Nathan HPL #020 Hydration Vest – Review and Thoughts

The Nathan HPL #020 front view.

The Nathan HPL #020 front view.

First is some background information about why I’m trying this pack in the first place. To get to the nitty-gritty, skip down to the section with the heading “INITIAL THOUGHTS”

Well, here it is. My first ever attempt at a gear review!

With several long races coming up over the summer and into the fall, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I want to handle my hydration and storage concerns on my long runs. The Vermont 50, in particular, is a single loop 50 mile race that will present quite a few logistics issues depending on the weather. Taking place in New England in late September, it could be 35 degrees or it could be 85 degrees. It could be rainy and muddy or it could be sunny and dry. I won’t have access to my own gear until mile 31 (or so I’m told), so I’ll need to be self-sufficient until at least then. So it all boils down to needing to have a hydration/storage solution that gives me the flexibility to prepare for as many situations as I can while still being able to run comfortably.

Currently, I have two setups.

First is a simple handheld bottle with a zippered pocket along with a storage belt. ( I have two belts of different capacities depending on my needs.) This setup is great for most runs including multi-loop 50K’s where I have regular access to my drop bag. The problems occur on longer loops, let’s say 2 hours or more in duration. This is when I need to have more storage for both water and gear. Another issue with carrying a handheld water bottle for extended periods is that eventually, my arm starts to get sore. Last year, a couple of days after my first 50 Miler, my shoulder was killing me! It took me a couple hours to realize that it was the same shoulder that was swinging that 20 ounce water bottle back and forth for almost 10 hours. Not a huge deal, but something I’d like to avoid in the future.

This brings me to my second solution is a CamelBak Octane XCT running pack. The CamelBak is a good pack, but it has a couple of flaws. Most importantly, it has very little storage in front for gels, salt pills, food, etc. What it does have is down by the sides of the stomach in zippered pouches. Not easy to access. The second issue with the CamelBak is that it sits low on the back. When full of water, the bladder sits snug against my lower back, basically creating an airtight seal. No airflow means overheating. Just fine in winter, but in summer… not so much.

With a couple hundred bucks in REI gift cards living in my wallet, I decided to look into Solution #3. Undoubtably, the running pack is the best type of equipment for my needs.They offer the most storage while keeping the hands free. Truth be told, I can’t stand hydration belts or waist packs where the bottle is stored in the small of the back, so this sentence is all I will say about them. Some online research steered me to the new Ultimate Direction Signature Series line, but they are really geared towards a non-bladder setup where larger water bottles are stored in pockets on the chest. Probably fine, but  it just seems like it would be so bulky in the front. Makes me think of when I was a kid and my buddy would sit on my handlebars as I tried to pedal down the trail. (ok, it’s probably not THAT bad..) Add to that the fact that REI doesn’t carry them, and well, there you go! What REI does carry is a couple of packs from the Nathan line. The HPL #020 ($100) and the VaporWrap ($175).

I picked up the HPL 020 because, well, it was cheaper and they carried it in the store as opposed to the Vaporwrap’s online only availablility.

INITIAL THOUGHTS:

I took the pack out for a quick 5 mile trail run last night, and here are my initial impressions….

COMFORT/SIZING/DESIGN:

Without question, the first thing stood out when checking out this pack at the store is the design of the bladder. It is unlike any other bladder system pack I’ve ever owned, (mostly biking packs). Instead of having a cap that you screw on and off to fill with water, this bladder is more like a sack with a wide open top. The top folds over, and a clever plastic device seals it shut. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here you go…

the top of the bladder opens up completely, allowing for easy filling, dumping and cleaning!

the top of the bladder opens up completely, allowing for easy filling, dumping and cleaning!

The top of the bladder folds over and is then sealed with the black plastic clip gizmo seen here.

The top of the bladder folds over and is then sealed with the black plastic clip gizmo seen here.

To me, this seems pretty clever. First and most importantly to me is that this makes the bladder a snap to clean! You can literally flip it inside out to dry. The other benefit, at least in theory, is that the bladder can be filled much more quickly at aid stations. We’ll have to see how that works in practice…

The pack is very comfortable when first putting it on. Two straps on each side (at the rib cage), and one across the chest allow for easy adjustment of the sizing. Pulling on the side straps also compresses the pack against the back, keeping the bladder from swishing around too much. When first putting it on, I was concerned about the placement of the pockets on the front of the shoulder straps. It seems like they would get in the way of regular arm swing and possible cause some rubbing and chaffing. However, I figure that the fine people at Nathan wouldn’t have gotten very far with this pack if it had such a huge design flaw. So I gave them the benefit of the doubt. First impressions when trying it on were that the pack was much more form fitting than my CamelBak, particularly at the chest.  Now to see how it felt on the run. I filled the bladder up halfway with water, and off I went.

RUNNING WITH THE PACK :

The very first thing I noticed as I started my run was that the pack makes quite a bit of sloshing noise. “Oh my god!”, you’re thinking. “Doesn’t this guy know about the sucking out the air trick??” Yeah, I did that, but the pack still seems to make a lot of noise. I’m not sure why. To be honest, I stopped noticing the sound within a few minutes. By no means a deal breaker.

The next thing I noticed is that I couldn’t get a good flow of water from the valve. The design is such that the runner bites on the valve and sucks water out. I don’t know if this particular valve just takes a little getting used to, but I had trouble getting a good mouthful of water. Messing around at home later, I didn’t seem to have much of a problem. hmmm… I’ll reserve judgement on this one until I’ve used the pack a little more extensively.

As I said, I only did a quick 5 mile run, but I found the pack to be very comfortable to run with. My concerns about the placement of the pockets in regards to arm turned out to be unfounded. The only issue I had at all was that I had to be very deliberate when snapping the hose into its fitting after having a drink. Just slapping it on there willy-nilly always resulted in the hose falling out and dangling to the side. Again, maybe just another small learning curve.

AFTER THE RUN:

I was discouraged to find that when I got home, the bladder had slipped off of the hanger and was slumping down in the bottom of the pack. Some quick playing around at home revealed that with just a little bit of jostling, the bladder would consistently slip off of the little cloth hanger loop almost immediately. The only way I could get it to stay on was to tie it in place. Not a huge problem, but for a $100 pack, I shouldn’t have to do this. Never had to do it with the CamelBak. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s no big deal. I’m doing a long tough trail race this weekend where there will be plenty of time for chatting up other runners. I’ll ask around and get other people’s feelings on the pack.

rigging up the bladder to stay on the hanger loop

rigging up the bladder with my wife’s hair elastic to stay on the hanger loop

Which leads me to the end of my initial thoughts.

The pack is comfortable and functional with lots of room for gels, salt tabs, food and even a small water bottle or camera in the front. It sits high enough up on the back, but if I’m being picky, I’d like it to sit a bit higher. On paper it takes care of all of my needs, but there are a few functional issues that concern me which are

  • lack of water flow through the bite valve
  • the poor design of the bladder hanger inside of the pack
  • how easily the hose snaps (or doesn’t snap) into it’s holder. (really not a big deal, just takes a little bit of paying attention.)

After my first quick run, I found myself continuing to research Nathan’s higher end model the VaporWrap. With more storage and a few more bells and whistles, I am intrigued by it. With a hefty price tag of $175, I am skeptical. The point is that it’s not a good sign that I’m still looking. I really WANT to like this pack though, and I think I might. I’ll reserve final judgement on the HPL #020 until after this weekend when I will be doing a rugged 21 mile trail race in rainy conditions. That should be enough of a test to know if this is the pack for me or not.

See ya in a couple days!

_______________________________________

and I’m back!

This past Saturday I loaded up the pack and ran the Wapack and Back 21.5 mile trail race. Between the less-than-marathon distance and the ample aid stations, I didn’t NEED a pack, but it was a good opportunity to try to run self-supported and test out the HPL #020. Furthermore it was a wet and rainy day so I was able to test how the pack would do with rubbing and chafing on my wet skin and shirt.

I filled up the bladder to the top, stuck some Hammer bars and my iPhone in the back pocket. In the front pockets I stored 6 gels, my salt tabs and a small camera.

The Right breast/shoulder strap has a pouch which is suitable for a small bottle or other small items. It was the perfect place for me to put my little camera.

The Right breast/shoulder strap has a pouch which is suitable for a small bottle or other small items. It was the perfect place for me to put my little camera.

pouch pocket storage on the left breast strap.

pouch pocket storage on the left breast strap. I stored my little baggie of salt tabs in the front non-zippered pouch.

pouch pocket storage on the left breast strap.

pouch pocket storage on the left breast strap. I stored 6 Hammer gels in the zippered portion of the pouch. I could have easily gotten a couple more in there.

FINAL THOUGHTS/RESULTS:

I must say that for ALMOST all of the crucial elements of a long distance running pack, the Nathan HPL #020 performed very well.

My main needs during a long run are access to energy gels, salt tabs, water and sometimes a camera or iphone for pictures and music. My gels, salt and camera were easily accessible all day. In fact, because of how easy they were to get to, I found myself being able to take salt tabs and suck down gels while running! Normally I have to stop and fish these items out of my waist belt, wasting time and effort.

For the most part, the pack is very comfortable to run with. I did notice that as the bladder emptied over the course of a few hours, the pack would loosen up a bit and need to be cinched down. Completely reasonable and easy to do!  There was absolutely NO rubbing or chafing from the pack. A post race shower confirmed. (you know what I’m talking about!) Temperatures were cool, really only getting into the mid-60’s, so there was not really any opportunity to see if the pack would make my back hot.

Refilling the bladder at the aid station was quick and easy. I had practiced smoothly opening and closing the bladder before-hand so I wouldn’t be fumbling around with it during the race.

Now for the 3 concerns I had with the pack during my Initial Thoughts section.

  • poor bladder hanger design. This turned out to be no big deal after rigging up the bladder with my wife’s hair elastic. (shown above) Again, I really don’t think I should have to do this with a brand new $100 pack,  but it’s certainly not a deal breaker.
  • how easily the hose snaps (or doesn’t snap) into it’s holder. Another thing that turned out to be no biggie. I think I only had the hose fall out of it’s little snap-in thingy once during the race.
  • lack of water flow through the bite valve. And now we get to it….  Big time problems. I don’t know if I just got unlucky and got a bad valve, or if this is just the nature of the Nathan bite valve system, but I just COULDN’T GET ENOUGH DAMN WATER TO COME OUT!! Now I’m not saying I couldn’t get ANY water out, but I simply could not easily get a good mouthful of water. I mean, it would take me two or sometimes even three good sucks on the valve to get a good gulp of water. By the time I had the drink I needed I was breathing heavy from the exertion! Even if I was walking! The race had 3 aid stations. and at every one I found myself asking for a cup of water to quench my thirst. Not good. I tried everything I could think of. I can’t count how many times I turned the valve to the “off” position and then back to the “on” position hoping I would activate some secret trigger! Biting the valve in different places and with varying degrees of effort helped a little bit, but nowhere near enough to make the water flow acceptable.

So I sit here finishing writing up this review with plans to head to REI afterwards to return the pack. This really makes me sad because this hydration pack performed SO WELL in just about every way except for actually helping me stay hydrated! I can’t help but feel like I must have gotten a bad valve. I mean, how can other Nathan pack users not be complaining about this?? Just to be sure that I’m not crazy, I dug out my CamelBak pack that I mentioned earlier in this review and took a drink from it. Yup, just like I remembered, the simplest of effort rewarded me with a nice surge of water. I think that I will try the other ultra-running specific pack that REI carries which is the VaporWrap. It’s still a Nathan, but is a brand new design and I believe it uses a different bladder. I should note that I COULD buy a third party bladder with a better performing valve and put it in the Nathan pack. (this was suggested to me at an aid station when I was obviously frustrated!) Ultimately, If I had absolutely no choice, I would do that, but I’m not spending $100 on a top level piece of gear knowing that I’m going to have to spend another 20-30 bucks just to get it to work right!

So that’s it. The Nathan goes back (with regret) to the store. If anyone out there happens to read this review and has had similar issues with the bite valve on the Nathan HPL #020, please comment and let me know your thoughts!

2 responses to “Nathan HPL #020 Hydration Vest – Review and Thoughts

  1. I just got this backpack (I hate carrying things and really dislike the belts)- I had the same problem with the valve the first time I used it, but then after washing it seemed to loosen up a little. I was afraid to try to open it further the first time because it seemed very tight and I didn’t want to break it. Now I can turn it almost 360 deg and the flowrate (when full) is very good. When it gets down to the last 25% or so it’s back to the little sips, but I guess that’s to be expected. They’re on clearance now at REI and on Amazon too!

  2. I have a Nathan 70 L hydration pack, liked the feel of it onmy back, but like you disliked the water pack that came with it. It tended to leak and I couldn’t get enough water out when sipping and running etc. I came across some reviews and several said you can use Camelbak water packs in most Nathan vests. It worked out just fine. Another tip I have read is to turn the fully loaded pack upside down, and suck all the air out. It helps minimize sloshing when you start out.

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