The latest potential game-changer are the new soft water bottles and associated hydration systems in the 2013 line. These include updated versions of the S Lab Advanced Skin race vests, a rather ingenious looking (if slightly whacky) set of glove-style handhelds (the Sense Hydro Set), and the new lightweight Salomon Advanced Skin S Lab Hydration Belt.
This last one caught my eye as a potential way to cut down on bulk in my racing, being an incredibly lightweight waist pack relying on soft bottles rather than bulky plastic ones. If I could fit everything I need for a supported 100 miler like the upcoming South Downs Way, this could potentially be the perfect pack for me.
Last year, Salomon gear was like gold dust - travelling to Chamonix for UTMB last year was amazing as every other store seemed to stock it! But now we are spoiled for choice, with several suppliers in the UK taking delivery of the latest range (including the Ultra Marathon Running Store, Centurion Running Store, and Castleberg Outdoors). I contacted Keith Godden at the UMRS who sent me one to try out.
Unfortunately - shock horror - I wasn't overly impressed. Believe me, I wanted to love this pack. But sadly it wasn't to be. Unfortunately the very thing that made it so appealing (the lightweight nature) was also its greatest failing. I only used the pack for a short amount of time, so haven't put nearly as many hours into it as I normally would for a review, but this was enough time to identify problems which made it unsuitable for my needs.
But let's do this in a systematic way:
This pack is light. I mean, like, super light. I didn't think that anything was in the envelope when it came through, and it was even smaller than I had anticipated. At only 130 g there is no doubt that this is the lightest pack available on the market.
The pack is made of a super lightweight mesh materia. The pack itself seems pretty solid despite feeling so thin, but my biggest issue lies with the fastening straps. They are again a very light, almost ribbon-like, material which just feels flimsy when tightening. Worse still, the very first time I pulled them while running to improve the fit, the stitching bust (with a painful ripping noise) on both sides. As far as I'm concerned, I was not pulling any tighter than one would expect to while racing, so the fact that they fell apart so easily was pretty worrying.
Despite the small size, the capacity of this pack is actually pretty amazing. The pack is essentially two sections (ostensibly the "front" and "back", although you can have either at the front) which clip together with a lightweight plastic clip system, similar to the chest strap connectors on the 5L S Lab waist pack.
The first section (which I will refer to as the "front") contains two zip pockets and two elasticated pouches. Like the 5L pouch on the race vest, these pockets are surprisingly roomy and you can cram a lot in there.
The "rear" section is where you will carry your fluids. There are two pouches each designed to hold one of the new Salomon soft flasks (one 237 ml is supplied with the pack). It can be a little awkward trying to stuff the flasks into the pouches around your back without accidentally squeezing the teat and squirting yourself, but you get the hang of it. The fact that they are flexible means that you can stuff them in any old way which cuts down on faff. There are also two elasticated bands that can be used to hold a jacket, and I found that these held my Montane Minus jacket quite nicely. However, it is a bit of a tight squeeze and anything bigger may not fit. I suspect that it is more designed for something like the new lightweight Salomon Bonatti jacket.
For me, the real test was whether I could happily hold everything that I would need for the South Downs Way 100 miler. On the front, I was easily able to fit two gels in each of the pouches, my iPhone in one of the pockets, and a head torch in the other. On the rear, I had two 237 ml bottles (I would need to use a 500 ml handheld as well however to meet the 1 L minimum requirement) and my Montane Minimus jacket. The only thing missing would be the map. Maybe I could tattoo this onto my body somehow?
These obviously have the benefit of being incredibly light and taking up only a small amount of space when not empty. They are made from the same material as the bladder from the race vests, and the bite valve makes them a very easy to use hydration system. My one criticism is that it is a little too easy to accidentally squeeze the teat (snigger) resulting in leaks and loss of water which may later be needed. I actually had real problems with one if my flasks leaking, but this was an unfortunate flaw in one of my two bottles rather than a problem with the product itself, and was quickly rectified. I regularly use the soft flasks as stand-alone water bottles as they can be stuffed quite easily into the back of a pair of shorts when you don't want to carry anything else with you.
The price of Salomon gear, particularly the S Lab equipment, is normally pretty high. At the time that I bought it, the 5L Advanced Skin S Lab vest was the only one if its kind and was so perfect for what I needed that I was able to justify it to myself (I still use that battered pack to this day, even though its held together with gaffer tape and safety pins, so I've definitely had my money's worth!), but now there are cheaper alternatives so I can't guarantee that the same would be true now. This pack was £45 which is quite high, but not extortionate. Pound for pound it's a bit steep mind...
So how does it feel? Well here's the problem. When I first put the pack on, if felt great. It is made of the same breathable mesh as the race vest, so felt very comfy. Also, being so small limited the amount of contact with the body and hence the number of potential chaffing points.
However, when I started to run, I found that the pack slipped around a bit (particularly when fully laden). The obvious solution to this was to tighten the pack and ensure a close fit with my body. Even at its tightest I could not get it to sit close enough to my body. This may be a result of me being small, and normal sized people may not find this problem, but for me it just did not feel right.
Worse was the fact that when trying to tighten the pack, it ripped. Also, the method of tightening the pack (a ribbon-like pull on each side) seems to me to be pretty shoddy. There is no real way to hold the pack taught once you have pulled it tight, and the lightweight plastic connector is just not good enough. I think it could do with some form of clip to hold if in position once the pack position has been set. Looking at some images online, it seems that there are in fact clips attached which may do just this. Whether I got an older version, or if the pack that I used was incomplete, I'm not sure. If this problem were fixed then it would certainly improve things immeasurably.
So could this pack be the perfect accompaniment to a 100 mile PB? Well I could certainly fit in almost everything I would need for such a race, and I was very impressed with the comfort and design of the pack in general.
However, some potentially serious flaws were identified when I actually tried to run with it. Firstly the lightness of the pack meant that it was far too easy to damage it when trying to improve the fit on the move. And secondly there seemed to be no way to hold the pack in position once this had been set. For these reasons, I can't see myself being able to use this pack.
And believe me, I am very disappointed about this outcome! This would have been perfect, but as it turns out there are several problems (potentially specific to me) which prevent this. Keith has taken my criticisms back to Salomon, and I am interested to hear their response. As I mentioned, I have seen images online that suggest that improvements have already been made in these areas so perhaps I used an older version? So there is still the chance that these problems can be resolved and that this could still be a great hydration system. Fingers crossed! My Salomon Fanboy status depends on it...