Friday, 15 December 2017

Camelbak Circuit Vest review

For the majority of this year, I have been using Camelbak packs and bottles; I’ve always liked the look of the packs but have steered away in the past as I’ve used bottles and wasn’t keen on the idea of using a bladder. All that changed earlier in the year when Camelbak UK provided me with one of their new Ultra Pro race vests, which was designed to use soft flasks. This became my pack of choice for racing and training, particularly for those times when a medium sized pack is needed.

Camelbak UK thought it might be an interesting experiment to see how I might get on with a pack designed for a bladder, rather than flasks. To this end, I have been using a Circuit Race Vest, kindly provided by Camelbak UK, for the majority of my recent adventures and I’d like to share a few thoughts here.

The contact surface is made up of a 3D vented mesh which is slightly padded and stretchy in all directions which makes for an incredibly comfortable fit. Due to this being a minimal weight pack, there are no torso side pockets pack as seen on many other packs (like the Camelbak Ultra Pro vest), instead there is a double strap which can be adjusted on the fly; this is an important feature, allowing you to tighten the fit as you drink your way through the water bladder. As an additional bonus, this set-up makes the pack cooler when running in hot conditions and doesn’t feel all-encompassing like some packs. Total pack weight (without the bladder) is 180 grams.

The main compartment comes in at 3.5 litres capacity but you will lose some of that when you pack the bladder. The sides of the compartment are a very stretchy mesh which provide a degree of self-compression and, along with the side straps, allows you to run with no bounce from the contents. 

There is no zip to seal off the compartment, just a gently elasticated opening. The pack sits down the middle of your back, rather than wrapping around you (keeping you cooler) but this does mean that you have to be careful how you load up the pack as the opening may not close off completely. This is even more apparent if you are using the bladder too.

I really like the front of the pack; it is nice and simple and uncluttered. You have two large pouches which are very versatile. These are much bigger than normal bottle/soft flask holders but can still be used for these items. You can easily get in the kind of gear you would need on a long run or race, having everything close to hand, whether that be clothing or nutrition. The pouches have a locking bungie cord round the lip so everything is safe.

On the left strap, above the large pouch is a nice zipped pocket, useful for a phone or more nutrition. I really like the big loop added to the zip meaning you could access this pocket even with cold hands. On the opposite side are a couple of small pockets with simple fold over openings. I have to admit that I found these a bit redundant for my use; they were quite small and cannot be zipped up which meant I only ever put in some lip balm. Personally, I would have preferred either another zipped pocket like the left side or just one bigger open pocket, for me, this would be more versatile.

The front is finished off with a few loops, giving you a number of options to route your bladder tube and the two chest straps which are adjustable by height and width; one strap is elasticated and one not, though, and I really like this, you could swap these straps round to give you the most comfortable fit.

And so to the bladder itself; the Camelbak Crux Reservoir. This is my first drinks reservoir so it is important to mention that I do not have any point of reference other than using a soft flask. The bladder has a 1.5 litre capacity and, for me, will give about three hours of hydration. This is significant as I’ll only get a couple of hours from two soft flasks. 

The robust reservoir has a built-in handle which makes filling very easy and the large cap has a reassuring seal, only taking about one quick rotation to open or close. There is a long drinking tube, giving you a number of options to route from the pack to your mouth. 

The drinking end has a bite valve which gives a good mouthful of drink per sip, though you do need to adjust the orientation of the valve to get your natural bite and the opening correctly aligned. There is also a shut off valve, though once I was up and running, I didn’t use this as the bite valve gave a good enough sealThe main feature of the new Crux reservoir is that it delivers 20% more water per sip which is great for hydrating quickly on the move.

Having now had a trial with the bladder, I can see the advantages, specifically the ability to drink hands-free which is really useful when using poles and the fact that you can carry more liquid with you when out on a long run. I made full use of this when supporting a group on the first two legs of The Bob Graham Round. Being able to carry enough hydration, particularly on the second leg which has very few natural water sources, was a real bonus and I was able to power hike with poles on all the climbs, still taking in water at the same time; I liked that.

If you are a regular hydration bladder user and are looking for a smaller pack for long runs or races, this pack would tick all the boxes, it’s really comfortable, lightweight and has all that accessible storage up front. What more could you want?

For me personally, I am still struggling with the logistics of using a bladder. I really like the ability to drink hands free, the fact that I can drink when running downhill which is more difficult with bottles/flasks and can carry more hydration for long runs when there is a lack of refill opportunities. However, I just cannot gauge how much I am drinking; too fast or too slow, both situations worry me (perhaps I’m just too regimented in my approach). When I used the pack and bladder supporting on the first two legs of a Bob Graham Round, I found that, although the two legs were about the same time, I ran out of drink on leg one and didn’t finish it on leg two. It might be that I need more time with the set-up but I am struggling.

Another issue I have is that you have to take the bladder out of the pack to refill it, often along with some of your kit too. This is a minor irritation during a longer training run but a major problem in a race. I suppose everyone has their preferences and this pack will suit those who love their reservoirs.

What I find interesting is that this pack has now become my go to kit on training runs and I even chose to race with it at the Hardmoors 60 mile race in September. I love the pack for its light weight and comfort. You can pull in the straps on the run to keep everything snug, it is probably the coolest pack to run/race in as the contact points are minimal, along with the vented mesh design and you have those big pouches up front for easy access to nutrition, kit or hydration flasks. For the Hardmoors 60, I used the pack with a Camelbak Ultra Handheld Chill Flask, another Camelbak Quick Stow flask in one pouch and my nutrition in the other pouch. This worked like a dream and will be a combination I’ll use again and again. Additionally, for the three weeks I was out in Chamonix during the summer, I never went anywhere without the Crux Reservoir; just being able to easily carry that volume of water and sip constantly really helped me avoid the dehydration I suffered from the previous summer.

The way I am looking at the Circuit Race Vest is that it is a cracking mid-sized pack with a number of variations as to how you might utilise the components depending on your preferences and the training/race context, this may or may not involve the reservoir, but it’s good to have that as an option.

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