Camelbak Ultra LR hydration vest
Review by Coy Starnes
provided by Camelbak for testing.
Over the next few months I will be reviewing the Camelbak Ultra LR. This hydration pack is designed for the runner, or more specifically, the long distance runner. However, besides the fact that it is designed to ride very snugly and with little movement, it has several other features which I think will be good for bike riding and day hiking.
But first, a little about the pack and hydration system. The Ultra LR features a 70 oz (2 L) lumbar reservoir (thus the LR nomenclature in the name of the pack) which differs from more traditional hydration packs in that this bladder sits in the bottom of the pack and goes around the waist instead of up and down the center of the pack/back. This is supposed to be a more efficient way to carry the water weight which is critical to a competitive or long distance runner. And speaking of weight, the Ultra LR is listed at 1.15 lbs (.54 kg). I checked the weight at my local post office and came up with a slightly higher weight of 1 lb 9 oz ( .71 kg). I weighted mine before ever adding any water to the bladder so it was completely dry. Anyways, it is fairly light and more importantly, rides like a dream. More to come on that.
Just above the reservoir is a mesh pouch big enough for a light jacket and perhaps a few snacks etc. This area of the pack is normally where the hydration bladder would be so naturally there is more room for gear here now (depending on the size of the pouch of course). One thing to keep in mind though, is that the outer part of the pouch is made of mesh. It also has openings on each side that are wide enough that I can put my hand inside, so small items could come out. Fortunately, it has a cinch strap across the top so that it can be cinched down tight enough to hold most things. It also disconnects at the top to make it easier to get bigger items in or out. Any small items should be placed down in the pouch where the sides are sewn to the back panel or placed in either of the 2 side pockets which can be completely closed with a zipper. The pack has a listed storage area of 200 cu in but with the open sides of the back pouch it can probably hold more. Some stuff might be poking out but as long as it is something like a jacket it should stay where it is supposed too. Here is the pack as viewed from behind.
The side pockets are also made of mesh but do have some solid nylon material where the zipper is located. These pockets are pretty big, plenty big to hold a small camera, gloves etc. They come around towards the front far enough to make getting into them possible without taking the pack off. The mesh for rear and both side pockets is pretty tight so only very skinny items would slide through. In other words, coins would be safe but a tooth-pick would probably come out. With so much mesh incorporated into these pockets any wet items can be drying while wearing the pack. Of course if it is raining they can get wet too.
Moving to the front of the pack one finds the shoulder straps. These are adjustable in length at both ends which should make it easy to fit the pack just right for both short and long torsos. It adjust at the front with a strap which connects down at the hip belt. The part of the shoulder straps that go over the back each fit into a sleeve and attach/adjust with hook and loop material. Each strap is about 2.5 inches wide where it goes over the shoulder but widens out quickly in the front to around 6.5 inches wide. There is no padding on the shoulder straps, but so far, I have found it to be very comfortable. There are two large water bottle pockets on the front, one for each side of the front of the vest. Each pocket is big enough for at least a 20 oz water bottle. They are made of a solid material but are completely open at the top, However, they do have a pull cord and barrel latch sewn into the tops so the opening can be partially closed. There is a small emergency whistle sewn onto the left side of the front. It makes a weak sound if you don’t really blow hard but it could come in handy if injured on a trail run or day hike in the woods. The drinking tube goes across the right shoulder and is held in place by two clips running down the front right of the vest. The drinking tube attaches to the bladder with a quick connect and the business (drinking) end features the famous Big Bite Valve, with an inline shut off valve just above it.
And finally, there is the padded back and the hip belt. The whole backside of the pack is lightly padded but the lumbar region has the most padding. There are alternating strips of blue and white mesh like materiel, with the blue parts being thicker. The very center is white (has less padding) but there are two more white section on each side of the center. About where the pack starts to wrap around the waist it narrows down into more of a belt-like look and it is solid blue (thicker padding) all the way to the end. The hip belt takes over from there. It is nice and wide (1.5 inches) and connects with a buckle on the left side (not the center). It fastens on top of the padded part of the lumbar padding so I do not feel the buckle. The hip belt is rather snug on me even when let out all the way. I’m guessing that Camelbak expects (and rightly so) most runners to be a little slimmer than I am. I wear a 38 jean so I suspect that someone in a 40 might find it too short.
Trying it out
I always like to at least briefly use something before doing any kind of review. I did just that by taking the Ultra LR on a quick afternoon day-hike down to the creek behind my house. This is a 2 mile hike I do fairly regularly for exercise and takes me about an hour to complete if I don’t piddle around down at the creek. Anyways, I wanted to see how the hydration system worked and also see how comfortable the pack felt. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how good it felt, even with a full bladder and two full water bottles in the front pockets, plus my camera in one of the side pockets. And for the record, my insulated 20 oz bike bottle fit snugly in one of the front pockets with a little sticking out the top, but a 16 oz bottled water bottle practically disappears inside. Here is a photo showing just that, and unfortunately, just how snug the hip belt is.
Here are a few things I noticed on my hike. I don’t anticipate needing to carry water in the front pouches very often so I will see what other items I may want to carry there. I was hoping my Olympus Pen camera would fit in one of these easily accessible pockets but it is just a little big. The next option as far as accessibility on the go would be one of the side pockets down on the hip belt. It would fit in either of the side pocket but this was when the H2O bladder was empty. However, I soon discovered that once the bladder is full it takes away a little space from the pockets and apparently just enough that the Pen no longer fit. Actually, it fit, but I couldn’t quite get the zipper closed. I really need that 17mm pancake lens! I had one more option. I could easily put it in the rear pouch, but this would mean taking the pack off every time I wanted to take a picture. I begrudgingly took my much smaller point and shoot in one of the side pockets. With that settled, let’s go for a hike.
Well, not quite, first I had to wash, rinse and then fill the bladder with water. This proved fairly easy but not as easy as the type where the top completely opens (like a zip-lock freezer bag). I also ended up squeezing out a little water getting the lid on but only a couple ounces. Putting the bladder back in the compartment it goes in and re-threading the drink tube (I washed it too) was easy. Getting my gear in the pouches etc was easy. I put my trusty roll of toilet paper (stored in a zip-lock bag) in the rear pouch, the two water bottles in the front pockets, my camera and cell phone in the left hip belt pocket and finally my knife clipped onto the hip belt. It was easy to snug all the straps down except for the hip belt. I really had to suck in my gut to get it fastened. However, once fastened it was very comfortable. And for the record, it was much easier to fasten when I first tried on the pack with the bladder empty.
I hit the trail and immediately marveled at just how nicely the Ultra LR rode. It really did not feel like I was toting nearly a gallon (106 oz) of water. The water in the front pouches did not move around at all but the water in the bladder was even less noticeable. There must be something to carrying it down low and in a horizontal position. My hike was pretty uneventful. I stopped long enough to take a few pictures of the pack down at the creek but never took the pack off. I never felt the need too. It was about 85 F and I did not sweat at much on the hike down. Coming back up was also great but I did sweat a lot more. I only took a couple of sips of water on the way down but did drink quite a bit on the way back home. Getting water out of the Big Bite valve proved fairly easy and did not take a lot of effort as far as suction goes. But then a strange thing happened… On the hike back up I was stopped at one point and for some reason was resting with my hands on my knees when I decided to get a drink. I was surprised when I did not have to suck on the tube at all. I think the bending motion put some pressure on the bladder and perhaps my head was lower then the bladder, but at any rate, it came pouring out. Oh well, I wont make it a habit to drink this way since it is easy enough to drink while standing up straight. I got home and saw that I had drank a little less than half the water in the reservoir. I first unhooked the hose and mashed the bite valve to let it drain completely, then dumped the reservoir in the yard. I then put the bladder in the freezer and rinsed the bite valve with a little soap and hot water. That is about all the care that is needed but it is a good idea to clean it thoroughly after a lot of use or if the bladder and drink tube are put away damp, especially if it is warm. This cleaning can be done with a mild solution of bleach and water, with cleaning tablets from Camelbak or with denture cleaning tablets.
Camelbak Ultra LR Update: July 26 2012
The Camelbak Ultra LR has proven to be a pretty cool hydration vest, and I mean that literally. First of all, we experienced record setting heat during the last week of June with several days topping 100 F. For example it was 108 on June 29th. I remember because it was my wedding anniversary… Anyways, I tried to walk either real early or late in the afternoon during this time. I would still get pretty sweaty, but by filling the hydration reservoir with ice before adding my water, I was able to keep a cool drink handy and the pack actually felt like it was helping to keep my lower back a little cooler. I also noticed that unless I was out for more than 3 hours I would still have some ice in the bladder at the end of a hike. I did note that on one 5 mile hike I was gone for 4 hours and completely emptied the reservoir and all the ice melted. I also emptied a 24 oz bottle I had placed in one of the front pockets. On this hike I did some off trail exploring and went up some very steep terrain and I had sweat dripping off my shirt. Here I am just before the steep climb, and as can be seen, my shirt is soaking wet except for just an inch around the bottom (click on photo for larger image). I should have taken a picture once I completely soaked it but I was so exhausted by then I just wanted to get home. Another interesting tid-bit was that I weighed myself early that morning (around 6 AM) and started hiking around 9 AM. By the time I got home at 1 PM I had lost a couple of pounds.
However, carrying water is not where the Ultra LR really shines. Well, that is important, but there are dozens of hydration packs available. What the Ultra LR has in spades is comfort. I really can’t describe just how the vest feels but the best way might be in noting how it does not feel. I really don’t even notice the pack all that much. The shoulder straps feel great, the hip belt is flimsy enough that it is not restrictive, yet it seems to aid in taking some of the weight off my shoulders. I think a major reason is that when I pull the lower end of the adjustment webbing that snugs the shoulder straps down the pack does not move at all.
As far as carrying gear, this pack is just about the perfect size for what I need on a 2 to 4 hour hike. I can carry enough water for even the hottest conditions. I have found that the front pockets are great for my cell phone and a small point and shoot camera. I still wish my small Olympus Pen fit better but I did find I could cram it in with a little effort. I had originally said it would not fit. Of course it fits easily into the mesh compartment on the back of the pack but this made taking quick impromptu pictures impossible. I did find the side pockets located on the hip belt were hard to reach to un-zip but I think this is partly due to the circumference of my waist. In other words, if I were skinnier, the pockets would reach around to the front more. Oh well, I’m working on that.
As for durability, I have no complaints about the pack so far. I have averaged using it at least twice a week for hikes anywhere from 3 to 6 miles. In looking it over closely, about the only sign of use is that the under side of the shoulder straps are starting to turn a little yellow. I assume this is from all the sweat they have been exposed too.
That’s all for now, please stay tuned for my final update to see how the Ultra LR continues to perform.
Final Update: Sept 12, 2012
Since my last update I have continued to use the Camelbak Ultra LR several times a week, mostly for bike rides and for day hiking. However, for the past week and a half I have actually used it more like it was designed to be used. Yes, I have been running, but I should not be confused with a serious runner. I have about as much in common with one as a rat has with an elephant… both are grey and have a somewhat hairless tail…but that’s about it. I am now at the stage where I walk to warm up, run a minute and a half, then walk to recover, then jog again, then repeating this for about 30 minutes total each time. Actually my time is determined by a program my wife downloaded to her iPhone called Run 5K. She is planning to run a 5 K with her sisters for a cancer research fundraiser and implored me to train with her and help here stay motivated.
This is where the Ultra LR has been a big help. I agreed to carry her water and iPhone so I have been putting my water in the hydration bladder and then a 24 oz bottle in one of the front shoulder strap pockets for her. We have started most of our runs from the house, however, the road we live on is hilly, so we started a couple at the local track. On those runs I actually rode my bike the 5 miles up to the school to meet her after school. I then ran with her and then rode my bike back home. I could have ridden my recumbent but I chose my bike so I could wear the Ultra LR and have it ready to go for our training runs. I carried her phone in one of the side hip belt pocket and her car keys in the other one. The mesh part of the hip belt pocket made it easy to hear the instructions for when to walk or jog.
I have noticed the straps that keep the vest snug during a walk are stressed a little more when jogging and I have had to snug them back up occasionally. It has not really been a bother as I am able to do this easily when walking but I also found it very easy to do while jogging. I could see where someone who ran in a rhythm and did not want any distractions might find it a little aggravating. I did notice that when I went running by myself without anything in the front pockets these same straps stayed in place much better.
The vest works great for jogging, but I like it even better as a light day pack where just a few essentials plus a lot of water are needed. It is fairly cool to wear, about as cool as one could expect and when loaded with ice water. In fact, I think it kept my lower back even cooler than it would have been otherwise. One thing I have recently started doing is to add my water to the bladder and then just sticking it in my freezer a few hours before a hike, ride or run. This seemed a little easier than adding ice to a glass and then to the bladder. Of course I did not always remember in time and it never was too much trouble to just add ice from a glass. However, I had a little ice form in the place the hose connects once so I have been more careful about being sure that part is dry before putting it in the freezer. I still have no problem getting a drink from the hose while on the move but I’ve noticed I have developed a habit of getting my drink when I’m stopped for a breather and nearly always find my self bending down, one hand on a knee and getting a drink. This provides a good flow of water by just mashing the valve. I usually rinse with the first swig which is usually a little warm and then drink the cold water to my hearts content. In the photo (above left) I have just completed a short jog/walk. You can see I was sweaty, but not too bad considering it was 88 F at the time.
Overall, I am very pleased with the performance of Ultra LR hydration vest. I can see where a serious runner might like it even more then I do but it meets all the requirements I like to see in a day pack, yet wears almost like I do not have it on. Hopefully I will soon be able to run a 5 K myself and I’m sure the vest will be with me every step of the way. My thanks to 4alloutdoors and Camelbak for letting me put it through the paces.
About the Author
I am from northeast Alabama where I spend a lot of my time divided among several hobbies that include backpacking and dayhiking, canoeing and kayaking, and just getting out enjoying nature.