternum Straps (2)
  • Emergency whistle

Features (Back):

  • Cuben Fiber bellows for large or small loads
  • Secure Lat Pockets, with full pocket behind (2)
  • Two sizes main compartments
  • Hex Mesh for maximum breathability
  • Trekking pole (2) and Ice Axe loop (1)

Side pocket – the ones on the lower parts of the side stretchy straps, was another huge disappointment! While they were large and fit plenty of power bars if desired, reaching easily (or not so easily) to get anything out of there “on the run” (or while stopped) was very uncomfortable, not to say worse, and as the race/run would progress and the body gets more stiff, that pocket was out of question! Not to mention there are plenty of men out there who’s shoulders and elbows can’t do that acrobatics even in a good state of life.


Let’s move on…The little pockets at the top of the straps. Way too high! Reaching for items in those, too, needed some wrist bending. And the Velcro seemed to be fading its capacity to open fast and close snag was deteriorating quickly after literally a few uses. On the other hand, the Right pocket fit a camera nicely, what was helpful for those who love to “stop and smell the roses”, and the Left pocket had a Bear Whistle included – and yes, plenty of us run around mountains with wildlife. I liked that part.


There is another set of pockets, underneath the bottle holders, also with Velcro. I am not quite sure what was the idea for those and used it to put gel packets and other garbage that I happened to produce on the run – and I had the same thought as above, hard to open on the fly, things may fall out.


Gel pockets” described on the side of each bottle holder. More negative emotions! It wasn’t easy to “slide” a regular size gel in with a bottle already in the holder, and during the run the gel(s) kept coming out of the pockets! Since I wasn’t using it in a race, I was able to monitor and see one that fell out, and kept pushing back in the other one, but it would really suck to lose your fueling when it’s important.


And last, but not least (in fact, the most important reason for designing this particular series of the packs) – bottle holders! What can I say? Besides the jiggling (a.k.a. moving too much due to not being properly sized up for the pack), I did like the idea of hands-free running! I forgot how it feels. You can grab the trees on the turns, flop your arms wide to the sides on the technical downhills, take pictures, eat gels – all while not having to “hang” your bottles on your hands or wrists. BUT – you knew I’ll have something negative to say – as I went for real runs with the pack (finally fully fitting), I noticed I am having somewhat similar problems as I did when I gave up drinking from the bladder: when you run holding bottles IN the hands, they constantly remind me to keep on drinking. When the bottles neatly tucked away, I forget about it until I am actually thirsty, and in Texas – or at a hot race – drinking “to thirst” is only good for the book writing. Another one – even if I force my memory to be “on top” of “sip every few minutes” task, getting the bottle out is not a swift motion (and it probably shouldn’t be, it may fly away, but there is got to be a solution for that!), and sticking it in is even more difficult – not THAT difficult, but does take time and practice and force. AND it feels like an extra waste of energy to reach-pull-bring bottle up-shove back in, as opposed to swing arm just a touch higher – straight into the mouth – gentle swing back, repeat.

I actually decided to test the pack with the bottle pockets empty of bottles (using handhelds) and just putting fueling and a camera in those compartments – and that worked wonderful, but defeated the purpose of hands free running.


With that I conclude my review by saying – great idea, and many, many folks seem to benefit from it! Me? I’ll wait until the female version of AK comes out to do more testing!

Ultimate Direction PB Vest Review – Larry King

Larryk_artSpecifications (from the Ultimate Direction Website):
The pack Peter Bakwin always wanted did not exist – so he designed this one.  So well thought out and comfortable to wear, National Geographic Adventure gave the 12 ounce PB Adventure Vest at 2013 Gear of the Year Award! With the same abundant storage options as the SJ Ultra Vest, the PB Adventure Vest also features a larger 8.5 liter main compartment and a unique one-piece pull cord for instant expandability or compression.  With a special pocket for a locater beacon, and a system for readily attaching trekking poles or an ice axe, this is the most comfortable pack ever for hiking, running and climbing.

Features (Front):

  • GPS Pouch (buttons accessible)
  • Bottle holsters can carry 26 oz.
  • Gel or bar pouches (4)
  • Electrolyte or valuables pocket (2)
  • Fully adjustable Sternum Straps (2)
  • Emergency whistle

Features (Back):

  • Cuben Fiber bellows for large or small loads
  • Secure Lat Pockets, with full pocket behind (2)
  • Two sizes main compartments
  • Single pull bungee compresses entire pack
  • Trekking pole (2) and Ice Axe loop (1)

Sizing At Chest (Unisex):

  • S/M: 28 – 36 in / 71.1 – 91.4 cm
  • M/L: 36 – 40 in / 91.4 – 101.6 cm
  • Measure wearing the clothes you intend to wear
  • A vest full of gear will fit smaller


  • Volume Capacity: 61 in3 / 12L
  • Fluid Capacity: 2 x 20 oz bottles / 2 x 591 mL & a 70 oz reservoir
  • Weight: 12 oz (17.5 oz with bottles) / 340 g (496 g with bottles)
  • Height: 16 in / 41 cm
  • Width: 9 in / 23 cm
  • Depth: 4.5 in / 11 cm


  • Cuben Fiber: Used for the sails of America’s Cup racing yachts, this non-woven fabric is 15 times stronger than steel and 40% stronger than Aramid fibers, and is extremely resistant to moisture, UV, and chemicals
  • Velvetex: The edge banding is very soft for greater comfort
  • Power Mesh: All pockets and super stretchy, so small loads won’t bounce and the vest expands as you need it to.

One thing is certain. A lot of thought went into the design of this pack and anyone considering it should fully understand the features before spending the money on items you don’t need. This isn’t a pack I would use for a normal ultra, even if it was a mountain 100 miler. Aid stations are plentiful during races and I honestly wouldn’t want to carry the load this pack could handle during such a race when I prefer to go as light, as possible. I didn’t come close to testing all the features of the pack and wasn’t aware of many of the features until after using it several times on one-day adventure runs/hikes—Grand Canyon, Wind Rivers, and the Tetons.

As an ultra runner who dabbles in adventure running, this pack would have everything you could possibly need, and more. The most obvious feature is the two water bottle holders which are located on the front of the pack. While this allows a hands free configuration, I still carried two handheld bottles, since that is the way I have been running for the last several years. In my mind, I just saw the bottle holders as additional water storage for those times when I am a long way between water sources. But, for those accustomed to hydration bladders, this could be a great alternative.

The first thing you’ll notice is the lightness of the pack. The Cuben material, which is an ultra strong fabric used in sails for yacht racing, gave me cause for concern. Just when handling the pack, it seemed “loud” when jostling the pack around. But, while running with the pack, I never detected any annoying sounds. And, the material is highly resistant to moisture, which is a huge benefit when you’re emitting lots of body heat while running. The pack always stayed dry.

The two main pack compartments can handle anything you’d ever want to put in a day pack. I, even, put a fully filled one liter Nalgene bottle in it and it never moved around while running and I never noticed it poking into my back.

There is chest pocket above each water bottle that can be used for various items. I carried my camera in one pocket, but the other, I was hesitant to use since the zipper opened up from the bottom. After watching the video about the pack, it is intended for the use of a GPS beacon transmitter, such as SPOT, which has the button at the bottom of the device. And, while there was a bellows pocket inside the bottom of this pocket, I would have preferred an identical pocket that zipped downwards. The emergency whistle, which is attached with a lanyard located inside the left chest pocket, is a nice touch. A few times, when getting my camera out of the pocket, the whistle came out and I began running with the whistle flopping annoyingly around. But, that is remedied by just opening the pocket and storing the whistle inside the pocket where it rightfully belongs.

Front view – Correct size adjustment with straps and bottles nested to the side of the center of the chest. Both straps can be adjusted up or down along a fabric rail, ensuring complete fit customization. The sternum strap is elasticized, ensuring the expansion of the chest while breathing doesn’t constrict the wearer.


View from the back – At the top are elastic adjustment straps to keep the pack compressed and minimize bouncing. The straps, also, ensure the weight is kept close to the body. Normally, you only find this feature in full-featured backpacks (known as “load-lifter” straps) for multi-day hikes.


Side view – What you cannot see are the bellows pockets, which are fastened with Velcro, located behind each zippered pocket. They’re so well hidden–I was unaware of their existence until I had finished my testing and watch a demo video of the pack. A side compression pull located above the zippered pocket further allows the pack to be fit close to the body, preventing movement of the pack while running.


Reaching into side pocket – This was my main complaint about the pack. I’m not that flexible and, while I would eventually locate the zipper pull, it took me more time than I would have liked to consistently find the zipper pull. It seemed like an awkward motion to access a pocket while wearing the pack.


Top pocket with a zipper going up – potential falling out of items? Main design concept is to hold an emergency GPS locator transmitter, such as SPOT.


Overall, the pack works, and while I didn’t put it through the rigor of maxing out the capacity, I’m not certain I would like to on a one day outing in the mountains while running. Hiking with it at full capacity would be great. But, I am curious about its capability in this area and believe it could handle an overnighter, in a pinch, for those interested in fast packing.

– Olga and Larry King

Campfire Ultimate Direction Vest Chat

  • Have you worn the Ultimate Direction SJ or PB Vest? What have you thought about fit and usability?

If you are interested in the Ultimate Direction Signature Series Vests, you can purchase them at Running Warehouse (Shoes, Packs, Clothes, Lights, and more…plus 2-day free shipping!).

About the author

Olga King Olga King (Varlamova) has picked up a second wind of running at the beginning of her fourth decade. With the success of being a self-proclaimed “freight train that never stops”, she has finished over 100 races at distances from the marathon and beyond. For more information on Olga, check out the About page where you can see some of her health and coaching related projects.

One Response to “Ultimate Direction SJ and PB Vest – Trail Running Gear Review”

  1. on 22 Aug 2013 at 10:50 am Chris R.


    That was a great review! One of the more thorough gear reviews I have seen. I have heard the comment of “I’m waiting for the female version” from more than one runner.